Review: ‘Ultrasound,’ starring Vincent Kartheiser, Chelsea Lopez, Breeda Wool, Tunde Adebimpe, Rainey Qualley and Bob Stephenson

April 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Breeda Wool and Vincent Kartheiser in “Ultrasound” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Ultrasound”

Directed by Rob Schroeder

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi drama film “Ultrasound” features a group of almost all white people (with one African America and one Asian person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unsuspecting man becomes part of a secretive scientific experiment that involves two separate pregnancies by two different women 

Culture Audience: “Ultrasound” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Generous Bosom” comic book series and people who enjoy mind-bending sci-fi mysteries.

Rainey Qualley and Chris Gartin in “Ultrasound” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Ultrasound” falters with some erratic storytelling, but the cast members’ commendable performances and the movie’s willingness to take chances make it worth watching for people interested in unconventional sci-fi movies. Ultimately, “Ultrasound” is best appreciated by people who don’t mind movies that play tricks on what this story is really about, because the movie’s plot is a mystery that takes its time to reveal its true purpose. Viewers also have to suspend some disbelief when some of the movie’s characters make decisions that are outside the norm of what most people are expected to do.

Directed by Rob Schroeder, “Ultrasound” is based on Conor Stechschulte’s “Generous Bosom” comic book series, which Stechschulte adapted into the “Ultrasound” screenplay. “Ultrasound,” which is Schroeder’s feature-film directorial debut, had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It’s a movie where a lot of strange things happen that aren’t supposed to make much sense until the final third of the movie where secrets are revealed.

“Ultrasound,” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, opens with a scene of a bachelor in his early 40s named Glen (played by Vincent Kartheiser), whose car has broken down in a remote area at night. Glen goes to the nearest house, where a married couple named Arthur “Art” Thomas (played by Bob Stephenson) and Cyndi Thomas (played by Chelsea Lopez) live, so that he can find out where is the closest place to get auto repairs. Glen doesn’t use his phone to get that information.

Upon arriving at Art and Cyndi’s house, Glen meets them for the first time and sees that these two spouses have a very awkward, tension-filled dynamic between them. Art is very talkative and extremely friendly, while Cyndi is quiet and withdrawn. Art tells Glen that the nearest auto repair shop is currently closed. Glen tells Art that Glen has AAA insurance, but Art says that AAA will just tow Glen’s car to Pickton, a city that is 30 miles away. Pickton is also where the nearest motel is, according to Art.

Art is so open and inviting to this total stranger, he immediately offers a room in the house as a place for Glen to stay for the night. Art doesn’t just offer. He insists that Glen stay overnight at the house. Cyndi tells Glen that Art is on anti-depressant medication because he’s had depression for years. Art cheerfully admits to it and says that he always feels better after taking his medication.

And then, things get weird. Art tells Glen that the room where Glen will be staying is the same room where Cyndi sleeps, and that Glen will have to share the bed with her. Art says that is Glen’s only option if he wants to sleep over at the house. Glen is extremely uncomfortable about it, but he doesn’t want to be rude, so he doesn’t exactly get up and leave, which is what a lot of people would do. Apparently, Glen would rather not sleep in his car for the night.

Instead, Glen stays in the room with Cyndi, and they both strike up a conversation that starts off awkwardly. Slowly but surely, it becomes apparent why Glen wasn’t completely opposed to this bedroom arrangement: He’s attracted to Cyndi, who’s a little bit flirtatious with him. In continuing her pattern of divulging too much information to a stranger, Cyndi tells Glen that she’s unhappily married to Art.

Cyndi also mentions that the couple’s big age difference (Art is about 15 to 20 years older than Cyndi) is one of the reasons why their marriage has become unbearable to her. Art and Cyndi met when she was 17, and Art used to be one of her high school teachers. Art and Cyndi got married when she was 19. Cyndi tells Glen that she says she now regrets marrying Art.

Cyndi sadly mentions that if she could go back in time, she would tell her younger self before marrying Art: “What the fuck are you doing, throwing your life away, you fucking moron!” Cyndi adds, “But there’s an energy when people throw away things that people think are important … When you’re done, that energy drains out of you.”

Now that Cyndi has essentially announced to Glen that she’s a lonely and needy wife, the stage has been set for Glen to decide if he’s going to act on his attraction to Cyndi and have sex with her. This sexual one-night stand seems to be something that Art and Cyndi are expecting will happen. At first, Glen thinks that Art and Cyndi are a swinger couple, and it’s a setup so that Art can watch Glen have sex with Cyndi. When he asks Cyndi about it, she denies that Art will be watching whatever happens between her and Glen.

Cyndi and Glen end up having sex, but it’s not shown in the movie. The next time that viewers see Glen, he’s at his home (where he lives alone), and his car has long since been repaired. He found out that the car broke down because it had flat tires that were punctured by what objects that appeared to be nails. And then something unexpected happens to Glen: He gets an unannounced visit from Art.

Glen is so caught off-guard by seeing Art, he refuses to let Art in the house. Glen is suspicious because he doesn’t know how Art got his home address. Art is vague and won’t say how he found out where Glen lives, but Art insists on coming into the house because he tells Glen that he has something important to show Glen. Eventually, Glen lets Art into his home because he can see that Art won’t go away until Art gets what he wants from this unwelcome visit.

Inside the house, Art shows Glen a video on Art’s phone of a baby ultrasound. Art tells Glen that Cyndi is pregnant, and that this ultrasound is of the baby growing inside of Cyndi. And then, Art drops a bombshell: He says that Glen is the father of this baby. At first Glen denies it, but Art says that Glen is the only person who could be the father because Glen is the only man who had sex with Cyndi in the time period where the baby was conceived. Art says that he and Cyndi are willing to do DNA tests to prove Glen’s paternity.

After Glen gets the news that he’s going to be a father, he reconnects with Cyndi, who seems very happy about the pregnancy. Glen tells Cyndi that he wants to be involved with raising this child, even though Glen still feels mistrust and resentment (mostly toward Art) because Glen thinks he was “tricked” into getting Cyndi pregnant. He should’ve thought of that before he had unprotected sex with a stranger.

Meanwhile, another pregnancy issue is shown in “Ultrasound.” Katie (played by Rainey Qualley) is the pregnant, younger mistress of a married politician named Alex Harris (played by Chris Gartin), who is currently up for re-election for an unnamed political office. Katie and Alex’s affair and the pregnancy are both secrets.

Alex has paid for Katie to move to the city where he lives, but he’s been mostly ignoring her. Alex insists that Katie not venture out much from the apartment that he’s renting for her. This semi-confinement is starting to make Katie feel restless and disrespected. “Ultrasound” has a series of phone calls and encounters between Katie and Alex to show what happens in their relationship.

The rest of “Ultrasound” has a lot of spoiler information, but it’s enough to say that Glen and Cyndi end up in a mysterious scientific research lab, where they are forced to undergo experiments and interrogations. Glen is also injured and has to use a wheelchair. The leader of this “research study” is a determined scientist named Dr. Conners (played by Tunde Adebimpe), who is adamant that all of his subordinates follow his rules.

In this “research study,” the two female subordinates who work the most with Dr. Conners are named Shannon (played by Breeda Wool) and Julie (played by Porter Duong), who have very different approaches to their job. Julie is very obedient and never questions what Dr. Conners has to say. Shannon, who does a lot of the research interviews of Glen and Chelsea, has her doubts about the ethics of this “research study,” and she sometimes openly defies Dr. Conners’ orders.

“Ultrasound” takes viewers down a proverbial rabbit hole, where the story has some twists and turns—some of which are more unpredictable than others. Schroeder’s direction maintains a tense level of viewer anticipation and curiosity to see what will happen next. However, enough bizarre things happen where confused viewers of “Ultrasound” might not want to stick around until the end of the movie to find out what it all means.

All of the cast members are convincing in their performances, but Kartheiser and Wool stand out because their characters are the ones who say and do the things that are the most interesting. Glen and Shannon have aspects of their personalities that show they’re independent-minded and are willing to ask questions if things around them start to look suspicious. The ending of “Ultrasound” is a bit jumbled and messy, but it least answers a lot of questions about what these characters have experienced and what might happen to them next.

Magnet Releasing released “Ultrasound” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 11, 2022.

Review: ‘Mass’ (2021), starring Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney

February 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton and Breeda Wool in “Mass” (Photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy)

“Mass”

Directed by Fran Kanz

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Mass” features an almost all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men and two women, who have a tragedy in common, gather in a church meeting room to air out their differences.

Culture Audience: “Mass” will appeal primarily to people interested in dialogue-heavy movies about grief, mental illness and coping with the violent death of a loved one.

Ann Dowd and Reed Birney in “Mass” (Photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy)

The title of the movie “Mass” can have a double meeting. On the one hand, the movie, which takes entirely at or near an Episcopal church, can refer to the religious ceremony called a mass. On the other hand, it could refer to the deadly mass shooting that has directly affected two men and two women, who have gathered at an Episcopal church in an unnamed U.S. city to have a difficult meeting about this tragedy. (The movie was actually filmed in Hailey, Idaho, but almost all of the movie’s scenes take place indoors.) Fran Kanz, who is known as an actor in the 2012 horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods” and the sci-fi TV series “JourneyQuest,” makes an impressive debut as a feature-film director in “Mass,” a movie which he also wrote. “Mass” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

“Mass” is a very well-written and intense film that relies entirely on the actors to make or break the authenticity in this gripping story. The movie centers on four people who have a painful discussion about a tragedy that has left them emotionally broken and damaged. Before these four people meet at the church, the story unfolds in layers, as viewers see a church office manager named Judy (played by Breeda Wool) nervously preparing for these visitors to gather in a room that has been reserved specifically for this meeting.

Judy asks a college-age assistant named Anthony (played by Kagen Albright) to help her get the room ready. Soon, a woman named Kendra (played by Michelle N. Carter) arrives to inspect the room and make sure that it’s appropriate for the meeting. Kendra seems to have been the one to choose the church as a meeting place. Judy is eager to please Kendra, who looks over the room in a business-like and no-nonsense manner.

The first clue that this meeting is about a traumatic, violent incident is when Kendra notices some stained-glass hanging decorations on the windows. Red is one of the decorations’ main colors. And from a distance, the red could look like bloodstains. Judy notices it too, and anxiously explains to Kendra that these stained-class decorations were made by some of the church kids. Judy says that the decorations could be removed before the visitors for the meeting get there. Kendra says it isn’t necessary.

Kendra is obviously the meeting’s facilitator, but she tells Judy that she will not be in the room during the meeting, in order to give the people in the meeting their privacy. It’s another clue that the meeting is of a very sensitive and confidential nature. Is Kendra a social worker? A counselor? Someone else? It’s never really made clear what her occupation is, but in the brief time that she’s on screen, Kendra seems to have the role of someone who is supposed to remain neutral in something that seems to be controversial.

Who are the people who will be participating in this tension-filled meeting? The married couple that viewers see first are Gail and Jay Perry, who drove down from an unnamed city for this gathering. Gail (played by Martha Plimpton) and Jay (played by Jason Isaacs), who are in their 50s, drive up to the church and park their car outside. However, Gail gets nervous and tells Jay to drive away so she can have more time to brace herself for this meeting.

They park near a fenced field that has a red ribbon tied to the fence. The camera lingers on the ribbon. It’s an obvious sign that this was the site of a makeshift memorial. Who died and why are these four people meeting? All the clues are there: A violent death, a makeshift memorial, two couples having an emotional discussion together for the very first time.

Gail feels ready to go back to the church. And when Gail and Jay go back to the church, they are greeted warmly by Judy and Kendra. Based on Judy’s comments, she’s not so eager to meet the other two people who arrive next, although when they do arrive she has a forced, polite smile. The other two visitors are a divorced couple in their 60s. It’s obvious that they’re no longer together when they arrive separately and aren’t seen wearing wedding rings.

Former spouses Richard (played by Reed Birney) and Linda (played by Ann Dowd) haven’t seen each other in a while. Richard no longer lives in the area, because he said that he traveled by plane for this somber occasion. Later, he says he won’t be staying in the area for the rest of the day. Richard gives the impression that he’s a busy businessman, while the career backgrounds of Gail, Jay and Linda are never revealed. At one point in the story, Richard says that he isn’t religious, so meeting in a church is outside of his comfort zone.

Linda has brought a bouquet of wild flowers, which she offers to Gail as a gift. Gail declines to take the flowers but later changes her mind in order to not create any further tension. It’s another clue about where the hard feelings are between these four people. After some awkward small talk is exchanged, Kendra and Judy show Gail, Jay, Linda and Richard to the meeting room and leave the four visitors there to talk. Kendra says before she leaves them together, “I’m hopeful that we think this was a good thing to do by the time we leave here today.”

And that’s when the movie starts to peel back the layers of turmoil and trauma that have led to this excruciating meeting. It won’t be revealed in this review who died and who committed the mass murder. But it’s enough to say that those details come out in bits and pieces. And then the floodgates open with the blame, anger, sadness and confusion over how the murders could have been prevented.

What makes “Mass” so outstanding is that there isn’t a single line of dialogue or action that looks or sounds phony. Because 80% of the movie takes place in this one room, “Mass” could very much be a play. It’s not an easy film to watch for anyone who is very sensitive to the topic of mass murder. However, “Mass” presents an excellent story that looks at this type of tragedy from various perspectives of loved ones who are left behind.

All four of the main actors give stellar performances. However, Plimpton and Dowd shine the most because their characters Gail and Linda express their emotions more freely than the men do. “Mass” is also a raw look at different ways that people grieve and try to make sense of a senseless crime. And it’s also a realistic portrayal of survivor guilt and how people who didn’t cause the crime can still feel responsible for it.

Kanz’s directing style is as minimalist as his writing style is rich with naturalistic language. It’s a combination that works for the movie’s setting. And the movie greatly benefits from being well-cast with actors who never strike a false note with their characters. “Mass” is a movie that will linger in people’s memories long after they watch it. And it will be a story that will come to mind when people think about how mass murders cause untold traumas that don’t necessarily make headlines.

UPDATE: Bleecker Street will release “Mass” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021.

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