Review: ‘Kinds of Kindness,’ starring Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie and Hunter Schafer

June 20, 2024

by Carla Hay

Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

“Kinds of Kindness”

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Louisiana, the comedy/drama film “Kinds of Kindness” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Various people seek satisfaction in their lives but experience conflicts in this offbeat, three-story anthology. 

Culture Audience: “Kinds of Kindness” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and movies that are often strange but are well-acted.

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

It’s weird and not always wonderful, but “Kinds of Kindness” has committed performances from the cast members in this unpredictable anthology film. This acerbic comedy/drama cuttingly explores the dark sides of power, control and manipulation. Several scenes in “Kinds of Kindness” are deliberately off-putting and intended to make people squirm with discomfort.

For example, there’s a scene where a woman is drugged without her knowledge and consent, and then she is raped while she’s unconscious. (The sexual assault is not shown in graphic detail.) There’s another scene that shows animal cruelty. (A disclaimer in the movie’s end credits says that no animals were harmed while making the film.) In other words, “Kinds of Kindness” is not a family-oriented film that’s supposed to have mass appeal.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (who co-wrote “Kinds of Kindness” with Efthimis Filippou), “Kinds of Kindness” had its world premiere at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, where “Kinds of Kindness” co-star Jesse Plemons won the award for Best Actor. This anthology movie is told as three different stories, all taking place in Louisiana, where “Kinds of Kindness” was filmed on location. Lanthimos is known for making offbeat movies about people doing very unpleasant things to each other. Most of his movies also depict polyamory and/or sexual fluidity. “Kinds of Kindness” is more extreme and less straightforward than Lanthimos’ Oscar-winning films “The Favourite” and “Poor Things.” Some cast members from “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” are also in “Kinds of Kindness.”

In “Kinds of Kindness,” the three stories have these titles, shown in this order: “The Death of R.M.F.,” “R.M.F. Is Flying” and “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich.” (R.M.F. is a mysterious character played by Yorgos Stefanakos in all three stories.) All three stories feature the other main actors portraying different characters in each story. Emma Stone, Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn and Mamoudou Athie are the rotating star cast members in each story. Stone and Plemons get the most screen time. Hunter Schafer has a small role in “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich.”

Each story takes its time to reveal the motives of the central protagonists. Keeping the viewers guessing in this way has benefits and limitations. Viewers who have short attention spans will quickly grow tired of “Kinds of Kindness” because of all the guessing games that the movie has in revealing bits and pieces of each story. Many times, viewers will be asking themselves, “Where is this story going?” If you dislike how the first story plays out, then chances are you won’t like the rest of the movie either.

“The Death of R.M.F.”

Hong Chau and Jesse Plemons in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

In “The Death of R.M.F.,” Robert Fletcher (played by Plemons) and his wife Sarah (played by Chau) are a seemingly regular middle-class couple. Sarah and Robert have no children, but they have been trying to start a family. Sarah has gotten pregnant several times but lost all of the pregnancies.

Robert works for a company in an unnamed industry. It’s an office job where Robert is expected to wear business attire. Robert’s boss is Raymond (played by Dafoe), who is a demanding tyrant. Robert and Raymond have been in each other’s lives for about 10 years.

It soon becomes apparent that Raymond wants complete control over certain people in his life. For example, Raymond dictates what Robert and Sarah can eat and when the couple can have sex. Raymond also tells Robert that Robert needs to gain a few more pounds. Raymond expects Robert to confirm every day that Robert has followed Raymond’s orders. Robert willingly complies.

However, there’s one demand from Raymond that Robert has a problem carrying out: Raymond has ordered Robert to kill someone by crashing Robert’s car into the other person’s car. Raymond insists that this car crash has been arranged by a suicidal person whose car will be hit by Robert’s car. Robert is supposed to get a description of the car and the crash victim in advance.

Robert is very reluctant to follow this order from Raymond. Near the beginning of the movie, R.M.F. is shown as someone who’s in another car that Robert crashes into with his car. The fate of R.M.F. is shown in this story. Meanwhile, Raymond’s willing accomplice in these bizarre suicide arrangements is his lover Vivian (played by Qualley), who has been put in charge of meeting with the future car crash victims and asking them to pose for photos that she sends to Raymond for his approval.

It’s soon revealed that Robert is also sexually involved with Raymond, who expects to have complete control over Robert, Vivian and other people. Raymond sometimes gives rare collectibles to manipulate people into thinking that he likes them. In the beginning of the story, Raymond has gifted to Robert and Sarah a tennis racket that was smashed by John McEnroe in 1984.

Alwyn has a cameo as a collectibles appraiser who meets with Raymond. Athie is briefly seen in this story as a character named Will, who also works for Raymond. Stone has the role of a lonely bachelorette named Rita, whom Robert asks on a date after Robert sees that Raymond is also dating Rita.

“R.M.F. Is Flying”

Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons in in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

In “R.M.F. Is Flying,” Daniel (played by Plemons) and Neil (played by Athie) are best friends and police officers who work together. Daniel and his wife Liz (played by Stone) are very close to Neil and his wife Martha (played by Qualley) and spend a lot of time at each other’s houses. The two couples are so close, it’s eventually revealed that they are swingers who have foursome orgies with each other that they record on video.

In the beginning of this story, Liz (who is a marine biologist explorer) has been missing during a deep-sea exploration trip. However, Liz has been found on a remote island and has been rescued by helicopter. When she arrives home after a brief stay in a hospital, Daniel notices that Liz has a hard time putting on her shoes, because her feet seem slightly bigger than her shoes. Liz says her feet must be swollen.

Other things happen (as shown in the story) that convince Daniel that the person who was rescued and claims to be his wife Liz is an imposter. Is Daniel imagining things or is he correct? Liz’s father George (played by Dafoe) disapproves of how Daniel has been acting cold and distant to Liz, ever since the rescue. Chao has the role of George’s supportive wife Sharon. Alywn appears in the movie in a brief role as a defiant and intoxicated passenger in a car that gets pulled over by Daniel for reckless driving.

“R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich”

Emma Stone in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures)

In “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” Emily (played by Stone) and Andrew (played by Plemons) are on an intense search for a woman who saved Emily’s life when Emily almost drowned in a swimming pool. At first, Emily and Andrew seem like they’re a couple. But it’s eventually revealed they’re in some kind of polyamorous sex cult led by a domineering guru named Omi (played by Dafoe), who decides which people in the cult will have sex with Omi and when. A mother named AKA (played by Chau) has a certain “tastemaker” role in the cult.

Emily is literally a hard-driving person: She speeds, careens and skids around in a dark purple Dodge Challenger, as if she’s in a demolition derby race. Emily is rude and impatient in her obsessive search. The reason for the search has to do with special powers that she thinks her rescuer has.

Qualley portrays identical twins Rebecca and Ruth in this story. Schafer has a small role as a woman named Anna, who is examined by Emily in a hospital and is quickly rejected as not being the woman whom Emily is seeking. Alwyn portrays Joseph, Emily’s estranged husband, who has custody of their unnamed daughter (played by Merah Benoit), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Athie has the role of an unnamed morgue nurse.

Of these three stories, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich” is the most memorable and the most disturbing. It’s also sure to be the most divisive part of “Kinds of Kindness” because of the way it depicts spiritual beliefs and sex in the context of a cult. The main reason to keep watching is to find out what happens in the story’s mystery.

Because “Kinds of Kindness” has two stories in this movie where Dafoe portrays a leader who controls other people’s sex lives, “Kinds of Kindness” seems to be repeating itself in this way, which is to the movie’s detriment. Some of the movie’s bizarre scenes can be amusing, while other weirdness is just plain irritating and serves no other purpose but to show something weird. The cinematography (by Robbie Ryan) gives “Kinds of Kindness” a compelling modern noir tone.

The cast members’ performances make much of the movie more interesting. Stone excels in portraying three very different characters. The other cast members also capably handle their roles. Plemons’ three characters (Robert, Daniel and Andrew) all have loss of control as a major part of their stories, so his “Kinds of Kindness” characters are not as varied as Stone’s characters in this movie.

Viewers of “Kinds of Kindness” should not go into this movie expecting to see charming characters who are easy to like. The movie goes out of its way to have characters who are unlikable or are sometimes difficult watch. “Kinds of Kindness” is like sushi smothered in wasabi. Many people won’t be able to tolerate the parts that sting, but there are other parts that go down easier and have more substance if people are curious to see how everything ends.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Kinds of Kindness” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024.

Review: ‘Robot Dreams’ (2023), an emotionally moving, dialogue-free animated film about the friendship between a dog and a robot in 1980s New York City

June 3, 2024

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Robot Dreams” (Image courtesy of Neon)

“Robot Dreams”

Directed by Pablo Berger

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City sometime in the mid-1980s, the animated film “Robot Dreams” (based on Sara Varon’s graphic novel of the same name), features a cast of non-talking characters that are animals and a few robots.

Culture Clash: A lonely dog buys a robot, which becomes the dog’s best friend, but their friendship is tested when the dog and robot get separated from each other. 

Culture Audience: “Robot Dreams” will appeal primarily to people who are open to watching an unconventional animated film that has themes about friendship, love and loss.

A scene from “Robot Dreams” (Image courtesy of Neon)

“Robot Dreams” is a gem of a movie that is best appreciated by viewers who are open to watching an animated feature film with no dialogue. This is a charming and often emotionally moving story about a dog, a robot, and what happens to their friendship. It’s a simple story that packs many big wallops in how personally invested viewers can feel in finding out the story’s outcome.

Written and directed by Pablo Berger, “Robot Dreams” is based on Sara Varon’s 2007 graphic novel/comic book of the same name. “Robot Dreams” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. “Robot Dreams” was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards.

The movie takes place sometime in the mid-1980s in New York City, where a male canine character named Dog lives alone in his East Village apartment. It’s an alternate world where there are animals and no humans who live in New York City. The animals (wild and domesticated) act like humans, but they are not shown speaking.

Dog buys a robot companion, which he assembles himself. This robot, like most of the characters in the movie, does not have a name, but can be called Robot. Dog and his robot become inseparable friends in an adorable relationship. The robot is a quick learner, can express emotions, and can imitate almost anything that the robot sees someone else do.

Although there is no talking in “Robot Dreams,” there are creatures and things that make wordless sounds. Songs are also played in movie. The favorite song of Dog and his robot is Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 hit “September.”

On a Labor Day weekend, the two pals go to Coney Island and spend the day at the boardwalk and Ocean Beach. At the end of the day, the robot and Dog find out that the robot (which is lounging face up on a beach towel) has gotten rusty from the ocean water and can’t move.

The beach has become deserted, and Dog can’t move the robot on his own. Dog tries to drag the robot on the towel, but the robot is too heavy. The robot indicates with its eyes that Dog should go home for the night. The beach has also been closed, locked up, and won’t re-open until June 1 of the following year.

A large dog security guard forces Dog to leave. But Dog doesn’t want to leave his robot friend behind. Dog goes back to the beach the next day, and breaks off the locks on a gate, using bolt cutters that he bought at a hardware store. Unfortunately, Dog is caught by the security guard, who arrests Dog.

The rest of the movie shows what happens in the months that follow. There are unexpected twists and turns. Several other animals (including a cat, birds, an alligator and a monkey) are part of the story. Some of these animals make a difference in whether or not Dog will be reunited with his robot best friend. During this separation, the robot has fantasies about what it would be like to reunite with Dog.

“Robot Dreams” has superb sound design and a story rich in a myriad of experiences that will make viewers feel many emotions. What makes this movie exceptional is how it creates and develops empathetic characters with memorable personalities without using any verbal language for the characters. It’s a highly unique animated film that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Neon released “Robot Dreams” in select U.S. cinemas on May 31, 2024. The movie was released in Spain and in France in December 2023.

Review: ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,’ starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth

May 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anya Taylor-Joy, Tom Burke and Chris Hemsworth in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga”

Directed by George Miller

Culture Representation: Taking place somewhere on a post-apocalyptic Earth, the sci-fi/action film “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” (a prequel to 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”) features a cast of predominanly white characters (with a few black people and Asians) who are survivors of an apocalypse.

Culture Clash: Furiosa grows up from being an orphaned child to being a fierce warrior battling two major villains. 

Culture Audience: “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Mad Max” franchise, the movie’s headliners, and sci-fi action films that have stunning fight scenes and fascinating characters.

Tom Burke and Anya Taylor-Joy (seated in front) in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” takes entirely too much time (about an hour) on warrior heroine Furiosa’s childhood. But once Furiosa becomes an adult, the movie kicks into a high-gear action spectacle that’s worth the wait. The dark comedic moments are a treat. This is not a movie for people who are expecting deeply intelligent dialogue. However, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” (which clocks in at 148 minutes) satisfactorily delivers if viewers expect to be fully immersed in a chaotic, futuristic, post-apocalyptic world with unusual characters and brutal battles in the desert.

Directed by George Miller, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” (which had its world premiere at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival) was co-written by Miller and Nick Lathouris. The movie is a prequel to 2015’s Oscar-winning “Mad Max: Fury Road,” starring Tom Hardy as road warrior Mad Max and Charlize Theron as Mad Max colleague Furiosa. “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” takes place over a 16-year period before the events of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Miller directed the other previously released films in the “Mad Max” series: 1979’s “Mad Max,” 1981’s “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (originally titled “The Road Warrior”) and 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” all starring Mel Gibson as Mad Max. (“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” was co-directed by George Ogilvie.)

The “Mad Max” stories take place in a futuristic time period in desert wasteland on a post-apocalyptic Earth. (The movies are actually filmed in Australia.) In this “Mas Max” world, life resources are scarce and society has devolved into anarchy where survivors fight over precious resources, and gangs are at war with each other.

Many of the gang members are held in captivity and forced to fight. They have shaved heads and are often covered head-to-toe with an ashy white substance. They have names such as Rictus Erectus (played by Nathan Jones), Scrotus (played by Josh Helman), Toe Jam (played by David Field) and Vulture (played by Ra Roman), but their personalities do not stand out enough for them to get any story arcs or backstories.

In “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” a young Furiosa (played by Alyla Browne) is 10 years old when a motorcycle gang kidnaps her from the Green Place of Many Mothers, a maternal community where women help raise each other’s children. Furiosa’s mother Mary Jabassa (played by Charlee Fraser) and the Green Place’s Vuvaline General (played by Elsa Pataky) frantically look for Furiosa. Mary doesn’t give up looking for Furiosa, and Mary’s fate is shown in the movie.

Furiosa is raised as an orphan by the motorcycle gang leader’s Dr. Dementus (played by Chris Hemsworth), until underage Furiosa (who is mostly mute for most of her screen time) runs away and disguises herself as a boy. Dr. Dementus is in a violent power struggle with Immortan Joe (played by Lachy Hulme), a crime overlord who wears a gas mask. The adult Furiosa (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), at 26 years old, teams up with Praetorian Jack (played by Tom Burke), a former driver of Immortan Joe’s War Rig, to find her way back home.

Of course, Furiosa and Praetorian Jack get caught in the middle of the villainous warfare and fight back in self-defense and revenge. Along the way, Furiosa and Praetorian Jack become close and develop a romantic connection. As time goes one, Furiosa becomes more talkative, but she’s still mainly a stoic character. Taylor-Joy’s expressive eyes and sturdy acting give Furiosa enough charisma to keep viewers interested. Burke also turns in a good performance as Praetorian Jack.

The action scenes and some of the weapons are inventive overall, but there are times when the violence in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” become mind-numbing and repetitive. On a technical level, the movie’s production design and visual effects are the biggest assets.

Hemsworth’s portrayal of Dementus (who at times looks like a muscular and younger Rob Zombie) is a highlight. It’s a combination of menacing with some cheeky campiness. A running gag in the movie is Dementus’ attachment to a teddy bear that used to belong to Dementus’ dead son.

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” suffers from a bloated run time where viewers might start to feel a little cheated that adult Furiosa doesn’t make an appearance until an hour after the movie starts. (The movie’s trailers are definitely misleading, because they make it look like adult Furiosa will be in almost all of the movie.) The scenes with underage Furiosa are competently acted but mostly boring and not very informative. Despite this flaw, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is a fan-pleasing movie overall in the “Mad Max” franchise, even though the movie is not the most innovative in the series.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” on May 24, 2024.

Review: ‘Asphalt City,’ starring Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Raquel Nave, Kali Reis, Michael Carmen Pitt, Katherine Waterston and Mike Tyson

May 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Tye Sheridan in “Asphalt City” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical)

“Asphalt City”

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Asphalt City” (based on the novel “Black Flies”) features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Asian, Latin and multiracial) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young rookie paramedic, who wants to eventually become a medical doctor, experiences harsh realities when he is paired with a middle-aged, jaded paramedic, as they work in a rough part of New York City. 

Culture Audience: “Asphalt City” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and can tolerate a movie that’s too long for its weak plot and is filled with formulaic stereotypes and scummy characters.

Sean Penn in “Asphalt City” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical)

The long-winded “Asphalt City” clumsily mixes melodrama with long stretches of dullness. This turgid movie about two contrasting paramedic co-workers has a mismatched cast and an off-kilter story plagued with predictable clichés. This last third of “Asphalt City” (which has a total running time of 125 minutes) is very manipulative when it turns into a hollow soap opera that cannot be improved.

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, “Asphalt City” (formerly titled “Black Flies”) is based on Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel “Black Flies.” Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown co-wrote the “Asphalt City” adapted screenplay. “Asphalt City” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, an event for movies that are either artsy or commercially crowd-pleasing. “Asphalt City” is neither.

“Asphalt City” takes place in New York City, where the movie was filmed on location. The movie has two main characters, but the story is told from the perspective of the younger character. Ollie Cross (played by Tye Sheridan) is in his mid-to-late 20s and has just started a new job as an ambulance paramedic for the Fire Department of New York. Ollie has been assigned to work with Gene Rutkovsky (played by Sean Penn), who is in his early 60s and is trying not think about getting close to the age when many people retire.

Ollie is inexperienced and eager to please. Gene is jaded and gruff. There have been so many movies and TV shows with this character dynamic of a young rookie paired with a cynical veteran. If you’ve seen enough of these types of duos on screen, then you can easily predict how this movie is going to go. In these types of stories, the younger person loses some type of innocence when spending time being taught by the older, more experienced person. The older colleague is usually “corrupt” or morally ambiguous in one way or another.

Ollie and Gene (who does most of the ambulance driving when they work together) work in the crime-ridden, low-income East New York neighborhood in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. Ollie is a bachelor who lives with two Chinese-speaking roommates in New York City’s Manhattan borough. Not much else is revealed about Ollie except that he’s originally from Colorado, and he’s studying for entrance exams for an unnamed medical school because he eventually wants to become a medical doctor.

Gene is divorced and lives alone in Brooklyn. Gene admits that his marriages have been ruined mainly because he’s a workaholic and a philanderer. Gene doesn’t say how many times he’s been married, but there’s a scene where he visits his “most recent ex-wife” Nancy (played by Katherine Waterston), who has custody of their daughter Silvie (played by Onie Maceo Watlington), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. Nancy doesn’t let Gene see Silvie until Gene has made the child support payments that he owes. In this scene, Gene brings Ollie along for this visit so that Gene can introduce Ollie to Sylvie, as if to prove that Gene is capable of being an attentive father.

Much of the screen time in “Asphalt City” consists of Ollie and Gene responding to medical emergencies. There are some scenes where people legitimately have to be taken to a hospital emergency room. Some of the violence in the movie is there for shock value, such as a scene where a boy at an apartment complex was hurt by a violent pit bull, and Ollie sees an angry mob of men take the dog outside while one of the men shoots and kills the dog.

Too many other paramedic scenes become annoying spectacles of Ollie and Gene dealing with mentally ill people who don’t need an ambulance but are just shouting and causing disturbances. These time-wasting filler scenes don’t add anything significant to the story at all. In between responding to these calls, Ollie and Gene have mostly forgettable conversations while they are driving in the ambulance.

Ollie begins casually dating a single mother named Clara (played by Raquel Nave), who met Ollie at a nightclub. Clara has an infant son and doesn’t talk about who the father of her baby is. Don’t expect to learn anything meaningful about Ollie or Clara in this relationship. The movie’s only purpose for this relationship is to show Ollie and Clara having sexual trysts, and Clara experiencing how the stress of Ollie’s job starts to affect him.

The co-workers of Ollie and Gene are two-dimensional characters if they have any speaking lines of dialogue. The boss of Ollie and Gene is Chief Burroughs (played by Mike Tyson), a typically no-nonsense supervisor. Tyson doesn’t embarrass himself in this role (mainly because his screen time in the movie is less than five minutes), but his acting skills are obviously not as good as many other people in the cast. A paramedic named Verdis (played by Gbenga Akinnagbe) is very generic and has no real effect on the movie’s overall plot.

There’s an obnoxious paramedic co-worker named Lafontaine (played by Michael Carmen Pitt, also known as Michael Pitt), who sometimes goes in the same ambulance as Ollie and Gene. Lafontaine is a drug-abusing bully who has no qualms about stealing medication and illegal drugs when he’s working. Predictably, Lafontaine makes newcomer Ollie a target for some of the bullying. Lafontaine is yet another empty “Asphalt City” character with no backstory and with dialogue that goes nowhere.

The movie doesn’t take a turn from repetitive and pointless scenes until the last third of the story, when Ollie and Gene respond to a call about an unconscious, HIV+ woman named Nia (played by Kali Reis), who has given birth in her apartment, shortly after she overdosed on heroin. What happens to the baby becomes a source of conflict and leads to a very heavy-handed part of the movie.

Sheridan and Penn are not bad in their performances, but their acting isn’t outstanding either. They have both played these types of personalities (Sheridan as an earnest protégé, Penn as a shady mentor) in many other movies, so there’s nothing new to see here. The movie’s supporting characters don’t have enough depth to be impactful. Ultimately, “Asphalt City” shows a lot of urban grittiness and sleaze, but the emotional core of the movie has no real substance.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical released “Asphalt City” in select U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024. The move was released on digital and VOD on April 16, 2024.

Review: ‘The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,’ starring  Scott Cohen, Babak Tafti, Joanna Arnow, Michael Cyril Creighton and Alysia Reiner

May 18, 2024

by Carla Hay

Babak Tafti and Joanna Arnow in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed”

Directed by Joanna Arnow

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy/drama film “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gloomy and drab office worker, who is 33 years old and a submissive in her casual BDSM relationships, drifts from one day to the next until she starts dating a man who is interested in her for reasons beyond sex. 

Culture Audience: “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” will appeal primarily to people who can tolerate oddball movies that have full-frontal nudity and quirky “slices of life” scenes.

Joanna Arnow and Scott Cohen in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is definitely not a mass-appeal movie. It’s intended for mature audiences who aren’t easily offended by full-frontal nudity and kinky sex scenes among consenting adults. Viewers of this unique but often-repetitive film about BDSM sex and social isolation must be willing to appreciate the very dry and deadpan comedy that is the opposite of Woody Allen’s talkative and fidgety films about neurotic New Yorkers. It’s a series of “slice of life” sketches rather than a comprehensive story.

Written and directed by Joanna Arnow (who also stars in the movie as the main protagonist), “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. The movie screened at other major film festivals that year, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. It’s a minimalist and quirky movie that won’t appeal to people who don’t like slow-paced movies with open-ended conclusions.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is set in New York City (where the movie was filmed on location) and has a writer/director who plays an insecure protagonist who feels misunderstood and is struggling with relationship issues. It sounds a lot like the types of movies that made Oscar-winning filmmaker Allen famous, but Arnow has a filmmaking approach that is the antithesis of Allen’s style. The characters in Allen’s zippy-paced films are verbose and overly analytical about their problems, often to the point of being very self-absorbed. As seen in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,” the characters don’t do a lot of talking, and there are stretches of deliberately uncomfortable silences.

Arnow portrays Ann, a 33-year-old never-married bachelorette who lives alone and has no children and no friends. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she works in administration at an unnamed company that is in the business of selling unnamed products. Ann is the type of person who is so quiet and unassuming, people she’s known for years either don’t know many things about her or they forget. She’s the type of person who can be in a room and people will deliberately ignore her or don’t even notice that she is there.

Needless to say, Ann feels unappreciated in her job, where her supervisor Karl (played by Michael Cyril Creighton) is sometimes condescending to her and sometimes seems to feel sorry for her. It doesn’t help that Ann speaks in a monotone voice that would make anyone wonder if she has a personality. She is also the type of person who gives the impression that she is dull as dirt and has given up on trying to be happy.

As an example of how Ann hasn’t really connected with people at her job, one day she gets a plaque in the shape of a star, as a gift to commemorate her one-year anniversary on the job. “I’ve been here three-and-a-half years,” Ann says in her flat voice. No one seems to care. In group meetings, her ideas are dismissed by Karl. And in a one-on-one conversation with an unnamed supervisor (played by Ronda Swindell), the supervisor rudely tells Ann that Ann won’t last long at the company because Ann will make her own job obsolete.

Ann’s personal life does not have any fulfilling relationships either. Since she was 24, she’s been casually meeting up with a divorced, middle-aged father named Allen (played by Scott Cohen), in one of many relationships she has that revolve around BDSM, an acronym for bondage, discipline (or domination), sadism (or submission) and masochism. Ann is always the willing submissive in these non-monogamous relationships, because she seeks out sex partners who want to be the dominant person in their hookups.

The movie’s opening scene shows Ann in bed with Allen at his place. Allen is clothed under the covers and almost asleep. She is on top of the covers and completely naked. She grinds up against the left side of his body and says, “I love it how you don’t care if I cum and you don’t do anything for me. You go to sleep right after you finish. It’s so disrespectful and misogynist.” This is Ann’s version of foreplay.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” has several scenes showing Ann doing things with BDSM sex partners. In addition to Allen, Ann hooks up with a musician/composer named Thomas (played by Peter Vack), whom she meets through a personal ad; verbally derogatory Elliot (played by Parish Bradley), who tells Ann to wear animal costume designs, such as rabbit ears and a pig’s snout, while he insults her; and emotionally open Chris (played by Babak Tafti), who is the only one who treats her like a real human being, not just a sexual plaything.

Warnow is the only person in the movie who has full-frontal nudity, which is her way of showing that Ann is the most vulnerable person in these scenes. Ann never seems self-conscious about her body, but she does seem self-conscious of her emotions and about the possibility that any of these relationships could turn into love. Being treated like garbage or sometimes asking to be in physical pain in the confines of BDSM is comforting to her. Falling in love is what really terrifies Ann, even though she doesn’t say it out loud. The closest that she will admit to having intimacy problems is when she tells Chris that she has never had an orgasm by someone touching her.

Ann’s immediate family members (who don’t have names in the movie) live nearby, but she is emotionally distant from them. Her family and co-workers do not know about her secretive life as a submissive in BDSM sex. Ann’s parents (played by David Arnow and Barbara Weiserbs) have given up hope that Ann will get married and have kids. Getting married and having children are sensitive subjects that Ann gets somewhat defensive about whenever those topics are discussed.

Ann’s older sister (played by Alysia Reiner) has a traditional life of being a married parent with children, but she doesn’t seem very happy either because she’s been having marital problems. Still, when the sisters are together or with their parents, Ann seems noticeably envious that her parents seem to love her sister more and consider Ann to be a “disappointment.” Ann doesn’t seem to have any interest in being around kids at all.

Even though Ann is a submissive in her sex life, that doesn’t mean she’s a complete pushover. There are times at her job and in her personal life when she asserts herself and makes it clear that she does or does not want to do something. However, don’t expect the movie to give a backstory about Ann to explain why she is the way she is.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is an example of how people shouldn’t always be judged by surface-level appearances. Based on her physical appearance, many people would assume that Ann is very prim and uptight and would be surprised to find out about her uninhibited BDSM sex life. It’s not a movie that is supposed to make people feel the same way that a romantic comedy makes people feel, but the movie is bold enough to be different. It offers an unusual perspective of someone who is usually not the protagonist of a movie and is usually overlooked in real life.

Magnolia Pictures released “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” in select U.S. cinemas on April 26, 2024.

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.

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