Review: ‘Drive-Away Dolls,’ starring Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp and Matt Damon

February 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in “Drive-Away Dolls” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features)

“Drive-Away Dolls”

Directed by Ethan Coen

Culture Representation: Taking place in December 1999, in various states on the East Coast of the United States, the comedy film “Drive-Away Dolls” features a predominantly white cast characters (with some Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two lesbian best friends go on a road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee, Florida, and find out that they are being chased by criminals who want some things that are in the two friends’ rental car. 

Culture Audience: “Drive-Away Dolls” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Ethan Coen and comedies about road trips or lesbians.

Colman Domingo, C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick in “Drive-Away Dolls” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features)

Neither terrible nor great, “Drive-Away Dolls” can have some appeal to viewers who are open to raunchy road-trip comedies that have lesbians as the central characters. The wacky tone is off-kilter, but the dialogue and characters are snappy and memorable. The “Drive-Away Dolls” filmmakers have said that it’s intended to be a B-movie (in other words, kind of trashy and kind of goofy), so people won’t have any expectations that “Drive-Away Dolls” is aspiring to be award-winning art.

Directed by Ethan Coen, “Drive-Away Dolls” is his first movie as a solo director since he ended his filmmaking partnership with his older brother Joel Coen. Together, the Coen Brothers’ specialty was making often-violent movies about offbeat characters, with their most-lauded achievement being the 2007 Oscar-winning drama “No Country for Old Men.” Other well-known movies in the Coen Brothers’ filmography include 1996’s crime drama “Fargo,” 1998’s stoner comedy “The Big Lebowski,” 2000’s prisoner escapee thriller “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” and the 2010 remake of the Western “True Grit.”

“Drive-Away Dolls” isn’t nearly as good as the above-named films, but it does have some quirky charm. (The word “quirky” is an over-used description for a Coen movie simply because it describes so many Coen movies.) The trick is how in how much quirkiness can be put into a movie before it becomes very irritating. “Drive-Away Dolls” comes dangerously close to being a constant barrage of quirkiness for the sake of trying to look unconventional. However, the movie takes a turn toward the end that is very conventional, so don’t expect any major plot twists.

Ethan Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke co-wrote the “Drive-Away Dolls” screenplay and are two of the movie’s producers. Cooke identifies as openly queer (as she says in the movie’s production notes and in many interviews), but the movie sometimes looks like it’s treating its lesbian characters (who are all young, under the age of 30) as caricatures. How would “Drive-Away Dolls” be if it had been written by young lesbians instead of a middle-aged husband and wife? We’ll never know, but some of the scenes with sexual activities just seem to be in the movie in a self-conscious way, as if to say: “Look at how progressive we are with these lesbian scenes.”

The racy sexual content can’t quite cover up the obvious: “Drive-Away Dolls” is essentially using the same formula that many road-trip movies have with two people as the central characters: The two people, who usually have opposite personalities, bicker with each other and bond with each other, as they face various obstacles on the way to their destination. If there’s a possibility of romance between the two people, one of the people in this relationship denies or resists the attraction.

In “Drive-Away Dolls,” the two argumentative travel partners are lesbian best friends in Philadelphia—brash and horny Jamie Dobbs (played by Margaret Qualley) and uptight and prudish Marian Pulabi (played by Geraldine Viswanathan)—who go on a road trip together to visit Marian’s aunt in Tallahassee, Florida. Jamie wasn’t officially invited by this aunt, but Jamie persuaded Marian to let Jamie go on this trip. Marian tries to dissuade Jamie from going by saying the visit will probably be boring because Marian’s aunt is a birder who is very conservative. Viewers soon learn that once Jamie has put her mind to getting something, she goes after it with gusto.

Jamie is what some people might call a “sexual free spirit” and what other people might call “promiscuous.” It’s the reason why Jamie’s most recent heartbroken girlfriend Suzanne “Sukie” Singelman, a Philadelphia police officer, has broken up with live-in lover Jamie, who admittedly has a hard time with being monogamous. Early on in the movie is a sex scene between Jamie and a woman named Carla (played by Annie Gonzalez) that has partial nudity but leaves very little doubt about what’s going on in the bed.

Jamie is so well-known at a local lesbian nightclub called Sugar’n’Spice, there’s a scene where she gets in front of a cheering audience to show off some souvenirs of her sexual exploits. Also in the crowd are Marian and Carla, who mildly scolds Marian for being at the club in a business suit. Marian’s excuse is that she just came from her office job and she’s not interested in “peddling her wares” at this pickup joint. Meanwhile, Sukie is so incensed at Jamie’s bragging antics on stage, Sukie storms up to Jamie and punches her.

Sukie has ordered Jamie to move out of the apartment. When Jamie arrives with Marian to pick up Jamie’s belongings, Sukie is trying to unfasten the bolts of a dildo that has been bolted to the lower half of a wall. This sex toy was a gift from Jamie, but Sukie angrily says that she doesn’t want it anymore. It’s intended to be a funny scene in “Drive-Away Dolls,” but if this type of thing doesn’t make you laugh, then “Drive-Away Dolls” is not the movie for you.

Sukie and Jamie also have a pet Chihuahua named Alice that Sukie doesn’t like, but Jamie is reluctant to take the dog because Jamie knows how irresponsible Jamie is. This dog isn’t used for a comedy gimmick as much as you might think it could be. Feeling some break-up blues, Jamie convinces Marian to let Jamie go on this road trip with Marian to Tallahassee.

The very first scene of “Drive-Away Dolls” shows something that is the catalyst for the danger that Jamie and Marian encounter on this trip. A man calling himself Santos (played by Pedro Pascal), but who is listed in the movie’s end credits as The Collector, is sitting by himself at a darkly lit Italian restaurant called Cicero’s and is waiting nervously for someone who doesn’t show up. Santos is clutching a silver metal briefcase. As he leaves the restaurant, he finds out too late that his waiter (played by Gordon MacDonald) was really an assassin, who followed Santos into an alley and killed him in a very gruesome way.

What happened to Santos’ body and the briefcase? And what’s in that briefcase? Those questions are answered in the movie. It’s enough to say that Marian and Jamie go to a car rental place owned by a shifty-looking man named Curlie (played by Bill Camp), who hears that two women are going to Tallahassee. Curlie knows exactly what car he’s going to give them: an aquamarine blue Dodge Aries.

Not long after Marian and Jamie drive off, three criminals show up expecting to rent this Dodge Aries, and “Tallahassee” was their code word to get the car. There are certain things in the car’s trunk that these thugs want. After Curlie tells them all he knows about the travelers who rented the car, Curlie gets savagely assaulted for the mistake of renting the car to these unsuspecting women.

The three criminals who are on the hunt for Jamie and Marian are a cold and calculating killer called The Chief (played by Colman Domingo), an impatient hothead named Flint (played by C.J. Wilson) and a dorky henchman named Arliss (played by Joey Slotnick), who all work for a mysterious boss who is later revealed in the movie. The Chief, Flint and Arliss start their chase by going to the apartment of Sukie, who was listed as the emergency contact person for Jamie and Marian’s car rental.

“Drive-Away Dolls” stretches out the “opposites attract” schtick between Marian and Jamie for as far as it can go. Marian is horrified when Jamie immediately defaces the car with this graffiti message on the trunk: “Love is a sleigh ride to hell.” Jamie is horrified when Marian admits that she’s been celibate for three years, ever since Marian’s breakup from her ex-girlfriend Donna. During their road trip, Jamie wants to have fun at lesbian bars and pick up sex partners, while Marian would rather sit in bed at night and read a book. The movie makes a big deal out of the fact that Marian is reading Henry James’ “The Europeans” during this trip.

“Drive-Away Dolls” also has psychedelic-looking interludes that feature brief, uncredited appearances by Miley Cyrus as a hippie woman from the 1960s. Her character’s name is later revealed in the movie. The name has a connection to a famous real-life 1960s groupie who died in 2022. If you watch all of the movie’s end credits, you’ll see at the very end, “Drive-Away Dolls” has a caption that shows the movie is dedicated to this real-life groupie.

Fans of Matt Damon (who plays a politically conservative U.S. senator from Florida named Gary Channel) and fans of Pascal should know that the screen time for Pascal and Damon in “Drive-Away Dolls” is limited to less than 10 minutes each, even though Pascal and Damon share top billing in the movie. It’s a “bait and switch” that will turn off some viewers who might be fooled into thinking that Pascal and Damon have a lot of screen time in the movie.

“Drive-Away Dolls” has fun with being campy, but some scenes are kind of useless. For example, Jamie and Marian encounter a traveling all-female soccer team whose members look like they’re in their late teens. Jamie and Marian end up in a hotel room with the team and their young coach, while they all take turns making out with each other.

Everyone on the soccer team is queer? Really? It looks so unrealistic and gratutitous, just for the sake of having a scene showing young women making out with each other in the same room. And what happened to Marian being so uptight? (She’s not drunk in this scene, so intoxication isn’t an excuse.) This is the type of scene that could have been edited out of the movie, and it would have made no difference to the overall story.

Qualley’s acting in “Drive-Away Dolls” looks like she’s trying to mimic the blunt-talking, verbose style of Mattie Ross, the precocious teen character played by Hailee Steinfeld in 2010’s “True Grit.” There’s a clipped, galloping pace to the way they talk that is not unlike the pace of a Kentucky Derby race horse and comes complete with a Southern drawl. Jamie is originally from Texas, but her thick Southern accent (which doesn’t sound completely convincing in Qualley’s performance) and Jamie’s personal history with the South aren’t fully explained, considering that the movie makes insulting comments about Florida.

Qualley looks like she’s trying too hard to be funny as Jamie, while Viswanathan has a more naturalistic (and better) comedic style as Marian, who can say more with a few cynical eye rolls than Jamie can say with any of her motormouth rambling. Jamie’s dialogue can be hilarious at times, but it’s very stagy, much like a lot of the comedy in “Drive-Away Dolls.” All the movie’s supporting characters are not developed enough to have full personalities. Just like a slightly rusty car, “Drive-Away Dolls” is a comedy that spurts and lurches and takes a while to rev up, but it eventually can take you on a path that goes where it’s expected to go.

Focus Features released “Drive-Away Dolls” in U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘The Burial’ (2023), starring Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones

October 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones and Mamoudou Athie in “The Burial” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Amazon Content Services)

“The Burial” (2023)

Directed by Maggie Betts

Culture Representation: Taking place 1995, in Mississippi, Florida, and Canada, the dramatic film “The Burial” (based on The New Yorker’s 1999 article of the same title) features a white and African American cast of characters portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A hotshot attorney, whose specialty is personal injury, is persuaded to take a contract litigation case for a small business owner of a funeral company who is suing a corporate giant for reneging on a deal to buy part of the business.

Culture Audience: “The Burial” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Jamie Foxx, courtroom dramas, and movies about underdogs battling against corporate bullies.

Jurnee Smollett and Jamie Foxx in “The Burial” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Amazon Content Services)

Taking place in 1995, “The Burial” is just like great courtroom drama movies of the 1990s. Jamie Foxx shines in this true story about a flashy and persistent attorney representing a small business owner who’s suing a corporate giant in the funeral industry. Although “The Burial” is based on real events, a few minor details were changed for movie. The overall story (the names of the real people are in the movie) and the outcome of the trial are depicted in the film accurately. It’s the type of story where the outcome would be hard to believe if it didn’t happen in real life.

Directed by Maggie Betts, “The Burial” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Betts co-wrote “The Burial” screenplay with Doug Wright, which they adapted from The New Yorker’s 1999 article “The Burial,” written by Jonathan Harr. It’s a classic story of an underdog taking on a seemingly impossible challenge and … well, you can probably figure out the rest if you know why this story was made into a movie.

That doesn’t mean “The Burial” is dull. Far from it. There’s enough comedy to balance out the most serious moments, while the movie’s screenplay and direction can hold viewers’ interest—especially viewers who are inclined to like dramas about legal cases. And the acting performances are well above-average from this very talented ensemble cast.

“The Burial” also takes viewers behind the scenes to show how trial attorneys on the same legal team not only have opponents in a courtroom, but they also sometimes have major conflicts with people on the same team. Beyond the actual legal case, “The Burial” also has realistic observations and depictions of race relations as well as the corrupt methods of corporate sharks. The movie has classic themes of underestimated people who don’t give up, even when faced with seemingly impossible obstacles.

The opening scene of “The Burial” begins not in a courtroom but in a church: Calvary of Love Baptist Church in Indiantown, Florida, to be exact. Confident attorney Willie E. Gary (played by Foxx) is a guest speaker because the church’s pastor Albert, who is Willie’s brother, asked Willie to be the guest speaker. Willie is a natural showman who gives passionate and rousing speeches, which is one of the reasons why he’s a successful attorney who thrives in the courtroom. It’s mentioned later in the movie that Willie hasn’t lost a case in 12 years.

During his speech at the church, Willie declares what makes churches with a mostly black congregation different from other churches: “In Black Church, they don’t say, ‘I fit the description.’ In Black Church, they don’t judge me because of the color of my skin. In Black Church, they don’t call me out my name. And if they do call me out my name, do you know what they call me? They call me a child of God!”

Meanwhile, in an entirely different setting, in Biloxi, Mississippi, a large family birthday party is happening at the home of businessman Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe (played by Tommy Lee Jones), who is celebrating his 75th birthday. Jerry and his loyal and loving wife Annette O’Keefe (played by Pamela Reed) have 13 children and 24 grandchildren. It looks like most if not all of these descendants are at this party.

Jerry and Annette have a private conversation while observing their family members from afar, with Jerry proudly saying of their descendants: “Not one felony in the whole damn bunch.” This seemingly blissful family event is a happy moment for Jerry, but he’s been experiencing some tough financial times that he hasn’t disclosed yet to Annette.

Jerry is the leader and sole owner of the family-owned Bradley-O’Keefe funeral business that he inherited from his father. The business, which has been in Jerry’s family for about 100 years, has eight funeral homes and one insurance company throughout Southern Mississippi. The burial insurance company is the most profitable entity of the business and keeps the funeral homes operating when the funeral homes are experiencing a decline in finances. Jerry plans to keep the business owned by his family.

As part of Mississippi state law, in order to keep his business license, Jerry has to maintain a minimum bank balance for his business. (The amount is not mentioned in the movie.) Recently, the bank balance for Bradley-O’Keefe has reached below that minimum. And so, Jerry has had visits from state licensing board officials, who warn Jerry that his license could be suspended if he doesn’t bring up the bank balance to at least the minimum amount.

Jerry has a meeting with his longtime trusted attorney Mike Allred (played by Alan Ruck) about this financial predicament. Mike, who has been Jerry’s attorney for almost 30 years, suggests that Jerry sell off part of the Bradley-O’Keefe business in order to get the cash that Jerry needs. Jerry vehemently disagrees because he made a promise to himself to never sell any part of the business.

But when Mike tells Jerry about a wealthy Canadian businessman named Ray Loewen (played by Bill Camp) who would be willing to buy three of Jerry’s funeral homes at more than their fair market value, Jerry agrees to go to Vancouver to have an in-person meeting with Ray. At this time in 1995, Ray is the president/CEO of the Loewen Group, which has been buying up funeral homes across Canada and the United States. By 1995, the Loewen Group owned more than 1,000 funeral homes and had a market value of about $3 billion. Ray is the chief shareholder of the Loewen Group.

“The Burial” adeptly shows how two very different men—Willie Gary and Jerry O’Keefe—living in two different U.S. states, and living very different lifestyles, crossed paths and ended up working together on a landmark business case. When Jerry and Mike go to Vancouver, they are accompanied by Hal Dockins (played by Mamoudou Athie), a young and eager-to-impress attorney who is a friend of one of Jerry’s sons. Jerry has hired Hal to tag along and learn what he can from Mike.

Mike immediately has a condescending attitude toward Hal because he thinks this neophyte can’t possibly be helpful to Jerry. However, time and time again, Hal proves to be much smarter than Mike in almost every way. Mike gives Jerry bad advice, while Hal is the one who has insight and ideas that prove to be crucial to this case. There is more than a little racial condescension that Mike shows to Hal when interacting with him. Things are revealed in the movie that show why Mike’s racial prejudice is real.

The business meeting with Ray takes place on Ray’s yacht. Ray’s conversation shows he has the personality of greedy sociopath. Jerry is concerned about Ray’s callous attitude about the grieving people who are the customers of the funeral business. Ray tells Jerry that the real customers are the dead people who need funerals. Ray openly tells Jerry that he’s only investing in the funeral business to wait for what Ray calls The Golden Era of Death: the years when Baby Boomers (the large population of people born between 1946 and 1964) start dying, which will lead to an increase in demand for funeral businesses.

Despite his reservations about doing the deal, Jerry needs the money and agrees to a contract where Jerry will sell three of his funeral homes to Ray, on the condition that Ray not own or operate any burial insurance business in Southern Mississippi. Ray, who did not sign his part of the contract, postpones closing the deal for months. Hal correctly figures out that this is Ray’s way of making a cash-strapped Bradley-O’Keefe go out of business, thereby giving Ray the opportunity to swoop in and buy all of Bradley-O’Keefe.

Jerry is so angry and insulted that he decides to sue Ray and the Loewen Group for breach of contract. Mike thinks it’s a bad idea, but Jerry files the lawsuit anyway. Mike is not really skilled as a trial attorney, so he doesn’t want the case to go to trial. However, Jerry does not want to settle the lawsuit out of court. Who will be the trial lawyer for Jerry?

Hal happens to sees Willie featured on the TV interview series “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” where Willie’s success and wealth (including his own private jet) are on full display. Willie and his wife Gloria Gary (played Amanda Warren) are presented as a luxury-loving couple with a strong and healthy marriage. Hal comes up with the unorthodox idea to hire Willie, based on what Hal sees of Willie on TV. The big problem is that Willie’s specialty is handling personal injury cases, not contract litigation cases.

Mike and Jerry are skeptical that Willie is the right lawyer for the job. Hal convinces them to watch Willie work his magic in a courtroom setting. And so, the three of them travel to Florida to sit in a courtroom and watch Willie represent a plaintiff in a personal injury case. During his closing arguments, Willie wins over a jury in a case where Willie is representing a plaintiff named Clovis Tubbs, who was hit by a Finch & Co. Food Servies truck while suicidal Clovis was deliberately riding the wrong way on his bicycle. Willie works the courtroom like a preacher works a church full of devoted followers.

Hal convinces Willie to meet with him and Jerry at Willie’s office. Willie flatly turns down Jerry’s offer to hire him for Jerry’s lawsuit, which was filed in a low-income, predominantly African American city in Florida. Willie says one of the reasons he doesn’t want to take the case is because he doesn’t do contract litigation cases. The other reason, as Willie bluntly tells Jerry: Willie has never had a white person as a client. Willie’s “yes man” colleague Reggie Douglas (played by Dorian Missick), who is in the room during this meeting, echoes Willie’s statements.

Jerry seems to accept this rejection, but Hal is not easily defeated. While Jerry waits outside, Hal spontaneously goes back to Willie’s office by himself for one last chance to convince Willie to represent Jerry in this case. Hal lists a number of reasons why, including Jerry’s war hero status that makes Jerry a sympathetic client. Most of these reasons aren’t enough to convince Willie to take the case.

But what sticks with Willie is what Hal has to say about how this case could change the legal community’s perception of Willie as being a “glorified ambulance chaser.” And what really seals the deal is when Hal tells Willie that winning this case could make Willie as famous as Johnnie Cochran, who was famously representing O.J. Simpson at the time in Simpson’s murder trial. It’s a “one-two punch” argument that scores a knockout for Hal. Obviously, it’s not spoiler information to say that Willie decides to become Jerry’s attorney for the case.

The rest of “The Burial” involves some twists and turns and highs and lows for both sides of this lawsuit. Mike and Willie immediately clash over who will be the lead attorney. It leads to some hard feelings when Jerry decides Willie should be the lead attorney, since Willie is more skilled at trial/courtroom work. Mike is the attorney who keeps pushing for Jerry to settle the lawsuit.

Willie’s Florida-based team includes Reggie, Al Jones (played by Tywayne Wheatt) and Dashaan Williams (played by Keith Jefferson), who have to spend a lot of time in Mississippi to prepare for the case. (“The Burial” was actually filmed in Louisiana.) The racial tensions are obvious, since everyone on Willie’s team is African American, while everyone on Mike’s team is white. Hal is somewhere in the middle and is often the voice of reason when Mike and Willie inevitably have conflicts with each other.

How is Jerry paying for all of these lawyers? As he tells a shocked Annette (who is the type of wife who lets her spouse handle all the household finances), Jerry took out a third mortgage on their house without consulting her in advance. She gets upset, but there’s nothing she can do about it, because Jerry has a pattern of telling her these things after he’s already made decisions that are out of her control.

In the courtroom, the Loewen Group is represented by an all-African American team of attorneys, led by Mame Downes (played by Jurneee Smollett), a Harvard-educated lawyer who has the nickname The Python because of her cross-examination style. In a meeting with Jerry’s legal team, Willie quips when he finds out about this nickname: “Okay, Miss Python. I’m a boa constrictor.”

Also on the team of the Loewen Group attorneys are Howard Phifer (president of the Washington, D.C. Bar Association); business litigation expert Richard Mayfield (played by Doug Spearman); and former Mississippi Supreme Court justice Walter Bell (played by Gralen Bryant Banks), who are essentially side characters who don’t say much in the movie. Mame becomes Willie’s chief opponent in this courtroom battle. She gets the most screen time and the best lines of dialogue out of all the Loewen Group’s defense attorneys in this case.

The issues of racism, the abuse of power and economic exploitation are constantly mentioned and shown in the movie because they are intertwined with the facts of the case. Jerry is initially very naïve in thinking that race shouldn’t and doesn’t matter in this case, even though most of the jury will be African American. Hal tactfully tries to educate Jerry about racism issues that a 75-year-old upper-middle-class white man in America usually doesn’t have to experience on an everyday basis.

“The Burial” has a few courtroom scenes that look exaggerated for a movie, especially when people break out into applause, as if it’s a concert, not a courtroom. No self-respecting judge would let a courtroom get that out of control. The movie’s Judge Graves (played by Lance E. Nichols) is secondary to the back-and-forth sparring between the attorneys. After all, “The Burial” has Willie as the co-lead protagonist.

A key insight into Willie’s personality is when he tells Jerry and his legal team at one point in the movie: “I’d rather have somebody blow my head off than lose a case.” As cocky and brash as Willie can be, he also learns some lessons in humility. Jerry also has his stubborn ways that are tested when most people in his life advise him to do one thing, but he does the opposite. The lawsuit puts a strain on the marriage of Jerry and Annette, who thinks that Jerry’s determination to win the case has become an obsession they can’t afford.

Despite all the conflicts shown in “The Burial,” some of the highlights of the movie include the camaraderie on Willie’s team. There’s a scene on Willie’s private jet where Willie introduces Jerry to the music of R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!, whose 1990 hit “Feels Good” is played on the plane. This song is used later in one of the movie’s funnier scenes. Although the case is a serious matter, “The Burial” has touches of comedy that are well-acted and look organic, not forced, thanks to the talented cast members.

Willie is obviously the movie’s most flamboyant and charismatic character. However, rather than making him a parody of a successful attorney with a huge ego, Foxx brings depth and realistic humanity to this character. Underneath his arrogant persona, Willie is still dealing with painful issues.

There are a few scenes in the movie when Willie tells people about his memories of growing up poor and helping his sharecropper father work in the fields when Willie was 8 years old. In another scene, Willie tells Jerry about experiencing a racism incident that motivated Willie to become an attorney. And even with all of his success, Willie mentions a few things that remind him that he will never escape racism.

Smollett is one of the movie’s strong points as the tough and calculating Mame, while Jones gives a solid performance as Jerry, even though Jones has played many “cranky old men” roles already. Athie gives a low-key but meaningful performance as the even-tempered and self-assured Hal, the most underrated hero of this movie. Hal does not seek to get much of the credit that he deserves. The real Willie Gary has a brief cameo as a character called Mr. G.

Viewers of “The Burial” who don’t know the real-life outcome of the case will be more inclined to get swept up in the suspense when there are certain pitfalls experienced by certain people in the case. Betts’ direction gives “The Burial” the right pacing and tone in this well-cast drama that’s not just about a legal case. “The Burial” is also a lesson in how staying true to one’s own values can be more valuable than a high-priced team of attorneys in a lawsuit.

Amazon Studios released “The Burial” in select U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023. Prime Video premiered the movie on October 13, 2023.

Review: ‘Sound of Freedom’ (2023), starring Jim Caviezel, Mira Sorvino and Bill Camp

July 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lucás Ávila and Jim Caveziel in “Sound of Freedom” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“Sound of Freedom” (2023)

Directed by Alejandro Monteverde

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Mexico, Honduras and Colombia, the dramatic film “Sound of Freedom” (inspired by true events) features a white and Latino cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An American crusader, whose mission is to fight child sex trafficking, quits his job as a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security so that he can rescue a Honduran who has been kidnapped and sold into sex enslavement. 

Culture Audience: “Sound of Freedom” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching inspiring dramatic portrayals of true stories about justice.

Cristal Aparicio in “Sound of Freedom” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“Sound of Freedom” is one of several faith-based movies that are about rescuing people from sex trafficking and sex enslavement. This dramatic film, which is based on real people and true events, benefits from having a talented cast and solid direction. Some of the dialogue is corny, and some of the acting is clunky, but the movie’s intentions are in the right places. “Sound of Freedom” goes all-in with the tearjerking aspects of this drama about child sex-trafficking. The religious preaching is kept to a minimum: “God’s children are not for sale” is repeated almost like a slogan in the movie, but that’s as far as the preachiness goes.

Directed by Alejandro Monteverde (who co-wrote the “Sound of Freedom” screenplay with Rod Barr), “Sound of Freedom” begins in Honduras at the modest home of the Aguilar family. It’s where a single father named Roberto Aguilar (played by José Zúñiga) lives with his two children: daughter Rocio Aguilar (played by Cristal Aparicio) is about 11 or 12 years old, while son Miguel Aguilar (played by Lucás Ávila) is 8 years old. The movie opens with Rocio opening the door for a woman who identifies herself as a modeling scout named Giselle (played by Yessica Borroto, also known as Yessica Borroto Perryman), who has met this family before.

Giselle’s meeting with the family is not depicted in the movie, but her conversation with the family indicates that she approached the family when she saw Rocio singing in a market. Giselle has arrived at the home to take the family to the place where Giselle says auditions are being held for a modeling contest that could make Rocio famous. Giselle encourages Miguel to go to the auditions too.

Roberto is a simple and trusting man who doesn’t notice some of the warning signs when they arrive at the “audition place.” It’s a dark and dingy motel. And when they get to the closed room where the “auditions” will take place, Giselle tells Roberto that he can’t go in the room because “no parents are allowed.” Roberto willingly obliges and leaves Rocio and Miguel with Giselle. It’s a big mistake that leads to a heartbreaking nightmare for the family.

Giselle goes through the motions with the 10 to 15 children who are gathered in the room. All of the children are under the age of 16. Giselle teaches them how to pose for modeling photos. The children are photographed in several modeling poses. Rocio has makeup put on her for these photos.

Not long after these photo sessions, the terror starts for these innocent children. They are kidnapped, thrown into a van, and transported to a remote warehouse, where a disgusting pedophile chooses Rocio to purchase for sex enslavement. Rocio fights against leaving Miguel behind, but she is overpowered by the adults. Miguel will soon suffer the same fate of being sold into sex enslavement.

Meanwhile, when Roberto sees that Giselle has not returned to the home with his children by nightfall, he goes back to the motel where he left the children. To his horror, Roberto sees that the motel room is abandoned. He frantically pounds on other doors in the motel hallway. But, of course, he can’t find his children because they’ve been kidnapped.

This scene looks a little phony because the motel is completely deserted, with no employees or guests in sight. And when Miguel runs out into the deserted street, it looks more like a movie set than a real street. It’s a minor flaw but indicative of how “Sound of Freedom” has some very overly staged scenes that don’t ruin the movie but just unnecessarily add to the melodrama.

Meanwhile, a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security named Timothy “Tim” Ballard (played by Jim Caviezel) has been working in the sex-trafficking unit. His job is to arrest the pedophiles and other people involved in child sex trafficking. Tim has a co-worker named Chris (played by Scott Haze), who soon says that he is quitting the job because it’s become too heartbreaking and stressful for him.

Tim considers himself to be a moral crusader who will stop at nothing to bring these perverted criminals to justice. The movie has a somewhat long segment showing how Tim operates. After a sleazy-looking pedophile, whose name is Oshinsky (played by Kris Avedisian), has been arrested, Tim pretends to be a secret pedophile who happens to be a Homeland Security agent.

Tim approaches Oshinsky in jail. He tells Oshinsky that that they have the same pedophile interests and that he can help Oshisnky get more lenient punishment. At first, Oshisnsky is suspicious of Tim, but Tim is able to win Oshinsky’s trust. It’s all a ruse so that Oshinsky can reveal information about the secret pedophile network that Oskinsky has been a part of and which still operates. The ruse works, and Oshinsky is booked with more charges, based on the information that he gave to Tim.

It isn’t long before Tim finds out about kidnapped and separated siblings Miguel and Rocio. Tim meets Miguel first, after an American pedophile was busted for trying to take Miguel over the U.S./Mexico border and pretending that Miguel was his nephew. During his sex enslavement, Miguel was renamed Teddy Bear and ordered to tell people an alias if people asked Miguel what his name is.

When Tim meets a terrified Miguel, at first, Miguel gives Tim a fake name. Eventually, when Miguel sees that Tim is a law enforcement agent who can be trusted, he tells Tim his real name. Tim is deeply moved by Miguel and takes him to a diner, where Miguel tells the rest of his story about the kidnapping and how he’s trying to find his sister Rocio.

Miguel begins to open up to Tim because Miguel has a small dog-tag-styled necklace with the named Timoteo (the Spanish word for Timothy) on it. It’s a necklace that Rocio gave to Miguel before they were separated. On the necklace’s pendant, there’s a scripture reference from 1 Timothy 6:11 and the words “Man of God” inscribed on it.

By sheer coincidence, the man who rescued Miguel is also named Timothy. In the movie, Miguel sees it as a sign that he can trust Tim, so he gives this necklace to Tim and asks him to give it to Rocio if Tim ever finds her. According to the website of Operation Underground Railroad, the non-profit advocacy group founded by the real Tim Ballard, this necklace really was given to him by a boy he rescued from sex trafficking.

In the movie, Miguel soon reunites with his father Roberto, who is grateful that Miguel has been found but devastated by what his kids experienced and frantic about Rocio still being missing. Miguel and Tim have a brief, heart-to-heart conversation about being fathers. (Tim is the father of about six or seven kids.) It’s at that point that Tim vows to help find Rocio, arrest the people involved in her sex enslavement, and reunite her with her family.

The rest of “Sound of Freedom” shows Tim on this mission when he finds out that Rocio is being held in Colombia. At first, he gets a reluctant go-ahead from his supervisor John Bryant (played by Kurt Fuller), who reminds Tim that the main focus of Tim’s job should be arresting the pedophiles, not rescuing the child victims of sex trafficking. When Tim’s quest to find Rocio begins to consume him and take time away from his other work duties, he decides to quit his Homeland Security job to focus full-time on rescuing sex-trafficking victims, beginning with Rocio.

Mira Sorvino has a supporting role as Katherine Ballard, Tim’s wife, who agrees with Tim’s decision. Unfortunately, “Sound of Freedom” is one of those movies where women are either portrayed as saintly or villainous. It’s not completely sexist, but it’s problematic since all of the rescuers in the movie are men. Where are the women who are supposed to be part of the team? Women are usually the ones who provide the post-rescue counseling of trafficking victims, but that’s not depicted in this movie.

Along the way, Tim makes some valuable contacts who show him how to go undercover to infiltrate these perverted networks. A scruffy, middle-aged man nicknamed Vampiro (played by Bill Camp) is Tim’s chief mentor. Through Vampiro, Tim meets Jorge (played by Javier Godino), who accompanies Tim in the Colombian jungle during the search for Rocio.

Another ally is Paul (played by Eduardo Verástegui), who poses as a wealthy pedophile who wants to build a hotel that will be a front for a sex-trafficking business. This “sex-trafficking hotel” concept is not completely unrealistic, because there are several business in real life that are fronts for sex trafficking. But the way this “sex-trafficking hotel” is described in the movie is somewhat awkward and unconvincing.

Vampiro has his own story of why he got involved in busting pedophiles and other people who commit child sex abuse. He tells Tim that during the days when he would abuse drugs and alcohol, he had sex with a prostitute whom he thought was an adult. After they had sex, he found out that she was 14 years old. Vampiro felt so guilty about what he had done, he attempted suicide. Vampiro then made it his life purpose to rescue people, especially children, from sex trafficking and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Many of the people portrayed in “Sound of Freedom” are stereotypical and have the performances to match these rote characters. However, Ávila and Aparicio, who portray siblings Miguel and Rocio, are notable for their believable performances of innocence violated. Ávila and Aparicio have wonderfully expressive faces that will make viewers really feel the emotions that Miguel and Rocio are experiencing. They are the reasons why many viewers will cry while watching “Sound of Freedom.”

Caviezel has portrayed heroic types before, but “Sound of Freedom” has a deeper resonance because of the subject matter. He gives a very good performance, but it’s not the type of performance that’s going to win major awards. At the end of the film, Caviezel is shown giving an emotional and heartfelt message for viewers as a call to action to help stop human trafficking. He also graciously mentions that the real heroes of the story are the children and other people who survive this horrific abuse.

Angel Studios released “Sound of Freedom” in U.S. cinemas on July 4, 2023.

Review: ‘Passing’ (2021), starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga

December 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Photo by Edu Grau/Netflix)

“Passing” (2021)

Directed by Rebecca Hall

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the late 1920s, the dramatic film “Passing” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two African American women, who were friends in high school, see each other for the first time in years and find out that they are living two very different lives: One of the women lives as her true identity as a black woman, while the other woman passes herself off as white. 

Culture Audience: “Passing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about how racial identity affects people’s perceptions about themselves and about other people.

André Holland and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Photo by Emily V. Aragones/Netflix)

If you could live your life identifying as another race, would you do it? It’s a question that viewers will inevitably have when watching the dramatic film “Passing,” where racial identity is used as both a weapon and as a shield, depending on the individual and the racial identity that the person presents to the world. Social class and sexuality are other identities that “Passing” shows can be used to confine or liberate people. A talented cast and steady direction from Rebecca Hall bring a cinematic vibrancy to this fictional story from the 1920s, but it’s a story that applies to many people’s lives in the past, present and future.

“Passing,” written and directed by Rebecca Hall, is Hall’s feature-film directorial debut. She adapted the movie from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Larsen based the novel on her own experiences as a biracial person (her father was African American and her mother was Dutch), who was raised by her mother and white stepfather. Hall (who is British) also has “passing as white” in her family history: Hall’s maternal grandfather was an African American who passed himself off as white, according to the “Passing” production notes and according to what Hall has said in interviews.

“Passing” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Although the “Passing” novel and the movie are set the late 1920s, many of the same social constructs exist today. Most societies still expect biracial or multiracial people to choose just one race to identify with the most. And white supremacy still makes people think that the “whiter” someone is, the more “superior” that person is, and therefore more entitled to the best things that life has to offer.

It’s why in the story of “Passing,” when two African American women who were friends from high school, see each other for the first time in about 12 years, one of them has decided to live her life as a white woman. It’s a sweltering day in New York City when Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) stops by the restaurant of the upscale Drayton Hotel to cool off and have some lunch. Irene is a light-skinned black woman who considers herself to be a cultured and classy, but she knows that as long as people know that she is black, she won’t be allowed into certain places, such as this hotel whose guests are white people.

Therefore, when Irene is out in public, she tends to wear outfits (such as a hat that’s worn low enough to obscure much of her eyes) and talk a certain way so that people assume that she might be white. She doesn’t deny that she’s black, but she lets people think that she’s white if it helps her get through her day a lot easier. Irene lives in New York Cit’s Harlem neighborhood with her doctor husband Brian (played by André Holland) and their two sons Junior (played by Ethan Barrett) and Ted (played by Justus David Graham). Junior is about 10 or 11, whle Ted is about 8 or 9.

At the Drayton Hotel’s restaurant, Irene sees another woman sitting by herself at a table nearby. They look at each other, almost like they’ve just seen a ghost from their past. The other woman is Clare Kendry Bellew (played by Ruth Negga), who was a close friend of Irene’s when they were both in high school. Irene and Clare haven’t communicated with each other in the approximately 12 years since they’ve seen each other. They’re about to find out how their lives have gone down different paths.

After Clare and Irene greet each other and make small talk, Clare says that she’s visiting from Chicago. Clare is married to businessman named John Bellew (played by Alexander Skarsgård), and they have a daughter together named Marjorie, who is not on the trip with them and who is never seen in the movie. Clare proudly announces to Irene that John is white, and that they are raising their daughter as white. Clare also mentions that she was worried before Marjorie was born what shade the child’s skin color would be.

And there’s something else: John doesn’t know that Clare is not white. Clare was raised by her white aunts, which is one of the reasons why it was easy for her to conceal her true racial identity from John. Clare smugly comments on the burden of lying to her husband and many other people about her true racial identity: “All things considered, it was worth the price.”

When Irene says that she’s married to a black man who’s a doctor, Clare laughs in a surprised and condescending way. It’s as if Clare can’t believe that Irene chose to marry a black man with the knowledge that by doing so, Irene’s life would be harder. Irene asks Clare with some curiosity and envy if Clare is happy. Clare gloats, “Of course! I have everything I wanted!”

Shortly after this somewhat awkward reunion, John joins Clare at the restaurant table. Because this restaurant’s customers are white people and because Clare is talking to Irene, John incorrectly assumes that Irene must be white. He tells Irene that Clare dislikes black people so much that Clare won’t even have black maids. And in case it wasn’t clear that John is a racist, he says the “n” word during this conversation.

Clare smiles and agrees with John, without seeming to care how this conversation might be hurting Irene, who is too polite to object to all the racist talk in the conversation. However, it’s clear from the expression on Irene’s face that she’s feels hurt and betrayed. And so, when the conversation ends with Clare saying that they should keep in touch, Irene can barely hide the look of disbelief at Clare’s blatant phoniness.

At home, Irene tells her husband Brian about this uncomfortable encounter. He’s appalled, and he advises Irene to completely distance herself from Clare if Clare tries to get in touch with Irene again. At first, Irene takes that advice by ignoring the apology letter that Clare sends to her.

But one day, Clare shows up at Irene’s home unannounced and uninvited. This time, Clare says that she’s traveled to New York City for an extended visit without her husband and child. Clare is able to charm her way back into Irene’s life, with results that neither woman expects.

“Passing” is a “slow burn” movie where the pacing might be too sluggish for some viewers. But as a psychological drama, the movie is fascinating. It might be worth it to watch the movie more than once to pick up on subtle clues that might not have been noticed during the first viewing.

During Clare’s extended visit, she spends most of her time in Harlem, where she is introduced to Irene and David’s social circle. Viewers find out that when in Clare and Irene were in high school, Clare was considered to be prettier, more glamorous and more charismatic than reserved and introverted Irene, who often felt overshadowed by Clare. Those same dynamics start to repeat themselves as Clare starts to become the center of attention at social gatherings that she attends with David and Irene.

Things get complicated because of an unspoken romantic attraction that Irene seems to have for Clare that apparently existed since they knew each other in high school. Clare drops big hints in conversations that her own sexuality is fluid, while Irene seems to also be somewhere on the queer spectrum but is definitely in the closet about it. Any sexual attraction between the two women seems to be mostly on Irene’s part, based on the furtive, longing glances that she gives to Clare when Irene thinks no one else is looking.

Clare, who is extremely vain and manipulative, seems to sense this attraction and uses it to her advantage. It should come as no surprise when Clare starts flirting with Irene’s husband Brian, who seems attracted to Clare too. It puts Irene in a difficult situation because she doesn’t want to react too strongly by sending Clare away. After all, Irene still wants Clare to be around because Irene is attracted to Clare.

Meanwhile, Irene and Brian have disagreements over how to teach their sons about the dangers of white supremacist racism. Brian thinks that the boys should know about this harsh reality as soon as possible to prepare them for the real world. Irene thinks that the boys are too young to know, and that this type of knowledge will ruin what she thinks should be the boys’ happy childhoods.

For example, when there’s a newspaper report about a black man being lynched, Brian wants to talk about it with the kids, while Irene vehemently objects. They argue about it. Brian gets so frustrated with Irene that he blurts out to her: “I don’t understand how as intelligent you are, you can be so stupid!”

Over time, it becomes obvious that although Clare is lying about her racial identity to certain people, Irene is in a type of denial of her own—not just about her sexuality, but also about how her children will be treated as black people in a society that enables, teaches, and encourages white supremacy. Clare’s presence is a reminder to Irene about the extreme lengths that people will go to kowtow to a white racist mentality.

However, what Irene doesn’t expect is that Brian, who seemed to be all about black pride and who previously disapproved of Clare, is starting to grow closer to Clare. As for Clare, it’s eventually revealed that her so-called “perfect” life with her husband John isn’t so perfect after all. Clare’s lies about her racial identity have affected her a lot more than what she originally told Irene.

“Passing” has a few other characters in the movie who are mostly there as people who are part of Irene and David’s social life. Hugh (played by Bill Camp) is a white bachelor who is among the well-to-do white people who think it makes them look “cool” to hang out with black people in Harlem, but the same black people would never be invited into these white people’s homes. Hugh is a big gossip who likes making sarcastic observations about people.

Another person in the movie’s party scenes is black man named Ralph Hazleton (played by Amos Machanic), whose dance partners are often white women. Ralph often gets mentioned as an example when Hugh and other people at these parties talk about dark-skinned black men who attract white women. When Hugh asks Irene if she thinks Ralph is handsome, she says no but that Ralph is “exotic.” It’s left up to viewer intepretation to think if Irene really believes that or she just said something that she thought Hugh wanted to hear.

These are all just side characters to the main focus of the story, which is about Clare and Irene’s rekindled friendship and how it starts to affect Irene’s marriage to David. “Passing” could have taken a predictable melodrama route by turning this story into a love triangle involving screaming arguments or women catfighting over a man. But the movie has a low-key approach that is more about repressed feelings, with fear bubbling under the surface that secrets might be revealed.

Negga rises to the challenge of depicting Clare, who could be completely unlikable, as a complex character who is neither a hero nor a villain but someone who masks her insecurity with a “bon vivant” personality that can shapeshift to whatever can get Clare what she wants. When Clare sees that Irene is happily married and that Irene doesn’t have the burden of pretending to be another race, Clare wants some of that happiness too.

Thompson gives Irene an aura of someone who is used to being hurt but is trying to hold on to whatever dignity that she has when she’s in situations that cause her emotional pain. It’s why she’s reluctant to confront people or cause a scene. And it’s why she wants to delay as much as possible how and when her sons find out about the evils of racism.

“Passing” was filmed in black and white, using 4:3 aspect ratio, which was the standard aspect ratio for movies of the 1920s and 1930s. The movie admirably recreates a lot of other characteristics of the era, such the costume design, production design and music. Thompson’s body language and speech patterns as Irene seem particularly calibrated to embody someone from that era who wants to be a highly respected society woman, no matter who is with her. Irene is not someone who talks one way with white people and another way with black people. Clare, who comes from a higher-income household than Irene does, is the one who seems coarser and less refined than Irene when Clare is around other African Americans.

What the cast members and Hall are able to achieve with this film is more than commentary about people’s attitudes when it comes to race, social class or sexuality. By the end of the movie, audiences will understand that “Passing” is ultimately about truth telling about ourselves and other people. And telling the truth can sometimes have dangerous consequences when people are invested in perpetuating lies or keeping secrets.

Netflix released “Passing” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 10, 2021.

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