Review: ‘Stars at Noon,’ starring Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn

October 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn in “Stars at Noon” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Stars at Noon”

Directed by Claire Denis

Culture Representation: Taking place in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the early 2020s, the dramatic film “Stars at Noon” features a cast of white and Latino characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An American journalist, who’s stranded in Nicaragua and doing sex work for money, gets involved with a mysterious British man, who has shady people chasing after him.

Culture Audience: “Stars at Noon” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of filmmaker Claire Denis, but this frequently dull misfire of a film will disappoint anyone looking for an intriguing, well-written story.

Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley in “Stars at Noon” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Stars at Noon” is a messy and boring drama that’s an example of the worst type of pretentious self-indulgence, not only from the main characters but also the filmmakers. The dialogue is awful and unrealistic. And the acting isn’t much better. The cast members who portray the would-be couple at the center of the story do not have believable chemistry with each other. “Stars at Noon” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in France, and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Claire Denis, “Stars at Noon” is adapted from Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel “The Stars at Noon.” Denis, Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius co-wrote the “Stars at Noon” adapted screenplay. The screenplay is the weakest link in this dreadful movie, which is filled with cringeworthy conversations that sound very fake and nonsensical. Denis’ direction also falters in “Stars at Noon,” by making what should have been an engaging thriller into a sluggish and annoying jumble of self-important garbage that rambles and stumbles until the movie’s underwhelming conclusion.

“Stars at Noon” irritates from the moment that viewers find out it’s peddling a “Pretty Woman” fantasy, where an irreverent sex worker expects one of her male customers to come to her rescue and save her from a life of desperation and degradation. That’s essentially what the entire movie is about, even though the filmmakers try to dress it up and fool audiences into thinking it’s an adventerous story about two “outlaw lovers” on the run. The “Stars at Noon” movie changes the book’s 1980s time period, so that the movie takes place in the early 2020s, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The era might have been updated for the movie, but “Stars at Noon” is filled with a lot of old-fashioned misogyny.

The misogyny is very apparent in how lead character Trish Johnson (played by Margaret Qualley) is written and presented as a whiny ditz who gets herself into predicaments and doesn’t have the common sense to get herself out of them. Trish is an American who’s stranded in Managua, Nicaragua, because a police officer called Subtenente Verga (played by Nick Romano) has taken her passport. Why? Verga suspects she’s doing an undercover investigation as a journalist.

“The Stars at Noon” book was set in the backdrop of the Nicaraguan Revolution, during the Contra War phase, when the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the right-wing Somoza dictatorship. The entire Nicaraguan Revolution spanned from 1961 to 1990. Because the “Stars at Noon” movie takes place in the early 2020s, the Nicaraguan political turmoil is never fully explained. There are some vague references to Trish trying to uncover government corruption.

Trish calls herself a journalist, but she doesn’t do any journalism work in this movie. All she does for money is have sex with men, including Subtenente Verga, because she’s hoping that having sex with him will convince him to give her passport back to her. It isn’t necessarily misogynistic to show that Trish is doing sex work for money. (Sex workers are often desperate people who shouldn’t be judged too harshly by society.) What’s misogynistic about this portrayal is that Trish (who likes to tell everyone how smart and resourceful she is) is made to look like an idiot who hasn’t figured out other ways to make money where she doesn’t have to sexually degrade herself.

Trish speaks fluent Spanish. Apparently, it never occurred to her to get work as a translator/interpreter. And as a so-called journalist, she’s so lacking in basic common sense, it’s embarrassing. You don’t have to be a journalist to know that if you’re an American citizen whose passport is lost or stolen in a foreign country, you can go to the U.S. embassy in that country to get an emergency passport re-issued. Trish does none of these things, of course, because there would be no “Stars at Noon” movie if Trish actually had the intelligence that she thinks she has.

Trish has a very off-putting way of trying to make people she interacts with seem inferior to her, when her whole life is such a train wreck, she’s in no place to judge. She actually doesn’t have a journalist assignment to be in Nicaragua. Trish apparently went there hoping to find something to “investigate” and then sell the story later.

A scene that comes about midway through the movie shows that Trish is also a failure as a journalist. She makes a videoconference call to an unnamed American magazine editor (played by John C. Reilly, making a cameo), and she begs him to give her an assignment. The editor works at a monthly magazine about sustainable, high-class travel. Trish pitches a story idea to him, by saying she can do an article about a nature reserve in Costa Rica.

The editor gives Trish an emphatic “no” to her pitch. He also reminds Trish that the last time he gave her an assignment, she just took the advance money and never delivered the assignment. In other words, Trish has burned her bridges with this editor. He tells her to lose his number and never contact him again.

Before this unpleasant conversation happened, Trish had gotten sexually involved with a British man named Daniel DeHaven (played by Joe Alwyn), whom she met at a bar in Managua. Daniel, who likes to dress in immaculate white suits, tells Trish in their first meeting that he’s a consultant for a British oil company named Watts Oil. Daniel isn’t really telling the truth about his identity. It soon becomes apparent that some menacing-looking people are chasing after Daniel.

This is the vapid conversation that Trish and Daniel have when they first meet in the bar. Daniel tells Trish that he’s from London, and he asks her where she’s from. Trish replies, “From here, there and yonder.” She then tells him, “You have the kind of manners that can get you killed out here.” Trish then says that she’s a special correspondent in “the north area.”

Daniel asks her, “Are you for sale?” Trish replies, “I’m press.” Daniel says that he’s a member of the press too. (He’s really not.) Trish answers, “Then, we’re all for sale.” Trish asks him to have supper with her, but Daniel declines because he says it’s too late in the night. Trish then bluntly tells him, “For a price, I’ll sleep with you.”

Trish insists that Daniel pay her in American dollars. Her price? A measly $50. It’s just more of the film’s misogyny on display. And to make Trish look like even more moronic, she doesn’t get the payment up front, like a street-smart sex worker is supposed to do. She gets the money after she has sex with Daniel.

So what does this tell audiences about Trish? She’s not only stupid, but she also sells herself short as a sex worker. And yet, throughout the entire movie, she acts like a know-it-all, when she actually knows very little. It’s very hard to respect any character who is this aggressively obnoxious and dumb.

During the first sexual encounter between Daniel and Trish, this is the type of mindless conversation that they have. Trish tells him, “Your skin is so white, it’s like being fucked by a cloud.” Is that supposed to be a compliment?

At some point during this encounter, Daniel tells Trish that he’s married. “I commit adultery often.” Trish doesn’t care. After Daniel pays her, Trish tells him, “I’m not here for the dollars. I’m here for the air conditioning.”

If you have the patience to sit through all of “Stars at Noon,” get used to more of this eye-rolling, mind-numbing, extremely aggravating dialogue, because the movie is full of it. Of course, since the movie is pushing a tale of “outlaw lovers on the run,” it isn’t long before Trish finds out that Daniel has dangerous people who are after him.

Because Trish is desperate to get out of Nicaragua, and she knows Daniel has the type of money that she doesn’t, Trish figures that she can go on the run with Daniel, and he can help her in some way get back to the United States. Daniel and Trish commit some crimes and end up in various places in Nicaragua and then Costa Rica. And the movie tries very hard to convince viewers that Daniel and Trish fall in love. But it’s never believable.

Trish is just a self-absorbed flake who complains a lot. Daniel is a blank void who hides a lot of information about himself and never comes across as someone who could genuinely fall in love with someone like Trish. Qualley seems to be making an effort to bring sympathy in her portrayal of this very silly and selfish character, but Trish is just too much of a babbling mess for most viewers to care about her. Alwyn seems to be going through the motions in his performance.

Daniel sees right through Trish’s insecurity, and makes some cutting remarks to her in a scene that happens shortly after they had sex for the first time. In this scene, Daniel and Trish are hanging out together in a bar in Nicaragua. Trish is acting superior to him, as usual. But then, Daniel tells her that prostitutes like to think that they’re in control of their customers, when they’re not, because the prostitutes depend on their customers for money. There’s enough truth in this statement that it leaves Trish (temporarily) speechless, because she can’t think of a snappy comeback.

It’s one of the few times in “Stars at Noon” where a conversation actually resembles something that could take place in real life. But the vast majority of this bloated movie (which has a too-long total running time of 136 minutes) is just a shambolic and tedious slog of Daniel and Trish trying to avoid capture while sometimes arguing and having sex. The Daniel/Trish sex scenes, which are very monotonous and generic, fail to convince that Daniel and Trish are together because of passionate lust.

The supporting characters in “Stars at Noon” are so hollow and underdeveloped, most of them don’t even have names or distinctive personalities. An unnamed Costa Rican cop (played by Danny Ramirez), who’s one of the people chasing after Daniel and Trish, does a lot of predictable sneering and smirking. An unnamed CIA operative (played by Benny Safdie), who’s also looking for this “outlaw couple,” spouts horrendous lines of dialogue while looking smug.

This what the CIA operative says when he comments on female sex workers: “They’re all as lonely as widows. They haven’t had a man’s hand on their thighs since Jesus was in diapers and Moses had a pacifier.” If this the type of trash screenwriting that you think is quality filmmaking, then perhaps you might like “Stars at Noon.” Everyone else is best advised to steer clear of this horrible movie.

A24 released “Stars at Noon” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 14, 2022. Hulu will premiere the movie on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Clara Sola,’ starring Wendy Chinchilla Araya, Daniel Castañeda Rincón, Ana Julia Porras Espinoza and Flor María Vargas Chavez

July 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Laura Román Arguedas and Wendy Chinchilla Araya in “Clara Sola” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Clara Sola”

Directed by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén 

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed small town in Costa Rica, the dramatic film “Clara Sola” has an all-Latin cast representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A repressed 40-year-old woman, who is seen as a faith healer in her small town, has an awakening when her teenage niece begins a romance with a man who’s a visiting farm worker.

Culture Audience: “Clara Sola” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about how religion and sex influence people’s lives and identities.

Wendy Chinchilla Araya in “Clara Sola” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The dramatic film “Clara Sola” is often as gloomy and slow-paced as the life of the movie’s title character: a quiet 40-year-old woman who experiences a sexual awakening around the same time as a religious reckoning. The movie’s riveting final third, which is the best part, makes up for a lot of the sluggishness. Viewers must have a lot of patience and no distractions while watching “Clara Sola,” in order for the film to have its most significant impact.

Directed by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén (who co-wrote the “Clara Sola” screenplay with Maria Camila Arias), “Clara Sola” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. “Clara Sola” is Álvarez Mesén’s feature-film directorial debut. She previously directed short films, two of which were segments in the 2021 anthology movie “Upon Her Lips: Heartbeat” and the 2020 anthology movie “The Swedish Boys.”

“Clara Sola” is the epitome of a “slow burn” film that immerses viewers into the interior life of the movie’s title character. Her birth name is Clara (played by Wendy Chinchilla Araya, in her movie acting debut), but she later tells someone that her secret name is Sola, which means “alone” in Spanish. Even though Clara lives with family members, she is very much a loner who is treated as “different” by everyone around her.

Clara lives with her domineering, widowed mother Fresia (played by Flor María Vargas Chavez) and Clara’s two underage nieces: María (played by Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) and Lucía (played by Laura Román Arguedas). They all live in a shabby house in a small, unnamed town in Costa Rica. María is 14 years old but turns 15 during the course of the story. Lucía is about 10 or 11 years old.

It isn’t revealed until much later in the movie that Clara’s deceased sister Angela was the mother of María and Lucía. How and when Angela died are details that are never discussed or revealed in the movie. Viewers can only speculate how this death affected the family. The father of María and Lucía is not seen or mentioned. Fresia is such a dominant force in Clara’s life, she even decides the outfits that Clara will wear in public.

Clara doesn’t talk a lot, but it’s obvious that she is an unhappy and lonely person. The closest thing she has to a friend or companion is her beloved white mare Yuca. The importance that Yuca has to Clara becomes more evident as time goes on in this story. This horse represents more to Clara than just being a domesticated pet. Yuca represents freedom and the only living being whom Clara thinks knows the real Clara.

Fresia makes a living by operating a small business that gives horse-riding tours in the area, mostly to tourists. The family owns about five or six horses, and Yuca is one of the horses used for these tours. Fresia has male employees who conduct the tours. She also hires men to do work around the family’s farm-like property, which is in a somewhat remote wooded area.

After the first 10 minutes of the movie, it’s obvious that Clara is treated like a “special” member of the family. Even though Clara is 40 years old, she has the mannerisms of a shy and awkward teenage child. For reasons left unexplained, Clara’s mother has convinced people in this rural community that Clara has religious superpowers that give Clara the ability to heal all illnesses, including cancer.

Fresia also says that the Virgin Mary channels her powers through Clara. Don’t bother getting an explanation for how long Fresia has been telling people that Clara is a medium for the Virgin Mary and can cure deadly diseases. There is no explanation. But the town is ruled by its religion, which is never stated out loud, but is presumably Roman Catholicism. The townspeople treat Clara like a miracle worker/faith healer when she goes to church ceremonies.

“Clara Sola” stumbles the most by not giving any plausible explanations for why Clara is considered a miraculous faith healer. Who exactly has she “cured”? Are any of these people still around to give testimony about these healing “miracles”? Don’t expect the movie to answer these questions.

Because the Virgin Mary is such an integral part of Clara’s identity as a faith healer, there’s a shrine to the Virgin Mary inside the family’s modest house. Fresia has also convinced people, including Clara, that the Virgin Mary can talk to Clara. And so, when Clara goes to church, she is often expected to pass on messages to the parishioners that she claims to have gotten from the Virgin Mary.

Clara has a spinal deformation, so she wears a back brace that Clara says is very painful. María and Fresia accompany Clara to a doctor’s appointment, where the doctor (played by Ana Patricia Apú Bolaños) recommends that Clara have back surgery to correct the deformation. The surgery would be at no cost to the family, because it’s covered under Costa Rica’s universal health care that’s provided to all citizens and permanent residents of Costa Rica.

The doctor says with firm compassion that the surgery would improve Clara’s quality of life, because “Clara would be able to walk upright” without the use of a back brace. María begs Fresia to let Clara have the surgery, but Fresia refuses. Fresia says about Clara: “God gave her to me like this. She stays like this.” María reminds Fresia that María was allowed to get surgery to correct María’s teeth. Fresia says that’s because María is not like Clara.

There are obvious signs that Clara has been convinced to be as much like the Virgin Mary as possible, ever since Clara was a child. For example, it soon becomes apparent that Clara has no experience in dating and is still a virgin. Now that María is growing into a young woman, Clara is starting to see firsthand some of the things that Clara has been missing in her life.

One day, a man in his late teens or early 20s named Santiago (played by Daniel Castañeda Rincón) shows up at the family home because he’s been hired at a nearby farm to “help out during the high season,” he says. Santiago doesn’t plan to stay in the area for very long. He is introduced to Fresia, in case she needs to hire him for any extra help. And she eventually does.

Santiago and María begin flirting with each other almost immediately. Their mutual attraction leads to them meeting each other for dates. Clara quietly observes this blossoming relationship from afar and sometimes up close when she spies on Santiago and María going on dates and showing public displays of affection. Eventually, the relationship between Santiago and María becomes sexual.

The movie makes no mention of the age difference between María and Santiago. In Costa Rica, 15 is the minimum legal age of consent for someone to have sex with an adult. María will soon turn 15, so it’s probably one of the reasons why no one in the family objects to María dating an older man. María’s quinceañera (Hispanic culture’s celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday) becomes a big part of the story.

After a while, it’s apparent that Clara is starting to feel some kind of attraction to Santiago too, but Clara doesn’t quite know how to express this attraction to him. She’s also having sexual feelings that result in her exploring masturbation, even though she’s been taught that masturbation is “sinful” for someone like her. There are several other indications that Clara has “arrested development” and has not had sex education that teaches healthy boundaries of what’s appropriate and inappropriate.

For example, the movie has an awkward scene where Clara asks a teenage family member named Francisco (played by Fabrizzio Josue Vallecillo Vargas), also known as Fran, if they can practice kissing. Francisco is clearly uncomfortable with this incestuous request, but he seems aware that Clara doesn’t know how wrong her request is, and he doesn’t want to scold, embarrass or lecture her. Instead, Francisco gives Clara a quick platonic smack on the lips, and the subject is never brought up again.

Santiago begins to spend more time at the family home because of María. During one of these visits, Clara sees a beetle crawling on Santiago’s back, but he doesn’t see it. Without Clara saying anything to Santiago, she removes the beetle from Santiago’s back and keeps the beetle as a pet. She names the beetle Ofir. And she affectionately takes cares for Ofir, as if he’s an extension of Santiago. The movie makes a point of showing that Clara is more relaxed and in tune with nature and non-human animals than she is with people.

On some occasions, Santiago and Clara have friendly conversations with each other. Over time, Santiago can sense that Clara might have a crush on him, but he is always polite and respectful to her, and he doesn’t take advantage of Clara’s vulnerability. In one of the conversations between Clara and Santiago, they talk about each other’s work. Santiago mainly has experience as a physical laborer. Clara makes this statement about what her job is: “I work for God.”

During another one of these conversations, Santiago opens up to Clara and says that his brother was killed in an unsolved murder. That’s the closest the movie comes to having a backstory for Santiago, who is a somewhat generic character. His main purpose in the movie is to create a possible love triangle between Clara and María. It’s possible that Clara could have had a sexual awakening some other way, but Santiago is the catalyst.

“Clara Sola” goes to great lengths to only show things from Clara’s perspective. And because Clara isn’t very skilled at communicating with people, viewers get only a limited outlook of the other people who are in Clara’s life. This narrow view is often to the detriment of the movie’s storytelling, because it makes a large portion “Clara Sola” very monotonous.

The movie gets better as Clara begins to understand that her niece Maria, who is less than half of Clara’s age, has more freedom and more life options than Clara has ever experienced. Having never been taught any skills to take care of herself, Clara also feels trapped and helpless. When Clara gets some upsetting news, it’s a turning point for Clara, who has to decide who she is and what kind of person she wants to become if she grows and matures on an emotional level.

The probability of a viewer wanting to watch “Clara Sola” until the very end will largely depend on how curious or invested a viewer is in finding out what happens to Clara. And that has a lot to do with how Chinchilla Araya plays the role. It’s an admirable but not exceptional performance. All of the other movie’s cast members do the best that they can with supporting characters that are usually two-dimensional.

“Clara Sola” has some impressive cinematography (from Sophie Winqvist) that adeptly conveys the isolating rural atmosphere that Clara has known her entire life. The movie’s ending could be open to interpretation, but viewers paying attention throughout the film will immediately know what choice was made. “Clara Sola” might feel too claustrophobic and tedious for some viewers, while others who watch the movie with an open mind will see an interesting story about the evolution of a repressed and sheltered woman.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Clara Sola” in New York City on July 1, 2022, and in Los Angeles on July 8, 2022. The movie was released in Sweden in 2021.

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