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: ‘Mars One,’ starring Rejane Faria, Carlos Francisco, Camilla Damião, Ana Hilãrio and Cícero Lucas

January 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Camilla Damião, Rejane Faria, Cícero Lucas and Carlos Francisco in “Mars One” (Photo by Leonardo Feliciano/Array Releasing)

“Mars One”

Directed by Gabriel Martins

Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2018, in an unnamed city in Brazil, the dramatic film “Mars One” features an all-Brazilian cast of characters (Latinos and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A working-class family of four people navigate their individual problems and goals, which sometimes conflict with what other members of the family want. 

Culture Audience: “Mars One” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted and intimate family dramas.

Camilla Damião and Cícero Lucas in “Mars One” (Photo bya Leonardo Feliciano/Array Releasing)

“Mars One” thoughtfully presents a realistic dramatic portrait of a Brazilian family of four people going through transitions on how they view themselves and what they really want out of their lives. It’s the type of movie that won’t satisfy viewers who are expecting a lot of melodramatics or wild plot developments. Instead, “Mars One” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Brazil) offers a peek into the lives of working-class Brazilians; their hopes and dreams for a better future; and how they deal with their present-day realities.

Written and directed by Gabriel Martins, “Mars One” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and was selected as Brazil’s official entry for Best International Feature Film for the 2023 Academy Awards. “Mars One” didn’t make the Academy’s shortlist for that category, but the movie is more than a worthy selection to represent Brazil. The movie takes place during a time of political transition in Brazil as being an almost parallel backdrop to the personal changes going in within the Brazilian family at the center of the story.

“Mars One” begins in October 2018, shortly after the election of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician who presented himself in his presidential campaign as a “political outsider.” (Bolsonaro is often called the “Donald Trump of Brazil.”) While Brazil is divided over this controversial election, a family of four will have their bonds tested by their own personal divisions.

Wellington (played by Carlos Francisco), the family’s proud patriarch, is a recovering alcoholic who works as a maintenance staffer for an upscale apartment building. His wife Tércia (played by Rejane Faria) is a vibrant and outgoing matriarch who works as a housecleaner. Wellington and Tércia have two children: Eunice (played by Camilla Damião), nicknamed Nina, is an emotionally sensitive college student, who’s in her late teens or early 20s. Deivinho (played by Cícero Lucas), who is about 13 or 14 years old, is studious and somewhat introverted.

Several of the movie’s scenes show the family members going about their everyday lives. Wellington is a respected senior member of his employer’s staff at his job, where he sometimes brags to his co-workers about what a great soccer player Deivinho is, and Wellington shows videos on his phone to prove it. Tércia follows a routine of taking the bus to work, where she has camaraderie with a lively co-worker named Tokinho (played by real-life social media star Tokinho), who likes to watch TV with her when they’re taking a break in a house that they’re cleaning. Eunice attends college classes and likes to dance at nightclubs in her free time. Deivinho hangs out with his friends and plays on a local soccer team, with Wellington usually cheering him on in the crowd and advising Deivinho like an enthusiastic coach.

But a few pivotal things happen that change the personal dynamics of these family members. Wellington is tasked with training a new employee named Flávio (played by Russo Apr), who will have an impact later on in the story. While eating at a diner in the city center, Tércia is traumatized after a prank is pulled on the customers by a hidden-camera TV show, which pretended that a suicidal man had ignited a stick of dynamite in the diner. Her family members don’t take this incident seriously when she tells them about it, but Tércia finds that this fake bombing incident is having negative physical and psychological effects on her.

At a nightclub, Eunice meets a confident woman close to her age named Joana (played by Ana Hilãrio), and they have an instant romantic attraction. Eunice and Joana begin dating and eventually make plans to move in together, which will be the first time that Eunice will not be living with her parents. However, Eunice (who doesn’t put a label on her sexuality) is afraid to tell her parents that Eunice is not heterosexual and that Joana is more than a friend to Eunice. Deivinho (who is a big fan of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson) is fascinated with a Mars exploration trip called Mars One. Deivinho dreams of being part of this exploration as an astrophysicist, instead of becoming the famous soccer player that Wellington wants Deivinho to become.

“Mars One” shows how these four family members handle their individual issues, sometimes with secrecy and shame, sometimes with defiance and determination. The underlying tensions and fears in these interpersonal dynamics have to do with feeling uncertainty over this existential question: “If your family can’t love and accept you for you are, what are the chances that other people will love and accept you for who you are? And is any of this acceptance just as important as self-acceptance?”

This well-acted movie (all of the performances look emotionally authentic) also artfully shows how people who feel stuck in a rut and want better futures for themselves can get caught up everyday burdens that sometimes blind them to small blessings that they have in the present-day lives. “Mars One” doesn’t depict any personal evolutions in contrived or calculated ways but how they happen in real life: naturally, often unexpectedly, and sometimes uncomfortably. It’s a well-made story that shows how self-acceptance or acceptance of others isn’t always automatic but can often be a bumpy but illuminating journey.

Array Releasing released “Mars One” in select U.S. cinemas and on Netflix on January 5, 2023. The movie was released in Brazil on August 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Medusa’ (2022), starring Mari Oliveira, Lara Tremouroux, Joana Medeiros, Felipe Frazão, Bruna Linzmeyer, Thiago Fragoso and Bruna G.

August 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Medusa,” featuring (both pictured in center) Lara Tremouroux and Mari Oliveira (Photo courtesy of Music Box Films)

“Medusa” (2022)

Directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira

Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Brazil, the dramatic film “Medusa” features a cast of white, black and Latino Brazilian characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young woman is part of an eight-woman group of ultra-religious conservatives, who are bullying vigilantes attacking other young women at night, but her life is upended after she becomes physically scarred when one of the victims fights back. 

Culture Audience: “Medusa” will appeal primarily to people interested in an artsy movie that has a lot of symbolism and messaging about religious fanaticism, misogyny and rebellion against society oppressions that are mainly designed to control and punish women.

Lara Tremouroux (center), Mari Oliveira (to the right of Tremouroux) and Joana Medeiros (back row, far right) in “Medusa” (Photo courtesy of Music Box Films)

Stylish but often slow-moving, the haunting drama “Medusa” effectively uses dream-like imagery to depict the damage of misogynistic bullying and the rebellion against this type of oppression. It’s a story that examines physical and psychological violence with unflinching clarity, but it’s presented in a tone that blurs the lines between satire and horror. With a total running time of a little more than two hours, “Medusa” didn’t need to be this long to get its messages across as well as it does. About 30 minutes could’ve been edited out of the movie, and it would still have a similar impact. However, what’s in “Medusa” is enough to resonate with viewers who have the patience to absorb everything as the story unfolds.

Written and directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira, “Medusa” is set in an unnamed city in Brazil in the early 2020s, but the movie’s themes are timeless and universal. The protagonist of “Medusa” is a young woman named Mariana (played by Mari Oliveira, also known as Mariana Oliveira), who undergoes a transformation in more ways than one. People who are familiar with Greek mythology and the story of Medusa (a woman who was cursed with a face that turned people to stone) will be more likely to understand the symbolism in this movie. Before its release in cinemas, “Medusa” made the rounds at several film festivals, including the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere) and the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

In the beginning of “Medusa,” Mariana (who is in her late teens or early 20s) is shown as part of a group of eight other young women who are about the same age. They’re all wearing identical white masks and acting like roaming predators at night on a deserted city street. (This scenario will be shown multiple times in the movie.) Who are these women hunting? Their targets are other young women whom these bullies have judged to be “sinful,” usually for sexual reasons.

And when these attackers find their target, they viciously assault her and call her derogatory names. After their victim is attacked into submission, they force her to make statement on video where she repents for her sins and says will give herself over to Jesus or God. This gang of religious fanatics will then upload these videos anonymously on social media, and later gloat over this violent abuse and get excited if the videos “go viral” with the public.

When they aren’t being masked marauders, these eight women present themselves as virtuous and moral to the people around them. They are also in a Christian singing group called Michele and the Treasures of the Lord. Their leader Michele (played by Lara Tremouroux) is the most fanatical of them all. She has very stringent ideas of how women should look and act, if they are to be considered “pure.” Michele considers herself to be a “Christian influencer” on social media, so she posts beauty tutorial videos instructing Christian women on how they should look. Mariana is Michele’s closest and most-trusted friend in the group.

Michele and the Treasures of the Lord regularly appear on a Christian TV show hosted by a televangelist named Pastor Guilherme (played by Thiago Fragoso), who has a “fire and brimstone” approach to preaching about religion. “Medusa” certainly drives home the point about how televangelism is a male-dominated field in real life, where any woman who succeeds as a televangelist usually has to do so by being married to a male televangelist or other male religious leader. That’s not to say that all religious or Christian people believe women are always inferior to men, but many extremely religious fundamentalists (such as the ones depicted in “Medusa”) believe that women should always be subservient to men.

Mariana works as an assistant in a beauty clinic that offers plastic surgery. Her boss Dr. Arnaldo (played by Márcio Mariante) has very specific ideas of how Mariana should look as his employee, and she complies with those beauty standards. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “Medusa” points out this real-life fact: Plastic surgery is a field where men (who are the majority of plastic surgeons) financially profit the most, and its financial boom parallels the rise of social media, as more people (usually women) feel pressure to look a certain way. Women are the majority of people who get elective plastic surgery, usually so they can look more attractive, according to beauty ideals dictated by men.

One night, Michele and the Treasures of the Lord go on another brutal attack. When Mariana corners the victim, the victim fights back in self-defense, deeply cuts the left side of Mariana’s face with a broken bottle, and then is able to escape by running away. Even though Mariana can mostly cover up her facial scar with makeup, the scar is still visible to anyone who sees Mariana’s face up close. Dr. Arnaldo tells Mariana that her scar is “frightening” to his patients, so he fires her.

Mariana also gets some backlash from the other members of Michele and the Treasures of the Lord, because she is partially blamed for letting the victim escape. Feeling like an inferior misfit, Mariana gets a job at a ramshackle hospital, where all of the patients she’s required to look after are in a coma and are placed in one large room. It looks more like a war zone hospital than a regular hospital.

One of Mariana’s co-workers at the hospital is a young man named Lucas (played by Felipe Frazão), who’s in his early-to-mid 20s. Mariana and Lucas become close and develop a romantic attraction to each other. Because of Mariana’s religious beliefs, she has been taught that people (especially women) are not supposed to have sex outside of marriage. Mariana’s facial scar and the way people treat her because of it have altered her views of the world, so the last two-thirds of “Medusa” are about her metamorphosis and spiritual reckoning.

“Medusa” has a few subplots that work better for the movie than other subplots. One of the better subplots runs parallel to the storyline of Michele and the Treasures of the Lord, by having a depiction of a religious paramilitary group of young men called the Watchmen of Sion, who also consider themselves to be vigilantes. “Medusa” has several scenes of this fanatical group doing physical exercises and drills together. Watchmen of Sion also patrol the streets, looking for young men to harass and place under citizens’ arrest, usually for drug possession or being out past curfew.

Observant viewers will notice that in “Medusa,” the male vigilantes commit violence with no masks or other disguises. It’s in direct contrast to Michele and the Treasures of the Lord, who cover their faces with masks, as if to say that it’s more shameful for women to commit this type of violence. And in “Medusa,” only the women are “persecuted” for sexual reasons, while the men who have sex aren’t shamed for it. This double standard isn’t exaggerated for a movie, because there are plenty of real-life examples of how this double standard exists in many societies.

Michele and the Treasures of the Lord and the Watchmen of Sion sometimes have social gatherings where it’s obvious that members of these two like-minded groups expect to couple up with each other and to potentially find their future spouses. Because they don’t believe in sex outside of marriage, any romances that develop are supposed to be chaste. Not surprisingly, Michele’s boyfriend in Watchmen of Sion is the group’s leader named Jonathan (played by João Oliveira), who acts like a stereotypically aggressive “alpha male.”

Another intriguing subplot involves the mystery of a young actress named Melissa Garcia (played by Bruna Linzmeyer), who was attacked by unidentified assailants for being a promiscuous “party girl.” After her attack left her physically scarred, Melissa became so distraught, she set her face on fire. And then, she disappeared. Mariana and Michele have been following this missing-person case, but Mariana is more obsessed with it than Michele is. It’s hinted that Michele and the Treasures of the Lord were the ones who attacked Melissa.

An unnecessary subplot in “Medusa” is about Mariana’s younger cousin Clarissa (played by Bruna G.), who’s about 13 or 14 years old. Clarissa has been sent to live with Mariana’s family, who live in a safer area than the area where Clarissa’s family lives. It’s mentioned that Clarissa’s family wants her to go to a good Christian school and find a nice guy to marry.

At first, Clarissa is upset with this decision for her to relocate, because she misses being with her parents, siblings and friends. Mariana eventually becomes somewhat of a mentor to Clarissa, who spends some time with Michele and the Treasures of the Lord. It should come as no surprise that impressionable Clarissa becomes indoctrinated into the same beliefs. However, “Medusa” spends so little time developing Clarissa’s character, this subplot didn’t need to be in the movie.

Although there isn’t a bad performance in “Medusa,” the movie is hit and miss when it comes to development of the supporting characters. Mariana, Michele and a feisty woman named Karen (played by Joana Medeiros) are the only members of Michele and the Treasures of the Lord who are given distinct personalities. People watching the movie won’t really get a sense of who the other five members of the group really are.

The same lack of character development exists for the Watchers of Sion, who are all generic characters except for Jonathan. Even though Mariana lives with her family, these family members are shown briefly in the movie and have no real bearing on the plot. And except for Lucas, all of the people whom Mariana works with are entirely one-dimensional.

However, what “Medusa” does well is show how oppression can stifle the soul, unless someone has the strength to overcome it. One character in the movie shows suicidal or self-harm tendencies as an example of how this oppression takes a toll on this person. “Medusa” also skewers religious hypocrisy by showing that people who preach at and persecute others for so-called “sexual sins” are sometimes the ones who engage in these “sins” the most.

Two of the more outstanding traits in “Medusa” are the movie’s cinematography and sound design. The scenes with Michele and the Treasures of the Lord are bathed in pink hues and other pastel lighting, as if to present them in a ultra-feminine heightened sense of reality. In scenes depicting more morally ambiguous occurrences, the lighting is darker, sometimes in blue and green tints that glow.

A stunning scene at the end of the film is an eruption of pent-up emotions that’s the equivalent of an aural volcano. Rather than being a feminist film that pretends to have all the answers, the strength of “Medusa” is in simply acknowledging that oppression that looks like it’s only targeting some women is really a war against all women. And not everyone is going to just stand by and do nothing about it.

Music Box Films released “Medusa” in select U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on September 13, 2022.

Review: ‘Yakuza Princess,’ starring Masumi, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Tsuyoshi Ihara

October 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Masumi in “Yakuza Princess” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Yakuza Princess”

Directed by Vicente Amorim

Japanese, Portuguese and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and in Brazil, the action flick “Yakuza Princess” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people, black people and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A trinket shop worker, who was orphaned as a baby, finds out that she comes from a powerful Japanese crime family, and it’s her destiny to be a samurai-sword-wielding warrior.

Culture Audience: “Yakuza Princess” will appeal primarily to people who interested in violent action movies and don’t care if the plot is an idiotic mess.

Masumi and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Yakuza Princess” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

Japanese women rarely get to star in an action flick, so it’s a shame that “Yakuza Princess” is such mindless junk that isn’t even a worthy showcase for the female protagonist. The men in this incoherent movie actually get most of the screen time. The movie’s title character is more of a sidekick who’s in service of a story that cares more about what happens to a European stranger who ends up in Brazil and in Japan to look for a mysterious and rare sword. In other words, don’t be fooled into thinking that the “yakuza princess” is the only leading character in this horrible movie. It’s a “bait and switch” title where the female protagonist’s fate is largely decided by men.

Directed by Vicente Amorim, “Yakuza Princess,” is based on Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel “Samurai Shiro,” which would have been a more accurate title for this movie because the film puts a lot of emphasis on a character named Shiro. Amorim co-wrote the “Yakuza Princess” screenplay with Fernando Toste, Kimi Lee and “Yakuza Princess” producer Tubaldini Shelling. Unfortunately, having four people write this movie’s screenplay just means that four people, instead of the usual one or two screenwriters, made a mess of the story.

In “Yakuza Princess,” so much screen time is given in the beginning to Shiro (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), viewers will start to wonder at what point they’re going to see the “yakuza princess” part of the movie. There’s a lot of scenes of Shiro getting into fights and trying to find out who he is and his purpose in life before significant time is spent on the identity of the “yakuza princess.” The men of the yakuza (the term used for Japanese mafia) also spend a lot of time fighting with each other before viewers see any of the “yakuza princess,” her fighting skills and her identity journey.

Shiro actually doesn’t have a name for the majority of the film because he’s a European stranger who has amnesia for most of the story. He wakes up strapped to a hospital bed in São Paulo, Brazil, with no idea of who he is and why he’s there. Shiro doesn’t waste time in breaking out of the hospital in his first of many bloody action scenes. He then spends most of the story looking for a rare samurai sword, which has a connection to a Japanese woman in her early 20s named Akemi (played by Masumi), who lives in São Paulo and works as a trinket shop employee.

Akemi is really a “yakuza princess,” who finds out that her immediate family members (her parents and older brother) were killed in a mass murder when she was a baby in Japan. She was kidnapped, and ended up spending most of her life in São Paulo. This isn’t spoiler information because this massacre and kidnapping are shown at the very beginning of the film.

Akemi’s family wasn’t an ordinary family. She came from a family called the Takikawa clan, which had an influential hold on a crime syndicate in Japan. There was a power struggle in the syndicate that resulted in her father’s enemies plotting the massacre to get him and his heirs out of the way so the enemies could take over. These foes know that someone saved Akemi from being murdered along with her family. Whoever kidnapped her did so to put Akemi into hiding under a new identity in São Paulo, which has a large Japanese community.

But here’s why “Yakuza Princess” is so moronic: Akemi is supposed to be shocked when she finds out that she comes from a crime family. And yet, the first scene of her in the movie shows Akemi getting trained in samurai sword fighting skills from a middle-aged man named Chiba (played by Toshiji Takeshima), who has told her that her grandfather brought her to Chiba when Akemi was 6 years old.

And then, when Chiba is training Akemi, Chiba says, “You have the vocation to become a great warrior, but to fulfill it, you must leave your grief and anger.” Akemi replies, “I’m trying.” Chiba then gives her a samurai sword and says, “Let discipline shape your mind. You and your sword must become one. Allow this principle to guide you in your journey. It’s what your grandfather wanted.”

Anyone with common sense can see that all this talk about being destined to be a warrior and Akemi having a grandparent who wanted her to have fight skills all add up to her having a family that wants her to get extensive training to defend herself for a good reason. It’s all pretty obvious, but Akemi is too simple-minded to figure it out. You’d think she’d be curious about why her grandafather wanted Akemi to have these fight skills, since she’s an orphan who’s not in touch with any of her biological family members.

But apparently, Akemi has to wait for Shiro to show up so he can help solve the mystery of her past. It’s all so very patriarchal. And just like a princess fairy tale where an ordinary young woman transforms into a princess during a milestone event, Akemi becomes an ass-kicking warrior on her 21st birthday. It happens when she’s celebrating her birthday by doing karaoke at a bar, and she’s sexually harasssed by a creep. The next thing you know, she’s doing high kicks and martial arts brawling until a cop breaks up the fight. He best friend Samara (played by Ndudzo Siba) also gets involved in the fray.

“Yakuza Princess” is one of those mind-numbing martial arts movies that thinks a bunch of fight scenes strung together are enough to make up for a flimsy plot. Unfortunately, none of the acting is very good either. Rhys Meyers has an “I don’t care, just give me my paycheck” attitude that seeps through his performance. Masumi is best known as a singer and makes her feature-film acting debut in “Yakuza Princess.” All it shows is that Masumi needs to take more acting lessons.

And the feuding villains who want Akemi dead because she’s the rightful heir to her father’s yakuza empire are all so forgettable and generic. There are some time-wasting scenes showing how a yakuza thug named Takeshi (played by Tsuyoshi Ihara) is competing with another yakuza thug named Kojiro (played by Eijiro Ozaki) to be the top-ranking henchman for their boss, who views this rivalry like watching two schoolboys squabbling. The inevitable torture and fight scenes involving these gangsters are absolutely soulless. And so is this entire movie.

Magnet Releasing released “Yakuza Princess” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Shine Your Eyes,’ starring OC Ukeje, Indira Nascimento, Paulo André, Ike Barry and Chukwudi Iwuji

August 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ike Barry and OC Ukeje in “Shine Your Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Shine Your Eyes”

Directed by Matias Mariani

English, Portuguese, Igbo, Hungarian and Chinese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Brazil and briefly in Nigeria, the drama “Shine You Eyes” has a predominantly African cast (and some Brazilians and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Nigerian man travels to Brazil to find his missing older brother, and he discovers some unsettling clues about his brother’s disappearance while experiencing culture shock and language barriers in Brazil.

Culture Audience: “Shine Your Eyes” will appeal primarily to people who like mysteries and psychological dramas with international characters.

OC Ukeje in “Shine Your Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

On the surface, “Shine Your Eyes” could be seen as an intriguing drama about a man looking for his missing brother. But beneath the surface are richly layered themes about sibling rivalry and family responsibilities, as well lines that can be blurred between being superstitious, being scientifically brilliant and being mentally ill. Directed by Matias Mariani, “Shine Your Eyes” moves along at a mostly languid pace that can be disarming in keeping people guessing on where the story is going, because what happens in the last 20 minutes of the film is like a jolt meant to shake up any predictable notion of how this movie will end.

The beginning of the movie opens in Nsukka, Nigeria, in 1988. Two brothers (played by Eresto Lusala and Ivo Daniel Nduaya Madu), who are close to each other in age (about 6 or 7 years old) are in a bedroom together. One brother talks about what it would be like if his own mouth was where his mind should be, and he commands his brother to imagine it. “This is the face of your Chi,” he tells his brother.

The movie then fast-forwards to São Paulo, Brazil, in 2019. A Nigerian musician named Amadi Igbomaeze (played by OC Ukeje) has just arrived in the city. Amadi goes to the Galeria Presidente shopping mall, where he his greeted by his uncle Chefe Ogboh (played by Ike Barry), who has a beauty supply store/salon in the mall.

Amadi isn’t in Brazil for a just a casual family visit. He’s on a mission to find his older brother Ikenna (played by Chukwudi Iwuji), who has disappeared. Ikenna has a fiancée in Nigeria who hasn’t heard from Ikenna for more than a year. Ikenna has seemed to have vanished into thin air, so Amadi is determined to find out what happened.

Throughout the movie, Amadi plays voice mail messages from his mother, who is never seen in the movie. However, the messages make it clear that Ikenna is considered the “favorite” child and the “star” of the family. It seems that Amadi has always felt as if he’s been in the shadow of his older brother, which brings some complications to the family dynamics and Amadi’s own emotions, since Amadi is now taken on an “alpha male” role of trying to find Ikenna.

Most of “Shine Your Eyes” follows Amadi’s deliberate step-by-step investigation, which leads to unexpected twists and turns . He’s worried, but not frantic. And while Amadi searches for his brother in various parts of São Paulo, he experiences some culture shock and language barriers (he speaks English, but not Portuguese) that could hinder his investigation.

Based on the last email communication that Ikenna sent to Amadi, Ikenna has recently started a new job as head professor of qualitative statistics at Covenant University in São Paulo. Amadi goes to the university website and sees Ikenna’s name, photo and title listed, along with other faculty members, such as the university’s provost and faculty overseer Miro Kuzko (played by Paulo André). But when Amadi goes to the address that Ikenna gave as his work address, Amadi finds out that it’s not a university but a public planning office.

The biggest clues to Ikenna’s disappearance are on the laptop computer that Ikenna left behind for repairs at a public computer cafe. Amadi happened to be using the same cafe when he noticed the computer behind the clerk’s counter, in a stack of other computers waiting to be repaired. Ikenna’s laptop computer has unique and distinctive stickers on it.

The clerk tells Amadi that the person who owned the computer left it there for repairs and never picked it up, so Amadi pays for the repairs and begins looking at everything he can on the computer. Somehow, Amadi has figured out the password to the computer, and he finds a treasure trove of email, photos and videos that lead him down various paths in the story. Amadi discovers that Ikenna has been leading a secret double life in Brazil, including fabricating stories about his background and using the alias Charlie.

Amadi also finds out that Ikenna had been dating one of the beauty salon employees named Emilia Nascimento (played by Indira Nascimento), who believes that Ikenna deliberately left and doesn’t want to be found. Because she thinks that Ikenna abandoned her and because Amadi looks a lot like his brother and has sibling rivalry issues with him, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen with Amadi and Emilia.

“Shine Your Eyes” takes its time to uncover the different layers to the story, which shows different slices of life in Nigerian Igbo culture and Brazilian culture. “Shine Your Eyes” screenplay is credited to six people (director/producer Mariani,  Chika Anadu, Francine Barbosa, Júlia Murat, Maíra Bühler and Roberto Winter), but it doesn’t appear to have suffered from “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. The middle of the film drags a bit, but the movie has some interesting subtexts that explore the contrasts of superstition and science, and how mental health might play a role in how people perceive themselves and others.

All of the actors in the cast do a perfectly fine job with their roles. Leonardo Bittencourt’s striking cinematography puts a lot of emphasis on high-rise buildings or tall heights in São Paulo. These camera angles give viewers a sense of Amadi’s culture shock of being in a big city like São Paulo that has numerous skyscrapers. Ultimately, the greatest strength of “Shine Your Eyes” is in how the movie goes beyond a typical “missing person” story and effectively conveys that people who try to run away from their families are often trying to run away from themselves.

Netflix premiered “Shine Your Eyes” on July 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Bacurau,’ starring Sônia Braga, Udo Kier and Bárbara Colen

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sonia Braga in "Bacurau"
Sônia Braga (center) in “Bacurau” (Photo by Victor Jucá)


Directed by Kleber Mendon​ç​a Filho and Juliano Dornelles

Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional, rural town of Bacurau, Brazil, this drama/thriller has a diverse cast of characters representing Brazilians, Europeans and Americans from several social classes.

Culture Clash: The citizens of Bacurau face various threats to their existence.

Culture Audience: “Bacurau” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse cinema about rural South American life that has brutal social commentary underneath some of its violent scenes.

Udo Kier and Sônia Braga in “Bacurau” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Bacurau” is a slow burn of a film that leads up to an intense and violent confrontation that is part Western pulp, part fierce social commentary on the evils of racist colonialism. The movie begins with the arrival of Teresa (played by Bárbara Colen) at her family hometown of Bacurau, a rural village that is so small that it sometimes can’t even be found on a map. She’s wearing a white medical overcoat, not because she’s a medical professional, but because she says it’s for her “protection.” It’s the first sign in the movie that there’s possible danger in Bacurau.

The village is mourning the death of Teresa’s 94-year-old grandmother Carmelita, who was Bacurau’s unofficial matriarch. During the funeral procession held outside, a middle-aged woman named Domingas (played by Sônia Braga) gets upset and curses Carmelita by calling her a “prick,” before she is led away. Why is Domingas so angry at this beloved dead woman who can’t defend herself?

For starters, Domingas is drunk at the funeral. She was a close friend of Carmelita’s, and they had some kind of falling out before she died. And one of the things that Domingas shouts during her funeral outburst is that she hopes that when she dies, she’ll get the kind of grand funeral that Carmelita is getting. Jealous much? Later, Domingas makes a public apology to the townspeople for her tantrum. Now that Carmelita is dead, Domingas has become the top-ranking woman on the town’s social ladder.

As Teresa settles back into the house of her father Plinio (played by Wilson Rabelo), who is Carmelita’s son, she gets reacquainted with a thuggish man named Pacote, also known as Acacio (played by Thomas Aquino), who’s part of a local group of gun-toting outlaws. Their leader is a guy named Lunga (played by Silvero Pereira), who’s gone into hiding because unnamed people are after him. Pacote is one of the few people who knows where Lunga is. And the news gets out to the village that the main highway in Brazil has been shut down and only motorcycles can pass through.

Meanwhile, as the feeling of impending doom slowly takes over the village, the movie takes a closer look at some of the main characters of the story. Teresa and Pacote become lovers, and she basically pledges to be a loyal ally to him and the gang if their lives are threatened. Lunga (who’s become sort of a folk hero in Bacurau) eventually shows up, and he doesn’t look like a typical gang leader who has a reputation for being a vicious killer. He’s a baby-faced guy with a mullet and he isn’t very tall, but what he lacks in a menacing physique, he makes up for with his fearless attitude.

Domingas is a lesbian madam of the town’s prostitutes, who make their money from the locals and some of the men who pass through the town. One of those men is Tony Junior (played by Thardelly Lima), a smarmy politician who has the nerve to show up for a “surprise” visit in a cavalcade of automobiles decorated with campaign slogans and with megaphones asking the villagers to vote for him. He’s brought supplies and books that he plans to distribute to the Bacurau residents, and he tells the camera crew that’s accompanied him to get ready to film this staged charity donation.

The villagers have been tipped off in advance that Tony is going to barrel through their town, so by the time he gets there, the streets are empty and the townspeople have barricaded themselves in their homes. Why are they so angry with him?

As Tony uses the megaphone in the middle of the street, they begin to curse at him and tell him to release the water that the village desperately needs. Tony’s response is to give politician-speak excuses that their requests will take time to go through the correct channels. Before he leaves Bacurau, Tony hires one of Domingas’ prostitutes (a young woman named Sandra, played by Thardelly Lima) to travel back with him. Domingas tells Tony that if anything happens to Sandra, Domingas will “feed his cock to the hens.”

Meanwhile, a drone is flying over parts of Bacurau, and it’s being controlled by a group of white Europeans and Americans, who are using the drone to spy on the locals and track their movements. The group of mostly tourists is led by a German named Michael (played by Udo Kier), who is very familiar with Bacurau.

Around this time, strange things start happening in Bacurau. A parked truck with a water tank ends up being shot with mysterious bullet holes, which have caused the tank to leak out much-needed water. Then, two motorcyclists—a man from São Paulo (played by Antonio Saboia) and a woman from Rio de Janeiro (played by Karine Teles)—arrive in the town wearing garish motorcycle outfits that make it obvious that they’re city dwellers who are showing off. The strangers say that they’re just passing through, but the residents of Bacurau are suspicious. It’s not long before it’s clear why the people of Bacurau don’t trust outsiders.

Although “Bacurau” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (in a tie with the French police-brutality drama “Les Misérables”), “Bacurau” is not a movie for everyone. There are many disturbing scenes in the film, which has a level of bloody violence that might be repulsive to some viewers. The murderous mayhem in the movie almost has a video-game quality to it, which is precisely one of the points that the film is trying to make with its underlying social messages. Even though modern technology is used by the movie’s villains, the lust for violence has been around as long as people have sought to conquer other human beings.

Kino Lorber released “Bacurau” in New York City on March 6, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada will expand to more cities in the subsequent weeks. “Bacurau” was originally released in Brazil in 2019.

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