Review: ‘The Swerve,’ starring Azure Skye

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Azure Skye in “The Swerve” (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

“The Swerve”

Directed by Dean Kapsalis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Virginia city, the dramatic film “The Swerve” has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with mental-health issues begins having problems at home, which affect other aspects of her life.

Culture Audience: “The Swerve” will appeal to people who don’t mind seeing dark depictions of someone having a mental breakdown.

Bryce Pinkham and Azure Skye in “The Swerve” (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

The dark psychological portrait “The Swerve” is one in a long list of movies about mentally ill women who are a danger to themselves and to other people. However, the harrowing performance of lead actress Azure Skye, as well as the haunting musical score by Mark Korven, make this movie a cut above most of these types of trauma films. Viewers should be warned that “The Swerve” is unrelentingly depressing, so anyone in the mood to see a movie with an upbeat tone or some sense of humor should avoid “The Swerve” altogether.

“The Swerve” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Dean Kapsalis) isn’t particularly well-written, so it won’t be considered a classic film. Skye’s memorable portrayal of a desperately unhappy wife and mother is what holds this film together, because the movie’s pace tends to drag for too long, and the story leaves many questions unanswered. If people want to go down the messy rabbit hole of the mind of someone having a nervous breakdown, then “The Swerve” immerses people in that experience.

In the beginning of the movie, which takes place in an unnamed Virginia city (“The Swerve” was actually filmed in Roanoke), Skye’s character Holly appears to be a typical middle-class wife and mother. She’s an English literature teacher at a local high school. Her husband Rob (played by Bryce Pinkham), who is a manager at a local supermarket, appears to be a loving and devoted spouse. Holly and Rob have two sons: athletic Ben (played by Taen Phillips), who’s about 16 years old, and chubby Lee (played by Liam Seib), who’s about 13 years old.

To the outside world, the family doesn’t seem to have any major problems. Ben and Lee have typical sibling squabbles. Holly and Rob are having financial issues, but nothing that would leave them broke and homeless. Their financial situation is mentioned during a morning when everyone is getting ready to go to work or school, and Holly sees a small mouse in the kitchen. The mouse freaks her out to the point where she tells Rob that she’s going to call an exterminator.

Rob questions Holly for making that decision to pay for an exterminator, because he says that she doesn’t have much cash left and “we’re barely holding things together.” Holly and Rob are hopeful that he will get a job promotion, but until that happens, they’re struggling financially. Holly ends up getting a mouse trap to deal with the mouse problem. And when the mouse trap doesn’t work, she leaves out food that’s been laced with rodent poison.

Shortly after laying out the mousetrap in the kitchen, Holly is in her bedroom, reaching for a shoe underneath her bed, when she seems to get bitten by an unknown creature, which Holly is convinced is the mouse. Holly’s finger is bleeding, so she goes to a hospital to get medical treatment, which ends up being just a small bandage. Holly has told the medical professionals who are treating her wound that she’s been bitten by a mouse, but when she asks if she should get a rabies shot, she’s told it won’t be necessary. It’s the first of many signs that Holly’s perspective is “unreliable.”

Seeing the mouse seems to have triggered something in Holly, because she starts having nightmares about the mouse. She wakes up to find the mouse in her bedroom at various times. And she has other nightmares about a hit-and-run incident that might or might not have happened, which is the reason why this movie is called “The Swerve.”

In what appears to be flashback memories, Holly is seen driving alone at night on a deserted road where there’s only one lane going in each direction. A car behind her appears to be tailgating her. Holly becomes increasingly frustrated and starts saying aloud that the driver of the other car needs to go around her.

The car ends up passing her, and when it does, she sees a guy in his late teens or early 20s leaning out of the front passenger window, and he calls her a derogatory, sexist name. The next thing you know, an enraged Holly swerves into the other car. What happens after that is not shown on screen.

Later, Holly is shown going back to the scene where this apparent road rage incident happened. There are memorial flowers at the side of the road, as if someone had died there. And there’s a noticeable skid mark that leads to this makeshift memorial. When she sees the memorial, she goes back to her car and vomits. (There are other vomiting scenes in the movie which are much more nauseating.)

Did Holly commit a hit-and-run crime? And if she did, was it for the reason that’s shown in her flashback memory? Those questions might be answered in the movie, but there are many troubling signs that Holly, who’s on various medications for depression, isn’t just depressed. She has hallucinations and blackouts too.

Her husband Rob tells her one day that on a previous night, she had come home after being missing for some hours. He found her asleep on the couch with an apparent fever. And when he woke her up, she scratched him so deeply that the bloody scratch marks are still visible on his neck. When he shows her the scratch marks, Holly says she doesn’t remember any of that happening.

There are also two subplots that get weaved into Holly’s tangled web of mental illness. First, Holly has a troubled relationship with her 37-year-old younger sister named Claudia (played by Ashley Bell), who has recently moved back to the area. Claudia is the “black sheep” of the family because she’s a frequently unemployed recovering alcoholic/addict. Claudia is currently living with her and Holly’s mother Beth (played by Deborah Hedwall), who tends to coddle and enable Claudia.

Claudia has a lot of self-loathing because she hasn’t really gotten her life together, but she also has a certain amount of pride that prevents her from accepting other people’s help. During a family dinner at Beth’s house (with Holly, Rob, Beth and Claudia in attendance), Rob tells Claudia that he can help get her a job at the supermarket where he works. Claudia immediately dismisses the idea and says it would be pathetic for her to be bagging groceries at this stage in her life.

At first, the family reunion dinner seems to start out smoothly. Holly has brought an apple pie to the dinner (a recurring plot device in the movie is Holly making apple pie), and when Holly and Claudia see each other, they greet each other warmly and say how much they missed each other. It isn’t said outright, but it’s implied that Holly and Claudia haven’t seen each other in years.

But those family pleasantries eventually fade, as long-simmering resentments start to resurface after that dinner happens. Holly seems to be jealous of the younger, prettier and more outgoing Claudia, who appears to be their mother’s favorite child. Claudia starts drinking and hanging out with Rob, who one night comes home drunk with Claudia.

Holly suspects that Claudia and Rob are getting a little too flirtatious with each other. Holly has the same suspicions about Rob and some of his female co-workers. There’s a scene where Holly sees Rob and a female co-worker kissing romantically in a back room of the supermarket, but they don’t see her. Did this really happen or is it something that Holly hallucinated?

There’s also a hint that the tension-filled family dynamics between Holly and Claudia involves a past tragedy that isn’t fully revealed in the movie. During an argument between Holly and Claudia, Holly mentions something that happened with their grandmother when the sisters were teenagers. It’s something that was apparently so traumatic that the family doesn’t like to talk about it.

However, Holly gives some clues about what could have happened when she shouts at Claudia during the argument: “The night that Nana made that pie, you weren’t even there! You’re the one that didn’t! I didn’t try to humiliate you!”

It’s something that’s thrown in the story to show that there are some dark family secrets, but it’s an example of how the movie brings some things up and then leaves them hanging without further explanation. Perhaps these loose threads to the story are to convey the disjointed way that an increasingly unhinged Holly thinks, but this type of vagueness just muddles the story’s plot and is likely to confuse many viewers.

The second subplot in Holly’s nervous breakdown has to do with an introverted, artistic teenager named Paul (played by Zach Rand), who is a student in Holly’s class and who is also a cashier at the supermarket where Rob works. Paul is 16 or 17 years old. One day, Paul and another student have a scuffle in her classroom because the other student has taken Paul’s sketchbook. Holly breaks up the fight and confiscates the sketchbook.

When Holly goes home to look at Paul’s sketches, she sees that there are some illustrations of naked people engaged in sex acts and a cheerleader attacked by a dragon. There’s also a drawing of man drinking alcohol in a chair, with the sketch titled “Dear Old Dad.” (It’s an obvious sign that Paul’s father is probably an alcoholic.)

And there’s another illustration that catches Holly’s eye: a drawing of her in the classroom. The way that it’s drawn clearly shows that Paul has had a secret crush on her. It’s very easy to see where this is probably going to go, considering that Holly is deeply unhappy in her marriage and she isn’t talking to Rob about any inner turmoil that she’s having.

Throughout “The Swerve,” the cello-heavy music of Korven is an ominous foreshadowing that things aren’t going to go well for many people in this story. The music is a coincidentally a little reminiscent of Hildur Guðnadottir’s Oscar-winning musical score for the 2019 film “Joker,” but the score is laid on much thicker in “The Swerve”—almost to the point where some people might consider the music too distracting. There’s no denying that the music is chilling and goes a long way in conveying all the misery that’s in this movie.

In fact, there’s no one in this movie who can be considered a happy person—not even Holly and Rob’s two young sons, who are constantly fighting with each other. Anyone who sees “The Swerve” should be prepared to see a lot of scenes of Skye moping around in various states of dishevelment. Unfortunately, these scenes tend to be repetitive and don’t do much to give further insight into her personality or answer many questions that the film ends up leaving unanswered.

For example, it’s never really made clear how long Holly has been suffering from this mental illness and if it’s something that Rob knew about before he married her. Holly and Rob’s marriage is used a a plot device for the most disturbing things that happen in the movie, so a little more context about their marriage would help. The only thing that’s clear is that Holly has had “episodes” related to her mental illness before, and Rob has been extraordinarily patient with her.

As for that hit-and-run crime that Holly is keeping a secret, the movie shows whether or not she confesses to the crime and if she gets punished for it. “The Swerve” isn’t really a crime thriller as much as it is a gloomy psychological drama that shows the horrors of mental illness. The real swerve in this movie is the main character’s swerve into insanity that results in a different type of wreckage.

Epic Pictures released “The Swerve” on digital and VOD on September 22, 2020.

Review: ‘Kajillionaire,’ starring Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins and Gina Rodriguez

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)


Directed by Miranda July

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and briefly in New York City, the dark comedy “Kajillionaire” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and poor.

Culture Clash: A family trio of con artists, who are on the verge of being evicted, scheme up ways to get their rent money and team up with another con artist who has a big effect on them.

Culture Audience: “Kajillionaire” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky comedies that have original and memorable characters.

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

Stepping into the world of “Kajillionaire” (written and directed by Miranda July) is like stepping into a sad and desperate world that rarely gets acknowledged in the media, but exists for an untold number of people in America. It’s a world where unemployed white people are barely making enough money to survive, but they’re not homeless, they’re not out on the streets begging for money, they don’t fit the “trailer park” stereotype, and they give the appearance that they’re regular, middle-class citizens. They’re not on government assistance, probably because they haven’t filed any recent tax returns to prove they’re eligible for benefits.

And so, some of these destitute people turn to illegal scams as a way to make money. Usually, the narrative in the media and in movies is that poor people who live a life of crime in big U.S. cities are usually people of color who are drug dealers or armed robbers. But “Kajillionaire” flips that narrative to show that there’s an underbelly of people who might not be dealing drugs or committing armed robbery, but are still caught up in illegal activity that involves cheating and stealing. “Kajillionaire” also flips the typical narrative of white con artists in movies, who are usually depicted as thinking big and going after fortunes worth millions.

People familiar with writer/director July’s work already know that she brings a quirky and often sardonic sensibility to her movies. It’s a sense of humor and style that’s not for everyone, especially people who prefer more conventional, straightforward comedy. “Kajillionaire” (which is July’s third feature film) is her best feature film so far, because it’s more than a story about con artists. It’s also a story about the value of empathy and human connection.

In “Kajillionaire,” viewers are introduced right away to the lifestyle of a Los Angeles family trio of small-time con artists who are barely getting by financially. Old Dolio Dyne (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is a morose 26-year-old who doesn’t know any other life except being a con artist, because her parents trained her to be that way. Old Dolio’s parents Robert Dyne (played by Richard Jenkins) and Theresa Dyne (played by Debra Winger), who look like ex-hippies, think up a lot of schemes with their daughter to get money illegally, but the parents usually send Old Dolio to do a lot of the dirty work.

That’s what happens in the movie’s opening scene, when Old Dolio is shown taking a set of stolen keys to a post office, opening a mailbox there, and extending her hand so far back into the mailbox that she can reach over and steal the contents of the mailbox next to the one she opened. She feels confident in committing this crime because there’s no surveillance camera in that particular room of the post office. There’s a choreographed movement sequence that Old Dolio does before she enters the post office, so she can avoid other video cameras around the building.

What she steals from the other post-office mailbox is a package in a bubble wrap envelope. When she goes outside, she and her parents open the package, only to find that the package’s contents have very little value. There’s a stuffed animal that Old Dolio figures she can use to get a fake refund at a retail store, because she has an old sales receipt from the store that lists a generic “toys and games” item for $12.99.

There’s also a necktie in the package, which Robert guesses is “not a cheap tie.” And he says something odd to Old Dolio: “You can’t see it because you’re not a cheap birth.” It’s the first sign that something is “off” about the way Robert and Theresa have raised Old Dolio, besides the fact that they’ve taught her how to be a con artist.

It’s revealed later in the movie that her parents named her Old Dolio (which is her legal name) because it was the name of an old loner guy they knew who inherited a fortune. Robert and Theresa (who walks with an unexplained limp) were hoping they could steal his fortune through identity theft after he died. But after he died, they found out that he had squandered his fortune, so the name turned out to be useless.

It’s just one of many examples that show why this family has remained on the margins of society as small-time con artists. They’re not down on their luck. They’re just not very smart and they don’t want to do honest work.

On the one hand, Robert and Theresa seem to want the American Dream of becoming wealthy. As Robert says, “Most people want to become kajillionaires.” On the other hand, Robert and Theresa don’t want to call too much attention to themselves by doing scams involving large amounts of money. It’s a mindset that they’ve instilled in Old Dolio.

Later in the movie, Robert tells someone that Old Dolio learned how to forge before she learned how to write her own name. The eccentric con artists in “Kajillionaire” also have a fear of experiencing a devastating earthquake, which they call “The Big One.” It’s a term that people who live in California often use to describe the earthquake that scientists say can happen sometime in the future and can kill thousands of people.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio are a self-contained con-artist unit. They live in a downstairs back office of a factory called Bubbles, Inc., which apparently is in the business of making water bubbles. One of the inconveniences of the family’s cramped and cluttered living space, which has been rented to them, is that pink water bubbles frequently seep from the ceiling and down the walls at a certain time of day. They have to clean the bubble mess before it spreads to other parts of the room. (It’s one of this movie’s many quirks.)

Old Dolio, Robert and Theresa don’t have any friends, and no other family members are mentioned. It’s not said outright, but it’s implied that Old Dolio never went to regular school and was probably homeschooled by her parents. There are many signs that Old Dolio is clueless about certain things in life that she would’ve known about if she grew up being around people other than her parents.

It also becomes apparent that Old Dolio is very uncomfortable in her own skin and is fearful of being touched by people. After the family’s stolen haul from the post office yields items of very little cash value, Robert and Theresa then send Old Dolio to do a scam they’ve apparently done before: Old Dolio dresses up as a Catholic school girl and pretends to be a “good Samaritan” who found an expensive watch and is returning it to the rightful owner.

The scam is that the family really stole the watch, and Old Dolio is supposed to get a reward for “finding” the watch, not by asking for a reward, but being so nice that there’s a big chance that the owner will give her an unsolicited reward. It’s not explained in the movie how or where they got this stolen watch and how a random Catholic school girl would know how to track down the rightful owner. However, Old Dolio is next seen showing up at the house of an upper-middle-class, middle-aged couple named Althea (played by Patricia Belcher) and Victor (played by Kim Estes), who welcome her into their home when they see she’s there to return Victor’s watch.

Old Dolio’s entire conversation with Althea and Victor isn’t shown, because the next thing that happens is Old Dolio goes back to her parents, who find out with dismay that Althea and Victor gave a reward, but it isn’t the cash that the con artists were expecting. The reward is a gift certificate for the massage business owned by Althea and Victor’s daughter Jenny (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom Old Dolio says (with some envy) Althea and Victor couldn’t stop talking about because they’re so proud of their daughter.

Old Dolio goes to Jenny (who works out of her home) to try and finagle a deal so Old Dolio can get some cash out of the gift certificate. Jenny explains that there’s no cash refund for the gift certificate, and she offers to give Old Dolio the massage so she can at least get something out of the gift certificate. Old Dolio reluctantly agrees, but she says that she wants the massage to last only 20 minutes instead of the usual 60 minutes that would be covered by the gift certificate.

Old Dolio flinches every time Jenny touches her. Her discomfort goes beyond someone who’s never had a massage before. It’s a sign (one of many) that Old Dolio has never been touched affectionately before, especially not by her parents. Old Dolio’s almost pained reaction to the massage reaches a point where Jenny just keeps her hands slightly above Old Dolio’s body without touching her and asks her if that’s okay. It’s only then that Old Dolio says this touchless “massage” is acceptable to her, but she doesn’t stay long anyway.

Another awakening for Old Dolio comes when she finds out about how mothers who’ve just given birth form a bond with their newborn babies. This discovery (which serves as a catalyst for what comes later in the story) happens by chance. A neighbor named Kelli Kain (played by Rachel Redleaf) sees the family outside the bubble factory and knows their con-artist reputation, because she offers Old Dolio $20 to impersonate her to attend a class that was “assigned by a case worker.” Kelli says that the people in the check-in area won’t ask for identification.

When Old Dolio gets to the class, she finds out it’s a class about parenting newborn children. The class watches a video showing how a mother bonds with a newborn baby, who instinctively knows how to find a breast to nurse on when the baby is placed on the mother’s chest. The class instructor named Farida (played Diana Maria Riva) then explains that newborn babies who are placed on their mothers’ chests are more likely to be well-adjusted people, compared to babies to are ignored and “put on a cot.”

This information ignites a curiosity in Old Dolio, who asks her parents if she was one of those “cot babies.” Her mother says yes. And there are many other signs that Old Dolio’s parents have withheld physical and emotional affection from her.

There are also indications that Old Dolio is a virgin who has never dated anyone before, because she’s been taught not to trust other people who aren’t her parents. In one scene, Old Dolio shows her mother a wooden trinket. Theresa responds by saying in a tone of warning, “When a man gives you anything made of wood, he’s saying, ‘You give me wood.'”

In another scene, when Old Dolio asks her parents about what it was like to take care of her as a baby, Theresa suspiciously asks Old Dolio if she is pregnant. Old Dolio shakes her head in surprised disgust and reminds her mother that it wouldn’t be possible for her to be pregnant. But then, Robert bizarrely starts sniffing like a dog at Old Dolio, as if he can smell whether or not she’s pregnant. No one said these people are entirely sane.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio have been dodging their landlord Stovik (played by Mark Ivanir), because they’re three months behind on the rent. When they do see him, Robert always lies and says things like that they’ll have the money but he just started a new job and hasn’t gotten paid yet. They owe $1,500, but in reality, they aren’t even close to having $150. Stovik (who has an unusual emotional condition where he starts to cry when he’s agitated) finally has had enough of their excuses and gives them two weeks to pay what they owe or else he’ll evict them.

Old Dolio comes up with the idea to do a luggage insurance scam. The plan is for the three of them take a round-trip air flight to New York City, with their luggage insured. On their return trip back to Los Angeles, Old Dolio will pretend to be a stranger to Robert and Theresa, who will “steal” one of Old Dolio’s suitcases from the baggage claim area. Old Dolio will then file an insurance claim, which pays about $1,575.

Viewers have to assume that this trip was paid for with a credit card, since these con artists don’t have the cash for this trip and they don’t have checking and savings accounts. Knowing this family, the credit card information was probably stolen. On the flight back to Los Angeles, Robert and Theresa are seated next to a chatty and flirtatious stranger named Melanie (played by Gina Rodriguez), who makes it clear that she likes to drink alcohol and have a good time.

Robert takes to Melanie right away. Old Dolio, who is in a seat located slightly behind her parents, notices this instant camaraderie and seems envious that her father is friendlier to this stranger than he is to his own daughter. It isn’t long before Robert tells Melanie about the family’s luggage insurance scam. Melanie immediately agrees to help them, which sets off a series of experiences where Melanie latches on to the family because she’s a con artist too. Unlike the Dyne family, Melanie has a job, but she’s looking to make more money, and there’s a sense that she’s in the con game for the thrills.

During the family’s con artist antics with Melanie, it’s apparent that Old Dolio’s repressed sexuality is something that she can no longer ignore. Melanie is aware of it too, and she sometimes seems amused by it and sometimes seems to be sympathetic about it. There are several scenes in the movie where Melanie subtly and not-so-subtly uses her sex appeal to test boundaries with certain members of this family.

Old Dolio sometimes scolds Melanie for trying to “rile people up” because of Melanie’s tendency to wear revealing and tight clothes. Any adult can see why Old Dolio has this reaction to what Melanie wears. It’s because of Melanie that Old Dolio starts to understand how her parents have prevented Old Dolio from missing out on many things in life.

Melanie, who lives alone, is very close to her mother, whom she talks to frequently on the phone. (Elena Campbell-Martinez is the voice of Melanie’s mother.) It’s the type of mother-daughter relationship that Old Dolio never had with Theresa. And Melanie joining this family of con artists tests the bounds of the family’s loyalties to each other.

What’s so distinctive about “Kajillionaire” is how July made this story otherworldly yet grounded and how well the main characters are brought to life by Wood, Winger, Jenkins and Rodriguez. Wood (who does some great physical choreography in the movie) and Rodriguez are the standouts, because the heart of the story is how Old Dolio and Melanie’s relationship evolves. Melanie and Old Dolio have opposite personalities but have something in common: They’re both con artists, in more ways than one.

It isn’t until Melanie comes into the family’s lives that Old Dolio slowly finds out how emotionally stifled she has been. Old Dolio hasn’t been really been “living” but really has just been “existing” in a dysfunctional bubble created by her parents. (And if people really want to go deep in analyzing this movie, perhaps the bubble factory is a metaphor.)

Wood plays the Old Dolio character with a voice that’s a few octaves below Wood’s normal speaking voice. It’s a way of perhaps giving Old Dolio a somewhat androgynous aura. When she’s not dressed up as part of a con game, Old Dolio wears baggy unisex clothes. It’s an indication that she’s unsure of her sexuality, or at least trying to avoid wearing clothes that make her look feminine.

Old Dolio and Theresa also have identical hairstyles: very long and parted down the middle. They wear their hair in a way that it sometimes obscures their faces, as if in their perpetual lifestyle of being con artists, they know that it’s better to have their faces disguised as much as possible. Old Dolio automatically looks for surveillance cameras everywhere she goes, as demonstrated in a scene where she and Melanie are shopping in a grocery store and Old Dolio tells her immediately where all the security cameras are. Melanie cheerfully responds by saying that she doesn’t need that information because she’s going to pay for her selected items.

“Kajillionaire” has such unique characters and situations shown in memorable ways that it’s a welcome alternative to the stale and formulaic comedy films that Hollywood has been churning out for several years. People who have no tolerance for seeing weirdos on screen won’t like this movie. But for everyone else, “Kajillionaire” takes viewers on a sometimes unsettling, sometimes humorous ride that shows how the pursuit of money everything else is not worth the cost of losing one’s humanity.

Focus Features released “Kajillionaire” in select U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘One Hour Outcall,’ starring Natalia Ochoa and William Norrett

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Natalia Ochoa and William Norrett in “One Hour Outcall” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“One Hour Outcall”

Directed by T. Arthur Cottam

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the drama “One Hour Outcall” has a cast of white and Latino people representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college student, who’s been leading a double life as escort, gets more emotional drama than she bargained for with a client she’s been seeing for a year.

Culture Audience: “One Hour Outcall” will appeal primarily to people who like independent dramas that are heavy on dialogue and have some twists and turns.

Shannon Leigh Godwin in “One Hour Outcall” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The talkative drama “One Hour Outcall” takes a multilayered look at the emotional cost of doing business in the world of sex escorts. The movie (which takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area) starts out a little slow and repetitive, but it gets better during the last two-thirds of the movie, as secrets are revealed and the characters in the story start to show their true natures. What makes this story better than the average “call girl” movie is that it doesn’t follow the usual clichés of how sex workers are normally portrayed in narrative movies: as either Hollywood “Pretty Woman” fantasies or as exploited streetwalkers who have pimps.

Directed and produced by T. Arthur Cottam (who is also the film’s cinematographer) and written by William Norrett (who plays the lead actor in the film), “One Hour Outcall” is told in a series of quick-cutting flashbacks and flash-forwards that show an escort/client relationship that takes place over the course of a year. The escort is a woman in her early 20s named Ana (played by Natalia Ochoa), who uses the alias Esmeralda. She is making money as an escort to help pay her college expenses. Ana has a divorced, middle-aged client named Greg Hagen (played by Norrett), whose job is not mentioned in the movie. He lives in a comfortably middle-class apartment, where they meet for their sessions.

Ana and Greg have the type of relationship where they like to play games over who’s got the power and control. The sex in the movie isn’t very explicit (there’s no nudity), but there are hints that their dates includes some BDSM, since there’s a scene where Ana ties a belt around Greg’s neck, and another scene were she slaps him on the face as part of foreplay. He also likes to call Ana a “tough guy.” The sex is transactional, but there’s some emotional tenderness that develops between them too.

Because the flashbacks and flash-forwards in the movie are not in chronological order, this isn’t the type of movie that should be watched as background to other things that viewers are doing at the same time. It’s recommended that viewers pay full attention to the different clothes and attitudes that Ana and Greg have in these quick-cutting scenes, because they indicate the different stages of the relationship and help explain what happens during a pivotal dinner scene that happens later in the movie.

The flashback scenes include Ana and Greg’s first meeting, when they’re eager to make a good first impression on each other. In watching the flashbacks, which are like pieces of a puzzle, viewers can discern that over time, Ana and Greg opened up to each other about their personal lives. They eventually end up meeting every Thursday night for one hour for about a year. They don’t fall in love, but they develop a fondness for each other.

Ana, who comes from the working-class California city of Richmond, tells Greg that she’s a biochemistry major at a prestigious university that is not named, but it’s implied later in the movie that it’s Stanford University. The movie’s present-day part of the story takes place during the few days before Ana’s graduation ceremony. Ana doesn’t tell Greg much about her student life, except to say that her roommate Shannon (played by Shannon Leigh Godwin), who’s a student in the same graduating class, often gets on Ana’s nerves because she thinks Shannon is spoiled, parties too much, and is irresponsible, because Shannon is often late with her share of the rent.

Greg has been divorced for about 12 years. And he admits that he was to blame for his marriage failing because he left his wife for another woman. The relationship with the mistress didn’t work out either. Greg also says that part of the reason why he cheated on his wife was because he was lonely, since his wife took a job that required her to work “halfway around the world.”

Meanwhile, the movie shows that even though Greg and Ana have become emotionally intimate, they still have secrets that they’ve kept from each other. Greg has been giving Ana gifts (such as a watch), which starts to blur the line of whether or not he’s a client or a “friend with benefits”/boyfriend. As time goes on in their relationship, it seems that these blurred lines are starting to bother Ana as she gets closer to graduation.

Greg is the type of person who likes to plan ahead. (It’s a personality trait that foreshadows something that’s revealed later in the movie.) Ana is more of a “go with the flow” type of person who believes it’s more important to live in the present day. When Greg asks Ana what her plans are after graduation, it annoys her. And he’s irritated that she doesn’t have any set plans. And so, she and Greg have arguments that start out as petty but later become more serious.

It’s not said out loud, but viewers can also figure out that Ana might also be thinking about how her relationship with Greg will change after she graduates. She’s presumably in this type of business to help pay for her tuition or other college expenses. What’s going to happen when she doesn’t need to pay those expenses anymore?

And what is it doing her self-esteem that she has to keep this illegal sex work a secret from most people she knows and is essentially living a lie? Just like many sex workers who think they’re only going to be doing this type of work for a short while, it seems that Ana is aware how quickly someone can to get addicted to the easy money. It might be why she’s not as concerned with finding a job as other soon-to-be-college graduates would be.

And it’s also why months ago, she stopped working with the escort agency where Greg found her, and Ana has been seeing him as an independent sex worker, so she can pocket all the cash for herself. It’s a secret that Greg has known about for a while, but he tells Ana that he knows about this secret during one of their arguments. He blurts it out when Ana pretends that she’s going to call her driver for “security backup” when their argument gets too heated.

In reality, Ana doesn’t have a driver. The “driver” she pretends to call is a guy she knows who’s around her age named Gabriel Armijo (played by Octavio Rodriguez), who doesn’t even have a car. When she calls Gabriel, he’s sitting on a couch with his best friend Ellery Hughes (played by Will Holbrook), who appears to be his roommate. Gabriel and Ellery are stoners who like to smoke marijuana, and this isn’t the last time they’ll be seen in the story.

As for Greg, he comes across as a lonely divorcé who’s having a problem finding lasting love. But just as Ana isn’t a “hooker with a heart of gold,” Greg is not the pitiful sad sack that he first appears to be. And the mind games that he and Ana have been playing with each other end up colliding.

The night before the graduation ceremony, Ana and Shannon are having a celebration dinner at an Italian restaurant with Shannon’s mother Stacy (played by Kristin Carey), who comes across as sophisticated and very tolerant of Shannon’s whining about how another graduation party for her was “boring.” Shannon does cocaine before going to the dinner, and she pressures Ana to do cocaine with her.

It’s at this dinner where things start to get more interesting in the movie. It’s enough to say that more secrets are revealed. And ultimately, Ana has to come to terms with the double life she’s been leading and what kind of person she wants to be moving forward.

“One Hour Outcall” makes very good use of its obvious low budget. It has melodrama, but not the type of melodrama that’s in a Lifetime movie. (Lifetime has done its share of movies about women with secret sex lives.) “One Hour Outcall” has got the type of wordy dialogue that sounds like this story could easily have been a play. But the movie’s quick-cutting editing (by Sam Hook) to tell the non-linear parts of the story could only work for an on-screen format.

This editing technique will annoy some viewers who don’t want to pay too much attention to put the pieces of the puzzle together and prefer that a story is told chronologically. However, it actually would have been more boring if the movie had sauntered along in chronological order. The editing gives it an emotionally urgent pace that makes the last third of the movie pack a bigger punch. This editing technique also makes sense because it’s very clear by the end of the movie (which ends very abruptly) that the entire story is told from Ana’s perspective, and the flashbacks are very similar to how many people would remember parts of their lives that happened over the previous year.

Ochoa does a very good portrayal of someone who has to face some harsh realities because she’s been leading a double life. Ana starts out as eager-to-please with Greg, then she turns almost arrogant when she thinks she has the upper hand in the relationship, and then she begins showing vulnerabilities when she opens up to him about her personal life. It becomes clear that she’s a lot more emotionally invested in this relationship than she thought she would be.

The movie also doesn’t shy away from the racial dynamics of her being a Latina escort working for a white client. In one scene, Greg tells Ana that he had to do some personal budget cuts and he had to decide to keep Ana or keep his maid Lupe. Ana tells Greg she’s offended by his “racially insensitive comment,” while Greg says he didn’t realize that what he said would racially offend her. It sets off another argument between them.

Norrett’s portrayal of Greg is fairly nuanced, since viewers aren’t quite sure until a certain part of the movie what he really thinks of Ana and their arrangement. The supporting characters are also pretty good in their roles, with Holbrook as stoner Ellery providing the most comic relief. Godwin (who looks a little bit like how Chelsea Clinton looked in her 20s) has some big emotional scenes in the film that she handles quite well.

Shannon’s mother Stacy is essentially a calming presence in the story, so Carey’s role is mostly to react to other people and also try to put things in an optimistic perspective when people around her get upset. Rodriguez portrays Gabriel as a mild-mannered goofball who can be fairly oblivious to social cues that reach a level of discomfort.

Some people might not like how “One Hour Outcall” ends, but the movie isn’t about tying things up nicely in a neat little bow. It’s more of a psychological study of the effects of being a sex worker and how separating emotions from the work is a lot easier said than done. Under the brisk and concise direction of Cottam, “One Hour Outcall” isn’t a sweeping overview of escort work but rather a compelling and intimate snapshot of the emotional toll it takes on one woman.

Gravitas Ventures released “One Hour Outcall” on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on September 15, 2020.

Review: ‘Cut Throat City,’ starring Shameik Moore, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Kat Graham, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Eiza Gonzalez and Ethan Hawke

September 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Demetrius Shipp Jr., Keean Johnson, Shameik Moore and Denzel Whitaker in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Cut Throat City”

Directed by The RZA

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans in 2005 and 2006, the crime drama “Cut Throat City” has a predominantly African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A group of young men turn to a life of crime when they have problems finding jobs after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Culture Audience: “Cut Throat City” will appeal mostly to people who like typical “gangster” movies that have a lot of violence and a mediocre plot.

T.I. in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

How’s this for an unoriginal and tired idea for a movie? Poor people (who are usually people of color) become criminals because they’re desperate for money. And there’s a crime lord that they have to answer to who might or might not turn against them. “Cut Throat City,” despite its talented cast and an effort to be a somewhat stylish-looking film, still serves up this recycled and uninspired concept in a movie that doesn’t really do anything for the genre of gangster films. In fact, “Cut Throat City” (at 132 minutes long) gets a little too bloated and the plot a little too ridiculous for it to be considered a movie that will reach cult status as an undiscovered gem.

“Cut Throat City” (directed by The RZA, who’s best known as a founding member of the rap group Wu Tang Clan) could have used better editing to cut out the parts of the movie that drag before the movie’s big climactic scene. However, the screenplay by Paul “P.G.” Cuschieri is largely to blame for the most cringeworthy aspects of “Cut Throat City,” including the dumb dialogue and some of the most unrealistic aspects of the movie’s depiction of police investigations in a big American city.

New Orleans is the city where the movie takes place, in 2005 and 2006, with Hurricane Katrina as the catalyst for a lot of the angst and criminal activity in the story. “Cut Throat City” begins before Hurricane Katrina happened, when four working-class friends in their early 20s are getting ready for the wedding of one of the guys in the group. All four of them live in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which is considered one of the most financially deprived and roughest parts of the city.

The groom is James (played by Shameik Moore), who prefers to go by the nickname Blink, who is an aspiring writer/illustrator of graphic novels. Blink’s three closest friends are Miracle (played by Demetrius Shipp Jr.), who’s an impulsive hothead; Junior (played by Keean Johnson), who often gets teased because he’s a white guy who tries to be more like his African American friends; and mild-mannered and quiet Andre (played by Denzel Whitaker), who’s Blink’s best man and an aspiring jazz musician. (He plays the trumpet.)

Blink is getting married to his girlfriend Demyra (played by Kat Graham), who is the mother of their son, who’s about 3 or 4 years old. At the wedding, Demyra’s mother (played by Stacie Davis) gives Demyra some marriage advice: “It’s not about happiness. It’s about meaning. Find the meaning and happiness will come later.” That’s this movie’s idea of a “pep talk,” which is supposed to indicate to viewers that many of the people in this movie have a pessimistic view on life.

Demyra and Blink are actually happy together, and the wedding goes smoothly. The honeymoon is another story, because Hurricane Katrina hits within a few days after the wedding. Even before the hurricane, the main problem in Blink and Demyra’s relationship is that Blink is having a hard time finding work as a graphic novelist. And now that he’s a married man, he’s really expected to contribute income to help pay the bills. Even though Blink has an associate’s degree from college and he attended Tulane University, his college education won’t help him get his dream job as a graphic novelist.

Blink has been working on a concept for a graphic novel called “Cut Throat City.” He gets a meeting with a condescending publishing executive named Peter Felton (played by Joel David Moore), who starts off by looking at Blink’s work and calling it mostly “derivative.” Peter does see one illustration that he likes, so he asks Blink who his influences are. Blink replies by listing Charles Schulz, Gary Larson and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Peter then says in an exasperated tone that by “influences” he meant who are the influences in Blink’s life.

Peter also asks Blink what kind of audience he wants for “Cut Throat City.” Blink says he “never really thought about it.” Peter responds, “The first thing you think about is your audience.” Blink then says, “If we only focus on our markets, then a cartoon wouldn’t be anything more than a cheap, dim commodity that will never change.”

When Peter says he doesn’t know where Blink could’ve gotten that idea, Blink responds that it was Peter who actually said it at an anime expo in 1990. “I got a transcript from the library,” Blink adds. “Fair enough,” replies Peter, who’s obviously done with Blink at point. He then coldly dismisses Blink from his office and tells an assistant to bring in the next person.

It’s one of many rejections that Blink gets as an aspiring graphic novelist. Andre tries to make money as a street musician, but it’s barely enough to be considered pocket change. Miracle and Junior are also unemployed. For whatever reason, the movie doesn’t show them looking for any jobs they can get. Hurricane Katrina has devastated New Orleans, so the job market has dried up in many ways, but these four friends just seem like they’ve given up trying to find work.

To make matters worse, Blink is too proud to accept financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As several weeks go by and things get more financially desperate for Blink and Demyra, she’s had enough of Blink refusing money from FEMA, and she tells Blink that they have to apply for FEMA aid. When they get to the FEMA office, their application is denied since they don’t need housing, and they’re told that homeless people are getting priority for the financial aid. And to add insult to injury, Blink and Demyra also aren’t eligible because they live in the Ninth Ward.

This FEMA rejection is a reason for Blink to feel angry at “the system,” which is why he eventually goes along with Miracle’s idea to start working for Blink’s relative Lorenzo “Cousin” Bass (played by Tip “T.I.” Harris), who’s a local gangster. (T.I., who’s also known as a hitmaking rapper in real life, is wearing makeup in the movie that makes Cousin look like he has a skin condition like vitiligo.) Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre start dealing drugs for Cousin. But since they’re new to drug dealing, they mess things up and end up owing money to Cousin.

To show how vicious and unforgiving he is, Cousin makes the four guys watch as an unlucky man who has angered Cousin is tortured by having a wild raccoon attack the guy’s genitals. It’s not explicitly shown in the film, but it’s implied that this happened. The man is shown in the aftermath almost doubled over in pain with blood on the crotch area of his pants when he’s thrown out by Cousin and his henchmen.

Cousin and his group of thugs also force wild raccoons to fight each other in cages. And one of the main characters has a beloved dog, which predictably gets shot and killed by a vengeful Cousin during a fight scene. For anyone who hates seeing animal cruelty depicted on screen, it might be best to avoid this movie or close your eyes during these scenes.

Knowing that Cousin could also make their lives hell if they don’t come up with the money they owe him, the four friends decide to rob a local casino. And then one casino robbery turns into more, as they blow their money on strip clubs and gambling. All of these robbery scenes are completely ludicrous because the guys walk into the casino together wearing matching dark hoodies (automatically calling attention themselves) and they make little effort to disguise their faces, unless you consider wearing see-through nylon stockings on your face a “disguise.”

The casinos are also very crowded and there are surveillance cameras everywhere. And yet, the movie wants viewers to believe that these wannabe gangsters are clever enough not to get caught. After one robbery, which resulted in big shootout with police and their getaway van being riddled with bullet holes, the four guys just trade in the van for a Dodge car in good condition. What used car dealer in their right mind would trade a car that’s in good shape for a bullet-damaged piece of junk?

“Cut Throat City” also makes the same stupid mistake that’s in a lot of badly written crime movies that take place in a big city: Only one cop is investigating the case. For a series of casino robberies, that’s completely unrealistic for a city as big as New Orleans. And this cop also happens to look like a model/actress. Her name is Lucinda Valencia (played by Eiza Gonzalez), who has the thankless job of going into dangerous and sketchy areas by herself numerous times during the investigation, with no sign of a cop partner or backup anywhere.

There are also some other supporting players in this muddled and messy saga: Recently elected city councilman Jackson Sims (played by Ethan Hawke), who’s a former police officer and a very corrupt politician; Courtney (played by Rob Morgan), a sleazy barber who’s a confidential informant; and The Saint (played by Terrence Howard), a smooth-talking, bow-tie-wearing gangster who has criminal authority over Cousin.

Also part of the story, in a small role, is Rev. Sinclair Stewart (played by Isaiah Washington), who takes bribes to conduct funeral services for people who died under suspicious circumstances and don’t have a medical exam or death certificate. The bribes he takes includes payment for forged death certificates. And somewhere in this jumbled story, Blink reunites with his estranged father Lawrence (played by Wesley Snipes), who abandoned Blink when Blink was a child.

“Cut Throat City” also has some bizarre references to “The Wizard of Oz.” When Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre first go to meet with Cousin about working for him, Cousin says that his headquarters is like Oz. He compares Junior to the Tin Man, Andre to the Cowardly Lion, Miracle to the Scarecrow and Blink to Dorothy. Later in the movie, The Saint covers the young robbers’ heads in ski masks and tells them, “There’s no place like home.”

Speaking of the lines in this movie, people will be rolling their eyes at how corny some of the dialogue is. In one scene, Courtney tells Lucinda that local thugs “will shoot you in a crack cocaine heartbeat.” In another scene, Cousin says about the man who is left sobbing after the raccoon torture: “Two things I can’t stand: a lying-ass woman and a crying-ass man.” If this is Gangster Poetry 101, no thank you.

And in another scene, Cousin and The Saint have a meeting, where Cousin says to him in a semi-monologue that sounds like it was written by someone who thinks this is how black gangsters are supposed to talk: “We’re too much alike: greedy-ass motherfuckers. That’s why they can take all the opportunity away from us. They can flood us, jail us, try to kill us, but they can never kill our greed. That’s why we’ll pimp, rap, sling dope, cheat or steal, even it’s from each other.”

“Cut Throat City” has a twist at the end that’s meant to make the movie look like more artistic than it really is. There’s an end-credits scene that doesn’t really add much to the conclusion of this very predictable and substandard story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technical aspects of how the movie was filmed, and the movie is well-cast with good actors, but the director needed to make better choices in editing. Ultimately, it’s the weak and trite screenplay that makes “Cut Throat City” a movie a disappointment that doesn’t offer anything exciting or innovative.

Well Go USA released “Cut Throat City” in select U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.

Review: ‘We Are Little Zombies,’ starring Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura, Satoshi Mizuno and Sena Nakajima

September 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sena Nakajima, Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura and Satoshi Mizuno in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“We Are Little Zombies”

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the dark comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” has an all-Japanese cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A group of four teenage orphans who resist adult supervision become unlikely pop stars and navigate the pitfalls and fickleness of fame.

Culture Audience: “We Are Little Zombies” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films with a quirky sense of humor.

Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Keita Ninomiya and Mondo Okumura in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” (written and directed by Makato Nagahisa) takes the movie cliché of orphans being pitiful and desperate for love, and blows up that narrative with this concept: “What if there are orphans who aren’t really sad that their parents are dead?” “We Are Little Zombies” gets its title because the four 13-year-old orphans at the center of the story feel like emotional zombies. It’s a zany movie filmed with a lot of artistic and kitschy flair, but it’s not recommended for people who like to see conventional storytelling in a film.

Who are these four orphans? And exactly why do they have so much apathy about their parents’ deaths? It’s because the kids didn’t feel like their parents really loved them. All four of the orphans seemed to have met at an orphanage, where they quickly bonded with each other. When they ask a yard worker outside to take a group photo of them, he says, “Smile, everyone. Cheer up. You look like zombies.” And so, the nickname sticks.

The leader of this group of orphans is bespectacled Hikari Takami (played by Keita Ninomiya), who is also the narrator of the story. Hikari’s parents died on a tour bus owned by a company called Super Wild Coach Tours, which has a slogan like “Destination: Happiness” and takes people on trips like an All You Can Eat Strawberries tour. Hikari, who felt neglected by his parents, deadpans in the narration that it’s “the worst-named package tour of all time. So much for happiness. They went straight to hell.”

Yuki Takemura (played by Mondo Okumura) was raised by a single dad, who committed suicide. Yuki is the only one of the four orphans who has siblings. After their father’s death, the siblings were split up and put in separate foster homes. It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki was physically abused by his father. Yuki also has an older brother who’s an aspiring punk musician who would practice with his band in the family’s garage and typically treated Yuki as a nuisance if Yuki tried to watch the band perform.

Ikuko Ibu (played by Sena Nakajima) also felt unloved by her parents, who were murdered. (It’s mentioned later in the movie that the murder suspect was apprehended, but there’s no mention of what happened to this suspect.) It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki had a strange relationship with her parents because Ikuko’s father Haruhiko (played by Masatoshi Nagase) appeared to have incestuous thoughts about her. Ikuko’s mother, also named Ikuko (played by Rinko Kikuchi), resented her to point where she called her daughter Ikuko a “femme fatale” and accused Ikuko of having a strange effect on people.

Ishi (played by Satoshi Mizuno) felt disconnected from his parents because they worked so much. His parents owned and operated a restaurant, which didn’t leave much time for them to give Ishi attention. His parents died in a gas explosion at the restaurant. Ishi’s reaction is relief because he knows he won’t have to spend long hours working at the restaurant, as he was expected to do when he got older.

Because Hikari is the narrator, “We Are Little Zombies” spends the most time showing how he dealt with his parents’ death. At the funeral, where none of the adults spoke to Hikari, he can’t cry. He says in a voiceover, “Reality is too stupid to cry over. I’m not sad … A funeral … is five times more boring than history class.”

Hikari continues in saying that he can’t remember the warm touch of his parents because “I was never loved … Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.” And Hikari says in a voiceover: “While the bodies are being cremated, please enjoy some phantom piano.” And then some piano music plays. It’s one of the movie’s many quirks.

Throughout the movie, there are many artistic touches that are reminiscent of 1980s video games. Scenes are framed as if they are part of videogame sequences. There are bright neon colors and florescent lighting. And the movie’s original music (also by Nagahisha) sounds like it came straight from a 1980s videogame from Sega or Nintendo.

The movie’s cinematography (by Hiroaki Takeda) is similar to going on a ride in an amusement park, since the camera dips at odd angles and sometimes bounces around at an almost-dizzying pace. There are a few scenes that involve live fish being taken out and put back in water, and the camera sometimes gives a fish-eye view of what’s happening.

And the movie also contrasts the colorful scenes with stark interiors that have neutral colors. The scenes with muted colors are usually when there are parental or authority figures who try to oppress the kids. It’s an obvious metaphor for how drab and dull they think life can be under adult supervision and how much more vibrant their lives are when they’re free to be on their own.

Despite these seemingly whimsical motifs in the movie, there are also some dark themes of childhood neglect and abuse. Ikuko’s father tells her that if he were younger, he would want to marry her. She tries to shrug off this creepy comment by saying that she can’t get married because her ring finger is missing. (It’s true. The ring finger on her left hand is missing.) Meanwhile, Ikuko says in a voiceover, “Mom once told me that she wished I didn’t exist.”

Ishi has had insecurities over whether he was a wanted child because his father once told him that the only reason why he married Ishi’s mother was because she was pregnant. Hikari’s father was a womanizer, and the infidelity caused a lot of pain in his marriage and family. In a voiceover, Hikari says that he knows that his father was well-loved by a lot of people, but Hikari wonders if his father ever loved him.

In one of the dark humor scenes of the movie, the pregnant mistress of Hikari’s father calls the house shortly after the funeral. She doesn’t know that Hikari’s parents have died. And so, when Hikari answers the phone, he nonchalantly tells her the bad news. She is heard wailing in grief on the other line before Hikari calmly hangs up the phone.

The four orphans are sent to various homes but are unhappy there. They rebel by trying to run away or by trying to skip school. During all of this youthful rebellion, the orphans end up on the streets with some homeless people. And there’s a wacky musical interlude where the homeless people break out in a banjo-playing song.

This musical experience inspires the four orphans to form an electro-pop band called Little Zombies. Hikari is the lead singer, Yuki is the guitarist, Ikuko is the keyboardist, and Ishi is the drummer. They make a music video of themselves called “We Are Little Zombies,” a song that is insanely catchy and is very memorable, long after you see the movie. The orphans put the video on the Internet and think not many people will see it.

Instead, the video goes viral and catches the attention of editors of a major magazine, which does a big article about the orphans. The article leads to more media attention. And before you know it, Little Zombies are very famous. As Hikari explains, “We went from being poor zombies to glamorous rock stars.” The kids in the band go from wearing school uniforms as stage outfits to clothing that was designed so they could look like steam-punk-inspired, edgy artists who made their clothes out of garbage.

The kids soon find that after they become famous, people at home and at school who used to ignore or bully them now want to be their best friends. The orphans also become targets of greedy adults who want to exploit the band’s sudden fame to make money for themselves. And the band has an obsessive fan base on social media. The movie has biting commentary on what fame can do to people, particularly people who are still children, and how celebrity obsessions can take a very dark turn.

Underneath all the goofy hijinks is a message that people can’t really find love through fame and public adoration. If the four Little Zombies thought that they would be happy as pop stars, they learn some harsh life lessons along the way. “We Are Little Zombies” drags a little too long (the total running time is two hours), but there’s enough originality and compelling visuals in the movie for people to be interested in finding out what happens to these emotionally jaded kids who aren’t as tough as they might think they are.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “We Are Little Zombies” in select U.S. cinemas on July 10, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 8, 2020.

Review: ‘The Secrets We Keep,’ starring Noomi Rapace, Chris Messina, Joel Kinnaman and Amy Seimetz

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joel Kinnaman and Noomi Rapace in “The Secrets We Keep” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“The Secrets We Keep”

Directed by Yuval Adler

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1959 in a fictional U.S. city called Spruce, the dramatic film “The Secrets That We Keep” features an all-white cast of characters (most of them are American, and a few are European immigrants) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Romanian immigrant living in America kidnaps a man she suspects was the German Nazi who brutally assaulted her and killed her sister during World War II.

Culture Audience: “The Secrets We Keep” will appeal primarily to people who like crime thrillers or stories about Holocaust survivors.

Chris Messina and Noomi Rapace in “The Secrets We Keep” (Photo by Patti Perret/Bleecker Street)

Getting revenge on a suspected World War II Nazi who’s changed his identity is a concept that’s been done before in movies such as 1998’s “Apt Pupil,” 2011’s “The Debt” (which was a British remake of the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov”) and 2016’s “Remember.” The competent but not particularly outstanding thriller “The Secrets We Keep” is another movie to add to the list. Directed by Yuval Adler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan Covington, “The Secrets We Keep” greatly benefits from the above-average acting from the main stars of the cast, because the movie’s plot wears very thin after a while.

In “The Secrets We Keep,” it’s 1959 in an unnamed U.S. suburban city named Spruce, where people live on quiet, tree-lined streets in middle-class neighborhoods. One of the city residents is Maja (played by Noomi Rapace), a Romanian immigrant who is married to a compassionate American doctor named Lewis (played by Chris Messina), whose patients include several workers at a local refinery. The refinery is one of the biggest employers in the city.

Maja and Lewis have a polite and adorable son named Patrick (played by Jackson Dean Vincent), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Lewis has a private practice, and Maja works part-time as an assistant in his office. They met when Lewis worked at a U.S. Army hospital in Greece in 1946, during the post-World War II Reconstruction.

It’s shown early on in the movie that Lewis is more open-hearted and trusting than Maja is. For example, during an appointment with disabled patient named Eddie (played by Frank Monteleone), who lost both of his legs in World War II, Lewis invites unmarried and childless Eddie over to have dinner sometime with Lewis and Maja. Later, while Maja and Lewis are having a private conversation in their home, Maja expresses discomfort over the dinner invitation.

Maja comments to Lewis about Eddie: “He doesn’t need your pity. You made him feel awkward.” Lewis replies, “No, I didn’t.” Maja, “Yes you did.” This back-and-forth continues for another minute or two, but it’s clear that Maja and Lewis have different ways of handling emotionally sensitive situations. This conflicting style causes much of the tension during what happens later in the story.

Lewis, Maja and Patrick have a tranquil and fairly uneventful life until Maja, just by chance, sees a man (played by Joel Kinnaman) whom she thinks she has encountered in the past. Maja sees him while she’s spending some time in a local park with Patrick. She intently stares at the stranger and starts to follow him until he gets into a car and drives away. The next time she sees this man, they are both in a locksmith store. This time, Maja follows the man all the way to his home and sees that he has a wife and two children: a daughter who’s about 5 or 6 years old and a baby boy.

Maja trespasses into their backyard and overhears him talking to his wife about his job at the refinery. He has a European accent and his wife is American. Maja is almost caught when the family’s dog start barking at her. The way that Maja looks at this man, it’s clear that she has a lot of animosity and suspicion toward him.

The next time Maja sees the man, it’s outside of the refinery, where she’s parked her car. She approaches him and tells him that she has car trouble and needs help. When he goes over to her car, she hits him on the head with a hammer and pushes him into the car trunk.

Maja then ties him up and drives to a shallow grave. When she opens the car trunk, she’s pointing a gun at the man’s head. He shouts something very quickly (which gives away something that happens toward the end of the film) and pleads for his life. “What do you want?” he frantically asks Maja.

It turns out that Maja thinks that this man is a German Nazi named Karl who, 15 years ago, murdered her sister and beat and raped Maja and left her for dead among some other murdered Romanians. The movie shows Maja’s memories of this vicious attack, which involved a group of Nazis, but Maja believes this man was the cruelest one in the group of attackers. The assaults and murders happened outside at night, but Maja says she will never forget Karl’s eyes.

The man whom Maja has abducted swears that he doesn’t know what Maja is talking about. He says he is a Swiss immigrant named Thomas and that he was never in Romania during the time that she described. Instead of shooting him and burying him in the shallow grave, Maja takes him home and tells a shocked Lewis what happened. It’s revealed later in the movie that Maja doesn’t want to kill this man until he confesses to the crimes she believes that he committed.

By bringing this kidnapped man into her home, Maja has to reveal to Lewis that she has a secret past as a Holocaust survivor. For the first time in her marriage, she also confesses to Lewis that she also lied about her family background. Instead of coming from a middle-class family, she actually came from a family of poor Gypsies. And she also tells Lewis for the first time that she was never an only child but she had a sister who was murdered.

Lewis’ first instinct is to call the police with the explanation that the kidnapping was a misunderstanding, but Maja persuades him not to do that because she says that the police will consider Lewis to be an accomplice in the kidnapping. Lewis reluctantly agrees to keep Joseph locked in their basement for one night. Of course, as soon as Lewis says this, viewers can easily guess that this kidnapping is going to last longer than one night.

The rest of the movie is a big guessing game: Is Thomas really who he says he is? How long can Lewis and Maja hold him captive in their basement without anyone finding out? And will Thomas try to escape? All of these questions are answered in the film, which has a lot of suspenseful scenes. But then, there are other scenes where the only suspense is when viewers have to suspend their disbelief at some of aspects of the story.

For example, it’s not a spoiler to say that a lot of what happens in the house during the kidnapping would be difficult to hide from an inquisitive child such as Patrick. Let’s just say that the basement isn’t 100% soundproof. The sounds of Maja torturing Thomas (which happens more than once in the movie) or Thomas being yelled at by his kidnappers result in some close calls with some people who don’t live in the home but go to the home to find out if anything out of the ordinary has been going on. But strangely and unrealistically, the child who lives in the house and would be able to hear these loud and disturbing noises never seems to hear anything.

And there’s a scene where Maja and Lewis foolishly forget to take their loaded gun with them when they leave Thomas alone in the basement. The gun is left right in plain view on a table within reach of Thomas. Even though he’s tied to a chair, he can still move his chair over to the table. And you can guess what might happen after that.

Maja also decides to try to befriend Thomas’ distraught wife Rachel (played by Amy Seimetz) and finds out that Rachel is Jewish. There’s also some information that comes out about Maja’s mental-health history that will make viewers wonder how credible her story is or if her mind is playing tricks on her. Lewis also does some investigating on his own to look into Thomas’ background.

“The Secrets We Keep” has some good acting by Rapace, Messina, Kinnaman and Seimetz. Rapace and Kinnaman also had solid performances when they co-starred together in the 2015 mystery thriller “Child 44,” another movie whose acting was better than the screenplay. However, parts of “The Secrets That We Keep” become repetitive with the “he said/she said” stalemate between Thomas and Maja.

On the plus side, some of the questionable aspects of the story can be explained. For example, it’s possible that a petite woman like Maja could overpower Thomas (who’s a tall man) if he’s injured. It’s also possible that a respected doctor and his wife wouldn’t fall under suspicion for Thomas’ disappearance, especially when there was no proof that Lewis and Maja had contact with Thomas before he disappeared. Maja took a big risk by kidnapping Thomas outside of his workplace, but this is in 1959, before video surveillance cameras existed.

For all of Maja’s explosive anger toward Thomas, she’s not as tough as she’d like to come across to the person she’s kidnapped. Her emotional vulnerability is apparent because it seems that it’s more important for her that Lewis believe that she’s not crazy rather than for her to immediately kill the man she keeps threatening to murder. The ending of “The Secrets We Keep” isn’t much of a shock. Although it’s a realistic conclusion (stranger things have happened in real life), it will probably leave a lot of viewers feeling emotionally disconnected from everyone in the story.

Bleecker Street released “The Secrets We Keep” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is October 16, 2020.

Review: ‘Blackbird’ (2020), starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus and Anson Boon

September 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rainn Wilson, Sam Neill, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Susan Sarandon and Anson Boon in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Blackbird” (2020)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut, the dramatic film “Blackbird” features an all-white cast of characters representing the upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: Long-simmering resentments cause conflicts during a family gathering for a terminally ill woman who wants to die by euthanasia.

Culture Audience: “Blackbird” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas that about family issues.

Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Should people with a terminal disease decide when and how they want to die? It’s an ethical dilemma that has already been decided by Lily Walker, the matriarch of a well-to-do American family. Lily has multiple sclerosis and she wants her doctor husband Paul to give her a lethal dose of medication before her health further declines. The dramatic film “Blackbird” (directed by Roger Michell) is about the family gathering at Lily and Paul’s beach house in the final days that Lily has decided that she’s going to live.

“Blackbird” is a remake of the 2014 Danish film “Silent Heart,” which was written by Christian Torpe, who adapted the movie from his “Silent Heart” novel. Torpe also wrote the screenplay for “Blackbird,” which is a random title for the movie since there’s no blackbird or reference to a blackbird in the story. What’s more important is that it’s a solidly written, well-acted story that isn’t really Oscar-worthy, but it will tug at people’s heartstrings and trigger emotions because there are moments that might remind viewers of their own families.

In “Blackbird” (which takes place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut), Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) has already come to terms with how she wants to die. Her attitude, while not exactly jubilant, is rather matter-of-fact and often jokingly sarcastic about her impending death. Lily’s husband Paul (played by Sam Neill) is trying to go about life as “normally” as possible while trying not to let it show too much how much of a heavy emotional burden he has to administer the lethal dose of medication that has been ordered specifically for the euthanasia.

Lily wants to die on her own terms because she’s losing the use of her muscles, while her medical diagnosis is that it will only be a matter of months when she will have to use a feeding tube to eat. The beginning of the movie shows members of Lily and Paul’s immediately family, as well as Lily’s longtime British best friend Liz (played by Lindsay Duncan), gathering at Lily and Paul’s home to say their goodbyes.

The family members who have gathered for this bittersweet reunion include Lily and Paul’s two daughters who are total opposites. Elder daughter Jennifer, or Jen (played by Kate Winslet) is a judgmental control freak who likes her life to be well-planned and orderly—and it bothers her if other people’s lives aren’t in order too. Younger daughter Anna (played by Mia Wasikowska) has a very messy life, including jumping around from job to job and being treated for bipolar disorder. It should come as no surprise that Jen and Anna don’t get along very well and have been estranged for years.

Trying not to get in the middle of this sibling feud are their respective love partners: Jen’s mild-mannered and nerdy husband Michael (played Rainn Wilson) and Anna’s on-again/off-again partner Chris (played by Bex Taylor-Klaus), who appears to be nonbinary. (Taylor-Klaus is nonbinary in real life.) Also at this family reunion is Jen and Michael’s teenage son Jonathan (played by Anson Boon), who’s going through that teenage phase where he’s easily embarrassed and irritated by things his parents say and do. Jonathan (who is about 16 or 17 years old) is a well-behaved, academically talented student, but he wants to be an actor, which is a career choice that he knows his parents won’t like.

The movie does not show how Lily and Paul told their loved ones the news about Lily’s planned euthanasia, but by the time the group has gathered at the house, they all know about it, except for Jonathan. Paul eventually takes Jonathan aside for a private talk to break the news to him. Jonathan is shocked, but he’s willing to accept whatever Lily wants because he loves and respects his grandmother. In fact, Lily is the first person in the family whom Jonathan tells that he wants to be an actor. She encourages him to pursue this goal.

But since this is a drama about a family reunion, it isn’t long before the family friction starts. Jen and Anna haven’t seen each other in some years. While they’re alone together, Jen expresses disappointment that Anna wasn’t at their father’s birthday and at Jonathan’s school recital, even though Jen sent several reminders. Anna said she was too busy and really wanted to be there. However, it’s pretty obvious to observant viewers from Anna’s tone of voice and body language that Anna has been avoiding family gatherings because she doesn’t want to be around Jen.

Jen isn’t shy about expressing her disapproval of Anna being unable to settle on a professional career. (It’s not really stated what Jen does with her life, which makes her morally superior attitude even more insufferable.) When she asks Anna how her dance program is going, Anna tells Jen that she’s dropped out of the program. Jen then scolds Anna for not completing the program, as well as Anna giving up on past attempts to train for jobs in yoga therapy, acupuncture and quilting. These were programs that their parents paid for, so Jen tries to make Anna feel guilty by implying that her parents are wasting their money on Anna.

Jen then proceeds to annoy Anna even more when she admonishes Anna for bringing Chris to this intimate and sensitive family reunion, because Jen had asked Anna not to invite Chris. Anna tells Jen that if Jen can bring her husband Michael to this reunion, then Anna can bring Chris. Anna angrily says to Jen, “Chris happens to my husband.” Jen replies, “Are you sure you’re even gay?”

Jen’s apparent homophobia apparently isn’t the only reason why she doesn’t approve of Anna and Chris’ relationship. Anna and Chris (who are dating but don’t live together) have had a rocky romance, and Jen thinks Chris is a lower-class person who isn’t a good fit for their family. Unfortunately, as Jen is telling Anna about how Chris isn’t worthy of being part of their family, Chris walks into the room and overhears this part of the conversation, and then walks out of the room embarrassed.

And as if Jen couldn’t be more condescending and insulting, she tells Anna: “Can you give Mom this whole weekend and not have it revolve around you, Anna?” At this point, Anna has had enough of Jen’s lectures and explodes: “Can you quit being a fucking bitch?”

Of course, there are more arguments that take place, as is typical for movies about family reunions. Most of the conflicts revolve around Anna and Jen. Anna confides in Chris that she secretly plans to prevent Lily’s euthanasia by calling 911 to report a suicide attempt. Why? Because Anna doesn’t want Lily to die and she wants to spend more time with her mother to make up for time that they spent apart.

And since this is a movie about family reunions, it has the usual trope about secrets being revealed. One thing that’s not a secret is that Liz used to date Paul, before Paul ever met Lily. What is a secret, which Liz and Lily (who used to be free-spirited hippies) discuss while they walk on the beach together, is that back in the early ’70s, they made a drunken attempt to become lesbian lovers, but it didn’t work out. They have a laugh about it all these years later.

The family has gathered in November close to Thanksgiving, but one of Lily’s last wishes is that they have their Christmas celebration early. She asks Paul to make the Christmas dinner and Michael to go outside and cut down a small tree that will be used for Christmas decorations. This family dinner, where Lily gives everyone a personal gift from her, is one of the best scenes in the movie. Sensitive viewers should have tissues on hand for this tearjerking moment.

With this high caliber of talent in the cast, it’s no surprise that the acting in the movie is top-notch. It’s a story that could easily be adapted into a play, since most of the action takes place inside the house. The beach setting (the movie was actually filmed in Chichester, England, not Connecticut) is lovely, but it’s not very essential to the story.

As good as the acting is in the movie, “Blackbird” doesn’t quite have what it takes to be a movie worthy of a lot of prestigious awards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the movie, but so much of the “family reunion when someone is dying” aspect has been done before in a familiar manner in other movies, that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way that “Blackbird” tells this type of story. It’s not exactly like a formulaic “disease of the week TV movie,” but the character development is lacking in some ways.

The men in the movie are written as incomplete sketches who mostly react to what the strong-willed women in the family (Lily and Jen) want. Paul essentially admits that he’s just carrying out Lily’s demands, when he tells Liz in a private conversation that people who decide to die by euthanasia are rarely insane or depressed, but they are “deeply controlling.” Jonathan isn’t quite a man yet, but his personality is also fairly generic. He shows typical signs of teen rebellion to both of his parents, but he’s willing to please his beloved grandmother Lily.

The conflicts between Jen and Anna suck up a lot of the emotions in the story, which leaves little room for viewers to really get to know Paul and Michael and what they are feeling. Anna and Jen’s love/hate relationship with each other often leaves Chris feeling like a helpless outsider, since Chris has been dating Anna off and on for about three years, and the issues between Anna and Jen have been going on much longer than that. Lily’s unconditional acceptance of Chris goes a long way in how Jen eventually warms up to Chris. There’s a very good scene that Chris and Jen have together where they confront the awkward family tension that has existed between them.

“Blackbird” isn’t a perfect film, but it realistically raises issues that will make people think about what they would do if someone in their family chose euthanasia as a way to die. How much time would be enough time to prepare the family? What grudges can or can’t be resolved before the loved one dies? And what if someone in the family objects to the euthanasia and wants to stop it, even if it means getting family members into legal trouble? There are no easy answers to these questions, but “Blackbird” is a compelling look at how a fictional family deals with these very real and emotionally complicated dilemmas.

Screen Media Films, in association with Fathom Events, released “Blackbird” in select U.S. cinemas for two nights of previews on September 14 and September 15, 2020. The movie expands to more U.S. cinemas and is available on VOD on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘One Night in Bangkok,’ starring Mark Dacascos, Kane Kosugi and Vanida Golten

September 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mark Dacascos in “One Night in Bangkok” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“One Night in Bangkok”

Directed by Wych Kaosayananda

Culture Representation: This crime drama, which takes place in the Thailand capital of Bangkok, features a predominantly Asian cast (with a few white people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A man on a deadly revenge mission hires an unsuspecting rideshare driver to take him to various places where he murders people.

Culture Audience: “One Night in Bangkok” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching dull, derivative and mindlessly violent movies.

Vanida Golten in “One Night in Bangkok” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The crime drama “One Night in Bangkok” has nothing to do with Murray Head’s 1985 “Chess” musical song “One Night in Bangkok.” And unfortunately, logic and good storytelling had nothing do with this dreadful movie.

“One Night in Bangkok” is really just a vastly inferior ripoff of director Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller “Collateral,” starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise as a taxi driver and a hitman who are caught up in the hitman’s murder spree during the course of one night. Foxx earned an Oscar nomination for his role in “Collateral,” which was also Oscar-nominated for its film editing. The only distinction that “One Night in Bangkok” has is that it’s one in a long list of bad movies written and directed by Wych Kaosayananda, who also directed and co-wrote the notorious 2002 stinker “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever,” starring Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu.

“Collateral” was told from the point of view of the driver, but “One Night in Bangkok” shifts the point of view to the hitman. His name is Kai Khale (played by Mark Dacascos), an American who has traveled from Hawaii to Bangkok. When he arrives in Bangkok, he is picked up by an unidentified man on a motorbike. The mystery man gives Kai a duffel bag that contains a gun with a silencer, cash and a mobile phone. Kai’s demeanor is calm and measured, as if he knows where he’s going but he’s in no big rush to get there.

The next thing that Kai does is call a rideshare service. He books a ride with a driver named Vanida “Fha” Hoffstead. It’s now 8:10 p.m. Kai and Fha strike up a pleasant conversation on the way to his first destination, which is an insurance company. Kai says he’s going there to see a lawyer. It’s an unusual time to have an appointment at an insurance company, but Fha assumes that the lawyer must be working late.

Fha tells Kai a little bit about herself during their small talk. She says she prefers to be a rideshare driver at night because she has more time during night hours. But then Kai gets a little creepy and starts asking her some inappropriate personal questions, such as asking her how she deals with men who proposition her because she’s so pretty.

Kai also asks Fha, who tells him that she’s single, why she’s not married. “I never got around to it,” she replies. Kai is so polite when he makes these intrusive comments, and even apologizes in advance for being so nosy, that Fha openly answers his questions with no hesitation.

Fha also reveals a little bit of her background: She’s lived in Thailand for her entire life. Her father is British, and her mother is Thai. Fha also mentions that her brother has multiple sclerosis. Kai sympathetically replies that he used to be a field medic “a long time ago.”

He won’t say much else about himself, except when he rambles later in the conversation about how much he loves fishing. (You can bet that there’s a reason why fishing is brought up in the story.) Fha says that she studied English in college, but she’s still trying to learn to speak English better, which she does mostly by watching movies and YouTube videos.

Kai then continues with his nosy questions, by asking Fha what she makes as a rideshare driver on a typical Friday night. She tells him that she can make $1,000 to $1,200 on a good Friday night. Kai then tells her that after he leaves the insurance company, he has to make four more stops at four different places: a police station, a nightclub, a hospital and a house.

Kai offers Fha $5,000 in cash if she drives him to all of the stops on his journey. He says that he can give her $1,000 as an up-front deposit, and that she’s free to end the trip at any time. Fha will get the remaining $4,000 if she drives Kai to all of the places that he requested that night.

At this point, anyone with street smarts would suspect that there’s an illegal reason for this unusual offer. Why else would the payment be so high for the simple task of driving someone to more than one destination? However, Fha seems to be easily fooled because Kai is wearing a business suit and has a smooth and polite demeanor.

Fha asks him why he needs to make these stops, and Kai replies that it’s about a case involving his daughter and her family. Kai also says he needs to “repay” the people involved in the case. Kai also tells Fha that she can ask him any questions, but she can’t look in his duffel bag. Instead of seeing these “red flag” warning signs that she’s about to mixed up in something illegal if she says yes, Fha agrees to the deal and foolishly mentions that it’s because she needs the money.

Of course, Kai isn’t in Bangkok on legal business. He’s has a vendetta that he’s going to carry out by murdering at every stop that he makes. The reason for this killing spree is revealed in the last third of the movie. There’s also a surprise “twist” which isn’t that shocking, considering everything that happened up to the point had signs indicating that there would be this “twist.”

Kai kills the people on his hit list in a methodical way and by making no attempt to disguise himself. One of the victims fights back, and the brawl leaves Kai with a big bloody gash on his bald head. When Fha sees the wound, Kai gives a flimsy excuse that he fell down somewhere. Fha’s reaction is to treat his head wound as if she’s the friendly neighborhood rideshare nurse and then she continues on the journey with him. Little by little, Kai tells Fha the real reason for his trip to Bangkok.

Meanwhile, a dumb movie like this has to operate under the premise that a big city like Bangkok only has a few bungling cops who are investigating this alarming shooting spree that’s taking place in a short period of time. (The whole story is supposed to take place within a six-hour period.) It’s the kind of movie where the cops show up too late at a crime scene and don’t make good use of surveillance video to figure out quicker who’s the killer.

The lead police investigator is named Dom (played by Michael S. New), whose cop partner is named Korn (Prinya Intachai), and their handling of the investigation is amateurish at best. Dom is such so incompetent that he has to call his cop wife, who’s on maternity leave at home, to ask her to do some of his computer work for him. There’s also an unnamed Japanese fixer (played by Kane Kosugi) who’s part of the story.

The biggest problem with “One Night in Bangkok” (besides the terrible acting) is that for a movie that’s supposed to be a thriller, the pacing is too slow. The actors often speak at a sluggish and wooden pace. And there’s not much suspense to the story.

Kai goes from one murder to another with empty-headed Fha, who hasn’t figured out that whatever money she’s being offered by this stranger, it isn’t worth becoming an accomplice to murder. Surveillance cameras and eyewitnesses would be able to identify her as the getaway driver, since her car is being used in this killing spree.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Fha eventually finds out that Kai is killing people. And the reason why she stays with him is as pathetic as this movie: “You’re the first man in my life who’s showed me respect,” Fha says to Kai when she tells him why she won’t abandon him during his murder spree.

Fha’s complacency is probably the biggest difference between “One Night in Bangkok” and “Collateral,” which derived much of its suspense from the driver wanting to get away from the hitman. There is no such tension in “One Night in Bangkok,” which gets worse as the killings go on, because Kai gets messier and more brazen with each killing, and Fha does nothing to stop him. The worst scene is in the hospital, which ridiculously has no staffers and visitors when Kai does what he does there.

Sometimes a poorly written movie with terrible acting can be watchable if there’s enough action and suspense. Because “One Night in Bangkok” falls short in all of these areas, what’s left are a lot of bloody scenes, characters people won’t care about, and viewers’ sinking feeling that they could’ve spent 105 minutes of their time in a much better way than watching this boring dreck.

Lionsgate released “One Night in Bangkok” on digital, DVD and VOD on August 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Critical Thinking,’ starring John Leguizamo, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Angel Bismark Curiel, Corwin Tuggles, Will Hochman, Rachel Bay Jones and Michael Kenneth Williams

September 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Corwin Tuggles, Angel Bismark Curiel, Will Hochman and John Leguizamo in “Critical Thinking” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Critical Thinking”

Directed by John Leguizamo

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Miami in 1998, the drama “Critical Thinking” has a racially diverse cast (Latino, African American and white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A dedicated teacher in a tough Miami school encourages his students to learn how to play chess to boost their learning skills, even though they live in an area where the some people pressure the students to become school dropouts and criminals. 

Culture Audience: “Critical Thinking” will appeal primarily to people who like feel-good stories about people who overcome obstacles, despite having the odds stacked against them.

Angel Bismark Curiel, Corwin Tuggles and Jeffry Batista in “Critical Thinking” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

There have been many movies about underestimated students, led by an inspirational teacher, who go on to achieve a certain goal together. In these movies, the students are usually underprivileged or disadvantaged in some way when they go up against people who are more privileged and have more advantages than the “underdogs” have. “Critical Thinking” (which is a very bland title for a movie that’s actually quite good) takes this concept and makes a slightly above-average movie, even though it hits a lot of familiar tonal beats that lead to a very predictable ending.

John Leguizamo not only stars in “Critical Thinking,” but he also makes his theatrical-release feature-film directorial debut with the movie, which is based on true events about a group of underprivileged students who competed in a national chess championship. Under his solid direction, “Critical Thinking” has some moments that are less cliché than others. Dito Montiel’s screenplay for “Critical Thinking” doesn’t clutter the movie with too many backstories, although it leaves the impression that the teacher gave higher priority and more attention to the male students than the female students.

In “Critical Thinking,” which takes primarily in place in Miami, it’s 1998 at Miami Jackson High School, where many students are from financially deprived homes in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Mario Martinez (played by Leguizamo) is a teacher for an elective class called Critical Thinking. Mario knows his class is often a dumping ground where delinquent students are sent, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting for the type of respect (and budget) that the financially strapped school gives to regular classes.

Mario’s boss is school principal Ms. Kestel (played by Rachel Bay Jones), a hard-nosed cynic who has an air of racial condescension about her when she deals with Mario and the school’s students, who are mostly people of color. Ms. Kestel comes across as someone who wants everyone to think she’s doing her part to help underprivileged kids, but she’s the type that thinks she’s too good to actually mix with people of color in her personal life.

The threat of violence is always a danger to many of the school’s students. A Spanish-speaking immigrant student who is transferred into Mario’s class doesn’t attend the class for very long, because he gets shot and killed on the street by a local gangster over a petty misunderstanding, Ms. Kestel has this reaction when she and Mario talk about the murder: “While unfortunate, it’s not a total shock anymore.” This police investigation into the murder becomes a subplot to the movie, since one of Mario’s students witnessed the crime but he doesn’t want to snitch on the gangster.

Meanwhile, life has to go on in Mario’s class, where he teaches a hodgepodge of topics, including art, literature, history and philosophy, but the favorite thing he likes to teach is chess. He encourages his students to “dig deeper than your dusty old Britannica encyclopedia” and find things that aren’t taught in textbooks.

He’s not shy about telling his students that influential people of color have often been erased from history because white men were in charge of writing history books for centuries. Mario is aware he could get in trouble for this kind of talk in the classroom, so he peeks outside the classroom door first to make sure that a white co-worker such as Ms. Kestel isn’t lurking nearby to possibly overhear him. On the subject of chess, Mario tells his students, “How come we don’t know that chess was invented in India, perfected in Persia and modernized by a [Puerto Rican] guy named Maura?”

Mario shows the students how chess can help in all aspects of life because it involves the skill of thinking ahead and strategizing. Although he has about 30 students in his classroom on any given day, there are four (and then later five) students who end up being the focus of the story, since they’re the chosen ones for the school’s chess team.

Sedrick Roundtree (played by is Corwin Tuggles) is the unofficial student leader of the chess team and the one most likely to encourage the others when they feel defeated. Even before he took Mario’s class, Sedrick was an avid chess player.

Oelmy “Ito” Paniagua (played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) has a big rebellious streak and is Sedrick’s closest friend. Ito doesn’t really think chess is cool until Sedrick convinces him to join the school’s chess team. Ito is also the student in this chess group who’s most likely to be tempted into joining a gang or becoming a drug dealer. It’s hinted at, but not shown, that Ito comes from an abusive home.

Rodelay “Roddy” Medina (played by Angel Bismark Curiel) is the group’s jokester. He dislikes confrontation and arguments, and he gets easily hurt if he thinks his friends are disloyal. Just like Sedrick, Roddy has a passion for chess and is highly competitive when it comes to the game.

Gil Luna (played by Will Hochman) is the quietest and most mellow member of the group. Although he has a Latino name, he can easily pass for being white. His apparent “whiteness” makes him the target of some teasing by the darker-skinned members of the group, but the teasing is never mean-spirited. All of the members of the group end up getting teased or taunted by one another at some point.

Much later in the story, a fifth student joins the chess team. His name is Marcel Martinez (played by Jeffry Batista), a Cuban immigrant who doesn’t know much English. Sedrick recruited Marcel to enroll in the school and join the chess team, after Sedrick and Roddy were playing some chess in Domino Park, invited some local people to pay chess with them, and were blown away by Marcel’s extraordinary talent. There’s a scene in the movie where Marcel can play chess with multiple people at a time, with his back turned to them and without looking at the chessboard, and by calling out the moves that he wants to play.

Sedrick is also the only student whose unhappy home life is shown in the movie. He lives with his alcoholic widower father (played by Michael Kenneth Williams), whose first name is never revealed in the movie. Sedrick father, when he’s not passed out drunk, frequently gets angry and picks fights with Sedrick.

The only time that Sedrick and his father bond is when they play chess together, but his father is a sore loser. Sedrick’s mother was killed by a hit-and-run accident that Sedrick witnessed when he was 6 years old. It’s obvious that he and his father haven’t been able to grieve or talk about her death in a way that can help them heal from the trauma of their loss.

When Sedrick’s father hears about Sedrick being on the school’s chess team, he scoffs at Sedrick and tells him it’s a waste of time because chess isn’t the kind of thing that most people can do as a job. And his father gets even more irritated when Sedrick’s chess team starts competing with other schools’ chess teams. Although it’s never said out loud, it’s clear that Sedrick’s father didn’t have an opportunity to be part of a school chess team that got to travel to different competitions, and he’s jealous and resentful that Sedrick is doing what he never got to do.

Although “Critical Thinking” has some heavy issues, such as gang violence, alcoholism and abusive homes, the movie also has some humor—namely, the camaraderie that the boys have with each other, especially when Roddy is around. And in a rarity for a movie about high-school students, dating isn’t really the cause of any of the angst or conflict in the story, because the boys are so focused on chess. Sedrick is the only one in the group who has a girlfriend. Her name is Chanayah (played by Zora Casebere), and she attends the same school, but she’s written as a fairly minor character.

In fact, the movie’s biggest flaw is how the female students in the movie are essentially written as background characters, with the implication being that the female students weren’t good enough to be on Mario’s chosen chess team. It’s not clear if the girls in his class aren’t interested in chess or if Mario didn’t think they were worth encouraging as much as he encourages the male students to be on the chess team.

Whatever the case, there’s definitely more than a whiff of sexism about how this chess team was assembled—and the gender imbalance is all the more noticeable when Miami Jackson High School’s chess team competes against other schools who have plenty of girls on their chess teams. That’s not to say that the movie needed to rewrite history and put girls on the Miami Jackson team, which was apparently an all-male team in real life in 1998. But the screenplay should have at least addressed why none of the girls in Mario’s class ended up on the team.

Another big question left unanswered in the movie is: “What is Mario’s own background and why did he want to become a teacher?” In one of his many “tough love” lectures to his chosen chess students when they get discouraged or act too rowdy, Mario hints that he also comes from a troubled and tough background like they do. But that’s as far as it goes. No further details are given about what kind of man Mario is when he’s not working as a teacher. There’s no “home life” shown for any of the movie’s characters except for Sedrick.

“Critical Thinking” is not a disappointing movie, but parts of the story could have done more to fill in some blanks. For example, something happens to Ito toward the end of the film and the outcome is never fully explained. If not for the acting of the main cast members, several parts of “Critical Thinking” would be quite boring to watch. Leguizamo’s fast-talking, sometime wisecracking persona serves him well in this role, since Mario is supposed to be an unconventional teacher who can relate to his students.

Lendeborg (as Ito) and Curiel (as Roddy) also stand out in their roles. Ito is a tough guy who doesn’t want to show his vulnerabilities, while Roddy is a vulnerable guy who doesn’t want to be so tough that he alienates his friends. Both portrayals are nuanced and worth watching, since these two characters are more than just generic roles.

Tuggles (as Sedrick) also does a commendable performance, particularly in some emotionally raw scenes that Sedrick has with his father. Williams is a very good actor, but he’s had many roles in movies and TV shows where he’s a guy with a mean streak/bad temper, so there’s really nothing new or noteworthy that Williams does in this movie.

“Critical Thinking” is worth a look for people who want to see a real-life inspirational story portrayed in a familiar way. The believable performances from most of the cast go a long way in preventing the movie from sinking into forgettable mediocrity. With “Critical Thinking,” Leguizamo also has proven he can do well as a director who makes very good casting choices and who has a knack for telling a crowd-pleasing story.

Vertical Entertainment released “Critical Thinking” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, on digital and on VOD on September 4, 2020.

Review: ‘The Lawyer,’ starring Eimutis Kvoščiauskas, Doğaç Yıldız and Darya Ekamasova

September 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eimutis Kvoščiauskas and Doğaç Yildic in “The Lawyer” (Photo courtesy of TLA Releasing)

“The Lawyer”

Directed by Romas Zabarauskas

Some language in Lithuanian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Lithuania and Serbia, the drama “The Lawyer” features a mostly white European cast (with a few Middle Eastern people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An openly gay lawyer, who falls for a male webcam model, finds out that his new love interest is a Syrian refugee in Serbia, and the lawyer tries to get him asylum in another country.

Culture Audience: “The Lawyer” will appeal primarily to people who like stylishly made independent dramas with realistic scenarios and storylines about the LGBTQ community and immigration issues.

Eimutis Kvoščiauskas and Doğaç Yildic in “The Lawyer” (Photo courtesy of TLA Releasing)

LGBTQ rights and immigration issues collide in the drama “The Lawyer,” a quietly effective drama that shines a light on how the sexuality of LGBTQ war refugees might affect their immigration status. Written, directed and produced by Romas Zabarauskas, “The Lawyer” takes its time (the first third of the film) to get to the heart of the story, which is viewed from the perspective of a protagonist named Marius (played by Eimutis Kvoščiauskas), an openly gay Lithuanian attorney in his 40s who lives alone but he has an active social life.

It’s shown in the beginning of the film that Marius (who lives and works as a corporate attorney in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius) has a reassuring way with people where he likes to help solve their problems. The opening scene is of Marius at his law office, calming down a demanding socialite friend of his named Darya Ivanova (played by Darya Ekamasova), who has stormed into the office because she’s upset that a gossip website has made a less-than-flattering remark about an outfit that she wore to an event.

Darya had worn a shirt with a large print of the insignia that was on the flag of former Soviet Union. The website’s published a photo of Darya in the outfit, with the headline: “Darya Ivanova’s Shocking Out: Nostalgia for the Soviet Occupation?” Darya is so offended that she wants to sue the website and she’s already been browbeating an unwitting receptionist at Marius’ law firm to get someone at the law firm to do something about this “problem.”

Even though Marius reminds Daria that his law firm does corporate law and wouldn’t be able to take the case, he tells her he’ll see what he can do. “How can we refuse to work with Madame Darya?” he tells her. Darya thanks him effusively and leaves before she can further berate any more employees. Marius’ ability to diffuse the situation is the first indication that Marius likes to see himself as a “fixer” of people’s problems. And this personality trait explains much of what he does later in the movie.

Marius, who is single and doesn’t have any children, has a circle of friends in the LGBTQ community. During a house party dinner with some of these friends, it’s revealed that Marius has a reputation for being promiscuous, although he insists that he would be in a serious, monogamous relationship if he could find true love. Marius laments, “I’m an old poof in homophobic Lithuania.”

At this dinner, Marius has been somewhat set up on a blind date with a bisexual transgender man named Pranas (played by Danilas Pavilionis), who works as a sculptor. After the dinner, when Marius and Pranas are alone together, they talk some more and find out they’re not very compatible. Pranas (who’s about 15 to 20 years younger than Marius) calls Marius a “privileged corporate lawyer.” When Marius asks Pranas if he would make a sculpture of Marius if Marius commissioned it, Pranas replies that Marius wouldn’t have the money for it. Oh, snap. That’s the end of that date.

Marius’ attorney salary has given him a very comfortable upscale life (and the sleekly modern apartment to prove it), but he’s not as wealthy as his friend Darya. As for his love life, Marius’ promiscuity is hinted at in the movie, but it’s not really shown, except for later in the story when he randomly picks up a guy. It’s hinted that Marius can have a tendency to be self-absorbed. When he talks to his friends who set him up on the blind date with Pranas, they are dismayed to find out that that Marius didn’t recognize Pranas, who was featured in a LGBTQ “coming out” public service announcement that was co-sponsored by Marius’ law firm.

Marius and Paranas didn’t have a love connection, perhaps because Marius’ attention has been on his favorite webcam model, a handsome man who calls himself Ron. After some mutual flirting through their webcam chats, Marius persuades the model to give him his personal phone number, which is against the rules.

Marius and the model continue their conversations privately, and the model reveals that his real name is Ali (played by Doğaç Yildiz), and that he’s a Syrian refugee living in Belgrade, Serbia. Ali also tells Marius that he’s gotten suspended from the webcam service because another use reported him for giving out his personal phone number to a customer.

Meanwhile, Marius gets his own bad news: His mother calls to tell him that his father has died. When he goes back to his hometown to attend the funeral, his mother (played by Neringa Bulotaitė) tells Marius that Marius’ father was sorry for the way things went. It’s not stated outright, but it’s implied that Marius and his father were estranged at the time of his death, but it’s not stated why they were estranged. Marius’ earlier comment about Lithuania being “homophobic” certainly suggests that he’s experienced bigotry or hatred about his sexuality, perhaps from his father. The movie doesn’t go into details about how long Marius has been openly gay.

A turning point in Marius and Ali’s relationship happens when Marius tells Ali about his father’s death, and Ali comforts him in a very compassionate and sincere way. It’s the first sign that they will have more than a superficial online relationship because there’s an unspoken bond they now share over grief and loss. Marius decides to visit Ali in Serbia, where Marius will be for a week.

Marius and Ali’s first date is very casual: They go jogging. Ali doesn’t want them to become lovers right away, but Marius reminds him that he’s only going to be in Serbia for a week. Ali opens up a little more about his refugee situation and he insists that he doesn’t want to be thought of as a victim. “You’re too handsome to be a victim,” Marius tells Ali. Ali responds, “You’re too handsome to be a lawyer.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie with corny romantic dialogue.

However, since Marius is an attorney, Ali asks Marius if there is any way that Marius can help. Marius tells Ali that he’s a corporate attorney and doesn’t know anything about immigration law Marius is also hurt because he thinks that Ali isn’t interested in dating him and just wanted to use him for his legal services. They agree that perhaps there was a misunderstanding and they should part ways.

But since Marius has a “savior” complex, he changes his mind and tracks down Ali at the refugee camp in Krnjaca, where Ali lives. Ali is very surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see Marius there, but he agrees to accept Marius’ help. Marius insist that Ali spent the rest of the week with him at Marius’ hotel. Ali tells Marius that he’s bisexual and that he’s not fully “out of the closet” yet.

At first Marius tries to keep things platonic, but one thing leads to another and they become lovers. Ali, who is originally from the Syrian capital of Damascus, tells Marius about some painful losses he’s experienced because of the Syrian war. Ali says he wants to move to another country, but he doesn’t want to be openly identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, which would give him a better chance of being out in a “protected” status with immigration. Ali also says he hasn’t been the victim of a homophobic hate crime, so that makes it even more difficult for him to apply for refugee status.

What happens to Ali and Marius and their new romance is shown in the rest of the movie, which takes great care to depict this love story in a touching and sometimes humorous way. Viewers will want to root for this couple as they navigate the complications of international law and immigrant refugee policies. One of the biggest obstacles to Ali and Marius living together is that Lithuania does not have an immigration policy for Syrian refugees that is as open and friendly as other countries’ policies. And Marius has no intention of moving to Serbia, since Ali doesn’t want to stay in Serbia either.

“The Lawyer” writer/director/producer Zabarauskas made the right decision to have the story told from Marius’ point of view because Marius represents the “privileged blind spot” that many people have when they hear about war refugees but don’t really think much about refugees until a refugee problem affects them directly. The people who are most likely to watch “The Lawyer” are those who probably have this “privileged blind spot” too, and it might make these viewers think of the fallout of the Syrian war in more human terms.

The movie’s stylish cinematography (by Narvydas Naujalis) plays with color palettes in a meaningful way. When Marius is feeling lust or love, he’s shaded in red. The morning after Ali and Marius become lovers, they wake up in their hotel in a scene that is shot in black and white, recalling the romance of old European movies.

Where “The Lawyer” falls a little short at times is in its writing and acting. The dialogue can be a bit hokey. For example, in the scene where Ali asks Marius for help with his immigration status, Marius tells Ali: “You may be Cinderella, but I’m no Prince Charming.” The spoiled socialite character of Darya is also unnecessary to the story, although there’s a scene in her art gallery that’s visually compelling because of the oversized photos on the walls and how they are filmed.

Kvoščiauskas can be a little wooden as an actor. But to be fair, his stiff demeanor could also be interpreted as Marius being somewhat closed off from his emotions until he falls for Ali. Yildiz has a more natural, more believable style to his acting. The movie definitely gets better in the second half, when Marius and Ali’s relationship starts to develop.

Although the movie’s screenwriting and acting have minor flaws, “The Lawyer” is worth watching for the overall story. The emotions of the characters are depicted in an authentic way. And the movie makes an unforgettable point of showing how the negative effects of a war reach far beyond the borders of the country at war.

TLA Releasing released “The Lawyer” on DVD on August 18, 2020. Dekkoo premiered the movie on August 20, 2020.