Review: ‘Emily the Criminal,’ starring Aubrey Plaza

August 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Aubrey Plaza in “Emily the Criminal” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment)

“Emily the Criminal”

Directed by John Patton Ford

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and Mexico, the dramatic film “Emily the Criminal” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latin, white, Asian and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman, who works at a low-paying job for a food delivery company and is heavily in debt, turns to a secret life of crime to pay off her debts. 

Culture Audience: “Emily the Criminal” will appeal primarily to people are are fans of star Aubrey Plaza and well-acted movies about desperate people who do desperate things.

Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi in “Emily the Criminal” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment)

More than being typical crime caper, “Emily the Criminal” is also a scathing portrayal of getting trapped in gig economy work and student loan debt. Aubrey Plaza gives an intense and memorable performance in this suspense-filled drama that might leave some viewers divided about how the movie ends. “Emily the Criminal” doesn’t pass judgment on the people involved in the criminal activities that are depicted in the movie. Instead, “Emily the Criminal” puts a spotlight on why some people commit these desperate acts in the first place.

Written and directed by John Patton Ford, “Emily the Criminal” is Ford’s first feature film, and the movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The movie’s protagonist and namesake is Emily Benetto (played by Plaza), who is in almost every scene in the movie. Emily, who is in her 30s, lives in Los Angeles and is a bachelorette with no children. “Emily the Criminal” opens with a scene of Emily being interviewed for a job in an office at an unnamed medical company. Within the first minute, it’s obvious that things aren’t going well for Emily in the interview.

The interviewer (a man who is not seen on camera) informs Emily that a full background check was done on her before the interview. Emily admits that she has a DUI (driving under the influence) arrest on her record. She says the DUI was a mistake on her part, and the incident happened when she drove a drunk friend home from a concert. The interviewer then mentions that the background check also revealed that Emily was convicted in 2016 of assault, which she does not deny either.

The interviewer then tells Emily in a very condescending manner: “This is a very important job. You’d be handling important medical files.” At this point, Emily knows she’s not getting hired at this place. She snaps at the interviewer: “Fuck you! I don’t want this job!” And then she quickly leaves the office in a huff.

Why is Emily looking for a job? She has student loan debt totaling about $70,000. And she currently works as a delivery person for a company that’s similar to Uber Eats or DoorDash. It’s the type of job where the delivery employees are considered independent contractors, and are therefore not entitled to full-time staff benefits, such as health insurance or a retirement plan, even if they work at least 40 hours a week.

It’s also an example of “gig economy” work, which is the term for any work that relies heavily on independent contractors or freelancers. Worker turnover is high in these types of jobs, because the salaries are usually low, the jobs are short-term, and the workers have to pay for certain job-related expenses that would be covered by the company if the workers were full-time staff employees. Gig economy workers are almost never represented by unions.

Emily is barely making enough money to pay her other bills that are not related to her student loan debt. She currently lives with two roommates, who stay out of Emily’s personal life, and she stays out of theirs. It’s revealed later in the movie that Emily went to a prestigious liberal arts university and majored in art (her specialty is painting portraits), but she hasn’t able to find any work as an artist. Emily feels bitter and hopeless about her situation.

One day, a co-worker named Javier Santos (played by Bernardo Badillo) asks Emily on short notice to cover a delivery shift for him. It’s a work shift that Emily is reluctant to take because it’s in downtown Los Angeles at night, which can be unsafe. But she needs the money, so she takes the shift.

Javier is aware that Emily is having financial problems because he says that he can hook her up for a “dummy shopper” job that would pay her $200. He gives her a phone number to text for more information. An anonymous person replies that she can make $200 an hour for this job and gives her an address to go to the next morning if she wants more details.

The night before she goes to this mystery job, Emily goes to a bar to hang out with her talkative and extroverted friend Liz (played by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who works as a photo editor at a fashion magazine. Liz and Emily know each other because they went to the same high school in their hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Emily is embarrassed that her art career is going nowhere, while Liz is thriving in her chosen profession.

Emily swallows her pride and tells Liz that she desperately needs a job, and if she can’t find one, she’ll probably have to move back to New Jersey to live with her stepfather. There’s some unspoken history in this conversation implying that Emily doesn’t like her stepfather, and moving back in with him would be a very unwelcome last resort for Emily, who is an only child. Emily’s mother is apparently deceased.

Liz is sympathetic to Emily’s plight and tells her that she will inquire about any openings at Liz’s place of work and recommend Emily for any job that fits Emily’s qualifications. Liz is confident that something will work out because Liz says that her boss Alice (played by Gina Gershon) admires Liz. Emily and Liz then do cocaine in the bar’s restroom and enjoy the rest of their time in the bar. Later in the movie, Liz helps set up a job interview for Emily at the place where Liz works. It leads to one of the best scenes in the movie in showing how Emily reacts when things don’t sit well with her.

Emily might be desperate, but she’s no pushover, and she hates it when people try to take advantage of her. Her assault record indicates that she will get into physical conflicts. The details of why she was arrested for assault are left purposely vague in the movie, which keeps people guessing on how much of a “bad girl” Emily is willing to be to get what she wants.

Out of curiosity and with nothing to lose, Emily goes to the address of the mystery job. It’s at a warehouse-styled building, where she is immediately asked to hand over her driver’s license. The license is then photocopied and given back to her. She is then sent to a room, where there are about 20 other people gathered.

The leader of this group interview is named Youcef (played by Theo Rossi), who tells all of these job applicants up front that the job they would be expected to do is illegal. He says that if anyone has a problem with doing something illegal, they should leave immediately. Some people leave, but Emily decides to stay and hear more.

Youcef then explains that the job is to take stolen credit card information that’s on forged credit cards, go to stores to purchase big-screen TVs with these forged credit cards, and then hand over the TVs to the people working for his shady operation at a pre-determined drop-off location. The workers (who are responsible for whatever cars they use in these thefts) are told that they have to leave the store in eight minutes or less after making the purchase, which is the approximate time needed before the store finds out that the credit card is fraudulent. The pay is $200 a hour for this job. A worker cannot go to the same store twice.

It’s already revealed in the movie’s title and in the movie’s trailer that Emily ends up working for this criminal operation. Emily soon finds out that during the time that this orientation meeting was taking place with the potential workers, her driver’s license photo that was copied when she arrived was turned into a fake photo ID with someone else’s name on it. It’s the photo ID that she uses to get the TVs with the fraudulent credit cards. Later, Emily finds out that she can make $2,000 a day from this operation if she gets involved in actually forging credit cards by using the necessary equipment.

At first, Emily thinks it’s just an easy way to make money, but what she ends up going through is intense and harrowing. Complicating matters, Emily and Youcef have a growing attraction to each other. It’s a relationship where their loyalty to each other will be tested. In this operation, Youcef reports to his cousin Khalil (played by Jonathan Avigdori), who is a ruthless thug who doesn’t hesitate to get violent.

One of the most accurate things about “Emily the Criminal” is how it shows that committing crimes can be addicting for criminals. Many thieves say that it’s often not about the money but the adrenaline rush of committing a crime and getting away with it. Emily’s criminal record is a sign that she’s no stranger to getting in trouble with the law. However, viewers will get the sense that her involvement in this group of thieves has a lot to do with getting back at a system that punishes her for having a criminal record when she’s trying to find honest work.

“Emily the Criminal” is gripping not just because of the story but also because of Plaza’s fascinating performance. There’s nothing trite or stereotypical about it. Emily is not a hero, but Plaza gives a nuanced performance indicating that not everything about Emily is a villain either. From Emily’s perspective, life is not completely black and white. She’s someone who prefers to think of life of being in shades of grey.

Some viewers might not like how the movie doesn’t reveal too much about Emily’s background to explain why she makes the decisions that she does. However, it’s ultimately a wise choice to keep her background vague, because the point of the movie is to explain who Emily is now (not who she was in the past), and that she made these decisions of her own free will and under terrible financial strain. Her life of crime is not something that can be blamed on a bad childhood or someone in her life who led her astray. On a wider level, the lack of background information about Emily is the movie’s way of saying that the circumstances that led to her choosing this life of crime could happen to a lot of people of any background who find themselves in dire financial situations.

“Emily the Criminal” is not a perfect movie, since the last third of the film seems to cram in a lot of problems for Emily in a way that looks a bit too contrived. However, writer/director Ford has a knack for intriguing storytelling, and he made very good casting decisions with this movie. “Emily the Criminal” does not make Emily’s choices look glamorous, but it is an effective story in showing how this unhappy and restless person has to come to terms with who she really is and what type of life she really wants to have.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment will release “Emily the Criminal” in select U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022. The movie is available to rent on DirecTV, as of August 30, 2022. DirecTV has exclusive rental rights for a limited time.

Review: ‘Best Sellers’ (2021), starring Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza

January 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza in “Best Sellers” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Best Sellers” (2021)

Directed by Lina Roessler

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state and in various U.S. cities, the comedy/drama “Best Sellers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After inheriting her father’s financially struggling book publishing company, a woman in her 30s convinces a reclusive, elderly author to come out of retirement to publish another book and go on a book tour with her.

Culture Audience: “Best Sellers” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Michael Caine and anyone who likes predictable dramedies set in the literary world.

Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine in “Best Sellers” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Just a like a hack novel with a stale formula, “Best Sellers” is an uninspired comedy/drama that limps along until the movie’s very predictable end. Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza play mismatched characters, but their pairing as actors is also a misfire. It’s another movie about two clashing personalities who are stuck working together, with the added discomfort of taking a road trip together. “Best Sellers” does absolutely nothing that’s creative or engaging in this cliché-ridden story, although die-hard fans of Caine and Plaza will probably like this film more than most people.

Directed by Lina Roessler and written by Anthony Grieco, “Best Sellers” further typecasts Caine and Plaza in the types of roles they’ve been doing in their most recent movies. Caine plays a cranky eccentric, while Plaza plays a pouty, sarcastic misfit. They also don’t appear to have any emotional investment in their characters. If they don’t seem to care, then why should audiences?

A movie about two different people who start off disliking each other can be fun to watch if there’s genuine chemistry between the cast members and witty dialogue. Unfortunately, “Best Sellers” is so lackluster and predictable, even the cast members seem bored with everything. The movie also tries to bridge a gap between the traditional world of print book publishing and the non-traditional world of social media publishing, but the scenarios are just too forced and phony.

In “Best Sellers,” Caine plays Harris Shaw, a curmudgeonly widower who lives as a recluse in Westchester, New York. (“Best Sellers” was actually filmed in the Canadian province of Quebec.) Harris is so “old school,” he still uses a typewriter. Harris’ claim to fame is his first novel, titled “Atomic Autumn,” which was a bestseller more than 50 years ago. Since then, he hasn’t written another book.

Harris has become such a recluse, some people wonder if he’s still dead or alive. When the phone rings in his home and someone asks for Harris, he answers the phone and barks: “He’s dead! Bugger off!” Harris’ wife Elizabeth has been dead for an untold number of years, but grief over her death is not the reason why Harris hasn’t written a second book. And it’s not because he has writer’s block.

Harris just seems to be afraid of not being able to surpass the success of his first book. It’s unknown what Harris has done to make a living in the years since “Atomic Autumn” was a hit. Whatever money he made from the book seems to be long gone, and he’s in dire financial straits, because Harris is seen burning a foreclosure notice with a cigarette lighter while he’s home alone in his misery.

Meanwhile, the New York City-based book company that published “Atomic Autumn” is also experiencing financial problems. Joseph “J.F.” Stanbridge (played by Luc Morissette) is the company’s founder, but he’s currently a widower in a nursing home. The responsibility of running Stanbridge Publishing has fallen to his only child, Lucy (played by Plaza), who is desperate for the company to get another best-selling author.

Things aren’t going so well for a Stanbridge-published young-adult fantasy book called “Dragons of Orion” that Lucy had high hopes would be a hit. The book is a flop that has gotten a negative review in The New York Times. And it’s getting a lot of criticism on social media.

As an example, Lucy looks apprehensively at an adolescent book reviewer who has a YouTube channel called Tracey’s Book Club, which has more than 4 million subscribers. The YouTuber (played by Charli Birdgenaw) snarks in a video: “‘Dragons of Orion’ is dumb. All caps DUMB. It’s trying to be ‘Harry Potter,’ but it’s not even a bad ‘Twilight.'”

The top-selling author at the moment is Drew Davis (played by Veronica Ferres), who is a writer that Stanbridge Publishing wouldn’t be able to afford. Lucy pouts as she tells her assistant Rachel Spence (played by Eileen Wong): “We need our own Drew Davis … We need relevant writers to make us relevant again.”

And so what does Lucy end up doing? She puts her time and resources into a has-been writer (Harris Shaw), whose only book was published more than 50 years ago. Why? Because she finds Harris’ old contract and discovers that he owes Stanbridge Publishing one more book. Lucy thinks that Harris still has enough name recognition that his second book could be a hit.

Rachel is highly skeptical of this idea. She warns Lucy that Harris has a reputation of being “a drunk and a madman” who “shot his assistant once” because Harris mistook this male assistant for a bear. Lucy and Rachel track down Harris at his current address. And since Harris doesn’t like to communicate with anyone and this is a very phony-looking movie, Lucy and Rachel don’t just show up at his house unannounced. Lucy and Rachel break into Harris’ house when they think no one is there.

Of couse, Harris is in the house during the break-in, and he pulls a gun on Lucy and Rachel. Lucy and Rachel explain the reason for this unnanounced visit. And it just so happens that Harris does have a novel that he’s been working on for years. There’s some hemming and hawing as Lucy tells Harris that it’s in his contract to hand over the novel to her company.

Harris doesn’t want to feel pressured into finishing the book, but since he and Lucy need the money, the manuscript is completed. A clause in Harris’ contract says that he has the choice of having the manuscript edited by whoever is in charge of the company, or he has to agree to promote the book on a book tour. Harris lets it be known how he feels about his work being edited when he snaps at Lucy: “I’ll be damned if I let the incompetent hands of nepotism molest my words, Silver Spoon!”

And you know what that means: Harris and Lucy go on the road together and get on each other’s nerves. “Best Sellers” consists mostly of this tedious road trip, where Lucy tries to market Harris on social media, but he resists. Many of the tour stops draw an embarassingly low turnout for Harris. Lucy and Harris also find out that people who go to Harris’ book readings/signings show up out of mild curiosity, but most of them don’t buy his new book.

The name of Harris’ second book is “The Future Is X-Rated.” That title alone could’ve been mined for numerous hilarious scenes if the filmmakers of “Best Sellers” were more creative with the contents of the book. Instead, people who watch “Best Sellers” will be hard-pressed to remember what Harris’ new book is supposed to be about after they finish watching the movie. In other words, “Best Sellers” fails to convince viewers that Harris is a talented author.

Instead, “Best Sellers” stoops to littering the movie with cheap gimmicks, such as Harris having temper tantrums, instigating dumb arguments, and getting violent. On separate occasions, Harris urinates on copies of his new book in front of an audience, and then he commits a despicable act of arson that won’t be described here. “Best Sellers” has an entirely lazy way of letting Harris off of the hook for the crimes he commits during this moronic movie.

“Best Sellers” also has a stereotypical portrayal of a New York Times book critic. His name is Halpern Nolan (played by Cary Elwes), a pompous blowhard who seems like a Truman Capote wannabe. Predictably, Harris despises Halpern. And because Harris is a loose cannon, he gets in a fist fight with Halpern.

The clichés don’t end there. Lucy is supposed to be a “poor little rich girl” because not only could she lose her family fortune but she’s also emotionally damaged because of the suicide of her mother. It’s supposed to make Lucy more sympathetic to viewers, but Lucy still comes across as irritating by all her eye-rolling and whining. She’s not as problematic as Harris, but Lucy isn’t a smart as she thinks she is. Lucy doesn’t really know what she’s doing and seems very unqualified for her job.

Another cliché: Lucy has to contend with a shark-like publisher rival named Jack Sinclair (played by Scott Speedman), who might as well wear a T-shirt that says “Lucy Stanbridge’s Love Interest.” Lucy is annoyed by Jack, but she’s also attracted to him. Jack knows it too. And you know what that means in a hackneyed movie like “Best Sellers.”

In addition to being plagued by boring and witless scenarios, “Best Sellers” has very drab cinematography, where too many scenes are poorly lit. It might have seemed like an inspired idea to bring Caine and Plaza together in a movie, but their comedic styles and personas don’t mesh well at all. “Best Sellers” is a movie that could have worked well with an improved script and better casting decisions. As it stands, “Best Sellers” is a dud without much appeal and would’ve been better off permanently shelved.

Screen Media Films released “Best Sellers” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021 The movie was released on DVD on November 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Black Bear,’ starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon

January 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in “Black Bear” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Black Bear”

Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Black Bear” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with apparent emotional problems is at the center of chaos during a potential love triangle.

Culture Audience: “Black Bear” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted independent films that make people question what is real in the story and what might be the imagination of a character in the story.

Sarah Gadon in “Black Bear” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

People who prefer movies with a straightforward narrative probably won’t like “Black Bear” very much, because the movie is divided into two very distinct stories, with one abruptly transitioning into the other without any explanation until the last few minutes of the movie. The three main actors in the movie portray different characters with the same names in each story. And this switch in characters might confuse viewers. Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, “Black Bear” is nonetheless worth watching for anyone who wants to see some good acting with compelling dialogue, even if the movie is somewhat erratic.

That uneven tone is because the movie’s first story, titled “Part One: The Bear in the Road,” is much better than the second story, titled “Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House.” Each story takes place at a lake house in the same wooded area in an unnamed part of upstate New York. (“Black Bear” was actually filmed in Long Lake, New York.) In each story, someone hears bear noises nearby. And then, a black bear shows up at a pivotal moment.

Each story begins with a scene of a woman (played by Aubrey Plaza) wearing a red one-piece swimsuit, looking contemplative and sitting cross-legged on a pier, with mist swirling around her. She then goes into a nearby house, sits down at a table, and opens what looks like a journal. Is this real or is it a dream?

In “The Bear in the Road” story, viewers find out that the woman is named Allison, an independent filmmaker who has rented the cabin-styled house as a retreat space to get over her writer’s block. Or so she says. Allison, who is also an actress, became a film director somewhat out of necessity because, as she says a little later in the story, she didn’t quit acting; she just stopped getting hired as an actress.

Allison is renting the house from an unmarried couple named Gabe (played by Christopher Abbott) and Blair (played by Sarah Gadon), who used to live in Brooklyn but the couple moved to upstate New York because they could no longer afford to live in Brooklyn. Gabe owns the house, which has been in his family for years. Blair is pregnant with her and Gabe’s first child together, and Blair is in her third trimester. There’s simmering tension between Blair and Gabe that eventually boils over to the surface.

Gabe is the one who greets Allison when she arrives at the house. It’s their first time meeting each other. And from the get-go, it’s obvious that Gabe and Allison are attracted to each other. Allison and Gabe have a mutual friend named Mike (who is not seen in the movie), who has told Gabe that Allison is married. When Gabe asks Allison why her husband isn’t with her, Allison tells Gabe that she doesn’t have a husband.

Blair notices the way that Gabe has been looking at Allison. And so, when Gabe introduces Allison to Blair, one of the first things that Allison says to Blair is that Blair is pretty, while Blair returns the compliment. Astute viewers will notice that this is Allison’s way of trying to dispel any insecurities that Blair might be feeling about Allison being an attractive stranger who has caught Gabe’s attention. Ironically, Allison later tells Gabe that she doesn’t like getting compliments about herself.

Gabe, Blair and Allison have dinner together during Allison’s first night at the house. What starts out as a polite “let’s get to know each other” gathering turns into a highly emotional standoff with Gabe and Blair arguing and Allison being somewhat caught in the middle. During this tension-filled situation, viewers find out that Blair has issues with Gabe’s chosen profession as a musician. Because he makes very little money as a musician, Blair doesn’t think Gabe should call himself a “professional” musician. He’s very defensive about it in a way that he thinks any criticism that Blair makes about his career is a direct attack on his masculinity.

Blair also announces to Allison that Gabe believes in traditional gender roles, which Gabe denies. Blair frequently accuses Gabe of being sexist, which he also denies. However, Gabe admits that he has this belief: “The erosion of traditional communities is part of why things are so chaotic right now. I’m not saying feminism is bad.”

During this escalating agitation between Gabe and Blair, there are hints that Allison wants to take Gabe’s side. When Blair berates Gabe for supposedly being against feminism, Allison chimes in by saying that feminism is “fucked up.” Allison and Gabe also seem to have the same sense of humor, because she laughs at Gabe’s jokes that Blair thinks are silly.

While Gabe and Blair are working out their relationship issues in this very hostile way, they also try to get a read on Allison, who comes across as someone who is mysterious and might not always be telling the truth about herself. At one point in the conversation, when Allison mentions that she never learned how to cook, Blair asks her in a surprised tone of voice why Allison’s mother never taught her how to cook. This is the same Blair who insults Dave for believing in traditional gender roles, even though Blair obviously assumes all women should know how to cook. Can you say “hypocrisy”?

Allison’s reply is to tell Blair that Allison’s mother died when she was a child. Instead of expressing remorse at her thoughtless comment, Blair continues to pick apart Gabe and then turns some of her vitriol on Allison too. When Allison says that she doesn’t think about her films after she makes them, Blair accuses Allison of being “selfish.” When Gabe accuses Blair of not letting him have his own thoughts, Blair responds by saying: “It’s not that I can’t stand that you have thoughts about the world. It’s that I can’t stand the thoughts about the world that you have.”

Meanwhile, Gabe chastises Blair for drinking wine during the dinner. He believes that Blair shouldn’t be drinking any alcohol during her pregnancy, while Blair thinks he’s being unreasonable and that a little wine won’t hurt the baby. Of course, their arguing isn’t really about the wine but about their conflicting outlooks on life. And their impending parenthood has forced Blair and Gabe to think about how they are going to raise their child when they can’t even agree on how they should live as a couple.

It’s later revealed that Blair is probably feeling very insecure because the pregnancy was unplanned and she might be thinking that Gabe is only staying in the relationship because of the child. And now, Allison has come into the picture, and a very pregnant Blair can’t help but notice that there’s a mutual spark between Gabe and Allison. It comes as no surprise that Blair begins to have doubts over whether or not Gabe still loves her. Before this story is over, some secrets are revealed, and there’s some more messy drama that leads to a big confrontation.

“The Bear by the Boat House” story has more characters but it’s not as interesting as “The Bear in the Road” story. In “The Bear by the Boat House,” Allison is now a character who is an actress who’s been married for six years to a director named Gabe. The story takes place on the last day of a film shoot of a movie that they are doing together. The name of the movie is “Black Bear.” It’s being filmed at the same pier and house that were in “The Bear in the Road” story.

In “The Bear by the Boat House” story, Allison (not Blair) is the character who is very emotionally fragile with jealousy tendencies, while Blair is a self-assured co-star in the film who might or might not be the third person in a love triangle. There’s sexual tension between Gabe and Blair. Gabe wants Allison to think that he’s having an affair with Blair so that he can get the necessary emotions out of Allison in their last day of making the movie.

Blair is in cahoots with Gabe over this emotional manipulation. There are scenes of Gabe and Blair having secret meet-ups in hushed voices to plot how they can trick Allison and possibly other people on the film set into thinking that Gabe might be cheating on Allison with Blair. Gabe and Blair plan it in such detail that they decide in advance how to look at each other and when to exit and leave the room, to make it look like they’re trying to cover up an affair.

Blair seems to feel a little bit guilty over these mind games, but in the end, she gleefully goes along with this scheme because she wants Gabe’s approval. Gabe has already been showing obvious favoritism to Blair on the film set, in order to plant the seeds of jealousy in Allison’s mind. Gabe also belittles Allison on the film set, in order to make her feel even more insecure.

The emotional distress is too much for Allison, and it leads to a long, drawn-out sequence where she gets stoned on an unnamed drug and has a hard time completing the last scene that they have to film. Gabe didn’t expect this damper on his carefully laid plan. Viewers will then have to wonder if Allison can finish the movie in the way Gabe wanted and if Gabe will tell Allison the truth about how he manipulated her.

Some of the members of the film crew who are caught up in this drama include a script supervisor named Nora (played by Jennifer Kim), a production assistant named Cahya (played by Paola Lázaro) and a cinematographer named Baako (played by Grantham Coleman). Plaza has some over-the-top melodramatics in this story, but she handles it with a certain authenticity so that it doesn’t go off the rails into becoming a campy performance. There are indications that the Allison character in this story has some underlying issues with mental health that can’t be blamed on Allison’s drug use.

“Black Bear” the movie (not the movie within the movie) is essentially a showcase for Plaza’s dramatic range as an actress. Plaza, who is one of the producers of “Black Bear,” is mostly known for her roles in comedies, but she is a clear standout in expressing the wide gamut of emotions that she does in “Black Bear.” Each “Allison” is at the center of the chaos in each story, but these two Allison characters are very different from each other. The Allison in the first story is a manipulator who likes to be in control, while the Allison in the second story is the one who’s being manipulated and is out of control.

Gadon also gives an impressive performance in her role as the shrewish Blair in “The Bear in the Road” story, but the Blair character in “The Bear by the Boat House” is unfortunately quite bland. Abbott’s Gabe character is also more nuanced and more interesting in “The Bear in the Road” story, whereas the Gabe character in “The Bear by the Boat House” doesn’t have much character development beyond being a conniving and selfish person.

“Black Bear” should be given a lot of credit for attempting not to be a typical “mumblecore” independent film, which is what it first appears to be if people judged the movie by its trailer. “The Bear in the Road” story crackles with energy because the characters and dialogue are written so well. However, “Black Bear” falls a little flat in the second half in “The Bear by the Boat House” story, because Allison’s meltdown becomes a little too repetitive and predictable.

Plaza’s acting talent shines throughout the movie, but the way that “The Bear by the Boat House” is written could have been improved by giving more depth to the characters of Gabe and Blair, who come across as very shallow in that story. People who have the patience to sit through this movie to find out what it all means will at least get answers to some questions in the last five minutes of the film. However, “Black Bear” still has enough “fill in the blank” moments that give viewers the freedom to interpret the movie in a variety of ways.

Momentum Pictures released “Black Bear” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Happiest Season,’ starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Daniel Levy, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen

December 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in “Happiest Season” (Photo by Jojo Whilden/Hulu)

“Happiest Season”

Directed by Clea DuVall

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Pittsburg area, the romantic comedy “Happiest Season” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A closeted lesbian invites her live-in girlfriend to a family Christmas gathering, and the girlfriends agree to keep their romance a secret from the family during this visit.

Culture Audience: “Happiest Season” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing a Christmas-themed comedy about families where the central couple happens to be members of the LGBTQ community.

Pictured from left to right (in front) Asiyih N’Dobe and Anis N’Dobe and (in back) Burl Moseley, Alison Brie, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Holland, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen in “Happiest Season” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

There’s a certain formula that romantic comedy films have when they take place during the Christmas holidays and much of the plot revolves around a family get-together: Siblings have rivalries, couples have relationship problems, and at least one person in the family has a big secret that they’re desperately trying to hide. “Happiest Season” (directed by Clea DuVall) follows a lot of the same formula, except that it’s a rare Christmas-themed movie that has lesbians as the central couple in the story. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar Pictures was going to release “Happiest Season” in theaters until the company sold the movie to Hulu.

In “Happiest Season,” which takes place in the Pittsburgh area, the big secret is that one of the women in the lesbian couple still hasn’t told her family that she’s a lesbian and in a live-in relationship with a woman whom her family thinks is a platonic, heterosexual roommate. Harper Caldwell (played by Mackenzie Davis) is a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and she’s been living with her girlfriend Abigail “Abby” Holland (played by Kristen Stewart), who is working on getting her Ph. D. in art history at Carnegie-Mellon University. Abby and Harper have been dating each other for a little more than a year and have been living together for the past six months.

Harper and Abby are both in their late 20s, smart and very friendly, but Abby is a little more introverted than Harper is. They have a very loving and respectful relationship, but they come from different family backgrounds. Abby is an only child. Her parents, who died when she was 19, were completely accepting of her sexuality when Abby told them that she’s gay. Harper is the youngest of three sisters, and her parents are very traditional and image-conscious. Harper has been afraid to tell her family that she’s a lesbian because she thinks that her parents will disapprove and reject her.

Harper’s parents Ted Caldwell (played by Victor Garber) and Tipper Caldwell (played by Mary Steenburgen), who live in a suburb of Pittsburgh, raised their children to be over-achievers. And now, Ted (a city councilman) is running for mayor, so Harper becomes even more conscious of the scrutiny that her family will receive because of this political campaign. It’s one of the reasons why Harper wants to delay telling her family about being a lesbian and the true nature of her relationship with Abby.

One evening, Abby and Harper take a romantic stroll during a guided Christmas tour of the neighborhood. Harper impulsively steers Abby on a detour to hop up on a stranger’s rooftop so they can get a romantic view of the city and make out with each other. But the occupants of the house hear people on the roof and almost catch Abby and Harper.

Abby barely escapes when she slips on the rooftop and finds herself hanging from the eaves of the roof. Harper tries to rescue Abby, but Abby falls into an inflatable Santa Claus in the front yard. The two women are able to run off just as the occupants of the house go outside and see the two intruders. This slapstick moment is a foreshadowing of some of the wacky-but-predictable physical comedy that happens in other scenes in the movie.

After this rooftop misadventure, Harper invites Abby to meet Harper’s family for the first time during the Christmas holidays. They plan to stay at Ted and Tipper’s family home for five days. Even though Abby says that she’s “not much of a Christmas person,” she agrees to the visit because she wants to meet Harper’s family.

Abby had committed to pet sitting for some friends during this period of time, so she has to find someone who can substitute for her on short notice. She enlists the help of her openly gay best friend John (played by Dan Levy), who is a literary agent. He agrees to take on the responsibility of pet sitting while Abby goes on this family visit that will be a turning point in her relationship with Harper.

John is somewhat stereotypical of a sassy and flamboyant gay man who usually has the role of a “tell it like it is” sidekick. However, John is also a confidant who has a lot of compassion and knows the true meaning of loyalty in a friend. Abby is going to need it, considering what she goes through in this story.

Abby tells John a secret: She plans to propose to Harper during this family holiday visit. John is skeptical of marriage, which he calls an “archaic institution,” but he’s happy for Abby and he wants the best for her. Abby explains to John why she wants to marry Harper: “It’s not about owning [her]. It’s about building a life with her.”

During Harper and Abby’s car trip to Ted and Tipper Caldwell’s home, Harper finally confesses to Abby that she’s been lying to her about what Harper’s family knows about Harper’s sexuality. Harper tells a shocked Abby that not only is her family unaware that Harper is a lesbian who’s been dating Abby, the family also doesn’t know that Abby is a lesbian too. As far as Harper’s family knows, Harper and Abby are two heterosexual women who are platonic roommates.

At first, Abby wants to back out of the trip, but Harper convinces her not to because she promises Abby that she will tell her family the whole truth after the holiday season and after the mayoral election. Harper says that she couldn’t live with the guilt if she thought her father would lose the election simply because some people wouldn’t vote for a mayor who has a child from the LGBTQ community. It’s fairly obvious that the city where Ted wants to become mayor has a lot of politically conservative voters.

At the Caldwell family home, Abby meets Ted and Tipper (who is obsessed with getting perfect photos for her Instagram account), who are somewhat condescending to Abby. They repeatedly call her “the orphan” and show gushing sympathy to her, as if she’s a little lost child. And because Tipper doesn’t know that Abby and Harper are sleeping together, Tipper tells Abby that she will be staying in a separate bedroom, which predictably leads to a few scenes of Abby and Harper sneaking into each other’s bedroom and trying not to get caught.

Ted is consumed with his mayoral campaign. One of his goals is to get the endorsement of a high-powered and influential donor named Harry Levin (played by Ana Gasteyer), who gives the impression of being a rich snob. One of the people who works with Ted in his campaign is Carolyn McCoy (played by Sarayu Blue), who is described as super-efficient and someone who is very concerned about the image projected by Ted and his family.

Because Ted and Tipper have had high expectations for their children, it’s created a fierce rivalry between Harper and her oldest sister Sloane (played by Alison Brie), who has inherited her parents’ fixation on presenting an image of having a perfect life. Sloane and her husband Eric (played by Burl Moseley) have twins who are about 7 or 8 years old: son Magnus (played by Anis N’Dobe) and daughter Matilda (played by Asiyih N’Dobe), who live such a regimented life, they come across almost like little robots.

Sloane and Eric used to be high-powered attorneys, but they gave up their jobs in the legal profession to make gift baskets for a living. However, pretentious Sloane refuses to call them gift baskets. Instead she uses this description when talking about her and Eric’s job to Abby: “We create curated gift experiences inside handmade, reclaimed wood vessels.” She also brags that Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop “picked us up and sales have been through the roof ever since.”

Harper’s other sister is Jane (played by Mary Holland, who co-wrote the “Happiest Season” screenplay with director DuVall), who has a bubbly personality but is somewhat nerdy and socially awkward. Jane, who is single with no children, has been working on a sci-fi fantasy novel for the past 10 years. Although it’s not said out loud, Ted and Tipper think of Jane as the “disappointing” child because she’s not as accomplished as her two sisters are and she has a tendency to be clumsy. Her parents think that Jane is handy when it comes to figuring out computer problems and Internet access in the house, but that’s about it.

Of course, a romantic comedy about a couple with honesty issues usually has additional complications, such the presence of ex-lovers who might or might not want to rekindle a past romance. In “Happiest Season,” Harper has not one but two people from her dating past who cause discomfort in different ways for her. The appearances of these two exes will have an effect on Abby too.

First is Harper’s ex-boyfriend Connor (played by Jake McDorman), whom Harper dated when she was in college. Connor doesn’t know that Harper broke up with him because she’s a lesbian, and he still has lingering feelings for her. Harper’s other ex who comes into the picture is a doctor named Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza), who was Harper’s first girlfriend when they were in high school together. Harper and Riley’s breakup, which is described in the movie, was very painful and it set the pattern of Harper being dishonest about her true sexuality to most of the people in her life.

And what do you know, both of these exes just happen to be at the same restaurant at the same time when the Caldwells and Abby are there for a family dinner. Connor was secretly invited by Tipper, who wishes that Harper and Connor would get back together. Riley is at the restaurant by sheer coincidence. Riley and Connor end up in other social situations with Harper and Abby, together and separately. And, as expected, Abby is jealous of Connor, while Harper gets uncomfortable when she sees Abby and Riley becoming friendly with each other.

Except for the lesbian aspects of the movie, “Happiest Season” doesn’t do much that’s different from a lot of predictable romantic comedies. There’s some over-the-top slapstick in the movie that might or might nor be amusing to viewers. This type of cheesy physical comedy somewhat lowers the quality of the movie, but it’s nothing that’s too detrimental to the story.

The romance between Harper and Abby is convincing, with Davis and Stewart handling their roles with great aplomb. Abby’s character is written with more realism and grace than Harper’s character, who is very selfish and immature during some pivotal moments in the story. Some of the best scenes in the film are those between Abby and John, as well as Abby and Riley.

“Happiest Season” works best when it touches on issues about the true meaning of family and the cost of living a lie. The movie doesn’t have any heavy-handed preaching though, and there are plenty of comical scenarios to balance out the more emotionally dramatic moments. “Happiest Season” isn’t an exceptionally well-made romantic comedy, but it has enough charm and entertaining performances to please viewers who like sentimentality with some slapstick.

Hulu premiered “Happiest Season” on November 25, 2020.

2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is the top winner

February 23, 2019

With three awards, including Best Feature, “If Beale Street Could Talk” was the biggest winner at the 34th annual Film Independent Spirit Awards, which took place in Santa Monica, California, on February 23, 2019. IFC had a live telecast of the show, which was hosted by Aubrey Plaza. The Spirit Awards honor independently financed films that were released in U.S. cinemas the previous year.

“If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on James Baldwin’s novel of a young African-American couple who are separated after the man is falsely imprisoned for rape, also won the prizes for Best Director (for Barry Jenkins) and Best Supporting Female (Regina King).

Glenn Close won Best Female Lead for “The Wife,” while Ethan Hawke was named Best Male Lead for “First Reformed.”

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” based on Lee Israel’s memoir of her experiences as literary forger, won two awards: Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Male (Richard E. Grant). Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the horror movie “Suspiria” received the awards for Best Cinematography (for Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) and the Robert Altman Award, a non-competitive prize whose recipients are announced on the same day as the nominations.

Here is the complete list of winners and nominees for the 2019 Spirit Awards:

*=winner

BEST FEATURE

(Award given to the producer)

Eighth Grade
PRODUCERS: Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Christopher Storer, Lila Yacoub

First Reformed
PRODUCERS: Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Gary Hamilton, Victoria Hill, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon

If Beale Street Could Talk*
PRODUCERS: Dede Gardner, Barry Jenkins, Jeremy Kleiner, Sara Murphy, Adele Romanski

Leave No Trace
PRODUCERS: Anne Harrison, Linda Reisman, Anne Rosellini

You Were Never Really Here
PRODUCERS: Rosa Attab, Pascal Caucheteux, Rebecca O’Brien, Lynne Ramsay, James Wilson

BEST FIRST FEATURE

(Award given to the producer and director)

Hereditary
DIRECTOR: Ari Aster
PRODUCERS: Kevin Frakes, Lars Knudsen, Buddy Patrick

Sorry to Bother You*
DIRECTOR: Boots Riley
PRODUCERS: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Jonathan Duffy, Charles D. King, George Rush, Forest Whitaker, Kelly Williams

The Tale
DIRECTOR/PRODUCER: Jennifer Fox
PRODUCERS: Sol Bondy, Lawrence Inglee, Mynette Louie, Oren Moverman, Simone Pero, Reka Posta, Laura Rister, Regina K. Scully, Lynda Weinman

We the Animals
DIRECTOR: Jeremiah Zagar
PRODUCERS: Andrew Goldman, Christina D. King, Paul Mezey, Jeremy Yaches

Wildlife
DIRECTOR: Paul Dano
PRODUCERS:  Andrew Duncan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Oren Moverman, Ann Ruark, Alex Saks

BEST DIRECTOR

Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk*
Debra Granik, Leave No Trace
Tamara Jenkins, Private Life
Lynne Ramsay, You Were Never Really Here

BEST SCREENPLAY

Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?*
Richard Glatzer (writer, story by), Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland, Colette
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Tamara Jenkins, Private Life
Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You

BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY

Quinn Shephard (writer, story by), Laurie Shephard (story by), Blame
Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade*
Christina Choe, Nancy
Jennifer Fox, The Tale
Cory Finley, Thoroughbreds

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD

(Award given to the best feature made for under $500,000; given to the writer, director and producer)

A Bread Factory
WRITER/DIRECTOR/PRODUCER: Patrick Wang
PRODUCERS: Daryl Freimark, Matt Miller

En el Séptimo Dia*
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Jim McKay
PRODUCERS: Alex Bach, Lindsey Cordero, Caroline Kaplan, Michael Stipe

Never Goin’ Back
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Augustine Frizzell
PRODUCERS:  Liz Cardenas, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston

Socrates
WRITER/DIRECTOR/PRODUCER: Alex Moratto
WRITER: Thayná Mantesso
PRODUCERS: Ramin Bahrani, Jefferson Paulino, Tammy Weiss

Thunder Road
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Jim Cummings
PRODUCERS: Natalie Metzger, Zack Parker, Benjamin Weissner

BEST MALE LEAD

Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed*
John Cho, Searching
Christian Malheiros, Sócrates
Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here

BEST FEMALE LEAD

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Toni Collette, Hereditary
Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline
Regina Hall, Support the Girls
Glenn Close, The Wife*
Carey Mulligan, Wildlife

BEST SUPPORTING MALE

Adam Driver, BLACKkKLANSMAN
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?*
Josh Hamilton, Eighth Grade
John David Washington, Monsters and Men
Raúl Castillo, We the Animals

BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE

Tyne Daly, A Bread Factory
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk*
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Leave No Trace
J. Smith-Cameron, Nancy
Kayli Carter, Private Life

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Ashley Connor, Madeline’s Madeline
Benjamin Loeb, Mandy
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Suspiria*
Zak Mulligan, We the Animals
Diego Garcia, Wildlife

BEST EDITING

Luke Dunkley, Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Julian Hart, American Animals
Nick Houy, Mid90s
Anne Fabini, Alex Hall, Gary Levy, The Tale
Keiko Deguchi, Brian A. Kates, Jeremiah Zagar, We the Animals
Joe Bini, You Were Never Really Here*

BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM

Burning (South Korea)
DIRECTOR: Lee Chang-Dong

Happy as Lazzaro (Italy)
DIRECTOR: Alice Rohrwacher

Roma (Mexico)*
DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón

Shoplifters (Japan)
DIRECTOR: Kore-eda Hirokazu

The Favourite (United Kingdom)
DIRECTOR: Yorgos Lanthimos

BEST DOCUMENTARY

(Award given to the director and producer)

Hale County This Morning, This Evening
DIRECTOR/PRODUCER: RaMell Ross
PRODUCERS: Joslyn Barnes, Su Kim

Minding the Gap
DIRECTOR: Bing Liu
PRODUCER: Diane Quon

Of Fathers and Sons
DIRECTOR: Talal Derki
PRODUCERS: Hans Robert Eisenhauer, Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias N. Siebert

On Her Shoulders
DIRECTOR: Alexandria Bombach
PRODUCERS: Hayley Pappas, Brock Williams

Shirkers
DIRECTOR: Sandi Tan
PRODUCERS: Jessica Levin, Maya Rudolph

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?*
DIRECTOR/PRODUCER: Morgan Neville
PRODUCERS: Caryn Capotosto, Nicholas Ma

ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD

(Award given to one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast)

Suspiria

DIRECTOR: Luca Guadagnino
CASTING DIRECTORS: Avy Kaufman, Stella Savino
ENSEMBLE CAST: Malgosia Bela, Ingrid Caven, Lutz Ebersdorf, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper, Dakota Johnson, Gala Moody, Chloë Grace Moretz, Renée Soutendijk, Tilda Swinton, Sylvie Testud, Angela Winkler

TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD

(The Truer Than Fiction Award, now in its 24th year, is presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not yet received significant recognition. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.) 

Minding the Gap*
DIRECTOR: Bing Liu

Of Fathers and Sons
DIRECTOR: Talal Derki
PRODUCERS: Hans Robert Eisenhauer, Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias N. Siebert

On Her Shoulders
DIRECTOR: Alexandria Bombach
PRODUCERS: Hayley Pappas, Brock Williams

SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD

(The Someone to Watch Award, now in its 24th year, recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.)

Lemonade
DIRECTOR: Ioana Uricaru

Sócrates*          
DIRECTOR: Alex Moratto

We the Animals 
DIRECTOR: Jeremiah Zagar

PRODUCERS AWARD

(The Producers Award, now in its 22nd year, honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.)

Jonathan Duffy and Kelly Williams
Gabrielle Nadig
Shrihari Sathe*

BONNIE AWARD SPONSORED BY AMERICAN AIRLINES

(Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo joined American Airlines in 1973 at age 24, becoming the first female pilot to fly for a major U.S. airline. In her honor, the inaugural Bonnie Award will recognize a mid-career female director with a $50,000 unrestricted grant, sponsored by American Airlines.)

Debra Granik*
Tamara Jenkins
Karyn Kusama

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