Review: ‘Falling for Figaro,’ starring Danielle Macdonald, Hugh Skinner and Joanna Lumley

October 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hugh Skinner and Danielle Macdonald in “Falling for Figaro” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Falling for Figaro” 

Directed by Ben Lewin

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Scotland and briefly in England, the romantic comedy/drama “Falling for Figaro” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with two people of Indian heritage and one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A successful fund manager, who is bored with her job and with her life, goes on a leave of absence to train as an opera singer, but she has conflicts with her singing instructor and the instructor’s longtime protégé.

Culture Audience: “Falling for Figaro” will appeal primarily to fans of co-star Joanna Lumley and to people who like lightweight but appealing romantic dramedies.

Joanna Lumley and Danielle Macdonald in “Falling for Figaro” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Falling for Figaro” hits all the predictable beats of a romantic comedy/drama about a woman who goes outside her comfort zone and ends up finding true love. Thanks to a charming performance from Danielle Macdonald, the movie is slightly better than the usual schmaltz. “Absolutely Fabulous” co-star Joanne Lumley, who has been typecast as portraying cranky battle-axes with an acerbic wit, does more of the same type of performance in “Falling for Figaro.” However, Lumley’s fans should enjoy how she embodies the role with such comedic commitment that viewers will wonder what foul and mean-spirited things will come out next from this character’s mouth.

Ben Lewin directed “Falling for Figaro” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Allen Palmer. The movie has the added benefit of being set in the world of opera competitions, which is a unique context for a romantic comedy/drama. But make no mistake: “Falling for Figaro” is utterly formulaic in its story arc and structure. A talented cast makes this movie mostly enjoyable to watch, because most viewers will know how this movie is going to end.

In “Falling for Figaro,” Macdonald portrays Millie Cantwell, an American living in an unnamed big city in England. She works at a corporate job as a fund manager. (Macdonald is actually Australian in real life, but her American accent is flawless.) Millie is a rising star at the company. And it’s not just because her boss happens to be her live-in boyfriend.

His name is Charlie (played by Shazad Latif), and he’s proud of Millie’s success as a fund manager and wants to promote her to a higher position. Millie (who’s in her early 30s) and Charlie (who’s in his mid-to-late 30s)—met when he interviewed her to work at the company. There are no flashbacks in this movie. The story begins when Millie and Charlie have already been living together for an unspecified period of time.

It’s kind of a tricky situation in this #MeToo era for a boss to be dating an employee. But somehow, Millie and Charlie have worked it out and are open about their personal relationship while keeping things professional at work. Early on in the movie, she jokingly says to him in private: “I’m going to make more money than you. You’re going to rue the day that you hired me.”

Even though Millie is on the fast track to a big promotion at her job, she’s actually bored and frustrated with her career choice. The first scene in the movie shows Millie and Charlie on a date together at an opera performance. Millie is enthralled and has a fantasy that she’s the one who’s up on stage as the star of the show. Meanwhile, Charlie could care less about opera. He falls asleep during the performance. You know where this is going, of course.

It doesn’t take long for Millie to confess to Charlie that she’s going to take a big risk in her life to pursue a longtime dream of hers: She wants to become a professional opera singer. And in order to do that, Millie is going to take a year off from her job to go through opera training. When she tells Charlie this surprising news that she wants to be an opera singer, his incredulous response is, “Like, in the shower?”

Once the shock wears off, Charlie sees that Millie is entirely serious and determined to achieve this goal. Millie gets some advice from an older co-worker named Patricia Hartley, who tells her that the fastest way to be discovered as an aspiring opera singer is to go on the TV talent contest called “Singer of Renown.”

Millie says to Patricia, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life as a fund manager … Why shouldn’t I follow my heart?” Patricia doesn’t want to discourage Millie, but she expresses some skepticism about Millie trying to become an opera singer when many people start training in their childhood or teen years. Millie says defiantly in response to this skepticism, “Patricia, I’m not that old, and it is not too late. I’m willing to do this, with or without your help.”

Patricia recommends that Millie get her training from an opera instructor whom Patricia knows named Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (played by Lumley), who is based in the Scottish Highlands small town of Drumbuie. Meghan is at an age when most people are retired, but she refuses to think of herself as too old to work. Patricia warns Millie about Meghan: “She’s a little unorthodox.” A more accurate description of Meghan is, “She’s a little crazy and very rude.”

Charlie thinks that Millie is making a mistake to pursue a career as an opera singer. However, Millie has already made up her mind. And so, off Millie goes to Scotland with big dreams, a lot of hope and the expected amount of fear that she might end up failing.

Drumbuie is the type of small town where the local pub/restaurant (The Filthy Pig) is the center of the townspeople’s social lives. The Filthy Pig’s bartender Ramsay Macfadyen (played by Gary Lewis), who’s about the same age as Meghan, is the type of friendly person who knows regular customers by their names. He’s attuned to what’s going on in most of the customers’ personal lives. (In other words, he’s nosy.) And in a case of “opposites attract,” it turns out that Ramsay and Meghan have a little bit of a romance going on, but they’re trying to keep it low-key.

One of the waiters at the Filthy Pig is named Max (played by Hugh Skinner), an occasionally sullen introvert in his mid-30. Max works at the Filthy Pig to supplement his income as he trains to become a professional opera singer. Up until Millie comes along, Max was the only student of Meghan, who is very choosy about which people she wants to train. Meghan is also like a mother figure to Max, whose background isn’t really explained except for a mention that his parents are no longer alive and he has no other family members.

Meghan acts like such a domineering mother to Max that viewers might think that at some point there might be a reveal in the story that she really is Max’s mother, but that doesn’t happen. Max is a live-in handyman on Meghan’s property, so she often treats him like a lowly servant too. It seems like the main reason why Max puts up with Meghan’s shoddy treatment is because he respects her as a vocal instructor and he has an emotional attachment to her because she’s the closest thing he’s got to having a family.

Millie’s audition for Meghan is an outright disaster. For her audition piece, Millie sings “Voi Che Sapete” from “The Marriage of Figaro.” She’s nervous and stumbles in her her vocal delivery because during the audition, Max has been working on some plumbing nearby, and the loud noise is very distracting. Not surprisingly, Meghan rips into Millie not just for her performance but also to personally insult Millie.

Meghan goes on a rant that includes saying haughtily to Millie, “I haven’t finished telling you how worthless you are!” Meghan warns Millie that if Millie becomes Meghan’s student, Meghan will make Millie’s life miserable. Millie is undeterred. And because Millie has no other immediate options, she practically begs Meghan to be her vocal instructor. Meghan is secretly impressed by Millie’s determination and reluctantly agrees to train Millie.

Meanwhile, Max is feeling a little jealous that Meghan has accepted a new student, when he was used to having Meghan all to himself. Max tries to make Millie feel inferior by telling her that he’s been training with Meghan for so long, he can help Millie with some vocal techniques. Millie declines his offer and seems a little insulted because she thinks Max is being condescending to her.

The way that Max takes the rejection indicates that he might be interested in Millie for more than professional reasons. He doesn’t seem too pleased when he finds out that Millie has a boyfriend back home. Millie describes Charlie as her “significant other.” Max’s response: “It doesn’t exactly sound like a love match.” Meanwhile, Meghan sees that there’s some friction between Max and Millie. And what does Meghan do? She suggests that Max and Millie work on a duet together.

Viewers can easily predict how the rest of the story is going to go from there. Max and Millie have their share of disagreements, but they also learn to respect each other’s talent. Charlie arrives for the inevitable surprise visit, as Max and Millie’s attraction to each other grows. Max and Millie end up competing against each other in the “Singer of Renown” contest. Thankfully, the outcome of that contest isn’t as predictable as most people might think it is.

There’s a “Singer of Renown” contestant named Rosa Patullo (played by Rebecca Benson), who might be the most talented singer, but she has confidence issues. Kind-hearted Millie befriends Rosa and helps her deal with these insecurities. Millie isn’t a complete angel in this story, because there are some infidelity issues that she gets herself into during the inevitable love triangle between herself, Charlie and Max.

The opera singing in the movie should delight opera fans and even people who aren’t opera fans but appreciate musical artistry. What isn’t so creative is how many of the supporting characters end up being unremarkable clichés. There’s a gaggle of Filthy Pig regulars who are entirely forgettable. And the movie skimps on a backstory for Millie. Viewers will learn nothing about how and why she ended up living in the United Kingdom and what kind of family background she has.

Max as a love interest is a little bit on the bland side, while Meghan can be a little too over-the-top with her cruel comments. Skinner and Lumley play those roles accordingly. And that’s why the main appeal of “Falling for Figaro” is with Millie’s character, thanks to Macdonald’s relatable and grounded performance in a movie that largely follows a fairytale formula. The direction of this movie is breezy and light, which is an interesting contrast to the heavy bombast of opera. “Falling for Figaro” is far from a groundbreaking romantic movie, but it’s a pleasant-enough diversion for people who want the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.

IFC Films released “Falling for Figaro” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘The Last Duel’ (2021), starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck

October 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Adam Driver and Matt Damon in “The Last Duel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios)

“The Last Duel” (2021)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place in France from the years 1377 to the late 1380s, the dramatic film “The Last Duel” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: Two former friends, who fought battles together in the French military, face off in a violent duel after one of the men is accused of raping the other man’s wife.

Culture Audience: “The Last Duel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent medieval-era dramas where some of the acting and dialogue are too modern be considered authentic, and sadistic machismo is put on the highest pedestal.

Jodie Comer in “The Last Duel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios)

When watching “The Last Duel,” it might be annoying or amusing to see Matt Damon in a mullet, as he fumbles attempts to be a medieval Frenchman, by having a modern British-American accent. Ultimately, the movie has nothing new or insightful to say about violent machismo. If you really need to see the same rape of a woman depicted twice in a movie, just for the sake of showing the rape from the perspectives of the rapist and the victim, then “The Last Duel” is your kind of movie.

Directed by Ridley Scott, “The Last Duel” is written by Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener. They adapted the movie’s screenplay from Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name. Scott, Damon, Affleck and Holofcener are among the producers of “The Last Duel” movie. All of them have considerable talent, but all of them have made much better movies than “The Last Duel.”

It’s worth noting that “The Last Duel” is the first movie screenplay that Damon and Affleck have written together since their Oscar-winning original screenplay for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” a better-quality film about masculine identity. (Damon and Affleck also co-starred in “Good Will Hunting.”) “The Last Duel” certainly has the top-notch production design and cinematography that viewers have come to expect when Scott does a period movie, but it’s no “Gladiator.” In addition, “The Last Duel” has too much subpar acting from Affleck and cringeworthy dialogue in several parts of the movie for “The Last Duel” to be an Oscar-caliber film.

People familiar with the medieval era already know it was a brutal and violent period in history, when women were treated as nothing more than property to be bought and sold for marriage, with husbands having the legal right to “own” their wives. All of that misogyny is accurately depicted in “The Last Duel.” The problem is that the movie has a tone of showing hatred and degradation of women with a little too much enthusiasm.

It’s as if the filmmakers felt that just by having the movie take place during this ancient era, it was enough of a reason to show this misogyny so gratuitously. Any attempt to show any female character with some kind of inner strength is rushed in the last third of the film. This half-hearted nod to female empowerment doesn’t come across as genuine but rather it seems manipulative. It’s the equivalent of filmmakers putting a little dab of cleaner on the avalanche of dirty, sexist muck that’s poured all over the film.

Based on true events, “The Last Duel” takes place in France (mostly in Paris) from 1377 to the late 1380s. But if you were to believe this movie, women couldn’t possibly be as smart or as powerful as men. It completely refuses to acknowledge that women had positions of power and minds of their own in France during the medieval era—most notably Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was a leader more than 200 years before this story takes place. “The Last Duel” is so insistent on shutting out any depictions of intelligent women in power (even if it’s power in their own households) that when Queen Isabeau (played by Serena Kennedy) appears in the movie, she doesn’t have any lines of dialogue and is just there as a spectator sitting next to her king husband (who does talk) during the jousting match that is the movie’s namesake.

“The Last Duel,” is told in three chapters, each from the perspective of the three people involved in a rape case that is the reason for this jousting duel:

  • Jean de Carrouges (played by Damon) is a domineering, middle-aged knight, who has fought many battles in the Crusades. He has the scars on his face and the rest of his body to prove it. Jean’s first wife and son died during the bubonic plague known as the Black Death. His second marriage is to a woman who is the story’s rape victim.
  • Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver), a roguish playboy who’s about 10 years younger than Jean, has risen through the military ranks to become a captain. Jacques is a never-married bachelor who has never had a committed love relationship.
  • Marguerite de Carrouges (played by Jodie Comer), Jean’s second wife, is about 20 years younger than Jean. She comes from a well-to-do family that has fallen on hard times because her scandal-plagued father has been branded as a traitor. Marguerite accuses Jacques of raping her.

Each of the movie’s chapters is titled “Part One: The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” “Part Two: The Truth According to Jacque Le Gris” and “Part Three: The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges.” Unlike Showtime’s 2014-2019 drama series “The Affair,” “The Last Duel” doesn’t have wildly different memories of the same incidents from the three people involved in a love triangle. The memories and perspectives do have some differences, but they add up to a generally consistent overview of what life was like for the three people who are at the center of the rape case.

Someone who can influence the outcome of the rape case is the hard-partying Pierre d’Alençon (played by Affleck), who is the presiding judge and a close ally of Jacques. Pierre is also the much-older cousin of King Charles IV (played by Alex Lawther), who is portrayed as a brat in his 20s who doesn’t have the maturity to be an effective leader, but he’s tolerated by people around him because he inherited the title of king.

One of the biggest problems with “The Last Duel” is that it’s filled with modern lines of dialogue that sound like they’re straight out of a foul-mouthed movie written by Quentin Tarantino. Certain people, especially Pierre, like to say the words “fuck” or “fucking” a lot. That doesn’t mean that cursing didn’t exist in the medieval era, but the way the words are used in a contemporary-sounding dialogue context is just not accurate for those times.

And it doesn’t help that Affleck and Damon (who are both American) struggle with their fake European accents. Damon has entire scenes where he sounds American and British every time he talks. Driver (who is American) does a much better job at having a European-sounding accent, while Comer doesn’t have to pretend at all, since she’s British in real life.

For a movie that’s supposed to take place in France, it’s kind of pathetic that there are very few French people in “The Last Duel” cast, and none of these French actors has a large role in the film. (“The Last Duel” was actually filmed in Ireland.) This lack of significant French representation in the movie’s cast is an indication that “The Last Duel” director Scott (who is British) has an ethnic bias when it comes to who he wants in his movies. It’s also obvious that he didn’t care about having accurate language consistency for “The Last Duel” characters, since the stars of the movie sound British and American instead of French.

And in case anyone mistakenly thinks “The Last Duel” is a prestigious, Oscar-caliber film, think again. The movie goes into borderline softcore porn territory. Under Scott’s direction, “The Last Duel” seems enamored with showing in more than one tacky scene that Pierre and Jacques regularly participated in orgies together with willing women. One of the orgy scenes has a very “male gaze” to it, because it lingers on three women on a bed having sex with each other, while they wait for Pierre to join them. It’s such a predictable stereotype in these types of movie orgy scenes that same-sex hookups always comes from the women, not from the men.

Pierre is married with eight children, but he seems to think his family life just gets in the way of his sex parties. He even started to have an orgy in front of his pregnant wife Lady Marie Chamaillart (played by Zoé Bruneau), who seems to know what’s about to happen and quickly leaves the room. After having this orgy, Jacques asks Pierre if he wants to spend time with his wife. Pierre scoffs at the idea and says that Marie is “pregnant and hysterical. I’d rather take my chances with the wolves.”

This 152-minute movie plods along in showing Jean’s transactional marriage to Marguerite, whom he hopes will bear him a son so that he can have a male heir again. Jean drove a hard bargain for Marguerite’s dowry, by convincing Marguerite’s disgraced and financially desperate father Sir Robert de Thibouville (played by Nathaniel Parker) to give him a coveted strip of land as part of the deal. Sir Robert reluctantly agrees.

Jean is very patriotic and proud to serve in the military. Jacques becomes a close companion of his during their military battles, and Jean even saves Jacques’ life on one occasion. When Jean is not away from home for war duties, his occupation is being a landlord, but the Black Death caused many of his tenants to die, so he’s been struggling financially and is heavily in debt. Pierre later takes advantage of Jean’s financial woes when Pierre decides that Jean has become his enemy.

Marguerite handles the landlord transactions when Jean is away from home, and she finds out that he’s been an irresponsible business manager by not bothering to collect rent when he was supposed to do it. However, Marguerite is in the type of marriage where she can’t really speak up and point out these mistakes to Jean because his huge ego would just dismiss her concerns. She is constantly reminded by people in society that she should not speak up about problems that would be considered “embarrassing” or “disobedient” to her husband or other men.

Jacques and Marguerite meet at an outdoor party, where Jean introduces his new wife to his friend and tells Marguerite to give a friendly kiss to Jacques. Marguerite ends up kissing Jacques on the lips, and he looks at her in a way that shows it’s attraction at first sight, with that kiss causing some kind of spark in him. Marguerite admits to some of her female friends at the party that she thinks Jacques is handsome, but she doesn’t trust him because of his “bad boy” reputation.

Marguerite is well-read, while Jean is illiterate. In more than one scene in the film, Jacques and some other people express surprise that Jean allows Marguerite to read books. Jacques uses this information to his advantage when, shortly after he meets Marguerite, he flirts with her and tries to impress her with his knowledge of literature.

Later, it becomes clear that Jacques’ lust for Marguerite has turned into obsession, although he claims several times that he’s deeply in love with Marguerite and it’s the first time that he’s ever felt this way. It doesn’t justify him raping her. The movie leaves no ambiguity that this rape did occur.

Up until the rape (which is depicted in a disturbing way that might be too upsetting for sensitive viewers), “The Last Duel” becomes a soap opera filled with clichés that you might find in a cheap and tawdry romance novel. There’s the pretty housewife who’s lonely and bored because her husband is away from home a lot. And when he’s at home, their sex life is passionless and he doesn’t seem to care about what her needs are.

There’s the workaholic husband who’s so preoccupied with his work and self-image that he doesn’t see how unhappy his wife is. He thinks that all he needs to be a good husband is to be a good provider. He’s also annoyed with his wife because she hasn’t gotten pregnant as quickly as he wanted. After five years of marriage, she still hasn’t conceived a child.

There’s the tall, dark “bad boy” who’s just waiting for the right moment to “seduce” the lonely wife. The fact that the husband used to be the bad boy’s best friend makes the bad boy’s lust for the wife even more taboo. Driver is perfectly adequate in this villain role, but he’s limited by this two-dimensional character, and therefore it’s not an outstanding performance.

Also part of this parade of soap opera clichés is the bad boy’s “wingman”/sidekick, who gleefully helps with the scheming because he wants to cause some chaos too. In “The Last Duel,” the “wingman” character is named Adam Louvel (played by Adam Nagaitis), and he plays a pivotal role in Jacques’ planning of the rape. Just like Jacques, he’s a shallow character with no backstory.

The extra strip of land that Jean was promised as part of Marguerite’s dowry becomes the subject of a legal dispute when Jacques, in an effort to impress Pierre, seizes the land and hands it over to Pierre. It results in a messy lawsuit, with Jean suing Pierre and Jacques. Pierre grows increasingly alienated from and irritated with Jean because of this legal dispute. Meanwhile, Jacques tries to put the lawsuit behind him and makes the first move to repair his broken friendship with Jean.

However, any attempts for Jean and Jacques to become friends again get obliterated when the rape happens. “The Last Duel” gives harsh but realistic depictions of the victim blaming and victim shaming that rape survivors experience when they come forward and try to get justice for this crime. Complicating matters, Jacques admits that he had a sexual encounter with Marguerite, but he says it was consensual. He vehemently denies that it was rape. For many people who hear about Marguerite’s accusation, it’s a “he said/she said” situation.

The movie shows in chilling details how victim blaming/shaming reactions to a rape story are universal and timeless and don’t just come from men. Jean’s mother Nicole de Carrouges (played by Harriet Walter) believes Marguerite, but she scolds Marguerite for not keeping quiet about the rape. Meanwhile, Marguerite’s best friend Marie (played by Tallulah Haddon) doubts Marguerite’s accusation, because Marie thinks Marguerite was attracted to Jacques and that Marguerite might have done something to make Jacques think she was willing to have sex with him.

In her depiction of Marguerite, Comer gives an admirable performance of a woman who often has to suppress her emotions, out of fear of being labeled as a “hysterical” wife who might embarrass her husband. Through tearful eyes that still show steely determination, she achieves a balance of being emotionally vulnerable but mentally strong. Marguerite is going to need that inner strength when she gets an onslaught of criticism from many people because she went public with this accusation.

Marguerite tells Jean about the rape before they decide to go public with this accusation. Jean’s initial reaction isn’t to comfort Marguerite but to get angry that Jacques has betrayed him again. Jean eventually takes Marguerite’s side, but he’s motivated more by defending his own honor and reputation than defending Marguerite’s. Because it’s not spoiler information that “The Last Duel” is about Jean and Jacques’ jousting showdown about the rape, the movie just becomes scene after scene that builds up to this battle. Marguerite’s feelings and trauma get pushed to the side, while the movie ultimately gives more importance to the feuding between Jean and Jacques.

Although the movie shows Marguerite’s considerable bravery, it’s Jean who’s supposed to be the “hero” of the story for defending his wife. We know this because the viewer catharsis in the movie is supposed to come mainly from the jousting battle, which centers “The Last Duel” back on the men. The movie ends with scenes showing Marguerite, but make no mistake: “The Last Duel” is very much a movie about egotistical men and the violence they commit to get what they want.

20th Century Studios will release “The Last Duel” in U.S. cinemas on October 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Wild Indian,’ starring Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Kate Bosworth and Jesse Eisenberg

October 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michael Greyeyes in “Wild Indian” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Wild Indian” 

Directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.

Culture Representation: Taking place in a California and in an unnamed U.S. state, the dramatic film “Wild Indian” features a Native American and white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two male cousins of Ojibwe Indian heritage have conflicts with each other over a murder they covered up when they were teenagers more than 30 years earlier.

Culture Audience: “Wild Indian” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dramatic thrillers about sociopaths where the stories don’t offer easy answers.

Phoenix Wilson (pictured at right) in “Wild Indian” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Wild Indian” isn’t going to win any awards for groundbreaking portrayals of Native Americans. However, it’s a suspenseful drama about how two cousins in their 40s have very different views of how to handle the murder cover-up that they participated in when they were teenagers. Taking into account that there are very few American-made feature films with Native Americans comprising at least half of the principal cast members (including the lead actor), “Wild Indian” is notable for having this representation on screen.

The movie won’t satisfy people who are looking for a more definitive ending to the story. However, “Wild Indian” is an astute observation of how race and class play roles in how people are treated by the criminal justice system. This observation might be too realistic for some people’s comfort.

Written and directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., “Wild Indian” tells the story of two Native American cousins from the Ojibwe tribe and how their lives took two very different paths after they decided to keep a dark secret: When they were teenagers, one of the cousins shot and killed another teenage boy in a cold-blooded manner, and he convinced his cousin to help him cover up the crime. The cousin who became an accomplice to murder has been wracked with guilt ever since. The cousin who pulled the trigger has no guilt and would do anything to keep this crime a secret.

If viewers have a problem with Native Americans being portrayed as criminals in this movie, it’s worth noting that “Wild Indian” writer/director Corbine is also from the Ojibwe tribe. “Wild Indian” is his feature-film directorial debut. Corbine’s “Wild Indian” depiction of Native American culture is less about negative stereotypes and more about socioeconomic effects on Native Americans. The movie confronts the very real issues of how Native Americans are treated by American society can depend largely on how well a Native American assimilates into places dominated by white people.

“Wild Indian” shows two parts of the lives of cousins Makwa Giizheg and Teddo: when they are in their early teens in 1985, and when they are in their late-40s in 2019. The actors portraying the two cousins are Phoenix Wilson as young Makwa, Julian Gopal as young Teddo, Michael Greyeyes as adult Makwa and Michael Chaske as adult Teddo. The movie is told from Makwa’s perspective.

As children, Makwa and Teddo (who are about 13 or 14 years old in 1985) live in the same unnamed city in an unnamed U.S. state. (“Wild Indian” was actually filmed in Oklahoma and California.) Makwa, who is an only child, goes to a Catholic school, where he is doing well academically, but he’s an introverted loner. His life at home is very troubled: His mechanic father Darren Giizheg (played by Elisha Pratt) is an alcoholic who is verbally and physically abusive to Makwa. Makwa’s mother Ivy (played by Happy Frejo), who also has a drinking problem, doesn’t do anything to stop the abuse.

Makwa and Teddo go to the same school, where Teddo has a secret crush on a fellow student named Alyse (played by Lauren Newsham), who is pretty and popular. Makwa is too shy to approach Alyse not just because he feels like a social outcast who comes from a troubled family, but also because of underlying, unspoken issues about race. Alyse is white, and so is James Wolf (played by Colton Knaus), the student who has started dating Alyse.

Not surprisingly, Makwa is jealous of James, but Makwa keeps those feelings to himself. At home, Makwa has to try to avoid getting beaten up by his father, who will fly into rages for no good reason. During one of these abuse incidents, Darren physically assaults Makwa and shouts at Makwa: “I don’t want you in the house!” And so, Makwa has to find another place to stay for the night.

The movie doesn’t really show Teddo’s home life when Teddo was a teenager. However, it’s implied that when things get rough in Makwa’s household, he can find refuge in Teddo’s household. Needless to say, Teddo is Makwa’s closest companion. Teddo is the one who teaches Makwa how to shoot a rifle.

Makwa gets injuries from the physical abuse, and some of those injuries (such as a black eye and bruises) are difficult to hide. At school, Makwa is called into the office of the school principal, a caring priest named Father Daniels (played by Scott Haze), who tactfully tries to find out if Makwa is being abused at home. Father Daniels asks Makwa how he got the bruises.

Makwa is sullen and abrupt when he replies, “I was running and I fell. Can I go now?” Father Daniels then asks Makwa about Makwa’s parents: “Do they drink often?” It’s a sore subject for Makwa, who cuts the conversation short. Makwa tells Father Daniels that he’s doing well academically, so there’s no reason for him to be in the principal’s office. It’s the first indication that Makwa has a side to him that’s willing to defy authority and deny there’s a problem to anyone who might want to help him.

In their free time, Makwa and Teddo like to go into the woods to shoot things, such as discarded items, for target practice. They use a rifle owned by Teddo’s father. And one day in the woods during target practice, when Teddo is a few dozen yards away, Makwa happens to see his rival James by himself. Makwa takes aim and coldly murders James.

Teddo hears the gunshot and goes over to see what Makwa as shooting at, and he’s shocked to se James’ dead body. Whle Teddo is panicking and says they should call an ambulance or the police, Makwa convinces Teddo not to tell anyone because he says that they will both get in trouble. Instead, Makwa convinces Teddo to help him bury James in the woods. It’s a secret that they will carry for the next 34 years.

Before the movie fast-forwards to 2019, there’s a very telling scene that shows that Makwa isn’t a misunderstood child who made a horrible mistake. After another vicious fight with his father, Makwa bites his father’s hand, and then runs outside to the woods, where Makwa finds the spot where James’ body iss buried, and he urinates on this makeshift grave. It’s at this point that viewers know what Makwa is a sociopath with no remorse for the murder he committed.

In 2019, Makwa is a successful business executive at an unnamed corporate job in California. The type of business he does isn’t fully described in the movie, but it’s a company where Makwa has to interact with important clients. Some of these clients like to play golf, so Makwa is shown playing golf as a way to be in a better position to network with clients or potential clients.

And there’s something else about Makwa’s reinvention as a successful executive who’s on the rise at his company: He’s changed his name from Makwa Giizheg to Michael Peterson. Michael is also married to an attractive blonde named Greta (played by Kate Bosworth), and they have a son named Michael Jr., who’s about 2 years old. Greta does not know about Michael’s past, including his former name.

Michael and Greta have an upper-middle-class lifestyle somewhere in the Los Angeles area. She works in human resources and isn’t very enthusiastic about her career choice. it’s why when Greta finds out that she’s pregnant, she tells Michael that she wants to take a leave of absence from her job. Michael doesn’t seem very happy that Greta is pregnant with their second child, since this second child was unplanned. Viewers will soon see that Makwa/Michael is not only a sociopath, but he’s also a control freak.

Whatever attempts that Makwa/Michael made to assimilate into his predominantly white environment, he still gets reminders that he’s a person of color. At his job, a white co-worker named Jerry (played by Jesse Eisenberg) seems to genuinely like Michael and is rooting for his success. But when Jerry talks about Michael being a top candidate to be promoted into an open position, he mentions Michael being Native American as something that will make the company look progressive. It’s a casually racist remark that implies that Michael’s race can be used as a trendy gimmick instead of Michael being qualified for the promotion, solely based on his skills and experience.

Meanwhile, as Makwa/Michael has made a life for himself as an “upstanding citizen” who’s living “The American Dream,” Teddo has spent 12 of the past 34 years years in and out of prison. He spent 10 years in prison for drug dealing. He’s also been incarcerated for drug possession and assault and battery.

In 2019, Teddo (who is a a bachelor with no children) has been released from prison and is trying to get his life back on track. He’s moved back into his family home, where he lives with his sister Cammy (played by Lisa Cromarty), who is the single mother of a 5-year-old son named Daniel (played by Hilario “Tres” Garcia III), who is very shy. Since Teddo’s parents aren’t mentioned at this point in the story, it’s implied that they are dead.

Teddo has a much bigger problem than difficulty finding a job because he’s an ex-felon. His conscience has been weighing heavily on him because of the secret that he and Makwa have been keeping. The two cousins have not seen or spoken to each other in years, but Teddo decides he’s going to track down Makwa and confront him about this dark secret. Teddo also reaches out to Lisa Wolf (played by Sheri Foster), the mother of James. (Jennifer Rader portrays Lisa in the scenes that take place in 1985.)

There are some other things that happen in the movie that should be surprises but unfortunately are revealed in the “Wild Indian” trailer. It’s enough to say that Makwa/Michael is forced to deal with this secret, and he goes to extreme lengths to try act innocent. During this period of time, viewers see that Makwa/Michael has been fighting a compulsion to commit violent crimes against people.

For example, Makwa/Michael has a disturbing encounter with a stripper that is eerily similar to what real-life serial killers have done to victims who’ve had violent experiences with serial killers. After this incident, Makwa/Michael is seen frantically praying in a church. It shows he has some feelings of guilt over his horrific crimes, but whatever guilt he feels is overshadowed by his need for self-preservation and control.

“Wild Indian” shows how Makwa/Michael uses his con man skills to lie and and manipulate his way out of a few situations. The movie never shows what happened in the years between the James Wolf’s murder in 1985 and Makwa/Michael’s life in 2019, but it’s easy to see that Makwa/Michael’s reinvention isn’t just about covering up the murder. He now lives a life of privilege, which he uses to hs advantage when it comes time for him to get a lawyer.

As the sociopathic Makwa/Michael, Greyeyes gives a chilling performance, even if it is a little robotic at times. Maybe it’s just Greyeyes’ way of portraying someone who has no empathy. All the other supporting characters in Makwa/Michael’s orbit (except for Teddo) are somewhat two-dimensional. Not enough time is spent with these supporting characters to get a sense of who they are as well-rounded people.

Teddo is a much more interesting character to watch because his adult life is more difficult and complicated than Makwa/Michael’s life. Even though Teddo has more morality than Makwa/Michael, Teddo’s prison record automatically puts him at a disadvantage in how people will judge Teddo and Teddo’s credibility. Spencer gives the role a very compassionate nuance in how he portrays Teddo’s troubled soul.

“Wild Indian” doesn’t have a typical story arc that movies tend to have about people who’ve covered up of a murder years ago, and their past comes back to haunt them. This movie is more of a character study than a predictable criminal justice story. People who have a more realistic view of the world will probably appreciate “Wild Indian” more than viewers who expect movies like this to gloss over life’s harsh realities and wrap up everything nicely in a tidy bow.

Vertical Entertainment released “Wild Indian” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021.

Review: ‘I’m Your Man’ (2021), starring Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert

October 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens in “I’m Your Man” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“I’m Your Man” (2021)

Directed by Maria Schrader

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Berlin, the romantic comedy/drama “I’m Your Man” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one mixed-race person and one person of Indian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A museum scientist/researcher reluctantly agrees to do a three-week experiment to live with a humanoid robot that is designed to be her perfect man. 

Culture Audience: “I’m Your Man” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in well-acted movies that combine romance with depictions of how technology affects humanity.

Dan Stevens and Sandra Hüller in “I’m Your Man” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“I’m Your Man” asks the question “Can a robot be programmed to be a perfect love partner?” It’s a question faced by Dr. Alma Felser (played by Maren Eggers), an analytical scientist who works as a researcher at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. She’s been chosen to participate in an experiment to test if a robot can be programmed to be her perfect man.

Because humans created these robots, it’s an experiment that assumes that humans are the ones in control and have superior knowledge over the robots. However, the appeal of this charming, well-acted movie is when “know it all” Alma finds out that she might learn some things about herself from this robot. The question then becomes, “How emotionally attached should Alma become to Tom, when he can cater to her needs, but he still has no soul?”

Directed by Maria Schrader (who won an Emmy Award for directing the 2020 Netflix limited series “Unorthodox”), “I’m Your Man” is based on Emma Braslavsky’s short story “Ich bin dein Mensch.” Schrader and Jan Schomburg adapted the story into the “I’m Your Man” screenplay. “I’m Your Man” is Germany’s official entry to be considered for a Best International Feature nomination for the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony.

Alma is a never-married bachelorette in her mid-to-late 40s. Her life revolves around her work. In the movie’s opening scene, Alma arrives at a work-related party, where she soon meets Tom (played by Dan Stevens), a good-looking man in his late 30s. Tom immediately kisses her hand, flirts with her, and tries to impress her with his knowledge. He mentions that he likes Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Autumn Day” poem, which is a favorite poem of Alma’s too. Tom shows Alma that he can do large mathematical calculations in his head.

But then, his speech starts to repeat, like a broken record or a glitch in playback. An unnamed Pergamon Museum employee (played by Sandra Hüller), who is supervising this robot experiment, has Tom taken away from the party. And that’s when she tells Alma that Tom is really a robot and that Alma has been chosen to be the ideal person to test if this robot can be the perfect man for whomever is paired with the robot.

Alma’s female colleague says matter-of-factly about the temporary glitch in Tom: “You have no idea how hard it is to program flirting … Holograms can be done cheaper and longer.” The robot that is being tested isn’t just programmed with ways to talk to people. The robot can also anticipate the needs of the companion human, though a series of algorithms. And through detection of brain waves, facial expressions and body language, the robot can deduce a person’s true inner feelings.

Later, when she’s at her job, Alma hears more details about this “perfect man” robot. She finds out that she was chosen for this experiment because she currently doesn’t have a love partner. The experiment would require Alma to live with Tom for three weeks. Alma is completely against the idea that robots can become legitimate companions for human beings, so she refuses to be a part of the experiment.

However, after getting much pleading and coaxing from her colleagues, Alma agrees to participate in the experiment. Alma’s female colleague tells Alma this selling point as a way to convince Alma: “When happiness knocks on the door, you should open it.”

At first, Alma is very uncomfortable with Tom living with her. He is very doting (he cooks and cleans for her without her having to ask) and tries to be affectionate with her. But she is cold and dismissive, treating him more like a pesky housemate, rather than a potentially intimate companion.

Alma considers herself to be an independent woman, so part of her resentment (which she doesn’t say out loud) is that she doesn’t like that her colleagues chose her to live with this robot because they think she’s a lonely, aging spinster. She also hates that Tom has been programmed to say sappy lines to her such as, “Your eyes are like two mountain lakes that I can sink into.”

Stevens, who is British in real life, portrays Tom’s as speaking German with a British accent. It’s explained in the movie that because Alma has shown a pattern of being attracted to non-German men, Tom was programmed to sound like he’s not from Germany. This deep mining of personal information might be troubling to people who value their privacy. But in this day and age, with millions of people posting so much of their personal lives on the Internet, it’s not that far-fetched for people’s preferences in romantic partners to be easily found and used as data.

Alma has also been chosen to recommend to an ethics committee that is overseeing this experiment if having a robot like Tom is psychologically and emotionally healthy for human beings. She is required to submit her recommendation (acceptance or rejection of the project) to Dean Roger (played by Falilou Seck), who is in charge of the ethics committee. Although he’s not supposed to show his bias, he essentially tells Alma that she hopes her decision is an acceptance recommendation.

“I’m Your Man” takes place in a world where robots and holograms are already accepted in the culture as chosen companions for humans. For example, there’s a scene where Alma goes back to a bar where she sees humans on dates with holograms, and it’s considered normal. The question she has to answer for herself and the ethics committee is if it’s ethical for robots to be sold and marketed to humans as live-in partners or spouses.

One of the ways that “I’m Your Man” isn’t a typical “robot fantasy” movie is that Tom isn’t always cheerful and willing to let Alma constantly disrespect him. He talks back to her and calls her out on some of her rude and selfish actions. Because he is supposed to be attuned to her emotions, he tells Alma what he observes about her.

Alma has other things going on in her life that complicate her experiment with Tom. She’s under a lot of stress because her father (played by Wolfgang Hübsch), who doesn’t have a first name in the movie, is showing signs of early dementia. Alma has a sister named Cora (played by Annika Meier), and they both are in various forms of distress and denial over what to do with their father if or when his condition worsens.

As for her love life, Alma has an ex-boyfriend named Julian (played by Hans Löw), who also happens to be one of her co-workers. They remained friends after the breakup, but viewers will get the impression that things aren’t completely resolved between Julian and Alma. He might have lingering feelings toward her.

For example, there’s a scene where Julian asks Alma out to lunch, but she declines, and he seems disappointed. Later, Julian tells Alma that he’s moving in with his girlfriend Steffi (played by Henriette Richter-Röhl) for “mostly financial reasons.” Julian’s heart might not be completely in his relationship with Steffi, but Steffi seems completely in love with Julian. One of the funnier scenes in the movie is when Anna brings Tom as her date to Julia and Steffi’s housewarming party. It’s enough to say that things get awkward.

Stevens’ earnest portrayal of a robot doesn’t fall into a parody, but there is a slight wink and a nod to his performance. He gives enough robotic eye movements and too-perfect smiles to remind viewers that there is no soul underneath this human-looking being, even though Tom knows how to look and act human. It’s a tricky performance that Stevens handles in a very talented way.

Eggert also does an admirable performance as Alma, who is obviously the more complicated one in this would-be couple. Alma doesn’t express her thoughts as easily as Tom does. And it unnerves Alma that Tom can do an accurate psychoanalysis of her, which he does on a regular basis. She’s also conflicted because her scientific brain tells her that robots are incapable of feeling and giving love, but her lonely heart is telling her that maybe she should take unconditional emotional support and companionship wherever she can get it.

Rather than it being a one-sided relationship where Alma bosses Tom around, Tom ends up challenging Alma to look at herself and figure out what she wants out of love and what she’s willing to do to seek out or shut out certain relationships. There are several comedic moments along the way, as well as some emotionally touching dramatic moments. The overall message of “I’m Your Man” is that wishing for an ideal love mate can come at a “be careful what you wish for” price, but it might be worth it if you know who you really are in the first place.

Bleecker Street released “I’m Your Man” in select U.S. cinemas on September 24, 2021. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is October 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Time Is Up’ (2021), starring Bella Thorne and Benjamin Mascolo

October 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Benjamin Mascolo and Bella Thorne in “Time Is Up” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Time Is Up” (2021)

Directed by Elisa Amoruso

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and in Italy, the romantic drama “Time Is Up” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: At an unnamed high school, a “good girl” who’s an aspiring physicist falls for a “bad boy” who’s a rising star on the school’s swim team, even though she already has a boyfriend who’s on the same swim team.

Culture Audience: “Time Is Up” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching cliché-ridden, badly acted dramas about teenagers.

Sebastiano Pigazzi and Bella Thorne in “Time Is Up” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Time Is Up” is an example of what happens when filmmakers think that all you need for a romantic drama are some pretty actors and a scenic trip to Italy. It’s too bad they forgot about actually making a good movie. This substandard film is like being in a car wreck of teen drama clichés. And that’s not just because the movie actually does have a car wreck, which causes the female protagonist to experience amnesia soon after she has fallen in love with someone new.

“Time Is Up” is also one of those movies that has a trailer that gives away 85% of the plot, including the amnesia part of the story that doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. There’s only one plot twist in the movie that isn’t in the trailer: It involves a secret same-sex affair of two people whose reputations would be ruined if the secret got out.

“Time Is Up” director Elisa Amoruso co-wrote the movie’s atrocious screenplay with Lorenzo Ura and Patrizia Fiorellini. The movie attempts to go for the tone of an epic romance, but in reality, “Time Is Up” is a cheesy teen soap opera. One of the movie’s biggest flaws is in its casting: The main actors who portray high schoolers look too old to be in high school.

We’ve seen this formula too many times before: A “good girl” in high school falls for a brooding “bad boy.” If he goes to the same school, he’s usually a new student who’s a mysterious and troubled loner. There’s usually some obstacle that prevents them from getting together right away. (The obstacle is usually a love triangle.) And so, the would-be couple will spend a lot of screen time pouting and eyeing each other lustfully before one of them makes the first move.

“Time Is Up” is a parade of pouting by cast members who know how to look sullen and bored more than they know how to act. Vivien (played by Bella Thorne) is in her last year in high school in an unnamed U.S. city. She’s an aspiring physicist (with a preference for quantum physics), who spouts this laughable, pseudo-physics mumbo jumbo in a voiceover narration in the beginning of the film:

“In the void, pairs of particles are continuously created. Their only destiny is to meet and disappear into each other. When two particles that have interacted with each other are separated, they are no longer distinct particles. The same thing happens when two people fall in love. Even when life pulls them apart, they’ll always carry a trace of the other person inside.”

As soon as you hear this silly schmaltz, you know you’re going to have to brace yourself for more as this movie plods to its very predictable end. Vivien attends an unnamed private high school, where most of the students come from privileged families. Her boyfriend Steve (played by Sebastiano Pigazzi) is a star of the school’s male swim team. Vivien has a sassy best friend (played by Bonnie Baddoo), who seems to be just a token character because the filmmakers never bothered to give her character a name.

Also on the school’s swim team is a new student named Roy (played by Benjamin Mascolo), a heavily tattooed rebel who lives in a trailer park. Roy has a swimming scholarship to attend the school. He has the talent to be the best swimmer on the team. Roy was born in Italy and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was in middle school, so he still has an Italian accent.

But when Vivien and her best friend attend a swim practice, it looks like Roy could be putting his scholarship in jeopardy. Roy has been slacking off during practice, so he gets yelled at by the team’s coach Dylan (played by Nikolay Moss). Dylan warns Roy that if Roy doesn’t improve, Roy won’t be chosen for the swim team’s competitions, and he could lose his scholarship.

Roy shouts back at Dylan: “What are you? My dad? I already have one! I fucking hate him!” Meanwhile, Steve smirks nearby when he sees this conflict between Roy and Dylan, because Steve wants to be considered the team’s best swimmer. Steve feels somewhat threatened that Roy (who’s a better swimmer) could outshine Steve on the team.

One day, Steve, Vivien and Vivien’s best friend are riding in Steve’s car when Roy becomes the topic of the conversation. Vivien’s best friend thinks that Roy is very attractive, and she mentions that she wouldn’t mind having a one-night stand with Roy. She asks Steve for more information about Roy. Steve says that Roy mostly keeps to himself.

Vivien and Steve seem to have a solid relationship on the outside. But lately, Steve has been very preoccupied and doesn’t have time for Vivien in the way he used to have time for her. He’s also not as affectionate with her as he used to be.

Vivien’s best friend notices that the romance between Vivien and Steve has cooled down. Even though Vivien insists that she’s happy with Steve, her best friend comments, “You’re not happy. You’re serene, which is totally different.”

The romantic spark has also apparently dwindled in the marriage of Vivien’s parents. Early on in the film, Vivien (who is an only child) finds out that her mother Sarah (played by Emma Lo Bianco) has been having an affair with another man. Vivien’s businessman father (played by Giampiero Judica), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, is away from home a lot because of his work.

As for Roy’s family, he lives with his widowed father (who’s a mechanic) and pre-teen sister in a dumpy and cluttered trailer. Roy’s father is American, and Roy’s late mother was Italian, which is why Roy’s parents lived in Italy for the first 11 or 12 years of his childhood.

Roy later tells Vivien that one of the reasons why he has hard feelings toward his father is because Roy didn’t want to leave Italy, but it was his father’s decision to move to the United States after Roy’s mother passed away. Roy eventually reveals to Vivien how Roy’s mother died. (Antonella Britti portrays Roy’s mother in this brief flashback.)

At a costume party at a student’s house, Vivien and Roy see each other across the room and they start dancing together. And because this movie is filled with teen movie clichés, a fight inevitably breaks out at the party. You don’t have to be a psychic to know who ends up in the brawl.

Vivien and Roy have another encounter when she’s in the parking lot of a restaurant at night. It’s the same restaurant where Vivien saw her mother on a date and kissing another man. In the parking lot, some young thugs start to harass Vivien. But lo and behold, Roy shows up and comes to Vivien’s rescue.

It turns out he knows these troublemakers because he’s been involved with some criminal activities with them. Later in the movie, Roy is shown committing burglary by breaking into a house with one of his hoodlum pals. They don’t get caught, and the burglary is never mentioned in the movie again.

Vivien’s problems at home and her problems with Steve have upset her to the point where she starts doing her own version of rebelling. There’s a scene where she shows up in a classroom where the teacher is handing out a test to the students. Vivien doesn’t even sit down before she decides she’s going to walk out of the class without taking the test. She doesn’t just walk out. She has to do a dramatic, pouty saunter, as if she’s on some kind of fashion runway.

And what do you know, the swim team is traveling out of the country to go to a swimming competition. And guess where they’ve gone? Italy. Vivien wants to bring the passion back to her romance with Steve. And so, she decides to go to Italy to surprise Steve at the hotel where the swim team is staying.

For reasons that won’t be revealed in this review, Steve isn’t available for most of the trip. But guess who’s available to show Vivien around this part of Italy? You get the gist of what happens in the movie’s trailer. There are no real surprises in how Roy ends up courting Vivien, even though he tells her in a not-very-convincing way that he doesn’t want to fall in love.

Vivien and Roy get together, of course, and they even have (cliché alert) a couple’s signature song: Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit single “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Expect to hear this tune played multiple times in the movie.

“Time Is Up” is plagued by a lot of uneven acting. Thorne can sometimes rise to the occasion in the melodramatic scenes. But too often, she recites her lines in a wooden and emotionless way. Mascolo is even worse, since his acting is very stiff and unnatural in too many parts of the movie. He’s an example of an actor who was hired more for his physical appearance than anything else. The fact that Thorne and Mascolo became a couple in real life doesn’t help their lackluster acting skills in this movie.

The rest of the cast members are adequate in their performances, which are overshadowed by the cringeworthy dialogue throughout much of the movie. The cinematography often tries to make “Time Is Up” look glossy and glamorous, but mostly the movie comes off looking like a badly edited and cheap-looking romance novel. And worst of all for a romance movie, the main characters have personalities that are as plastic as Ken and Barbie dolls. At least Ken and Barbie aren’t as forgettable as this lazy and unimaginative film.

Vertical Entertainment released “Time Is Up” for one night only (via Fathom Events) in U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2021. The movie was released on digital and VOD on September 24, 2021.

Review: ‘The Nowhere Inn,’ starring St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein

October 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein in “The Nowhere Inn” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nowhere Inn”

Directed by Bill Benz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities, the comedy/drama mockumentary “The Nowhere Inn” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Experimental pop singer St. Vincent has conflicts with her best friend Carrie Brownstein, who has been hired to direct a documentary about St. Vincent. 

Culture Audience: “The Nowhere Inn” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars St. Vincent and Brownstein, as well as to people who enjoy unusual mockumentaries.

St. Vincent in “The Nowhere Inn” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nowhere Inn” rambles, falters, and sometimes gets too meta for its own good. But it’s got enough quirky satire of celebrity documentaries to bring some laughs. You don’t have to be a fan of stars St. Vincent or Carrie Brownstein to enjoy “The Nowhere Inn,” but it might help during the parts of the movie where the pace tends to drag. Mostly, “The Nowhere Inn” is commendable for its attempt to be an original mockumentary, even if some of the comedy doesn’t serve the story very well.

In “The Nowhere Inn,” experimental pop singer St. Vincent (whose real name is Annie Clark) and Brownstein (a former star of the 2011-2018 comedy series “Portlandia”) portray versions of themselves and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay. Many parts of the movie look semi-improvised. “The Nowhere Inn” is the feature-film directorial debut of Bill Benz, a former editor, director and co-producer of “Portlandia.” People who are familiar with “Portlandia” should expect a similar tone to “The Nowhere Inn,” which brings an absurdist and deadpan spin to realistic situations.

“The Nowhere Inn” is a mockumentary within a mockumentary. On one level, it’s about the character of Carrie being convinced by her best friend St. Vincent to direct a tour documentary about St. Vincent. Footage from the documentary takes up most of the movie. But on another level, parts of the movie includes hindsight commentary from Carrie and St. Vincent about the documentary, whose production went through a lot of turmoil when the two pals became at odds with each other.

Interspersed with the off-stage footage is a lot of concert footage of St. Vincent. And so, the vast majority of the music in the movie is St. Vincent’s music. St. Vincent songs that are featured in “The Nowhere Inn” are “Year of the Tiger,” “Smoking Section,” “Pills,” “New York,” “Savior,” “Palm Desert,” “Los Ageless” and “Hang on Me.”

Because the experimental/alternative musical style of St. Vincent is so intertwined with the movie, “The Nowhere Inn” is not going to appeal to large masses of people, especially people who prefer more conventional films. However, people who know about the stereotypes of authorized celebrity tour documentaries will find parts of the movie amusing in how “The Nowhere Inn” makes a mockery of these clichés.

The movie opens with St. Vincent as a passenger in the back of limo, where an unnamed middle-aged driver (played by Ezra Buzzington) tells her that he knows that she’s famous for something, but he isn’t shy about telling her that he’s not sure what her claim to fame is: “I drive a lot of famous people,” he says. “I’ve never heard you before.”

While he’s driving, the limo driver calls his son, who’s an aspiring musician in a band, and talks to his son on speaker phone. He asks his son if he’s heard of St. Vincent. The son says no, but he mentions that he’s in a band and wonders out loud if St. Vincent could possibly help him in his music career. During this awkward conversation, she is gracious and humble and doesn’t expect to be treated like a star.

The limo driver then asks St. Vincent to sing one of her songs, to see if his son will recognize the song. St. Vincent sings “New York,” and when she gets to the part of the song where the line is “you’re the only motherfucker in the city,” the driver’s son sounds offended and asks, “Whoa! Did she just say ‘MF’?” The driver then abruptly ends the call and tells St. Vincent, “Don’t worry. We’ll find out who you are.”

The driver doesn’t really get a chance though because the limo stops shortly afterward. When St. Vincent gets out of the limo to see what’s going on, she finds that the driver’s door is open and he’s nowhere in sight. What happened to the driver and where did he go? Don’t expect any answers because it’s an example of some of the random weirdness in the movie.

St. Vincent is then seen on screen talking about the unfinished documentary that she made with Carrie as the director. St. Vincent comments, “All I can say is that things went terribly wrong.” The majority of “The Nowhere Inn” shows flashbacks to the making of the untitled documentary. Viewers are supposed to get a sense that what they are seeing is previously unreleased footage.

At first, filming of the documentary goes very well, as Carrie is given almost complete creative control. Carrie’s only request for St. Vincent is “Just be yourself” because the documentary is supposed to be a “fly on the wall experience.” St. Vincent’s shows are well-attended and she has plenty of adoring fans.

In the “hindsight” footage, St. Vincent says, “It was supposed to be a music documentary … I guess I wanted people to know who I am. I don’t want it to be a random fantasy. I wanted it to be intimate and revealing.”

But how intimate and how revealing? And more importantly to Carrie: How truthful? Over time, St. Vincent’s ego takes over, and she wants to turn the documentary into a series of staged scenes that fabricate aspects of her life. How much of a dictator does St. Vincent become during the making of the documentary? At one point in the movie, she tells Carrie: “From now on, I need more say in how other people are going to act.”

When did St. Vincent go from being a down-to-earth singer to a bossy diva? The turning point comes when a print journalist named Holly (played by Rya Kihlstedt) interviews St. Vincent while the documentary cameras are rolling. During the interview, Holly becomes distracted because her live-in girlfriend has broken up with Holly by text during the interview.

Holly is so distraught that she drags St. Vincent into this breakup mess by asking St. Vincent to call her now-ex-girlfriend and leave a voice mail to try convince the ex that Holly is not only a good person but the best thing that ever happened to the ex. It puts St. Vincent in a very awkward position, but she obliges, in order to be polite.

After manipulating St. Vincent to get involved in her personal life, Holly then cuts the interview short, as if she’s done using St. Vincent for the day. Before this annoying journalist leaves, Holly complains to St. Vincent that Holly wasn’t given a “plus one” (to get an extra ticket) when Holly was put on the guest list for the St. Vincent concert happening later that evening.

Holly says that her cousin Sarah is a fan of St. Vincent and tells St. Vincent that she’d like Sarah to be her “plus one.” St. Vincent tries not to act offended by the disrespectful way that Holly has been acting, but this entire uncomfortable interaction was caught on the documentary’s cameras. Later, when St. Vincent sees Holly and Sarah (played by Cass Buggé) at a concert after-party, the shift in St. Vincent’s attitude becomes very clear.

St. Vincent suddenly wants to do a documentary that will make her look more interesting. In one of the funnier scenes in the movie, St. Vincent introduces Carrie to her lover Dakota Johnson (playing a version of herself), while St. Vincent and Dakota are clad in lingerie and lounging on a bed together. (St. Vincent is openly queer in real life.) And the next thing you know, St. Vincent wants Carrie to film a sex video of Dakota and St. Vincent, right then and there.

An embarrassed Carrie tries to stall and suggests that they get an intimacy coordinator before filming the scene. However, St. Vincent says it’s not necessary because she and Dakota won’t be faking it. There’s no actual sex or nudity in “The Nowhere Inn,” because the movie wants what isn’t shown in this sex scene to be more amusing than what could be shown.

Another hilarious scene in the movie is when Carrie decides to go over to some St. Vincent fans who are standing in line outside the concert venue and randomly invites a young adult fan to go back with her to St. Vincent’s dressing room. The fan, whose name is Kim (played by Gabriela Flores), is overwhelmed by this surprise and bursts into tears when she sees St. Vincent in person. Kim predictably fawns over St. Vincent and tells St. Vincent that her music saved Kim’s life.

Kim tells St. Vincent that Kim’s boyfriend from high school gave St. Vincent’s 2011 album “Strange Mercy” to Kim as a birthday present. The boyfriend tragically died in a car accident two nights before their graduation. Kim says that St. Vincent’s music has helped Kim through tough times when she was feeling depressed and didn’t want to live anymore.

This sad story makes St. Vincent cry too. And she cries so much about how much the story affected her that Kim ends up comforting St. Vincent in the dressing room. It’s an amusing parody of how narcissistic celebrities can somehow make a fan’s personal tragedy all about the celebrity.

During the course of the documentary, St. Vincent becomes obsessed with wanting to appear humble and relatable in front of the cameras. But behind the scenes, she becomes a egomaniacal tyrant and almost starts acting like the documentary’s director. St. Vincent goes as far as fabricating a backstory for herself. She pretends that she grew up on a Texas ranch with a big family, and she hires actors to play these roles.

As Carrie says early on in the movie, St. Vincent is really an only child whose father is in prison. This is a plot hole in “The Nowhere Inn,” because in this Internet age, it would be hard for a celebrity such as St. Vincent to hide her family background and get away with hiring a cast of actors to portray her family in what’s supposed to be documentary. That’s why “The Nowhere Inn” takes a misstep toward the end of the movie when St. Vincent goes through an entire charade of trying to look like a Texas cowgirl from a large family.

Not surprisingly, Carrie is increasingly put off by St. Vincent trying to make a phony documentary. Carrie finds herself sidelined as a director and not being consulted on important decisions. Carrie quits the documentary at least once, which isn’t spoiler information, since St. Vincent says in the beginning of the movie that the documentary hasn’t been completed.

During all of this friendship turmoil, Carrie is also dealing with the fact that her unnamed father (played by Michael Bofshever) is dying of cancer. He’s very proud that she’s directing this documentary, and she feels obligated to finish the film so that he won’t be disappointed in her. Meanwhile, St. Vincent seems oblivious and insensitive to Carrie’s stress over her father’s health condition.

“The Nowhere Inn” includes some footage of the people in St. Vincent’s entourage, including her band members: eccentric Japanese bass player Toko (played by Toko Yasuda); “nice guy” Australian guitarist Neil (played by Chris Aquilino); and party-loving American drummer Robert (played by Drew Connick). St. Vincent’s easygoing tour manager Brian (played by Kash Abdulmalik) also gets some screen time.

However, these supporting characters don’t add much the story. “The Nowhere Inn” is really about how Carrie and St. Vincent’s once-solid friendship becomes turbulent because of disagreements over the documentary. In the production notes for “The Nowhere Inn,” it’s mentioned that Brownstein and Clark were both influenced by two movies about jaded pop stars: directors Nicolas Roeg’s and Donald Cammell’s 1970 drama “Performance” (starring Mick Jagger) and director Peter Watkins’ 1967 mockumentary “Privilege,” starring Paul Jones.

Taking cues from both of those movies, “The Nowhere Inn” has some psychedelic-looking surrealistic sequences that aren’t quite hallucinations, but they’re nevertheless part of the line blurring of reality and fiction that this mockumentary intends to spoof. “The Nowhere Inn” is at its most potent in its satire when it pokes fun at the image-obsessed trap that many celebrities fall into when they achieve a certain level of fame.

What’s less effective are the aforementioned fake Texas family scenes and the movie’s tendency to over-rely on making Carrie look like a forlorn doormat who’s shocked by what goes on during St. Vincent’s concert tour. By making Carrie so naïve in this movie, it just leads viewers to wonder how well Carrie really knows her “best friend” St. Vincent. And the subplot about Carrie’s father having cancer is a clumsy fit for this story.

Brownstein has her own real-life experiences as a music artist (she’s a singer/guitarist in the rock band Sleater-Kinney), but that background is completely erased in the movie. It would’ve been more interesting if the Carrie character had been written as someone who has experience being in a semi-famous band and is therefore better-equipped to handle St. Vincent’s egotistical shenanigans during the tour. Their arguments would’ve been more entertaining to watch.

“The Nowhere Inn” is a flawed but unique film that is going to interest some people and turn off other people. People who know what showbiz is like behind the scenes will find at least something to laugh at in “The Nowhere Inn,” even if those laughs might be occasional for some viewers. The movie is not meant to have a joke in every scene. “The Nowhere Inn” won’t be considered a classic mockumentary, but it’s worth a watch if viewers are willing to go on a sometimes bizarre but very original ride in an alternate reality created by Brownstein and St. Vincent.

IFC Films released “The Nowhere Inn” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on September 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Small Engine Repair’ (2021), starring John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Ciara Bravo and Spencer House

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro and John Pollono in “Small Engine Repair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Small Engine Repair” (2021)

Directed by John Pollono

Culture Representation: Taking place in Manchester, New Hampshire, the comedy/drama film “Small Engine Repair” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged mechanic, who has recently been released from prison, reunites with two of his longtime friends after they’ve had a falling out, but their reunion becomes a test of loyalty and morality. 

Culture Audience: “Small Engine Repair” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unpredictable movies that put a dark comedic spin on serious issues.

Ciara Bravo in “Small Engine Repair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Three middle-aged men who’ve been friends since childhood reunite after spending several months apart. They hang out, party, and reminisce about the good old days. It sounds a lot like other movies, but “Small Engine Repair” is like no other film.

That’s because what seems at first to be a straightforward and predictable comedy/drama takes a very sharp, dark and unexpected turn in the last third of the film. What saves “Small Engine Repair” from being an unremarkable depiction of machismo is a sinister plot twist that walks a fine line between absurd and realistic.

“Small Engine Repair” is the vision of John Pollono, who is the writer, director and star/protagonist of the movie, which is based on Pollono’s stage play of the same name. For the first two-thirds of the movie, it’s about the up-and-down friendship between recently released prison felon Frank “Frankie” Romanowski (played by Pollono) and two pals he’s had since childhood: Terrance Swaino (played by Jon Bernthal) and Packie Hanrahan (played by Shea Whigham). Frank, Terrance and Packie have lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, since they were children.

Frank is a single father to a foul-mouthed, tough-talking teenager named Crystal Romanoski (played by Ciara Bravo), who is in her last year of high school. Despite her brash and often-crude personality, Crystal is quite intelligent and doesn’t like to show her sensitive side to very many people. She loves her father but she hates how his problems have negatively affected her life.

Terrance is happily married, and he is the most likely one out of the three friends to show common sense and think logically. He has a quick temper like Frank does, but Terrance is less likely than Frank to get violent. Because Terrance is a husband who has settled into a content life for himself, he’s also less likely to want to get into trouble, compared to how he was in his rebellious youth.

Packie is a bachelor who is somewhat simple-minded, irresponsible and emotionally immature. Packie is more likely than Terrance to want to get Frank’s approval. Packie and Frank are sometimes at odds with Terrance, who doesn’t like to think of himself as a “third wheel” but as someone who is smarter and more deserving than Packie to be Frank’s closest confidant.

Frank, Terrance and Packie come from generations of working-class people who think that getting a university degree is either a waste of time or an unaffordable dream. And where they live in Manchester has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic and devastated by a steep decline in the types of factory jobs that used to keep the community thriving. During the course of the story, the three buddies will push each other’s buttons and decide how loyalty and morality play roles in their friendship with each other.

In the beginning of the movie, Frank has been released from prison for a crime or crimes that aren’t mentioned in the film. However, it’s later shown many times in the movie that Frank is a hothead, so it’s likely he spent time in prison for a violent crime. It also isn’t mentioned how long he was in prison, but it was definitely more than a few months. Now that he’s out of prison, Frank resumes his work as a mechanic. He owns his own shop called Frank’s Small Engine Repair.

Where and who is Crystal’s mother? Her name is Karen Delgado (played by Jordana Spiro), a drug addict who lives in the Los Angeles area. Frank and Karen were never married, and their breakup was very bitter. Based on what people say about Karen, she’s even more irresponsible than Frank, which is why he has custody of Crystal and has been the parent who has primarily raised her.

While Frank was in prison, Terrance and Packie looked after Crystal. As guardians, they’re permissive, since they’re the ones who sometimes supply Crystal with the marijuana that she smokes. Crystal has a rebellious streak, but she’s a good student who has done well enough academically that she can attend a major university.

One of the first conversations that Frank has with Crystal when he gets home from prison is about where she wants to go to college. Her first choice is the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), but Frank wants her to go to a university that’s closer to Manchester. He doesn’t deny it when Crystal accuses Frank of discouraging her to go to UCLA because it’s in the same area where her mother Karen lives.

At first, Frank says he wouldn’t be able to afford UCLA’s tuition. Crystal says she’ll take out student loans to solve that problem. However, Frank is still down on the idea of her going to UCLA. Crystal explodes in anger and shouts that if she goes to the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, she’ll end up as “a 49-yearold supermarket checkout girl with carpal fucking tunnel!”

Finally, Frank relents and agrees to support Crystal if she’s accepted for admission into UCLA. He tells her he’ll figure out a way to help pay for the tuition. A happy and relieved Crystal promises Frank that getting a UCLA degree will be worth it. “I’ll make a lot of money,” she says.

Not long after Frank comes home from prison, he finds out from Terrance and Packie that Karen will be back in Manchester for a visit. Terrance and Packie use a lot of derogatory words to describe Karen. Frank doesn’t like Karen either, but he objects to Terrance and Packie saying degrading things about Karen, because she’s the mother of Crystal.

When Karen shows up at Frank’s house, Terrance and Packie are there too. She’s rude and very rough around the edges, with indications that she hasn’t given up her hard-partying ways. In her tense and hostile conversation with the three buddies, she makes it clear that she is only interested in spending time with Crystal, not in resolving any hard feelings that she has toward this trio of pals whom she’s known since childhood. Karen quips sarcastically, “Hey, remember when when we were all friends, before I had tits?”

Frank reluctantly lets Crystal spend some time with Karen on a girls’ night out. With Crystal out of the house, the three pals decide to let off some steam by going to a local bar. Because Frank is on parole, he has to be careful about what he says and does in public. For example, he doesn’t want to get drunk in public because that could be considered a parole violation.

Outside the bar, in the parking lot, Frank flirts with a woman named Dottie (played by Jennifer Pollono), whom he later finds out is a 35-year-old divorced mother to a 4-year-old son. Just as Frank and Dottie are about to exchange numbers and continue with their flirtation, Karen and Crystal show up. Crystal sheepishly asks Frank for some cash because Karen doesn’t have any money and Kaen says her credit cards are all maxed out. Frank expresses his disapproval but gives some cash to Crystal, who gives him a big hug and compliment to thank him.

Frank thinks that Karen is under the influence of drugs at that moment, and Crystal doesn’t deny it. However, Crystal assures Frank that Crystal, not Karen, is driving the car that they’re using. Frank doesn’t want to be an overbearing parent, so he doesn’t interfere in the plans for Crystal and Karen to spend time together.

Even though Karen and Frank haven’t been a couple in several years, Karen still acts a little jealous and possessive when she senses that Frank and Dottie have sexual chemistry together. Karen asks Dottie in a hostile tone of voice, “Who the fuck are you?” Dottie doesn’t want to get in the middle of any family drama with a man she just met, so she makes a hasty exit.

This unexpected visit from Karen has unnerved Frank, who’s also annoyed that Karen ruined his potential hookup with Dottie. When he goes back in the bar, several people are drunk, including Packie and Terrance. And not surprisingly, a bar fight breaks out, with Packie, Terrance and Frank getting involved.

Frank’s violent temper erupts and he viciously and repeatedly punches one of the instigators of the fight. It’s the type of beating where people can tell that Frank has lost total control of his anger. When he realizes that he just violated his parole with this assault, Frank yells at Terrance and Packie: “I knew this would happen! You stay away from my family! I don’t want to see you again!”

The movie then picks up six months later. Frank, Terrance and Packie have a tentative reunion. Frank has invited them to his mechanic’s shop to watch a boxing match, drink alcohol and have some steaks that he’s cooking. It’s mentioned that during their six months apart, Terrance and Packie were also estranged from each other because Terrance slapped Packie during an argument that’s not shown in the movie.

“Small Engine Repair” has occasional flashbacks showing Frank, Terrance and Packie together at various points in their lives. These flashbacks usually happen when the three pals are together and reminiscing on their past. There’s a flashback to when Crystal was 6 years old (played by Nina Peterson), when she was with the three pals and someone took a smiling photo of Crystal holding a wrench. That photo would later be used on signs and other promotional materials for Frank’s Small Engine Repair.

A harrowing flashback of when the three pals were about 11 or 12 years old shows that their childhoods included violence and other domestic abuse inflicted by their fathers. (Zachary Hernandez plays a young Frank, and Hunter Jones plays a young Terrance.) This childhood abuse serves as context for why Frank, Terrance and Packie think it’s normal to have a “rough and tumble” lifestyle where they get involved in violent fights.

Frank tells his buddies during this reunion that he wants more than alcohol and marijuana for their partying. Frank says that he recently met a university student named Chad Walker (played by Spencer House) who sells Ecstacy. Chad is coming over with some Ecstacy that Frank wants to buy. The other guys are eager and willing to do Ecstacy at this small party.

What happens after that is what makes “Small Engine Repair” so memorable and not your typical buddy movie. However, this sudden change in the movie’s plot comes fairly late in the film. Some viewers might get bored with the meandering way that the story unfolds in the first two-thirds of this 103-minute movie, which can get a tad repetitive in showing how volatile this three-way friendship can be. Other viewers might be turned off by all cursing in “Small Engine Repair.” However, if viewers stick with the movie and watch it from beginning to end, then they will see why the last third of the film is the best part.

It’s not easy to bring a comedic touch to disturbing scenarios, but “Small Engine Repair” manages to accomplish this balancing act, which could easily go wrong and become very offensive with the wrong dialogue, horrible acting or a tone-deaf perspective. All of the actors do well in their roles. However, the real star of this movie is the somewhat shocking twist, which tests the boundaries about what people might think is an acceptable way to solve problems.

Vertical Entertainment released “Small Engine Repair” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 10, 2021.

Review: ‘Reminiscence’ (2021), starring Hugh Jackman

September 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rebecca Ferguson and Hugh Jackman in “Reminiscence” (Photo by Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Reminiscence” (2021)

Directed by Lisa Joy

Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami and New Orleans, the sci-fi dramatic film “Reminiscence” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos and one Māori person) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A private investigator, who is in the business of helping people recover memories, becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to a former client/lover who suddenly disappeared. 

Culture Audience: “Reminiscence” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Hugh Jackman, but even he can’t save this boring sci-fi drivel.

Cliff Curtis and Daniel Wu in “Reminiscence” (Photo by Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The sci-fi drama “Reminiscence” features several people submerged in a water tank as they recover or relive their memories. Ironically, this ill-conceived movie is utterly forgettable, as it submerges viewers in a story that’s both convoluted and predictable. Hugh Jackman’s charisma as a leading man is stifled as he plays a grim private detective who is obsessed with finding an ex-lover who suddenly vanished from his life.

Adding to this film’s muddled tone, “Reminiscence” (written and directed by Lisa Joy, in her feature-film directorial debut) can’t decide if it wants to be a futuristic adventure or a tribute to classic noir. The movie looks like it wants to be an action thriller, but there’s more mopey drama than action. The fight scenes are extremely formulaic and almost mind-numbing.

Mostly, the pace drags in this jumbled story where bitter people sulk and get angry because they think their lives have gone downhill in some way. Almost every character in this film dosn’t have a memorable personality. Good luck to anyone who tries to stay awake during this 116-minute snoozefest.

“Reminiscence” takes place in Miami, in an unidentified future year when climate change has caused unbearable heat outside during the day, and Miami is close to being swallowed up by the Atlantic Ocean. Because of the extreme daytime heat from the sun, Miami and the surrounding areas in Florida have become more nocturnal than ever before.

But apparently, in this futuristic version of Miami, no one wants good lighting, because it’s constantly dark indoors. The darkly lit cinematography is “Reminiscence” is supposed to evoke a society that’s on the brink of an environmental disaster. The only disaster going in is how this awful movie wastes the talents of the cast members.

It’s in this darkly lit and depressing Miami where private investigator Nick Bannister (played by Jackman) lives and works. Nick is a never-married bachelor with no children. He owns a detective agency that’s small (only two employees, including Nick) and struggling to stay in business. Nick’s specialty at the detective agency is helping people recover their memories. The agency’s work space (which looks more like an abandoned warehouse than an office) is predictably dark, cluttered and dingy in this dark, cluttered and dingy movie.

For this memory recovery process, Nick has a massive water tank that’s not widely available, and he doesn’t want too many people to know that he has this tank. Therefore, he doesn’t advertise and gets most of his business through word of mouth. The tank was originally designed to interrogate people who were detained by the U.S. military. Nick is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, where he worked in border patrol. It’s implied that he got access to this tank through his military service.

In order to a use this memory tank, a person must first be injected with a sedative, then submerged in the tank, where a special helmet must be worn that can connect to brain electrodes. When someone is reliving a memory, it’s depicted as being a participant in a virtual reality experience. Memories while in the tank can also take the form of looking like holograms.

It’s possible for someone to stay in the tank for long periods of time and have a state of being that’s very similar to someone in a coma. Nick has found that his regular clients have become addicted to accessing happy memories. Watts is more concerned than Nick is about people getting addicted to using the memory tank. Nick thinks Watts has no place being judgmental about addiction, considering her alcohol addiction that she doesn’t seem too concerned about stopping.

All of this sounds like the basis for a good story. However, “Reminiscence” becomes very disjointed and often illogical. Viewers will get the impression that “Reminiscence” writer/director Joy came up with separate ideas for this movie and then tried to make them all fit into the overall narrative. The result is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle where too many of the pieces obviously don’t belong.

During his time in the military, Nick injured one of his legs, so he walks with a limp. This limp magically seems to disappear during some of the action scenes. A better director would’ve noticed this discrepancy and corrected it. Nick’s only employee is a cynical alcoholic named Emily “Watts” Sanders (played by Thandie Newton), who is also a military veteran. Even though Watts is an alcoholic, she’s more responsible and more business-minded than Nick is.

In the movie’s first scene with Nick and Watts together, she abruptly scolds him for being late. Nick says in response that being late is a construct of linear [time], which is a concept that he doesn’t think applies to the work of this detective agency. Watts snaps back sarcastically, “And yet, we charge by the hour.”

One day, right before they close the agency for the night, a mysterious woman suddenly arrives and says she needs their help to find her missing keys. Watts tries to tell her to come back during open business hours, but Nick is immediately attracted to the woman and tells her that they can accommodate her request.

She introduces herself as Mae (played by Rebecca Ferguson), and she says that she’s a cabaret nightclub singer. She’s wearing the type of slinky red evening gown that looks like she just left a nightclub or she raided the closet of animation seductress character Jessica Rabbit from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Mae’s sensual nightclub singing scenes and how she’s styled for them look very much like they were inspired by Jessica Rabbit.

At the detective agency during Mae’s sudden appearance, Watts offers Mae a swimsuit, because it’s what people usually wear inside the water tank. But to the surprise of Nick and Watts, this woman they just met has no qualms about stripping completely naked in front of them before she gets in the tank. Mae confidently tells Nick that he’s going to see her naked anyway. And she’s right. At least this movie doesn’t try to play coy about Mae and Nick inevitably becoming romantically involved.

With the help of the memory tank, Mae finds out where she left her keys. But since she essentially told Nick that she wants to get to know him intimately, he’s not going to just let her walk out of his life. He shows up at one of her nightclub gigs to see her perform, he asks her out on a date, and they end up having a hot and heavy romance.

Meanwhile, Nick makes extra money by assisting the Miami district attorney Avery Castillo (played by Natalie Martinez) in getting information from witnesses. Avery is currently involved in a high-profile case where a wealthy land baron named Walter Sylvan (played by Brett Cullen) has been accused of masterminding arson of some of his property, in order for him to collect on hefty fire insurance payouts. Walter has pleaded not guilty. His wife Tamara Sylvan (played by Marina de Tavira) and his young adult son Sebastian Sylvan (played by Mojean Aria) loyally stand by him and are unwavering in their support.

Another member of law enforcement whom Nick is in close contact with is Miami police officer Cyrus Boothe (played by Cliff Curtis), who seems to be on a power trip where he has a lot of disdain for disenfranchised people. In a city that’s on the verge of an apocalypse, Cyrus wants to wield as much power as he can. It should come as no surprise what he’s willing to do to fulfill his ambitions.

And a movie about a private detective and law enforcement in Miami predictably has a storyline about drug dealers too. In “Reminiscence,” the world is plagued by the abuse of an illegal opioid-like drug called baca. One of the top distributors/sellers of baca is a drug lord called Saint Joe (played by Daniel Wu), who is a stereotypical drug lord in a movie. Unfortunately, Wu’s stiff acting doesn’t make him look convincing as a dangerous drug lord. It just makes him look like an actor who needs more acting lessons.

After getting involved with Mae and thinking that their romance could turn into a long-term commitment, Nick is shocked to find out that Mae has suddenly moved away without telling anyone where she went. Upon investigation, Nick discovers that Mae was not kidnapped but left on her own free will. This discovery sends him down a rabbit hole of obsession to find out where Mae is.

Nick’s investigation eventually leads him to New Orleans, where he finds clues about a mysterious and vulnerable woman named Elsa Carine (played by Angela Sarafyan), who has a pivotal connection to someone in the story. There’s also a do-gooder named Frances (played by Barbara Bonilla), who lives in a house on stilts in the Atlantic Ocean. As Nick tries to solve the mystery of Mae’s apparently deliberate disappearance, he becomes addicted to using the memory tank to bask in his happy memories of her. His addiction gets in the way of his detective agency’s business and prevents Nick from being present in the real world.

Because Nick spends so much time in the memory tank, expect to see many flashbacks to the good times that he had with Mae. It’s his way of trying to remember any possible clues or hints of Mae’s disappearance. However, because Mae’s abrupt disappearance has deeply hurt Nick, Watts knows there’s more to Nick’s fixation on remembering Mae than trying to gather clues. He’s using his addiction to being in the memory tank as a way to avoid his emotional pain, just like the clients who are also addicted to using the memory tank.

“Reminiscence” has a very superficial way of dealing with these psychological issues. Instead, the movie seems more fascinated with having dream-like visual effects (which are good, but not outstanding) and showing recurring images of people being immersed in water in some way. “Reminiscence” writer/director Joy is one of the showrunners of the HBO sci-fi series “Westworld” (Newton is an Emmy-winning “Westworld” co-star), and Joy seems to have struggled to find a way to make the story she probably had mind into a two-hour movie. It’s why “Reminiscence” tries to cram in too much in the last third of the movie, while the middle of the movie is a long and monotonous stretch of repetition.

“Reminiscence” also misses the mark in casting decisions and in the characters’ witless dialogue. Jackman and Ferguson had more chemistry together when they co-starred in the 2017 movie musical “The Greatest Showman” (where their characters weren’t lovers but had some sexual tension with each other) than they do as portraying lovers in “Reminiscence.” The lines that Jackman and Ferguson have to utter in “Reminiscence” sound like they were rejected from a bad romance novel.

Jackman is a very talented actor, but he seems miscast as someone who’s supposed to be an emotionally damaged and stoic detective. He delivers his lines flatly, as if his character has a dead personality. Only in Nick’s scenes with Mae does Nick doesn’t show any hints that he could be passionate about anything. Ferguson is perfectly adequate as the enigmatic Mae, but her “seductive diva” singing scenes in “Reminiscence” seem overly contrived and pale in comparison to Ferguson’s more appealing “seductive diva” singing scenes in “The Greatest Showman.”

“Reminiscence” hints at but never really follows through with the notion that Nick has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military background. He’s definitely not getting therapy for it. Watts is Nick’s unofficial counselor, and she’s the one who points out to Nick that he’s using the memory tank to “self-medicate.”

The movie tells more about Watts’ own troubled history than it tells about Nick’s turbulent past, even though Nick is the story’s protagonist/central character. Newton’s Watts is the only character in “Reminiscence” that comes close to being depicted as complex, with Newton capably handling the role of an emotionally wounded person who tries to hide her pain in alcohol and a tough-talking persona. All the other characters in “Reminiscence” are quite two-dimensional.

Ultimately, “Reminiscence” could have been a much better movie if the story and dialogue were better-crafted. The writing seems like it was made for a comic book rather than a feature film. In a comic book, it’s easier to get away with chopping up the story in a boxy manner. In a movie, the story needs to flow more seamlessly, but “Reminiscence” fails to do that because it’s a film with an identity crisis of not knowing what it wants to be in the first place.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Reminiscence” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on August 20, 2021.

Review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand

September 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa/A24/Apple TV+)

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” 

Directed by Joel Coen

Culture Representation: Taking place in Scotland and England in the 1600s, the dramatic film “The Tragedy of Macbeth” features a cast of white and black people representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A ruthlessly ambitious husband and wife lie, cheat and murder their way into becoming king and queen of Scotland, but their sins eventually catch up to them with deadly consequences.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of fans of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” play, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will appeal primarily to fans of Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen.

Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Photo courtesy of A24/Apple TV+)

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” gives William Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth” the minimalist treatment, laying bare the raw intensity of the story, which is masterfully channeled via powerhouse performances from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Joel Coen (McDormand’s husband and longtime artistic collaborator) wrote and directed “The Tragedy of Macbeth” as a striking hybrid of an observational filmed stage play and an immersive cinematic experience. At a relatively brisk run time of 105 minutes, the movie defies the notion that movies made from Shakespeare’s work have to be pompous, self-indulgent bores. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” had its world premiere at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

Filmed in black and white, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” stays faithful to the source material but rolls out as a more streamlined piece of art that makes this version of the Macbeth story more accessible to people with short attention spans. People interested in watching the movie probably have some familiarity already with Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a tragic play that was first performed in 1606 and first published in 1623. Most people would agree that “Macbeth”—with its timeless themes of how a corrupt pursuit of power can destroy lives—remains among the top three of Shakespeare’s best and most well-known work.

There’s really no need to rehash a plot that a lot of viewers will know before seeing this movie. The story is essentially about a married power couple who want to rule over Scotland as king and queen, no matter what the cost. Washington portrays the title character as a man on a mission to get what he feels is owed to him after years of feeling unappreciated as a loyal lord to Scotland’s King Duncan (played by Brendan Gleeson), who is about to be viciously murdered.

The mastermind of this assassination is Macbeth’s wife Lady Macbeth (played by Frances McDormand), whose power and intelligence is underestimated by most people because she is a woman. However, behind the scenes and behind closed doors, Lady Macbeth is a master manipulator who is in many ways more cold-hearted and single-minded in her ambition than her husband is. When he has doubts about any of the dastardly deeds that she has in mind, she pushes those doubts out of his mind and motivates him to follow through with her plans.

Clawing one’s way to the top of Scotland’s royal hierarchy, without being a blood relative of a royal, means that a lot of people will have to die. (The killing scenes aren’t too gory, but there are a few non-explicit scenes involving child murder that might be disturbing for very sensitive viewers.) King Duncan has two adult sons: elder son Malcolm (played by Harry Melling) and Donalbain (played by Matt Helm), who are dutiful but unprepared for the destruction inflicted by the Macbeth couple. As the body count piles up, false accusations will fly, paranoia reaches a fever point, and certain people face a reckoning that seems to ask the question: “Was all that backstabbing worth it in the end?”

Other characters in the play that are also in the movie include Banquo (played by Bertie Carvel), Macbeth’s close ally and a general in King Duncan’s army; Fleance (played by Lucas Barker) Banquo’s son, who’s about 10 or 11 years old in the movie; Macduff (played by Corey Hakwins), Thane of Fife; and Lady Macduff (played by Moses Ingram), Macduff’s wife. Macduff is the first one in the king’s inner circle to suspect that Macbeth and his wife might be up to no good.

Just like like in the “Macbeth” play, the catalyst for Macbeth thinking he has a right to take the throne comes early on in the story when he envisions three witches who tell him a prophecy that he will become the king. However, the introduction of these witches in the movie doesn’t follow standard convention. At first, there’s the appearance of one witch (played by Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three identical witches), who is first seen with her face down in a sandy and barren area, like a vulture who’s hunched over from dehydration.

This witch, just like her look-alikes, is dressed all in black has bird-like mannerisms and even caws like a crow. She contorts her body and flaps her arms, like an ave from hell. And later, when she is joined by the other two witches, they transform into large and menacing black birds.

Washington’s portrayal of Macbeth is as a hothead who is prone to losing control of his emotions and stomping around and shouting as a way to intimidate people. Macbeth is all about short-term gratification. McDormand’s depiction of Lady Macbeth is as someone who is more likely to think long-term and see the big picture.

The difference between Lady Macbeth and her husband is that Lady Macbeth knows when to keep her mouth shut and not give away too much information. Witness the brilliant facial expressions of McDormand as Lady Macbeth in a scene where her husband Macbeth is ranting about something to a group of people in the king’s court. Lady Macbeth thinks he might let some valuable information slip, but she says nothing in order to keep up a façade of ignorance. However, the look on her face shows a brief flash of alarm, as if she’s thinking, “He better not say anything stupid!”

Lady Macbeth has a temper too. She just doesn’t show it to people who could use this “unladylike” demeanor against her. And when McDormand’s Lady Macbeth gets angry, she bellows and barks in a voice that’s deep enough to sound like a man. McDormand’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth is that she knows her own power and strength. She’s not a fussy and frilly wife but one who’s willing to blur the lines of gender roles by showing a more masculine side than how other female actors might interpret this character.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” has some recurring visual motifs that work well for a movie that was filmed in black and white and has a mild fascination with flight in open skies. First, there are multiple scenes that have a starry night as a backdrop. In a memorable moment, Lady Macbeth let’s go of a burning piece of paper, which flies out the window and into the night. And when the witches turn into birds, which happens more than once in the movie, it also exemplifies the type of flight that conjures of images of dark forces that hover and can’t be tamed.

Another effective visual technique that’s used in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is conveying the feeling of being spied on and targeted. A scene with Banquo opens with what looks like a spotlight resembling a bullseye lens. The camera zooms up to show an aerial view of Banquo in this spotlight. It’s a foreshadowing of what happens later to Banquo, because he indeed becomes a target. And later in the movie, the three witches are perched on wooden square beams, as the witches look down like vultures ready to pounce.

Because there have been so many different adaptations of “Macbeth,” Coen succeeds in the intent to offer Macbeth through the lens of living in a world where generations of filmmakers and movie audiences have been influenced by the nightmarish lighting contrasts of German Expressionism. The movie’s cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel), production design (by Stefan Dechant) and visual effects (supervised by Michael Huber and Alex Lemke) are stark and compelling, ranging from set pieces that look like they were made for a theater stage to the majestic simplicity of a cliff that becomes a pivotal location.

And when Lady Macbeth literally lets her hair down in private moments, she can be disheveled—more frump and happenstance than pomp and circumstance. Occasionally messy hair aside, Lady Macbeth’s wardrobe and the rest of the characters’ clothes are completely on point, thanks to stellar costume design by Mary Zophres. The costumes in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” might be the only reason to wish that this movie hadn’t been in black and white. However, the film’s monochromatic pallette is understandable, in order to reflect the dark despair that permeates throughout the story.

All of the supporting actors in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” play their roles well, with Hawkins being a standout as the intuitive Macduff, a good man who loves his wife and kids and who finds himself in the crosshairs of death and betrayal. (And in case anyone is wondering, everyone in this international cast has a British accent for the movie.) It’s hard to go wrong with a Shakespeare classic, a cast of this high level of talent, and a director who consistently makes films whose quality is above-average. The “Macbeth” story is a well-worn road for enthusiasts of performing arts, but “The Tragedy of Macbeth” makes this familiar ride very entertaining.

A24 will release “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in select U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021. Apple TV+ will premiere the movie on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Saving Paradise,’ starring William Moseley and Johanna Braddy

September 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Johanna Braddy and William Moseley in “Saving Paradise” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Saving Paradise”

Directed by Jay Silverman

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Pennsylvania community of Paradise and in New York City, the dramatic film “Saving Paradise” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After his father dies, a corporate raider goes back to his hometown of Paradise, Pennsylvania, to try to save the pencil-making company that has been in his family for generations and is on the verge of going out of business. 

Culture Audience: “Saving Paradise” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “going back to your hometown roots” movies that are mawkish and predictable in every possible way.

Mary Pat Gleason and Shashawnee Hall (both pictured in front) in “Saving Paradise” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Saving Paradise” has all the makings of a sappy Hallmark Channel movie, except that there’s some cursing in this extremely hokey, unoriginal and formulaic film. Sure, the names of the characters might not be collectively in other movies, but “Saving Paradise” follows the exact same template of any corny movie about someone who goes back to a hometown to confront personal demons and try to be a hero to the townspeople who were left behind. Directed by Jay Silverman and written by Van Billet, “Saving Paradise” has such little flair and no creativity, viewers who’ve seen enough of these types of treacly movies can practically do a countdown to all the moments that you know are going to happen.

There’s the protagonist Michael Peterson (played by William Moseley), who moved to New York City to start a new life and to escape from painful memories of things that happened in his hometown of Paradise, Pennsylvania. There’s the former high school classmate named Charlene “Charlie” Clarke (played by Johanna Braddy), who sort of had a flirtation with Michael when he lived in Paradise, but they haven’t seen or talked to each other since they were in high school. Michael and Charlie are currently both single and in their mid-30s. And that means Charlie is obviously going to be depicted as “the one who got away.”

And then there’s the “big problem” that’s supposed to bring the protagonist and the love interest together. In this case, the problem is that Michael’s father Don Peterson (played by Lawrence Pressman), who was in his 70s, has passed away and left the family-owned company Peterson Pencil on the brink of going out of business. And his widow Barbara Peterson (played by Mimi Kennedy) could lose her house, since it was used as collateral in a loan that the company has to pay back in a short period of time.

Michael is a rising star at Wannamaker Capital Group, a corporate raider firm in New York City, and he hasn’t gone back to visit Paradise in several years. He goes back to Paradise for Don’s funeral and reluctantly agrees to try to save this pencil-making company, which is headquartered in Paradise and employs about 60 people. And guess who’s the chief financial officer (CFO) of Peterson Pencil? Charlie, of course.

The beginning of the movie shows Don still alive and being an outgoing and friendly boss to his employees. He’s the type of president/CEO who knows everyone by name, as he walks through the Peterson Pencil factory and in the offices. Don is popular with his employees, but he’s hiding a big secret from almost all of them: Don has made too many bad business decisions, and the company is only a few months away from a possible permanent closure. Don has been generous to a fault, by draining the company’s funds to pay for employee perks that the company can’t afford, such as offering full college tuition for the employees’ children.

Peterson Pencil, which has just one factory, is far from being a corporation that can afford these company benefits. Most major companies don’t offer college tuition money for employees’ children, so it makes no sense for a small, struggling pencil company to do that. Peterson Pencil is now $10 million in debt, and the bank wants the money back in 90 days. And what do you know, the deadline is close to Christmas, which is one of the worst times to lay off employees.

What kind of incompetent CFO would let this mess happen? “Saving Paradise” excuses Charlie from blame. It’s explained in the movie that before Don died, Charlie warned him that his spending decisions would put the company out of business. Charlie even came up with a plan to restructure and refinance the company to get Peterson Pencil out of debt. However, Don refused to agree to the plan because it would mean some of the employees would have to be laid off.

It all just makes Don look like a stubborn fool, because the alternative would be that all—not some—employees would lose their jobs if the company goes out of business. All the stress apparently got to Don because he had a heart attack and died. His widow Barbara had always hoped that Michael would take over the family business when the time was right. It looks like Barbara is going to get her wish, even though it’s not under ideal circumstances. Michael is put in the uncomfortable position of having to tell her that she could lose the house, because Don kept that information a secret from his wife.

“Saving Paradise” leans heavily into the cliché that anyone who has deliberately spent several years away from their family must be running away from a big, dark secret. Sure enough, Michael does have a big, dark secret: He’s haunted by the death of his beloved older brother Daniel Joseph “DJ” Peterson (played by Brandon Ruiter in flashback scenes), who died when DJ was 18 and Michael was 16. The circumstances of DJ’s death are eventually revealed in the movie through various flashbacks, which feature Aidan Merwarth as teenage Michael, and Elodie Grace Orkin as teenage Charlie.

Because a stereotypical movie like “Saving Paradise” has to drag out the “will they or won’t they get together” romance aspect of the film, Michael and Charlie predictably clash with each other on how to get Peterson Pencil out of its financial crisis. Michael also finds out that many of the longtime employees, who knew him when he was a child, feel a certain amount of resentment toward Michael for not coming back to visit Paradise after he became a hotshot corporate raider in New York City.

Michael ends up taking a leave of absence from his corporate job in order to save his family business. His ruthless boss Cameron Wannamaker (played by James Eckhouse), who’s the managing director of Wannamaker Capital Group, is very unhappy with this decision because Michael is being considered for a promotion, and he’s Cameron’s first choice. The other main contender for the promotion is Edward Worthington (played by Shaughn Buchholz), an eager-to-please and nervous employee whom Cameron does not respect.

As soon as Michael shows up and tells the Peterson Pencil employees that he’s the interim president/CEO of the company, many of them immediately think that he’s just there to do what corporate raiders do: Buy a struggling company at a low price, fire most of the workers to replace them with cheaper labor (usually in other countries), and then turn the company around to sell it at a big profit. It would be an understatement to say that many of the employees don’t trust Michael.

The Peterson Pencil employees who get the most screen time as supporting characters are:

  • Mary Williams (played by Mary Pat Gleason), the factory’s no-nonsense manager who’s one the company’s longest-serving employees.
  • George O’Malley (played by Shashawnee Hall), one of Mary’s trusted subordinates who works in maintenance and shipping.
  • Leona Hines (played by Pam Trotter), an office manager whose adult son was promised a job at Peterson Pencil when he gets out of the military.
  • Walter Wilson (played by George Steeves), a mailroom employee who loves to recite trivia knowledge about pencils, and he seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum.
  • Julie Barnes (played by Valeria Maldonado), an administrative assistant who was briefly Michael’s girlfriend in junior high school.

Julie is now a single mother who’s been divorced three times, and she’s very interested in getting back together with Michael. Of course she is, because a movie that piles on over-used tropes as much as “Saving Paradise” does has to include a love triangle. It’s the most over-used trope in movies with a “will they or won’t they get together” romance storyline.

“Saving Paradise” should get a little credit for not making Charlie someone who was waiting around for Michael to come back to Paradise. After high school, Charlie and Michael went to different universities and lost touch with each other. In a scene where Charlie and Michael are having lunch together, she tells him that she too moved to a big city (London) for a corporate finance job (at a bank).

Charlie had a live-in boyfriend in London, and they got engaged, but the relationship didn’t work out. Around the time of this breakup, Charlie decided that a corporate job wasn’t for her, so she moved back to Paradise, where Michael’s father Don offered her the CFO position at Peterson Pencil. Not much is revealed about Michael’s love life since he left Paradise, but it’s implied that he’s been too much of a workaholic to settle down with anyone.

“Saving Paradise” has an awkward mix of cast members who are obviously a lot more talented and experienced than others. There’s nothing wrong with having cast members with various levels of acting experience. But when these disparate acting skills show on screen and become embarrassing distractions, that’s a problem.

The movie also has a somewhat offensive depiction of dementia. Peterson Pencil employee Walter hangs out a lot with his grandfather (played by Paul Dooley), nicknamed Gramps, who has early stages of dementia. Instead of “Saving Paradise” making Gramps look like a well-rounded human being, the main purpose that Gramps serves in this movie is to have a confused Gramps think that Michael is Michael’s dead brother DJ. It happens multiple times in the story. Gramps has to be gently reminded that DJ is dead, but it predictably upsets Michael that Gramps keeps thinking that Michael is his deceased brother.

“Saving Paradise” was partially inspired by Musgrave Pencil Company in Shelbyville, Tennessee. It’s one of the few remaining pencil factories in the United States, and it gets a “thank you” mention in the end credits of “Saving Paradise.” The movie might have been inspired by this real-life factory, but the story in “Saving Paradise” is very “only in a movie” contrived nonsense.

As overly sentimental as this movie is with the concept that Michael is going to swoop in and be the hero, Braddy depicts just enough feistiness and initiative to not make her Charlie character into a typical damsel in distress. However, it’s still not enough to avoid the avalanche of hack filmmaking in almost every single aspect of “Saving Paradise,” including the very irritating score music. Braddy’s acting is the most naturalistic among the several “Saving Paradise” actors who are too hammy in their delivery.

Moseley has a few moments of showing some emotional range outside of Michael’s constant pouting and brooding, but his Michael character is written as a fairly generic leading man. Moseley, who is real British in real life, sometimes lets his British accent come through in this movie. They’re subtle slip-ups, but still noticeable.

“Saving Paradise” gives absolutely no suspense to viewers in what will happen in this story. And because the loan payback deadline happens during the Christmas holiday season, that means more mushiness is poured all over the “race against time” climax of the film. There are predictable movies of this type that can be enjoyable to watch if the acting and characters are highly appealing. But “Saving Paradise” just takes the lazy way out by rehashing and watering down what’s been done in other movies that have already done the same things in a much better way.

Vertical Entertainment released “Saving Paradise” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021.