Review: ‘Shayda,’ starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Osamah Sami, Mojean Aria, Jillian Nguyen, Rina Mousavi, Selina Zahednia and Leah Purcell

March 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Selina Zahednia in “Shayda” (Photo by Jane Zhang/Sony Pictures Classics)


Directed by Noora Niasari

Some language in Farsi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia in the late 1990s, in the dramatic film “Shayda” features a white and Arabic/Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: While living in Australia, an Iranian immigrant and her 6-year-old daughter stay at a shelter for domestic abuse survivors, as the mother worries for their safety and how her impending divorce from her estranged Iranian husband will affect her immigration visa issues.

Culture Audience: “Shayda” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of are interested in watching movies about issues related to immigration and domestic abuse.

Bev Killick in “Shayda” (Photo by Sarah Enticknap/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shayda” tells a nuanced and meaningful story of an Iranian immigrant woman raising her 6-year-old daughter, as they live in an Australian shelter for domestic violence survivors. The film shows in heart-wrenching details what coping with trauma looks like. There have been many movies about women and children seeking safety from domestic violence, but they are rarely told from the perspectives of immigrants living in a nation where they are not citizens.

Written and directed by Noora Niasari, “Shayda” is inspired by Niasari’s own childhood experiences in Australia of temporarily staying at a domestic violence shelter with her mother. “Shayda” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. “Shayda” was Australia’s official entry for Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards but didn’t make it on the Oscar shortlist to be nominated.

In “Shayda” (which takes place in Australia in the late 1990s), a woman named Shayda (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi) is seeking shelter from her abusive, estranged husband Hossein (played by Osamah Sami), who is also an Iranian immigrant. Hossein and Shadya moved to Australia because Hossein is a graduate student at an unnamed university. Shayda and Hossein’s 6-year-old daughter is Mona (played by Selina Zahednia), who is an inquisitive and obedient child who is a big fan of “The Lion King” movie.

Shayda wants to divorce Hossein, but the matter is complicated because the divorce has to be in Iran. Shayda wants to keep living in Australia after the divorce. Hossein wants to move back to Iran after he graduates from his university program. He also threatens Shayda by saying that she will be killed if she goes through with the divorce.

The movie has some scenes showing Shayda’s frustrations of doing depositions by phone for these divorce proceedings. (Remember, this story take place the late 1990s, when video streaming over the Internet was still very uncommon and not accessible to the average person.) She often has the sinking feeling that the attorneys and judge involved in the divorce are biased against her, because it’s considered to be scandalous in patriarchal Iran for a wife to divorce her husband.

The shelter is operated by a no-nonsense manager named Cathy (played by Bev Killick), who often has to instruct the frightened women at the shelter on what to do, in case their abusers come looking for them or try to violate child custody arrangements. There’s a scene where an unidentified person in a car is parked across the street from the shelter and seems to have the place under surveillance. Cathy goes outside to confront the driver, who quickly drives off. It’s implied that one of the women in the shelter is being stalked.

There are no flashback scenes in the movie of Shayda being abused, nor does she tell anyone the specifics of what Hossein did it her. It’s left up to viewers’ speculation how bad the abuse was. Throughout the movie, Shayda shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. She has trouble sleeping. And she’s very paranoid that Hossein is out to get her, to the point where she sometimes hallucinates that he is in the same room, when he isn’t even in the building.

Shayda also has a dilemma of how much she should shield Mona from the truth. There are hints that Mona doesn’t know exactly what’s going on with the divorce, because Mona sometimes complains to Shayda that she wants to go home. Shayda doesn’t want Mona to hate Hossein, but she doesn’t want Mona to completely trust hm either.

Hossein’s visitations with Mona are fraught with tension. Shayda doesn’t say it out loud, but she’s worried that Hossein will go somewhere with Mona and never come back. Understandably, Shayda gets very upset when Hossein in late in bringing back Monda during a visitation. Shayda doesn’t want to get too upset with Hossein because she doesn’t want to make their divorce proceedings worse. Shayda sees indications that Hossein has been spying on her, either by himself or by getting other people to do the spying for him

Shayda keeps mostly to herself and isn’t very sociable with the other women at the shelter. The other shelter residents include shy Lara (played by Eve Morey), extrovert Vi (played by Jillian Nguyen) and racist “wild child” Renee (played by Lucinda Armstrong Hall), a young single mother who expects Shayda to look after Renee’s toddler, as if Shayda is a servant. Shayda’s closest friend is another Iranian immigrant named Elly (played by Rina Mousavi), who is very concerned about how Shayda’s horrible domestic problems are affecting Shayda’s mental health.

Elly encourages a reluctant Shayda to go to nightclubs and parties with her to meet new people, have some fun, and take Shayda’s mind off of her troubles. It’s at one of these nightclubs that Shayda meets Farhad (played by Mojean Aria), an attractive cousin of Elly’s, who has recently arrived from Canada. Farhad and Shayda are immediately attracted to each other. But if Farhad and Shayda start dating each other, what will happen if jealous and possessive Hossein finds out?

“Shayda” shows in unflinching ways how even though Shayda is a very attentive mother to Mona, the stress and paranoia that Shayda is experiencing can negatively affect her parenting skills. There’s also the valid fear that any decision that Shayda makes regarding the new life that Shayda wants away from Hossein could make Shayda vulnerable to even more abuse from him and possibly murder. “Shayda” doesn’t try to oversimplify these very complicated issues.

The admirable performances of Ebrahimi and Zahednia as Shayda and Mona are at the heart of this tension-filled movie. The other cast members also play their roles quite well. The story takes place during Nowruz, the two-week celebration of the Persian New Year. However, the end of the movie shows in no uncertain terms that what Shayda and Mona experience in these two weeks will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Sony Pictures Classics released in select U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 1, 2024. “Shayda” was released in Australia on October 5, 2023.

Review: ‘They Shot the Piano Player,’ starring the voice of Jeff Goldblum

March 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

A scene from “They Shot the Piano Player” (Image by Javier Mariscal/Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player”

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal

Some language in Portuguese and Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 2000s (with re-enacted flashbacks to the 1960s and 1970s), the animated docudrama film “They Shot the Piano Player” features a predominantly Latin cast of characters (with a few white people and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: American music journalist Jeff Harris (a fictional stand-in for “They Shot the Piano Player” director Fernando Trueba), investigates the mysterious 1976 disappearance of Brazilian piano player Tenório Jr., who was an highly respected musician in the Bossa Nova musical movement.

Culture Audience: “They Shot the Piano Player” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching unusual documentaries about Brazilian music or true crime cases.

Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) in “They Shot the Piano Player” (Image by Javier Mariscal/Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player” mostly succeeds in its intention to be an unconventional documentary, but much of the story gets bogged down in repetitiveness. Overall, this animated film is watchable for people interested in Brazilian music or true crime. It’s a hybrid of a fictional narrator telling a true story, with audio recordings of real interviews featured in the documentary.

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, “They Shot the Piano Player” was written by Trueba. After screening as a work in progress at the 2023 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, “They Shot the Piano Player” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. The movie then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

In the production notes for “They Shot the Piano Player,” Trueba (who is a Spanish filmmaker) says that sometime around 2019, he discovered the talent of Brazilian pianist Tenório Jr. while listening to a Brazilian album from the 1960s. Trueba became fascinated with finding out more about Tenório after discovering that Tenório (whose full name was Franciso Tenório Jr.) had vanished while on tour in Argentina in 1976, when Tenório was 35. Trueba went to Brazil and Argentina to interview family members, friends and associates of Tenório to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Tenório. Many of the resulting interviews are featured in “They Shot the Piano Player.”

“They Shot the Piano Player” creates a fictional narrative around these real interviews. In the movie, which takes place in the 2000s, the person doing the interviewing is a fictional New York City-based journalist named Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), whose quest to find out the truth begins when he writes an article in The New Yorker about Bossa Nova, the music genre that combines Brazilian music and jazz. Bossa Nova, which originated in Brazil in the late 1950s, flourished in Brazil and in other countries.

As a result of this article in The New Yorker, Jeff gets a book publishing deal to write a nonfiction book about the history of Bossa Nova. While listening to a 1960s Brazilian Bossa Nova album, Jeff discovers Tenório Jr. when he hears a piano solo on the album. Jeff is intrigued to find out that Tenório Jr. hasn’t been featured on any musical recordings in more than 30 years. Jeff (who only speaks English) wants to know why, so he travels to Brazil to interview people. Jeff is sometimes accompanied by his Brazilian friend João (a fictional character, voiced by Tony Ramos), who is a tour guide/language interprerter of sorts during these trips.

Through a series of interviews, Jeff finds out that in 1976, Tenório disappeared in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, during a tour as a band member with singer Vinicius de Moraes and guitarist/singer Toquinho. Jeff then becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of what happened to Tenório, so he travels back and forth between Brazil and Argentina to get answers. (It’s not that much of a mystery, since the title of the movie says it all.) Tenório’s disappearance happened around the same time of the 1976 coup d’état that ousted Isabel Perón as president of Argentina, so it’s not much of a surprise that this political turmoil (and the thousands of innocent people who were victims of it) are part of this story.

Most people who knew Tenório tell Jeff that it was widely believed that Tenório was murdered in Buenos Aires in 1976. But who murdered him and why? Those questions are answered by some people who are interviewed in the movie and an archival interview that Jeff hears. The interviews also reveal what type of person Tenório was by the surviving people who knew him best. Jeff also visits several of the places where Tenório used to go, such as recording studios and nightclubs.

Jeff’s book editor Jessica (a fictional character, voiced by Roberta Wallach) sees how enthusiastic Jeff has become about solving the mystery, so she tells Jeff that instead of writing a book about the history of Bossa Nova, he should instead write a book about what happened to Tenório Jr. “They Shot the Piano Player” actually begins in 2009, after the book is published, and Jeff is doing a book reading at The Strand bookstore in New York City. The rest of the movie is a flashback to Jeff tellng the story about his journey in writing the book.

Through stories and descriptions from interviews, a portrait of Tenório emerges as a highly respected and talented musician who was passionate about music, who didn’t really care about becoming rich and famous, and who had a messy personal life. At the time of his disappearance, married man Tenório had a mistress and a pregnant wife, who was expecting their fifth child. His mistress Malena Barretto (who is interviewed in the movie) was staying with Tenório at a hotel in Buenos Aires on the night of Tenório’s disappearance. She had been feeling sick at the time, so he left the hotel to find a pharmacy to get some medicine for her. That was the last time she saw him.

“They Shot the Piano Player” is packed with several interesting interviews, but after a while, many of them say the same things over and over about how talented and sweet-natured Tenório was. The movie could have used better editing in reducing some of this repetitiveness. There are also some extraneous scenes that look like nothing but travelogue footage.

Most of the people interviewed are musicians who knew Tenório, such as Toquinho, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Ben Shank, Caeton Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Jorge “Negro” Gonzales, Ian Muniz, João Donato, Laércio de Freitas, Raymundo Bittencourt, music producer Roberto Menescal and sound engineer Umberto Candardi. Family members interviewed include Tenório’s widow Carmen Magalhäes, his sister Vitoria Tenório and his uncle Manuel Tenório.

Also interviewed are several of Tenório Jr.’s friends in the Rio de Janeiro’s arts community, including Alberto Campana, the owner of Bottle’s Bar and Little, the nightclub where Tenório Jr. got his first big break; poet Ferrreira Gullar, who says that a psychic named Mrs. Haydée told Tenório Jr.’s father that Tenório Jr. was murdered; and family members and associates of de Moraes, such as his ex-wife Marta Santamaría, ex-brother-in-law Carlos Santamaría and friend Elena Goñio. Experts who weigh in with interview include Agrentina’s National Memory Archive coordinator Judith Said, human rights lawyer Luiz Eduardo, filmmaker/university professor Rogério Lima and journalists John Rowles, Nano Herrar and Horatio Verbitsky.

The animation is eye-catching and looks like painting art come to life. However, some people might not like the animation style that’s in this movie. The scenes where Jeff is visiting nightclubs to watch performances are enjoyable. And his investigation will keep viewers interested. It’s especially impactful when Jeff finds out what reportedly happened on the last day of Tenório’s life.

There are pros and cons to Goldblum’s constant narration in this movie. On the one hand, he gives a very good voice performance that remains engaging throughout the film. On the other hand, Goldblum has such a distinctive and famous voice, a lot of vewers might find his celebrity voice distracting. You never forget that you’re listening to Goldblum, which makes it harder to believe the narration is from a character named Jeff Harris.

Despite these narrative flaws, “They Shot the Piano Player” is a very good history lesson about Bossa Nova and about a fairly obscure and underrated Bossa Nova musician. The movie also tells a tragic story of someone who died simply because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “They Shot the Piano Player” doesn’t make any statements about all the political turmoil in South America, but it tells a compelling human story about someone affected by this turmoil who left an influential legacy in Brazilian music.

Sony Pictures Classics released “They Shot the Piano Player” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with a wider release in U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘The End We Start From,’ starring Jodie Comer, Joel Fry, Katherine Waterston, Gina McKee, Nina Sosanya, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch

March 3, 2024

by Carla Hay

Jodie Comer in “The End We Start From” (Photo courtesy of Republic Pictures and Paramount Global Content Distribution)

“The End We Start From”

Directed by Mahalia Belo

Culture Representation: Taking place in England over the course of about 18 months, the dramatic film “The End We Start From” (based on the 2017 novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a woman gives birth to a baby boy during an environmental crisis, she gets separated from the baby’s father, and she has to find ways for herself and the child to survive. 

Culture Audience: “The End We Start From” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Jodie Comer and movies about surviving an apocalyptic-like disaster.

Katherine Waterston and Jodie Comer in “The End We Start From” (Photo courtesy of Republic Pictures and Paramount Global Content Distribution)

Jodie Comer’s riveting performance is the main reason to watch “The End We Start From,” an occasionally vague but well-acted survival story about a new mother trying to survive with her baby during an environmental crisis. It’s a drama where the main character is not identified by any name, and almost all of the characters’ names are one letter in the alphabet, according to the film’s end credits.

Directed by Mahalia Belo and written by Alice Birch, “The End We Start From” is based on Megan Hunter’s 2017 novel of the same name. “The End We Start From” (which is Belo’s feature-film directorial debut) had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, and then screened at several other festivals in 2023, including the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest. The movie takes place in England, where an environmental disaster of massive flooding has caused power outages and homelessness for millions of people. The hardest-hit area is London and other cities that are close to large bodies of water.

“The End We Start From” doesn’t waste time in showing a prolonged buildup to this disaster, because this flooding happens in the first three minutes of the film. A very pregnant woman (played by Comer) is alone at her house during a daytime rainstorm when her house suddenly becomes flooded everywhere. It’s not said out loud during the entire movie, but it’s implied that this environmental crisis is the result of climate change.

The next thing that’s shown is the woman is in a hospital and has given birth to a baby boy. Her live-in partner—identified in the end credits only as R (played by Joel Fry)—is at the hospital too. “The End We Start From” never shows how the woman ended up in the hospital and how R found out that she was there. The couple names the baby Zeb.

The safest places in England during this crisis are elevated areas in the countryside, where R’s parents live. The woman (who apparently doesn’t have any other relatives) and R travel to visit his parents—identified by the letters G (played by Nina Sosanya) and N (played by Mark Strong)—who welcome this couple and the baby. It just so happens that G and N are doomsday survivalists, so they have plenty of food and clean water that they have accumulated in preparation for an apocalypse or other disaster. But how long will it be before they run out of these resources?

During this crisis, the best and worst of humanity is shown. Getting to the house of G and N is an ordeal, because the people in this rural area don’t want outsiders coming in to use their resources. There are government officials supervising roadblocks, and the new mother had to literally beg to be let through the roadblock, by explaining that she and R are there to stay with the baby’s grandparents. It’s doubtful that the couple would have been let through the roadblock if they didn’t have a newborn baby.

Through a series of circumstances, the new mother and R have to leave the home of his parents. And then, she and R get separated from each other. She ends up in a crowded shelter, where she meets another new mother named O (played by Katherine Waterston), who is the mother of a 5-month-old baby girl. O says she has a wealthy friend who’s living in a secure and well-stocked commune. O wants to find a way to get to this commune, which she is sure is a safe place to live.

Benedict Cumberbatch has a small role as a man named AB whom the women encounter along the way. And there’s a woman named F (played by Gina McKee) who meets the two women and has a pivotal role in the story. And what about R? The movie shows whether or not R and his partner find each other again. The entire story in the movie takes place over a period of about 18 months.

“The End We Start From” has a lot of harrowing situations that are very realistic to how people would act during a disaster where food, water, shelter and other basic needs become increasingly scarce. There are some flashbacks to how the woman and R met and their subsequent courtship. The movie’s biggest drawback is that very little is revealed about the main character’s life before she met R. However, “The End We Start From” is still an interesting character study in a competently told survival story.

Republic Pictures and Paramount Global Content Distribution released “The End We Start From” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023, with a wider expansion to U.S. cinemas on January 19, 2024. The movie was released on digital and VOD on February 6, 2024.

Review: ‘How to Have Sex,’ starring Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, Samuel Bottomley, Shaun Thomas, Enva Lewis and Laura Ambler

February 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas in “How to Have Sex” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“How to Have Sex”

Directed by Molly Manning Walker

Culture Representation: Taking place in Greece, the dramatic film “How to Have Sex” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three British female friends, who are in their late teens, go on vacation together in Greece, where they party a lot, and one of the women gets sexually assaulted by a young British man who became one of their party acquaintances. 

Culture Audience: “How to Have Sex” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about “date rape” and its psychological effects.

Lara Peake, Enva Lewis and Mia McKenna-Bruce in “How to Have Sex” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“How to Have Sex” is a realistic drama about sexual awakening and sexual assault during a vacation revolving around carefree intoxication. It’s not a preachy movie, but it’s a candid observation of confusion, regret and peer pressure in sexual experiences. “How to Have Sex” is told from the perspectives of people in their late teens and early 20s, but the themes in the film can apply to anyone.

Written and directed by Molly Manning Walker, “How to Have Sex” is her skillfully made feature-film debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize. “How to Have Sex” also screened at several other film festivals in 2023, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. “How to Have Sex” also won three prizes at the 2023 British Independent Film Awards: Best Lead Performance (for Mia McKenna-Bruce); Best Supporting Performance (for Shaun Thomas); and Best Casting (for Isabella Odoffin).

In “How to Have Sex” (which takes place in an unnamed part of Greece), three British female best friends, have recently graduated from high school and are on a summer vacation. The three pals are vacationing together at a resort that’s popular with other young people who want to do a lot of partying. The three besties are charismatic Tara (played by McKenna-Bruce), bossy Skye (played by Lara Peake), and friendly Em (played by Enva Lewis), who all consider themselves to be fun-loving free spirits. However, in the beginning of the story, Tara is a virgin and is somewhat embarrassed about it, because she doesn’t want anyone else outside of this trio of friends to know that she is a virgin.

Tara, Skye and Em all share the same room together at the resort hotel. The first third of the movie consists of scenes of the three women having a lot of drunken antics and hangovers. Their personalities, which become more apparent in their interactions with people, affect how they react to certain situations.

Skye thinks of herself as the leader of this trio. She constantly wants to know what other people are doing in their sex lives and gives unsolicited advice. Skye is very manipulative, since she says and does things to either bring people together in hookups that she wants to happen, or steer people away from hookups that she doesn’t want to happen. During a drinking game of “Never Have I Ever,” Skye seems to be the most sexually experienced of the three friends.

Tara, who is nicknamed Taz, is the talkative and somewhat goofy charmer of the group. Early on in the movie, there’s a scene where Em unsuccessfully asks the hotel’s front-desk receptionist (played by Eleni Sachini) if the three friends could switch to a room that overlooks the hotel’s swimming pool. The receptionist insists that there is no such room available. But then, Tara immediately comes along, introduces herself to the receptionist with a smile, and talks the receptionist into giving them this room by saying that Skye has been learning to swim, and having a room with the view of the swimming pool will give Skye more confidence.

Em is the quietest one of the trio, which doesn’t mean that she’s not talkative. Em just doesn’t call attention to herself as much as Tara and Skye do. There are hints that Em comes from an affluent family, because she says at one point, “I miss my BMW.” Em is also queer, since her main hookup during this vacation is a butch-looking young British woman named Paige (played by Laura Ambler), who is staying with some British friends at the hotel room next door.

Paige is sharing the room with two guys who are about the same age (late teens or early 20s) and who are also doing a lot of partying. Best friends Badger (played by Thomas) and Paddy (played by Samuel Bottomley) are enthusiastic participants in all the drunken debauchery taking place during this vacation. Not much is revealed about the backgrounds of Badger and Paddy, which is the movie’s way of showing how encounters in this type of environment are often superficial and aren’t about getting to know people better outside of partying and meaningless flings.

Badger, with his tattoos and messy bleach-blonde hair, looks and acts like a stereotypical stoner/drunkard who over-indulges in marijuana and alcohol. The only things he reveals about himself and his life outside of the bubble of this vacation is that his job is “driving vans” (he doesn’t give further details) and that his mother and Paddy’s mother are also best friends. Paddy is more clean-cut and less of a loudmouth than Badger. Paddy often acts like he’s Badger’s “wing man,” since Badger is more likely to take the lead in approaching women.

Badger first sees Tara the morning after a night of heavy partying. They both happen to be on their balconies of their respective rooms at the same time. Badger immediately flirts with Tara, but she doesn’t seem that interested in him, but she accepts his invitation for Tara and her friends to meet up with Badger and his friends at a party. It’s at this party where Tara meets Paddy, and she’s instantly attracted to him, but he doesn’t seem very interested in Tara.

Meanwhile, Skye notices that Badger has been heavily flirting with Tara, who is slowly warming up to Badger’s attention. When Tara and Badger get drunk together, she likes to make him laugh with silly jokes. However, observant viewers will notice that Skye is attracted to Badger, even though Skye doesn’t say so out loud. When Skye finds out that Tara prefers Paddy, Skye encourages Tara to flirt more with Paddy.

At first, “How to Have Sex” shows a lot of intoxicated reveling at places like nightclubs, hotel rooms or swimming pools. It looks repetitive, but it’s the movie way of showing how people in these situations can be lulled into thinking that life is one big party and the worst thing that can happen to them is maybe getting lost or having a hangover. It’s not the movie giving criticism of partying, but it shows how intoxicated partying can impair people’s judgments to the point where they will do things differently or get themselves in situations that they wouldn’t be in if they were clear-minded and sober.

Even in scenes showing a lot of young people partying as if they don’t have a care in the world, there is an underlying sense that sexual antics could go too far and cross the line into sexual assault. At nightclubs and gatherings at swimming pools, party hosts have games requiring participants to take off items of their clothing or do sexually suggestive things, such as place a beer bottle in a crotch area (while clothed) and serve the beer into the open mouth of another participant. No one is shown being forced to participate in these games, but the women who participate are more at risk than men of being perceived as “promiscuous” for playing these games.

During one of these games in a swimming pool, Badger volunteers to be licked and kissed by several women volunteers (who are strangers to him) at the same time in the pool. One of the women ends up giving him oral sex in front of everyone who can see it, although the graphic details are not shown in the movie. Tara sees all of this going on, and she looks uncomfortable. It’s not like she thinks Badger is her boyfriend, but it’s an eye-opening incident for her to find out that this is the kind of thing he’ll do when he’s drunk. The next day, Badger says he has no memory of what happened in the swimming pool.

The prevailing attitude about sexual hookups during all of this partying is: “If it feels good, and it’s consensual, why not?” But what if someone is too intoxicated to consent? That’s where problems can occur, especially if people can’t agree on what it means to be “too intoxicated” in the context of the situation. There’s also peer pressure, since this is the type of vacation where the partiers don’t want to be perceived as being uptight and prudish. Skye and Tara almost have a big argument when Skye drops hints to people that Tara is a virgin.

It’s enough to say that the possible love triangle between Badger, Tara and Paddy turns into something that is definitely not love. Tara loses her virginity to one of them in a consensual encounter. She then regrets it when he acts like the encounter didn’t mean much to him, so she becomes quiet and withdrawn. He then wants to have another sexual encounter with her, but she says no. However, when she’s half-asleep one morning, he crawls into bed with her and starts to have sex with Tara, without her consent, under the covers. He stops only because Skye walks in and unknowingly interrupts this assault.

The rape of Tara happens so quickly, she’s in shock. The tone of “How to Have Sex” then changes from being upbeat to sobering to borderline depressing. The movie does an excellent job of showing the psychological effects this rape has on Tara, as the shock wears off, and she begins to understand that what happened to her wasn’t a drunken mistake: She was deliberately raped.

Does Tara report this rape? It’s a dilemma that many rape victims often face: How do you report a rape when the rapist is someone who can claim it was consensual sex, because the victim had previously had consensual sex with the rapist on another occasion? It’s also a “he said/she said” situation, because no one except Tara and her rapist saw what happened.

Skye is too self-absorbed to notice the personality change in Tara, but Em notices and is a compassionate friend who takes the time to listen to a friend in need. Because Tara is the main character in “How to Have Sex,” the heart and soul of the movie is in the performance of McKenna-Bruce, who does an admirable job of conveying all the emotions of someone who goes from being a bubbly party girl to a vulnerable rape survivor. Whether or not the rapist is punished for the crime is not the point of this movie. The main intent of “How to Have Sex” is to show how easily a sexual-assault crime can happen and how the crime victim chose to cope with it.

MUBI released “How to Have Sex” in select U.S. cinemas on February 2, 2024. The movie was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in 2023.

Review: ‘The Taste of Things,’ starring Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel

February 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel in “The Taste of Things” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Taste of Things”

Directed by Trân Anh Hùng

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in France, in 1889, the dramatic film “The Taste of Things” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A renowned chef and his longtime live-in cook are lovers, but she resists his attempts for them to have a more committed relationship.

Culture Audience: “The Taste of Things” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel and movies about people who love to cook.

Juliette Binoche Benoît Magimel and Galatéa Bellugi in “The Taste of Things” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The slow-paced drama “The Taste of Things” isn’t for everyone, but it’s a mature story of what can happen when a famous chef tries to get his longtime personal cook to marry him. There’s plenty to like in this movie for romance fans and cuisine enthusiasts. The movie spends almost much as much time detailing the preparation of food as it does on showing how these two people live and love together.

Written and directed by Trân Anh Hùng, “The Taste of Things” is based on Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel “La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet,” which is French for “The Life and the Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet.” “The Taste of Things” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where Trân won the prize for Best Director. “The Tatse of Things” then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest. “The Taste of Things” was France’s official selection for the category of Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards, but the movie didn’t get any Oscar nominations.

In “The Taste of Things” (which takes place in 1889, in France), Dodin Bouffant (played by Benoît Magimel) is a renowned chef and a middle-aged, never-married bachelor with no children. He has been in a sexual relationship with his live-in cook Eugénie Chatagne (played by Juliette Binoche), who is also middle-aged, never-married, and has no children. Eugénie has been Dodin’s live-in cook at his manor for the past 20 years.

Dodin and Eugénie love each other, but she doesn’t want to commit to marrying him. She tells Dodin that she’s happy with the way their relationship is. Eugénie has turned down Dodin’s marriage proposals multiple times.

Will persistent Dodin get Eugénie to change her mind? That’s the question that lingers for most of “The Taste of Things,” as the movie fills up its time with scenes of preparations and servings of elaborate multi-course meals. Dodin decides he’s going to cook for Eugénie as a way to show his love.

Dodin is also seen with a group of five affluent male friends in many social situations, including when he and these friends get invited to dine with the prince of Eurasia (played by Mhamed Arezki), who originally invited just Dodin, but Dodin insisted that his friends get invited too. Dodin’s five closest friends are Grimaud (played by Patrick d’Assumçao), Magot (played by Jan Hammenecker), Beaubois (played by Frédéric Fisbach), Augustin (played by Jean-Marc Roulot) and Rabaz (played by Emmanuel Salinger). Rabaz is the one who stands out the most because he is a compassionate and very busy doctor.

Eugénie has an assistant cook named Violette (played by Galatéa Bellugi), who’s in her 20s and is a very loyal employee. Near the beginning of the movie, Violette’s niece Pauline (played by Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who’s about 11 or 12 years old, is at Dodin’s manor to visit and is introduced to Eugénie and Dodin. It isn’t long before Eugénie notices that Pauline is a prodigy in culinary arts, with extraordinary senses of taste and smell. Eugénie wants to formally teach Pauline how to be a chef but first must get permission from her parents.

“The Taste of Things” is not a movie that makes any grand or provocative statements about life. The story also holds very little surprises. A few scenes of Eugénie fainting and clutching her abdomen in pain are foreshadowings of what happens to her in the last third of the movie, which won’t be a shock to anyone who’s read “La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet.”

The reliably engaging performances by Binoche and Magimel are worth watching in how they portray this bittersweet romance. Binoche and Magimel have easy chemistry with each other, since they were partners from 1998 to 2003 and have a daughter together named Hana, who was born in 1999. Magimel and Binoche also co-starred in the 1999 drama “Children of the Century.” The tone of “The Taste of Things” is quietly sensual, which is best appreciated by viewers who know that not all movies about romance have to be about messy breakups and predictable makeups.

IFC Films released “The Taste of Things” in select U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2024. The movie was released in France under the title “La Passion de Dodin Bouffant” on November 8, 2023. “The Taste of Things” will be released on digital and VOD on March 28, 2024.

Review: ‘Memory’ (2023), starring Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Brooke Timber, Elsie Fisher, Josh Charles and Jessica Harper

January 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment)

“Memory” (2023)

Directed by Michel Franco

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Memory” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A recovering alcoholic, who has traumatic memories from her past, forms an unexpected bond with a former high school classmate who has dementia.

Culture Audience: “Memory” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard; filmmaker Michel Franco; and movies that have realistic portrayals of emotionally damaged adults.

Jessica Chastain in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment)

“Memory” is a skillfully acted character study of how memories can be blocked out, preserved, or warped to shape personal self-identities or perceptions of others. This drama’s sluggish pacing drags down the movie, but it doesn’t ruin the film. And some of the film’s subject matter, such as taking care of someone with dementia or having dementia, might be triggering or upsetting for people who’ve been through those experiences. However, the movie has a powerful message about how human connections can thrive in unlikely circumstances.

Written and directed by Michel Franco, “Memory” (which was filmed on location in New York City) had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, where “Memory” co-star Peter Sarsgaard won the prize for Best Actor. The movie made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. Viewers who see the trailer for “Memory” before seeing the movie should know in advance that the trailer is somewhat misleading, because it makes “Memory” look more suspenseful than it really is.

“Memory” is told from the perspective of middle-aged Sylvia (played by Jessica Chastain), a social worker whose job is at an adult care facility for disabled and emotionally troubled people. Sylvia is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for the past 13 years. It’s revealed later in the movie that Sylvia was a very rebellious teen who began drinking when she was an adolescent.

The movie opens with a scene of Sylvia in an Alcoholics Anonymous support group meeting, where she is highly respected, and the feeling is mutual. Sylvia is a single mother to a 15-year-old daughter named Anna (played by Brooke Timber), who is an intuitive and obedient child. Sylvia and Anna live in a small apartment in New York City’s Queens borough. They aren’t poor, but they have some financial struggles. Anna notices that their refrigerator isn’t working again, and Sylvia seems bothered that it’s another expense that will put a strain on her finances.

Sylvia doesn’t have a social life and seems every emotionally closed off to many people. At her high school reunion, she sits by herself, looking bored, and she doesn’t really talk to anyone. A man named Saul Shapiro (played by Sarsgaard), one of her former classmates, sits down at the same table and tries to start a conversation with her.

Sylvia looks very annoyed. She gets up and walks out of the building. But then, she notices that Saul is following her. He follows Sylvia on the subway all the way back to her apartment building, but she is able to get to the building’s front door before he does, and she locks it behind her. And then, Saul does something even creepier: He stands outside her apartment building like a stalker, even when it begins to rain.

Sylvia has become alarmed but she doesn’t call the police. The next morning, she sees that Saul has spent the night outside the apartment. She can see that he’s not mentally well, so she asks him for his phone and calls a number of anyone who can identify him and pick him up. Sylvia gets Saul’s protective bother Isaac (played by Josh Charles) on the phone.

Isaac explains that Saul has dementia and that Saul has episodes where he wanders off and goes to places and has no memory of how he got there. Isaac picks up Saul, but that isn’t the last time that Sylvia sees him. She calls Isaac the next day to ask to see Saul and to find out if he’s doing any better. Isaac, who is a single father, lives with teenage daughter Sara (played by Elsie Fisher), who has an almost immediate rapport with Sylvia.

Through a series of circumstances, Sylvia reluctantly accepts Isaac’s offer to be Saul’s part-time caregiver during the day. The rest of “Memory” shows the up-and-down relationship that develops between Saul and Sylvia. She is haunted by traumatic memories of her past that have affected her self-esteem and her relationships with her soft-spoken, married older sister Olivia (played by Merritt Wever) and their widowed mother Samantha (played by Jessica Harper), who has been estranged from Sylvia for years.

“Memory” is not the type of movie where healing comes easily. There are moments of self-awareness and self-sabotage that happen throughout the story. Sylvia has a tendency to be a caretaker to others, but she also has to come to an understanding that she needs a lot of emotional self-care that she has neglected. “Memory” is a testament to how people can find solace in simple moments that can have a much larger impact than expected.

Ketchup Entertainment released “Memory” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on January 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Apolonia, Apolonia,’ starring Apolonia Sokol

January 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Apolonia Sokol in “Apolonia, Apolonia” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

“Apolonia, Apolonia”

Directed by Lea Glob

Some language in French, Danish and Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Filmed in Europe, the United States and Asia, from 2009 to 2022, the documentary film “Apolonia, Apolonia” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of French Danish painter artist Apolonia Sokol.

Culture Clash: Sokol has various struggles in her personal and professional lives, including occasional poverty, self-doubt, and difficulties breaking into the male-dominated art world to become a paid professional. 

Culture Audience: “Apolonia, Apolonia” will appeal primarily to people who are interested documentaries about struggling artists from a female perspective.

Apolonia Sokol in “Apolonia, Apolonia” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

What does it really take to be an artist who struggles for years to get industry respect and professional wages? “Apolonia, Apolonia” gives viewers an insightful look at one such artist. Filmed between 2009 and 2022, this sprawling documentary is as much about painter artist Apolonia Sokol as it is about her friendship with director Lea Glob. These blurred lines sometimes give the film an uneven tone, but it’s still a fascinating watch.

“Apolonia, Apolonia” has its world premiere at the 2022 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Throughout 2023, the movie made the rounds at several film festivals, including the BFI London Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Apolonia, Apolonia” also made it on the shortlist for the 2024 Academy Awards in the category of Best Documentary Feature.

The movie opens with a scene taking place in Paris in 2013. Sokol is shown in front of a bathroom mirror as she cuts her bangs and wears shaving cream where a moustache and a “soul patch” would be on her face. It’s the first indication that that Sokol is an unusual person.

Glob who is the documentary’s narrator, explains in a voiceover in the beginning of the documentary the reason why she decided to devote so many years to chronicling the life of Sokol: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the world through my camera. But no motif has caught my eye as she did.” Glob also says she began filming Sokol from the day that she met Sokol in Paris in 2009, on Sokol’s 26th birthday.

Sokol, who is the only child of her parents, was born in Paris in 1983 to unconventional, artistic parents. Sokol’s mother Aleksandra Tlolka was a Polish immigrant whose parents were displaced under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Sokol’s father Hervé Breuil was a native of France. Long before social media existed, Tlolka and Breuil filmed themselves and their lives, which they kept archived on videotapes for Sokol watch as she grew up.

One video that her parents didn’t want her to see until she turned 18 was the sex video that her parents made that showed her being conceived. Snippets of some of these archived videos are shown in “Apolonia, Apolonia,” including the video of Sokol being born. It’s an example of how Sokol was literally born to be on camera. Her parents raised her among “artists, dissidents and activists” and continued to film their lives.

At the age of 8, Sokol’s life changed when her parents split up. Because her father’s name, not her mother’s name, was on the lease for the family home, Tlolka found herself and Sokol homeless when Tlolka moved out and took Sokol with her. They eventually found a place to live, but living in poverty had a profound effect on Sokol. Tlolka and Sokol moved to Denmark, where Sokol spent the rest of her childhood and part of her young adulthood

Years later, in 2009, the documentary shows Sokol once again on the verge of homelessness. She had moved back to Paris to live with in the Chateau Rouge area, a working-class neighborhood, in a ramshackle art theater called Lavoir Moderne Parisien, which used to be a laundromat. Her parents, although no longer a romantic couple, were business partners in the theater, which was on the verge of shutting down because the business was losing too much money. The parents were selling furniture and appliances in the building in an effort to raise money.

It was under these grim circumstances that Sokol met Glob, who gives her own personal background on what led her to become a filmmaker. Glob says that as a child, her grandfather was a painter artist who would pay her one euro and hour to let him paint her portrait. Instead of becoming interested in painting, Glob says she became interested in filmmaking.

While in film school, Glob was assigned to do a documentary about someone. She heard about an unusual aspiring painter who grew up in an art theater in Paris and who “wanted to walk in the footsteps of the great painters.” That aspiring painter was Sokol.

The documentary gives a raw and often intimate look at the highs, lows and everything in between in Sokol’s quest to become a professional artist. Sokol, whose specialty is painting portraits of people, experiences many expected roadblocks and uphill battles, including sexism, her own self-doubt, and trying to get gallery showings of her work without an agent.

Sokol’s journey takes her to various cities other than Paris, such as Copenhagen, New York City, Los Angeles, Istanbul and Rome. She enrolls in the elite École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When Sokol moves to Copenhagen, she has mixed feelings about returning to Denmark. Just like her mother, Sokol says that she feels more comfortable as an artist in Paris.

Things take an interesting turn when Sokol moves to Los Angeles and gets investment money, use of an art studio, and encouragement from art benefactor Stefan Simchowitz, who is introduced to Sokol by Sokol’s friend Isabelle Le Normand. Emmy-winning writer/producer Mike White (of HBO’s “The White Lotus”) makes a random appearance in the movie when Le Normand introduces him to Sokol.

At one point in the conversation with White, Sokol mentions that she and Simchowitz will be meeting with Harvey Weinstein. (This particular footage was obviously filmed before disgraced entertainment mogul Weinstein’s scandalous downfall in 2017.) The meeting with Weinstein is not mentioned again in the documentary.

Simchowitz becomes Sokol’s mentor, but there’s something a little “off” about this mentorship, because Simchowitz seems to be the type of investor to seek out young, attractive female artists and show them off like arm candy. When he and Sokol are at an event together, an eager young female artist approaches Simchowitz asks if her remembers her. Their conversation is brief and polite but slightly awkward. You can almost hear the other woman thinking about Simchowitz: “So this is your latest pretty young protégée.”

Sokol is completely financially dependent on Simchowitz during her stay in Los Angeles. He gives her constructive advice and introduces her to important people in the art world. But the underlying question that astute viewers will have but isn’t said out loud in the documentary is, “What does Simchowitz really want out of his relationship with Sokol?”

Sokol presents herself as a free spirit who doesn’t have any hangups about nudity in her art or by being naked herself on camera. Later, during her stay in Los Angeles, she spontaneously takes off all of her clothes and posing next to giant inflatable butt plug at an outdoor art exhibit, even though she risked getting arrested for indecent exposure.

For a while, Sokol seems caught up in the glitz and glamour of the Los Angeles art scene. She also gets an important gallery exhibit (with Simchowitz’s help) and learns the importance of having the right connections. But then, the movie shows her back in Copehagen again. What happened to Simchowitz and his enthusiastic support? The documentary never goes into details, so it can easily be assumed that Sokol and Simchowitz parted under uncomfortable circumstances that Glob chose not to put in the documentary.

That’s not the only information void in “Apolonia, Apolonia.” The movie takes a harrowing turn when Glob turns the camera on her own personal life, when she documents her recovery from a near-death experience that left her in a coma while she was pregnant and had to undergo an emergency C-section. Fortunately, her baby son Luca was born healthy and unharmed. Her recovery took months, but the documentary never gives details on what caused Glob’s serious injuries.

Sokol’s personal life also goes through a series of ups and downs. During the hardest times of her struggling artist years, her roommate and best friend was Oksana Shachko (born in 1987), an artist who was a refugee from Ukraine. In Paris, Sokol and Shachko were part of a tight-knit circle of feminists who supported each other and practiced left-wing politics. However, throughout their friendship Sokol expresses concern for Shachko’s mental health, because Sokol thinks Shachko has depression and anorexia.

Because “Apolonia, Apolonia” is primarily focused on Sokol as an artist, her love life doesn’t get much screen time. Early in the movie, a boyfriend named Max Lanos Plaquer breaks up with her o camera when she’s living in Paris. After much moving around in different countries, Sokol is seen with another boyfriend in Paris. At one point in the movie, Sokol and Shachko both say that they don’t want to have children.

As for Sokol as an artist, judging her talent is subjective, and she constantly grapples with her own insecurities and how other people perceive her. The documentary has some lingering shots of Sokol starting a painting and then showing the finished art, but the movie doesn’t take much time to explore how and why Sokol chooses the people whose portraits she paints. The people in her paintings are not interviewed either.

Despite the questions that remain unanswered by “Apolonia, Apolonia,” the documentary is a very compelling story of commitment to being an artist when facing much resistance, criticism and adversity. It’s a career where the odds are stacked against most people to get enough financial rewards to become full-time, professional artists. Sokol is the type of artist who doesn’t have a “backup plan” to switch careers if things get too tough for her. “Apolonia, Apolonia” shows the pain and tragedy as well as joy and hope during this 13-year period of Sokol’s life, which is not the kind of life that a lot of people would want to have, but it’s a life lived authentically.

Grasshopper Film released “Apolonia, Apolonia” in New York City on January 12, 2024. The movie was released in Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Spain in 2023. Documentary+ will premiere “Apolonia, Apolonia” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘All of Us Strangers,’ starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, and Claire Foy

September 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in “All of Us Strangers” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures)

“All of Us Strangers”

Directed by Andrew Haigh

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, in 2017, the sci-fi drama film “All of Us Strangers” (based on the novel “Strangers”) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man, who was orphaned at the age of 11 when his parents died in a car accident, goes back to his childhood home to visit the ghosts of his parents, around the same time that he begins dating another man who lives in the same apartment building. 

Culture Audience: “All of Us Strangers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners; the novel on which the movie is based; and uniquely told love stories.

Jamie Bell, Andrew Scott (with back facing camera) and Claire Foy in “All of Us Strangers” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“All of Us Strangers” is literally a haunting meditation on grief over the death of loved ones. This well-acted drama might be too slow-paced for some viewers, but the movie’s themes and performances are worth watching. Some of it gets repetitive though.

Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, “All of Us Strangers” is based on Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel of the same name. The movie’s present-day scenes takes place in 2017, but there are also some flashbacks taking place in 1987. It’s a moody and mysterious film that unpeels in layers until its emotionally powerful conclusion. “All of Us Strangers” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival before showing at the 2023 New York Film Festival and the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.

In the present-day scenes, an openly gay screenwriter in his early 40s named Adam (played by Andrew Scott) is living by himself in a sleek high-rise apartment complex in London. Viewers will eventually notice that no one else seems to live in the building except Adam and a neighbor named Harry (played by Paul Mescal), another gay or queer bachelor who lives by himself. Harry, who is about 15 years younger than Adam, makes the first flirtatious move when introducing himself to Adam.

This apartment building could have previously been a hotel, because it has a common hotel feature of windows that can’t open, in order to prevent people from jumping or falling out of the windows. “How do you cope?” Harry asks Adam about the isolation of living in the building. As time goes on, viewers will see that the building is a symbol of being in emotional confinement.

At first, introverted Adam is polite but aloof with Harry. Adam has his guard up and doesn’t seem too interested in getting to know Harry better. But then, when Harry shows up at Adam’s door one day, Harry persuades Adam to let him into the apartment. Harry shows signs that he’s interested in Adam sexually and then comes right out and asks Adam if Adam is queer. The answer is yes.

Adam seems hesitant about starting a sexual relationship with Harry, who is more confident and forthight about what he wants. During their first date, which is at Adam’s apartment, Harry and Adam smoke some marijuana together. And once again, Harry makes the first move, and they become lovers. That’s only part of the story.

Adam has a secret: He has been taking train trips to the suburbs to go back to his childhood home to visit the ghosts of his dead parents (played by Jamie Bell and Claire Foy), who passed away in a car accident in 1987, when Adam was 11 years old. (This is not spoiler information, since it’s a big part of the movie.) Adam’s parents have the same physical appearance of how they looked in the year that they died, except his parents know that they are dead and are seeing the adult Adam, who has no siblings.

Much of “All of Us Strangers” is about Adam juggling his present-day life and escaping back to his past at his childhood home, where he wants to hold on to the memories of his parents and communicate with them, even if he knows that they are dead. Viewers must ponder if Adam has psychic abilities, or if he’s mentally ill and is imagining it all. As the romance between Adam and Harry heats up and they become closer, Adam has to decide if he will tell Harry his secret or not.

“All of Us Strangers” is the type of movie that is more about emotions than about a step-by-step plot. Through conversations that Adam has with his parents and Harry, viewers find out that Adam was a loner when he was a kid. He was bullied as a child for being effeminate. His bullies were other schoolkids who suspected that Adam was gay.

Adam’s parents, especially his father, are not hatefully homophobic, but they don’t quite know how to handle having a gay son when adult Adam comes out as gay to them. (Adam tells his mother first, and she tells Adam’s father.) Adam was also overweight as a kid. As an adult, Adam tells Harry, “When you’re fat, they don’t ask you why you don’t have a girlfriend.”

As for Harry, the only thing that he reveals about his family is that he has a brother who just got married and a sister who has a child. Harry tells Adam that Harry’s parents accept that Harry is gay, but “I don’t go home much. It’s inevitable, really.” The flashback scenes of Adam as a boy (played by Carter John Grout) show happy experiences, such as Adam and his parents at Christmas time.

However, Adam also has sad memories of his childhood. One of the more touching scenes in the film is when Adam and his father have a heart-to-heart talk about what the father remembers about the times when Adam would be in his room crying because of how Adam was bullied at school. It’s a scene that speaks volumes about how parents of LGBTQ+ children sometimes unwittingly cause emotional damage by being in denial about their children’s sexual/gender identities.

Adding to the 1980s atmosphere for much of the movie, “All of Us Strangers” has a very good soundtrack, with multiple songs from Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Fine Young Cannibals. (Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1984 hit “The Power of Love” is played during the movie’s tearjerking finale.) The production design for the movie is also stellar, contrasting the somewhat austere and imposing modern building of Adam’s present-day life with the cozy clutter of Adam’s childhood home.

Because of the small number of people in the movie’s cast, “All of Us Strangers” gives enough room for character development, even if the plot of the movie is fairly simple. Scott does a fine job of portraying Adam, who is a bundle of repressed emotional baggage. Mescal has roguish charm as Harry, who gets Adam to see life in a way that is more hopeful of the future.

Foy’s portrayal of Adam’s mother is realistic in her curiosity of how Adam’s life turned out as an adult. Bell shows a balance of parental strength and quiet remorse as Adam’s father, who is emotionally conflicted about Adam being gay. One of the admirable things about “All of Us Strangers” is that it doesn’t just ask if Adam can move on from his past. It also asks if his parents can move on from the past too.

Most of all, “All of Us Strangers” is a worthy depiction of how grief is a process that has ebbs and flows. Grief can keep people stuck in a certain debilitating mindset, or it can be a painful journey to personal growth and healing. People who don’t know how the movie will end might be surprised by a certain turn in the story, but it’s an example of how love can endure even in the midst of unexpected loss and struggles.

Searchlight Pictures will release “All of Us Strangers” in select U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘She Is Love,’ starring Haley Bennett and Sam Riley

February 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sam Riley and Haley Bennett in “She Is Love” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“She Is Love”

Directed by Jamie Adams

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in an unnamed city in England, the dramatic film “She Is Love” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two former spouses, who haven’t seen or spoken to each other in 10 years, have an awkward reunion when she checks into the inn where he lives with his current girlfriend, who owns the inn. 

Culture Audience: “She Is Love” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching aimless movies that have no real plot and mainly show people looking and acting uncomfortable with each other.

Marisa Abela in “She Is Love” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

Everything about the rambling drama “She Is Love” looks like an improvisational sketch that was dragged into an unnecessary and tedious movie. The cast members are talented, but the characters they play are empty and annoying. The movie’s fake-looking ending looks like a lazy cop-out that doesn’t ring true. It’s one of many misguided aspects of this dreadfully dull film.

Written and directed by Jamie Adams, “She Is Love” had its world premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. The movie takes place in an unnamed city in England, primarily at one location: a bed-and-breakfast inn. In the beginning of the movie, it’s a Friday, and a restless woman named Patricia (played by Haley Bennett), who also goes by the name Pat, has arrived at the inn because her boyfriend Taylor (voiced by Jay Jippet) has booked a room for her at the inn.

Patricia is a creator of TV shows, and she travels a lot for her job. It’s vaguely explained that she’s at the inn on some sort of vacation where she wants to spend some time alone. The movie’s story begins on a Friday and ends on a Sunday. By the end of this weekend, Patricia will not only have the opposite of a vacation of solitude, she’s also so “in your face” irritating, viewers of “She Is Love” will want to Patricia to go away.

The first thing that Patricia does when she checks into her room is complain. She mutters to herself, “This room is ugly.” It doesn’t take long before her so-called restful vacation gets interrupted by loud music coming from another room. Patricia goes to the source of the noise and sees a musician named Idris (played by Sam Riley) playing music on DJ equipment, as if he’s in a nightclub. Idris and Patricia look at each other in shock. She’s so in shock, she quickly walks out of the room.

Idris follows her and says, “I’m sorry about the noise. I didn’t know anyone was here.” Patricia says to him, “What are you doing here?” Idris replies, “I kind of live here. I can’t believe it. The last I heard, you were living in America.” It’s soon revealed how Patricia and Idris know each other: They used to be married to each other, they got divorced, and they haven’t seen or spoken to each other in about 10 years.

Patricia insists that she’s at this inn purely as a coincidence, because her boyfriend booked the room at the inn for her. More awkwardness ensues because the person who owns the inn and lives there too is Idris’ current girlfriend Louise (played by Marisa Abela), a perky aspiring actress who’s about 15 years younger than 39-year-old Idris. Quicker than you can say “formulaic sitcom idea,” Louise suddenly comes home to tell Idris the good news that she got a role that she really wanted. Idris nervously steers Louise outside and doesn’t want her to go inside until he tells her the news that his ex-wife unexpectedly showed up and is staying at the inn.

Idris tells Louise it’s a bizarre coincidence that Patricia is a guest at the inn, and he assures Louise that nothing is going to happen between him and Patricia. And what a coincidence: Louise has to go out of town for a few days because of this new acting job. The rest of the movie shows what happens when Patricia and Idris spend a lot of time alone together, get drunk, and act like people who have too much time on their hands but have nothing meaningful to say for most of that time. It’s all just so boring to watch.

Bennett and Riley seem to be attempting to make Patricia and Idris believable as an ex-couple with unresolved feelings for each other. The problem is that it never looks genuine that these two were ever in love. Anything that’s supposed to pass for “sexual tension” between Patricia and Idris just come across as forced. And to make matters worse, insufferable Patricia is so insulting to Idris, it’s even harder to believe that Idris could possibly be falling back in love with her.

In one of their early “reunion” conversations, Idris (who performs in a semi-famous rock band) tells Patricia that he’s still a musician. Patricia rudely says, “So, you’re doing the same thing. I’m a bit disappointed.” It’s quite the display of disrespectful and condescending judgment from someone who has no say in how Idris should lead his life and what should make him happy.

Later, when Idris and Patricia have a drunken argument, she says to him: “You can’t deal with anyone broken. That’s why you go for Louise.” Irdrs replies, “You break everything you touch!” And then, Patricia shows how cruel she can be when she says to Idris: “The only good thing about you is your dad. And he’s dead.”

“She Is Love” is a misnomer, because Patricia is not a very loving or lovable person. The movie becomes a slog of Patricia and Idris lurching from drunken activity to drunken activity, all while having witless conversations. They play tennis while intoxicated. They put on face powder, wear white clothes, and run around the inn, as they pretend that they are ghosts.

And (cliché alert), at one point, Idris brings out his acoustic guitar and plays a drippy love song about you-know-who. And through it all, Idris and Patricia continue to argue. It’s as if Patricia and Idris are trying to convince themselves that maybe they’re smart and interesting, but the results prove that they are just the opposite.

Another thing that looks phony about this movie is that for an inn of this size (it looks like there are at about six to eight bedrooms), no one seems to be taking care of this property except Louise and Idris. There are no signs of any maids, caretakers, maintenance workers or cooks. Even if business is slow, it’s hard to believe that Louise and Idris are doing all the physical upkeep of this property all by themselves.

Louise is preoccupied with auditions, while Idris just seems to lounge around the inn and play music when he’s in between gigs. The inn has one quasi-receptionist named Kate (played by Rosa Robson), who walks around with a clipboard and doesn’t seem to do much. Kate certainly isn’t scrubbing toilets, cleaning up the yard, or fixing broken equipment.

It’s an example of how the filmmakers of “She Is Love” couldn’t adequately make a cinematic experience from this very poorly conceived story that has a virtually non-existent plot. At best, “She Is Love” is a story that should have been a very short sketch. It’s too bad that the filmmakers decided to pad it with too much shallow filler and make it into a very disappointing 82-minute movie.

Brainstorm Media released “She Is Love” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Faraaz,’ starring Zahan Kapoor, Aditya Rawal and Juhi Babbar Soni

February 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Aditya Rawal and Zahan Kapoor in “Faraaz” (Photo courtesy of Reliance Entertainment)


Directed by Hansal Mehta

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016, primarily in Dhaka, Bangladesh (and briefly in Mumbai, India), the dramatic film “Faraaz” (based on true events) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Five young male terrorists commit a massacre and take hostages at a restaurant in Dhaka, and it’s soon revealed that one of the captives and one of the hostage takers used to know each other as schoolmates. 

Culture Audience: “Faraaz” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a dramatic and somewhat formulaic retelling of a tragedy from the perspective of someone who became an unexpected hero.

Aditya Rawal (standing), Zahan Kapoor, Pallak Lalwani and Reshham Sahaani in “Faraaz” (Photo courtesy of Reliance Entertainment)

Based on true events, “Faraaz” is an intense thriller that rises above some of its hostage-movie clichés with credible performances from most of the cast. People who already know the outcome of what happened in real life will not find any surprises in “Faraaz.” However, the story is different from most other hostage movies because it focuses on what happens when one of the hostage victims finds out that one of the hostage takers is a former schoolmate.

What types of psychological effects does this knowledge have on the victim? Will the victim feel more empowered or more vulnerable? And will this past connection help or hurt the victim and the other hostages? All of these questions are explored in subtle and obvious ways throughout “Faraaz,” which also shows how the hostage taker is affected by having a prior connection to a hostage victim. Ritesh Shah, Kashyap Kapoor and Raghav Kakkar wrote the “Faraaz” screenplay. “Faraaz” had its world premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival.

Directed by Hansal Mehta, “Faraaz” takes place in 2016, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the tragedy occurred in real life. The movie’s title character is 20-year-old Faraaz Hossain (played by Zahan Kapoor), who comes from an affluent family. Faraaz’s mother Simeen (played by Juhi Babbar Soni, also known as Juhi Babbar) is a high-ranking executive at Eskayef Bangladesh Limited, Transcom Consumer Products Limited, and Transcom Distribution Limited—all companies owned by Transcom Group, the corporation founded by Simeen’s father, Latifur Rahman.

Faraaz and his older brother Zaraif (played by Amir Shoeb) live with Simeen, who is a single parent. (Muhammad Waquer Bin Hossain, the real-life father of Faraaz and Zaraif, is not mentioned in the movie.) Simeen has the nickname Chhotu (or “little one”) for Faraaz. In the beginning of the movie, Simeen is annoyed with her sons because she had plans to go with them on a family vacation to Malaysia to celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, but those plans went awry because the sons wanted to stay in Bangladesh.

Simeen and Faraaz also argue because she wants Faraaz and Zaraif to enroll in Stanford University in the United States. However, Faraaz wants to continue to go to school in Bangladesh. (In real life, Faraaz was a student at Emory University in Atlanta, and he was in Bangladesh while on a summer break from Emory.) Faraaz gets so upset, he storms out of the house, but he eventually returns and tells his mother that he’s sorry about the argument. Simeen makes an apology too, and she says that she will no longer pressure Faraaz and Zaraif about which university she wants them to attend.

Meanwhile, five men in their late teens and 20s are gathered in a room and eating on the floor together like roommates. They could easily pass for university students who share living quarters, but these young men are not at a university and the instructions they’ve been getting aren’t for a university education. They’ve been getting instructions on how to be radical Islamic terrorists.

Their leader is a man in his 30s named Rajiv (played by Godaan Kumar), who has been indoctrinating these young men into thinking that anyone who isn’t a devout Muslim is their enemy. Rajiv has masterminded an extreme plan to get attention for their fanatical causes. It’s a plan that he’s discussed with this group before, in conversations not shown in the movie, but the members of the group have been reluctant to carry out this plan.

What is shown in the movie is that Rajiv is now demanding that the group show loyalty and that they must execute the plan, or else he will think that they are cowards. After Rajiv scolds them and shames them, all five agree to do what Rajiv wants. A pleased-looking Rajiv drives off with the five young men together in a van. Viewers will soon see the diabolical plan that Rajiv has now set in motion.

It’s July 1, 2016, during the day. Faraaz, his female friend Tarika (played by Pallak Lawani) and Tarika’s neighbor Ayesha (played by Reshham Sahaani) are dining together at Holey Artisan Bakery, a popular casual restaurant in Dhaka. Many of the restaurant’s customers are tourists. What starts out as normal day turns into a nightmare for the people inside the restaurant and their loved ones.

The five men from Rajiv’s terrorist group storm inside the restaurant with assault weapons, including shotguns and rifles that they shoot indiscriminately inside the restaurant. Many people are shot and killed instantly. Some are wounded. A warning to sensitive viewers: The violence in this movie is very graphic.

The killers then take hostage of everyone who is still alive who can be found inside the restaurant. The hostages are mixture of locals and tourists. A few employees working in the back of the restaurant manage to escape during this mass shooting, and they contact law enforcement immediately.

The five terrorists who’ve committed these heinous crimes are Nibras (played by Aditya Rawal), Rohan (played by Sachin lalwani), Mobashir (played by Jatin Sarin), Bikash (played by Harshal Pawar) and Kairul (played by Ninaad Sahaunak Bhatt), who show varying degrees of cruelty during this killing spree. Nibras is the “alpha male” of the five, since he is the one who gives the orders. Rohan is a sadistic hothead who seems to take a great deal of pleasure in killing people, sometimes with “overkill,” by shooting people who are already dead. The rest of the group members have generic personalities.

The terrorists try to weed out the people whom they think are worth saving by randomly demanding hostage victims to cite scripture from the Quran. If the hostages can’t do it, they are shot and killed. Faraaz and some other people are spared for this reason. During this interrogation, Faraaz notices that Nibras is a former schoolmate of his. Faraaz and Nibras also used to play on the same soccer team.

At one point, Faraaz asks Nibras: “How brainwashed are you?” Nibras shouts in response: “You’re the one who’s brainwashed!” Because these terrorists have ultra-conservative Muslim views, they show particular contempt for the female hostages who are are not wearing dresses and don’t have their hair covered with hijabs. Tarika is wearing jeans, and Ayesha is wearing denim shorts, and they both are wearing nothing on their heads, so you can imagine the verbal abuse and other harassment that they get from the terrorists.

Most of the movie is filmed as events take place in “real time,” which adds to the level of tension. Many things that happen inside this under-siege restaurant are what you might expect in a hostage movie. Other things are somewhat unexpected. For example, one of the terrorists shows glimmers of compassion, which is met with a lot of resistance from some of his cohorts. Will these conflicts in the group make a difference in saving lives?

Because the movie is told mainly from the perspective of Faraaz, there isn’t much that is told about the other hostages and murder victims inside the restaurant. A compassionate man named Dr. Salim Mujahid (played by Premji Jhangiani), one of the hostages who was able to quote from the Quran, treats a non-critical wound that Farah has behind his left ear. (This isn’t spoiler information, since the trailer for “Faraaz” shows that he gets wounded.)

A long-haired musician named Zaraif (played by Amir Shoeb), who has an acoustic guitar with him, is forced to play Muslim music for the terrorists. In another scene in the movie, the terrorists force Zaraif is to pose for a photo next to dead body, and they order Zaraif to smile for the camera during this sickening act. Because of his “hippie” appearance, Zaraif also becomes a target of scorn from the terrorists.

And where is Rajiv during all this madness and mayhem? He’s working in an office building, and he’s gleefully watching the events unfold through videos and photos that the terrorists have been sending to him on his phone during this rampage. Like the master manipulator that he is, Rajib has gotten his minions to do his dirty work, while he has ensured an alibi for himself during this crime spree. But he’s not very smart, because the videos and photos sent to him are evidence that can be used against him.

Meanwhile, Simeen, Zaraif and Tarika’s father Sudhir (played by Ahmir Ali) are outside the restaurant, frantically trying to get updates from the law enforcement officers who have surrounded the place in a tense standoff with the terrorists. The officers involved in this crisis include Commissioner Acchadujjaman (played by Danish Iqbal), RAB Officer Benazir (played by Kaushik Raj Chakraborty), Senior Inspector Farooq (played by Nitin Goyal), Deputy Commissioner Mushtaq (played by Aditya Mahajan) and SWAT officer Manirul (played by Rohan Roy). All of these law enforcement agents are portrayed in a standard manner in this movie.

A lot of chaos happens during this hostage crisis, but the movie skillfully keeps coming back to the way that the past acquaintance connection between Faraaz and Nibras will affect both of them in their thoughts and actions. In addition to solid acting from the principal cast members, “Faraaz” has very effective editing and cinematography that can immerse viewers into thing happening inside and outside the restaurant.

The movie’s introduction has a statement saying that “Faraaz” is dedicated to the heroes of this tragedy. But just like any movie about real people who were murdered, “Faraaz” is getting criticism for being exploitative. Most of this criticism is coming from people who haven’t seen the movie.

People who actually watch the entire film will probably find some of the violence disturbing, but “Faraaz” does not put any shame or exploitation on the victims, nor does it glamorize the terrorists. And although most of the characters in “Faraaz” get surface-level personalities, it’s because of the “real-time” pacing of the movie. There are no “flashbacks” to show the lives of the individual hostages.

Viewers are invited to think about why two men who went to the same school and share the same religion could end up in two very different places in how they think that religion should be a part of their lives and the lives of other people. There are no easy answers, and the “Faraaz” wisely chose not to spend any screen time showing how Rajiv persuaded his terrorist subordinates to do his bidding. The best takeaway from “Faraaz”—and the clear intention of the movie—is to show that even among atrocities and deep despair, there can also be courage and kindness that are stronger than any terrorist act.

Reliance Entertainment released “Faraaz” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on February 3, 2023.

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