Review: ‘The Long Game’ (2024), starring Jay Hernandez, Julian Works, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Oscar Nuñez, Paulina Chávez, Cheech Marin and Dennis Quaid

May 20, 2024

by Carla Hay

José Julián (seated, second from left), Jay Hernandez (standing, at left) and Dennis Quaid (standing, at right) in “The Long Game” (Photo courtesy of Mucho Mas Media)

“The Long Game” (2024)

Directed by Julio Quintana

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Texas, in 1956, the dramatic film “The Long Game” (based on true events) features a Latin and white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A former military man, who works as a high school superintendent, takes a group of five teens from the high school and helps transform them into the first all-Hispanic golfing team to compete in a U.S. national golf tournament for high schoolers. 

Culture Audience: “The Long Game” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, sports underdog stories, and historical drama about race relations in America.

Miguel Angel Garcia, Christian Gallegos, Gregory Diaz IV, Julian Works and José Julián in “The Long Game” (Photo by Anita Gallón/Mucho Mas Media)

“The Long Game” follows a familiar formula of sports underdog movies based on true stories, but the cast’s admirable performances make this inspirational drama worth watching. Many viewers will learn something about the Mustangs golf team that broke racial barriers.

Directed by Julio Quintana, “The Long Game” was written by Quintana, Jennifer C. Stetson and Paco Farias. The movie’s adapted screenplay is based on Humberto G. Garcia’s 2010 non-fiction book “Mustang Miracle.” “The Long Game” had its world premuere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival, where it won the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award.

“The Long Game” begins by showing the mentor who’s the story’s main protagonist. It’s 1956, and upstanding JB Peña (played by Jay Hernandez), a former infantry soldier in the U.S. Marines, has moved with his loving and supportive wife Lucy Peña (played by Jaina Lee Ortiz) to the small city of Del Rio, Texas. Like many residents of Texas, JB is of Mexican American heritage. He was born in the United States. JB has taken a job as a superintendent at San Felipe High School.

But the real reason why JB (who is an avid golfer) wants to live in Del Rio is so he can join the prestigious Del Rio Golf Club, which is considered one of the best private golf clubs in Texas. The problem for JB is that this is a country club that has white members only, and they don’t want to let anyone who isn’t white join the club. Like many places that have racist policies, no one who’s responsible for those policies comes right and out and admits that they’re racist.

When JB inquires with club leader Don Glenn (played by Richard Robichaux) about joining the club, Don tells JB what JB’s chances are of being accepted into the club: “I have to consider other members, and they’re just not used to seeing a Mexican on the golf course.” The only people who aren’t white who are allowed on the golf course for this racist club are those who are in subservient roles doing low-paying menial jobs, such as caddies, food servers and sanitation workers.

One of these caddies is a teenager named Joe Treviño (played by Julian Works), the rebellious and unpredictable leader of a tight-knit group of five friends who are all Hispanic. An early scene in the movie shows Joe in a street alley, chasing off three white teenage boys and throwing a fence picket at them because the white teenagers were harassing him.

Joe’s friends see the commotion when they arrive at the scene. Joe tells his pals about the fleeing teenage bullies: “They didn’t call me a wetback. They didn’t call me anything, but I bet they were thinking it.”

The other four teens in Joe’s circle of friends are dependable Lupe Felan (played by José Julián); obedient Gene Vasquez (played by Gregory Diaz IV); friendly Mario Lomas (played by Christian Gallegos); and easygoing Felipe Romero (played by Miguel Angel Garcia). Gene is the one in the group who is the most likely to follow rules and is the most nervous about getting into trouble.

Later, while Joe is working at the club’s golf course, Joe notices that a young white man, whose father is a club member, has kept the cash that was meant to be a tip for one of the Hispanic caddies. As revenge, Joe urinates on the privileged family’s car when the father and son aren’t looking.

JB first sees Joe and his pals under less-than-ideal circumstances on the day that Joe is driving to meet with Don Glenn for the first time at the Del Rio Golf Club. Joe and his friends are practicing golf on a field when Joe hits a golf ball that accidentally smashes JB’s car window and causes a minor cut on JB’s face. The teens run away when they see the damage that was caused. JB decides to keep his appointment with Don Glenn anyway, despite JB’s noticeable bleeding injury. This is the meeting where JB gets rejected to join the Del Rio Golf Club.

JB has an ally in the meeting: Frank Mitchell (played by Dennis Quaid), who served in the same U.S. Marines infantry as JB. Frank is a member of the Del Rio Golf Club and is the one who set up the meeting with JB and Don. Frank’s girlfriend Gayle Baker (played by Gillian Vigman) works as a secretary at this country club. Frank is disappointed that JB won’t be accepted into the country club. However, there’s nothing Frank can do about it except voice his disapproval about this racism, in an era when the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not exist yet, and it was legal for businesses to discriminate based on race.

After the window-breaking incident, JB sees the Joe and his friends again at a school assembly, where JB is introduced as the new superintendent. That’s how JB finds out these these teens are students at the same school where he works. JB confronts the five teens, who don’t deny that they were involved in this accidental vandalism.

JB is impressed enough with Joe’s powerful golf swing to ask Joe and his friends to let JB watch them play golf. Joe is the best golfer in the group. When JB sees that the five pals have raw, untapped talent as golfers, JB comes up with an idea to make up for the teens being involved in breaking his car window: The teens can either mow his lawn on Saturdays, or they can become the first members of the San Felipe High School golf team, which will be called the Mustangs.

At first, all of the pals except for Joe choose the golf option. That’s because Joe’s father Adelio Treviño (played by Jimmy Gonzales) thinks golf is a game for pampered wimps. Adelio expects Joe to follow in his footsteps and skip college to have a working-class job. Later, Adelio does something extreme to show Joe how much Adelio disapproves of Joe wanting to play golf.

Joe changes his mind about joining the golf team after JB has a heart-to-heart talk with Joe and asks Joe what Joe really wants to do with his life. Joe joins the team, but he keeps it a secret from hs father Adelio. Joe later starts dating a classmate named Daniela (played by Paulina Chávez), who wants to become a writer and join a university writing program in Austin, Texas. Daniela thinks that Joe should get a college education in Austin too.

San Felipe High School doesn’t have the money to fund the new golf team; any coach of the team will have to be an unpaid volunteer. JB can’t quit his full-time superintendent job because he needs the money, and he doesn’t have time to be the golf team’s coach. And so, JB asks retired Frank to be the team’s coach. Frank agrees. JB is the school’s team sponsor and essentially has the role of assistant coach. Joe has a volatile temper, so Lupe is made the team’s captain.

The Mustangs play against all-white teams. JB and the Mustangs experience the expected racism, including racist comments and blatant exclusion or unfair treatment based on race. At one of the Mustangs’ first golf games, a white official reacts with surprise when he sees JB in person and says JB looks different than the official expected because JB sounded “American” on the phone. JB politely tells this racist that JB is American because he was born in the United States. Other racist reactions to JB and the team are much more hostile.

JB is fully aware that the Mustangs will be treated as outsiders by racists, so he advises the team members to assimilate when they’re in places where they will encounter racism: “I don’t want to hear Spanish on the [golf] course,” JB says. “We’ve got to look and act like we belong here.”

Frank is a white ally who sticks up for the team as much as possible. Later in the story, a law official named Judge Milton Cox (played by Brett Cullen) makes a huge decision that affects the Mustangs. JB also has to make some important decisions that will decide the fate of the team.

San Felipe High School’s Principal Guerra (played by Oscar Nuñez) is supportive and mostly stays out of the team’s way. Principal Guerra likes to appear tougher than he really is to the students. In an amusing scene, he tells JB that he doesn’t want the students to see him smile because they are less likely to take him seriously if he’s seen smiling or laughing.

JB is also friendly with a Del Ro Golf Club groundskeeper named Pollo (played by Cheech Marin), who secretly lets the Mustangs practice on the property during off-hours when no one will catch them. Most of the move’s comic relief come from Pollo and his wisecracks. JB and Pollo (and Frank, to a certain extent) treat the Mustangs as their surrogate sons. Because of the racism issues, JB and Pollo are able to speak to the team with more knowledge and experience about being Hispanic in places dominated by white people who are often racist.

“The Long Game” has some very good scenes that show an appreciation for the sport of golf. However, viewers shouldn’t expect absolute accuracy in all of the golf scenes, since the movie’s actors aren’t professional golfers, and the Mustangs are still supposed to be learning how to play golf. It’s a sports movie that’s not just about learning the game but also about learning life lessons.

The movie’s performances (with Hernandez and Works as the standouts) give “The Long Game” an emotional credibility and that makes it a solid movie, even if viewers know exactly how the story is going to end. (There are very few surprises along the way.) It’s not a groundbreaking movie, but “The Long Game” is a worthy tribute to the real-life golfers who overcame big obstacles. These are stories that need to be told and stand as examples of what perseverance and courage can be accomplish.

Mucho Mas Media released “The Long Game” in U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Asphalt City,’ starring Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Raquel Nave, Kali Reis, Michael Carmen Pitt, Katherine Waterston and Mike Tyson

May 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ty Sheridan in “Asphalt City” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical)

“Asphalt City”

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Asphalt City” (based on the novel “Black Flies”) features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Asian, Latin and multiracial) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young rookie paramedic, who wants to eventually become a medical doctor, experiences harsh realities when he is paired with a middle-aged, jaded paramedic, as they work in a rough part of New York City. 

Culture Audience: “Asphalt City” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and can tolerate a movie that’s too long for its weak plot and is filled with formulaic stereotypes and scummy characters.

Sean Penn in “Asphalt City” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical)

The long-winded “Asphalt City” clumsily mixes melodrama with long stretches of dullness. This turgid movie about two contrasting paramedic co-workers has a mismatched cast and an off-kilter story plagued with predictable clichés. This last third of “Asphalt City” (which has a total running time of 125 minutes) is very manipulative when it turns into a hollow soap opera that cannot be improved.

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, “Asphalt City” (formerly titled “Black Flies”) is based on Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel “Black Flies.” Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown co-wrote the “Asphalt City” adapted screenplay. “Asphalt City” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, an event for movies that are either artsy or commercially crowd-pleasing. “Asphalt City” is neither.

“Asphalt City” takes place in New York City, where the movie was filmed on location. The movie has two main characters, but the story is told from the perspective of the younger character. Ollie Cross (played by Tye Sheridan) is in his mid-to-late 20s and has just started a new job as an ambulance paramedic for the Fire Department of New York. Ollie has been assigned to work with Gene Rutkovsky (played by Sean Penn), who is in his early 60s and is trying not think about getting close to the age when many people retire.

Ollie is inexperienced and eager to please. Gene is jaded and gruff. There have been so many movies and TV shows with this character dynamic of a young rookie paired with a cynical veteran. If you’ve seen enough of these types of duos on screen, then you can easily predict how this movie is going to go. In these types of stories, the younger person loses some type of innocence when spending time being taught by the older, more experienced person. The older colleague is usually “corrupt” or morally ambiguous in one way or another.

Ollie and Gene (who does most of the ambulance driving when they work together) work in the crime-ridden, low-income East New York neighborhood in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. Ollie is a bachelor who lives with two Chinese-speaking roommates in Manhattan. Not much else is revealed about Ollie except that he’s originally from Colorado, and he’s studying for entrance exams for an unnamed medical school because he eventually wants to become a medical doctor.

Gene is divorced and lives alone in Brooklyn. Gene admits that his marriages have been ruined mainly because he’s a workaholic and a philanderer. Gene doesn’t say how many times he’s been married, but there’s a scene where he visits his “most recent ex-wife” Nancy (played by Katherine Waterston), who has custody of their daughter Silvie (played by Onie Maceo Watlington), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. Nancy doesn’t let Gene see Silvie until Gene has made the child support payments that he owes. In this scene, Gene brings Ollie along for this visit so that Gene can introduce Ollie to Sylvie, as if to prove that Gene is capable of being an attentive father.

Much of the screen time in “Asphalt City” consists of Ollie and Gene responding to medical emergencies. There are some scenes where people legitimately have to be taken to a hospital emergency room. Some of the violence in the movie is there for shock value, such as a scene where a boy at an apartment complex was hurt by a violent pit bull, and Ollie sees an angry mob of men take the dog outside while one of the men shoots and kills the dog.

Too many other paramedic scenes become annoying spectacles of Ollie and Gene dealing with mentally ill people who don’t need an ambulance but are just shouting and causing disturbances. These time-wasting filler scenes don’t add anything significant to the story at all. In between responding to these calls, Ollie and Gene have mostly forgettable conversations while they are driving in the ambulance.

Ollie begins casually dating a single mother named Clara (played by Raquel Nave), who met Ollie at a nightclub. Clara has an infant son and doesn’t talk about who the father of her baby is. Don’t expect to learn anything meaningful about Ollie or Clara in this relationship, the movie’s only purpose for this relationship is to show Ollie and Clara having sexual trysts, and Clara experiencing how the stress of Ollie’s job starts to affect him.

The co-workers of Ollie and Gene are two-dimensional characters if they have any speaking lines of dialogue. The boss of Ollie and Gene is Chief Burroughs (played by Mike Tyson), a typically no-nonsense supervisor. Tyson doesn’t embarrass himself in this role (mainly because his screen time in the movie is less than five minutes), but his acting skills are obviously not as good as many other people in the cast. A paramedic named Verdis (played by Gbenga Akinnagbe) is very generic and has no real effect on the movie’s overall plot.

There’s an obnoxious paramedic co-worker named Lafontaine (played by Michael Carmen Pitt, also known as Michael Pitt), who sometimes goes in the same ambulance as Ollie and Gene. Lafontaine is a drug-abusing bully who has no qualms about stealing medication and illegal drugs when he’s working. Predictably, Lafontaine makes newcomer Ollie a target for some of the bullying. Lafontaine is yet another empty “Asphalt City” character with no backstory and with dialogue that goes nowhere.

The movie doesn’t take a turn from repetitive and pointless scenes until the last third of the story, when Ollie and Gene respond to a call about an unconscious, HIV+ woman named Nia (played by Kali Reis), who has given birth in her apartment, shortly after she overdosed on heroin. What happens to the baby becomes a source of conflict and leads to a very heavy-handed part of the movie.

Sheridan and Penn are not bad in their performances, but their acting isn’t outstanding either. They have both played these types of personalities (Sheridan as an earnest protégé, Penn as a shady mentor) in many other movies, so there’s nothing new to see here. The movie’s supporting characters don’t have enough depth to be impactful. Ultimately, “Asphalt City” shows a lot of urban grittiness and sleaze, but the emotional core of the movie has no real substance.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical released “Asphalt City” in select U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024. The move was released on digital and VOD on April 16, 2024.

Review: ‘The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,’ starring  Scott Cohen, Babak Tafti, Joanna Arnow, Michael Cyril Creighton and Alysia Reiner

May 18, 2024

by Carla Hay

Babak Tafti and Joanna Arnow in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed”

Directed by Joanna Arnow

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy/drama film “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gloomy and drab office worker, who is 33 years old and a submissive in her casual BDSM relationships, drifts from one day to the next until she starts dating a man who is interested in her for reasons beyond sex. 

Culture Audience: “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” will appeal primarily to people who can tolerate oddball movies that have full-frontal nudity and quirky “slices of life” scenes.

Joanna Arnow and Scott Cohen in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is definitely not a mass-appeal movie. It’s intended for mature audiences who aren’t easily offended by full-frontal nudity and kinky sex scenes among consenting adults. Viewers of this unique but often-repetitive film about BDSM sex and social isolation must be willing to appreciate the very dry and deadpan comedy that is the opposite of Woody Allen’s talkative and fidgety films about neurotic New Yorkers. It’s a series of “slice of life” sketches rather than a comprehensive story.

Written and directed by Joanna Arnow (who also stars in the movie as the main protagonist), “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. The movie screened at other major film festivals that year, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. It’s a minimalist and quirky movie that won’t appeal to people who don’t like slow-paced movies with open-ended conclusions.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is set in New York City (where the movie was filmed on location) and has a writer/director who plays an insecure protagonist who feels misunderstood and is struggling with relationship issues. It sounds a lot like the types of movies that made Oscar-winning filmmaker Allen famous, but Arnow has a filmmaking approach that is the antithesis of Allen’s style. The characters in Allen’s zippy-paced films are verbose and overly analytical about their problems, often to the point of being very self-absorbed. As seen in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,” the characters don’t do a lot of talking, and there are stretches of deliberately uncomfortable silences.

Arnow portrays Ann, a 33-year-old never-married bachelorette who lives alone and has no children and no friends. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she works in administration at an unnamed company that is in the business of selling unnamed products. Ann is the type of person who is so quiet and unassuming, people she’s known for years either don’t know many things about her or they forget. She’s the type of person who can be in a room and people will deliberately ignore her or don’t even notice that she is there.

Needless to say, Ann feels unappreciated in her job, where her supervisor Karl (played by Michael Cyril Creighton) is sometimes condescending to her and sometimes seems to feel sorry for her. It doesn’t help that Ann speaks in a monotone voice that would make anyone wonder if she has a personality. She is also the type of person who gives the impression that she is dull as dirt and has given up on trying to be happy.

As an example of how Ann hasn’t really connected with people at her job, one day she gets a plaque in the shape of a star, as a gift to commemorate her one-year anniversary on the job. “I’ve been here three-and-a-half years,” Ann says in her flat voice. No one seems to care. In group meetings, her ideas are dismissed by Karl. And in a one-on-one conversation with an unnamed supervisor (played by Ronda Swindell), the supervisor rudely tells Ann that Ann won’t last long at the company because Ann will make her own job obsolete.

Ann’s personal life does not have any fulfilling relationships either. Since she was 24, she’s been casually meeting up with a divorced, middle-aged father named Allen (played by Scott Cohen), in one of many relationships she has that revolve around BDSM, an acronym for bondage, discipline (or domination), sadism (or submission) and masochism. Ann is always the willing submissive in these non-monogamous relationships, because she seeks out sex partners who want to be the dominant person in their hookups.

The movie’s opening scene shows Ann in bed with Allen at his place. Allen is clothed under the covers and almost asleep. She is on top of the covers and completely naked. She grinds up against the left side of his body and says, “I love it how you don’t care if I cum and you don’t do anything for me. You go to sleep right after you finish. It’s so disrespectful and misogynist.” This is Ann’s version of foreplay.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” has several scenes showing Ann doing things with BDSM sex partners. In addition to Allen, Ann hooks up with a musician/composer named Thomas (played by Peter Vack), whom she meets through a personal ad; verbally derogatory Elliot (played by Parish Bradley), who tells Ann to wear animal costume designs, such as rabbit ears and a pig’s snout, while he insults her; and emotionally open Chris (played by Babak Tafti), who is the only one who treats her like a real human being, not just a sexual plaything.

Warnow is the only person in the movie who has full-frontal nudity, which is her way of showing that Ann is the most vulnerable person in these scenes. Ann never seems self-conscious about her body, but she does seem self-conscious of her emotions and about the possibility that any of these relationships could turn into love. Being treated like garbage or sometimes asking to be in physical pain in the confines of BDSM is comforting to her. Falling in love is what really terrifies Ann, even though she doesn’t say it out loud. The closest that she will admit to having intimacy problems is when she tells Chris that she has never had an orgasm by someone touching her.

Ann’s immediately family members (who don’t have names in the movie) live nearby, but she is emotionally distant from them. Her family and co-workers do not know about her secretive life as a submissive in BDSM sex. Ann’s parents (played by David Arnow and Barbara Weiserbs) have given up hope that Ann will get married and have kids. Getting married and having children are sensitive subjects that Ann gets somewhat defensive about whenever those topics are discussed.

Ann’s older sister (played by Alysia Reiner) has a traditional life of being a married parent with children, but she doesn’t seem very happy either because she’s been having marital problems. Still, when the sisters are together or with their parents, Ann seems noticeably envious that her parents seem to love her sister more and consider Ann to be a “disappointment.” Ann doesn’t seem to have any interest in being around kids at all.

Even though Ann is a submissive in her sex life, that doesn’t mean she’s a complete pushover. There are times at her job and in her personal life when she asserts herself and makes it clear that she does or does not want to do something. However, don’t expect the movie to give a backstory about Ann to explain why she is the way she is.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is an example of how people shouldn’t always be judged by surface-level appearances. Based on her physical appearance, many people would assume that Ann is very prim and uptight and would be surprised to find out about her uninhibited BDSM sex life. It’s not a movie that is supposed to make people feel the same way that a romantic comedy makes people feel, but the movie is bold enough to be different. It offers an unusual perspective of someone who is usually not the protagonist of a movie and is usually overlooked in real life.

Magnolia Pictures released “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” in select U.S. cinemas on April 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Back to Black’ (2024), starring Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan and Lesley Manville

May 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

Marisa Abela in “Back to Black” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Back to Black” (2024)

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 2000s, mostly in England, the Amy Winehouse biopic drama “Back to Black” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: British singer Amy Winehouse becomes a Grammy-winning international superstar with her 2006 second album “Back to Black,” but her life is plagued by insecurities, drug addiction and a toxic relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, who would become her husband in a doomed marriage.

Culture Audience: “Back to Black” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Amy Winehouse, but the movie is mostly a superficial and glossed-over portrayal of her life.

Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell in “Back to Black” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

The best things about the Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black” are Winehouse’s original songs, and the cast members put in very good efforts in their performances. But this disappointing drama does almost everything else wrong. It’s a movie that is so intent on glossing over harsh realities of Winehouse’s life, the results are very phony-looking recreations where the overall narrative of the movie can’t be trusted.

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and written by Matt Greenhalgh, “Back to Black” takes place in the 2000s, the decade when London-based Winehouse rose to fame as a gritty and sassy singer heavily influenced by American R&B and 1960s pop music. She also wrote very confessional songs about her life. Winehouse, who struggled with various addictions, died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, after having a period of sobriety. She was 27.

Marisa Abela has the role of Winehouse in “Back to Black” and does her own singing in the movie. Winehouse had a unique contralto that would be difficult for anyone to duplicate. Abela’s Winehouse impersonation is passable, but Abela’s singing is noticeably inferior to Winehouse’s real voice talent. (For the purposes of this review, the real Amy Winehouse is referred to as Winehouse, while the character of Amy Winehouse in “Back to Black” is referred to as Amy.)

“Back to Black” is a “checklist” celebrity biopic (with a lot of corny dialogue) that follows the usual formula of a celebrity who rises to fame and fortune and then comes crashing down because of various issues, usually having to do with addiction, money, egos, love life problems, or a combination of all of them. Movies like this usually end with some type of “redemption” or “triumph” arc. And if the celebrity is dead, the death and aftermath of the death are usually tacked on as an epilogue.

The “Back to Black” movie follows Amy’s transformation from a guitar-playing pop singer (whose 2003 debut album “Frank” was a big hit in the United Kingdom, but flopped everywhere else except Europe, Australia and Brazil) to ditching her guitar as part of her stage act (at the urging of her management) to become a sultrier R&B-influenced singer known for her 1960s-styled beehive hairstyle. The movie makes it look like Amy’s beloved grandmother Cynthia (played by Lesley Manville), the mother of Amy’s father, was largely responsible for Amy’s image makeover into a 1960s-inspired “bad girl” diva after Amy showed an interest in 1960s music.

Amy is encouraged and enabled by her taxi driver father Mitch (played by Eddie Marsan), who plays an increasingly influential role in her career. Amy meets Blake Fielder-Civil (played by Jack O’Connell) at a pub, and they have a volatile on-again, off-again relationship that leads to them eloping in 2007. Blake doesn’t seem to have a steady job (he describes himself as a video assistant when he first meets Amy), but he is a full-time drug addict, with Amy also indulging in the same addictions, including alcohol, cocaine and heroin. The movie’s depictions of Amy’s self-admitted eating disorders, self-harm and rehab stints are mostly superficial and fleeting.

The well-documented physical abuse in Amy and Blake’s relationship is only hinted at in the “Back to Black” movie, in a scene where Amy is seen running away in the street with bruises and cuts on her face and body. Amy is shown with some friends in the beginning of her career, but those friends eventually fade away in the movie and are replaced by Blake and people who work for Amy. Mark Ronson—one of the main producers of her breakthrough 2006 second (and last) studio album “Back to Black”—is mentioned but never seen in the movie. The same goes for Simon Fuller, the owner of 19 Management, the company that is most famous for managing the Spice Girls and Amy Winehouse.

The “Back to Black” movie sidelines Amy’s songwriting talent, her work in recording studios and her concert tours, in order to make the majority of the story about the dysfunctional relationship between Amy and Blake. The movie makes it look like Amy was much more in love with Blake than he was with her. And that is probably true. In real life, “Back to Black” was written during a period of time when Winehouse and Fielder-Civil had broken up, before they got married. Their marriage lasted only two years.

The movie only shows the stories behind only a few of her songs. The inspiration for “Rehab,” her biggest hit, is in a scene where Amy’s manager Nick Shymansky (played by Sam Buchanan) and other people in her entourage have an intervention to urge her to go to rehab, but Amy says “no,” and Mitch backs her up and says she’s just fine. In real life, Shymansky has given interviews saying that Mitch originally agreed to convince Amy to go to rehab during this intervention, but Mitch went back on his word and ended up by siding with Amy. By all accounts, Amy Winehouse in real life was not “just fine” when she recorded the “Back to Black” album but she was actually deep in the throes of addiction, which the movie constantly glosses over by downplaying how serious her addictions were.

The “Back to Black” movie dishonestly makes it look like paparazzi had more to do with Amy’s downfall during the height of her fame, instead of all the enablers (including her father Mitch) who pushed her to go on tour when she didn’t want to tour and she should have been getting necessary and proper medical care for her health issues. Amy’s mother Janis (played by Juliet Cowan), who separated from Mitch when Amy was 9, is depicted in the movie as mostly a passive bystander. Amy’s older brother Alex (played by Izaak Cainer), who was four years older that she was, is barely in the movie.

The movie dutifully recreates one of the high points in Amy’s career: the 2008 Grammy Awards, when Amy performed “Rehab” from London and then won the Grammy for Record of the Year for “Rehab,” with her parents in the audience cheering her on. She won a total of five Grammys at the ceremony, including Song of the Year (also for “Rehab”), Best Pop Vocal Album (for “Back to Black”) and Best New Artist. She became the first British female artist to win all of these Grammy Awards in the same ceremony.

Taylor-Johnson and Greenhalgh previously worked together on the John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy” (about Lennon’s troubled teenage years), a drama released in 2010. Greenhalgh also wrote the screenplay for the 2007 biopic “Control,” a drama about Ian Curtis, lead singer of the British rock band Joy Division. Just like the “Back to Black” movie, “Nowhere Boy” and “Control” also had good performances in a movie with a very flawed screenplay. Although “Back to Black” certainly does an admirable job with costume design, production design and hairstyling, viewers are better off watching the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary “Amy” for a more insightful and more accurate story of Winehouse’s life.

Focus Features will release “Back to Black” in U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024, with a sneak preview in U.S. cinemas on May 15, 2024. The movie was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in April 2024.

Review: ‘Aisha’ (2022), starring Letitia Wright and Josh O’Connor

May 12, 2024

by Carla Hay

Letitia Wright in “Aisha” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Aisha” (2022)

Directed by Frank Berry

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland, the dramatic film “Aisha” features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, white and a few Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young Nigerian woman seeks asylum in Ireland and experiences various immigration problems around the same time that she and an Irish man develop a friendship. 

Culture Audience: “Aisha” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s headliners and low-key dramas that have realistic portrayals of immigration issues in Ireland.

Letitia Wright and Josh O’Connor in “Aisha” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Aisha” is a well-acted drama that authentically depicts the quiet desperation and loneliness that refugees can experience. Letitia Wright and Josh O’Connor give poignant performances as two people who form a tender friendship amid immigration uncertainty. Wright portrays a Nigerian immigrant seeking asylum in Ireland, while O’Connor portrays the native Irishman who befriends her. Thankfully, “Aisha” doesn’t devolve into cringeworthy cliches that most narrative films usually have when they cover the complicated and sensitive subject matter of refugee immigration.

Written and directed by Frank Berry, “Aisha” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and was released later that year in Ireland and the United Kingdom. The movie takes place in unnamed cities in Ireland, where “Aisha” was filmed on location. The story’s timeline shows a few months in the life of Aisha Osagie (played by Wright), who has been living in Ireland for a little more than a year when the story begins.

Aisha, who is in her late 20s, does not have any family members with her in Ireland, where the International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) handles refugee cases. She has applied for permanent residency and is waiting for an interview with IPAS officials to determine if her application is approved or denied. In the meantime, Aisha lives with other immigrants in an accommodation center, where she has been assigned by IPAS.

She has a compassionate immigration attorney named Peter Flood (played by Lorcan Cranitch), who has meetings with Aisha to advise her and discuss their case strategy. Aisha doesn’t want anyone’s pity, and she doesn’t want to live off of charity handouts. She wants to be a hard-working, law-abiding resident who can start a new and safe life in Ireland.

Aisha’s story isn’t revealed immediately but is told in various conversations that she has with people. Aisha is alone in Ireland because her father and brother were killed in a home invasion by a group of men who are her father’s debtors. He borrowed money from these men so that Aisha could go to a university in Nigeria. She studied geography and regional planning at the university but had to drop out, presumably because of what happened to her family.

Aisha’s widowed mother Moraya Osagie (played by Rosemary Aimiyekagbon) can’t afford to leave Nigeria. In Ireland, Aisha works part-time as an assistant at a beauty salon and sends some of her salary money back to her mother. A few scenes in the movie show Aisha talking with her mother by video calls. Aisha and Moraya have a very good mother/daughter relationship, but Aisha doesn’t tell her mother certain things if she thinks this information will upset Moraya.

Aisha is a quiet loner who is friendly but doesn’t get too close to the people she meets. However, Aisha has developed a bond with the three people who share a room with her: a young mother named Habiba Momoh (played by Antionette Doyle); Habiba’s son Abdul Momoh (played by Emmanuel Hassan); and Habiba’s daughter Ruykaya Momoh (played by Florence Adebambo). The movie doesn’t show how Aisha got to know this family, but they are also from Africa, and are the closest that Aisha has to family members in Ireland.

A company called Embankment Security works for IPAS in doing inspections at IPAS accommodation centers. A newly hired Embankment Security guard named Conor Healy (played by O’Connor), who’s about the same age as Aisha, first sees her when he and some colleagues are at the accommodation center where she lives. The Embankment Security guards later come back with garda (Irish police), under orders to take away Habiba, Abdul and Ruykaya, who get deported to the United Kingdom.

This separation is understandably very upsetting to Aisha and witnessed by Conor, who is helpless to do anything about it. Aisha is usually quiet, but she also has a very assertive side to her. When the Momoh family is being taken away, Aisha says that the family has a right to call IPAS, but the accommodation center manager Brendan Close (played Denis Conway) doesn’t want to to hear this truth and treats Aisha like a she’s a rebellious pest. Brendan hints that he could make life miserable for Aisha if she continues to question him.

Brendan and Aisha clash during another incident where she stands up to his tyrannical style of managing. One day at the accommodation center, Aisha asks a kitchen worker to heat up a small container of homemade halal in the kitchen’s microwave. Brendan is nearby and strictly forbids it because he says that Aisha and other accommodation center residents can only eat the food provided by the accommodation center.

Aisha and Brendan have a short-lived argument about it. She eventually has to do what Brendan says. Conor witnesses this verbal conflict. When Conor is alone with Aisha, he tells her to meet him later at the kitchen so that she can use the microwave oven for the food she wants to have. It’s the start of a friendship that is tentative at first but grows stronger as the story goes on.

Just like Aisha, Conor is quiet and a little withdrawn. However, he and Aisha eventually open up to each other about certain things in their lives. Conor also has a troubled past: He says he was in prison for six years for drug-related crimes. Conor also tells Aisha that his addictions are cocaine, meth and alcohol, but he has been clean and sober for the past three years.

Conor is currently living with his mother and is taking information technology classes, with the eventual goal to go to college. Nothing is revealed about Conor’s love life, but Aisha eventually tells Conor that she is separated from a husband who abandoned her shortly after the wedding in Nigeria. Aisha is not in contact with her estranged husband, and she doesn’t know where he is.

Conor is obviously attracted to Aisha, and she might feel the same way. But it should come as no surprise that Aisha is reluctant to get romantically involved with someone when she doesn’t know if she will be allowed to stay in Ireland. Aisha tells Conor that up front, but Conor is persistent and shows he wants to be a loyal friend who will be there for Aisha, no matter what happens.

Given these circumstances, a stereotypical movie would morph into an “against all odds” romantic courtship that overshadows the very stressful and life-changing matter of Aisha’s immigration issues. A stereotypical movie would also have Conor be some type of “savior” character. However, “Aisha” does not go down a typical route that movies like this usually take. For example, Conor is not in the movie as much as some viewers might think he will be.

“Aisha” never strikes a false note in showing not only the obstacles that refugees face in seeking asylum but also how authority figures can use or abuse their power in ways that can massively affect refugees. Wright and O’Connor give touching performances that go beyond the immigration issues because Aisha and Conor are both two lonely people who find a connection with each other during a time in their lives when they least expect it. “Aisha” has many moments of bleakness but it also offers hope that people at the lowest points of their lives can find other people who care and can make a positive difference.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Aisha” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 10, 2024. The movie was released in Ireland and the United Kingdom in November 2022.

Review: ‘Wildcat’ (2024), starring Maya Hawke, Rafael Casal, Philip Ettinger, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn and Laura Linney

May 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Maya Hawke in “Wildcat” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Wildcat” (2024)

Directed by Ethan Hawke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia and in New York, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the biopic drama film “Wildcat” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Young author Flannery O’Connor struggles with various issues, including writer’s block, sexism, lupus, a domineering mother, and religion, specifically Catholicism. 

Culture Audience: “Wildcat” will appeal primarily to fans of O’Connor, filmmaker Ethan Hawke and slow-paced and uneven biopics.

Maya Hawke in “Wildcat” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Wildcat” wants to be an edgy and experimental biopic of author Flannery O’Connor, but it’s just a pile-on of overly pretentious rambling that’s trying too hard to look clever. Everything in this drab drama looks phony and forced, not natural or organic. This is the type of pompous movie that gets into major film festivals mainly because the director is famous. “Wildcat” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, and later screened at other festivals that year, such as the Toronto International Film Festival, the Zurich Film Festival and the Stockholm International Film Festival.

Ethan Hawke directed “Wildcat,” which he co-wrote with Shelby Gaines. “Wildcat” (starring Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) is based on some of O’Connor’s short stories. (For the purposes of this review, the real O’Connor will be referred to as O’Connor, while the Flannery O’Connor character in the movie will be referred to as Flannery.) “Wildcat” (which takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s) is a mixture of realism and surrealism. In several scenes, O’Connor’s short stories come to life as she’s writing them, with Maya Hawke portraying not only O’Connor but also the protagonists of these short stories.

It’s an ambitious concept for a movie that only works in short spurts and then gets muddled and meanders for long stretches. Parts of “Wildcat” look better-suited for a stage play (especially in poorly lit scenes were people just talk in rooms), while other parts of the movie fit better in a cinematic format. For example, Flannery is fascinated with peacocks, and one of the best shots in the film involves a visual image of Flannery with peacock feathers unfurling behind her, like an art installation. But artsy visuals and self-indulgent monologues (of which this movie has plenty) cannot turn “Wildcat” into a very good movie.

People who are not familiar with O’Connor might be rolling their eyes at how O’Connor in “Wildcat” is depicted with every checklist cliché of an artist who died young. (At the age of 39, she died of lupus in 1964). Flannery in “Wildcat” is a moody and insecure loner, with a “tortured soul.” She puts her writing above everything else in her life. And then, she’s frustrated that her personal relationships are unfulfilling or downright disastrous.

“Wildcat” opens with a scene that might confuse some viewers. It’s a fictional trailer for a fictional 1964 movie called “Star Drake,” based on one of Flannery’s semi-autobiographical short stories. Flannery is supposed to be imagining this movie trailer in her head. “Wildcat” depicts many fantasies imagined by Flannery. In this imaginary “Star Drake” movie trailer, the movie’s plot is described as “the outspoken story of an indiscreet woman.”

Flannery portrays the title character of “Star Drake,” who is a young writer who temporarily stays with a middle-aged couple and causes havoc in their lives as a femme fatale. It’s no doubt partially inspired by O’Connor’s real-life 1949 experience of temporarily living with classic book translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally Fitzgerald in Ridgefield, Connecticut, although O’Connor’s real-life visit wasn’t as dramatic as it’s portrayed in “Star Drake.”

Throughout “Wildcat,” the movie switches back and forth between Flannery’s “real life” and the “fantasies” inspired by her short stories. An early scene in “Wildcat” takes place in 1950, when Flannery (who spent most of her life living in her home state of Georgia) has a tense meeting in New York City with her book publisher John Selby (played by Alessandro Nivola), who admittedly doesn’t understand the eccentric Flannery and her writing style. (“Wildcat” was actually filmed in Kentucky.)

John thinks Flannery’s angst-filled short stories aren’t very ladylike. He tells her that she doesn’t have to write like “she’s picking a fight” with readers. John also suggests that Flannery give him an outline of what she’s writing before she turns in the draft. However, Flannery explains that she doesn’t do outlines. She just writes what comes to her.

“Wildcat” doesn’t want to dwell on harsh realities of being a female author in a male-dominated field in this particular time period. Flannery, for all of her “struggling artist” posturing, is never really seen struggling with harmful sexism or poverty in “Wildcat.” The way it looks in “Wildcat,” the people who are Flannery’s biggest obstacles in life are women: herself and her domineering mother.

Flannery has an encouraging mentor is Robert “Cal” Lowell (played by Philip Ettinger), a bachelor who isn’t much older than she is and is a great admirer of Flannery’s work. Flannery gets accepted into a writer’s workshop at an unnamed university. Cal is Flannery’s writing instructor for this workshop, where Flannery is one of only a few female students.

This part of the movie seems inspired by O’Connor’s real-life stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. The character of Cal seems to be based on a combination of the real-life Paul Engle, who was the workshop leader. In “Wildcat,” Flannery and Cal they seem to be attracted to each other for more than just professional reasons.

Some of the dialogue in “Wildcat” is cringeworthy. In a scene taking place at train station, Cal says to Flannery: “I love you, Flannery. That’s not a [marriage] proposal. You know me. I’ve got a lot of eggs to fry.” Flannery responds, “You let me know when you’re done with breakfast then.”

Flannery’s relationship with her widowed mother Regina (played by Laura Linney) is the source of most of Flannery’s conflicts in the movie. Regina is a conservative Catholic who is overbearing and racist. Flannery (who is an only child) moves back home to Georgia to live with Regina and Regina’s gossipy sister Duchess (played by Christine Dye), who becomes Flannery’s closest confidante.

Flannery’s father died of lupus when Flannery was a child. His death is barely mentioned in the movie. In real life, O’Connor’s father Edward, who was a real-estate agent, died in 1937, when she was 8 years old. “Wildcat” never really explores how this tragic death affected Flannery.

Flannery seems to take pride in being an oddball non-conformist, but she also seems conflicted over it. She likes to dress in men’s clothing (much to the dismay of her mother Regina), but the female heroines in her stories are often ultra-feminine and vulnerable. Flannery openly scoffs at and questions the concept of religion, but she sometimes wonders if being a devout Catholic would make her life better. (Liam Neeson as a cameo as a Catholic priest named Father Flynn, who counsels Flannery when she’s at a low point in her life.)

Flannery has lupus, which is a diagnosis that she doesn’t discover until later in the movie. By then, “Wildcat” viewers will see depictions of various characters in Flannery’s short stories. In these short stories that play out in her head and on screen, Flannery usually imagines herself in the role of a young woman who is sexually repressed and/or sexually inexperienced, including Sarah Ruth Cates from “Parker’s Back,” LucyNell Crater from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Mary Grace from “Revelation” and Joy “Hulga” Hopewell from “Good Country People.”

Each of these imaginary heroines is usually controlled and manipulated by an older woman, who is a mother or maternal figure to the heroine—and obviously representative of Regina. In “Wildcat,” Linney also has several roles in the movie, including the roles of Mrs. Crater, Mrs. Turpin and Mrs. Hopewell. Predictably, these bossy characters are argumentative and difficult.

“Wildcat” also has depictions of various love interests of the heroines from these short stories. Obadiah Elihue “O.E.” Parker (played by Rafael Casal) is the tattooed and gun-toting rebel from O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” Tom R. Shiftlet (played by Steve Zahn) is the homeless con man from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” who agrees to marry naïve LucyNell Crater, after Mrs. Crater sells LucyNell into this marriage with cash and the use of Mrs. Crater’s car as a “dowry.” Manley Pointer (played by Cooper Hoffman) is the conniving Bible salesman from “Good Country People.”

Maya Hawke certainly has an admirable acting range that she gets to show in “Wildcat.” Linney is always a pro at what she does. And the rest of the “Wildcat” cast members do reasonably well in their roles. The problem is that you never forget that they are acting in a way that comes across as showboating instead of truly embodying the characters.

The movie’s cinematography consists of mostly of shades of blues and grays, as if to reflect the story’s depressive mood. “Wildcat” doesn’t really have a lot that’s important to say about Flannery O’Connor and her life experiences. Instead, this lethargic movie depicts her as a fever dream of disjointed fantasies that she thinks about when she wants to escape the uncomfortable realities of her life.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Wildcat” in select U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024.

Review: ‘The Absence of Eden,’ starring Zoe Saldaña, Garrett Hedlund, Adria Arjona and Chris Coy

May 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Zoe Saldaña and Sophia Hammons in “The Absence of Eden” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“The Absence of Eden”

Directed by Marco Perego

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Mexico and briefly in Mexico, the dramatic film “The Absence of Eden” features a Latin and white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A Hispanic undocumented immigrant and a white American border patrol agent, who are strangers to each other, have various ethical dilemmas before their worlds collide. 

Culture Audience: “The Absence of Eden” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dramas about the intersections of law enforcement and undocumented immigration in America, but the movie’s story is too muddled and unfocused to have much impact.

Garrett Hedlund and Adria Arjona in “The Absence of Eden” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“The Absence of Eden” has an absence of a cohesive plot. This clumsy drama portrays multiple sides of undocumented immigration and law enforcement in the U.S., but the story falls apart in the last dreadful 30 minutes. Some of the movie’s cast members give capable performances, but they are not enough to save this flimsy movie.

Visual artist Marco Perego makes his feature-film directorial debut with “The Absence of Eden,” which was written by Perego and Rick Rapoza. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Taormina Film Fest in Italy. “Absence of Eden” does not have a large number of people with speaking roles in its cast, but the movie tries to do too much in a jumbled way, and then tries to rush things along to an ending that is ultimately underwhelming and seems incomplete.

“The Absence of Eden” follow the stories of two main characters over a period of approximately a few months. The first main character is Esmerelda “Esmee” Rojas (played by Zoe Saldaña), an exotic dancer from Mexico. (Saldaña and Perego are married in real life.) The other main character is Shipp (played by Garrett Hedlund), an American border patrol agent for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Esmee is first seen in Mexico at her exotic dancer job at a seedy bar. Esmee is giving a lap dance to a cowboy customer (played by Leonel Garza) in a back room. The customer gets aggressive and tries to force Esmee at gunpoint into doing a sexual act with him. She resists, and in the scuffle that ensues, Esmee grabs the gun and shoots him dead.

In a panic, Esmee decides she’s going to escape by illegally crossing the U.S./Mexico border into New Mexico. (“The Absence of Eden” was filmed on location in New Mexico.) Esmee grabs some cash and calls a secretive group that transports people illegally though U.S. borders. She makes arrangements to get this transportation to the United States. Esmee says goodbye to her grandmother (played by Petra Tovar Sanchez), who gives her personal journal to Esmee as a keepsake.

Esmee and a group of about six to nine undocumented immigrants make the journey by van to New Mexico. Emsee finds out that she has gone from one terrible situation to another. The transportation service is really a human trafficking operation that sells undocumented immigrants into illegal labor to unscrupulous employers. Some of the women and children will be sold into sex trafficking. Esmee has to fight off the sexual advances of the smuggler who’s leading this trip.

Emsee is in the van when she witnesses an unnamed young mother (played by Laura Cruz) get forcibly separated from her daughter Alma (played by Sophia Hammons), who is about 10 or 11 years old. The mother and Alma are understandably distraught and devastated when the mother is taken away to an undisclosed location. Esmee has compassion for Alma and starts taking care of this child while promising she will do everything she can to reunite Alma with Alma’s mother.

Esmee finds out that she is being forced to be a drug mule (someone who smuggles drugs for drug dealers) while she and a few other undocumented immigrant women have been sold into working as maids in a dumpy motel, where they are treated like prisoners under the watchful eyes of security guards at all times. The motel’s undocumented maids also get frequently locked up in rooms when they sleep, so they can’t escape. The motel manager Phil (played by Kevin Owen McDonald) is an elderly creep who seems to be attracted to Esmee.

Meanwhile, Shipp is stoic in his job and in his personal life. He has some “daddy issues” because his retired father was a well-respected ICE agent, and Shipp feels somewhat overshadowed by his father’s admired reputation. Shipp’s father, who does not have a name in the movie, is not seen on screen, but his voice can be heard leaving messages for Shipp, who doesn’t return the messages. (Ted Koch is the voice of Shipp’s father.)

Shipp is a bachelor who lives alone. His love life starts to heat up when he meets Yadira (played by Adria Arjona) at a bar. They hook up immediately in the back seat of his car. Yadira tells Shipp during their first encounter that she works as an elementary schoolteacher and she’s a single mother to a son named Gabriel (played by Chrysovalentis Martinez), who is 11 years old. Yadira lives with Gabriel and her grandmother Maria (played by Teresa Cepada Rodriguez) in a modest home.

Shipp works with a racist ICE border patrol agent named Dobbins (played by Chris Coy), who takes pleasure in being violently brutal to many of the undocumented Hispanic immigrants whom he detains. Shipp witnesses this brutality when he’s working with Dobbins. Shipp only stops the brutality if it looks like the victim might need to be taken to a hospital if Dobbins continues the assault.

Shipp keeps his personal life separate from his work life. However, one day at work, Dobbins convinces Shipp to bring Yadira on a double date for dinner at a restaurant with Dobbins and a woman named Rebecca (played by Sarah Minnich), whom Dobbins has recently begun dating. Dobbins doesn’t find out that Yadira is Hispanic until this double date.

“The Absence of Eden” wanders for long stretches that don’t do much to further the story. What about Alma and her missing mother? That storyline is mostly forgotten. Much of “The Absence of Eden” shows various incidents that happen in the lives of Shipp and Esmee. Shipp is usually emotionally closed-off, but he begins up to open up to Yadira. The couple’s relationship becomes more serious when they declare their love for each other. However, in a movie like “The Absence of Eden,” a love affair like this will not go smoothly.

Saldaña and Hedlund have moments of portraying Emee and Shipp convincingly. The problem is that “The Absence of Eden” screenplay depicts these two main characters as mostly stereotypes. By the end of the movie, viewers will learn almost nothing about Esmee except that she’s an outlaw for killing a man in self-defense, and she decided to take care of Alma, who is not seen for most of the movie. Yadira is an interesting but underdeveloped character that limits Arjona’s nuanced performance. The rest of the movie’s cast members are serviceable and not outstanding in their roles.

The storylines of Esmee and Shipp converge in a very predictable and awkward way. Esmee has a preachy monologue near the end of the movie that is absolutely cringeworthy because it sounds “only in a movie” phony. The direction of “The Absence of Eden” tries to be gritty and artsy at the same time, but it just doesn’t work for this unfocused story. “The Absence of Eden” seems to want to make a big statement about the exploitation and brutality that undocumented immigrants can experience in America. However, that statement rings hollow when “The Absence of Eden” refuses to show or tell anything meaningful about the movie’s main undocumented immigrant and who she really is as a person.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical released “The Absence of Eden” in select U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024.

Review: ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,’ starring Anna Cobb and Michael J Rogers

May 3, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anna Cobb in “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

Directed by Jane Schoenbrun

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. state, the supernatural drama film “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” features a predominantly an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl participates in a mysterious online game that seems to change people who play the game. 

Culture Audience: “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a low-budget psychological thriller with good acting.

Anna Cobb in “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

The first thing that people should know about “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is that even though it’s advertised as a horror movie, it’s not a movie with jump scares. It’s not really a horror movie but more like a psychological drama about the effects of a mysterious online video challenge. Anna Cobb gives a compelling performance in this slow-paced movie.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Jane Schoenbrun. It’s not a movie like 2002’s “Fear Dot Com” or 2014’s “Unfriended,” which are horror films about people who experience terror because they logged onto a website and made contact with an evil force. “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” has some elements of that concept, but don’t expect to see serial killing in this movie.

The protagonist of “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is a teenage girl named Casey (played by Cobb), who lives in an unnamed U.S. state where it snows. (“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” was actually filmed in New York state.) Casey has her own YouTube channel and appears to be a very lonely and isolated person who mostly interacts with people online. She is not shown interacting with anyone in person.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” has a very small number of people in the movie’s cast: Only four or five people actually speak on screen. And none of them is ever in the same room as Casey, whose bedroom is in the attic of the house where she lives. The movie takes place during the winter season, because there is snow on the ground where Casey lives, which is in a remote wooded area.

Casey’s family life is vague. Viewers of “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” will find out that Casey lives with her father, who is never seen in the movie. He is only heard yelling at her once, late at night when she is playing something too loudly on her laptop computer. Casey’s mother is not seen or mentioned in the film. If Casey has any relatives, they aren’t mentioned either.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” begins by showing Casey doing a livestream for her YouTube channel, where she announces a little nervously to her audience that she’s going to take the World’s Fair Challenge. She logs onto an unseen website and says three times in a row: “I want to go to the World’s Fair.”

Then, she takes a pin button with a drawing of a skull and pricks the index finger on her left hand until a small amount of blood comes out. She smears the blood on the computer screen and plays a video that cannot be seen by viewers watching the movie. However, pulsating noises can be heard from the video that is being played.

The rest of “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” consists of Casey becoming aware that many things about her are changing. Is it real or all in her imagination? That’s for viewers of the movie to decide. However, Casey sees videos on the Internet that show other people who took the World’s Fair Challenge have had things happen to them too.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is a “mood movie” that doesn’t have much of a plot but is very effective at creating a certain atmosphere and getting people curious about what will happen next. There’s one scene in the movie that can definitely be considered something from a traditional horror movie, but this scene comes and goes with no further explanation.

Casey has an ardent YouTube subscriber named JLB (played by Michael J Rogers), a middle-aged man who can be described as an obsessive fan of Casey. JLB (who uses a skull illustration as his online avatar) frequently checks in on Casey and expects her to communicate with him. JLB becomes increasingly worried about Casey when he notices changes in her.

Just like Casey, JLB also appears to be a lonely and isolated person, even though he doesn’t live alone either. There’s a scene in “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” where a woman is briefly seen in the background of JLB’s home. It’s implied that this woman is JLB’s wife or live-in partner, but he never mentions her, and she is not shown speaking to him.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is a portrait of a slow descent into madness. It’s not the type of movie that will be enjoyed by viewers who are expecting a lot of action. But this very low-budget film has some striking visuals and a creepy tone that might be enough to unsettle some viewers, which seems to be the main intention.

Utopia released “We’re All Going the World’s Fair” in select U.S. cinemas on April 15, 2024. The movie was released on digital and VOD on April 22, 2024. “We’re All Going the World’s Fair” is available for streaming on Max.

Review: ‘I Saw the TV Glow,’ starring Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Fred Durst and Danielle Deadwyler

May 3, 2024

by Carla Hay

Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in “I Saw the TV Glow” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“I Saw the TV Glow”

Directed by Jane Schoenbrun

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1996 to 2004, in an unnamed U.S. state, the dramatic film “I Saw the TV Glow” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lonely teenage boy befriends a teenage girl, who gets him hooked on a fantasy TV series starring young people battling a villain named Mr. Melancholy, and the show affects what happens to them as they get older. 

Culture Audience: “I Saw the TV Glow” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in watching symbolic-heavy movies about depression and queerness.

Ian Foreman in “I Saw the TV Glow” (Photo by Spencer Pazer/A24)

“I Saw the TV Glow” isn’t as scary as it seems, but it’s a very original film about obsessive escapism and denial of one’s true identity. The plot has more mystery than suspense. Viewers must be willing to interpret the movie’s LGBTQ symbolism. “I Saw the TV Glow” had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and later screened at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival and 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, “I Saw the TV Glow” explores themes about depression and queerness that are presented in ways that might be too abstract for viewers. “I Saw the TV Glow” has been described as a horror movie, but it’s really a psychological drama. There are a few brief horror-like images, in addition to one scene where someone has a mental breakdown. That does not make it a horror movie.

“I Saw the TV Glow,” which is told in chronological order, takes place from 1996 to 2004, in an unnamed U.S. state. (The movie was actually filmed in New Jersey. (“I Saw the TV Glow” begins by showing clips from a U.S. TV network called the Young Adult Network, which has a combination of original and acquired programming. One of the network’s more popular original shows is a weekly fantasy series called “The Pink Opaque,” which is set in America in whatever year that the show is on the air. “I Saw the TV Glow” pokes some fun at 1990s television, music and fashion in clips of “The Pink Opaque.”

It’s later explained in the movie that “The Pink Opaque” (and the show’s title characters) are two American teenage best friends named Isabel (played by Helena Howard) and Tara (played by Lindsey Jordan), who live in a typical suburban area but live secret lives where they are battle a demonic force called Mr. Melancholy (played by Emma Portner), the show’s chief villain who gives Isabel and Tara an obstacle in each episode. Isabel is the more prominent person of this teenage duo. She is described as an “expert in demonology.”

In “I Saw the TV Glow,” the protagonist and narrator is shy and quiet Owen (played by Justice Smith), who narrates the movie in hindsight as an older teenager and as an adult. Sometimes, he talks directly to the camera during his narration. Sometimes, Owen’s narration is a voiceover. The movie also has captions spelled out in handwritten pink letters.

When Owen is first seen in the movie, he is a seventh grader (about 12 or 13 years old) and played by Ian Foreman. It’s during this period of time that Owen meets someone who will change his life. Seventh grader Owen is shown accompanying his mother Brenda (played by Danielle Deadwyler) to a polling place on Election Day. The polling station is in a gym of a local high school where Owen will be a student in two years. Brenda takes Owen into the voting booth with her and shows him how to vote.

It’s at this gym where Owen meets sarcastic Maddie Wilson (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine), who is a ninth grader (freshman), about 14 years old, at the high school. Maddie is sitting on the gym floor, reading a book about episodes of “The Pink Opaque.” Owen soon finds out that Maddie is an obsessive fan of “The Pink Opaque,” which airs on Tuesdays from 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the time zone where Maddie and Owen live.

Owen and Maddie start talking about “The Pink Opaque,” a show that Owen has not seen at this point because he’s not allowed to stay up past 10 p.m., especially on a school night. Owen (who is an only child) lives with his married parents in a stable, loving and middle-class home. His father Frank (played by Fred Durst) is not as close to Owen as Brenda is.

Maddie tells Owen that she and her best friend Amanda (also played by Portner) watch “The Pink Opaque” together at Maddie’s place. Maddie invites Owen to join them and suggests that Owen lie to his parents by saying he’s spending the night at a male friend’s house. Owen takes that advice and sneaks over to Maddie’s place to watch “The Pink Opaque” for the first time (in a basement room), as Maddie explains the complex world building that the show has. Maddie later tells Owen, “Sometimes, ‘The Pink Opaque’ feels more real than real life.”

Maddie’s parents are never shown in the movie. However, Maddie mentions that her parents “don’t give a crap” when she goes to bed. She also says that she has an abusive stepfather. When Owen spends the night at Maddie’s place for the first time, he has to sleep in the basement. Maddie tells Owen that Owen has to leave by dawn because if Maddie’s stepfather sees Owen there, “he’ll break my nose again.”

After Amanda has left for the night, Maddie also tells Owen that Maddie thinks Isabel from “The Pink Opaque” is “super-hot,” and Maddie “likes girls.” Owen doesn’t have any reaction to Maddie telling him that she’s a lesbian, but he does get confused when she asks him if he likes boys or girls. He tells her he doesn’t know but he knows he likes “The Pink Opaque.” When Owen is a teenager, he mentions “The Pink Opaque” to his father Frank, who replies, “Isn’t that a girl’s show?”

Owen explains in a voiceover that over the next two years, Maddie gave VHS tapes of “The Pink Opaque” episodes to Owen so he could watch the show without having to stay up past his bedtime. However, Owen and Maddie don’t become close friends until 1998, when Owen (played by Smith) is a freshman (about 14 years old) in the same high school where Maddie is now a junior (about 16 years old) and is now a loner at the school.

Maddie and Owen reconnect at her place to watch “The Pink Opaque” together. It’s during this reconnection that Owen finds out that Maddie and Amanda stopped being friends about two years earlier because Amanda told people that Maddie touched Amanda’s breast without Amanda’s consent. Maddie denies this sexual harassment happened but she was then shunned by many people because Maddie was “outed” as a lesbian. Maddie is still bitter over how the friendship ended and also seems angry that Amanda would rather spend time on the cheerleader squad than watch “The Pink Opaque.”

The rest of “I Saw the TV Glow” is about how Owen’s friendship with Maddie and how their fixation with “The Pink Opaque” affect their lives. Without giving away too much information, the movie is full of metaphors and symbolism of Owen’s self-discovery of his sexuality, even though he is not shown dating anyone in the movie. There’s a scene early on in the film of seventh grader Owen in an inflatable planetarium that has colors reminiscent of the LGBTQ Pride flag.

“I Can See the TV Glow” has some scenes that go on for a little too long. For example, there’s a nightclub sequence that starts to look like a music video because it shows the full song performance of rock band Sloppy Jane. Better editing was needed for this scene because it doesn’t fit the flow of a conversation that Owen and Maddie are having in a nearby room at the nightclub.

“I Saw the TV Glow” might get some comparisons to Schoenbrun’s 2022 feature-film debut “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” another psychological drama (with some horror elements) about a teenage loner who gets caught up in something on screen that becomes dangerous. “I Saw the TV Glow” obviously has a bigger production budget and a larger, more well-known cast than “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” However, “I Saw the TV Glow” has a more abstract plot than “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” Some viewers will be puzzled over what “I Saw the TV Glow” is trying to say.

In the role of Owen, Smith is once again doing a character who is whiny, insecure and often looking like he’s confused or about to cry. Owen is not a bad person, but he can be annoying. Lundy-Paine gives a better performance as Maddie, but there comes a point in the movie where Maddie’s personality becomes almost numb, so the movie loses a lot of Maddie’s initial spark and charisma. “I Saw the TV Glow” can be recommended to people who don’t mind watching offbeat movies with a unique vision and a heavily symbolic story about how secrets and lies can kill a soul.

A24 released “I Saw the TV Glow” in select U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024.

Review: ‘Strictly Confidential’ (2024), starring Elizabeth Hurley, Georgia Lock, Lauren McQueen, Freddie Thorp, Genevieve Gaunt, Pear Chiravara, Max Parker and Llyrio Boateng

April 30, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pear Chiravara, Max Parker, Elizabeth Hurley, Genevieve Gaunt and Freddie Thorp in “Strictly Confidential” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Strictly Confidential”

Directed by Damian Hurley

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2022, on an unnamed Caribbean island, the dramatic film “Strictly Confidential” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and one Asian person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A wealthy widow summons the friends of her presumed-dead daughter for a reunion on an exotic island, and scandalous secrets are revealed during this gathering. 

Culture Audience: “Strictly Confidential” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching tacky movies with horrible acting and a stupid plot.

Elizabeth Hurley in “Strictly Confidential” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Strictly Confidential” looks like a parody of a bad movie, but it’s unfortunately no joke. This horrendous drama, which has a tawdry plot about privileged people with sordid secrets, is a time-wasting failure for everyone involved. Perhaps the only saving grace for this train-wreck film is that the movie’s exotic island locations are attractive. The cast members are all good-looking people, but those good looks mean nothing when there’s a lack of talent or personality in their performances.

Written and directed by Damian Hurley, “Strictly Confidential” (his feature-film directorial debut) was literally paid for by his mother, Elizabeth Hurley, who is one of the movie’s producers and is the biggest star of this garbage film. If not for nepotism, it’s very unlikely that “Strictly Confidential” would have ever been made. “Strictly Confidential” is not a “so bad it’s funny” movie. It’s a “so bad it’s torturous to watch” movie.

In “Strictly Confidential” (which takes place in 2022), Elizabeth Hurley portrays Lily Lowell, a wealthy widow who has had a very rough past year. In 2021, her husband Thomas died, at the age of 51. Within months of his death, her daughter Rebecca (played by Lauren McQueen, seen in flashbacks), who was 21 or 22, disappeared into an ocean at their Caribbean island home and is presumed dead. Rebecca left behind an apparent suicide note. Her body was never found.

Lily lives in a mansion on this island, which is not named in the movie. (“Strictly Confidential” was filmed in St. Kitts and Nevis.) It’s implied that this mansion is one of the homes that Lily has. Lily’s other child is Rebecca’s older sister Jemma (played by Genevieve Gaunt), also in her 20s, who had a rivalry with Rebecca and seems jealous that Rebecca got more attention from their parents.

Even in death, Rebecca is still getting more attention than Jemma. Lily has decided to summon all of Rebecca’s friends who were on the island during the summer that Rebecca apparently drowned in the ocean. Lily has invited these friends to stay at the mansion for one week to pay tribute to Rebecca. Jemma tells Lily that this reunion isn’t a good idea.

Lily replies, “It’s been a year. After next week, you never have to see them again. Maybe it’ll give us some closure. God knows, we can all use some.”

Lily has enlisted Rebecca’s best friend Mia (played by Georgia Lock) to track down everyone and tell them to go to the mansion. Mia is seen in the beginning of the movie having a nightmare about Rebecca—one of several of Mia’s bad dreams depicted in the movie—because Mia witnessed Rebecca disappear in the ocean. Mia has a lot of unresolved issues about Rebecca because Mia firmly believes that Rebecca did not commit suicide. During her time on the island, Mia conducts her own “investigation” to find out what happened to Rebecca.

One by one, the people in Rebecca’s social circle gather at the mansion. Natasha (played by Pear Chiravara) is an exotic dancer who reluctantly agreed to this reunion after Mia showed up at Natasha’s nightclub workplace to invite her. Will (played by Max Parker) is the boyfriend Rebecca had when Rebecca disappeared. James (played by Freddie Thorp) is Mia’s ex-boyfriend, who is described by Will as an “intense, weird psycho.”

There are also some locals on the island who seem to be there as “tokens” in small, supporting roles. Sebastian (played by Llyrio Boateng), who likes to walk around in a Speedo, is literally only in the movie to be a “rescuer” to “damsels in distress.” During Mia’s “investigation,” Mia meets a psychotherapist named Catherine Isaac (played by Agi Nanjosi), who had Rebecca as a client. You can easily guess what happens when Catherine gets a visit from Mia at Catherine’s home office, and Catherine briefly leaves Mia alone in a room with unlocked file cabinets.

“Strictly Confidential” is ostensibly a mystery thriller about what happened to Rebecca, but the movie spends most of its time stringing together a bunch of terribly acted scenes where the characters in the main ensemble have sex-related secrets revealed about them. For example, Lily has been having a torrid affair with one of the invited guests, and this affair was going on before Lily’s husband Thomas died. (The “Strictly Confidential” trailer reveals who this person is.) The movie’s sex and kissing scenes for this secret affair look very fake and awkward.

Lily’s adulterous affair is supposed to make viewers wonder if Thomas died of natural causes or if he was murdered. After all, Lily inherited everything from Thomas. There are other betrayals and lies that get exposed in the story. There’s even a badly staged showdown taking place on a cliff, where at least one person inevitably falls off of the cliff.

“Strictly Confidential” tries to have a retro tone that’s partly like “Dynasty” (scheming wealthy people) and partly like “Red Shoe Diaries” (softcore erotica), but it’s all just a weak imitation that falls flat. “Strictly Confidential” is very muddled and nonsensical, while the characters are completely hollow and boring. And just when you think things couldn’t get any worse in “Strictly Confidential,” the ending of the movie has a poorly conceived “reveal” that raises more questions that are never answered. That’s assuming most viewers who have the patience to watch all of this trashy movie will still care by the time the “Strictly Confidential” stumbles to its uninspired and idiotic ending.

Lionsgate released “Strictly Confidential” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on April 5, 2024.

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