Review: ‘Four Daughters’ (2023), starring Hind Sabri, Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Nour Karoui, Ichraq Matar and Majd Mastoura

March 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pictured from left to right: Eya Chikhaouim, Ichraq Matar, Nour Karoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui in “Four Daughters” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Four Daughters” (2023)

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania

Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tunisia, the docudrama film “Four Daughters” features an all-Tunisian group of people discussing a family whose two of four daughters became terrorists.

Culture Clash: Through re-enactments and interviews, the women’s mother and the other two sisters take a candid look at their family dynamics that led them to this point.

Culture Audience: “Four Daughters” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about how families are torn apart when members of the family leave to become radical terrorists.

Hind Sabri and Olfa Hamrouni in “Four Daughters” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Four Daughters” is an impactful movie that layers documentary elements with dramatic acting to make a film within a film. By using some of the real-life people in the re-enactments, it’s both an examination and cinematic therapy of a family’s love and painful fracturing. The transitions between the documentary-styled interviews and the dramatic acting are mostly seamless, although it all might be a bit disorienting to some viewers.

Directed and written by Kaouther Ben Hania, “Four Daughters” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won three awards: L’Œil d’or (the prize for Best Documentary), in tie where the award also went to “The Mother of All Lies”; the François Chalais Prize (the award for journalistic excellence); and Prix de la Citoyenneté (the Citizenship Award). “Four Daughters” also won Best Documentary Feature at the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards.

“Four Daughters” begins by introducing the three women who portray themselves in the re-enactments: Olfa Hamrouni is the divorced mother of the four daughters who inspired the name of the documentary. Eya Chikhaoui (born in 2003) and Tayssir Chikhaoui (born in 2005) are Hamrouni’s two youngest daughters, who were living with her at the time this movie was filmed. Hamrouni’s two eldest daughters are Ghotrane (born in 1998) and Rahma (born in 1999), who both became raidical terrorists, and left Tunisia to go to Lybia. A caption in the movie’s introduction says that Ghotrane Chikaoui and Rahma Chikaoui were “devoured by the wolf,” which is a euphamism for saying that they became consumed by the radical ideology that took them away from their mother and sisters.

“Four Daughters” has several scenes of Hamrouni, Eya and Tayssir acting in scenes with and getting to know the actresses who are in the re-enactments: Hind Sabri has the role of Hamrouni; Ichraq Matar has the role of Ghofrane; Nour Karoui has the role of Rahma. Sabri is seen early in the movie getting makeup applied before she is about to meet Hamrouni. Sabri admits that she feels “stressed,” as if it’s her first movie and that she’s nervous to meet the woman she has the responsibility of portraying.

The first meeting between Sabri and Hamrouni goes very well. Hamrouni assures and warns the anxious Sabri about what “Four Daughters” director Ben Hania has planned for the movie: “Kaouther isn’t going to invent anything in the story. It’s all true. And that could be disturbing for you.”

In a separate scene, Hamrouni admits in an interview that acting in a movie about her life has made her feel like the heartbroken-but-resilient character of Rose in “Titanic.” Hamrouni gets more emotional when she, Eya and Tayssir meet Matar and Karoui. At first, the mother and daughters are in awe of how much the actresses resemble Ghotrane and Rama.

But then, Hamrouni breaks down in tears as they all sit on a sofa together. Hamrouni begins to cry after asks Matar to sit next to her on the sofa, because Hamrouni says she was the real Ghofrane would have sat next to her if she were there. Eya says, “That’s what’s going to be so painful. We are going to relive it all. It’s going to open the wounds.”

Ghofrane is described as having a calm presence, and she was closer to her mother than Rahma was. Later in the movie, the family says that Ghofrane was the one who became a religous fanatic first and started wearing a hijab at all times. Rahma then followed and became a more hardcore radical than Ghofrane. For a while, Hamrouni and youngest daughter Tayssir also wore hijabs, but they never became radicalized. Eya was the only one in this family of women who refused to wear a hijab and become a fundamentalist Muslim.

Viewers of “Four Daughters” will have to be patient before the movie gets to the story of how Ghofrane and Rahma drastically changed. The first two-thirds of the movie are a combination of showing and telling how the family was before Ghofrane and Rahma reached the point of no return in becoming estranged from their mother and sisters. What emerges is a portrait of the family that was already splintering from generational trauma and abuse.

Hamrouni begins by talking about and re-enacting her unhappy marriage. It’s implied that it was an arranged marriage because Hamrouni makes it clear that she was never in love with her husband. On their wedding night, which is re-enacted in the movie, she resisted having sex with her husband, whose first name is not mentioned in the film. They got into a physical fight, and blood ended up on her wedding dress.

Hamrouni proudly says that she got her way and avoided having sex with her husband that night. However, Hamrouni’s sister scolded her that night and told her that she needed to be a good wife and do what her husband expected her to do. Hamrouni then says that for the rest of her miserable marriage, on the rare occasions that she and her husband had sex, it was only to conceive children.

“Four Daughters” has only one actor portraying all the movie’s male characters: Majd Mastoura. He portrays the abusive men in Hamrouni’s life: her husband (whom she eventually left) and an ex-con boyfriend named Wissem, who was in prison for murder but escaped from prison during the chaos of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011. Mastoura also has roles as a boyfriend of a teenage Ghofrane and as a police officer who takes a report when a frantic Hamrouni reports Ghofrane missing after Ghofrane ran away from home.

“Four Daughters” takes a brutally honest look at the problems in the family. Hamrouni says that her ex-husband was physically and verbally abusive to her and her daughters. Ghofrane got the worst of the abuse, her sisters say, because Ghofrane was the eldest child. However, Hamrouni admits that she physically abused her daughters too. She would often whip them out of anger. A tearful and regretful Hamrouni says that she ended up mistreating her daughters in the same way that Hamrouni’s abusive mother mistreated Hamrouni.

Hamrouni acknowledges that she was overly strict and paranoid about her daughters dating or being interested in sex. Part of that paranoia stems from Hamrouni’s own childhood, when she says that she and her sisters were raised by a single mother, and men would try to force themselves into the home to sexually assault them. Hamrouni says she had to disguise herself as a man to protect herself, her mother and her sisters. Hamrouni’s bad experiences with her male partners also undoubtedly affected her attitude in how she tried to instill in her daughters a fear of men.

Hamrouni says that her relationship with Wissem started off as a fairy-tale romance, where she fell in love with him like a giddy teenager. She said the fact that Wissem (who was a butcher as his job) was in prison for murder didn’t bother her because he treated her so well. But a dark family secret is revealed in the documentary: Eya and Tayssir say that Wissem was far from the “nice guy” he appeared to be, because he sexually abused all four of the sisters.

Hamrouni doesn’t comment in the documentary about this sexual abuse, but when it’s mentioned, her eyes and facial expression give away that she knows that it happened, and she feels ashamed that she didn’t protect her daughters. Apparently, Wissem had her fooled, and Hamrouni was blinded by her love for him. Rahma and Ghofrane say that their mother blamed them for Wissem going away. A scene briefly shows actor Mastour as Wissem in a prison cell, which implies that Wissem went to prison for these sex crimes.

In the movie, Eya is more talkative and expressive than Tayssir, although Tayssir later says that Eya is less likely to stand up for herself than Tayssir is. The family also experienced hunger and poverty. A re-enactment of a family dinner scene reveals that even when the family was starving, Ghofrane was very picky about what she would eat. By contrast, Rahma would eat almost anything that she was given.

An emotionally powerful re-enactment scene happens when Eya and Tayssir, portraying themselves, are sitting on the same bed as Mastoura, who portrays the predatory Wissem in this scene. Eya tells Wissem, “I hate you” with an intensity that affects actor Mastoura so much, he has to leave the room, and he asks to have a private conversation off-camera with director Ben Hania.

Meanwhile, Eya is clearly feeling some kind of catharsis from doing this scene, because she seems very proud of herself for doing this scene without breaking down and crying. After actor Mastoura asks to take a break because of how he was affected by this scene, Eya says that Mastoura should understand that she’s only acting. However, the painful memories are all too real for Tayssir, who quietly cries during this emotionally heavy scene.

During “Four Daughters,” the actresses are seen observing the real-life people they are portraying and practicing things such as mimicking their voices and body language. Old videos of Ghotrana and Rahma are shown to the actresses portraying them. All four daughters were in a parade for then-Tunisian president/dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011. Hamrouni says that she and her daughters were loyal supporters of Ben Ali.

It’s unclear when the family really began to experience financial hardships, but Hamrouni says the family’s life got worse after the Tunisian Revolution. Hamrouni went to work in Libya as a house cleaner. And that meant her daughters were often not under her supervision.

Older daughters Ghofrane and Rahma started to rebel by doing things such as skipping school. They began listening to heavy metal and dressed in Goth style, much to the disapproval of Hamrouni, who thought that Ghofrane and Rahma were becoming satanists. The movie has a re-enactment of an exorcism on Rahma.

And so, when Ghofrane and Rahma began seemed to have religious awakenings by ditching their Goth lifestyles and dressing in hijabs, Hamrouni says that she was initially relieved because she thought that it meant that her two oldest daughters were on the right track to turn their lives around. Little did the family know that this switch from one extreme to another would turn out to cause a permanent family rift.

There are moments in “Four Daughters” that are not easy to watch, especially scenes involving abuse. Rahma became so fanatical, she would whip Eya and Tayssir for things such as being late to prayer sessions. Rahma would also frequently accuse her younger sisters (especially Tayssir) of being “infidels.”

All four sisters had a fixation on death and would play games where a sister would pretend to be dead, and they would pretend to have burial and funeral rituals. Eya says these games were “fun” for the sisters, like “going to Disneyland.” But these morbid games are indications of severe emotional turmoil.

“Four Daughters” also shows how these family members see how they are perceived by the actresses who are spending time getting to know them. Karoui, who has the role of Rahma, keenly observes that Rahma’s religious fanatacism was a way for Rahma to control and manipulate the sisters’ overly strict mother after Rahma’s Goth rebellion phase didn’t work.

There are also indications that the actresses want to keep a certain professional distance when the family members start to blur the lines between wanting to get to know the actresses and treating them like real family members. Hamrouni essentially admits that she was closest to eldest daughter Ghofrane. But when Hamrouni asks actress Matar (who has the role of Ghofrane) if Matar would want Hamrouni to be her mother in real life, Matar looks uncomfortable and doesn’t answer. Matar’s non-response says it all, and Hamrouni tries not to look hurt and embarrassed.

For better or worse, “Four Daughters” doesn’t reveal until toward the end of the film what happened to Ghofrane and Rahma after they became terrorists. Some viewers might think this information comes too late in the movie. However, the buildup to these final scenes is meant to show that this family—even with their problems before the separation—had a certain unity that is now gone. “Four Daughters” might not heal the family’s heartbreak over the two daughters who left the family. The movie is a cautionary tale of what can happen when people lose loved ones to radical ideologies that can destroy family relationships.

Kino Lorber released “Four Daughters” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 19, 2023.

Review: ‘About Dry Grasses,’ starring Deniz Celiloğlu, Merve Dizdar and Musab Ekici

February 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Merve Dizdar, Deniz Celiloğlu and Musab Ekici in “About Dry Grasses” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

“About Dry Grasses”

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Turkish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Turkey, the dramatic film “About Dry Grasses” features a cast if Turkish characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bachelor, who is an art teacher at a middle school, gets into various entanglements related to his career and his personal life. 

Culture Audience: “About Dry Grasses” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan and well-acted movies about adults who are disatisfied with their lives.

Merve Dizdar and Deniz Celiloğlu in “About Dry Grasses” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

“About Dry Grasses” will test the patience of anyone who doesn’t want to watch a talkative movie that’s a little more than three hours. However, this artsy drama is an interesting character study of a troubled teacher and his complex relationships. The movie has entwined storylines of how the teacher presents himself in different ways in his job and in his personal life, depending on whom he wants to manipulate or control.

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “About Dry Grasses” was co-written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, his wife Ebru Ceylan and Akın Aksu. “About Dry Grasses” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where Merve Dizdar won the prize for Best Actress. The movie made the rounds at other film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “About Dry Grasses” was Turkey’s official selection to be considered for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards. The movie made the shortlist but ultimately did not get an Oscar nomination.

“About Dry Grasses” takes place mostly in the rural municipality of Incescu, Turkey. In 2022, the population of Incescu was a little more than 29,000 people. In the beginning of the movie, it’s winter in an unspecified year in the early 2020s. An art teacher named Samet (played by Deniz Celiloğlu), who has just returned from a trip, trudges through the snow to get back to his modest house that he shares with his roommate Kenan (played by Musab Ekici), who is currently unemployed.

Samet and Kenan are both never-married bachelors in mid-to-late 30s, with no children. When Samet returns home, Kenan tells him that Kenan’s father is in a hospital, and Kenan’s mother is upset because Kenan is still a bachelor with no known prospects of finding a wife. Kenan also says that’s he’s been trying to find a job, but when he interviewed for a job as a security staffer, Kenan was told that the employer would rather have a dog do the security work.

Samet, who is very self-absorbed, doesn’t really care about Kenan’s problems, but he pretends to listen to Kenan as if he cares. As Samet says many times throughout the story, Samet is miserable with small-town life in Incescu, and he wants to find a job in a much bigger city, preferably Istanbul, where he used to live. For the past four years, Samet has been teaching eighth graders at a middle school in Incescu.

When Samet returns to his school after his vacation, he gives a mirror as a gift to one of his students named Savim (played by Ece Bağcı), who is very happy to see Samet. Samet tells her that this mirror is something he bought for her when he was on his trip. From the beginning, something seems a little inappropriate about the way that Savim and Samet are interacting toward each other.

Savim is very giggly with Samet and has an obvious crush on him, but he is touchy-feely with her in an affectionate way that suggests he’s flirting with her too. As an adult teacher, Samet doesn’t seem to be setting professional boundaries between himself and Savim. The mirror gift to Savim is also a sign that he’s giving her special treatment.

When a student complains to Samet in his classroom that Samet is giving special treatment to Savim and Savim’s friends, Samet verbally lashes out at this observant student by insulting him. Throughout the movie, Samet shows that he can be very charming but also very vindictive. He has a nasty temper that flares up whenever someone gives him criticism that he doesn’t like. He can be emotionally cruel to his students or anyone who doesn’t do exactly what he expects them to do.

Kenan eventually gets a job at the school as a custodian. Kenan reports to the school’s live-in custodian named Tolga (played by Erdem Senocak), who is later revealed to be a bit of a gossip. Kenan is a good guy who thinks Samet is his best friend, but Kenan is slow to pick up on social cues and facial expressions to see how Samet might really feel. Kenan mistakenly believes that Samet is as honest as Kenan is.

Samet hangs out with Kenan because Samet wants to be the superior “alpha male” to Kenan’s “beta male.” This attitude is most evident when a certain woman comes into both of their lives. Her name is Nuray (played by Dizdar), and she is an English teacher at a bigger school where Samet would probably like to work.

Samet meets Nuray for the first time at her school’s cafeteria. It’s sort of like a blind date for both of them. Nuray, who happens to be disabled, is intelligent and witty. She lost her part of a leg to amputation during a suicide bomber attack. Nuray’s parents don’t know that she was involved in radical political activism that led to her being near this bomb.

Later, Kenan meets Nuray when Samet introduces the both of them to each other. Kenan and Nuray seem to like each other a lot and have instant chemistry together. However, jealous Samet can’t bear the thought of Kenan having a more successful love life. Things happen in this love triangle, where someone inevitably gets emotionally hurt.

It’s never said out loud in the movie, by Samet seems to have big secrets about why he ended up in Incescu. For example, “About Dry Grasses” doesn’t reveal why Samet moved from his preferred big city of Istanbul to live in the remote town of Incescu. Samet tells anyone who’ll listen that he doesn’t like small-town life.

It’s very easy to speculate that maybe Samet left Istanbul because he was running away from something. The movie leaves it up to interpretation, but it’s a logical guess that maybe Samet got involved in a scandal in Istanbul, considering how sneaky and dishonest Samet is revealed to be in this movie.

Meanwhile, the discovery of a love letter throws things into chaos for Samet. The movie shows whether or not he gets out of this predicament and the lengths that he will go to in those efforts to not get into trouble. “About Dry Grasses” has some scenes that are intriguing and suspenseful and other scenes that are just of long conversations (usually at a dinner table) of people talking about mostly mundane things.

Boredom might set in for some viewers during this lengthy movie, but what will probably keep people interested is to see what happens to Samet. How long will he continue to juggle the various sides of his personality? Dizdar gives a very skilled performance of someone who just might be a sociopath but is pretty good at hiding it from most people.

Samet also has a great deal of self-loathing. The movie gets its title from a line that he says near the end of the film whene he comments that dry grasses are “worthless, like my life.” Ironically, the person in the movie who is the first to see Samet for who he really is the one whose judgment is questioned the most. “About Dry Grasses” shows in effective ways how warning signs about a problematic person can be ignored because people don’t want to admit that they could be fooled by a manipulative liar.

Sideshow and Janus Films released “About Dry Grasses” in select U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

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

February 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“How to Have Sex”

Directed by Molly Manning Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Perfect Days’ (2023), starring Kôji Yakusho

February 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kôji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” (2023)

Directed by Wim Wenders

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tokyo, the dramatic film “Perfect Days” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly sanitation worker, who is a quiet loner, spends his days and nights trying to live a harmonious existence when he’s with other people, but he sometimes battles loneliness and being misunderstood. 

Culture Audience: “Perfect Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a “slice of life” movie that focuses on a specific individual.

Arisa Nakano and Kôji Yakusho in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” is a “slice of life” movie about an elderly sanitation worker who is a quiet loner. Viewer appreciation will rest entirely on whether or not this person is worth watching. For most people, the answer is “yes.” However, because “Perfect Days” is a slow-paced movie, it won’t have much appeal to viewers with short attention spans or those who have no interest in seeing this insularly focused movie about this type of person.

Directed by Wim Wenders (who co-wrote the “Perfect Days” screenplay with Takuma Takasaki), “Perfect Days” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where star Kôji Yakusho won the prize for Best Actor. The movie then made the rounds at numerous film festivals in 2023, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “Perfect Days” was nominated for Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards.

Yakusho, who stars as “Perfect Days” protagonist Hirayama, gives the type of performance where he has to do a lot of acting with his facial expressions and body language, since Hirayama doesn’t talk at all for a great deal of the film. When he does talk, he does so sparingly, without saying his inner feelings out loud. It’s the type of performance that will make viewers want to know more about Hirayama—not in a way where the movie feels incomplete, but in a way that indicates there’s a lot more to Hirayama than he shows to the people he sees on a regular basis.

“Perfect Days” shows what amounts to about two weeks of Hirayama’s life. He works for a company called The Tokyo Toilet, and his job is to clean outdoor public toilets in Tokyo, where he lives. He is very responsible, prompt and thorough in his work. It doesn’t take long for viewers to see that Hirayama likes to keep his life uncomplicated and is happy with finding comfort in life’s simple pleasures.

Very little is known about Hirayama before this story takes place. What were his hopes and dreams when he was younger? Has he been married? Does he have children? What types of jobs did he have before his current job? Don’t expect answers to these questions, although because Hirayama lives alone and doesn’t mention having any children, it can be assumed that he’s a bachelor with no children.

A few things become apparent about Hirayama from his interactions with people. He’s kind, he’s generous, and he likes his daily routines. He has a pattern that he sticks to of going to his job, a local park for lunch, his favorite cafe and bar when he’s not working, and then going home. He likes listening to classic rock, reading, and taking outdoor photos. He keeps his photos neatly filed in boxes labeled according to the months that the photos were taken.

Hirayama shows his generosity by lending a co-worker in his 20s named Takashi (played by Tokio Emoto) some money so that Takashi can court a girlfriend named Aya (played by Aoi Yamada), whom Takashi wants desperately to impress. Takashi gets the money by whining to Hirayama that the Tokyo Toilet job doesn’t pay Takashi enough money to take Aya out on the dates that he thinks Aya deserves. At first, Takashi tried to persuade Hirayama to sell off a large part of Hirayama’s music collection (he has mostly cassettes and vinyl albums) to get the money, but Hirayama decides to just give Takashi the wanted cash instead. Takashi shows up late for work sometimes. When Hirayama has to pick up the slack for Takashi’s flakiness, Hirayama does so without complaining.

Music is a big part of “Perfect Days,” since Hirayama listens to classic rock from the 1960s and 1970s for enjoyment, and it becomes a way that he bonds with certain people in the movie. Patti Smith’s breakthrough 1975 album “Horses” is prominently featured in the story. Other music heard in the movie’s soundtrack (which is the soundtrack to Hirayama’s life) are songs such as Lou Reed’s plaintive 1972 ballad “Perfect Day,” Van Morrison’s classic 1967 love song “Brown Eyed Girl” and the Kinks’ 1966 jaunty hit “Sunny Afternoon.” There’s a scene in the movie where Aya asks Hirayama if she can find “Horses” on Spotify. He’s never heard of Spotify before and think it’s a physical retail store, because he doesn’t fully understand the concept of a digital streaming service.

A turning point in the story comes with the unexpected visit of Hirayama’s teenage niece Niko (played by Arisa Nakano), who shows up at Hirayama’s home because she’s having problems with her mother, who is Hirayama’s younger sister. This visit is a catalyst for Hirayama to look at his life from Niko’s perspective, and it opens up some old emotional wounds and certain feelings in Hirayama. “Perfect Days” is not a perfect movie, but it’s a wonderful example of a contemplative movie about someone who usually isn’t the main character of a movie and is the type of person who is often overlooked or forgotten in real life.

Neon released “Perfect Days” in New York City on November 10, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024. The movie was released in Japan and other countries in 2023.

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

February 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“The Taste of Things”

Directed by Trân Anh Hùng

French with subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘May December,’ starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore

January 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in “May December” (Photo by Francois Duhamel/Netflix)

“May December”

Directed by Todd Haynes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tybee Island, Georgia, in 2015, the dramatic film “May December” features a white and Asian cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A famous actress is starring in a movie about a disgraced and formerly imprisoned sex offender, who seduced an underage co-worker and later married him, and the actress goes to the couple’s home to do research for the role.

Culture Audience: “May December” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Todd Haynes, and movies that put a fictional spin on real-life scandals.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in “May December” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“May December” is a very glossy psychological portrait of manipulation and exploitation, inspired by a real-life sex scandal. Although the principal cast members give above-average performances, it’s a slow-moving film with a fragmented story. Some viewers might see “May December” as a very dark comedy. However, the movie’s few comedic moments are in short spurts and then quickly fade into the background when “May December” becomes more concerned about making viewers increasingly uncomfortable with certain awful characters pretending to be better people than they really are.

Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Samy Burch, “May December” gets its title from the term “May December relationship,” to describe romances that have a big age gap between the partners. The younger partner is supposed to be in the spring of youth (as exemplified by the spring month of May), while the older partner is supposed to be closer to the end of life (as indicated by end-of-the-year month of December). “May December” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

In “May December,” the story’s scandal is based on the real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. In 1996, the year they got sexually involved with each other, Letourneau was a 34-year-old married mother of four children, and she was Fulaau’s schoolteacher in Burien, Washington. He was 12 years old.

Letourneau eventually served time in jail (in 1997) and in prison (from 1998 to 2004) for statutory rape and for violating the terms of her 1997 plea agreement, which had required her to stay away from a then-underage Fualaau. Her first husband divorced her in 1999. She gave birth to two daughters fathered by Fualaau. The first daughter was born in 1997, while Letourneau was awaiting her sentencing. The second daughter was born in 1998, when Letourneau was in prison. Letourneau and Fualaau got married in 2005, but they separated in 2019. Letourneau died of colorectal cancer in 2020, at the age of 58.

All of this background information is helpful to better understand the nuances in “May December.” In the movie, the character based on Letourneau is named Gracie Atherton-Yoo (played by Julianne Moore), while the Fualaau-based character is Joe Yoo (played by Charles Melton), who are living a quiet suburban life together as married parents in Tybee Island, Georgia. Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman) is a 36-year-old famous actress who is starring as Gracie in a made-for-TV movie. “May December” (which takes place in 2015, which is about 23 years after the scandal) shows what happens over the course of several days when Elizabeth goes to Tybee Island to do research for the role by visiting Gracie and Joe, as well as interviewing their friends, family and other people who know this notorious couple.

“May December” begins with a scene of Elizabeth in a Georgia hotel room as she gets ready to go to the Yoo home to meet Gracie and Joe for the first time. Meanwhile, Gracie and Joe are at their home, where they are preparing to welcome Elizabeth to a family cookout in their backyard. Gracie is in the kitchen making deviled eggs and a cake with her friend/neighbor Rhonda (played by Andrea Frankle), who is Gracie’s staunchest defender and supporter. It’s later revealed that Gracie has a home-based business where she makes cakes. Joe works in a hospital as a medical assistant.

Before Elizabeth arrives, Gracie tells Rhonda what she expects from Elizabeth: “All I ask is that she’s polite and not just sitting there with her sunglasses on.” And when Elizabeth and Gracie meet in a polite but slightly guarded way, Gracie tells Elizabeth: “I want you to tell the story right.” Elizabeth, who speaks in calm, measured tones, replies: “I want you to feel seen and known.”

In real life, Letourneau and Fualaau had two daughters. In “May December,” Gracie and Joe have two daughters and a son. Eldest child Honor (played by Piper Curda) is an outspoken college student living away from home, but she will soon be visiting to attend the high-school graduation of her younger twin siblings: insecure Mary (played by Elizabeth Yu) and rebellious Charlie (played by Gabriel Chun). Another member of the Yoo family is Joe’s widower father Joe Yoo Sr. (played by Kelvin Han Yee), a Korean immigrant who—just like his son Joe—chain smokes when he’s feeling stressed-out.

Over time, viewers see that Gracie likes to appear composed and in control in public and when Elizabeth is there observing. But in private and when Elizabeth isn’t there, Gracie is high-strung, very demanding and overly critical of other people. When things don’t go her way, Gracie loves to play the victim.

Gracie also treats Joe as someone whose only purpose in life is to make her happy. When Gracie has a tearful meltdown because a customer canceled an order for a cake that Gracie already made, Gracie expects Joe to comfort her like someone who needs to be comforted over the death of a loved one. And there are signs that Gracie has an undiagnosed mental illness, such as when Gracie insists to Joe in private that he was the one who seduced her when he was a child.

Another scene that shows how Gracie is a master manipulator is when she and Mary (with Elizabeth invited to observe) go shopping for Mary’s graduation dress. At a store’s dressing room, Mary tries on dresses. Mary’s first choice is a sleeveless dress, but Gracie doesn’t want Mary to wear a dress that will expose Mary’s arms. Mary gets annoyed with Gracie and firmly says that she’s getting the dress. However, Mary changes her mind when Gracie comments that other girls in the graduating class probably won’t wear sleeveless dresses because sleeveless dresses will make their arms look fat.

Over time, an unspoken rivalry develops between Gracie and Elizabeth, who is very aware that image-conscious Gracie is bothered by Elizabeth, who is going to play a younger version of Gracie. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes about this power struggle is when Elizabeth and Gracie are standing in front of a bathroom mirror in Gracie’s home while Gracie is putting on makeup. Rather than have Elizabeth mimic her, Gracie insists on putting the makeup on Elizabeth herself.

Joe is quiet, humble and unassuming. And at first, he seems to be in the background of Elizabeth’s thoughts as she puts most of her initial focus on studying Gracie. It should come as no surprise that the more that Gracie gushes about Joe to make it sound like they have a beautiful love story, the more that Elizabeth seems to get curious about Joe and takes more of an interest in him. Elizabeth flatters Joe and drops hints that he deserves a better life than the one that he has with control-freak Gracie. But does Elizabeth really care about Joe as a person, or does Elizaebth care more about immersing herself so much into Gracie’s life that she wants to replicate aspects of Gracie’s life?

Some of the people whom Elizabeth interviews for her research are Gracie’s ex-husband Tom Atherton (played by D.W. Moffett), who is now married to another woman; Gracie’s adult son Georgie Atherton (played by Cory Michael Smith), from her first marriage, who bitterly tells Elizabeth that Gracie ruined Georgie’s life; and Colin Henderson (played by Charles Green), the owner of the pet store where Joe worked as a kid and where Gracie was Joe’s supervisor. Observant viewers will notice that for all the interviews that Elizabeth does, she’s not very forthcoming about herself, until a very revealing scene where she makes a speaking appearance in Mary’s drama class and answers prying questions from a few of the students.

No one from Elizabeth’s personal life is seen in the movie, which is the movie’s way of showing how Elizabeth skillfully compartmentalizes her life. Elizabeth is shown briefly talking in phone conversations at her hotel with her fiancé and with the director of the movie where she stars as Gracie. In these conversations, she reveals herself even more to be a very driven and ambitious actress.

Elizabeth is also seen in the hotel room looking at video auditions of teenage boys who will be playing the role of Joe. These boys are supposed to be in their early teens, but Elizabeth remarks that they don’t look “sexy” enough, based on what Elizabeth has seen of Joe. But it’s a sign of a reality disconnect for Elizabeth, because the Joe she’s getting to know is an adult, not the child who was manipulated into an illegal sexual relationship with an adult.

“May December” presents Elizabeth as the central character, but the movie doesn’t always do a great job of balancing the perspectives of Gracie and Joe. There is almost nothing told about how Joe’s side of the family reacted to the scandal, or how Joe’s experiences as a child of an immigrant affected his outlook on life. His father seems to have accepted the marriage of Joe and Gracie, but was this acceptance easy, difficult, or somewhere in between? The movie never says and doesn’t seem to care.

Joe is only given two or three really good scenes that show he’s more than just a loyal “boy toy” husband. Those scenes arrive when awareness starts to sink in with Joe about how much of his childhood was robbed when Gracie chose to cross the line and have a sexual relationship with him when he was a child. It hits him the hardest when he sees Mary and Charlie graduating from high school. This graduation ceremony scene is when Joe fully understands that his children’s coming of age and starting new chapters in their lives as young adults are very different from what he experienced.

What “May December” also does very well is show how Elizabeth’s presence is the catalyst for Gracie and Joe to re-evaluate how they want to be perceived by others and how they perceive themselves. Gracie’s reaction is to “double down” on the narrative that she and Joe have a “fairytale love story.” Joe starts to have doubts and wonders if this “fairytale love story” he’s believed in for all these years was one big lie.

Meanwhile, on another level, “May December” is also a story about what happens when two predators meet and become competitive with each other—not just in how to interpret Gracie’s life but also in trying to prove who’s living a more “fulfilled” life. In that regard, the scenes where Elizabeth and Gracie are in the same room are fascinating to watch. Observant viewers will notice that Elizabeth’s “research” has a more profound effect on her than Elizabeth expects. This is demonstrated effectively in the movie’s final scene.

Portman and Moore are compelling to watch in “May December,” but the movie loses a bit of steam when it can’t really decide how much importance Gracie’s children and in-laws should have in the story. It’s never explained why Elizabeth talked to only one of Gracie’s children from Gracie’s first marriage and not the other children from Gracie’s first marriage. And the character of Joe Sr. seems like a “token” character, because the movie doesn’t seem concerned about how showing or telling how Gracie’s scandalous actions with Joe affected members of Joe’s family.

If “May December” is supposed to be a dark comedy, then it doesn’t quite succeed as a dark comedy or satire like director Gus Van Sant’s 1995 movie “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix. “To Die For” succeeded in its comedic intentions as a movie version of a real-life scandal about an adult female teacher seducing an underage teenage student to commit a felony crime. As a psychological drama, “May December” excels in its intention to be an unsettling film about the human cost of treating people like pawns in a chess game.

Netflix released “May December” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Occupied City,’ a historical documentary of Nazi-controlled Amsterdam, narrated by Melanie Hyams

January 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

A street procession in “Occupied City” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Occupied City”

Directed by Steve McQueen

Culture Representation: Filmed in Amsterdam, in 2020 and 2021, the documentary film “Occupied City” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people and Asians) of various social classes in cinéma vérité footage.

Culture Clash: The documentary visits locations and tells (through a narrator) what each location was like in Nazi-controlled Amsterdam from 1940 to 1945, to contrast with what the location looked like at the time the documentary was filmed in the early 2020s. 

Culture Audience: “Occupied City” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Holocaust-themed documentaries, but viewers will either like or dislike the bloated runtime and the movie’s bland textbook style.

A family at a bar mitzvah ceremony in “Occupied City” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Occupied City” is tedious and repetitive, due to this documentary’s excessively long runtime (nearly 4.5 hours) and pretentiousness. It’s like being stuck in a rambling academic lecture with travelogue visuals. It’s also an endurance test to stay awake. Most people who watch this entire movie probably won’t remember many of the overload of facts that this movie soullessly spews out like an artificial-intelligence machine on autopilot. It’s why the total runtime of “Occupied City” is not justified at all, because most of the movie will be quickly forgotten because of its mind-numbing monotony.

Directed by Steve McQueen, “Occupied City” is based on Bianca Stigter’s 2019 non-fiction book “Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945),” a location guide to historical locations of Amsterdam when the city was controlled by Nazis. McQueen and Stigter, who are romantic partners in real life, are two of the producers of “Occupied City,” which had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is like the cinematic version of an oversized atlas with narration that sounds like it’s from a very stodgy textbook. No one in the 2020s footage is interviewed. Everyone who’s seen talking in the movie is not identified at all.

The problem with “Occupied City” is it looks like the filmmakers decided to just film the locations and have a narrator read excerpts from Stigter’s book, with no further insights that a great documentary would have. The movie also shows some footage without narration that looks like something a tourist would film when the tourist doesn’t know what to film. It looks like extraneous footage that director McQueen couldn’t bear to edit out of a documentary that desperately needed better film editing to keep viewers fully engaged.

The narrator for “Occupied City” is actress Melanie Hyams, who has the plodding task of reading factoids about the approximately 130 locations shown in “Occupied City.” Hyams, who is British, reads the script in a tone that is borderline robotic. Most people who know World War II history also know about the horrors of the Holocaust, but the way that these facts are delivered in “Occupied City” really diminish the impact of this history. The visuals focus on mundane life in Amsterdam, while the real people who suffered during the Holocaust are reduced to detached and dull sentences recited in narration.

Want to know where was the first Amsterdam pub that was supposedly the first in the city to ban Jewish people? “Occupied City” will show you that where the pub used to be is now a non-descript G-Star office or factory, which the documentary filmed from the outside. In the narration, Hyams says a few things about the antisemitic rules posted in the pub. And then concludes the short summary of the location by saying what happened to this antisemitic pub: “demolished.” (Expect to hear the word “demolished” a lot in this documentary.)

“Occupied City” gives very brief summaries of some of the atrocities that took place in each location during any year between 1940 to 1945. Whether it’s the Rijksmuseum, a kindergarten classroom, or a brothel in the 2020s, the documentary will tell viewers what types of Nazi-related activities took place in those locations during those Nazi-controlled 1940s years. Because there is no archival footage in “Occupied City,” there are no “before” and “after” photos or images of these locations. And that deliberate omission isn’t necessarily a flaw.

But what’s missing from “Occupied City” is any real effort to get viewers to remember the human stories of the people who were part of this history. Their photos are never shown. Their descendants are not interviewed. Instead, viewers who watch “Occupied City” are more likely to remember how much the documentary shows lingering footage of how Amsterdam was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, or footage of left-wing political rallies where people rant against fascism and environmental corruption.

And really, it isn’t all that surprising when “Occupied City” tells you that the current town squares in Amsterdam that existed during the Nazi occupation were used for Nazi rallies back then. It isn’t shocking that many of the houses where Amsterdam residents currently live used to be the houses of Nazi officials or persecuted Jewish people. But these are the types of facts that “Occupied City” repeats over and over, as if it’s uncovering groundbreaking information. Ironically, the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam is given only a few short minutes in “Occupied City,” probably because the museum is so much more informative than this puffed-up documentary that thinks it’s more important than it really is.

The obvious intention of “Occupied City” is to show how life has continued in Amsterdam, with many people seemingly blissfully unaware that the very spaces they are enjoying are the same spaces where brutal antisemitism and other evil bigotry occurred. For example, there’s a fairly long scene filmed during an unknown month in a 2020s winter, showing children and their families ice sledding in an outdoor space where Jewish people used to be rounded up and abused by Nazis. Another example is the documentary showing two women having a love partnership ceremony at the same location where there used to be a Jewish bookstore whose books were destroyed by Nazis.

But when “Occupied City” shows these “everyday happy life” scenes with narration of dark and depressing Holocaust facts, it’s with the unspoken and condescending tone that maybe these people being filmed don’t know or don’t care about these facts. But because “Occupied City” doesn’t bother to interview anyone for this documentary, the fact is that viewers just don’t know how much history about Nazi-occupied Amsterdam is known or cared about by the people being filmed. The movie ends in a very predictable way: by showing an interracial family whose son is having a bar mitzvah ceremony, which is the type of footage that Nazis would hate.

“Occupied City” is a long-winded documentary about locations and random footage of anonymous people in those locations, not a well-rounded story about people (past and present) who are part of the history that this documentary attempts to tell. Stigter’s Holocaust-themed 2022 documentary “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” (whose centerpiece was long-lost, three-minute footage of Polish residents in 1938) made the most of out of this short footage to create a meaningful feature-length documentary. Unfortunately, “Occupied City” does the opposite: It does very little with the overabundance of location footage in this overstuffed documentary that drains the humanity from the people affected by this very human history.

A24 released “Occupied City” in select U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2023.

Review: ‘Anselm,’ starring Anselm Kiefer

December 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Anselm Kiefer in “Anselm” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

“Anselm”

Directed by Wim Wenders

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in France, the documentary film “Anselm” features an all-white group of people telling the life story of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer.

Culture Clash: Kiefer has a reputation for being controversial because he often does art about taboo subjects, such as the sordid history of Nazi Germany. 

Culture Audience: “Anselm” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Kiefer, filmmaker Wim Wenders, and artsy documentaries that don’t stick to the usual formulas.

Anselm Kiefer in “Anselm” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

Don’t expect a traditional biographical documentary of Anselm Kiefer when watching “Anselm.” It’s an unconventional showcase of a collection of his notable art on display in warehouses and outdoor settings, mixed with archival footage and his recollections. “Anselm” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and then made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, such as the Telluride Film Festival.

Directed by Wim Wenders, “Anselm” is unlike most documentaries, because there isn’t a lot of talking in this movie. Interspersed with the majestic views of Kiefer’s art, he occasionally makes comments about his life. He is known for making art that is always unque, often provocative, sometimes controversial. (He got a lot of criticism when he was younger for being seemingly fixated on doing art about Nazi Germany.)

The documentary also has re-enactments of his life, with Anselm’s son Daniel Kiefer portraying Anselm as a young man. Anton Wenders portrays Anselm as a boy of about 5 or 6 years old. The depictions of Anselm as a boy also showed he liked to spend time alone drawing and having a vivid imagination n which he would tell stories to himself.

Anselm was born in 1947, in Donaueschingen, Germany. Since 1992, he has lived in France, where he has a 200-acre property (in southern France’s Barjac) that is like a museum of his artwork. “Anselm” has multiple scenes of Anselm riding a bicycle through the massive warehouses on the property. He says he likes living in isolation.

He’s seen occasionally smoking a cigar during his interview commentary, which isn’t particularly revealing, because it’s obvious he doesn’t really like talking about himself too much. (His personal life is not discussed at at all in the documentary.) He gets more animated when talking about an artist he admires: Paul Celan, a Romanian poet and translator, who died in 1970, at the age of 49. Anselm comments that it must have been difficult for Celan to be Jewish in Nazi Germany.

Viewers also get a peek into Anselm’s creative process. The documentary shows him making the piece “Sky Painting Earth,” which involves him torching large swaths of straw on massive panels. There are a few workers occasionally shown assisting him, but no one else is interviewed in this documentary except for Anselm.

“Anselm” opens with sweeping views of Anselm’s 1999 installation “The Women of Antiquity,” which features sculptures of wedding dresses on display outdoors and in warehouse spaces. As the camera glides over the sculptures, a chorus of imaginary women’s voices can be heard whispering things, such as “We may be homeless and the forgotten ones, but we don’t forget a thing.” This installation is seen as visual bookends to the movie, which has many stunning images of Anselm’s inventive art.

“Anselm” was originally released in cinemas as a 3D-only film, which enhances the impressive cinematography by Franz Lustig. The camera work for this documentary doesn’t evoke “fly on the wall” filmmaking; it’s more like a soaring bird. Leonard Küßner’s elegant musical score helps take viewers on this carefully curated but still immersive journey into Anselm Kiefer as an artist. It’s a journey worth taking for viewers who are open-minded enough to go with the flow and expect the unexpected. As a documentary filled with inspired art, “Anselm” is a distinctive portrait unto itself.

Sideshow and Janus Films released “Anselm” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Rebel’ (2022), starring Aboubakr Bensaihi, Lubna Azabal, Amir El Arbi, Tara Abboud and Younes Bouab

November 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Aboubakr Bensaihi in “Rebel” (Photo courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures)

“Rebel” (2022)

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Arabic, French, Dutch and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Belgium and in Syria, from 2013 to 2016, the dramatic film “Rebel” features a predominantly Middle Eastern cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An amateur rapper in his 20s moves from Belgium to Syria to help war victims, but he is forced to join ISIS, while his adolescent brother is torn between obeying his mother’s wishes to be a good student in Belgium or running away to Syria to reunite with his brother. 

Culture Audience: “Rebel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing somewhat unconventional dramas about families who have internal conflicts about controversial politics and terrorism.

Aboubakr Bensaihi in “Rebel” (Photo courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures)

“Rebel” is a gripping story about a family torn apart by political extremism. Although this 135-minute drama is a little too long and needed tighter film editing, the story and performances are worth watching. “Rebel” has some music-video-styled interludes (where people break into a hip-hop performance, including having backup dancers) that are very unusual for a film with this subject matter. Some viewers will appreciate the film for having this non-traditional approach. Other viewers will dislike these musical scenes for being too distracting or too disruptive to the movie’s serious tone.

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, “Rebel” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. El Arbi, Fallah, Kevin Meul and Jan van Dyck co-wrote the “Rebel” screenplay. The movie alternates between showing the contrasting lives of two brothers and how their lives could be on a collision course to tragedy. “Rebel” is told in non-chronological order, but the movie shows the year in which a major scene is taking place.

When viewers first see 12-year-old Nassim Wasaki (played by Amir El Arbi), it’s 2015, and he thinks he is having a normal day at his school in the Brussels suburb of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (also known as Molenbeek), Belgium. Nassim is the son of a Moroccan immigrant named Leila Wasaki (played by Lubna Azabal), who is a single mother. On this particular day, Nassim is taken out of his classroom and sent to the school principal’s office, where a tearful Leila hugs him.

What’s the reason for this emergency visit? Leila’s older son Kamal Wasaki (played by Aboubakr Bensaihi) has been identified in the media as being part of a group of ISIS terrorists who were filmed on video executing people by shooting them. A TV news report says that Kamal was a local celebrity rapper using the stage name DJ Kawas, but he disappeared several months ago after drugs were found in his family’s garage.

Flashbacks show that Kamal had a history of getting in trouble with the law in Belgium, but this drug bust was the last straw for Leila, who told Kamal that he was no longer welcome in her home. Nassim, who has always looked up to Kamal, is devastated that Kamal has to move out of the family house. A homeless and aimless Kamal eventually met some people who convinced him to move to Syria to help war victims.

Kamal sees this relocation as an opportunity to turn his life around for the better, because he thinks he will be involved in a worthy charitable cause. Kamal finds out too late that he has really been recruited to join ISIS, along with several other young men from Syria and other countries. Kamal is forced into this ISIS recruitment program and is held captive, as he trains to be an ISIS soldier. Kamal eventually gets a new name while he is under ISIS control: Abu-Bakr Al-Belgik. A terrorist named Abu Amar (played by Younes Bouab) is also part of the story.

“Rebel” shows how the scandal of Kamal’s involvement with ISIS is processed differently by Leila and Nassim. Leila feels a lot of shame but also determination not to let Nassim fall prey to the same recruiters. Nassim has a childlike gullibility or ignorance in not fully understanding what Kamal is doing in Syria. Even though Nassim sees the news reports and videos on social media that show Nassim is now an ISIS soldier who kills people, in Nassim’s mind, he thinks that Kamal is helping people in Syria.

Meanwhile, Leila goes to support group meetings with other people whose loved ones have become lost in the grips of ISIS recruitment. Nassim slowly begins to see how Kamal’s activities are affecting their family’s reputation in Belgium. More people start to shun or avoid Nassim and Leila, who wants to protect Nassim from a lot of the trauma she is experiencing.

Nassim’s female classmate Hind (played by Malak Sebar) is his closest friend at school. At first, Hind is curious about Kamal and asks Nassim about him. Nassim tells her that Kamal is helping people in Syria. But when Hind’s parents find out that this is what Nassim thinks of Kamal, the parents greatly disapprove. Hind goes from not being allowed by her parents to sit next to Nassim on class, to not being allowed to hang out with him, to being pulled out of the school altogether, so Hind won’t have to see Nassim at all in school.

Meanwhile, an ISIS recruiter named Idriss (played by Fouad Hajji) has been hanging out at the schoolyard to talk to Nassim. It should come as no surprise that Idriss uses Nassim’s desperate desire to see Kamal as bait in these recruitment efforts. Idriss tells Nassim that Kamal very much wants to see Nassim, but that the only way is for Nassim to secretly go to Syria. Idriss says he will pay for the trip and be Nassim’s chaperone. The movie shows what Nassm’s decision is.

The middle section of “Rebel” tends to drag with repetitive scenes of shootouts and people being tortured. Viewers see that during this dark period in Kamal’s life, he found some brightness by meeting, falling in love with, and marrying a woman named Noor (played by Tara Abboud), who knows that Kamal is being forced to do ISIS activities. Kamal is faced with a moral dilemma when it comes to Noor, and his decision is the catalyst for many other things that happen in the story.

“Rebel” has good acting overall but not anything outstanding enough to get major awards. The movie has some visually ambitious and artistic scenes, but some of the narrative doesn’t flow very smoothly because of the way the movie’s non-chronological timeline has some jumbled editing. The last third of the movie is when “Rebel” is at its best in its intended emotional impact. Viewers who are patient enough to watch this entire movie might be left stunned by the outcome of events depicted in “Rebel.”

Yellow Veil Pictures released “Rebel” in select U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023. The movie was released in Morocco and in parts of Europe and Asia in 2022.

Review: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone

October 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Paramount Pictures)

“Killers of the Flower Moon”

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Some language in Dhegiha Siouan with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oklahoma, from 1919 to 1926, the dramatic film “Killers of the Flower Moon” (based on the non-fiction book of the same name) features a white and Native American cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart gets caught up in murders of members of the Osage Nation, including family members of his Osage Nation wife, who are being killed to gain possession of land that is rich in petroleum oil.

Culture Audience: “Killers of the Flower Moon” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the star headliners and history-based movies with a top-notch principal cast.

Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Paramount Pictures)

Epic in scope and tragic in tone, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is an impactful drama that tells the true story of a shameful part of American history when racism and greed caused the murders of Osage Nation people. The movie is very long but worth seeing. At 206 minutes (nearly three-and-a-half hours), “Killers of the Flower Moon” has moments when the pacing tends to drag. However, the movie is impressive in almost every other way.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese directed “Killers of the Flower Moon” from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Eric Roth. The screenplay was adapted from David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” “Killers of the Flower Moon” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” (which takes place in Oklahoma from 1919 to 1926) is fairly straightforward in showing what it’s about early on the story. World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in the city of Fairfax, Oklahoma, to start a new chapter in his life. Ernest was wounded in the war, so his job opportunities are limited.

Ernest begins working for his cattle-farming uncle William “Bill” Hale, also known as King Hale, who is one of the most powerful and corrupt people in the city. Bill, who is also Farifax’s deputy sheriff, has a fake persona of being an upstanding and lawful citizen. Fairfax and the surrounding cities have a lot of petroleum-rich land that is owned by the Osage Nation tribe of Native Americans/indigenous people, who have a complicated and often uneasy co-existence with the white people who live in the same cities.

Soon after bachelor Ernest arrives in Fairfax, Bill asks him what kind of women appeal to Ernest. Ernest says he likes all types of women and is open to romancing women of Native American heritage. Bill tells Ernest that it would be to Ernest’s financial advantage if he marries and has children with an Osage Nation woman, in order for Ernest to get control of some of the Osage Nation land that can make the owners wealthy from the petroleum oil mined from the land.

There’s a very sinister aspect to this inheritance-by-marriage scheme: Osage Nation people in the area have been dying in alarming numbers in the region. Many of these deaths look like accidents or suicides but are actually murders. This period of time was called the Reign of Terror.

The local law enforcement controlled by white people are doing little to nothing to investigate these deaths and hinder any investigations from Osage Nation officers. It isn’t long before Ernest gets involved in these murders. None of this is spoiler information, since “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a history-based drama.

At Bill’s urging, Ernest begins courting an Osage Nation woman named Mollie Kyle (played by Lily Gladstone), who has hired Ernest to be her driver. Mollie is the movie’s frequent voiceover narrator. Ernest and Mollie have a mild flirtation that quickly grows into mutual sexual attraction. Mollie genuinely falls in love with Ernest. Meanwhile, Ernest seems to have romantic feelings for Mollie, but he’s more in love with what he can get out of this marriage. After a quick courtship, Mollie and Ernest get married and they have children together.

At the time that Mollie and Ernest get married (she changes her last name to Burkhart), her family consists mostly of women. Mollie’s widowed mother Lizzie Q (played by Tantoo Cardinal) suspects that white people are murdering Osage Nation people, so she doesn’t trust white people, and she disapproves of Mollie’s marriage to Ernest. Mollie’s sister Reta (played by Janae Collins) is married to a white man named Bill Smith (played Jason Isbell), who was previously married to Mollie’s other sister Minnie (played by Jillian Dion), who died of a “wasting illness.” Mollie has another sister named Anna (played by Cara Jade Myers), who is feisty and who likes to party.

Other people who are connected in some way to the murders and/or the investigations include Federal Bureau of Investigation official Tom White (played by Jesse Plemons); Osage Nation Chief Bonnicastle (played by Yancey Red Corn); and a lowlife thug named Kelsie Morris (played by Louis Cancelmi), who works closely with Bill. Other supporting actors in the movie include John Lithgow as Prosecutor Peter Leaward and Brendan Fraser as defense attorney W.S. Hamilton. Fraser’s over-the-top performance verges on being campy and doesn’t quite fit the more grounded and somber tone of the movie.

A valid criticism of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is it that the Osage Nation people in the movie aren’t the center of the story and should have been given more screen time and better character development. Except for Mollie and her Osage Nation family members, Osage Nation people are primarily depicted in the movie has having vague or non-existent personalities. Without Mollie and her family, “Killers of the Flower Moon” would be a largely soulless portrayal of hate crimes and racial injustice.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” accurately shows that the wealthy Osage Nation people couldn’t get access to their money without getting permission from the white government officials (in this case, all white men) who controlled the Osage Nation’s finances. Ironically, similar dynamics exist in the film industry, in terms of who usually gets to tell stories about Native American people in big-budget movies. (Not much has changed since the Oscar-winning blockbuster success of 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.”) It’s unlikely that Native American filmmakers—no matter how talented or experienced—would have been given the same privileges or budget to tell this story as the all-white team of producers, screenwriters and director who made “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

One of the more fascinating aspects of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is how the personalities of Ernest and Mollie change during the period of time when this story takes place. At first, Ernest appears to be somewhat of an easily led buffoon who doesn’t seem to know much about life. Over time, Ernest shows that he’s much more manipulative and cunning than he first appears to be. He’s the type of schemer whose loyalties to anyone except himself are very murky, questionable, and can quickly shift to suit his own agenda.

Mollie starts off being confident and outspoken, with more power in the relationship. After all, she was Ernest’s boss when they began their courtship. However, as time goes on, after Mollie and Ernest are married, she becomes worn down and insecure by tragedy and illness. (Mollie, who has diabetes, is being slowly poisoned by tainted insulin without her knowledge.) Mollie’s unconditional love for Ernest also blinds her to the dark side of his personality, so she becomes too trusting of what he’s saying and doing.

The movie tries to push a narrative that Ernest is a loving father and husband who’s conflicted about his ulterior motives. However, during the latter half of the film, there’s no doubt about what type of husband Ernest is, because of his knowledge about why Mollie is slowly dying. Ernest is also not shown having a close bond with his and Mollie’s children (Elizabeth, Cowboy, and Anna), who are all under the age of 7, and are mostly background characters.

Vanessa Rose Pham has the role of Elizabeth as a baby. Kinsleigh McNac has the role of Elizabeth at ages 2 and 3. Elizabeth Waller has the role of Elizabeth at ages 3 to 5 years old. Alexis Waller has the role of Elizabeth at ages 5 and 6. Roanin Davis has the role of Cowboy as a baby. Bravery Lane Nowlin has the role of Cowboy at ages 2 and 3. Mamie Cozad has the role of Anna as a baby. Lux Britni Malaske has the role of Anna at 2 years old.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is not a murder mystery, because it’s revealed very early on in the story who are the main perpetrators of these crimes. The movie is more of a chronicle of systemic racism and how it leads to incalculable damage that goes beyond city borders. The story is told through the lens of the relationship between Mollie and Ernest as a way for viewers to see how one particular family was affected by evil disguised as entitlement.

On a technical level, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is nearly flawless, when it comes to cinematography, production design, costume design and musical score. (Robbie Robertson, the composer for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” passed away in August 2023.) “Killers of the Flower Moon” succeeds in immersing viewers into this particular community where “truth” and “justice” can be warped and have different meanings to people.

People who watch “Killers of the Flower Moon” can expect the usual excellence from the principal cast members, although there’s a lot of familiarity to DiCaprio and De Niro portraying dishonorable characters in Scorsese movies, as they have done so many times already. Gladstone has the breakout performance in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” since her depiction of Mollie is absolutely superb. Although the Reign of Terror involved many people in several regions, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” along with Gladstone’s performance, shows with disturbing clarity the horror of a duplicitous serial killer as a trusted member of one’s own household.

Apple Studios and Paramount Pictures will release “Killers of the Flower Moon” in U.S. cinemas on October 20, 2023.

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