Review: ‘Dealing With Dad,’ starring Ally Maki, Hayden Szeto, Peter S. Kim, Dana Lee, Page Leong, Echo Kellum and Megan Gailey

June 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Cast members of “Dealing With Dad.” Pictured in front row, from left to right: Dana Lee, Hayden Szeto, Ally Maki, Peter S. Kim and Caleb Mantuano. Pictured in back row, from left to right: Megan Gailey, Page Leong and Echo Kellum. (Photo by Steven Lam/1091 Pictures)

“Dealing With Dad”

Directed by Tom Huang

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Milpitas, California, the comedy/drama film “Dealing With Dad” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people and African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Three siblings in their 30s gather at their parents’ home, where their father is having depression issues, and long-simmering family resentments come to the surface.

Culture Audience: “Dealing With Dad” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in bittersweet dramedies about immigrant families, sibling rivalries, and how childhood experiences affect people through adulthood.

Ally Maki and Dana Lee in “Dealing With Dad” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Dealing With Dad” is a generally entertaining dramedy about a specific family with universally relatable issues. Some of the jokes are a little corny, but the movie gets better as it goes along. Ally Maki gives an impressive performance as a Type-A perfectionist with daddy issues. “Dealing With Dad” does an overall capable job of balancing family drama and comedy.

Written and directed by Tom Huang, “Dealing With Dad” (which takes place mostly in Milpitas, California) has many of the predictable arguments and squabbles that are usually found in movies about family reunions where family members have long-held resentments and grudges. The family at the center of this story isn’t completely dysfunctional, but most of the family members have problems communicating openly and honestly with each other. They are forced to reckon with many of their issues when the family patriarch becomes bedridden with depression after being laid off from his accounting job.

Jialuo Chang (played by Dana Lee), an immigrant from Taiwan, is cranky and impatient with everyone around him. Jialuo’s self-confidence of being his household’s main financial provider gets a big blow after he becomes unemployed. It’s later revealed in the movie that Jialuo was verbally abusive and sometimes physically abusive to his three children when they were underage. Jialuo currently lives in Milpitas, California, in the same house where he and his wife raised their three American-born children during most of the kids’ childhoods.

Sophie Chang (played by Page Leong) is Jialuo’s often-demanding and judgmental wife, who is also an immigrant from Taiwan. Sophie is openly racist against people wo aren’t Asian. She tells her children that she wants them to marry only Asian people. Sophie hides her racism by being smiling and polite to people whom she makes racist comments about behind their backs.

Margaret Chang-Atlas (played by Ally Maki) is an uptight, hard-driving business entrepreneur who likes to be in control of situations. Margaret is actually fearful of disappointing her parents, especially her father. Ironically, Margaret can be just as prickly and difficult with other people as her parents are with her. How much of a control freak is Margaret? There’s a scene in the movie where she and her two brothers are eating at a casual restaurant, and she cuts the food on the plate of the younger brother, as if he’s a helpless child.

Margaret knows her mother doesn’t approve of Margaret being married to an African American musician named Jeff Atlas (played by Echo Kellum), who does not have the type of career that Sophie and Jialuo think is suitable for a spouse. Sophie privately uses the derogatory term “half-breed” to describe Margaret and Jeff’s son Nick (played by Caleb Mantuano), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. But when Sophie is around Nick, she acts like a doting and loving grandmother.

Roy Chang (played by Peter S. Kim) is Margaret’s older brother. He works as a bank manager and is feeling down about his life because his wife Sherry is divorcing him. Sherry and Roy have no daughter together, and he worries about Roy doesn’t want the divorce and is hoping that he and Sherry can reconcile. He is also sensitive about his body size and gets defensive when his siblings make negative comments about the large portions of food that he eats.

Larry Chang (played by Hayden Szeto) is Margaret’s younger brother. He is 33 years old, unemployed, and currently living with his parents. Larry is a self-described sci-fi nerd who spends a lot of his time and money on collecting sci-fi memorabilia and playing video games. Larry makes a small amount of money by selling his memorabilia at a local comic book/collectible store managed by Aaron (played by Ari Stidham), another sci-fi enthusiast. Larry owes Roy a certain amount of money that is not specified, but it’s enough money that causes Roy to resent Larry.

Jenny (played by Cindera Che) is Jialuo’s younger sister, who lives in Denver, but she goes to Milpitas after hearing about Jialuo’s mental health issues. For years, Jenny has been openly hostile or standoffish to Margaret, who doesn’t know why. During the course of the movie, the reason why is revealed.

Margaret and Roy both live far enough away from their parents that when they both find out that their father is bedridden, Roy and Margaret reluctantly take a plane ride to go to their parents’ home in Milpitas. Margaret’s husband and son don’t go with her. Before this family crisis, Margaret hadn’t talked to her parents in months.

The first half of “Dealing With Dad” is structured and written almost like a sitcom, with a bunch of family members making verbal zingers and lobbying sarcastic insults at each other. It starts to get very repetitive, but not completely boring. Jialuo has become very reclusive, so he is not seen for much of the movie. The three siblings are somewhat relieved that they don’t have to deal with Jialuo’s usual tryannical bossiness, but his wife Sophie causes a lot of drama.

There’s a subplot about Larry reconnecting with a goofy former high-school classmate named Sarah Schumer (played by Megan Gailey), who has recently moved back to the area after serving time in the Peace Corps. Larry has had a crush on Sarah since high school. She has many of the same interests as Larry does, and she likes him, but he is too shy to ask her out on a date.

Meanwhile, a nerdy doctor named Gordon, also known as Gordy (played by Karan Soni), who is a former high-school classmate of Margaret’s, stops by for a house call to treat Jialuo. Sophie is impressed that Gordon is a doctor, so she makes awkward attempts to play matchmaker between Margaret and Gordon, even though neither one is romantically interested in the other. Sophie also tries to set up Larry with a quiet Chinese immigrant named Cai Shi (played by Peggy Lu), who’s about 25 years older than Larry.

Gordon prescribes Zoloft to Jialuo and recommends that Jialuo get therapy for the depression. Jialuo is too proud to accept that he needs this help. The movie takes a much more serious turn when tensions run even higher because Jialou refuses to take the Zoloft. He literally throws the pills across the room. And in one incident, he spits a Zoloft pill in Margaret’s face.

The siblings’ battle to get Jialuo to take his prescribed Zoloft becomes a symbol for the grudges that all three of his children have against him. Margaret has the most resentment toward her father, so she’s the one who fights the most to get him to take the Zoloft pills. Flashbacks to Margaret’s childhood show that Jialuo was the hardest on her, out of all his three children, because he had the highest expectations for Margaret. Miya Cech has the role of Margaret at about 12 or 13 years old.

In one of these flashback scenes, Margaret has a painful memory of Jialuo slapping her hard in the face in front of her softball teammates, after she joyfully told him that she made it onto the softball team. Instead of being happy for her, Jialuo got angry and assaulted her for having “B” grades on her report card. Later, he gave her an apology gift of new softball gloves, which the adult Margaret says are the only signs that she has that Jialuo might have loved her.

“Dealing With Dad” also shows Margaret’s anxiety issues. She has a recurring nightmare that she’s trapped in a narrow hallway that has a tidal wave of flooding that’s about to drown her. Although Margaret likes to put forth an image to the world that she’s got her whole life together, this vulnerable side to her gives the movie more emotional depth. And she’s not a completely sympathetic protagonist, because she has a tendency to act superior to her brothers and other people. It’s a personality flaw that Margaret gets confronted about at one point in the story.

“Dealing With Dad” also has authentic depictions of the dynamics between immigrant parents and their children who were born and raised in the country where the parents immigrated. Jialuo and Sophie want to tightly hold on to their “old school” Taiwanese traditions and have a hard time accepting that their children might not feel the same way. Those traditions include a reluctance to get psychiatric help for mental health issues.

All of the cast members give performances that range from mediocre to very good. The movie is told mainly from Margaret’s perspective, so Maki has the most challenging role, because of the myriad of emotions that she has to convey. The pace of the movie occasionally drags in the middle, but the last third of the film is the best part. Just when you think “Dealing With Dad” might end on an expected formulaic note, it surprisingly shows that, just like in real life, not everyone is going to change annoying personality traits just because of a family reunion.

1091 Pictures/Screen Media Films released “Dealing With Dad” in select U.S. cinemas on April 16, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on May 9, 2023.

Review: ‘Past Lives’ (2023), starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro

June 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front: Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives” (Photo by Jon Pack/A24)

“Past Lives” (2023)

Directed by Celine Song

Some language in Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1990 to 2014, in Seoul, New York City, and briefly in Toronto, the dramatic film “Past Lives” (partially inspired by a true story) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Twenty-four years after moving from South Korea to North America in her childhood, a 36-year-old married woman reconnects with a single man of the same age who could have been her adolescent sweetheart if she hadn’t moved away from South Korea. 

Culture Audience: “Past Lives” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about missed connections, immigration, and contemplating “what if” scenarios, when it comes to love, friendship and romance.

Greta Lee, John Magaro and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Past Lives” beautifully tells a mature and realistic story about love, friendship and heartbreak for two people whose lives have gone in different directions, but they find a way to reconnect. It’s a relationship drama that’s an instant classic. If you’re looking for a movie with a formulaic ending, then look elsewhere. “Past Lives” authentically conveys the unsettling effects of when people begin to wonder if the lives that they have are the lives that they really want, and if past decisions they made were the right decisions.

Written and directed by Celine Song, “Past Lives” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is a movie that is inspired by events that happened in Song’s own life. The movie isn’t autobiographical, but it explores many of the same feelings that came about when Song (who is originally from South Korea and married to an American man) was visited by man who was her childhood sweetheart in their native South Korea. Song is a New York City-based playwright whose feature-film debut is “Past Lives,” which opens with a scene that’s based on one of Song’s real-life experiences.

As she explains in the “Past Lives” production notes, she, her husband and her close childhood friend went to a restaurant/bar together during this visit. “I was sitting there between these two men who I know love me in different ways, in two different languages and two different cultures. And I’m the only reason why these two men are even talking to each other. There’s something almost sci-fi about it. You feel like somebody who can transcend culture and time and space and language.”

The opening scene of “Past Lives” does something clever in introducing this potentially uneasy love triangle: In 2014, two men and a woman are sitting side-by-side at a counter in a New York City bar, with the woman the middle. This trio is being observed by a man and a woman nearby (who are never seen on screen), who have a conversation trying to guess how these three people know each other. “Past Lives” (which takes place from 1990 to 2014) circles back to this bar scene later in the movie to show what led to this pivotal conversation between the trio.

After this opening scene, “Past Lives” flashes back to 1990 in Seoul, South Korea, where 12-year-old Moon Na Young, also known as Nora (played by Moon Seung-ah), and is hanging out with her best friend, Jung Hae Sung (played by Leem Seung-min), who’s about the same age as Nora. Hae Sung is a basketball enthusiast, who gently teases Nora because she’s crying over the fact that Hae Sung got first place in a contest that they entered. Hae Sung asks Nora why she’s angry over not getting first place. “I’m always second-place to you, and I never cry,” he says.

Viewers will soon see that Nora is the more talkative and ambitious of this duo of friends. She’s excels in academics and wants to be a writer when she grows up. At this point in Hae Sung’s childhood, he is less certain of what he wants to do with his life. He is well-mannered and throughtful, which are personality traits that carries throughout his life. He’s also not as quick as Nora to reveal his feelings.

In another scene, Hae Sung’s mother (played by Min Young Ahn) tells Nora’s mother (played by Ji Hye Yoon), who both don’t have names in the movie, that Na Young/Nora and Hae Sung look cute together. Hae Sung’s mother implies that these two kids will probably get married to each other when they’re adults. Hae Sung seems to also think that this will be the natural progression of his relationship with Nora.

However, the lives of Nora and Hae Sung will soon go in very different directions. Hae Sung is shocked to find out one day that the Moon family is moving to Canada to try something new in their lives. It’s a relocation that was decided by both parents, although Nora’s father (played by Wong Young Choi), who works in film production, seems to be more of the driving force in this decision. Nora’s father is the one who decided what the English-language first names would be for Na Young and her younger sister Si Young (played by Yeon Woo Seo), who is quieter and more passive than Na Young/Nora. Nora wanted to be renamed Michelle.

Before moving away, Nora tells her classmates that her family is moving to Canada because “Koreans don’t get the Nobel Prize for literature,” which is another way of saying that Nora believes that she has to become part of Western culture to achieve what she wants in life. Viewers can infer that these beliefs were instilled in her by her parents. It also explains why Nora doesn’t go back to visit South Korea after she has moved away.

The first third of the movie ends with a poignant goodbye between Nora and Hae Sung outside on a street near her home, and then the Moon family is shown arriving at Toronto International Airport. The farewell between adolescent Nora and Hae Sung becomes a defining life moment that gets compared to something that happens later in the movie. Nora and Hae Sung don’t fully understand at the time how momentous this goodbye will be in their lives.

The middle section and last-third section of the “Past Lives” shows the adulthood of Nora (played by Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo), who are leading two very different lives. The second-third of the movie begins in 2002, when 24-year-old Nora is a university grad student in New York City. Hae Sung is enlisted in the South Korean military, which is required for South Korean men in his age group. Hae Sung eventually becomes an engineering student.

Nora finds out that Hae Sung has been trying to contact her, by leaving a message on the Facebook page of her father’s production company. Nora is slightly amused and very intrigued, so she decides to reach out to Hae Sung through social media. They reconnect with Skype conversations that are flirtatious with underlying potential for romance. In her 20s, Nora is proud to tell Hae Sung that she’s no longer the “crybaby” that he knew her to be when they were kids.

There’s an unspoken “push and pull” going on in these conversations. Nora and Hae Sung both know that if they start a romance with each other, the issue will inevitably come up about who is going to move to another country to be with that person. It’s an issue that’s the main wedge in preventing this relationship from blossoming.

Nora, who is fluent in Korean and English, is very happy and settled in New York City. Hae Sung, whose English is limited, sees himself as always living in South Korea. Nora tries to motivate Hae Sung to visit her in New York City, but he asks her a question that has a ripple effect on their relationship thereafter: “Why would I want to go to New York?” Observant viewers will notice that Nora doesn’t offer to visit Hae Sung in South Korea.

The last third of the movie takes place 12 years later, in 2014. Nora is still in New York City and now happily married to an American book author named Arthur Zaturansky (played by John Magaro), who is an easygoing and loving husband. However, Nora’s world gets rocked when she hears from Hae Sung after not being in contact with him for many years. Hae Sung, a never-married bachelor, is coming to New York City to visit for a week. And he wants to see Nora. It will be the first time Nora and Hae Sung will see each other in person (not over a computer or phone screen) since they said goodbye to each other as 12-year-old in South Korea.

None of this is spoiler information, because “Past Lives” (which is told in mostly in chronological order) is being marketed around the last third of the film. The movie has occasional flashbacks showing Nora and Hae Sung in their childhoods. The chronological narrative of the movie helps better explain how the relationship between Nora and Hae Sung changed over the years.

Nora’s anticipation for Hae Sung’s visit doesn’t go unnoticed by Arthur, who is trying to be open-minded and not jealous. Arthur knows that Nora and Hae Sung were close friends in a relationship that didn’t blossom into a romantic dating relationship. However, even though Nora doesn’t say it out loud, it’s very obvious that Nora wonders if Hae Sung is her true love/soul mate, the “one who got away.”

What Nora does say out loud to Arthur is this defensive response when Arthur wonders if Nora is still attracted to Hae Sung: “I don’t think it’s an attraction. I think I just missed him a lot. I miss Seoul.”

It’s not that Nora doesn’t love Arthur. It’s just that Nora knows her emotional connection with Hae Sung goes much deeper that what she has with Arthur. Hae Sung is a reminder of Nora’s past, but he’s also an example of a future she could have had but chose not to have. After Hae Sung arrives in New York City, the time that Nora and Hae Sung spend reconnecting are mostly on platonic dates to various places in New York City. During a few of the conversations in these get-togethers, Hae Sung brings up the concept of past lives determining future lives.

“Past Lives” shows how two people who could be passionate soul mates might not be compatible when it comes to marriage and life goals. Unless someone wants a long-distance or unconventional marriage, part of the commitment of marriage is spending time living together. Curiosity is a huge reason for Nora’s willingness to meet up with Hae Sung. What does he really want from her? And has he changed his mind about living in the United States?

These questions linger during the most memorable conversations in “Past Lives,” until Nora gets some definitive answers. But the emotional heart of the story has to do with the unanswered “what if” questions that Nora and Hae Sung have about their lives. Lee and Yoo are stellar in their performances as Nora and Hae Sung. These two co-stars skillfully depict showing the restraint of two characters who don’t want cross boundaries into inappropriateness but have the openness of two formerly close friends who are eager to reconnect.

As for that bar conversation featured in the movie’s opening scene, it realistically shows how Arthur feels like a “third wheel” when he’s around Nora and Hae Sung, who frequently speak to each other in Korean. Arthur knows a little bit of Korean, but he’s not fluent in the language. Magaro is quite good in a role that is meant to be a supporting role, but it never looks diminished or undervalued. Feeling like the “odd man out” is as awkward for Arthur as it is intentionally uncomfortable for viewers to watch.

Unlike other movies that would turn this love triangle into heavy melodrama or unrealistic comedy, “Past Lives” is about how people who are emotionally mature adults can navigate this tricky situation. A sign of great acting is when viewers can sense what the characters are thinking but are not saying out loud. The biggest truths of “Past Lives” are in those unspoken moments, with a lot of these truths showing themselves in the movie’s very last and unforgettable scene.

A24 will release “Past Lives” in select U.S. cinemas on June 2, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on June 23, 2023.

Review: ‘Master Gardener,’ starring Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Quintessa Swindell

May 30, 2023

by Carla Hay

Quintessa Swindell and Joel Edgerton in “Master Gardener” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Master Gardener”

Directed by Paul Schrader

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the dramatic film “Master Gardener” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latin people, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A horticulturist at an elite garden estate gets emotionally involved with the grand-niece of his wealthy employer, while he tries to move on from his criminal past as a murderous white supremacist. 

Culture Audience: “Master Gardener” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver; filmmaker Paul Schrader; and solidly acted movies about people seeking redemption through reinvention.

Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver in “Master Gardener” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Master Gardner” has a simmering intensity that show signs of boiling over into an intensely memorable film, but the movie puts restraints on itself. This restraint is not going to satisfy many people who see this movie, which is mostly about two people who are trying to forget their past while they have a growing attraction to each other. Some of the dialogue and scenarios are a little too trite for what this drama is trying to say about redemption, but the story and performances overall have enough to maintain the interest of most viewers. Some viewers might expect more melodrama and more suspense.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, “Master Gardener” (which was filmed on location in New Orleans) has a trailer that reveals about 80% of the movie’s plot. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, before making its way to other film festivals that year, including the New York Film Festival. It’s a movie that falls right in with Schrader’s pattern of directing films about somber male loners who are looking for some kind of redemption. (See 2018’s “First Reformed” and 2021’s “The Card Counter.”)

In “Master Gardener,” middle-aged bachelor Narvel Roth (played by Joel Edgerton) has a solitary and quiet life as the live-in horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, located on a lavish estate. Narvel supervises a small staff of about four people. His employer is the haughty and demanding Norma Haverhill (played by Sigourney Weaver), the sole owner of the estate.

Narvel is not a highly educated or intellectual person, but he is a very knowledgeable horiculturist. In the beginning of the movie, he’s seen looking at pictures of flowers and gardens in the bedroom of his modest guest house on Norma’s property. In voiceover narration, he recites the differences between French gardens (also known as formal gardens), English gardens (also known as informal gardens) and wild gardens.

In this voiceover narration, Narvel shares his philosophy on horticulture: “Gardening is a belief in the future—a belief that things will happen to plan, that change will come in due time.” Narvel is not someone who is talkative or who shows his emotions easily, except when he’s talking about gardening. It’s his passion, and he lights up whenever he gets a chance to talk about anything related to gardening.

Narvel channeled his energy into being the best gardener that he could possibly be. However, as already revealed in the “Master Gardener” trailer, Narvel has a very ugly past: He used to belong to a white supremacist militia group. And he used to murder people just because they weren’t white. Narvel also murdered people in his own white supremacist group if any of them did something that angered him. Narvel’s chest and back are covered with tattoos, including multiple Nazi swastikas on his back.

Flashbacks and current scenes reveal that Narvel ended up becoming a star witness in the prosecution of many of his former cronies in the militia group. As a result, Narvel went into the FBI’s witness protection program, where he got an entirely new name and identity. Narvel’s birth name is briefly mentioned at one point in the movie. The FBI agent who has been assigned to keep in touch with Narvel is Oscar Neruda (played by Esai Morales), who has built a trustworthy relationship with Narvel.

Very few people in Narvel’s current life know about his disturbing past. Norma knows that Narvel is an ex-con, but she doesn’t really want to know the details. Every year, Gracewood Gardens has a big spring charity auction on the premises. One day, Norma tells Narvel that this year’s auction will probably be her last because she’s having some “health issues.” (Norma doesn’t elaborate, and Narvel doesn’t ask for more information.)

Norma does not have any children, so her thoughts have been preoccupied with who will take over Gracewood Gardens if she is dead or unable to oversee the estate for other reasons. She wants to keep the property in the family. Norma tells Narvel that she has invited her estranged grand-niece Maya Core (played by Quintessa Swindell) to live and work on the estate. Narvel has been tasked with teaching Maya how to be a horticulturist.

Norma explains to Narvel that Maya is the daughter of Norma’s deceased niece, who was also named Norma. Norma Jr., who died of a drug overdose, was the daughter of Norma Sr.’s sister Betty. Maya, who is in her 20s, grew up in a single-parent household, dropped out of school. and “fell in a with a bad crowd,” according to Norma. Maya’s father is described as a deadbeat dad, who abandoned Norma Jr. and Maya when Maya was very young.

During this apprenticeship, Maya lives in a small guest house on the property. Norma tells Narvel that Maya will be given a minimum-wage salary and car service. Maya will have to provide her own lunch when she’s on the job. Norma says that Maya will get incremental raises to her salary. Norma is subtly racist and doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the fact that Maya is biracial. (Maya’s father is apparently African American.)

When Maya arrives at the estate, Narvel is cordial and professional with her. Norma avoids interacting with Maya as much as possible. As far as Norma is concerned, Maya is someone who is “the help,” not a family member whom Norma fully accepts. Norma thinks that Maya needs to earn her trust and at least become a skilled gardener if Norma is ever going to consider leaving any care of Gracewood Gardens to Maya. Norma eventually invites Maya to have dinner with her and Narvel inside the estate’s main house, but control freak Norma has chosen the dress that she wants Maya to wear during this dinner.

Narvel soon finds out that Maya has a drug problem, just like Maya’s mother. Although it’s never shown in flashbacks, Narvel has a history of drug abuse too. He lives a very clean and sober life now, but he and Maya both easily figure out that they’re no strangers to drug use. Maya’s risky lifestyle ends up catching up to her, and Narvel gets involved in her problems.

What isn’t really shown in the trailer for “Master Gardener” is that Maya has been trying to avoid two sleazy drug dealers who hang out with each other. The leader of this duo is Robbie Gomez, nicknamed R.G. (played by Jared Bankens), who was also the drug dealer for Maya’s mother. R.G.’s sidekick is a guy named Sissy (played by Matt Mercurio), who is R.G.’s constant companion. R.G. is very possessive of Maya and is practically stalking her.

Maya was living in a run-down, crime-ridden area before she moved to Norma’s estate. Maya doesn’t tell Narvel the details of her relationship with R.G., but she insists that R.G. is not her boyfriend. Based on the way R.G. is acting, it’s implied that Maya has a history of having sex with R.G. for drugs, but he wants to control her like a possessive lover. And when Maya shows up to work one day with fight injuries on her face and confesses to Narvel that R.G. caused those injuries, it’s also very easy to predict how Narvel will react when he sees R.G. and Sissy.

As already shown in the “Master Gardener” trailer, Narvel gets romantically involved with Maya, but it doesn’t happen right away. At first, he resists Maya’s attempts to seduce him, partly because he doesn’t want to get in trouble for crossing certain boundaries, and partly because he doesn’t want Maya to see his neo-Nazi tattoos. But eventually, Maya and Narvel become sexually intimate, after he tells her that he used to be a racist. This sexual consummation scene is meant to show Narvel completely vulnerable and submissive to Maya, as a way to contrast with the life he used to have as a violent white supremacist.

It’s a complicated situation for Narvel, because he has been having sex with Norma, who considers their sexual trysts as part of his job requirement. It will make some viewers uncomfortable to see the messiness of these boss-subordinate sexual relationships, with big age gaps for these sex partners. However, “Master Gardener” isn’t intended to be a glossy romance story. If Norma finds out about Narvel and Maya’s growing affection for each other, things might not end well for Narvel and Maya. This part of the movie is very easy to predict.

What the movie conveys with considerable autheticity is how lonely and emotionally damaged people find ways to connect with each other. Narvel, Maya and Norma are each struggling with their personal issues. And each person, in his or her own way, is trying to put up a façade of “I can handle it” toughness. Maya and Narvel’s relationship doesn’t come across as “soul mates forever,” but more like, “I want to be with this person at this point in my life, and we’ll see what happens.”

Edgerton’s performance might strike some viewers as being very dull, but it’s actually a very accurate depiction of someone who has had to numb his emotions for a very long time. Considering that Narvel had to completely change his identity, there’s a somewhat silent identity crisis that Narvel goes through in the movie. Maya awakens some feelings in Narvel that Narvel hasn’t had for a very long time. And he’s decided he’s not going to run away from those feelings.

As for Maya, her personality is combination of being street-smart and being immature. Swindell’s performance looks authentic in how she portrays this complex character. The title of the movie is “Master Gardener,” so everything is told from Narvel’s perspective. However, the movie could have explored a little more about Maya and the life she had before she met Narvel. Weaver is solid in her role as prickly Norma, but Weaver has played this type of domineering snob many times before in other movies.

“Master Gardener” has some fantasy sequences involving flowers blooming in a heightened reality that’s almost psychedelic. These whimsical scenes don’t quite fit the gritty tone of the rest of the story. It’s also an uneven film, in terms of how much it wants to reveal about Narvel’s past. Viewers find out if Narvel ever got married or had children before his identity was changed.

The main reason why “Master Gardener” doesn’t sink into complete mediocrity is the principal cast members’ talent in handling their scenes. Ultimately, “Master Gardener” is worth watching as a character study of a violent ex-con who can’t entirely leave his thug ways behind. However, the movie doesn’t have much that’s insightful about the extreme changes in lifestyle and mindset that Narvel had to go through to become a former racist.

Magnolia Pictures released “Master Gardener” in select U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.

Review: ‘Sanctuary’ (2023), starring Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott

May 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott in “Sanctuary” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Sanctuary” (2023)

Directed by Zachary Wigon

Culture Representation: Taking place in Denver, the dramatic film “Sanctuary” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A dominatrix’s client tries to end his relationship with her, but she has other plans.

Culture Audience: “Sanctuary” will primarily appeal to people who are interested in watching well-acted dramas where the main characters play a lot of mind games.

Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott in “Sanctuary” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Role playing and power struggles are at the center of “Sanctuary,” a talkative psychological drama about a dominatrix and her client. The dialogue can get repetitive, but the cast members’ lively performances make the conversations more compelling. The movie (which has some dark comedic elements) does a fairly interesting presentation of the age-old question about sex workers and their clients: What should be done when the relationship might become more than transactional? “Sanctuary” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by and written by Micah Bloomberg, “Sanctuary” could easily have been a stage play. That’s because almost everything in the movie (except for flashback scenes) takes place in a hotel suite, with a very long conversation as the basis of the story. The conversation takes place between a dominatrix named Rebecca (played by Margaret Qualley) and her client named Hal Porterfield (played by Christopher Abbott), during and after one of their sessions.

“Sanctuary” (which takes place in Denver but was actually filmed in New York state) doesn’t reveal until after the first 15 minutes that Rebecca and Hal are in a dominatrix/client relationship. The opening scene shows Rebecca arriving at the Hal’s hotel suite. He’s the scion of Porterfield Hotels and Resorts.

Rebecca, who says she’s from the Lichter-Haynes law firm, is there to “interview” Hal for a liability affidavit that is included in a background check. It’s part of an evaluation process that Hal has to go through to determine if he’s acceptable to the company’s board of directors, who have to decide whether or not Hal will get the company’s CEO position. Hal seems a little nervous but confidently ready for the questions he’ll be getting.

At first, Rebecca (who has the mannerisms and outward appearance of efficient young legal executive) asks questions that seem typical for a personal background check. She asks Hal to confirm his date of birth. He says it’s April 7, 1987. But when she asks him his height and weight (which aren’t really appropriate questions), Hal lies and tells Rebecca that he’s 6’2″ and 200 pounds, which is taller and heavier than he really is. Rebecca mildly scolds him for telling her this lie.

Rebecca then asks Hal what his history is in taking legal and illegal drugs. He tells her he takes prescribed medication and that he’s taken recreational illegal drugs “thousands of times” in his life. Hal also says he’s been in treatment for alcohol addiction. Rebecca comments on the fact that Hal is drinking alcohol during the interview.

And then, the questions get inappropriate. Rebecca asks Hal if he has any sexually transmitted diseases. Hal tells Rebecca that he doubts that question is part of the affidavit. She insists that it is. Rebecca then asks Hal when he lost his virginity. He tells her he was 13, but she correctly guesses that he was actually 25. Rebecca grows increasingly hostile with Hal and starts berating and insulting him.

Rebecca then writes on her legal pad, “Hal Porterfield fucks like Caligula.” She then orders him to get on his knees and clean the bathroom in the suite. It’s soon revealed that Rebecca isn’t really a law firm employee who’s there to take an affidavit. She’s a dominatrix who’s been hired by Hal to do say these things to him to get him sexually aroused so that he can masturbate in front of her.

Hal (who really is a hotel heir) wrote the entire script for this encounter too. Rebecca is a dominatrix whose rule is that the clients don’t touch her, and she doesn’t touch the clients. Hal has been her client for an untold period of time, but the movie implies that it’s been at least several months. In other words, they’ve done this type of role playing many times before. Hal also isn’t a job candidate for CEO of Porterfield Hotels and Resorts. He already has the job and has recently been appointed to the position.

All of this information is revealed early on in the movie. And this revelation is the point where viewers will ether be intrigued or will not be interested in seeing the rest of the film. The rest of “Sanctuary” is a back-and-forth conversation where Hal tries to get Rebecca to leave because he wants to end their relationship, but Rebecca wants the upper hand and tries to prolong the stay as long as possible.

Why does Hal want to end the relationship? It’s not because he’s bored with Rebecca. In fact, after the session, Hal genuinely compliments her on giving another great performance. Rebecca takes off her straight blonde wig to reveal her natural brunette curly hair, which is an indication that she’s not “working” at that moment and is being “herself.”

Hal invites Rebecca to stay a little while and have a meal with him, even though he’s intending to end their relationship. There’s something about Rebecca that’s making Hal very uneasy, so he wants to stop seeing her. Viewers with enough life experience will figure out exactly what’s going on, long before the movie ends.

“Sanctuary” is meant to be an often-uncomfortable watch as these two people, who are both control freaks in their own ways, try to one-up each other in their power dynamics. Gender roles (traditional and non-traditional) have an effect on these dynamics. It should come as no surprise that Hal has “daddy issues” and is living in the shadow of his deceased mogul father Phillip “Phil” Porterfield. (Dominic Defilips portrays Phil as an elderly man, while Rene Calvo portrays Phil as a young man.) Rebecca is less forthcoming about her own personal issues, but eventually the cracks begin to show in her emotional shields.

Because “Sanctuary” is essentially about two people talking in a hotel suite, the movie lives or dies by the performances of Abbott and Qualley. Abbott gives the more credible performance, since Qualley has a tendency to over-act in some scenes. They both handle their dialogue like two people locked in a fencing match—and neither one wants to back down or admit defeat. It’s a battle of egos, wits and complicated feelings that might leave viewers feeling exhausted but unlikely to be bored.

Neon released “Sanctuary” in select U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.

Review: ‘The Kerala Story,’ starring Adah Sharma, Yogita Bihani, Sonia Balani and Siddhi Idnani

May 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Vijay Krishna, Sumit Gahlawat and Adah Sharma in “The Kerala Story” (Photo courtesy of Sunshine Pictures)

“The Kerala Story”

Directed by Sudipto Sen

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Syria, the dramatic film “The Kerala Story” features a South Asian and Middle Eastern cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Three nursing students in Kerala, India, have hellish experiences when they are targeted to be brainwashed and abused by ISIS terrorists. 

Culture Audience: “The Kerala Story” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching “women in peril” stories that are supposed to be based on real people, but the movie looks like a lot of exaggerations and half-truths for dramatic purposes.

Pranay Pachauri, Siddhi Idnani, Pranav Mishra, Yogita Bihani, Adah Sharma and Sonia Balani in “The Kerala Story” (Photo courtesy of Sunshine Pictures)

Even without the controversy surrounding the dramatic film “The Kerala Story,” the movie seems insulting to the real people whose suffering inspired this exploitative movie to get made. This timeline-jumping, messy melodrama wants to depict how women become human trafficking victims of terrorists. However, the film does it in an irresponsible and deceptive way. “The Kerala Story” goes overboard in excusing certain people of certain crimes.

Directed and co-written by Sudipto Sen, “The Kerala Story” exposes its credibility problems when it’s repeatedly stated in movie that about 32,000 to 50,000 women and underage girls have gone missing in Kerala, India, because they’ve been brainwashed, pressured or outright kidnapped into becoming concubines and accomplices for ISIS terrorists. Kerala (the largest geographical state in India) has a population of more than 34 million people. Although human trafficking for terrorism absolutely exists in many parts of the world, several government officials and independent experts have vehemently denied that 32,000 females have disappeared from Kerala for these reasons.

The filmmakers of “The Kerala Story”—including and Sen and “The Kerala Story” co-writers Vipul Amrutlal Shah (who is the movie’s producer) and Suryapal Singh—have since backtracked and publicly stated that the 32,000 to 50,000 statistic is not entirely accurate. Instead, the filmmakers say they can only verify the stories of the three women who are the basis of the three main victim characters in the movie. (All of these women’s real names have been changed in the movie for privacy reasons.)

“The Kerala Story” has an epilogue with updates on the real-life counterparts of the characters depicted in the movie. One of the female survivors, who is given the alias Nimah Mathews in the movie, is shown speaking in the epilogue, with her face in shadows to protect her identity. The epilogue also states that the families of these victims are still fighting for justice. But “The Kerala Story” does a disservice to justice when it doesn’t seem to care about being completely truthful about the facts.

“The Kerala Story” begins by showing an Indian woman being interrogated in a detention center because she has been arrested for being a suspected terrorist. Her name is Shalini Unnikrishnan (played by Adah Sharma), but law enforcement knows her under another name: Fatima Ba. It’s believed that she changed her name to Fatima Ba after she converted to Islam.

In the interrogation room, Shalini/Fatima (who has noticeable physical scars on her face) is world-weary but defiant. She tells the interrogators that instead of wondering what her real name is, they should be trying to find out how a former nursing student like herself could end up in this situation. It’s shown in the movie that just two years earlier, Shalini was an eager and naïve student at National Nursing College in Kerala.

The movie then flashes back and forth in a jumbled timeline to show what happened to Shalini and two of her nursing school roommates when they became the targets of ISIS terrorists. There was a fourth roommate who was the catalyst for the three victims to fall prey to the ISIS terrorists who would traffic and abuse the three nursing students in the worst ways possible. This fourth roommate was able to establish the trust that made it easier for the victims to be deceived.

On the move-in day in their nursing school dorm, Shalini meets her three roommates: Nimah Mathews (played by Yogita Bihani), Gitanjali Melam (played by Siddhi Idnani) and Asifa Ba (played by Sonia Balani). All of the women seem outgoing and friendly, by Asifa is the most serious and the most emotionally guarded of the four roommates. Shalini, Nimah and Gitanjali will find out the hard way that Asifa’s friendliness is all a façade, because she is part of a conspiracy to get them to join ISIS.

Asifa is a strict Islamic who always wears a hijab. Shalini and Gitanjali are Hindu. Nimah is Catholic. As time goes on, Asifa begins to lecture her three roommates about how Islam is the only religion where they can have spiritual protection. There’s a scene in the movie where Aisfa outright tells her three roommates that the roommates “will surely got to hell” if they are not Islamic.

This idea is reinforced one day when all four women are at a shopping mall, and the three non-Islamic roommates experience an unnerving attack. Shalini, Nimah and Gitanjali are all sexually harassed and physically assaulted by some young men. One of the men rips Nimah’s shirt off of her. Witnesses who see this attack stand by and do nothing. Shalini, Nimah and Gitanjali don’t know that Asifa secretly arranged this assault.

A humiliated and shaken Shalini, Nimah and Gitanjali go back to their dorm room with Asifa, who lectures them that they probably wouldn’t have been attacked if Shalini, Nimah and Gitanjali had been wearing hijabs to show that they are Islamic. Nimah is a devout Catholic who doesn’t really believe what Asifa is saying. However, Shalini and Gitanjali start to believe Asifa and are eventually convinced to convert to Islam.

Part of this lure includes Asifa introducing Shalini and Gitanjali to two of her handsome Islamic bachelor friends: Rameez (played by Pranay Pachauri) and Abdul (played by Pranav Mishra), who are charming and polite. And it isn’t long before Shalini starts dating Rameez, while Gitanjali starts dating Abdul. Shalini and Gitanjali think that their relationships with these boyfriends are “true love.” Rameez says he’s a medical student who comes from an affluent family in Syria, so that makes him even more appealing to Shalini, who soon starts to think that Rameez could be her future husband.

As shown in secret meetings and conversations that Asifa has with her ISIS cohorts, it’s all part of an elaborate plan to get Shalini and Gitanjali to move to Syria and become concubines and accomplices of ISIS terrorists. Asifa also deliberately gets Shalini and Gitanjali hooked on amphetamines. Asifa explains to Shalini and Gitanjali that these drugs will give them more energy for the rigorous studies of Islam that can bring them closer to Allah. Gitanjali eventually begins abusing alcohol and other drugs too.

Asifa is annoyed that Nimah is the most difficult to brainwash. But later in the movie, Asifa sets up Nimah to go on a date with a man whom Nimah does not know is part of the ISIS group. He drugs and kidnaps Nimah, who is taken to Syria, where she is held captive and gang raped. All of it is shown in flashback scenes, but there’s a long section in the movie where the movie makes it look like Nimah just drifted apart from her three roommates because she was the only one of the roommates who never believed in Islam.

Part of the indoctrination process includes Asifa convincing Shalini and Gitanjali that the families of Shalini and Gitanjali are evil because they are not Islamic. Shalini already had a somewhat strained relationship with her widowed mother (played by Devadarshini), who is distressed and confused over why Shalini has further alienated herself from her. Somehow, Asifa has convinced Shalini that Hinduism could not save Shalini’s father from dying years earlier. In her brainwashed state of mind, Shalini thinks her father might still be alive if her family were Islamic and could have prayed to Allah to save her father.

Gitanjali has loving and supportive parents (played by Usha Subramaniam and Jagat Rawat), whom she treats horribly after she coverts to Islam. Unlike Shalini though, Gitanjali resists her lover’s pleas to move to Syria. In one of the worst scenes in the movie, Gitanjali’s father is in a hospital because he had a heart attack from all the stress over Gitanjali’s radical changes. Gitanjali goes to visit him while he’s barely conscious, just so she can spit on him because he’s not Islamic.

There are many other sordid scenes in “The Kerala Story,” including rape of a pregnant woman, physical abuse, revenge porn and other degradation. And while these terrible crimes are part of the horrors of human trafficking, “The Kerala Story” shows it all with a very Islamophobic tone. The ISIS terrorists in the movie are defined in only two ways: their religion and their abuse. In reality, a lot more goes into this type of terrorism than what is shown in the movie.

Shalini’s story becomes more tangled after she moves to Syria to be with Rameez. She gets pregnant by Rameez, who breaks up with her because he doesn’t think she’s worthy of being married to him. Pregnant and abandoned in a country she does not know, Shalini then gets into a quickie arranged marriage with an ISIS terrorist named Ishak (played by Vijay Krishna), who seems to be a “nice guy” at first to Shalini, but he’s actually a violent sadist. The acting in “The Kerala Story” ranges from mediocre to bad, while the screenplay and direction are schlocky.

Because “The Kerala Story” jumps around so much in the timeline, it’s shown near the beginning of the movie that Shalini is married to Ishak. It’s revealed much later in the film how she ended up in this bad marriage. Shalini tries to escape from Ishak and the ISIS terrorists. However, there’s no suspense in that part of the story, because the beginning of the movie already shows that she’s been arrested for suspected terrorism, which obviously means she didn’t escape from the terrorists.

Time and time again, “The Kerala Story” avoids mentioning or showing why Shalini was arrested. The crimes are serious enough that she could be in prison for years. And yet, the movie makes it look like the worst thing that Shalini did was be gullible enough to get fooled by an ISIS-recruiting roommate and fall in love with the wrong man. This avoidance of mentioning Shalini’s crimes is a huge and noticeable void that makes the movie look like it’s not interested in accuracy (even if the truth is unflattering to people who deserve sympathy) and is more interested in presenting these women’s true stories as a relentlessly tacky soap opera.

Sunshine Pictures released “The Kerala Story” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023. The movie was released in India on May 5, 2023.

Review: ‘The Starling Girl,’ starring Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams and Jimmi Simpson

May 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Eliza Scanlen and Lewis Pullman in “The Starling Girl” (Photo by Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street)

“The Starling Girl”

Directed by Laurel Parmet

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky in the mid-2000s, the dramatic film “The Starling Girl” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old girl in a strict, religious community has a taboo affair with her married, 28-year-old youth pastor, while her troubled father struggles with his own personal issues.

Culture Audience: “The Starling” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that realistically explore issues of religion, teenage sexual awakenings, self-identity and moral hypocrisy.

Jimmi Simpson and Wrenn Schmidt in “The Starling Girl” (Photo by Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street)

“The Starling Girl” is a memorable coming-of-age story that artfully juxtaposes depictions of repression and rebellion without falling into the usual plot clichés. Eliza Scanlen gives a riveting performance as a 17-year-old experiencing self-discovery. It’s a movie that doesn’t offer easy answers to the main characters’ problems, but it’s made clear to viewers that these problems are made worse in a culture of denial and hypocrisy.

“The Starling Girl” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is an impressive feature-film debut from writer/director Laurel Parmet. The movie takes place in Kentucky in the mid-2000s, but “The Starling Girl” has a timeless quality to that transcends locations and generations, in the way that it depicts the relatable, restless energy of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. The teenager wants the freedom of an adult, but legally the teenager has to be treated like a child. Depending on the teenager’s environment and individual personality, this transitional phase can either help or hurt a teenager’s emotional growth.

In “The Starling Girl,” the title character is 17-year-old Jemima “Jem” Starling (played by Scanlen), who is navigating her way to adulthood in a conservative Christian community. It’s a community where people of the female gender are expected to be subservient to people of the male gender. Women and girls in this community are monitored and judged for what they say, do and wear around men and boys. Something as simple as wearing an outfit that shows the outline of a bra underneath can be reason enough for a girl to get scolded or lectured to by an adult.

It’s what happens to Jem after a chaste dance performance that she does with some other local teenage girls at their community church. The girls all wear matching long white dresses. Dancing is a passion for Jem, who also likes to do choreography for the group. After their performance, which gets polite applause from the congregation, Jem is in a very good mood.

But her upbeat mood soon turns to despair when, after the church service, the church pastor’s wife Anne Taylor (played by K.J. Baker) says sternly to Jem in front of Jem’s family and some other people in the congregation: “Mrs. Stone has noticed that the bra is visible from your dress.” Jem’s homemaker mother Heidi Starling (played by Wrenn Schmidt) says apologetically, “We try to be very conscious, but sometimes things slip.”

Within the first 15 minutes of “The Starling Girl,” it becomes obvious that Jem’s parents, especially her mother, want to impress church leader Pastor Taylor (played by Kyle Secor) and his family. Pastor Taylor has two children: 28-year-old Owen Taylor (played by Lewis Pullman) and 17-year-old Ben Taylor (played by Austin Abrams), who is expected to be the one to date Jem and possibly be her future husband. Heidi in particular is enthusiastic about the possibility of Ben and Jem getting married, because the marriage would elevate the status of the Starling family in the community. Even though Ben seems to be attracted to Jem, she is not at all attracted to Ben, who is socially awkward and a little weird.

After being reprimanded about her bra being visible through her dress, Jem goes outside the church to a semi-secluded area of the lawn and cries in shame. Jem think she’s alone, but doesn’t see until it’s too late that Owen is nearby and has been watching her. He tries to start a conversation with her, but she abruptly leaves in embarrassment. It’s soon revealed that Jem has had a crush on Owen for a very long time.

Owen has recently come back to his hometown after spending some time as a missionary in Puerto Rico. Owen is married to a pious and perky woman named Misty Taylor (played by Jessamine Burgum), who is a big believer in sticking to religious traditions. By contrast, Owen is open to non-traditional methods of religious worship. And even though Owen has been appointed as the youth pastor of the church, what he really wants to do with his life is be a farmer.

Jem is also someone who is struggling with what is expected of her and what she really wants to do with her life. For now, Jem is expected to marry and start a family not long after she graduates from high school, but Jem thinks she doesn’t want to be a wife and mother until she’s much older and more emotionally mature. Her mother Heidi has already decided that Ben would be a good match for Jem, but when Jem expresses reluctance to date Ben, her mother dismisses any of Jem’s concerns. Jem’s more lenient father Paul Starling (played by Jimmi Simpson) tells Jem that she doesn’t have to make up her mind right away about whether or not to date Ben.

At home, Heidi is a prudish taskmaster who expects the family to closely follow all of their religious teachings. Jem is the oldest of five kids. Her siblings are Noah Starling (played by Chris Dinner), who’s about 15 or 16; Rebecca “Becca” Starling (played by Claire Elizabeth Green), who’s about 13 or 14; Sarah Starling (played by Ellie May), who’s about 6 or 7; and a toddler named Jeremy Starling (played by Kieran Sitawi). Out of all of Jem’s siblings, Rebecca is the one who has the closest emotional bond to Jem.

During another religious service at the local church, a teenager named Edmond Tike (played by Ike Harrell), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, gets up in front of the congregation to ask for their forgiveness for sins that he says he committed but he does not detail. Edmond looks humiliated and ashamed when he tells the congregation that he’s now a “cleansed man.” He gets a lukewarm response from the audience. Pastor Taylor’s attitude toward Edmond is that Edmond is like an unruly puppy that needs patience and needs to be trained.

In the youth group meeting after the church service, some of the assembled teenagers gossip about Edmond, by saying he had just come back from a severe religious camp, which is notorious as a scary place where kids in the community are sent for punishment. According to the gossip, Edmond was sent there because he was caught looking at porn on a computer. Jem says self-righteously, “That’s why you have to be so careful with technology. It’s the easiest way for Satan to get to you.”

But it won’t be long before Jem gets caught up in something that would be an even bigger sexual scandal than looking at porn. At the youth group meeting that Owen is leading for the first time, he makes the group members lie down on their backs and meditate. Most of the group thinks it’s bizarre, but Jem is intrigued and can see that Owen isn’t a traditional youth pastor.

Jem’s attraction to Owen deepens when the dance group’s adult leader Mrs. Baker quits, and Owen is the one who gets to decide what to do about it. Jem confidently pitches herself to be the group leader until an adult can be found to replace Mrs. Baker. Owen agrees to this idea because he likes Jem and thinks she’s a talented dancer.

Owen also knows that this decision will also make Jem like him even more and be more loyal to him. Owen feels that most of the teens in the youth group don’t really like him because they think Owen is “different” and maybe too liberal. Jem also feel a little bit like an “outsider” in this community. Just like Owen, Jem thinks there are certain traditions in the community that she doesn’t necessarily want to follow.

Jem and Owen start to spend some more time alone together, and the attraction becomes mutual. Eventually, Owen and Jem open up to each other about their personal lives. Owen tells Jem that he’s miserable in his marriage to Misty, who wants to start a family with Owen, but Owen tells Jem that he doesn’t want to have kids with Misty. Owen says his dream would be to go back to Puerto Rico and start a farm. Jem has vague plans to possibly become a dance teacher after she graduates from high school.

Just as things are looking up for Jem as leader of the dance group and finding a new “friend” in Owen, her life at home starts to experience some turmoil. The day that Jem finds out that she’s going to lead the dance group, she comes home and accidentally walks in on her father sitting naked on his bed and snorting an unknown powder that was on his hand. Horrified and in shock, Jem quickly leaves the room and doesn’t say anything to anyone about what she saw.

It’s eventually revealed that before Paul got married and had a family, he used to have a wild life as a substance-abusing musician in a country/rock band named The Deadbeats, which didn’t make it past the level of playing bars and nightclubs. Paul recently found out that one of his former band mates committed suicide. And this news sends Paul on a downward spiral and relapse into secretive drinking and drugging. Heidi knows about Paul’s past, and it’s implied that she was the one who convinced him to become a sober, born-again Christian.

The rest of “The Starling Girl” shows the drama that happens in Jem’s family life, her new leadership role for the dance group, and the growing attraction between Jem and Owen. In Kentucky, 16 years old is the minimum age of consent for people to have sexual relations. What happens between Jem and Owen is no surprise. But the last third of “The Starling Girl” does have a few surprises that look authentic and not overly contrived for a movie.

Scanlen is absolutely fantastic in how she depicts a teenager feeling trapped while transitioning into adulthood. Jem goes through a sexual awakening that both fascinates and frightens her. Jem uses some of her feminine charms to get her way, but she also experiences the harsh realities of living in a sexist community that treats women and girls as inferior to men and boys. It’s a community that is quick to shame and blame women and teenage girls for the same things that men and teenage boys can often do without punishment.

One of the best things about “The Starling Girl” is how the cast members (especially Scanlen) express emotions without saying a word. It’s an essential reason why so much of this movie looks realistic in showing people who are living lives of quietly desperate repression. So much is left unsaid or denied by these characters, but their facial expressions and body language tell the real story.

“The Starling Girl” writer/director Parmet has accomplished a tricky feat of crafting a story that is specific yet universal. This gem of a movie is more than just about a teenage girl who wants to break free of her strict, religious environment. It’s about summoning the courage to be yourself, even if it means going through painful experiences of finding out who you really are. The ending of “The Starling Girl” won’t satisfy some viewers who want more answers, but the movie has a clear message that finding some kind of happiness in life is what you make of it.

Bleecker Street released “The Starling Girl” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.

Review: ‘Lost Love’ (2023), starring Sammi Cheng and Alan Luk

May 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ng Tsz Kiu and Sammi Cheng in “Lost Love” (Photo courtesy of Illume Films and Imagi Crystal)

“Lost Love” (2023)

Directed by Ka Sing Fung

Cantonese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place over 13 years in Hong Kong, the dramatic film “Lost Love” features an almost all-Asian cast of characters (with one biracial person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After losing their son in a tragic accident, two spouses become foster parents to several children, who have various personal issues.

Culture Audience: “Lost Love” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a simple but effective story about love between foster parents and their foster children.

Sammi Cheng, Jiu Kai Nam Matt and Alan Luk in “Lost Love” (Photo courtesy of Illume Films and Imagi Crystal)

Beautifully filmed and simply told, “Lost Love” is a “slice of life” drama that centers on a married couple’s 13-year journey as foster parents to a variety of children, after the couple lost their own child to a tragedy. It’s a movie puts an emphasis on realism instead of heavy melodrama. Therefore, scenes in “Lost Love” that show everyday life routines might be too dull for some viewers. However, the movie has much deeper meaning in how it depicts coping with grief over the loss of a loved one.

Directed by Ka Sing Fung (who co-wrote the “Lost Love” screenplay with Lo Kim Fei), “Lost Love” (which takes place in Hong Kong) begins by showing Chan Tin Mei (played by Sammi Cheng) on a school bus. She’s talking to the driver, who is one of her co-workers. The driver says that they lost a bid that year and the bus’ owner (whose name is Fat) is selling the bus.

At home, Mei and her husband, Ho Bun (played by Alan Luk), feel a void in their lives. Their son Toh (played by Wong Tsz Hin, in flashback scenes) died from a drowning accident at the age of 6 or 7. Mei’s income will be affected by the bus sale, so she suggests to Bun that they become foster parents. At first, Mei is only thinking of the extra income that they can get from the government for being foster parents. She has no idea how deeply affected she will be by the foster children who come into her life.

Before officially becoming foster parents, Mei and Bun have to be approved by child welfare services. A government social worker named Miss Mok (played by Hedwig Tam) is their main liaison who does the inspections and evaluations. After inspecting the home, Miss Mok tells Mei and Bun (who are both smokers) that the only thing they need to do if they are to be approved as foster parents is not smoke inside the house.

Mei and Bun’s first foster child is named Sam (played by Wong Tsz Lok Sean), who is about 5 or 6 years old. Sam is shy and somewhat anxious child who wets his bed. Sam’s single mother is unable to take care of him. Mei is much more impatient than Bun when it comes to take care of children, so she gets easily irritated by Sam’s bedwetting problems.

One night, Sam’s biological mother shows up at the home unannounced and physically attacks Mei before Mei is able to fight her off. It’s a shocking incident that could have turned Mei off from being a foster parent. Instead, it’s a turning point for Mei, because she begins to understand that Sam’s bedwetting comes from untold trauma that he probably experienced because of his dysfunctional biological family.

Bun remains a consistently laid-back and supportive parent throughout this journey. Mei’s evolution is much more fascinating to watch, because she went to foster care thinking it was just a temporary way to make extra money and it became the type of rewarding experienced that can be labeled with a price tag. She becomes so devoted to her foster children that Bun starts to feel a bit neglected in the marriage.

“Lost Love” is almost like an anthology film with segments that show the different experiences that Mei and Bun have with their foster children over the 13-year period. One of the most memorable parts of the movie is how Mei teaches a foster daughter named Fleur (played by Ng Tsz Kiu), who’s about 7 ot 8 years old, how to have confidence when she is teased and bullied by other students because of having a cleft lip. Other foster children featured in the movie are quiet Ching (played by Leoni Li), who’s about 3 years old and who learns how to make dumplings from Mei; friendly Ming (played by Jiu Kai Nam Matt), who injures him arm; mischievous brother and sister Lee Ka Long (played by Tsui Ka Him) and Lee Ka Hei (played by Tsang Yui Tung Maya); and unnamed 17-year-old biracial boy (played by Toure Muntar), who appears to be of Asian and African heritage.

“Lost Love” also has poignant references to flowers and a certain bridge, whose significance is explained at one point in the movie. The last 20 minutes of “Lost Love” are emotionally powerful. Cheng gives a quietly outstanding performance in this contemplative film that is not only about recovering from the loss of a loved one but also discovering new ways to love that are unexpected and meaningful.

Illume Films and Imagi Crystal released “Lost Love” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023. The movie was released in Hong Kong on March 2, 2023.

Review: ‘Yesterday Once More’ (2023), starring Chen Feiyu and Zhou Ye

May 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chen Feiyu (also known as Arthur Chen) and Zhou Ye in “Yesterday Once More” (Photo courtesy of Wanda Pictures)

“Yesterday Once More” (2023)

Directed by Lin Hsiao Chien (also known as Gavin Lin)

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, the dramatic film “Yesterday Once More” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A toy designer reunites with a female friend from his childhood, and they fall in love, but when she dies in an accident, he has a choice on whether or not to go back in time and prevent her death.

Culture Audience: “Yesterday Once More” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching sentimental but well-acted romantic dramas with a sci-fi twist.

Zhou Ye and Chen Feiyu (also known as Arthur Chen) in “Yesterday Once More” (Photo courtesy of Wanda Pictures)

“Yesterday Once More” is a time-travel love story that gets a little too convoluted in order to cover up some possible plot holes. However, the performances in this drama are engaging. The movie also gives a worthwhile look at fate versus freedom of choice.

Directed by Lin Hsiao Chien (also known as Gavin Lin) and written by Xu Yi, “Yesterday Once More” is the type of earnest romantic drama that will appeal to viewers who believe in soul mates and who believe that love transcends time. It’s the type of movie that has some science-fiction elements. Therefore, suspension of disbelief is required for a great deal of the story.

“Yesterday Once More” (which takes place in unnamed cities in China) begins with the movie’s adult narrator Gu Yuxuan (played by Chen Feiyu, also known as Arthur Chen) saying, “If you had a chance to go back in time, what would you do?” The scene then shows Yuxuan at about 7 or 8 years old (played by Fu Bohan) by himself in a garden. A girl who’s about he same age as Yuxuan approaches him in a friendly manner.

Her name is Han Shuyan (played by Luo Yichun), who will end up changing Yuxuan’s life. Yuxuan tells Shuyan that today is his birthday. Shuyan says, “Let me celebrate with you.” Yuxuan and Shuyan become fast friends that day, as they frolic around the garden. They both find out that they like stuffed animal toys and are fascinated with time travel.

But the developing friendship between these two children is short-lived. After this first meeting, Yuxuan finds out that Shuyan, who lived nearby, suddenly moved away with her family. Yuxuan is emotionally crushed, because he’s a lonely child who lives in fear of his abusive, alcoholic father (played by Yang Zihua), a widower who uses alcohol as a way to cope with his grief. Yuxuan’s mother (played by Sui Jin, shown briefly in a flashback scene) died of an unnamed terminal illness. When Yuxuan was a child, his mother made birthday candles for him.

“Yesterday Once More” then fast-forwards about 15 years later. Now in his early 20s, Yuxuan is a toy designer who is happy in his career, but he has been unlucky in love, since he hasn’t found anyone who has captured his heart in the way that Shuyan did on his birthday all those years ago. As fate would have it, Yuxuan will see Shuyan again.

It happens at the wedding of Yuxuan’s best friend/co-worker Teddy (played by Sun Tianyu), who has asked Yuxuan to be the best man at the wedding. Teddy is getting married to a gorgeous social media influencer named Olivia (played by Zhao Xiaotang), who has 10 million followers on social media. Olivia and Teddy’s relationship is a case of “opposites attract,” since she is very high-maintenance and image-conscious, while Teddy is more laid-back and unpretentious.

Before the wedding ceremony starts at a banquet hall, Olivia is frantic about a problem with the wedding cake, because part of the cake has collapsed. Yuxuan goes back in the kitchen and sees a friend of Olivia’s skillfully working on fixing the cake. He joins in to help too,. And then, it dawns on Yuxuan that the woman he is working with is Shuyan (played by Zhou Ye), the long-lost “instant friend” from his childhood.

However, Shuyan doesn’t recognize Yuxan, and he’s too shy to say anything to her to remind her of their first meeting. The wedding cake get fixed. Olivia and Teddy’s lavish wedding ceremony happens without any further mishaps. At the wedding reception, Yuxan and Shuyan are seated at the same table. Yuxan is still too bashful to say anything to her or to ask for her contact information, but he steals glances at her and finds out that his feelings for Shuyan have not changed.

Yuxuan thinks he will probably never see Shuyan again. But one day, he sees her again on a bus. This time, Yuxuan decides he’s going to remind Shuyan how they met. First, he strikes up a conversation with her, because he knows she will remember him from the wedding. And then, Yuxuan gives a toy to Shuyan that he designed himself: a Time Machine Cat. And that’s how Shuyan remembers that she and Yuxuan met in their childhood on his birthday.

Shuyan and Yuxuan begin dating, fall in love, and move in together. Their relationship is serious enough where Yuxuan wants to propose marriage to Shuyan. The only problems in their relationship are some family-related issues and money troubles. Shuyan’s unnamed mother (played by Juan Zi) doesn’t approve of Shuyan’s goal to open her own bakery because she doesn’t think it’s a stable or well-paying career choice. Shuyan’s father (played by Liu Penggang) is more supportive of his daughter’s bakery dreams.

Yuxuan’s father has died and left behind large debts owed to a local thug, who threatens Yuxuan to pay back the money. Yuxuan doesn’t want to burden Shuyan with this information, so he doesn’t tell her. He also promised to help her open a bakery. As a result, his financial problems become more complicated.

However, the burden of keeping this secret, as well as Yuxuan’s grief over his father’s death, cause a strain on the relationship between Yuxuan and Shuyan. Meanwhile, Teddy and Olivia are having marital problems because she gets jealous of him spending time with another woman, and Olivia is suspicious that Teddy has been cheating on her. Teddy and Olivia separate. It looks like Olivia and Teddy could be headed for a divorce.

Teddy notices that Yuxuan is distressed over personal problems, so he recommends that Yuxuan visit an elderly book author (played by Yue Yueli), who wrote a children’s book called “Yesterday Once More.” Teddy says that this author is known to be very wise and could possibly be a psychic. Yuxuan reads “Yesterday Once More” and notices that the book doesn’t seem to have a definitive ending. The author tells Yuxuan: “Maybe what will happen was destined earlier.”

It’s already revealed in the trailer for “Yesterday Once More” that Shuyan gets killed in an accident. It happens on December 31, 2022. The movie then becomes about Yuxuan trying to prevent this accident with things that involve what the mysterious book author told him and the birthday candles that Yuxuan’s mother gave to him. There’s also a female counterpart (played by Wu Xuxu) to the book author, and she also plays a pivotal role in the story.

“Yesterday Once More” isn’t overly saccharine. It offers bittersweet observations about how childhoods can affect the way that people handle romantic relationships when they’re old enough to have these relationships. Like many children of alcoholics/addicts, Yuxuan has a pattern of keeping shameful secrets at all costs, even if it can possibly destroy the most relationship in his life. Shuyan also has to deal with self-esteem issues because of the turbulent relationship that she has with her domineering mother that goes all the way back to Shuyan’s childhood.

The movie doesn’t portray having a “soul mate” romance as the answer to life’s problems. Instead, “Yesterday Once More” admirably shows that the right relationships are meant to help people better cope with problems rather than magically make those problems disappear. Chen and Zhou are absolutely charming in their portrayals of soul mates Yuxuan and Shuyan. Some viewers might not like some of the twists and turns in the movie, but people who are fans of stories about time travel and romance will find a lot to like about “Yesterday Once More.”

Wanda Pictures released “Yesterday Once More” in select U.S. cinemas on May 5, 2023, The movie was released in Singapore on May 11, 2023.

Review: ‘Tetris’ (2023), starring Taron Egerton

May 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in “Tetris” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Tetris” (2023)

Directed by Jon S. Baird

Some language in Japanese and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1988, in the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and Japan, the dramatic film “Tetris” (inspired by a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers gets caught up in a web of ruthless business deals and political intrigue in multiple countries, as he tries to obtain worldwide licensing rights to the game Tetris. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious traget audience of Tetris fans, “Tetris” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Taron Egerton, video games that were launched in the 1980s, and movies about real-life business underdogs.

Togo Igawa, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton in “Tetris” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Combining 1980s entertainment nostalgia and 1980s Cold War history lessons, the dramatic film “Tetris” also mixes facts with fiction. In this lively retelling of the Tetris game origin story, the “race against time” plot developments are obviously exaggerated for the movie. However, the double dealings and business backstabbings ring true, in addition to navigating cultural differences. “Tetris” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Noah Pink, “Tetris” can get a little too over-the-top in how it depicts the story of one man versus corporate giants and the Russian government in the fierce competition to get worldwide rights to the video game Tetris. However, the cast members’ performances elevate the movie, which has some comedic elements that easily could have looked out-of-place with the wrong cast members. “Tetris” has a winking tone to it let viewers know that the filmmakers didn’t intend to make this movie entirely factual or entirely serious.

“Tetris” (a globetrotting story that takes place in 1988) also has a visual motif used to great effect: Many of the scenes have flashes of the live-action visuals presented as if they were in the format of a Tetris game or a video game from the late 1980s. The beginning of the movie also identifies the main characters as “players,” a word that can take on multiple meanings in the context of the story. The word “player” is also more than ironic because much of what happens in all these frantic business deals for Tetris is anything but fun and games.

“Tetris” begins by showing Henk Rogers, co-founder of the small, independent company Bullet-Proof Software at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Henk is of Indonesian-Dutch heritage but he was raised primarily in the United States and lives in Japan during the period of time that this story takes place. His multicultural background comes in handy in some ways, but in other ways it becomes a hindrance when people question his cultural loyalties.

Henk is trying and failing to make his new video game a hit at CES, which is a crucial event for Bullet-Proof Software. Henk has already taken out a bank loan to launch this video game, which he now knows is going to be a flop. But as fate would have it, Henk tries a new video game at the convention: It’s called Tetris, invented by a Russian computer expert named Alexey Pajitnov (played by Nikita Yefremov), who has a humble and unassuming personality.

Alexey does not own the rights to the game. Why? Because in the Communist country that was then known as the U.S.S.R. or Soviet Union, Alexey works for the government entity ELORG, which has monopoly control of the importing and exporting of Russian-made computer products. Anyone who wants the worldwide licensing rights to sell Tetris has to go through the Soviet government first.

In the simplest of terms, Tetris is a game where players try to make buildings out of falling building blocks. Henk is immediately hooked on Tetris and thinks it could be a massive worldwide hit. And he’s willing to bet his life savings and his home on what he wants to do next: partner with a major video game company to get the worldwide licensing rights to Tetris.

An early scene in “Tetris” shows Henk trying to convince a skeptical bank manager named Eddie (played by Rick Yune) to give Henk another bank loan, this time for this Tetris endeavor. After explaining what Tetris is about, Henk tells Eddie why Henk thinks Tetris is so special: “It stays with you. It’s the perfect game.” Henk also mentions that Tetris has become an underground hit in the Soviet Union/Russia, where people have been sharing bootleg copies of Tetris on floppy disks. Eddie reluctantly agrees to the loan, on the conditions that the loan will have a high interest rate and that Henk has to put up his home as collateral.

Henk ends up sneaking into Nintendo headquarters in Japan and meeting with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi (played by Togo Igawa) and Hiroshi’s assistant (played by Nino Furuhata) to broker for Nintendo the worldwide licensing rights to make Tetris for Nintendo cartridges and arcade machines. Henk turns down Nintendo’s initial offer of $500,000. Henk wants $2 million for the cartridges deal and $1 million for the arcade deal.

While still negotiating with Nintendo, Henk goes to Nintendo of America headquarters in Seattle, where he meets Nintendo of America CEO Minoru Arakawa (played by Ken Yamamura) and Nintendo of America senior vice president/general counsel Howard Lincoln (played by Ben Miles). Minoru and Howard show Henk a sneak peek of a product that has not gone on the market yet: Nintendo’s hand-held Game Boy system. Nintendo is planning to install the game Super Mario Land on all Game Boys, but Henk convinces Minoru and Howard that Tetris has broader appeal and should be the game installed on all Game Boys.

Henk has to contend with three British video game moguls, who at various times are his allies and enemies: duplicitous Robert Stein (played by Toby Jones), the founder/CEO of Andromeda Software; corrupt Robert Maxwell (played by Roger Allam), chairman of Mirrorsoft, a video game publisher; and arrogant Kevin Maxwell (played by Anthony Boyle), who is Robert’s son and the CEO of Mirrorsoft. Henk has been told that Robert Stein has gotten worldwide licensing rights for Tetris and has already made a deal with Mirrorsoft. Henk’s plan, with backing from Nintendo, is to buy out the rights from these British businessmen.

The rest of the movie shows Henk wheeling and dealing, while often getting undercut and betrayed by some people he thought were trustworthy business colleagues. Video game companies Sega and Atari, which were Nintendo’s main rivals at the time, also get in the mix because they also want Tetris. Meanwhile, Henk has to spend a lot of time in Russia (where he eventually meets Alexey) and finds out the hard way that doing a capitalist business deal in a Communist country is a lot more dangerous than he ever thought it could be.

Henk’s family life also suffers because of his obsession to close this deal. His patient wife Akemi Rogers (played by Ayane Nagabuchi), who co-founded Bullet-Proof Software with Henk, handles the managerial administration of the company’s small staff of employees while Henk is in charge of all the sales and marketing. Henk and Akemi have three children: 10-year-old Maya Rogers (played by Kanon Narumi), 8-year-old Julie Rogers (played by Karin Nurumi), and 6-year-old Kevin Rogers. Maya has an important dance performance that she doesn’t want Henk to miss. You can easily predict what will happen.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Henk is assigned a translator named Sasha (played by Sofia Lebedeva), who also educates Henk on Russian and Communist cultures. Henk soon finds out that he is being spied on by the Soviet government. Two of the ELORG officials who have been monitoring Henk are Valentin Trifonov (played by Igor Grabuzov) and Nikolai Belikov (played by Oleg Shtefanko). One of these ELORG officials is much worse than the other.

Egerton portrays Henk as an optimistic charmer who thinks he can talk his way in and out of situations but finds out that he sometimes gets in way over his head. He adeptly handles movie’s drama and comedy. Lebedeva is another standout as translator Sasha, who develops a friendly rapport with Henk and possibly becomes romantically attracted to him. Allam and Boyle provide some sardonic comic relief in portraying the love/hate relationship between Robert Maxwell and Kevin Maxwell. A running joke in the movie is Robert Maxwell’s bragging about being a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev (played by Matthew Marsh), who was the Soviet Union’s president at the time.

Even though “Tetris” couldn’t possibly include portrayals of all the people involved in these complex deals, there are still many characters to keep track of in the story. Luckily, “Tetris” is written well enough to juggle all of these moving pieces in a briskly paced manner, much like how skilled Tetris players navigate the game. The movie’s adrenaline-pumping climax is pure fabrication, but it’s the most memorable aspect of this thriller. “Tetris” strikes the right balance of being escapism and a reality check for how landmark business deals often happen under circumstances that can be stranger than fiction.

Apple Studios released “Tetris” in select U.S. cinemas on March 24, 2023. Apple TV+ premiered the movie on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘Corsage,’ starring Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Katharina Lorenz, Jeanne Werner, Alma Hasun, Manuel Rubey and Finnegan Oldfield

May 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Vicky Krieps in “Corsage” (Photo by Felix Vratny/IFC Films)


Directed by Marie Kreutzer

Culture Representation: Taking place in Austria, Hungary, England and Germany, in 1877 and 1878, the dramatic film “Corsage” (based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria) features an all-white group of people representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: As she nears her 40th birthday, Empress Elisabeth feels neglected by a philandering husband and tries to rebel against a repressive environment that dictates her physical appearance, what she wears, and how she raises her children. 

Culture Audience: “Corsage” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of history-based biopics but viewers should be prepared to see a story that is more downbeat than uplifting.

Vicky Krieps in “Corsage” (Photo by Robert M. Brandstaetter/IFC Films)

“Corsage” is gorgeously filmed and woefully depressing with glimmers of playful sarcasm about royal culture. Vicky Krieps gives a memorable performance as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, but this drama won’t appeal to anyone looking for a fun-filled story. “Corsage” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where Krieps won a Best Performance award in the festival’s Un Certain Regard competition. “Corsage” also screened at other film festivals in 2022, including the New York Film Festival.

Written and directed by Marie Kreutzer, “Corsage” takes place in 1877 and 1878, mostly in the Austrian city of Vienna and the Hungarian city of Budapest. Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sissi, was also queen of Hungary. The movie, which changes some real-life facts, gives an up-close and sometimes disturbing personal look at the life Elisabeth, who seems to be living a charmed life in the public eye. In private, things are quite different for the empress, who is fretting about soon turning 40, her physical appearance, and her crumbling marriage.

Elisabeth says in a voiceover: “From the age of 40, a person begins to disperse and fade.” (Keep in mind, this is during an era when the average life expectancy was much lower than it is today.) From the first 10 minutes of the movie, it’s made clear that Elisabeth is deeply troubled and has self-esteem issues.

One of the things that she does on a regular basis (as shown in an early scene in the movie) is hold her breath underwater in a bathtub for as long as possible. The first time the movie shows her engaging in this dangerous stunt, she’s held her breath underwater for 40 seconds. She’s clearly not doing this for daredevil fun. It’s an obvious cry for help, because her life is making her miserable.

Elisabeth’s husband Franz Joseph I of Austria (played by Florian Teichtmeister) is inattentive and cold toward her. He seems bored with their marriage. Franz Joseph (who wears a fake beard and a hairpiece) won’t even let Elisabeth eat dinner with him. And when Elisabeth tries to be sexually intimate with Franz Joseph, he’s not interested. Later, Elisabeth sees Franz Joseph being affectionate with another woman. It just confirms what she probably knew already: Franz Joseph has been unfaithful to her.

Elisabeth and Franz Joseph have a daughter together named Valerie (played by Rosa Hajjaj), who’s about 7 or 8 years old, and a son named Rudolph (played by Aaron Friesz), who is in his early 20s. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth had another daughter named Sophie, who died years ago and would have been 22 years old in 1847. As a couple, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph do not talk about Sophie, but it’s implied that Sophie’s death has taken a toll on their marriage. In real life, Sophie died in a fire in 1897, which was 20 years after the story in this movie takes place.

Elisabeth feels so neglected, when she’s in public, she pretends to faint, just so she can get the type of attention that a royal woman would get when she faints. She does this phony fainting after getting out of a carriage during a visit to King Ludwig II of Bavaria (played by Manuel Rubey). Later, she tells King Ludwig II in a private conversation that her fainting spell was all an act. And she shows him how she does it.

One of Elisabeth’s concerns is how she is covered by the tabloid media. There have been reports that she’s been trying to lose weight. These reports are true. “Corsage” has several scenes where Elisabeth’s weight and diet are obsessively monitored by Elisabeth and many of the people around her. Observant viewers will notice that not much has changed with today’s tabloid media outlets, which give obsessive coverage to the physical appearance (including any weight loss or weight gain) of young and famous royal women.

In her spare time, Elisabeth does fencing and horse-riding activities. The movie shows how Elisabeth impulsively orders Valerie to ride horses with her in the early-morning hours. As a result, Valerie gets sick. Franz Joseph blames Elisabeth for Valerie’s illness, and it causes further strain in their marriage. Franz Joseph wants to make Elisabeth feel like she’s an unfit mother.

Elisabeth’s closest confidante is Ida Ferenczy (played by Jeanne Werner), a Hungarian lady-in-waiting for Elisabeth. Elisabeth is also close with another lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics (played by Katharina Lorenz), who keeps meticulous diaries of what her royal employer does. Also in Elisabeth’s inner circle is her hair stylist Fanny Feifalik (played by Alma Hasun), who is in for a shock after Elisabeth cuts off her own long hair during an emotional fit. It says a lot about Elisabeth and that her closest friends were also her servants.

Elisabeth also has some male friends, one of whom becomes her love interest. She and a younger man named Bay Middleton (played by Colin Morgan) have a mutual attraction. Elisabeth’s son Rudolph expresses concern to her that people are gossiping about how much time she spends alone with Bay. Elisabeth also strikes up a friendship with French cinematographer Louis Le Prince (played by Finnegan Oldfield), who makes short films with her. (In real life, Le Prince is considered the “godfather” of cinematography.)

“Corsage” has a very revisionist take on the real Elisabeth’s life, including how she died. The movie portrays her as possibly manic depressive but with a mischievous streak. She likes to flip her middle finger or stick her tongue out at people when she’s displeased about something. And in an era where it was considered not very ladylike to smoke cigarettes, Elisabeth was a chronic smoker.

Under the astute direction of Kreutzer, “Corsage” delivers everything that viewers might expect of a drama about European royalty: sumptuous costumes, luxurious production design, and elite characters talking as if they’re always breathing rarefied air. However, this admittedly stuffy movie can just as easily be a turnoff to viewers who won’t feel any emotional connection to these characters at all. Krieps gives a compelling performance, but Elisabeth’s self-destructive tendencies becomes a bit draining to watch.

One of the movie’s highlights is the musical score by Camille. It’s haunting and enchanting in all the right ways. “Corsage” is a cautionary tale told in an “all that glitters is not gold” manner. It’s a story that is about a specific royal woman, but it can apply to anyone who is living a restrictive and unhappy existence, even if that life might look privileged and wonderful on the outside.

IFC Films released “Corsage” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on February 7, 2023.

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