Review: ‘Stillwater’ (2021), starring Matt Damon

July 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Matt Damon and Camille Cottin in “Stillwater” (Photo by Jessica Forde/Focus Features)

“Stillwater” (2021)

Directed by Tom McCarthy

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Marseille, France, and briefly in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the dramatic film “Stillwater” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Middle Eastern people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged oil rig/construction worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma, goes to Marseille, France, where he tries to prove that his mid-20s daughter has been wrongly imprisoned for murder.

Culture Audience: “Stillwater” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful and emotionally layered murder mysteries, even if some aspects of this crime investigation are far-fetched.

Abigail Breslin and Matt Damon in “Stillwater” (Photo by Jessica Forde/Focus Features)

“Stillwater” is a crime drama that’s somewhat flawed in how a murder mystery is investigated in the movie, but the principal cast members bring emotional authenticity that resonates in an impactful way throughout the story. It’s a movie about a man with a checkered past who’s seeking redemption not only for his imprisoned daughter but also redemption for himself for being an absentee father for most of her life. And on another level, it’s a classic “fish out of water” story about an American trying to navigate the legal system and culture in France when he knows next to nothing about either.

“Stillwater” writer/director Tom McCarthy won a best original screenplay Oscar for 2015’s “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s real-life investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the Catholic Church knowingly covering up these crimes. The crime investigation in “Stillwater” is much more personal and much more underground because it doesn’t always follow legal protocol, and is therefore much more dangerous. However, “Stillwater” (which McCarthy wrote with Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey and Noé Debré) is nowhere as authentic as “Spotlight,” when it comes to depicting a crime investigation.

In “Stillwater,” Bill Baker (played by Matt Damon) is a longtime oil rigger (also known as a roughneck) who has been experiencing some hard times in his hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Six months ago, he was laid off from his job. He’s been able to find temporary construction jobs here and there, but his lack of steady employment has caused him a lot of financial strain. Bill has been an oil rig worker, ever since he dropped out of high school to work with his father, who was also a roughneck.

Bill’s personal life is also a mess. He’s been a widower ever since his wife committed suicide a little more than 20 years ago, when their daughter Allison (played by Abigail Breslin) was 4 years old. After this tragedy, Allison was raised by her maternal grandmother Sharon (played by Deanna Dunagan), who has a cordial relationship with Bill. It’s in contrast to the estranged relationship that Bill has with his own mother, whom he hasn’t been in contact with for years. Bill only hears about how his mother is doing when Sharon tells him.

The movie never explains why Bill and his mother are estranged, but later on in the story, Bill reveals that he’s in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Now that Bill has more free time on his hands than when he was working full-time, he’s decided that he’s going to Marseille, France, for two weeks to try to solve the biggest problem he’s ever encountered: getting Allison exonerated for murder and released from prison.

Allison, who’s about 24 or 25, is in a Marseille prison and has served five years of a nine-year prison sentence for murdering her live-in lover Lena Momdi, who attended Marseille University with Allison. Going to the same university is how the former couple met. Lena is not shown in flashbacks, and whatever information about her in the movie comes mostly from Allison, who has vigorously maintained her innocence in Lena’s murder.

Why did Allison want to enroll in a university in France? It’s revealed later in the movie that she was very unhappy in Stillwater and wanted to live somewhere far away from her hometown. Lena, who was of Arabic heritage, had a very different background than Allison’s: Lena came from a stable, upper-middle-class family.

Allison’s and Lena’s personalities were different too. Allison is a creative type who likes to draw. She’s introverted and doesn’t make friends easily. Lena was more sociable and extroverted. It’s hinted throughout the movie that Lena was Allison’s first serious romance and the first relationship where Allison could live openly as a lesbian/queer woman.

The story comes out in bits and pieces in the movie, but these are the indisputable facts: Lena was stabbed to death in the apartment that she shared with Allison, who doesn’t have an alibi during the time that investigators say that Lena was murdered. Allison claims that she came home to find Lena murdered. At the time, Lena and Allison were having problems in their relationship because Lena was cheating on Allison.

Allison says she doesn’t know who murdered Lena, but she has a theory that it was probably a guy in his 20s named Akim (played by Idir Azougli), whom Lena had recently met in a bar. Allison says she briefly met Akim too, but Allison doesn’t know anything about him except his first name, and she has a vague memory of what he looks like. Allison has told her father Bill that she found out that a female acquaintance had overheard Akim bragging about stabbing Lena.

That’s not enough to prove Allison’s innocence, but there was untested DNA at the crime scene. Allison thinks that the DNA is the DNA of the murderer and could be Akim’s, if Allison’s theory is correct. Bill then takes it upon himself to try get Allison’s case re-opened by finding the evidence that could exonerate her.

If this murder mystery sounds a lot like the real-life Amanda Knox case, that’s because “Stillwater” was partially inspired by Knox’s case, according to the “Stillwater” production notes. Knox was an American student attending a university in Perugia, Italy, in 2007, when she, her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and their acquaintance Rudy Guede were convicted of sexually assaulting and stabbing to death Knox’s British female roommate Meredith Kercher, who attended a different university in the same city. However, only Guede was directly tied to the crime through physical evidence (his bloody fingerprints), and Knox never wavered from proclaiming her innocence. The case was notorious for its twists and turns and worldwide media exposure.

Allison’s murder case in “Stillwater” also made a lot headlines, but the filmmakers wisely chose not to have flashbacks in this movie. That’s because the main characters in the story want to forget painful memories from their past. By the time that Bill visits Allison in prison, the media frenzy over Allison’s case has died down. And it seems that almost everyone involved, except Allison and her few family members, have given up hope that she will be exonerated and set free from prison.

While Bill is staying at a low-priced hotel, he notices the two people who are in the room next to his. He doesn’t find out who they are until a little later, but these hotel neighbors are theater actress Virginie (played by Camille Cottin) and her 8-year-old daughter Maya (played by Lilou Siauvaud), who is a bright and energetic child. Bill doesn’t know it yet, but all three of them will become part of each other’s lives in ways that they don’t expect.

The first time that Bill talks to Virginie, it’s because she’s partying on her room balcony with a friend. They’re laughing, drinking, and playing music loudly, so Bill asks them to keep the noise down. Virginie says that she only speaks French, and she has a dismissive tone toward Bill. A disgruntled Bill decides not to cause an argument and just shuts his room’s sliding glass door.

The next day, Bill sees that Maya has been locked out of the room and she doesn’t have a room key. Because he wants to make sure that Maya is safe, he takes her to the hotel lobby so that the front desk can give Maya a spare key. Virginie eventually shows up and she thanks Bill for his act of kindness. Bill notices that Virginie can speak perfect English. And when he points it out to her, Virginie looks embarrassed and makes a sheepish apology.

Virginie explains that the reason why Maya was accidentally locked out of the hotel room was because Virginie (who’s a single mother) was running late from an appointment for their new apartment. Virginie and Maya are staying at the hotel until they can move into their new home. Later, Virginie reveals to Bill that Maya’s father is alive but not in their lives, and that Virginie has been the only parent to raise Maya. Virginia describes Maya’s father as a “fling” who now lives in Crete,

Meanwhile, Allison doesn’t trust the prison mail system and knows all meetings and phone conversations in prison are recorded. And so, Allison has given Bill an important letter written in French that she wants him to hand-deliver to her defense attorney named Leparq (played by Anne Le Ny), to try to get the case re-opened. After encountering some obstacles, Bill gets an in-person meeting with Leparq, who reads the letter and says that there’s nothing more she can do because the case cannot be appealed without significant evidence.

A frustrated and angry Bill goes back to the hotel, where he asks Virginie to translate the letter for him. In the letter, Allison describes Akim as a likely person of interest who could be a match for the untested DNA that was at the crime scene. Allison also says in her letter that she doesn’t trust her father to help, even though he is her only family member who can be in France. (Allison’s grandmother Sharon, who wears an oxygen tube, has health issues and can’t travel overseas.)

As soon as Bill knows what the letter says, it’s at this point where viewers know he’s going to want to get back in Allison’s good graces. He meets with a local private investigator named Dirosa (played by Moussa Maaskri), but Bill can’t afford the investigator’s starting fee of €12,000. And so, that means Bill is going to do the investigating himself.

The first step is to find the witness who claims that she heard Akim confess to the murder. This witness can only speak French. Luckily, Viriginie is very sympathetic to Bill’s plight, and she readily agrees to be his translator. Things don’t go smoothly, of course, and Bill finds himself increasingly obsessed with finding Akim. Bill also gets personally involved with Virginie.

Although “Stillwater” does a very good job of unpeeling the layers of the story’s three complicated adults—Bill, Allison and Virginie—where the movie falters is in the almost absurd acts of vigilantism that Bill commits in the movie. His two immediate main goals are to find Akim and get Akim’s DNA. But since Bill doesn’t know Akim’s last name, and Allison can only give a vague description, there’s a time-consuming process of finding out if Akim really exists.

Akim really does exist, and there’s a scene in the movie where Bill has the perfect opportunity to get Akim’s DNA by taking a plastic straw and cup that Akim was drinking from and then discarded at an outdoor cafe. However, Bill doesn’t take the cup and straw as DNA evidence. Something else happens that takes this movie down a very dark path. Viewers will have to assume that Bill is so ignorant about the law that he doesn’t know that how evidence is gathered can affect whether or not the evidence is admissible in court.

“Stillwater” has many references to the cultural and social class differences of an American like Bill being in France. Bill has to correct people who incorrectly assume that because he’s American who has the ability to travel to France, he must be rich. In another scene, Virginie agrees to help Bill after she suspiciously asks him, “Did you vote for [Donald] Trump?”

Bill doesn’t say what his political leanings are and instead says he can’t vote in U.S. elections because he’s a convicted felon, although he doesn’t say why he was in prison and when. Virginie makes it clear that Bill’s prison record wouldn’t bother her as much as it would bother her if he voted for Trump. She hangs out with a lot of progressive hipster types in her theater group.

In another scene, Virginie and Bill have an argument when she helps him interview a local cafe owner who might have seen Akim. The cafe owner named Max (played by Pierre Piacentino) is very racist against Arabs and tells Virginie in French that he’s willing to accuse anyone Arab to help with the case. Virginie abruptly ends the interview in disgust and tells Bill why, but Bill is willing to overlook this racism because he thinks the cafe owner might still have valuable information.

Bill tells Virginie that he works with a lot of people who have these racists thoughts, but he believes you can still work with these people if they’re on your side. It’s the first of many clues that Bill is willing to do whatever it takes to free Allison from prison, even if it could mean getting a racist witness who will lie in order to wrongfully accuse someone. Virginie makes it clear that she has certain ethics that are non-negotiable. It won’t be the last time that Bill’s and Virginie’s two different moral codes will clash with each other.

An issue that “Stillwater” doesn’t adequately address is that Allison got only a nine-year prison sentence for murder. That’s an incredibly lenient sentence, considering that it was a brutal stabbing that appears to have been pre-meditated. It’s implied throughout the story that Allison was convicted of first-degree murder. It’s never discussed in the movie (although it should have been discussed) that Allison, who’s young enough to potentially have several decades of life ahead of her, was lucky to get such a light prison sentence for this serious crime.

No one says the words “white privilege” in this movie, but a lot of viewers who know that racial inequalities exist in criminal justice systems will immediately think about how a person of color in the same circumstances as Allison probably would’ve gotten a punishment that’s a lot worse and longer than a nine-year prison sentence. Likewise, Bill takes for granted and feels emboldened that as a white man traveling by himself, he can feel entitled to go in certain neighborhoods as a stranger and do whatever vigilante things that he does. It’s because he consciously or subconsciously knows that people are less likely to call the police on someone who looks like him when he acts aggressively or does suspicious things.

Allison already served five years of that nine-year prison sentence, so it raises more questions that the movie doesn’t answer about how Bill and Allison went about solving her legal problems. The legal process to get someone exonerated could take a lot more than four years. And it means that Allison could be released from prison in a shorter period of time than it could take for her to be exonerated.

That probability is never discussed in the movie, because “Stillwater” is all about Bill trying to get things done in an unrealistic “only in a movie” period of time. And yes, Bill and Allison want to clear Allison’s name. But at what cost, when Bill starts breaking the law like a vigilante?

It’s why “Stillwater,” even though it benefits from stirring performances by the principal cast members, still feels like a Hollywood version of how to free a prisoner who claims to be wrongly convicted. Usually, in melodramatic movies like “Stillwater,” someone is portrayed as a one-person juggernaut doing almost all the detective work. In reality, it takes several people and many years of investigations and court procedures to get a convicted prisoner exonerated.

In the production notes for “Stillwater,” McCarthy comments on some of the main inspirations for him to make the movie: “I was inspired by a number of Mediterranean Noir writers like Andrea Camilleri, Massimo Carlotto and Jean-Claude Izzo, whose brilliant Marseille Trilogy led me to the French city. One visit to Marseille and I knew that I found my port.”

And just like those novels, “Stillwater” is a fictional version of life. The movie is entertaining, suspenseful and a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale. However, “Stillwater” shouldn’t be used as an ideal example of a dramatic film that realistically portrays how to try to get someone out of prison.

Focus Features will release “Stillwater” in U.S. cinemas on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Mama Weed,’ starring Isabelle Huppert

July 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kamel Guenfoud, Isabelle Huppert and Youssef Sahraoui in “Mama Weed” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

“Mama Weed”

Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé

French and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Paris, the comedy/drama “Mama Weed” features a cast of white, Middle Eastern and Chinese characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged widow, who’s a language translator for a police department’s narcotics unit, steals a large supply of hashish from drug dealers and creates a persona as a savvy drug lord to sell the drug stash back to the unsuspecting drug dealers.

Culture Audience: “Mama Weed” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Isabelle Huppert and who are interested in dark comedies about drug trafficking, even if the story has some deliberately far-fetched elements.

Isabelle Huppert in “Mama Weed” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

There have been several movies about narcotics law enforcement agents who profit from selling drugs that they steal from drug dealers, but there’s none quite like “Mama Weed.” It’s a movie that has playful fun with the concept that a middle-aged widow who works as a translator for a Paris police department’s narcotics unit can “go rogue” and come up with a scheme to commit this crime. The movie’s dark comedic spin and Isabelle Huppert’s captivating performance make the hard-to-believe and absurdist elements of the plot easier to enjoy.

Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé, “Mama Weed” is based on Hannelore Cayre’s 2019 novel “The Godmother.” Salomé and Cayre co-wrote the “Mama Weed” screenplay. It’s a story that requires a certain suspension of disbelief that the protagonist gets away with as much as she does when she doesn’t do much to disguise her face and there are surveillance cameras in public areas where she does her deals. However, because she works in the same police narcotics unit that could potentially bust her for her misdeeds, she has access to information and resources that help her hide her criminal activities from her colleagues.

In “Mama Weed,” Huppert portrays Patience Portefeux, a translator for the Paris Police Department’s narcotics unit. She speaks Arabic, which is the first language of many the drug dealers who are arrested by the department. Patience is not a typical employee of a police department’s narcotics unit, because she has a Ph. D. in Arabic studies. What is she doing in a low-paying job at a police department? It’s never really explained, but it’s implied that because Patience is near the age range when most people retire, she hasn’t been able to find work anywhere else where she can use the type of education that she has.

Patience (who likes to wear black leather jackets and black jeans when she’s on the job) is not a frumpy, uptight woman who can’t handle the rough and dangerous work that she has to do as part of her job. Her work includes accompanying narcotics cops on their drug raids. She’s a fairly even-tempered police employee who doesn’t get easily rattled.

In the film’s opening scene, Patience is with her cop colleagues on a drug bust that involves Arabic-speaking drug dealers from a crime family whose last name is Abelaziz. The drug dealers have been arrested for possession of seven kilograms of hashish. Back at police headquarters, two of the suspects are being interrogated, with Patience acting as the translator.

One of the suspects won’t reveal any information and shouts at the interrogating cop, “Fuck you! I want a lawyer!” Another cop in the room starts to get rough with the suspect, by kicking him and hitting him. The suspect then spits on Patience, while the interrogating cop freezes in shock. Patience is horrified, but she takes this spitting assault in stride and doesn’t get emotional. Meanwhile, the violent cop angrily hauls off the suspect for what will probably be more police brutality.

After this tension-filled interrogation, Patience walks into her supervisor’s office to tell him what happened in the interrogation room and that the suspects probably won’t say anything incriminating while in custody. Patience’s boss Philippe (played by Hippolyte Girardot), who’s about the same age as she is, has recently been promoted to police chief. An upcoming drug bust will be the first under his command as chief of the department.

Philippe is concerned but not surprised that the suspect spit on Patience. He can’t get too disturbed by it though because it’s part of law enforcement’s job to expect suspects to attack anyone who works in law enforcement. Philippe also isn’t too concerned that the suspect isn’t giving up information while in custody, because the police department already has enough incriminating evidence in the form of secret audio recordings that they made of these drug dealers.

A lot of what Patience does in the office is translate this type of surveillance, which she sometmes has to do live, as these conversations are being recorded. It’s this part of the job that causes a turning point in her life and serves as the catalyst for what happens when Patience ends up “going rogue.” And there’s an extra complication that makes Patience’s criminal activities even riskier: Patience and Philippe (who’s an available bachelor) have been secretly sleeping with each other.

The word “romance” isn’t really the best description for this relationship, because although Patience is very fond of Philippe, she’s not in love with him. However, Philippe seems to be in love with Patience and drops hints that he wants them to live together. It’s a suggestion that she tactfully brushes off, because she seems to like her independence and wants to keep living alone in her condo apartment.

Patience has been a widow since 1994, when her husband Martin suddenly died of a stroke when he was 34 years old. Patience and her late husband have two adult daughters—Hortense (played by Iris Bry) and Gabrielle (played by Rebecca Marder)—who are both in their 20s. Based on conversations that Patience has with her daughters, Patience hasn’t had much of a dating life since her husband died. Getting intimately involved with Philippe seems like something that happened because she spends so much time at work and they’re both available.

Patience’s husband Martin died while they were on vacation in Oman. It was an annual trip that the family used to take and always looked forward to every year. But after Martin died, Patience didn’t want to go back to Oman because it brought back painful memories of his death. She still talks about Oman with a lot of affection though, as if she still has good memories of where she and her family used to go in Oman.

There are some other more immediate problems in Patience’s life because she’s been struggling financially. For years, she’s been paying off debts that her late husband owed. In addition, her ailing mother (played by Liliane Rovère), who doesn’t have a first name in the movie, is in an assisted living facility. Patience is a few months’ behind on paying the facility fees.

It’s later revealed in the movie that Patience’s mother is a Holocaust survivor. Patience’s father was an Algerian immigrant who met Patience’s mother in 1962. Patience’s Algerian heritage on her father’s side provides context for why she loves speaking Arabic and why she got her university education in Arabic studies.

At the assisted living facility, a kind, middle-aged Moroccan woman named Kadidja (played by Farida Ouchani) is the main caretaker for Patience’s mother. Patience and Kadidja have a friendly rapport with each other where they trust and respect each other. Kadidja knows what Patience does for a living. Kadidja is also very good at handling Patience’s mother, who can be cranky and stubborn. Patience and her mother seem to have a fairly good relationship that has been occasionally marred by typical mother-daughter squabbles.

One day on her job, Patience is listening in on live surveillance by narcotics cops, who have been tracking a suspected drug courier in his early 20s. This suspect is driving a truck carrying a large shipment of hashish, and the truck is headed for Paris. (The cops have a GPS tracking device on the truck.) Patience overhears someone mention the suspect’s name, and she’s immediately alarmed. His name is Afid (played by Yasin Houicha), and based on his description and where the cops have been tracking him, he sounds exactly Kadidja’s son.

Patience uses her personal cell phone to breach protocol by secretly calling Kadidja to warn her that Afid is under surveillance by police and is about to be busted for this hash haul. Patience frantically advises Kadidja to call Afid and tell him about this impending drug arrest and to make an unplanned detour so he can find a way to hide or get rid of the drug stash before the cops can catch up to him. Patience also tells Kadidja to be careful of how she talks to Afid on his phone because the conversation will be recorded by the cops.

Afid does what his mother tells him to do, so that by the time the narcotics police catch up to him, Afid is arrested but there are no drugs in the truck. The cops think they have enough evidence on Afid to keep him in custody anyway, because of previous surveillance recordings where he incriminated himself as working with ths drug cartel. However, the narcs are frustrated because Afid won’t tell anyone where he hid the large supply of hash. They hope that Afid can give up information on his drug connections so they can bust the dealers who are higher-ranked in this drug cartel, but Afid isn’t likely to snitch.

The drug dealers who were expecting this large shipment are predictably furious. They are from the Cherkaouis crime family, led by two menacing brothers (played by Kamel Guenfoud and Youssef Sahraoui), who don’t have first names in the movie. These two brothers are hauled in for questioning by police, since the brothers were heard on audio surveillance. However, there’s not not enough evidence to put the brothers in jail, so they are let go.

In a private conversation between Philippe and Patience at the police station, he admits that he’s very embarrassed that this drug bust was bungled under his supervision. Patience tries to comfort him. The subject comes up about the narcotics unit using canines to detect drugs. Philippe mentions that after the dogs are retired from police work, they get sent to a local shelter. If the dogs don’t get adopted by a certain period of time, then they’re euthanized.

Philippe goes to an animal shelter website on his phone to show Patience some of the former polce dogs who are up for adoption there. Patience semi-jokes that he should help her adopt a dog. She sees a male German Shepherd on the wesbite that immediately catches her eye. And it plants an idea in her head: What if she got a former police dog to find that large supply of missing hash?

The next thing you know, Patience now owns the German Shepherd that she saw on the shelter website. She’s given the dog the name DNA. Patience tests his drug-sniffing skills when she lets him loose on some local drug dealers she sees on the streets. When she sees that the dog’s drug-sniffing skills are still very strong, she gets to work to find that drug stash.

Patience drives around with her dog DNA in places where she thinks someone would be able to hide the drug supply that went missing from the truck that Afid was driving. One of these places is a remote-looking field that has a locked shed. The dog goes crazy when she drives by and immediately runs up the shed, which is locked.

Patience breaks into the shed and—voilà—she finds the missing supply of hash. It’s not spoiler information to say that Patience found this drug stash, because people seeing this movie should already know that the main part of the story is that she’s selling stolen drugs by pretending to be a drug lord. The spoiler information is whether or not she gets caught.

The hash supply is so large that Patience has to rent a truck and go back to the shed more than once to retrieve it all. She hides all the hash (which is wrapped tightly in plastic brick-sized packages) in her apartment building’s storage room that she knows isn’t being used. And she thinks of small but important details, such as putting hanging air refresheners in the storage space to try to mininize the smell of hashish.

Patience plans to sell all the hash to the same drug dealers who were going to buy the stash before Afid got arrested. To entice the these drug dealers, she offers them a “discount.” She wants to use the money to pay off all her bills, give some money to Kadidja to help with Afid’s legal problems, and use the rest of the money to live off of comfortably in retirement.

It’s a very risky plan that yields some comical results. One of the problems that Patience encounters is her nosy neighbor Colette Fo (played by Nadja Nguyen), a Chinese immigrant who’s suspicious of Patience’s sudden interest in the building’s unused storage space. Patience has bought a lock for the storage space so only Patience can access the space for the time being. (The movie conveniently never shows a superintendent in the building.)

Patience then creates a false persona as an out-of-town drug lord named Mrs. Ben Barka. Because she speaks fluent Arabic, she disguises her ethnic identity by pretending to be Middle Eastern. Some people might be offended that all of the movie’s drug dealers are of Middle Eastern heritage, because in reality there are plenty of white drug dealers who exist in France.

The Cherkaouis brothers have never heard of Mrs. Ben Barka, so they send two bumbling henchmen named Scotch (played by Rachid Guellaz) and Chocapic (played by Mourad Boudaoud) to check out Mrs. Barka to see if she’s legitimate and not an undercover cop. She’s able to easly fool them because she’s picked up enough drug-dealing lingo from her job to sound convincing. Patience finds out later that the drug dealers have privately given Mrs. Barka the nickname Mama Weed.

But here’s the part of the movie where viewers have to suspend disbelief: While Patience is interacting with these dealers as Mrs. Barka/Mama Weed, she is able to avoid being identified by her cop colleagues who have the Cherkaouis drug cartel under audio and video surveillance. Some of it can be explained away, because at the police station, she has access to evidence that she could steal, delete or destroy if necessary.

Patience only wears a hijab and sunglasses for her disguise. That doesn’t sound like it would be enough to disguise her identity if she’s caught on surveillance video, but she’s careful to try to stay out of camera range as much as possible. Even more inexplicably, she often doesn’t bother to wear sunglasses in places where there’s sure to be video surveillance that’s not controlled by the police. Luckily for her, the quality of this surviellance video is so low that her image shows up as quite blurry.

As for possibly being recorded by the police’s audio surveillance, viewers of this movie will have to assume that the officers won’t recognize Patience’s voice on the recordings when she speaks Arabic, or that Patience got to the audio surveillance evidence first and was able to get rid of it. There are several scenes in the movie that imply that the French-speaking cops in the narcotics unit completely trust Patience in her job when she’s given access to surveillance recordings where people speak Arabic. They leave her to do the translating and transcribing with little to no supervision or independent verification.

There is one person in the police department who notices that Patience bears a striking resemblance to the Mrs. Barka/Mama Weed who’s suddenly being seen with members of the drug cartel that the police want to arrest. (It’s very easy to predict who’s the first to notice.) However, Patience laughs it off when it’s mentioned to her. The person who sees the physical resemblance doesn’t want to believe that Patience is capable of being the experienced drug lord that Mrs. Barka/Mama Weed appears to be, so it doesn’t take much for this person to dismiss these suspicions.

As far-fetched as Patience’s plan might seem to be, it’s actually fairly shrewd because she would be one of the last people ever suspected of concocting this plan. Hiding in plain sight, indeed. This movie’s concept wouldn’t work if Patience weren’t an insider in the police department’s narcotics unit, with access to evidence and information about how the narcotics investigations were being handled.

What would motivate someone like Patience to commit these very hazardous crimes? The movie points out in subtle and nuanced ways that Patience has a history of being closer to criminals than she would like to publicly admit. Near the beginning of the film, Hortense bitterly mentions that her late father Martin was a “crook” who left behind “20 years of debt” that Patience was stuck with having to pay. Patience chastises Hortense and tells her not to talk about her dead father in that way.

Throughout the movie, Patience sometimes makes offhand remarks to her cop colleagues that she has some sympathy for the drug dealers because she seems to think that drug-related punishments don’t fit the crimes. Her comments get mildly surprised reactions but not enough to arouse suspicion. However, it explains why she was eager to help Kadidja, even though Kadidja is not a close friend.

And there’s probably some unspoken anger and bitterness behind Patience wanting to steal the drug stash and sell it. Patience most likely thinks that at her age and with her education, she should be doing better in her life. Instead, she’s stuck in a low-paying job and barely able to pay her bills and debts. It’s easy to see how someone like Patience might think that she got a raw deal in life and wants to take it out on the justice system—or at least take it out on the police department that’s underpaying her.

As for the drug dealers being so gullible, there are many real-life true crime cases where criminals do the dumbest things and make the most illogical decisions out of pure greed. It’s not implausible to think that these drug dealers wouldn’t really care about where Mama Weed got her drug supply, as long as they know they’re getting a huge discount. In their minds, they might think Mama Weed is the stupid one for selling the hash for below the market value.

And that’s one of the messages of this movie: Don’t be surprised by what people will do because of greed. Patience is one of the people who’s not immune to greed becoming a blind spot that clouds her judgment. One of the best things about “Mama Weed” is that it doesn’t make Patience a criminal mastermind. She makes some mistakes that cause some very close calls for her.

However treacherous things might get for Patience and other people, the movie keeps a sly comedic tone, with plenty of wisecracking (especially between Patience and Colette), to remind viewers not to take it all too seriously. A slapstick shootout scene toward the end of the movie is filmed a little awkwardly and almost brings “Mama Weed” into cartoonish territory. But because of Huppert’s immense talent in balancing comedy and drama, her performance is worth watching in this unconventional crime caper.

Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films released “Mama Weed” in select U.S. cinemas on July 16, 2021, and on digital and VOD on July 23, 2021. The movie was previously released in various countries (including France and Canada) in 2020.

Review: ‘Siberia’ (2021), starring Willem Dafoe

July 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Willem Dafoe in “Siberia” (Photo by Federico Vagliati/Lionsgate)


Directed by Abel Ferrara

Some language in Aleut and Russian with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various locations around the world, the dramatic film “Siberia” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, Eskimos and one African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A loner, who is haunted by past tragedies and regrets, experiences a “fever dream” type of existence where he can no longer distinguish reality from his nightmarish visions.

Culture Audience: “Siberia” will appeal primarily to ardent fans of director Abel Ferrara and actor Willem Dafoe, because very few other people will enjoy this nonsensical and dull movie.

Willem Dafoe and Laurent Arnatsiaq in “Siberia” (Photo by Federico Vagliati/Lionsgate)

Some film directors were labeled “auteurs” early in their careers. And ever since then, certain people have been deluded into thinking that every movie that these “auteurs” make is somehow supposed to be important—even when these “auteurs” have made some substandard and ridiculous movies that would be trashed if those same movies were made by unknown filmmakers. Unfortunately, one of these pompous junk movies is the incomprehensible drama “Siberia,” directed by Abel Ferrara, who has been coasting on an outdated reputation of being an “auteur” filmmaker since the 1980s.

Simply put: “Siberia” (which Ferrara co-wrote with Christ Zois) is an irritating, self-indulgent, incoherent bore. It’s one of those garbage movies that’s pretentious and lacking in self-awareness at how bad it is. The only reason why people might praise this movie is because there are famous names involved in making the film. However, whatever claim to fame these people have, it’s for work that’s of much higher quality than the forgettable and embarrassing “Siberia.”

Willem Dafoe (a frequent collaborator of Ferrara’s) has the starring role in “Siberia,” which has no plot. It’s just a bunch of scenes strung together of Dafoe’s character in the movie having “fever dream” type of experiences, none of which make much sense or have any specific theme. The only conclusion that can be drawn from watching this movie is that Ferrara wanted to do yet another movie about a man having a mid-life crisis and couldn’t be bothered with writing anything that could pass as an engaging story.

Dafoe’s Clint character (who is American) isn’t just having a mid-life crisis. He seems to be having a mid-life psychosis. Almost everything he experiences in the movie might seem to start off looking “normal,” but then something demented happens to let viewers know everything is all in Clint’s imagination. There are bits and pieces of his past that come up to indicate that he’s haunted by some unresolved issues. However, there’s barely enough information to piece together what really happened, because it’s all muddled by more weird fantasies.

It’s all just a very pseudo-intellectual way to make viewers feel less than smart if they don’t understand the “true meaning” of a movie. Actually, sometimes there is no “true meaning” to a horribly dumb film with no real story. Sometimes filmmakers just want to mess around and make weird art that’s not supposed to make sense. If you’re into that sort of thing, then you might enjoy “Siberia,” because there are no redeeming qualities for this movie since it was obviously made only for the sake of being bizarre.

“Siberia” starts off with brief voiceover narration from Clint. He says that when he was a kid, during the summertime his father would take Clint and Clint’s brother up to a remote part of northern Canada to go fishing. They had Cree Indians as their fishing guides. The guide leader was an old trapper, who cut himself off from civilization 20 years before and communicated by shortwave radio. The guides lived in a camp that had Siberian Huskies that were “sweet but wild,” according to Clint.

The only purpose for telling this story is so there’s some context to the scenes where Clint is on a dog sled pulled by Siberian Huskies or when he goes fishing or camping with his Siberian Huskies nearby. What does Clint do for a living? He’s a bartender at a roadhouse in an unnamed area that gets heavy snow. It could be Siberia, but this movie plays too many guessing games on where scenes are taking place in the world, and it’s all irrelevant overall to the story.

Wherever Clint lives, there are hints that it seems to be close to the Arctic, because he has Eskimos and people who speak Russian as his customers. Clint lives by himself and there’s no mention of his brother again. However, based on hallucinations that Clint has later, he used to be married to a blonde (played by Dounia Sichov), and they had a young son (played by Anna Ferrara) who died, apparently at around 3 or 4 years old.

Don’t expect any details to be revealed about how this child died or what happened to Clint’s wife, because there are no details except hints that the wife blamed Clint for the son’s death and he feels guilty about it. She shows up in a hallucination or two where she tells Clint that she’s angry at him because he humiliated her. Don’t expect to find out more information about their relationship, because the movie doesn’t reveal it.

By the way, Clint is the only character in this movie who has a name, which is a reflection of the self-absorbed lunacy that stinks up this movie. Viewers can assume that Clint’s wife divorced him. It might be the only thing about this movie that makes sense, because who would want to be married to someone who’s this cut off from reality?

The roadhouse where Clint works (it’s unclear if he’s the owner or not) has a small slot machine for gambling. Clint tells a customer that he never plays the slot machine because “I don’t want to lose.” As soon as Clint makes that comment, the movie then abruptly cuts to a scene of Clint getting attacked by a brown bear in this roadhouse. And then, the next scene is of an unharmed Clint talking to two Russian-speaking women at the bar as if nothing happened. The bear attack is not spoken about or hinted at again. Yes, it’s that kind of incoherent movie.

When people speak in non-English languages (Aleut or Russian) in this movie, there are no subtitles. It doesn’t really matter because much of the dialogue in English doesn’t make sense. The two Russian-speaking women at the bar are a young pregnant woman (played by Cristina Chiriac) and her elderly mother (played by Valentina Rozumenko), who are the bar’s only customers in this scene. They appear to be having a pleasant conversation with each other, while Clint nods, even though he doesn’t understand what they’re saying.

For no apparent reason, except to have a gratuitious scene with nudity and sex, the pregnant woman unbottons her clothes, to expose her naked front side, and then Clint kisses her pregnant belly and lower—all while right next to the woman’s mother, who’s watching with an approving look on her face. Clint and the pregnant woman are next seen having sex in a bedroom. At least Voyeur Russian Grandma wasn’t there to leer at them while they were having sex.

But that isn’t the last that the movie shows Voyeur Russian Grandma. The next time Clint sees her, she’s dead or unconscious, with blood between her legs, and an unidentified bloody animal’s head (possibly a horse) in between her legs. Clint sees her and does nothing to try to get her medical help. What is the purpose of this scene? Nothing. However, someone using Freudian psychology would speculate that it’s a msyognistic scene thought up by someone who has “mother issues.”

In fact, much of “Siberia” has subtle and not-so-subtle sexism, because all of the female characters with speaking roles in the movie are either mentally disturbed, angry or used as sex objects. There’s a montage scene where Clint has sex with three different unidentified women: one white (played by Maria Knofe), one Asian (played by Cornelia Nguyen Luu) and one black (played by Ilham Midjiyawa). It might be Ferrara’s way of saying that he deserves credit for having a racial diversity checklist when it comes to misogynistic, gratutitous sex scenes where the females have to show their private parts but not the male star of the movie. And it should come as no surprise that the movie has a demon character (played by Stella Pecollo) that Ferrara deliberately decided should be a woman.

The hatred isn’t just directed toward women. Clint has a lot of self-hatred too. In one scene, Clint calls out the name “Mitchell” (don’t expect to find out who Mitchell is), before falling down a cliff into a cave, where he hallucinates seeing a version of himself in some water in the cave. His reflection scolds Clint: “You pretend to be open to all things but can’t see how close-minded you are. Your soul is outside of it and you must claim it … Time will pass and you’ll continue to be lost … You were never a loving son. You were a burden to him, and now to me.”

Predictably, when Clint hallucinates seeing his father, his father looks just like Clint. (Dafoe plays both characters.) Clint sees his father dressed in a longjohn in the cave, where Clint appears to envision being in some kind of nightmarish hospital setting. A woman in a hospital gown wanders by in a daze and keeps repeating, “Teach me how to die.”

In this “hospital” scene, there’s an overweight nude little woman in a wheelchair, which seems a tad exploitative of disabled little people. There’s also an overweight naked woman dancing as if she’s insane, while she keeps repeating, “I’m waiting for the doctor.”

In another hallucination, Clint has ended up in an unnamed desert where people wear turbans, live in tents and have camels as pets. In one of the tents, Clint sees his father dressed as a surgeon and operating on Clint’s son. Don’t expect there to be any explanation for this operation scene. Viewers will never find out if this happened in Clint’s real life and will never find out if Clint’s father was a surgeon.

In a different “daddy issues” scene, Clint wanders into a run-down house, where heavy-metal music is blaring and some dirty-looking people in their late teens and early 20s are gleefully kicking around a locked trunk-sized box that has someone inside who’s screaming in agony. Some horrible quick-cut editing shows that the person inside the box has managed to climb out. And it’s Clint’s son. Some viewers won’t be surprised because it’s another example of “Siberia” doing something purely for shock value, not to further a plot that doesn’t exist in the first place.

There’s a random scene of fully naked men being rounded up by soldiers and brutally shot to death. Who are these men? Don’t expect the movie to reveal that either. In another scene, British actor Simon McBurney has a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” cameo as a magician whom Clint meets at an unnamed location. Clint tells him, “I hear you’re a great magician. I hear you’re into the black arts.” McBurney’s character is not seen or heard from again, and viewers never find out why Clint wants to dabble in the black arts.

“Siberia” is like being stuck in someone’s unpleasant psychedelic hallucinations for about 90 minutes. A lot of people who take psychedelics say they want to have deeper enlightenment about life when they get to the other side. The only enlightenment that viewers will get from “Siberia” is that some overrated filmmakers are very good at convincing people to give them money to make crappy movies.

Lionsgate released “Siberia” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 18, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on June 22, 2021.

Review: ‘El Cuartito,’ starring Mario de la Rosa, Claribel Medina, Isel Rodriguez, Ianis Guerrero and Fausto Mata

July 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cast members of “El Cuartito,” pictured clockwise from upper left: Claribel Medina, Ianis Guerrero, Mario de la Rosa, Isel Rodriguez and Fausto Mata (Photo courtesy of Wiesner Distribution)

“El Cuartito”

Directed by Marcos Carnevale

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during the Donald Trump administration, the comedy/drama film “El Cuartito” features a predominantly Hispanic cast of characters (with a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Five strangers find themselves stuck together in a detainee room at the San Juan Airport for different reasons, and they have various conflicts while a possible hurricane is looming,  

Culture Audience: “El Cuartito” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in far-fetched, broad comedies that try to be politically edgy but end up being very sappy.

Fausto Mata, Isel Rodriguez, Ianis Guerrero, Claribel Medina and Mario de la Rosa in “El Cuartito” (Photo courtesy of Wiesner Distribiution)

“El Cuartito” mistakenly gives the impression that it’s a satirical comedy about how people in Puerto Rico were affected by immigration policies of the Donald Trump administration. The movie is really just a silly hodgepodge of ludicrous scenarios that have no real edge. And at least two of the movie’s five main characters will annoy even the most patient viewers.

Directed by Marcos Carnevale (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Javier De Nevares), “El Cuartito” (which translates to “The Little Room” in English) takes place almost entirely at San Juan Airport in Puerto Rico. The movie’s scenes that don’t take place in Puerto Rico are mostly when the five main characters in the story have flashbacks of what happened to each of them before they arrived at the airport on this fateful day. Each of these backstories explains why each of these five characters has had the inconvenience of being detained at the airport.

“El Cuartito” takes place sometime during the period of time when Donald Trump was president of the United States, after he notoriously made this September 2017 statement about Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria devastating Puerto Rico: “This is an island, surrounded by water. Big water.” A recording of Trump saying these words at a news conference is repeated at the beginning and at the end of “El Cuartito.” And several of the characters talk about Trump in the movie.

But if viewers are expecting to see or hear anything politically or socially witty in “El Cuartito,” disappointment will quickly set in because the movie consists mostly of people being illogical, argumentative and/or or mentally unhinged for long stretches of the film. And the ways that certain problems are resolved in the story are downright cringeworthy and insulting to viewers’ intelligence.

For most of “El Cuartito,” five strangers are stuck together in a detainee room in the San Juan Airport, whose formal name is Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. During the course of the story, these detained airline customers argue with each other, worry about what immigration officials will do to them, and eventually plot to escape when they see an air vent in the room that could possibly be a way out of the building.

These five strangers are:

  • Juan Miguel “Toti” Cuervo (played by Mario de la Rosa), a has-been, egotistical pop/rock star from Madrid, Spain, is desperate to make a comeback because he’s bankrupt. Toti is in San Juan to perform a lucrative Thanksgiving dinner concert for a rich private client. However, Toti has been detained at the airport because his fidgety manager Juan David León (played by Hector Escudero Lobe) failed to get a work visa for Toti and got him a tourist visa instead.
  • Lina Fernández de Montepieller (played by Claribel Medina), who lives in Paris, is a high-maintenance and wealthy snob who is on multiple types of medication. Lina is in San Juan to meet her sister, so that they can take a Prince of the Ocean cruise together. Lina has been detained because while she was waiting in line to go through X-ray clearance, she accidentally dropped several of her pills from their bottles, which raised airport suspicions about what types of pills she’s carrying. Airport security has to do toxicology tests on the pills to make sure they’re not illegal.
  • Mariel (played by Isel Rodriguez), a heartbroken woman, is orginally from Puerto Rico, but she has been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the past 15 years. Mariel has been estranged from her mother, for reasons that are revealed in the movie, and wants to possibly reconnect with the family she left behind in Puerto Rico. Mariel has been detained because her passport has expired.
  • Jesus Reyes (played by Ianis Guerrero), a native of Mexico, has a secret reason for wanting to be in Puerto Rico. He was detained because airport officials caught him with a fake passport. Early on in the movie, before he was detained at the airport, Luis is shown furtively talking to someone on the phone and asking if “the merchandise is okay.” It’s obvious that Jesus is talking in code.
  • Santos Domingo (played by Fausto Mata) is a flamboyant preacher from the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo. Santos aspires to be someone like Joel Osteen (a megachurch preacher with his own TV show), and he claims that he has psychic powers that he’s received directly from God. Santos has been detained because he’s tried to illegally enter Puerto Rico before, and this is the third time he’s been busted for it.

When Jesus is brought into the room, Lina (who is by far the loudest and most obnoxious character in the story) immediately accuses him of being a terrorist. Why? She thinks he looks like a terrorist. Jesus is insulted. He tells Lina that he’s Mexican and that Mexicans aren’t radical Muslim terrorists.

Lina says that Mexicans can be drug lords, which Jesus doesn’t disagree with, but he says drug lords aren’t the same as terrorists. “Mexicans don’t bomb people!” Jesus angrily shouts at Lina. However, Lina keeps thinking that he must be some kind of criminal, even though she doesn’t know anything about him.

There’s some repetitive back-and-forth arguing between Lina and Jesus, as Lina exposes herself as being very racist and xenophobic. And she’s not very smart, because she keeps confusing Puerto Rico with Costa Rica. It’s supposed to be a running joke in the movie. Lina also goes into loud hysterics and throws tantrums, which she thinks will help her get out of the detainee room early. Her unruly diva antics don’t work.

In the detainee room, which looks very much like the set of a movie or a stage play, there are three items hanging on the wall: A photo portrait of Trump, in between the U.S. flag and the Puerto Rican flag. At various times in the movie, the detainees occasionally go up to the photo of Trump and say things to and about him—mostly innocuous and forgettable comments about the Trump administration’s immigration policy changes. Lina seems to be a Trump supporter, while Jesus is most definitely not.

Meanwhile, Mariel happens to be a fan of Toti’s music, so she acts very star-struck with him. He’s very flattered and he expresses an attraction to her too, but he’s not sure what Mariel’s story is (she’s not wearing a wedding ring), and he isn’t sure how far to go with their flirtation. Toti is still famous enough that people who know who he is would know that he’s an available bachelor. Mariel’s relationship status is eventually revealed in the movie.

Mariel and Toti’s would-be romance is actually quite boring and more than a little corny, since Mariel acts like a gushing teenage girl around Toti. For example, Mariel sings lines from Toti’s hit songs to him while they’re locked up together. And at one point, he sings to her too. Try not to retch.

Santos isn’t brought into the detainee room until the movie is already half over. He’s predictably over-the-top with his preaching. He’s also very good at figuring out personal information about his fellow detainees, based on how they look and the way that they act. Santos and Lina are both very status-conscious, which somewhat explains a subplot that happens between them toward the end of the movie. But this subplot is rushed into the film, and seems to come out of nowhere.

During all the arguing, fretting and ego posturing in this room, there’s some potential drama waiting for these detainees outside the airport. When they arrived at the airport, it was all over the news that a hurricane was probably headed toward Puerto Rico. This potential disaster is also handled in a disappointing way in the movie.

“El Cuartito” has moments that can bring chuckles, so it succeeds in minor ways as a comedy. However, the movie fails to consistently bring genuinely clever, laugh-out-loud scenes because the jokes often fall flat. If you’re doing a movie where most of it is about people who are stuck in a room, then the characters need to seem real, relatable and developed. Unfortunately, the main characters in “El Cuartito” are nothing but stereotypes acting in predictable ways. And the secrets that are revealed about their personal lives are not surprising at all. The actors don’t add any depth to these clichés.

The last third of the movie really goes off of the rails with a dumb escape plan where these detainees don’t think that they’ll just make more trouble for themselves if they escape. “El Cuartito” has some slapstick moments that look like something out of a bad telenovela. There’s some mocking of Trump (including a scene where his framed portrait falls off of the wall and the glass cracks), but the anti-Trump jokes look dated, considering he’s no longer president of the United States.

And that’s not all that’s outdated about the movie. It’s like “El Cuartito” is trying to be an adult, Puerto Rican version of filmmaker John Hughes’ 1985 comedy “The Breakfast Club,” which was about teenagers stuck in a classroom on a weekend morning because they’re in high school detention. “El Cuartito” copies “The Breakfast Club” formula of each character eventually revealing a personal sob story, so that everyone in the group can feel more empathetic to each other. The big difference is that “The Breakfast Club” is a genuinely funny classic, while “El Cuartito” is a lightweight, clumsily written comedy that most viewers will forget about soon after seeing it.

Wiesner Distribution released “El Cuartito” in select U.S. cinemas on July 16, 2021. The movie was released in Puerto Rico on March 25, 2021.

Review: ‘Sweet Thing’ (2021), starring Lana Rockwell, Nico Rockwell, Jabari Watkins, Karyn Parsons, ML Josepher and Will Patton

July 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nico Rockwell, Lana Rockwell and Jabari Watkins in “Sweet Thing” (Photo by Lasse Tolboll/Film Movement)

“Sweet Thing” (2021)

Directed by Alexandre Rockwell

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the dramatic film “Sweet Thing” features a cast of white, African American and biracial people representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 15-year-old aspiring singer and her 11-year-old brother run away from home after a violent incident involving the boyfriend of their divorced mother. 

Culture Audience: “Sweet Thing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in realistic dramas about adolescent angst and dysfunctional families.

ML Josepher and Nico Rockwell in “Sweet Thing” (Photo by Lasse Tolboll/Film Movement)

The dramatic film “Sweet Thing” is in black and white, but the movie aptly shows how problems of abuse, parental neglect and family dysfunction are experienced in life’s shades of gray. It’s a movie where kids grow up too fast and learn very early about harsh realities, but they try to find some kind of normalcy by fleeing into a fantasy world where they think they have total control. “Sweet Thing” takes place over less than nine months, but viewers will be left wondering how the fateful summer that’s presented in this movie will have long-term effects on these troubled kids in the future.

Written and directed by Alexandre Rockwell, the siblings at the center of “Sweet Thing” are 15-year-old Billie (played by Lana Rockwell) and 11-year-old Nico (played by Nico Rockwell), who are very close and protective of each other in their messed-up family life in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Lana and Nico Rockwell are director Alexandre Rockwell’s real-life children. Lana and Nico also starred as different characters in their father’s 2013 movie “Little Feet.” In interviews, Alexandre Rockwell has said that “Sweet Thing” is not biographical, but some elements of the movie are what he experienced in his own childhood.

Billie and Nico both have rebellious sides (they play pranks, such as putting nails in the tires of strangers’ cars), but Billie is the more responsibly minded sibling. She’s sensitive, strong-willed and intelligent. Nico has a more extroverted and talkative personality than Billie. But on the flip side, Nico is more likely than Billie to make rude comments to his peers and authority figures. Billie and Nico have an unstable home life, but their loyalty to each other is unwavering.

Billie is a poetry-loving singer and guitar player who dreams of becoming a professional music artist. When she’s having a bad day, Billie retreats into a fantasy world where her namesake Billie Holiday (played by Kelly Charpent) is taking care of her and is like a fairy godmother to her. In one of these fantasy visions (which is one of the movie’s rare scenes that’s in color), Billie Holiday comforts Billie by combing Billie’s hair.

It’s easy to see why Billie would want to escape into these fantasies, because life isn’t going so well for Billie and Nico. Their bickering parents are divorced. Billie and Nico’s father Adam (played by Will Patton), who has custody of the kids, is an alcoholic who gets cranky and impatient when he’s drunk, which seems to be every day. Billie is really the mature “parent” in the household, because she often has to help Adam to his bed when he’s drunk and it’s time for him to go to sleep.

In the beginning of the movie, it’s around the Christmas holiday season. Adam is dressed as Santa Claus. And he’s drunk, as usual. And you know what that means: He’s probably going to ruin his children’s Christmas with his alcoholic ways.

Meanwhile, a teen named Darla (played by Naejaliesh Pierre) has a crush on Nico. Billie likes to tease Nico about it. When Darla shows up at the family home to look for Nico so that she can give him a Christmas present, Nico pretends that he isn’t home, much to Billie’s amusement.

Billie has gotten a Christmas gift that she absolutely loves: an acoustic guitar. But when an angry alcoholic is in the household, it’s only a matter of time before something bad will happen to that guitar. Nico and Billie’s Christmas is about to go downhill for another reason: They’re going to see their mother Eve (played by Karyn Parsons), who’s in and out of the children’s lives and doesn’t seem to want custody of them. (In real life, Parsons is married to director Alexandre Rockwell and is the mother of Lana and Nico Rockwell.)

Adam brings Billie and Nico to a parking lot so that the kids can meet up with Eve. She introduces them to her new live-in boyfriend Beaux (played by ML Josepher), who seems to be a shady “ne’er do well” type. Eve isn’t much better, since viewers will see that she’s very flaky, although she does make a few attempts to be a good mother. While Billie and Nico are waiting in the car, Adam gets into a physical tussle with Beaux. Needless to say, the rest of the short time that the kids have with Eve that day is filled with tension.

When Adam takes the kids home, he’s in a very foul mood. Adam suddenly decides that he wants to give Billie a haircut, but Billie doesn’t want him to do it. Billie and Adam start arguing, Adam flies into a rage, and he locks Billie and Nico in the bathroom and accidentally breaks Billie’s new guitar.

Adam forces Billie to get a haircut from him, as he says sternly, “Think of it as a Christmas trim.” After this ordeal is over, Billie sees that Nico has cut his own hair, as a way to show solidarity to his sister. Nico says to Billie, “I did it for you. I didn’t want you to be alone. Daddy didn’t mean it. He’s just sad. I promise.”

Adam will have even more reason to be “sad,” because he’s arrested for a crime he committed outside the home, and he’s sent to court-ordered rehab. And so, Nico and Billie reluctantly have to live with Eve and Beaux at Eve’s summer house by the beach. It’s never really made clear what Eve and Beaux do for a living, but they spend their days drinking heavily. Eve and Beaux also like to sun themselves on the beach a lot.

For the most part, Eve and Beaux let Nico and Billie spend a lot of unsupervised time together. Beaux even takes some time alone with Nico to teach him how to fish. However, Beaux soon shows that he’s a very nasty person.

Beaux becomes abusive to Eve, Nico and Billie. He’s the type of mean drunk who yells and gets physically aggressive. For example, Beaux orders Nico to get him a beer, and slaps Nico when Nico replies, “Get it yourself.” Beaux then flings whipped cream on Eve, Billie and Nico. Eve doesn’t do anything to defend herself and her children. In fact, she blames the kids when Beaux takes out his anger on them.

Things get even more disturbing when one day, Nico tells Billie that Beaux sexually molested him. A horrified Billie tells Eve, who doesn’t believe her and ends up slapping Billie. The tension in the household escalates into a violent incident that won’t be described here, but it’s enough to say that it causes Nico and Billie to run away.

Most of “Sweet Thing” shows what happens during Billie and Nico’s experiences as runaways. On the beach, they meet a skateboarding, runaway teen named Malik (played by Jabari Watkins), who’s about the same age as Billie. Malik, who also comes from a troubled family, becomes fast friends with Billie and Nico. In many ways, Malik is even more rebellious than Billie and Nico, and he’s usually the one who comes up with the ideas for any mischief making.

“Sweet Thing” is a minimalistic independent drama that shows the ripple effects of growing up in a very damaged family. Viewers will only see less than a year in the lives of Nico and Billie, but it’s a snapshot of how a traumatic cycle of abuse can be passed down to a family’s next generation. Questions that will be raised that the movie can’t answer are: “How it will all affect Nico and Billie as adults? Will they be able to stop the cycle of abuse when they’re old enough to not be under parental supervision?”

And although it would be easy to say that Nico and Billie’s parents should lose custody, and the kids should be put in foster care, the harrowing reality is that many kids (but not all) in foster care experience even more abuse. There’s some melodrama toward the end of the film, but it doesn’t come across as overly contrived. (Van Morrison’s song “Sweet Thing” is used in the movie in an effective way.)

“Sweet Thing” doesn’t glorify or glamorize the experience of being a runaway, because Nico, Billie and Malik are still “trapped” by fear and paranoia of getting caught. Their “freedom” is just an illusion and comes at a heavy price. Alexandre Rockwell’s unpretentious direction of “Sweet Thing” is very much like what you would expect of a low-budget drama where the acting is naturalistic and doesn’t look over-rehearsed. And although the adult actors have their compelling moments, the children are really the heart and soul of the movie.

Film Movement released “Sweet Thing” in New York City and in U.S. virtual cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘The God Committee,’ starring Kelsey Grammer, Julia Stiles, Janeane Garofalo, Dan Hedaya and Colman Domingo

July 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kelsey Grammer and Colman Domingo in “The God Committee” (Photo by Matt Sakatani Roe/Vertical Entertainment)

“The God Committee”

Directed by Austin Stark

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2014 and 2021, mostly in New York City, the dramatic film “The God Committee” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A hospital committee has a limited time to decide which patient will get a life-or-death heart transplant; years later, one of the committee members ends up being involved in a controversial heart transplant experiment. 

Culture Audience: “The God Committee” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in medical dramas about ethical dilemmas and won’t mind too much that there’s a far-fetched sci-fi aspect to the film.

Julia Stiles and Kelsey Grammer in “The God Committee” (Photo by Matt Sakatani Roe/Vertical Entertainment)

The medical drama “The God Committee” has enough gripping suspense that it didn’t need a futuristic subplot about experiments to use pig hearts in heart transplants for humans. Although this type of medical advancement could happen in an unknown future, it’s a part of the movie that’s an unnecessary distraction from the real story: the debates and dealings that go on behind the scenes when medical committees decide which people deserve organ transplants the most.

Austin Stark directed and wrote the screenplay for “The God Committee,” which is based on Mark. St. Germain’s play of the same name. Stark does an admirable job of making this story as cinematic as possible, with numerous realistic set pieces and compelling cinematography by Matt Sakatani Roe. There’s nothing in this movie that looks like a theater stage at all.

“The God Committee,” which is set mostly in New York City, jumps back and forth in time between two years: 2014 and 2021. The movie opens in Buffalo, New York, in 2014, when 18-year-old Eli Gurny (played by Daniel Taveras) is shown being accidentally hit and killed by a car while riding his bicycle on the street. He was a healthy organ donor, and his heart has been made available in November 2014 to an unnamed hospital in New York City.

Dr. Andre Boxer (played by Kelsey Grammer), an influential and arrogant surgeon at the hospital, has been told that one of his patients has priority to get the heart. The patient’s name is Selena Vazquez (played by Patricia Mauceri), a widowed grandmother who desperately needs a heart transplant to stay alive. She’s already been told that she’s getting this new heart, so she’s relieved and elated.

However, Dr. Boxer has other plans for that heart, and he shares this information with his much-younger secret lover, another doctor who works at the same hospital. Her name is Dr. Jordan Taylor (played by Julia Stiles), who hasn’t been working at the hospital for very long. Dr. Taylor and Dr. Boxer, who are both unmarried, have agreed to keep their fling a secret because they don’t want it to taint their professional reputations.

The morning after Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor have spent the night together at his place, Dr. Boxer tells her that he’s not going to let his patient Selena Vazquez have the young, healthy donor heart that she was promised, because Dr. Boxer thinks that Selena is too old to deserve this heart. Dr. Taylor reacts with dismay and disgust, but Dr. Boxer has already made up his mind. It’s the first sign that Dr. Boxer has a “god complex,” where he knows that he has considerable power to make life-or-death decisions.

Dr. Taylor isn’t just disappointed with Dr. Boxer for this decision. She also seems to want more from the relationship than he’s willing to give her: possibly some real love or at least enough respect to act like he’s not embarrassed to be seen with her in public. When Dr. Boxer drives himself and Dr. Taylor to the hospital, he makes sure to drop off Dr. Taylor far enough away from the hospital entrance, to minimize the chance that any co-workers will see that Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor took the same car to work. She reacts by saying in an exasperated tone about their secret relationship: “Boxer, the only person I’m silently judging on in this—whatever this is—is myself.”

Now that Dr. Boxer has made up his mind that his patient Selena Vazquez won’t get the heart, who will get this organ transplant? Most of the movie is a riveting debate among the five people on the hospital’s organ transplant committee who will vote to make the decision. Dr. Taylor is the committtee’s newest member, who will be replacing Dr. Boxer on the committee, much to Dr. Boxer’s annoyance. He’s being replaced because he had already announced his resignation from the hospital to join the private sector.

Dr. Boxer had no say in who would replace him on the hospital’s organ transplant committee. He doesn’t hesitate to let Dr. Taylor and other colleagues know that he doesn’t think Dr. Taylor is a good choice to replace him on the committee because he doesn’t think she has enough experience as a doctor to make organ transplant decisions. Needless to say, it’s very easy to see that the fling between Dr. Taylor and Dr. Boxer isn’t going to last much longer.

Dr. Boxer won’t have long to complain about Dr. Taylor replacing him on the committee, because he will be leaving the hospital in December 2014, just one month after the committee makes the decision about who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. In the movie’s scenes that take place in 2021, viewers see what Dr. Boxer was doing for work after leaving the employment of the hospital: He became the lead scientist for an experiment called X-Origins, which would allow organs from different species to be transplanted into each other.

Back in November 2014, the issue of who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart will be decided in a matter of a few hours. The five people on the organ transplant committee are:

  • Dr. Boxer, who is stubborn and the most hardline about making decisions based on science, statistics and logic, not sentiment or emotions.
  • Dr. Taylor, who is compassionate and open to take other factors into consideration besides science, statistics and logic. She also thinks ethics are essential in making her decision.
  • Dr. Valerie Gilroy (played by Janeane Garofalo), a tough-talking bureaucrat, who is well-aware of the financial problems that the hospital is facing. She’s also feeling pressure because a national medical publication recently downgraded the hospital’s rating, and she wants to bring the rating back up.
  • Nurse Wilkes (played by Patricia R. Floyd), a somewhat gossipy and very outspoken person, who is most likely to know a patient’s day-to-day actions in the hospital and the most likely to let a patient’s personality be a factor in her decision.
  • Dr. Lau (played by Peter Kim), a psychiatrist who is very analytical and is the least-talkative committee member.

A sixth member is normally part of the committee, but that person is unvailable. However, a sixth person will be sitting in, but not voting, on this committee’s deliberation over who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. This sixth person is Father Charlie Dunbar (played by Colman Domingo), who has been a priest for only three years. Before becoming a priest, Father Dunbar was a defense attorney for 15 years, and he was married.

Father Dunbar’s purpose for sitting in on this meeting is to provide any advice or opinions if anyone on the committee is struggling with moral or ethical issues in making their decision. He’s there because the hospital’s board of directors felt it was necessary that morality and ethics should not be overlooked when making these life-or-death decisions, in case any outside people question the committee’s decisions. Father Dunbar is available to counsel the committee members as a group and on an individual basis.

Dr. Boxer strongly believes that religion or spirituality should play no role in the committee’s medical decisions, so he thinks that Father Dunbar has no business sitting in on any of the committee’s meetings. There’s nothing Dr. Boxer can do about it though except try to ignore what Father Dunbar has to say. Dr. Boxer and Father Dunbar predictably clash during this committee deliberation.

Later, it’s revealed that Father Dunbar left the legal profession under a cloud of suspicion and scandal before he became a priest: He was disbarred in 2006 for doing something illegal that isn’t fully explained in the movie. And he avoided prison by “finding God” and cutting a deal with the district attorney. You can bet that this scandal will be brought up when the inevitable arguments happen during these committee meetings.

There are three patients at the hospital who’ve been moved to the top priority list to get the next available heart transplant. The problem is that due to a shortage of available hearts, only one can get an immediate transplant, and that person will get Eli Gurny’s heart. The other two patients will have to wait for a heart transplant for an undetermined period of time.

The three patients whose future health will be decided by this committee are:

  • Trip Granger (played by Maurizio Di Meo), a 30-year-old scion who hasn’t done much with his life but party a lot and live off of his rich father’s money. Trip is a recovering drug addict who has recently been admitted to the hospital after having a heart attack. If the toxicology reports find that his heart attack was drug-related, he will be ineligible for the heart transplant, because he’s been hospitalized before for overdosing on cocaine.
  • Walter Curtis (played by Kyle Moore), a 48-year-old married father who has a steady job, which he needs to help support his family. Those factors are to his advantage in getting the committee members to vote for him. However, what works against Walter is that he’s overweight and bipolar, which are two factors that make some of the committee members think he won’t be a good risk for the heart transplant.
  • Janet Pike (played by Georgia Buchanan), a 59-year-old wealthy widow with no children and no living relatives. To her advantage, she doesn’t have any problems with her weight or mental health. But to her disadvantage, she doesn’t have a support system of family members; a younger candidate could be considered a better option; and she has expressed resistance/hesitation in the past about getting an organ transplant.

There are more than just statistics that factor into the decision making, so there are plenty of arguments and debates on the committee. Trip’s wealthy mogul father Emmett Granger (played by Dan Hedaya), who accompanied Trip when Trip was taken to the hospital’s emergency room, has met with Dr. Gilroy privately and made a very tempting offer: He’s told her that his non-profit Granger Foundation is willing to donate $25 million to the hospital if Trip gets the heart transplant.

It’s money that the hospital desperately needs for important equipment upgrades and other improvements. Dr. Gilroy is also eager to do anything she can to boost the hospital’s industry rating, which directly impacts her career at the hospital. But what Emmett is offering is essentially a bribe. And would Trip deserve to get the heart transplant, even if no money was being offered?

Certain members of the committee are leaning toward Walter getting the transplant because he has a family to support and he seems to be the most willing to get the transplant. However, other committee members express doubts about Walter because it’s revealed that Walter attempted suicide, before he was diagnosed with being bipolar. He has responded well to his bipolar medication since then, which some people on the committee think is encouraging, while others think Walter’s past suicide attempt should disqualify him, no matter what.

The main issues that certain people on the committee have with Janet are that she’s the oldest candidate, she has no family members, she’s ambivalent about getting an organ transplant, and one of the people on the committee describes Janet as a “bitch.” This derogatory name calling gets Dr. Boxer very irritated because he thinks that the committee’s decision should not be based on which patient has the nicest personality. Although she is wealthy, Janet has not hinted that she’s willing to bribe the hospital so that she can get the transplant, and it’s unlikely that she would ever make that unethical offer.

Trip has been unconscious since he was brought to the hospital, so no one in the hospital really knows what he has to say for himself about getting a heart transplant. But someone who knows Trip very well was hospitalized at the same time as Trip was: his girlfriend Holly Matson (played by Elizabeth Masucci), who has mysterious lacerations and bruises on her body. Because Holly is awake and able to talk, Dr. Taylor has an empathetic conversation with Holly to find out if Trip was using drugs before having his heart attack and to find out why Holly is physically injured. Holly seems terrified to say how she got her injuries, but she tells Dr. Taylor some important information that could affect how the committee members will vote.

The committee’s debate over who should get the heart transplant comes with some intriguing twists and turns. Many details, including Trip’s toxicology test results, are revealed that can sway people’s decisions. And each person on the committee brings personal agendas and biases. However, not much backstory is given on these characters because the movie’s main focus is on what these characters do in 2014 and 2021.

There’s an early scene in 2014, when Dr. Taylor is talking to a hospital colleague, who knows that Dr. Taylor’s mother is a well-known plastic surgeon. When the colleague asks Dr. Taylor why she didn’t become a plastic surgeon too, Dr. Taylor says she wanted to become an organ transplant surgeon because “I watched a friend from college die, waiting for a heart [transplant].” It’s implied that this tragic personal experience influences how Dr. Taylor thinks and acts on the committee.

What’s less interesting about “The God Committee” is the time spent in the 2021 scenes on Dr. Boxer’s lab experiments for X-Origins. It’s not spoiler information to say that one of the results of these experiments is that he discovers that a pig’s heart can be successfully transplanted into a human. Considering that this type of transplant is not medically possible in 2021, it gives “The God Committee” a science fiction tone that the movie doesn’t need.

There’s a lot more that’s revealed in the 2021 scenes about what happened to Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor since they stopped working together at the hospital. They are both still living in New York City in 2021, so there are scenes where they cross paths again. The decision that the committee made about which patient got Eli Gurny’s donated heart has ripple effects that have continued into 2021 and beyond. There’s a plot development in the 2021 part of the movie that’s a little bit like a soap opera, but it would be entirely plausible in real life.

If the “God Committee” had left out all the sci-fi medical experiments, it would have been a much better movie. It could easily stand on its own as an engaging medical drama, solely based on the dilemmas faced by the committee in deciding which patient should get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. Since it’s the main plot of the film and because all the principal cast members give very good performances, any other flaws of the movie are overshadowed by these assets.

No matter what scientific and technological advances there will be health care, “The God Committee” takes a fascinating and sometime disturbing look at the human foibles that are inevitable when human beings make medical decisions. Needless to say, socioeconomic factors are also directly related to what type of health care an individual receives. But the movie’s intention is to make people think more about which medical professionals get to make life-or-death decisions for organ transplants and how much power these people should really have.

Vertical Entertainment released “The God Committee” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘A Perfect Enemy,’ starring Tomasz Kot, Marta Nieto and Athena Strates

July 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tomasz Kot and Athena Strates in “A Perfect Enemy” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“A Perfect Enemy”

Directed by Kike Maíllo

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Paris, the dramatic film “A Perfect Enemy” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: While on a business trip in Paris, a famous Polish architect becomes acquainted with a mysterious young woman, who ends up stalking him and telling him disturbing things while they’re waiting for a plane flight at an airport.

Culture Audience: “A Perfect Enemy” will appeal primarily to people who like psychological thrillers and are willing to overlook some bad acting and overly talkative screenplays with a lot of scenes that don’t really go anywhere.

Marta Nieto in “A Perfect Enemy” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“A Perfect Enemy” keeps a certain level of suspense, but too much of this psychological thriller is undone by subpar acting, dialogue that rambles and a sluggish pace during the middle of the movie. The movie’s ending is a big disappointment. Viewers will be kept guessing over the real identity of a young female provocateur who latches on to a famous male architect, who’s more than twice her age, and she refuses to leave him alone. The two of them spend most of the movie waiting for a flight at an airport. Yawn.

In other words, don’t expect there to be a lot of action in this movie, since much of the film consists of conversations in the airport. Any expectations of “A Perfect Enemy” being a heart-pounding, mind-bending “cat and mouse” chase will come to a screeching halt when viewers have to sit through numerous scenes of the young stalker telling her prey some disturbing but mostly boring flashback stories.

Directed by Kike Maíllo, “A Perfect Enemy” might turn off some viewers from the beginning, because of the movie’s opening scene, which has some very wooden acting from Tomasz Kot. He portrays “A Perfect Enemy” protagonist Jeremiasz Angust, a famous architect in his 40s, who’s originally from Warsaw, Poland. In this scene, Jeremiasz is doing a speaking appearance at an unnamed conference in Paris. Watching this scene is almost painful, because Kot’s speech patterns are so stilted and awkward.

In the speech, Jeremiasz says that early on his career, he was obsessed with designing beautiful buildings. But about 20 years ago, Jeremiasz says that he went through a “crisis” that made him re-think the meaning of his work. “The uncomfortable truth is,” Jeremiasz adds, “what we call architecture, it’s really the business of designing for the wealthiest 1% of the population. It’s not only wrong, in terms of social justice, it’s also a clumsy business strategy.”

Jeremiasz continues by saying that when he had this socially conscious epiphany, he changed his priorities in architecture. Instead of serving the wealthiest “one percenters,” he decided to serve the underprivileged. For example, he traveled to Rwanda to build hospitals. Jeremiasz comments, “I truly believe that great architecture can heal, as long as it’s focused on what’s truly essential and forgets everything else.”

Jeremiasz’s speech is well-received; he gets enthusiastic applause from the audience. Outside in the lobby area, as he’s about to leave, he has fans waiting for him, and they ask for his autograph and request photos with him. He willingly obliges and seems to appreciate the admiration. But Jeremiasz can’t stay and mingle with his fans for long because he’s got a plane to catch out of Paris, and his service car with a driver is waiting for him.

On the way to the airport, it’s pouring rain and there’s a traffic jam. While stuck in traffic, a woman in her early 20s who’s on a nearby sidewalk gets Jeremiasz’s attention and asks him if he’s going to the airport because she’d like to share his ride. She explains that she’s very close to missing her plane flight. She desperately needs a ride because she’s been trying in vain for several minutes to find an available taxi.

Jeremiasz says he’s going to the airport too, but he hesitates to let this stranger in the car. When she turns away in a defeated manner and says, “Forget it,” Jeremiasz feels sorry for her and tells her that she can share the ride with him to the airport. Her demeanor changes from dejected to grateful, and she thanks him profusely.

Who is this woman? She has an unusual name: Texel Textor (played by Athena Strates), and she says she’s Dutch. In fact, every time she talks to someone new, she introduces herself using the exact same words and always mentions that she’s Dutch. It’s almost like she’s programmed to introduce herself in this way, but (this isn’t spoiler information) Texel is not a robot.

Texel and Jeremiasz make small talk in the back of the car. She’s very chatty, and she seems to be an upbeat free spirit. Texel is also very observant, because she immediately notices Jeremiasz’s name and address on his luggage. He tells her that he’s an architect and that he’s in Paris on business. Texel shows the first sign that she’s going to ruin Jeremiasz’s trip when, a few minutes after getting into the car, she says that she left a piece of her luggage out on the sidewalk where she had been trying to hail a taxi.

Going back to retrieve the luggage, especially in this traffic jam, means that Jeremiasz will definitely miss his flight. Jeremiasz asks her if she can find another ride to go back for her luggage. Texel gets a little snippy by saying that she already spent too much time trying to hail a taxi before, and she doesn’t think the lack of available taxis will change now. And so, Jeremiasz tells his driver to turn around so Texel can get her luggage. Luckily, the luggage is still right where she left it.

By the time they get to the airport, Jeremiasz is slightly irritated that he missed his flight, but he seems to be relieved to not have to see Texel again, as they say goodbye and go their separate ways. After he rebooks to be on the next available flight, which will take off in about two hours, Jeremiasz settles into the VIP lounge to relax and listen to whatever he’s listening to on his headphones.

It should come as no surprise that Texel shows up in the lounge and makes her way to Jeremiasz, who is surprised to see her there. And what do you know, she’s waiting for the exact same flight. Is this a weird coincidence or something else? There would be no “A Perfect Enemy” if it were just a weird coincidence.

Texel strikes up another conversation with Jeremiasz, but she can’t take the hint that he doesn’t want her to bother him. When he tells her that he just wants to spend some time by himself, she acts insulted. Texel won’t go away, and her attitude changes from friendly to bizarre and menacing.

For example, at one point, Texel says to Jeremiasz, “Have you ever killed anyone? I killed someone when I was little.” And in another part of the conversation, she says she knows about an “inner enemy” who’s “a thousand times more powerful than a wimp like God.” Jeremiasz tells her that he’s an atheist.

In case it isn’t clear by now, Texel’s “damsel in distress” persona was all an act. And, for a reason that’s revealed in the last third of the movie, she wants to have Jeremiasz’s full attention. And so, for the majority of the movie, it’s about Texel saying things that will annoy or shock Jeremiasz. But they’re sitting in an airport lounge while she does much of the talking, so there’s very little “terror” that can happen in this setting.

Jeremiasz is growing increasingly uncomfortable being in the presence of Texel. But she says something that intrigues him and makes him curious enough to continue listening to her unhinged ramblings. Texel says she’s going to tell Jeremiasz a three-part story. According to Texel’s description of the story, the first part is “disgusting,” the second part is “scary,” and the third part is “filled with love.” The storytelling is told in flashbacks.

In the first part of the story, Texel talks about her childhood and growing up in a household with an abusive stepfather (played by Götz Vogel von Vogelstein) and an uncaring mother. Texel goes into detail about the nauseating food slop that her mother and stepfather made her prepare for the animals on their farm. And you know what that means: There’s going to be a scene of Texel eating that slop too.

The airport where Jeremiasz and Texel are just happens to be an airport that Jeremiasz co-designed in 2002 with two other architects. There are model replicas of the airport in the airport’s main entrance and in the VIP lounge. When Jeremiasz tells Texel that he co-designed this airport, she seems impressed, but she’s much more impressed with what she has to tell Jeremiasz.

There are clues that something is very wrong in this airport, because every time Jeremiasz looks at this model replica, he sees red stains that look like blood on the outside entrance of the model replica. The stains grow larger as the movie continues. One of the more effectively eerie aspects of “A Perfect Enemy” is how this model replica has miniature human figurines that look like Jeremiasz and Texel and posed to re-enact a scene that was just shown in the movie. The mini-figurines are also dressed exactly like how Jeremiasz and Texel are dressed.

“A Perfect Enemy” wants to keep viewers wondering what Texel really wants from Jeremiasz and if her stories are really true. However, by making Texel and Jeremiasz “stuck” together in the same limited space in an airport for most of the movie, it actually makes “A Perfect Enemy” duller than it should be. The movie’s screenplay, which is based on Amélie Nothomb’s 2001 novel of the same name, was adapted by “A Perfect Enemy” director Maíllo, Cristina Clemente and Fernando Navarrro. Judging by the way this movie’s mystery was mishandled in the screenplay, viewers can see too early that something is “off-kilter” when an architect who designed the airport doesn’t go somewhere in the airport to hide from this stalker, who seems to have come out of nowhere.

Strates sometimes goes too over-the-top and too campy in playing this obviously demented person. It makes for an awkward match with Kot’s almost-robotic acting style. In other words, better actors would have made this movie more enjoyable. One cast member whose acting isn’t a detriment to the movie is Marta Nieto, who convincingly portrays a troubled woman named Isabelle, who has at least one big secret. Isabelle’s story is a major plot development that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s eventually revealed in the movie. Unfortunately, Nieto doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as Kot and Strates, who both drag the movie down with their sometimes amateurish acting.

Strates demonstrates better acting skills than Kot does. He doesn’t have the actor charisma that’s necessary for viewers to emotionally connect with this film’s main character, in order for the ending to have more of an impact than it does. In the last 15 minutes of the film, Jeremiasz has some big, dramatic moments. But by then, viewers won’t care about Jeremiasz because he didn’t show much personality for most of the movie. And that’s ultimately a flaw that’s too big for “A Perfect Enemy” to overcome. A movie’s protagonist should keep viewers interested, not be so dull that viewers will want to stop watching the movie before it’s over.

Brainstorm Media released “A Perfect Enemy” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 11, 2021.

Review: ‘All the Bright Places,’ starring Elle Fanning and Justice Smith

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Elle Fanning and Justice Smith in “All the Bright Places” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Netflix)

“All the Bright Places”

Directed by Brett Haley

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Indiana city, the dramatic film “All the Bright Places” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two troubled teenagers—one who’s grieving over the accidental death of her older sister, and the other who’s dealing with mental health issues—try to avoid their emotional problems by finding comfort with each other. 

Culture Audience: “All the Bright Places” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching teen dramas that tackle heavy issues.

Elle Fanning and Justice Smith in “All the Bright Places” (Photo by Walter Thomson/Netflix)

If you’re not in the mood to watch a movie about people suffering from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, then you might want to skip “All the Bright Places.” The movie might seem like it’s about a cutesy teen romance, but it’s not. It’s about very real and very dark issues of mental health and coping with grief. There are moments of levity, but the film’s main characters always have an underlying internal threat to being truly happy.

Directed by Brett Haley, “All the Bright Places” is based on Jennifer Niven’s 2015 “All the Bright Places” novel, which was inspired by real events that she experienced as a teenager. Niven and Liz Hannah co-wrote the “All the Bright Places” screenplay, which makes some changes from the novel but is compassionately enlivened by memorable performances by Elle Fanning and Justice Smith. Although “All the Bright Places” won’t be an easy film to watch for people who are triggered by the same issues that the movie’s teen characters are coping with, the movie’s intention is to help bring awareness to these issues so that people can get and give help in real life.

One of the biggest changes from the book is the movie’s opening scene. In the book, teenagers Violet Markey and Theodore Finch meet when they both end up on the ledge of their high school’s bell tower, as they both contemplate suicide. In the movie, Violet (played by Fanning) and Theodore (played Smith), who prefers to be called Finch, meet when Finch sees Violet standing on the wall of a bridge, as if she’s thinking about jumping at any moment.

Violet and Finch are both in their last year of the same high school in an unnamed city in Indiana. They know about each other, since they’re in the same graduating class and have classes together, but this is the first time they’ve actually met. Finch jumps on the bridge wall to join Violet and reaches out his hand to help bring her off of the wall. Violet seems a little embarrassed and downplays her apparent contemplation of suicide. Finch seems to understand, and they make some small talk before going their separate ways.

On the surface, Violet and Finch couldn’t be more different. Violet is a classic “good girl” who does well in school, is obedient and well-liked by her peers. Finch is a classic “bad boy” who’s disruptive at school, is rebellious and a social outcast. Slowly but surely, it’s revealed how Violet and Finch have more in common that it first appears. It’s why they eventually become close and fall in love.

Violet is overwhelmed with grief over the death of her beloved older sister Eleanor, who was killed in a car accident where Eleanor was hit by a drunk driver. Violet was in the car with Eleanor and feels survivor’s guilt. And the reason why Violet was thinking about jumping off of the bridge that day was because that day would have been Eleanor’s 19th birthday, and that bridge was the site of the car accident.

Violet’s depression has caused her to become withdrawn to the point where she’s lost interest in a lot of social activities that she used to do, and she spends most of her free time by herself. Violet’s parents Sheryl (played by Kelli O’Hara) and James (played by Luke Wilson) gently suggest to Violet that she get back into more social activities, but she ignores their suggestions. Her parents are going through their own grieving process, so they don’t pressue Violet into doing anything that she doesn’t want to do.

In an early scene in the movie, Violet’s close friend Amanda (played by Virginia Gardner) asks Violet if she wants to hang out with her, but Violet says no. There’s an arrogant pretty boy at school named Roamer (played by Felix Mallard), who has a romantic interest in Violet, but she brushes off his attempts to impress her. When she finally decides to go to a party, she mopes and feels very insulted when Roamer tries to tell her, without saying the words, that she needs to get over Eleanor’s death and go back to the way she used to be.

There are hints that because Violet isn’t as sociable as she used to be, her popularity in school has declined. For example, she eats lunch in the school cafeteria by herself. When she walks into a classroom and accidentally drops her books, most of the other students laugh. Violet’s body language and facial expression show that she feels humilated and doesn’t want to call attention to herself. As a show of solidarity, Finch overturns his desk as a distraction so that people can laugh at him. It’s later revealed in the movie that many of the school’s students call Finch a “freak” behind his back.

Why does he have this reputation? It’s because in the previous year, Finch had a violent outburst where he physically attacked a teacher. Due to this incident and a few other unnamed disruptions that Finch has caused, Finch is now on probation and is in danger of not graduating. When he meets with a concerned teacher named Embry (played by Keegan-Michael Key), Finch is sarcastic and dismissive when Embry tries to talk to Finch about Finch’s problems.

Although Finch is treated like a pariah by most of the school’s students, two fellow students are his close friends and have stuck by him through good times and bad times. Charlie (played by Lamar Johnson) has been Finch’s friend longer than anyone else. Charlie, who is easygoing and very loyal, knows that Finch can be unpredictable and can have extreme mood swings. Finch’s other close friend at school is Brenda (played by Sofia Hasmik), who’s smart with an acerbic wit. Finch, Charlie and Brenda have lunch together at school and spend some time together outside of school.

Finch’s home life is very fractured. His backstory is revealed in bits and pieces. Finch’s father, who left the family when Finch was very young, was mentally and physically abusive. Finch’s mother, who isn’t seen in the movie until toward the end, has a job that requires her to travel a lot. Finch is essentially being raised by his understanding older sister Kate (played by Alexandra Shipp), who works as a bartender.

Based on conversations that Finch has with people, he has an undiagnosed mental illness that sounds like bipolar disorder. It’s hinted that Finch’s father, who’s never seen in the movie, might have had the same mental illness, because Finch expresses a fear that he will turn out like his father. Finch’s teacher Embry encourages Finch to join a support group for people coping with various mental and emotional issues. The movie shows if Finch ends up taking this advice.

The walls and ceiling of Finch’s bedroom are covered with color-coordinated Post-It notes of random sayings and thoughts that he writes to himself. Some of the words on the Post-It notes are “Breathe Deeply” and “Because She Smiled at Me.” During the course of the movie, Finch mentions that he often has trouble keeping up with his racing thoughts. He also has a habit of randomly cutting off contact from people and sometimes disappearing for unpredictable periods of time.

Meanwhile, Finch seems infatuated with Violet, ever since their first conversation. He tries to talk to her at school, but she’s withdrawn and aloof, as she has been with almost everyone around her. On social media, he tags her with a video of himself playing acoustic guitar and singing a song that he wrote about her. She’s creeped out and asks him to remove the video immediately, and he grants her request.

But one day, Violet and Finch’s sociology teacher Hudson (played by Chris Grace) gives the class an assignment called the Wandering Project. The assignment, which must be done in duos, requires the students to write about two or more wonders in Indiana that they have seen in person while traveling. Finch immediately knows that he wants Violet to be his partner, but she declines his request because she doesn’t feel ready to do this type of social assignment.

Violet’s mother doesn’t think it’s a good idea to back out of the assignment, but she’s willing to write a note so that Violet can avoid doing the Wandering Project. However, Hudson the teacher won’t allow Violet to back out. And so, Violet reluctantly agrees to be Finch’s partner on the assignment. She has one major condition if they travel together: “No cars. I’m not getting into a car.” (She’ll eventually change her mind about that too.)

There’s many scenes in All the Bright Places” that have all the characteristics of a sappy teen romance. Violet and Finch read Virginia Woolf quotes and other literary quotes to each other over the phone. Finch gives Violet a quote from “The Waves” that reads, “I feel a thousand capacities in you, even if you don’t think so.” Finch adds, “You’ve got at least a thousand capacities in you, even if you don’t think so.”

Violet and Finch see an outdoor art wall with chalk writings that say “Before I Die, I Want to….” and people can fill in the blanks. Finch completes the sentence by writing, “Stay Awake,” Violet answers, “Be Brave.” As they get closer, they eventually open up to each other about their hopes, fears and traumas that haunt them. They find a secluded wooded area near a lake that becomes a special place for them.

“All the Bright Places” sows the tender blossoming of Violet and Finch’s romance. However, there are parts of the movie that might irritate some people who will think that Finch is yet another “angry young black man” stereotype that’s seen in many other movies about troubled young people. Finch could have been played by an actor of any race. This movie obviously wants to be “color blind.”

However, it’s an artistic choice that brings some flaws when race is never even mentioned at all in the movie. And that’s very unrealistic for interracial couples, especially a couple still in high school and not old enough to have their own homes. Amanda warns Violet to stay away from Finch because he has a reputation for being “dangerous.” But Violet ignores this warning

Violet’s protective and loving parents seem very unaware of Finch’s troubled past. The parents’ ignorance or unwillingness to find out more about the teenage guy who’s been spending time with their daughter could be explained by speculating that Sheryl and James are so relieved tha Violet has found a new friend who’s bringing Violet out of her grief-stricken shell, they don’t want to find out anything bad about Finch.

And, for a while, things do go well for Violet and Finch, as they become each other’s close confidants. But the cracks in the relationship begin when Finch pulls a disappearing act. Violet is not prepared for dealing with Finch’s unpredictability, and she takes it very personally when he doesn’t respond to her messages for days. Violet has an insightful conversation with Charlie about how Finch has always been this erratic, but somehow Violet thinks that her love and friendship will be strong enough to help Finch improve.

What this movie shows, in very layered ways, is that signs of mental illness can be right in front of a loved one to see, but people often ignore these signs, or they think that with enough love, they can “fix” the person with the mental illness. It’s a common trap for people who end up being co-dependent in unhealthy ways. What Violet doesn’t understand is that she’s also vulnerable and hasn’t healed from her own emotional trauma (her grief has obviously made her depressed), so she’s not fully equipped to deal with Finch’s mental illness. It’s no one’s fault. That’s just the way it is.

Fanning (who is one of the producers of “All the Bright Places”) is extremely talented at conveying emotions that look so authentic that they don’t look like acting. Smith is also convincing in his role, but the movie has a tendency to give more weight to Violet’s perspective than Finch’s perspective. The technical aspects of “All the Bright Places” work best in Rob Givens’ cinematography, which gorgeously captures the landscapes of a Midwestern autumn. (The movie takes place in Indiana but was actually filmed in Ohio.)

But this movie wouldn’t work as well without Fanning’s and Smith’s admirable performances. Is there some typical teen melodrama in the movie? Absolutely. But in other ways, “All the Bright Places” is not a typical teen movie. It will make people feel a range of emotions that might cause discomfort but also a renewed appreciation for the fragility of life.

Netflix premiered “All the Bright Places” on February 28, 2020.

Review: “Endangered Species’ (2021), starring Rebecca Romijn, Philip Winchester and Jerry O’Connell

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Philip Winchester, Michael Johnston, Chris Fisher, Isabel Bassett and Rebecca Romijn in “Endangered Species” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Endangered Species” (2021)

Directed by MJ Bassett

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kenya, the dramatic film “Endangered Species” features a cast of white Americans and black Africans (with a few Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An American family’s safari vacation in Kenya turns into a nightmare when they’re stranded in a deserted area and become the targets of wild animals and other dangers. 

Culture Audience: “Endangered Species” will appeal primarily to people who like watching moronic “family in peril” movies.

Jerry O’Connell (pictured in front) in “Endangered Species” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Endangered Species” is an example of what not do when going on a safari and what not do when making a movie thriller about it. The film’s intended preachy message about poaching is overshadowed by the idiotic story. “Endangered Species” wants to have a social conscience about saving animals’ lives, but it makes the human characters so dimwitted, the humans put their own lives in danger and barely know how to save themselves. The movie makes a genuine effort to be suspenseful, but that effort is wasted on a poorly conceived plot, low-quality visual effects and subpar acting from some of the cast members.

“Endangered Species” was directed by MJ Bassett, who co-wrote the movie with her daughter Isabelle Bassett, a co-star in “Endangered Species.” Isabelle Bassett’s previous acting credits were two other films directed by MJ Bassett: 2009’s “Solomon Kane” and 2020’s “Rogue.” It’s proof that nepotism is alive and well but isn’t always beneficial. Isabelle Bassett’s questionable acting skills in “Endangered Species” (including letting her British accent slip through when she’s supposed to have an American accent) lowers the quality of this already tacky film.

In “Endangered Species,” the Halsey family are Americans who are supposed to be having a fun-filled vacation in Kenya. They’ve arrived just outside of Amboseli National Park to take a safari. The people in the Halsey family tourist group are:

  • Jack Halsey (played by Philip Winchester), an arrogant “control freak” patriarch who always thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. Jack is a high-ranking executive at an unnamed oil company, which has recently put him on an unpaid leave of absence, pending an investigation into a major oil spill on the Dakota pipeline. The oil spill happened under Jack’s supervision.
  • Lauren Halsey (played by Rebecca Romijn), Jack’s wife of 16 years. She’s a diabetic who used to be a medical doctor, but she left her career behind to become a homemaker. She’s a lot more nurturing and more patient than Jack is. Jack and Lauren each has a child from a previous relationship. It’s implied that Jack’s and Lauren’s exes haven’t been involved in raising these children.
  • Zoe Halsey (played by Isabelle Bassett), Lauren’s 18-year-old daughter/Jack’s stepdaughter. Much to Jack’s dismay, Zoe has recently dropped out of MIT and is now working at a vegan coffee shop. Lauren is more understanding about it and thinks Zoe has a right to find her own path in life and make her own decisions.
  • Noah Halsey (played by Michael Johnston), Jack’s son/Lauren’s stepson, who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Noah has recently come out as gay, which is something that Jack has a hard time accepting.
  • Billy Mason (played by Chris Fisher), Zoe’s hippie boyfriend, who’s about 10 years older than Zoe. This age difference bothers Jack, who disapproves of Billy because Jack thinks Billy is a bad influence on Zoe. Jack also didn’t really want Billy on the trip, but Zoe invited Billy without checking with Jack first.

When the Halsey party travels by a small private plane to Kenya, there’s some stereotypical family bickering. Jack would prefer to have a relaxing vacation, while Lauren wants a more activity-oriented trip, She tells Jack their previous vacations where they just sipped drinks by a beach were too boring for her. “We want an adventure,” she reminds Jack. He replies, “I don’t like how this family has become a democracy all of a sudden.” Lauren says, “It was a velvet coup, honey. You never noticed.”

It won’t be long before Lauren will have a real reason to be annoyed with with Jack. After they check into their hotel resort lodging in Kenya, she finds out about Jack being suspended from his job, when he should have told her earlier. Because he currently has no income, an embarrassed Jack tells Lauren that they can’t afford many of the things that he promised that they could do on this trip. He tries to convince her that they don’t need to worry about money, but Lauren doesn’t really believe him.

Meanwhile, Jack is the type of parent who is overly critical of his kids, who can never do enough to please him. Zoe is particularly resentful of Jack, and they clash with each other the most on this trip. Even though Jack has raised Zoe since she was a toddler, she has recently refused to acknowledge that he’s her father. She’s stopped calling him Dad and now calls him Jack. It’s a snub that really bothers Jack.

When the Halsey party members arrive at their lodging, they meet a fellow American who’s hanging out in the lobby area with some locals. The American’s name is Mitch Hanover (played by Jerry O’Connell, Romijn’s real-life husband), who is some type of park ranger. Mitch says that he patrols the area to be on the lookout for poachers.

And what do you know, just as the Halsey party arrives, they happen to see an all-female group of Kenyan law enforcement officials dressed in military fatigues drive up with a group of poachers who’ve been arrested. Mitch explains that the people responsible for busting poachers in this area all happen to be women. It’s the first clue that this movie is trying to pander to a certain political agenda, by going overboard with unrealistic scenarios, just so the movie can look politically liberal and “woke.”

Jack pre-paid for the vacation, but because he couldn’t afford the deluxe vacation package, he and the rest of the people in the Halsey party cannot go on the guided safari tour as part of the package. The safari leader tells Jack that he’s more than welcome to do a separate, self-guided tour with his family. It’s another huge unrealistic aspect of the movie, because no reputable hotel or safari company would allow a group of tourists to have an unguided safari in the wilds of Africa.

But there would be no “Endangered Species” movie if it didn’t have this ludicrous concept. Jack doesn’t tell his family the real reason why they can’t go on a safari with the rest of the tour group. Instead, he lies to them and says that he took the option for them to have a self-guided tour because it will give them more freedom. Although a few people in the family express doubts about how safe it would be to do a safari on their own, Jack dismisses any fears and says that they wouldn’t be allowed to do a self-guided tour if it weren’t safe.

Zoe has brought bottled water for this safari trip. Because she’s a hardcore environmentalist, she has refused to bring water in plastic bottles, so the water is in glass bottles. And it’s that this point in the movie that you know those glass bottles are going to get broken when the Halsey family inevitably gets stranded in the desert. Lauren’s blood sugar levels have been running high, so you know exactly what that means in the inevitable race against time to get help.

And so off the Halsey party goes to this doomed safari, with Jack driving their rented van. They go without looking at a map, and there’s no sense that they’ve gotten any training in survival skills. In fact, “no sense” are the operative words for this entire movie, as these irresponsible tourists make one bad decision after another when they get trapped in a deserted area.

When their van gets to a checkpoint to enter Amboseli National Park, the guard makes them wait because the Halsey party doesn’t have the approved paperwork to go on a safari. Jack is determined to go on this safari so he can look like a heroic adventurer to everyone. Jack starts arguing with the guard to let him and his group through the checkpoint.

Just then, the guard is distracted because another group of tourists is causing a ruckus. Jack uses that distraction as an opportunity to barrel through the checkpoint barrier and drive quickly into the park without getting caught. Although some of the security guards give chase in their cars, Jack manages to lose them by going off the beaten path into a deserted area.

And that’s why viewers won’t feel much sympathy for Jack when he gets lost and can’t find his way back to the main road. At first, no one panics over it because there are no dangerous animals in sight. There’s also plenty of food and water to keep them comfortable for the entire day.

And then, they see a mother rhino with a baby rhino. These tourists start “oohing” and “aahing,” as they take pictures from the van. But they’re too close for this mother’s rhino’s comfort, and she charges angrily at the van, and rams it hard several times, thereby tipping the car over on its side before running off with her baby. In the mayhem, Jack injures his leg, and Zoe dislocates her shoulder.

There’s enough damage that everything breakable in the van has been broken, including Lauren’s diabetic supplies and the glass bottles holding the water. The van is too damaged and won’t start. And, of course, their phones can’t get any signals. Meanwhile, these dumb tourists have a map, but they have no idea where they are in the park, since they drove off into a deserted area that isn’t near the main road.

There’s some back-and-forth arguing over whether or not they should stay in the car and wait for help or venture out and look for help before it gets dark. Jack is adamant that they stay in the car because he’s certain that other people will come along and eventually find them. He’s also concerned about being attacked by more wild animals and thinks the car will at least give them some protection. However, Lauren could go into a diabetic coma if she doesn’t get insulin soon, which gives more urgency to the idea of trying to walk somewhere to get help.

While they’re trying to figure out what to do next, that’s when some hyenas appear. The rest of the movie goes exactly how you think it might go when people make more stupid decisions. There’s an inevitable part of the movie where some members of this tourist party get separated from the others. And there are more animal attacks in scenes where the visual effects don’t look convincing.

The wild animals aren’t the only dangers encountered in this trip from hell. There’s a plot twist in the last third of the film that is not surprising at all. (The trailer for “Endangered Species” reveals this plot twist.) It leads to a ridiculous, badly acted showdown where the movie, which was already terrible, goes off the rails to the point of mindless oblivion. Romijn and Johnston make attempts to portray believable characters, but all the other stars in the cast act like annoying caricatures.

The best things that can be said about “Endangered Species” are that there are some nice scenic outdoor shots of Kenya, and the movie tries to bring attention to the tragedies and injustices of poaching. It’s too bad that “Endangered Species,” which has a moralistic message about how humans should respect nature, is ruined by humans who don’t respect good filmmaking and don’t respect viewers’ intelligence.

Lionsgate released “Endangered Species” on digital and VOD on May 28, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on June 1, 2021.

Review: ‘American Fighter,’ starring George Kosturos, Tommy Flanagan and Sean Patrick Flanery

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tommy Flanagan and George Kosturos in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter”

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1981, primarily in California and briefly in Iran, the dramatic film “American Fighter” features a predominanlty white cast of characters (with some Middle Eastern and African American people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high school wrestler, who has immigrated to California from Iran, gets involved in underground fighting to raise enough money to bring his ailing mother to the United States. 

Culture Audience: “American Fighter” will appeal primarily to people who like watching predictable fight movies.

George Kosturos and Sean Patrick Flanery in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter” uses every possible movie cliché about an “underdog” fighter who has to beat the odds and surpass people’s low expectations to reach a certain goal. There’s nothing creative or imaginative about this film. The only angle that makes “American Fighter” different from similar movies is that the protagonist is an Iranian immigrant in the United States. However, the fight scenes and the protagonist’s quest for a big payoff achievement is as formulaic and stereotypical as can be, regardless of the protagonist’s ethnicity.

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino, “American Fighter” takes place in 1981, when Iran was in political upheaval and numerous Iranians fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere. One family of refugees is the Jahani family: patriarch Farhad Jahani (played by Tony Panterra), his wife Goli Jahani (played by Salome Azizi) and their son Ali (played by George Kosturos, also known as George Thomas), who is about 18 or 19 years old. Ali has already been sent to the United States ahead of his parents, who plan to join Ali later. In the meantime, Ali is a college student who lives on campus when he’s not living with his uncle Hafez Tabad (played by Ali Afshar), who is Goli’s brother.

“American Fighter” is the sequel to the 2017 sports drama “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” with both movies starring Kosturos and produced by Ali Afshar, who plays Ali Jahani’s uncle Hafez in both movies. “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” which also had Ali Jahani as the protagonist, is based on Ali Afshar’s real-life experiences as an Iranian immigrant who was on his California high school’s wrestling team. “American Fighter” continues Ali Jahani’s story as a college student.

In the beginning of “American Fighter,” Ali is shown as a first-year student at the fictional North East Cal University in California. He’s on the school’s male wrestling team (called the Bulldogs), and he’s one of the more talented people on the team. However, Ali isn’t living up to his wrestler potential. And he experiences xenophobia and racism from people who are part of the team.

The Bulldogs’ Coach Jenkins (played by Kevin Porter) tells Ali, “I don’t want another foreign scholarship on my roster. You want to stay? You’ve got to show me something.” Meanwhile, in every movie about a student athlete involved in team sports, there always seems to be a jealous rival on the same team. In Ali’s case, it’s a bully named Chet Mueller (played by Vince Hill-Bedford), who frequently hurls racist insults at Ali during the team’s practice sessions. You can almost do a countdown to the inevitable fist fight that Chet and Ali will have.

When the day comes for Ali’s parents to travel to America, tragedy strikes. Before the plane takes off, a group of Iranian terrorists invade the plane where Ali’s parents are and take some hostages, including Ali’s parents. Ali’s father Farhad is shot and killed, while Ali’s mother Goli has gone missing. And making matters more stressful, Goli is sick with an unnamed ailment. She needs life-saving surgery and treatment, which is one of the main reasons why Ali’s parents wanted to immigrate to the United States.

Ali and his uncle Hafez are devastated by the news that Farhad is dead and Goli is missing. Ali and Hafez go to the local chapter of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and are told that there’s nothing this government agency can do for them because it doesn’t get involved in terrorist kidnappings. However, Ali and Hafez find out about a mysterious Iranian operative named Mr. V (played by Parviz Sayyad), who lives nearby and who can give them “private” help.

Ali and Hafez meet with Mr. V, who tells them that Goli is probably being held hostage somewhere in Iran, but Mr. V’s team can find her and bring her to the United States, for a fee of $30,000. Hafez only has $5,000, while Ali sells many of his possessions (including his family jewelry and his car) and comes up with $9,000. Of course, that’s still not enough to pay the fee, and time is running out for Goli to get her life-saving surgery.

Ali’s best friend at school is Ryan Calder (played by Bryan Craig), who is on the same wrestling team. Ali confides in Ryan about his family and money problems. One night, Ryan takes Ali to an underground fight club, where Ali is shocked to see what’s going on. Ryan tells Ali that in the past, he sometimes participated in these underground fights to make extra money. Ryan stopped doing underground fights because he’s on the wrestling team and doesn’t want to risk getting expelled from the team.

Ryan introduces Ali to a Scottish man named McClellan (played by Tommy Flanagan), the tough and greedy chief of the fight club. McClellan’s right-hand man is Benjamin Duke (played by Sean Patrick Flanery), who goes by the name Duke and who mainly gives medical assistance to the fight club participants. Duke is a former boxing champ who’s now down on his luck and has a tragedy in his past because of his alcoholism. In other words, in a stereotypical movie like this one, he’s going to end up training Ali to be an underground fighter.

During Ali’s first visit to the fight club, he has such culture shock that he ends up saying the wrong things. He asks McClellan about the possibility of participating in the fights: “So, you just pay us to beat each other up? Is that even legal?” Just as Ali is about to be thrown out for an insulting dimwit, a thug assaults Ali, and they start brawling. Ali capably defends himself, and McClellan is so impressed with Ali’s fighting skills that he invites Ali to participate in the fight club.

Ryan warns Ali not to do it, but Ali is desperate for money, and he eagerly accepts McClellan’s invitation. Ali easily wins his first fight, of course. And the money he gets motivates him to continue participating in the fight club, with increasingly dangerous risks. Not everything goes smoothly for Ali, because a movie like this has to have a “major obstacle” that he has to overcome before the movie’s climactic scene.

Meanwhile, Ali ends up having a romance with a sorority member named Heidi (played by Allison Page), who made the first move on Ali by inviting him to a party thrown by her sorority. It should come as no surprise that Chet seems interested in Heidi, but she rejects Chet’s advances and makes it clear that she wants to be with Ali. And so, it’s another reason for racist Chet to hate Ali.

Ali doesn’t tell Heidi about his family problems or about being involved in an underground fight club. Ali and Heidi’s romance is presented in this movie as very chaste. They go to a skating rink on their first date. And although Heidi and Ali eventually kiss, there’s no sex in the movie. Ali is depicted as someone who’s very shy and inexperienced when it comes to dating, while Heidi is the confident, extroverted partner in the relationship.

“American Fighter” director Piccinino co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Brian Rudnick and Carl Morris. The entire movie borrows from many other movies about teenage athletes who are underestimated, who train for a “long shot” dream, and the training is supposed to teach them about life. The fight scenes have some level of suspense, but they look overly staged and aren’t that exciting, compared to other movies about underground fight clubs.

Ali’s refugee immigrant experiences are used as a gimmicky plot device rather than being organic to his character. The closest that the movie shows to Ali sharing his connection to Iranian culture with Heidi is when he brings Iranian food to a picnic date with Heidi. The movie tries to make it look like Ali and Heidi are falling in love, but their conversations are very superficial.

That’s because this movie is really about the fight scenes, which aren’t very special. Ali’s mother Goli is shown occasionally while she’s being held captive in a room, to remind people why Ali is going through with these risky fights. Ali finds a way to get a letter to her, which is supposed to be the movie’s first big tearjerking moment, but the way it’s written is very hokey and melodramatic.

“American Fighter” makes some effort to be an authentic period movie that takes place in 1981. At an on-campus party, someone is shown breakdancing. And the movie’s soundtrack includes Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” Ali and Hafez also anxiously follow the media’s news about what’s going on in Iran. However, these touches of realism aren’t enough to overcome the overall medicority of the film’s writing, directing and acting.

Kosturos does his best to show some emotional range, but it’s diluted by the hackneyed dialogue that he has to say in the movie. Flanagan and Flanery have played many characters involved in illegal activities, so they’re doing nothing new in this movie, while Craig’s Ryan character and Paige’s Heidi character are utterly generic. The appeal of underground fighting is how edgy and unpredictable it’s supposed to be, but there’s nothing edgy or unpredictable about “American Fighter.”

Lionsgate released “American Fighter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on May 25, 2021.