Review: ‘The Price of Desire,’ starring Orla Brady, Vincent Perez, Francesco Scianna and Alanis Morissette

June 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Francesco Scianna and Orla Brady in “The Price of Desire” (Photo by Julian Lennon)

“The Price of Desire”

Directed by Mary McGuckian

French and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in France from the 1920s to the 1970s, the drama “The Price of Desire” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: The film tells the story of Irish architect Eileen Gray and her conflicts over sexism and E-1027, a modernist villa that she designed in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in the history of 20th century European modernist architecture.

Vincent Perez in “The Price of Desire” (Photo by Julian Lennon)

“The Price of Desire” sounds like it could be the name of a thriller about a crime of passion, but this slow-paced feature film (which is based on a true story) tells how Irish architect/interior designer Eileen Gray (who died in 1976, at the age of 98) was deprived of being credited for much of her work because of sexism in the industry. Written and directed by Mary McGuckian, “The Price of Desire” gets much of the production design correct,  but the movie’s turgid tempo might bore people who have absolutely no interest in the history of 20th century European architects.

A great deal of the movie’s cinematography from Stefan von Björn is over-filtered, giving it a dreamy look that movies often use for flashbacks or scenes where people are supposed to be experiencing a heavenly atmosphere. The story of “The Price of Desire” definitely takes place on Earth (France, to be more specific), but this lens filtering is at times distracting. And because Gray was known for her minimalist style, the costume design for the movie is a little too obvious about it, since almost everyone wears clothes in neutral colors, such as white, black, brown or gray.

“The Price of Desire” begins with the Christie’s auction in 2009 that famously sold one of Gray’s “Dragons” chair for €22 million, which set an auction record for a piece of 20th-century furniture. The movie then flashes back to an elderly and partially blind Eileen (played by Orla Brady) toward the end of her life in the mid-1970s. She is shown a photo of E-1027, a modernist villa that she designed and which was built from 1926 to 1929, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.

This photo triggers her memories of the story behind E-1027, which is considered her first major architectural work and is now a French national monument. And those memories lead to the movie flashing back to how she met the man who became her lover and who was the muse for E-1027.

Jean Badovici (played by Francesco Scianna) was a Frenchman of Romanian descent who was 15 years younger than Eileen. He met her in 1926 to interview her for L’Architecture Vivante magazine. It’s clear that Jean is immediately attracted to and in awe of Eileen, but she’s somewhat resistant to his obvious interest. When she asks him if he’s a writer or a journalist, he tells her that he’s neither because he’s really an architect.

Eileen is bisexual, so Jean tactfully tries to find out from Eileen how much of her sexual preferences lean toward men. (Near the beginning of the film, Alanis Morissette has a cameo as singer Marisa Damia, one of Eileen’s lovers whose affair with Eileen is over by the time Eileen meets Jean.) Because Eileen and Jean share passion for architecture and have a growing attraction to each other, they inevitably become lovers, and they soon decide to become work collaborators too.

Eileen tells Jean that she’s not interested in getting married to anyone and that she needs freedom to create and think. Jean tells Eileen, “You’re frittering away your talent on furniture. You’re 46 years old.”

Jean suggests that they design a house together. They name the white modernist villa E-1027, after the initials of their first and last names and where those letters are ranked in the alphabet.  “E” standing for Eileen, “10” stands for the “J” in Jean, “2” stands for the “B” in Badovici and “7” stands for the “G” in Gray.

But there’s one big problem: Perhaps in a “love is blind” decision, Eileen paid for the villa to be built and she gave Jean the house’s deed/title. Jean also took credit for designing the villa, which Eileen didn’t mind too much at first when their relationship was going well. They were live-in partners and his career began to thrive because of his association with Eileen, who is shown in the movie as being the brains behind his designs. But then, Eileen caught Jean cheating on her, and they had a bitter breakup not long after the house was completed in 1929.

By the time the breakup happened, Jean had become a close friend Swiss-French architect/artist Le Corbusier (played by Vincent Perez), who had become a titan of the industry as one of the pioneers of modern architecture. Le Corbusier (whose real name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) has a sexist attitude toward women in architecture, so he and Eileen inevitably end up having conflicts with each other, even though she says in the movie she remains a “passionate admirer” of Le Corbusier.

Adding insult to injury, after Eileen moved out of E-1027, Le Corbusier painted the walls with several colorful murals, which clashed with the villa’s white palette and minimalist style. To many people, the murals could be considered graffiti. And where is Jean in all of this? He’s taken the breakup with Eileen very hard, so he’s become an alcoholic, and he lets the more powerful Le Corbusier take over the villa.

Although “The Price of Desire” is supposed to be about Eileen Gray, the movie dilutes her perspective by making the character of Le Corbusier speak directly to the audience and share his thoughts. It’s a somewhat odd and distracting choice that McGuckian makes in this film’s narrative.

In real life, Le Corbusier was falsely credited for many years with designing E-1027, until the truth was revealed. Maybe having Le Corbusier narrate the film’s story is McGuckian’s way of demonstrating that even in a movie about Gray, Le Corbusier is trying to dominate and steal her thunder. But viewers of “The Price of Desire” would have to know this part of architectural history to understand this metaphor.

There’s a scene in “The Price of Desire” where Le Corbusier sums up how different he is from Eileen, when he interrupts a scene to talk to the audience about her: “There is so much uncertainty about sex, unless it’s paid for. In art, I can see clearly. In love, not so well. To me, they were incompatible and confused. To [Eileen Gray], they seemed utterly and intrinsically infused.”

Adding to the over-filtered cinematography, “The Price of Desire” also presents much of the movie’s scenes as if the story were a visual romance novel. Many scenes are filmed with too many slow-motion shots, some of which are almost laughable. Even when Eileen is doing the dirty work of breaking ground for the villa, she’s wearing no protective gloves and she’s dressed as if she’s about to go have a picnic in the park.

The movie has depictions of several real-life notable people from the mid-20th century artistic culture. The supporting character who gets the most screen time is artist Fernand Leger (played by Dominique Pinon), who’s a mutual friend of Eileen, Jean and Le Corbusier. Most of Fernand’s scenes consist of him witnessing some of the conflicts between his friends and trying to stay neutral, although in one scene he whispers to Eileen that she deserves to be happy, after she’s disrespected by Jean.

“The Price of Desire” also features cameo portrayals of writer Marcel Proust (played by Arnaud Bronsart); writer/artist Jean Cocteau (played by Fabien Boitiere); and Gray’s lesbian friends Gertrude Stein (played by Sammy Leslie), writer Natalie Barney (played by Natasha Girardi) and art promoter/filmmaker/choreographer Gabrielle Bloch (played by Caitriona Balfe). And it wouldn’t be a movie about high-end art without at least one billionaire. In this case, Aristotle Onassis (played by David Herlihy) makes an appearance.

There’s also a brief depiction author/adventurer Bruce Chatwin (played by Martin Swahey), who visits Eileen in her home toward the end of her life. She just happens to have a photo of Patagonia on her wall, and she mentions that she’s never been there. She then says to him: “Why don’t you go there for me?” Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“The Price of Desire” is not a horrible film. It’s just not a very compelling one. The actors in the cast do a serviceable job, but much of the movie’s dialogue just isn’t good enough to elevate, not matter who is speaking the lines.

And worst of all, “The Price of Desire” makes the mistake of having Le Corbusier (who’s portrayed as a misogynistic blowhard) continually interrupt the story to talk directly to the audience. If the point of the movie was to give the proper respect to Gray because she experienced gender discrimination, that intention is ruined by diminishing her perspective and making the story’s narration come from the sexist egomaniac who tried to oppress her in real life.

Giant Pictures released “The Price of Desire” in North America on digital and VOD on June 2, 2020. The movie was already released in the United Kingdom and Ireland in 2016.

Review: ‘The High Note,’ starring Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ice Cube

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in “The High Note” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

“The High Note”

Directed by Nisha Ganatra

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama “The High Point” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A personal assistant to a superstar music diva comes up against obstacles when the assistant tries to become a music producer.

Culture Audience: “The High Note” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about showbiz that have a predictable ending.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Dakota Johnson in “The High Note” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

It’s a pretty well-known fact at “The High Note” stars Tracey Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson grew up in the upper echelons of show business, since they both have parents who are famous entertainers. Ellis Ross’ mother is Diana Ross. Johnson is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. So with all that knowledgeable background, it’s too bad that Dakota Johnson and Ellis Ross have chosen to be in such a hollow and predictable dramedy about the music business. The irony of this movie being called “The High Note” is that there aren’t too many highlights for this film, when it comes to authenticity, laugh-out-loud humor or outstanding original songs.

However, one of the notable consistencies of the film is Ellis Ross—who does her own singing in the film and is very good at it— in her performance as spoiled superstar Grace Davis, who’s reached a crossroads in her career. Grace, who lives in Los Angeles, is famous enough to still be on the covers of People, Rolling Stone and Billboard, but she’s been coasting on her past hits because she hasn’t come out with an album of new songs in about 10 years. She still keeps herself in the public eye and continues to make millions by doing tours.

Grace’s long-suffering personal assistant Margaret “Maggie” Sherwoode has been working for Grace for three years, but what Maggie really wants to do is to be a music producer. Grace is coming out with a live album that Maggie has been secretly mixing in a recording studio in her spare time, in order for Maggie to practice her producer/mixer skills. Maggie has been able to get access to the studio, thanks to her recording engineer acquaintance Seth (played by Eugene Cordero), who’s worked with Grace and has been training Maggie in the studio.

“The High Note,” directed by Nisha Ganatra, hits a lot of the same cringeworthy beats of Ganatra’s 2019 comedy/drama “Late Night,” a movie that flopped with audiences because it was easy to see how phony and pandering the story was. Both movies are about a plucky, earnest young woman with a big dream who thinks she can take a shortcut to that dream, just by being in the right place at the right time. The young woman works for an egotistical, middle-aged diva who’s worried about becoming a has-been. The diva boss also has to choose between continuing with a familiar and safe work routine or going outside her comfort zone to do something new.

Along the way, people discourage the young woman from following her dream because she has no real experience. And then, she and her boss end up clashing in a big way because the young woman does something that the boss really hates. (Viewers have to wait until the end of the movie to see if or how this conflict is resolved.) And this young woman ends up dating someone she works with, even though dating a co-worker is a tricky issue in this #MeToo era, when a consensual affair between co-workers can be described in very different terms later if the relationship ends badly.

In “Late Night,” which was set in the workplace of a New York City-based late-night talk show, Mindy Kaling (who wrote the “Late Night” screenplay) played the show’s inexperienced and unqualified writer Molly Patel, who’s a “diversity hire,” while Emma Thompson played the prickly boss Katherine Newbury, the show’s host/executive producer. Except for the cities and types of work in the entertainment industry, “The High Note” and “Late Night” have the same premise and are basically the same type of movie, but “The High Note” is much worse than “Late Night.”

Fortunately, Maggie in “The High Note” (written by Flora Greeson) isn’t as clueless about music as Mindy Kaling’s Molly character in “Late Night” is clueless about writing for a late-night talk show. Maggie is a true music trivia buff, who can easily name songs and albums from classic artists to contemporary hitmakers. (Sam Cooke and Carole King are among her favorite classic artists.) Maggie also comes from a music-oriented family: Her father Max (played by Bill Pullman) is a longtime radio DJ, while Maggie’s mother (who died when Maggie was 6) was a singer.

But knowing a lot of music trivia and being a talented music producer are two different things. What will make people’s eyes roll about the dumb aspects of “The High Note” is that Maggie thinks she can go from these training sessions in the recording studio to becoming Grace’s producer, without actually putting in a lot of real work as a producer to pay her dues.

Grace’s harsh and cynical manager Jack Robertson (played by Ice Cube, in yet another in his long list of cranky, foul-mouthed character roles) essentially tells Maggie that she’s acting like an entitled brat in one of the few realistic scenes in the movie. This verbal takedown of Maggie’s ego comes after Maggie insults a smarmy and pretentious but experienced hitmaking DJ/producer named Richie Williams (played in a somewhat hilarious cameo by real-life hitmaking DJ/producer Diplo), who’s recruited by Jack to work on Grace’s live album. Maggie, who’s revealed her secret mixes to Grace at this point, wants Grace to choose Maggie’s mixes instead.

Jack doesn’t particularly like Maggie for another reason. While Jack has been finagling and pressuring Grace to do a Las Vegas residency, Maggie has been encouraging Grace to make an album of new songs instead. The Vegas residency would be easy money for everyone, but Maggie thinks Grace has a lot more to say as an artist instead of doing the same show every night in Vegas for an untold number of years. In a candid conversation with Grace, Maggie tells her that she once saw Grace say in an Oprah Winfrey interview about Grace’s career: “If there are no more surprises, who am I doing it for?”

Although the Jack character is greedy, attention-hungry and generally unlikable, his persona as a manager is actually one of the more realistic things in the movie. One of the other things that “The High Note” accurately portrays is how personal assistants of rich and famous people are often treated like 24-hour-a-day on-call servants. Grace is also one of those “lonely at the top” celebrities who has no real friends and has shallow dating relationships that don’t last, and that’s why her life revolves around her career.

“The High Note” also has a pretty good send-up of the false sense of superiority that employees who work for the same celebrity can have toward other employees. Grace has a materialistic and not-very-smart house manager named Gail (played by June Diane Raphael), who acts as if she’s better than Maggie, simply because Gail gets to have reasonable working hours while Maggie does not. Gail is also the type of “yes”-person leech that Hollywood is famous for attracting when people want to be close to celebrities.

Meanwhile, Grace has a smart and likeable roommate named Kate (played by Zoe Chao), who thinks Grace is wasting her talent by being a personal assistant. Maggie’s excuse for continuing to be stuck in the dead-end existence of being Grace’s assistant: “It’s the gateway to my dream job.” Katie’s reply: “It’s the gateway to Stockholm syndrome.” That’s one of the funnier lines in the movie.

As for Maggie’s love interest (because you know a movie like this has to have a love interest for the ingenue), his name is David Cliff (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an aspiring rock/pop musician who happens to be rich enough to own a mansion without working at a “real” job. Of course, Maggie doesn’t know all of that about David when they “meet cute” at a Laurel Canyon grocery store. While they’re standing near each other, Phantom Planet’s “California” song is playing over the store’s speakers, which leads Maggie and David to have a lively conversation about music.

When Maggie mentions Sam Cooke, she’s appalled that David says he doesn’t know who Sam Cooke is. They go their separate ways. But lo and behold, when Maggie leaves the store, she sees David playing a guitar outside the store’s entrance and singing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” while he gives her a sly look. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

At some point, Maggie and Katie are invited to a big house party at David’s place, and that’s how they find out that he’s a musician who’s not financially struggling. So why is this rich guy playing substandard gigs, such as singing cover songs in front of a grocery store? It turns out that David lacks confidence to record his own music and take his career to the next level. And guess who convinces David that she can be his producer?

Of course, in a movie like this, there has to be at least one “big lie/secret” that someone will tell early in the relationship, so that the couple will fight about it later if the secret is revealed. For Maggie, her big lie is that she tells David that she’s an experienced and busy producer, which is why he agrees to let her produce his first demo recording.

And this is where the plot goes down the toilet: David believes Maggie’s claim that she’s an experienced producer, without even asking to hear other music she’s produced, asking for references, or doing a background check. Cue to the predictable scene of David and Maggie singing together in a recording booth. (Harrison and Dakota Johnson also do their own singing in the movie. He’s a much better singer than she is.)

As for Maggie, she doesn’t seem that curious to know how or why David is so wealthy. All he’s told her about his family background is that he was raised by his father (a saxophone player named David Cliff Sr.) after David’s mother left them when he was a very young child. For a movie that’s supposed to take place in the present-day music business, it strangely and unrealistically has no scenes of David and Maggie using the Internet to check each other out when they show an interest in each other.

After Maggie and David start sleeping together, she comes up with a dumb idea to trick him into being the opening act for Grace’s record release party—without telling David, Grace or Jack. And in order to do that, Maggie secretly convinces star singer Dan Deakins (played by Eddie Izzard, in a cameo that’s a waste of his talent), who was booked as the opening act, to back out of the gig. How does Maggie convince Dan to cancel this high-profile job? Just by playing David’s demo for Dan and asking Dan to do her this favor, even though Maggie and Dan just met. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Whether or not this moronic plan works or backfires is spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review.  But that stupidity is nothing compared to the ludicrous plot twist that comes toward the end of the film. It’s a plot twist that’s not too surprising because all the signs were there, but it’s still the worst part of the movie.

There’s not much originality in “The High Note,” even in the movie’s soundtrack, which has mostly cover songs or hit songs that were previously released. “Bad Girl,” which is supposed to be Grace’s biggest hit, is a cover version of the Lee Moses song. In “The High Note,” the Grace character has two original songs that are prominently featured in the movie and are performed by Ellis Ross: “Stop for a Minute” and “Love Myself,” which is the tune heard during the end credits.

“Stop for a Minute” was co-written by Rodney Jerkins, who executive produced “The High Note” soundtrack. “Love Myself” was co-written by Greg Kurstin, who’s best known for his work with Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Beck and Sia. But even the contributions of these Grammy-winning hitmakers don’t make these songs particularly outstanding or likely to be nominated for any Grammys.

In fact, there’s a lot of things about “The High Note” that are dull (including the too-long running time of nearly two hours), forgettable or just plain awful. The stars of “The High Note” should not consider it a high point of their careers, because the reality is that the movie is a lackluster low point that they’d probably like to bury.

Focus Features released “The High Note” on VOD and digital on May 29, 2020.

Review: ‘End of Sentence,’ starring John Hawkes and Logan Lerman

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

John Hawkes and Logan Lerman in “End of Sentence” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“End of Sentence”

Directed by Elfar Adalsteins

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland and briefly in Alabama, the drama “End of Sentence” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his wife dies, a father tries to reconnect with his estranged ex-convict son, as they travel to Ireland to spread her ashes for her last dying wish.

Culture Audience: “End of Sentence” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally authentic dramas about difficult family relationships.

John Hawkes and Sarah Bolger in “End of Sentence” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“End of Sentence” is one of those movies that has a unique family story to tell, but so much of the story is universally relatable to people, regardless of what kind of families they have. There are multiple layers to the relationship between the father and son at the center of the of the story—and that’s why “End of Sentence” should not be considered just another road-trip movie.

The story begins in Alabama, where American salesman Frank Fogle (played by John Hawkes) and his Irish-born wife Anna Fogle (played by Andrea Irvine) are visiting their only child, Sean Fogle (played by Logan Lerman), in Alabama Correctional Facility, where Sean has been locked up for auto theft. Anna is wearing a head scarf, which a prison employee tells her to remove due to prison rules. It’s obvious that she’s bald underneath the scarf, and she removes it with some self-conscious hesitation.

When Anna and Frank meet with Sean in the prison, Anna’s words to Sean confirm that she does have a terminal illness, when she says to Sean, “I’ve come to say goodbye.” Sean seems to be a hardened criminal, but he does show some affection when his mother hugs him. However, Sean’s demeanor toward his father very cold and detached.

The next time that Frank sees Sean again, it’s the day that Sean has been released from prison. Frank is now a widower, but the loss of his wife hasn’t brought this father and son closer together. In fact, when Frank shows up to give Sean a ride, Sean is so angry and dismissive toward Frank, that Sean tosses aside a sack of new clothes that Frank brought to him, by throwing the clothes in a nearby garbage can.

Sean also refuses to get in Frank’s car. But before Sean drives off with a police officer who gives him a ride, Frank tells Sean that it was Anna’s dying wish that Frank and Sean take a road trip together to spread her ashes out on a lake in Ireland. Andrea also has some property in Ireland that she left to Sean in her will, and Frank wants Sean to view the property in order to decide to keep it or sell it. However, Sean flat-out refuses to take the trip.

Frank and Anna seem like kind-hearted and compassionate people who tried to raise their son the right way. Why is Sean so ill-tempered and disrespectful to his father? That answer is revealed later in the film, when Sean and Frank are on their trip in Ireland.

Sean changed his mind about going on the trip because after getting out of prison, he found it difficult to find a job due to his prison record. However, through a prison-release program, Sean did get a job offer to start work at an electronics warehouse—but it’s in Oakland, California, and Sean needs financial help from his father to move there. And that’s why Sean reluctantly decided to go on the trip with Frank. But they’re under a time crunch, because Sean has to start this new job in five days, or else the job will be given to someone else.

When they arrive in Ireland, Frank and Sean go to a car rental place, where they’re attended to by a female clerk. And it isn’t long before their opposite personalities begin to clash. When they’re in the car, Frank chastises Sean for staring at the female clerk’s breasts while she was helping them. Frank tells Sean: “You should show respect to give respect. I should know—I’ve been in sales all of my life.”

This lecture sets off Sean, who’s been simmering with anger toward his father, to verbally lash out at Frank. Sean tells Frank that he shouldn’t talk about respect because Frank let himself be bullied by his own father, who was an abusive alcoholic. Sean lets Frank know that he doesn’t respect Frank for how Frank let his own father mistreat him and others.

It’s revealed later that there’s more to this story of why Sean is so resentful toward Frank: Frank’s father used Sean as a “human ashtray,” by putting lit cigarettes out his skin, when Sean was a child and alone with his paternal grandfather. Frank found out, and Sean is still very angry over how Frank handled everything. The details of Frank’s reaction to this child abuse are revealed further in the story.

Even without this child abuse in Sean’s background, it’s very clear how dissimilar Frank and Sean are to each other when it comes to dealing with life. Frank is very calm, non-confrontational and doesn’t like taking risks. Sean is quick-tempered, tends to pick fights and is a big risk-taker.

For example, when they’re eating together at a diner, they both order hamburgers, but Frank was served a hamburger that was different than what he ordered. Sean tells Frank to berate the server and demand to get the hamburger that he ordered, but Frank refuses, and instead removes some of the unwanted ingredients from the hamburger and eats it without a fuss.

To make matters even more tension-filled, Frank and Sean have to share a hotel room together (with separate beds), which isn’t an ideal situation, but it’s an indication that they’re on a limited budget. Meanwhile, Frank tells Sean something that Sean doesn’t really want to hear: While they’re in Ireland, they have to attend an Irish wake for Andrea.

The wake (which is held at the bar of the hotel where Frank and Sean are staying) is attended by her family members who could not go to the Andrea’s funeral in America. Sean feels out-of-place because it’s his first time in Ireland, and he doesn’t know anyone there besides his father. But at the bar counter, he notices a pretty blonde sitting by herself. They look at each other in a way that people do in movies where you know that these two are going to hook up later.

Meanwhile, a grieving Frank is surprised to find out at the wake that Andrea had an ex-boyfriend in Ireland whom she ran off with during a rebellious time in her life, before she met Frank. The ex-boyfriend’s name is Ronan Quinn, and Frank is told that Ronan’s family owns a horse-breeding farm. An old Polaroid photograph that Frank sees at the wake shows Ronan and Andrea on Ronan’s motorcycle.

This photograph, combined with the realization that he didn’t know as much about Andrea’s past as he thought he did, triggers Frank to find out more about Ronan. The movie veers into this subplot for a while, but it doesn’t lose focus from the real story, which is how this trip is going to affect Frank and Sean’s relationship.

After the wake, Frank and Sean go back to their hotel room where Frank is ready to go to sleep. But Sean is feeling restless and irritated, so he heads back to the hotel bar. The blonde who locked eyes with him earlier is still there by herself, so Sean goes up and introduces himself to her. She says her name is Jewel.

It isn’t long before Sean and Jewel have a somewhat flirtatious conversation. He tells her why he’s in Ireland, while she confesses that she’s just left a physically abusive boyfriend and she’s now homeless and trying to figure out what to do next. Therefore, it’s not much of a surprise that these troubled and lonely people end up making out in the back seat of Frank and Sean’s rental car.

But before things get too intense, a drunk Sean vomits outside the car, thereby ruining the sexy mood of the encounter. An embarrassed Sean tells Jewel that she can leave if she wants, but she decides to stay. They spend the night together in the car.

The next morning, Frank sees that Sean has spent the night in the back of the car with a woman who’s basically a stranger. Some awkward introductions are made, and Sean asks Frank (who’s the authorized driver for the car rental) if they can give Jewel a ride to where she need to go. Frank refuses because he doesn’t want to violate the car policy of picking up hitchhikers.

But when Frank has trouble starting the car, and Jewel (who says she knows cars because her father’s a mechanic) easily fixes the problem, it’s not a surprise that Frank relents, and Jewel is now along for the ride. The rest of the movie takes a few twists and turns (some more predictable than others) in showing how this decision affects the rest of their journey.

One of the best things about “End of Sentence” (which was written by Michael Armbruster) is that it avoids the pitfalls of many road-trip movies that overstuff the story with a lot of wacky characters and over-the-top situations. Everything that happens in “End of Sentence” is entirely believable, which makes the human emotions in the story even more poignant. The movie doesn’t feel overly scripted, because not every moment in the movie serves a big purpose the way that some movies cynically set up a scene purely for melodrama.

Hawkes and Lerman give commendable performances as this estranged father and son trying to find some of peace of mind while navigating the tensions of their relationship. Hawkes is a terrific character actor who doesn’t need a flashy role to show how talented he is. The way that he expresses the essence of Frank Fogle through his eyes and body language speak volumes more than what a lot of dialogue might convey. Lerman also skillfully handles the more complicated character of Sean, who might seem like a person who’s always angry at the world, but Sean’s relationship with Jewel reveals a vulnerable side to him that makes it clear that his anger masks deep-rooted insecurities.

And who is this mysterious Jewel? The movie shows more details about her and how her presence affects the relationship between Frank and Sean. There’s a scene in the movie where Jewel, Frank, and Sean are all seated at the same table at a restaurant/bar. Jewel comforts Frank, who’s feeling insecure about wondering that his late wife Anna’s relationship was like with her ex-boyfriend Ronan. Jewel tells Frank, “We might go on rides with rebels, but it’s the kind-hearted ones we spend our lives with.”

The look on Sean’s face and what happens afterward tell a lot about how Sean feels about himself compared to his father. It’s one of the reasons why “End of Sentence” is so good at revealing layers to the story, instead of throwing it all at viewers in an obvious way. The title of the film could refer to the end of Sean’s prison sentence, but it’s also clear that the real prison sentence in this story is holding on to anger and resentment that can poison a relationship with a loved one.

Gravitas Ventures released “End of Sentence” on digital and VOD on May 29, 2020.

Review: ‘The Vast of Night,’ starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“The Vast of Night”

Directed by Andrew Patterson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1950s in fictional Cayuga, New Mexico, the sci-fi drama “The Vast of Night” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two young people unexpectedly find out about mysterious UFO occurrences that appear to involve massive government conspiracies and cover-ups.

Culture Audience: “The Vast of Night” will appeal mostly to people who like movies that explore issues about life in outer space and what the U.S. government knows about it.

Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

People who don’t know anything about “The Vast of Night” before seeing this sci-fi drama will get some pretty obvious clues within the first 20 minutes of this slow-burn-to-intensity film that’s clearly been inspired by “The Twilight Zone.” Taking place in the 1950s, the movie is set entirely during one night in the fictional city of Cayuga, New Mexico, where some of the people have reported unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in the sky during a night with a full moon.

There have also been some strange interruptions in the electrical lighting in certain buildings. “The Vast of Night”—directed by Andrew Patterson and written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger—takes a while to get the action going, but the last third of the film is worth sticking around for, as the movie deliberately builds up to a suspenseful pace.

The city of Cayuga in this movie at first appears to be the type of tranquil, middle-class suburb where the majority of the city residents will turn up for a Cayuga High School basketball game as a major social event. That’s what is going on in the beginning of the film, as viewers are introduced to Everett Sloan (played by Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ who goes by the on-air name “The Maverick” when he works at the local station.

Everett, who appears to be in his late teens or early 20s, has in his possession a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, which was a fancy new technology invention at the time. He’s making the rounds at the school’s gym during the pre-game practice to test out the recorder, which he plans to use to record the basketball game. Everett interviews people in the gym because he’s an aspiring investigative news journalist, but there’s also a sense that he wants to show off this recorder too.

Everett’s activity is briefly interrupted when he’s asked to help out some school administrators who have reported an electrical power problem in the room where the generators are stored. Apparently, the lights have been blinking off and on in certain parts of the school, and they don’t want any of these problems during the basketball game.

When Everett arrives, he finds out that there was an identity mix-up, and they wanted to send for a guy named Emmett (the school’s electrician), not Everett. The administrators mention that the electrical glitches are probably because of a small animal, such as a mouse or squirrel. As the movie continues, it seems like the only purpose of this scene is to establish that the town is having some unexplained electrical problems.

One of the people whom Everett encounters when he’s showing off his tape recorder is 16-year-old Fay Crocker (played by Sierra McCormick), who’s fascinated and a little intimidated by this new technology. Fay and Everett aren’t close friends, and he treats her like an older brother who doesn’t want his younger sister tagging along. But tag along she does, as Sierra and Everett make their way into the school’s parking lot, where several families are in their cars, waiting to be let in for the basketball game. Everett goes from car to car to further test his new tape recorder.

Although the dialogue in “The Vast of Night” is spoken with a rapid-fire pace (in the manner that many American sci-fi/thriller films did back in the 1950s), the story unfolds in a leisurely manner in the beginning of the film. Not much happens in the first third of the movie, in order to create an atmosphere that this is supposed to be just a regular night in Cayuga, where the biggest thing going on is the basketball game.

Sierra and Everett aren’t staying at the basketball game because they have to work elsewhere. Everett is headed to the radio station, where he has a live broadcast for his music/talk show. Sierra is scheduled to work a shift alone as the city’s telephone switchboard operator.

Before they walk to their respective workplaces, Sierra and Everett have a lively discussion about some of the future technology that’s she’s read about in magazines like Modern Mechanics. She tells Everett that by the year 2000, there will be vacuum-tube transportation that can travel at incredible speed; phones that will look like tiny TVs; and lifelong telephone numbers as IDs that will be assigned to babies at birth, with the numbers disconnected upon death. Everett tells Sierra: “I believe the train tubes in the highways, but the tiny TV phones—that’s cuckoo.” (It’s the screenwriters’ obvious inside joke, since smartphones now exist.)

As soon as Sierra begins her switchboard operator shift, a few strange things start happening. She gets a call where all she hears is a repeated clicking-echo type of noise and nothing else. Then another call comes in, with a terrified woman saying that there appears to be a tornado coming toward her. A barking dog can be heard in the background, and then the caller is suddenly disconnected.

A concerned Sierra then calls a neighbor named Ethel to check on Sierra’s  pre-school-age sister Ethel and the babysitter Maddie, who are both home alone at Sierra’s house. Sierra has been listening to Everett’s radio show while she works. She hears the strange clicking sound at the beginning of the show’s news broadcast, so she calls Everett to ask him if he heard this strange noise too.

Everett didn’t hear it, but Sierra hooks him up to the phone line where he can hear it, and he records the noise. They both decide that Everett should play the noise on the air and ask listeners to call in and say if they recognize what this mysterious sound is.

A retired military man who identifies himself by the name Billy (played by Bruce Davis, in a voice role only) then calls in, and begins to tell a story live on the air. This story takes Everett and Sierra down a path of trying to uncover a mystery. Everett also gets a call from an elderly shut-in named Mabel Blanche (played by Gail Cronauer), who also has some information that’s part of the mystery, as the movie accelerates to a breakneck speed with a heart-pounding conclusion.

“The Vast of Night” uses a visual device of framing the story as if it’s an episode of a fictional show called “Paradox Theater” (an obvious nod to “The Twilight Zone”), by having some scenes open with the action playing out on a  tiny, 1950s-style black-and-white TV.  The movie’s cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz is infused with a lot of sepia tones that were common in movies of the 1950s, when color technology in films was still fairly new. And “The Vast of Night” also takes an unconventional approach by having the screen go completely dark during some suspenseful moments (one “blackout” scene lasts for about five minutes), which might give the viewers the impression that something is wrong with the screen or the movie’s playback.

Avid sci-fi fans will also notice some Easter eggs in “The Vast of Night,” such as Cayuga is the name of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling’s Cayuga Productions. And the radio station that Everett works at is WOTW, which is an acronym for “War of the Worlds,” even though radio and TV stations west of the Mississippi River are supposed to have call letters that start with the letter K.

The only real flaw of “The Vast of Night” (and it’s a fairly minor one) is that the movie never really feels like it takes place in New Mexico, because “The Vast of Night” was actually filmed in Texas with a cast of mostly Texans and Oklahomans who keep their heavy Southern accents in the film. It’s kind of distracting for the cast to have the wrong accents, but this discrepancy in regional accents doesn’t take away too much from this engaging story. “The Vast of Night” might not be completely original in its subject matter, and the acting is good (not great), but the way the story is told with some unique touches should please die-hard sci-fi fans.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “The Vast of Night” on May 29, 2020.

Review: ‘I Will Make You Mine,’ starring Lynn Chen, Yea-Ming Chen, Goh Nakamura, Ayako Fujitani, Ayami Riley Tomine, Mike Faiola and Tamlyn Tomita

May 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lynn Chen, Ayako Fujitani, Yea-Ming Chen, Goh Nakamura and Ayami Riley Tomine in “I Will Make You Mine” (Photo by Eric Yang/Gravitas Ventures)

“I Will Make You Mine”

Directed by Lynn Chen

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the drama “I Will Make You Mine” has a predominantly Asian cast (with a few white people) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Three women have emotional ties to an aspiring musician, which sometimes leads to jealousy and mistrust in their relationships.

Culture Audience: “I Will Make You Mine” will appeal to people who like authentic well-written stories about people dealing with life issues as they approach middle-age.

Goh Nakamura and Lynn Chen in “I Will Make You Mine” (Photo by Eric Yang/Gravitas Ventures)

The engaging drama “I Will Make You Mine” speaks authentically to issues about relationships, chasing dreams, and how people view themselves when some of their dreams don’t come true. Lynn Chen makes an admirable film debut as a writer/director in “I Will Make You Mine,” which is a sequel of sorts to two other films in which she had a co-starring role: 2011’s “Surrogate Valentine” and 2012’s “Daylight Savings.”

Dave Boyle directed and co-wrote “Surrogate Valentine” and “Daylight Savings,” which starred real-life singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura playing a version of himself as a struggling musician who plays folk-inspired rock music. According to the production notes for “I Will Make You Mine,” Chen got Boyle’s blessing to write and direct this movie when he told her that he had no plans to write and direct a third film to continue the storyline. (Chen and Boyle are also two of the producers of “I Will Make You Mine.”) Instead of the Goh character being the focus of “I Will Make You Mine,” the film’s story (which is set in Los Angeles) is told from the perspective of three very different women who are emotionally attached to Goh.

Chen reprises her character Rachel, who was Goh’s platonic best friend from high school. She is now married to a successful businessman named Josh (played by Mike Faiola), and they have an upscale lifestyle with no children. From the outside, it might look like Rachel is a pampered “trophy wife,” but the reality is that there are problems in the marriage because Josh cheated on her with his assistant. The infidelity has caused trust issues between Rachel and Josh, and they’re in couples counseling.

Ayako Fujitani returns as Erika Abe, the girlfriend who broke up with Goh in “Daylight Savings.” In “I Will Make You Mine,” Erika (who is a professor) and Goh now have an adorable 5-year-old daughter named Sachiko (played by Ayami Riley Tomine), but the couple has broken up again. Erika and Goh, who didn’t get married, are now living in Madison, Wisconsin. They’ve continued to live together after the breakup, for financial reasons. In “I Will Make You Mine,” Erika, Goh and Sachiko have returned to visit Los Angeles to attend the funeral of Erika’s widower father, who passed away in his sleep.

Singer/songwriter Yea-Ming Chen, who plays a version of herself in the film, is another returning character from “Daylight Savings.” Free-spirited Yea-Ming met Goh when they were touring musicians, and they became friends, but they lost touch with each other when he moved to Wisconsin. Now that all three women are in Los Angeles with Goh, they have to come to terms with their emotional attachments to him and how it will affect their lives.

People don’t have to see “Surrogate Valentine” or “Daylight Savings” to enjoy “I Will Make You Mine,” which is well-written enough to be its own stand-alone film. The movie’s dialogue and scenes flow with authenticity that thankfully doesn’t veer off into melodrama. Perhaps because all of the main actors have played these characters before, their acting style feels very natural in the movie. It’s also refreshing to see a movie that realistically shows how women can deal with complicated feelings over love and jealousy without portraying these women as catfighting caricatures.

Even though Erika and Goh are not a couple, she can’t but help but feel insecure about Goh’s deep and lasting emotional intimacy with Rachel, even though Goh and Rachel were never romantically involved with each other. (In a nod to “Surrogate Valentine,” the opening scene of “I Will Make You Mine” shows Rachel looking at Goh’s class photo in her high-school yearbook and his signed message, “Rachel, I will always be your surrogate valentine. Love, Goh.”)

Now that Goh is back in town, Rachel is starting to wonder if she married the wrong man. If Goh is Rachel’s soul mate/best friend, then should he also be her lover? She’s very tempted to find out. Meanwhile, Yea-Ming is happy to reconnect with Goh as a trusted pal and musician. They bond over writing songs and give each other suggestions. And there’s a possibility that Erika, who’s gotten tired of living in Madison, will move to Los Angeles permanently, since she’s applied for a job in the city. Will Goh want to move back to Los Angeles too?

Goh isn’t stunningly handsome or someone with an extremely charismatic personality. However, the movie shows that these women are attracted to him because, despite his flaws such as tardiness and sometimes being irresponsible, he’s a genuinely good man who treats them with respect. He’s also a devoted and loving father to Sachiko.

In “I Will Make You Mine,” Joy Osmanski has a cameo reprising her “Daylight Savings” character Amy, a wisecracking and cynical friend of Rachel who encourages Rachel to reconnect with Goh while he’s in town. Tamlyn Tomita also has a brief scene in the movie as Erika’s cousin Julia, who thinks it’s a good idea for Erika to move back to Los Angeles and tells her about the professor job opening.

Many filmmakers would have made a love triangle the focus of the story, but writer/director Chen gives “I Will Make You Mine” added emotional resonance to the film by addressing adult issues of doubt and regret over life choices. And having a funeral as the catalyst for these characters’ reunion causes each of them to reflect in different ways on how their own lives are going. Eight years after “Daylight Savings,” Goh, Erika, Rachel and Yea-Ming are at an age range (late 30s to early 40s) where they’re too young to retire but too old act like carefree teenagers.

The movie shows how each of these characters feel some kind of disappointment that their lives didn’t turn out the way that they thought it would. In a candid conversation between Goh and Yea-Ming, she tells him that she doesn’t feel fully grown-up because she’s still struggling financially—she works at a bar, occasionally performs in clubs, and gripes about having a much-younger roommate who makes more money than she does.

Goh tells Yea-Ming that although he hasn’t completely given up on music as his dream career, he’s had to put those dreams on hold and hide them from Erika, who thinks that being a musician is an unstable lifestyle choice. He has a day job in customer service, and he confesses to Yea-Ming that he secretly bought a cheap acoustic guitar, which he keeps in a storage room at his job, and he plays the guitar on his work breaks.

Erika, whose parents had a long marriage, is also feeling disappointed that she’s now single mother without a partner, even though she and Goh are co-parenting Sachiko in the best way that they can. Rachel, who used to be in an a cappella singing group in college, hasn’t even told her husband about her love of music, until he catches her looking at one of Goh’s YouTube clips. When he asks her who it is, Rachel doesn’t reveal how well she knows Goh, and she tells Josh that Goh is just “some musician” that she just “stumbled on” when she was on YouTube.

“I Will Make You Mine” also has light touches of humor that work well in the film. Rachel friend’s Amy provides some comic relief. And there’s a scene at the funeral where Goh performs an original song and he shows some of his social awkwardness. After getting some microphone audio feedback, he announces that he wrote the song for his uncle who died. (Not a good idea to say that at a funeral for someone else.)

Goh also says that he ended up selling the song to a pharmaceutical company, so if it sounds like a familiar ad, that’s why. The way this scene is written is realistically funny, because it shows the reality that many aspiring rock stars often have to pay their bills by writing jingles or selling their songs for corporate advertising. Speaking of music, the big showpiece song is “I Will Make You Mine,” the title track of Yea-Ming and the Rumour’s 2016 album, which Yea-Ming performs at the end of the film. Goh, who composed the film’s musical score, also does a very good with the original music in the film.

For anyone who saw “Surrogate Valentine” or “Daylight Savings,” watching “I Will Make You Mine” is a great way to catch up with these appealing characters, but from a fresh new perspective. And for anyone who hasn’t seen the previous two movies, “I Will Make You Mine” is a charming introduction to these characters and an enjoyable way to experience their world. Whether or not another movie is made with these characters, Lynn Chen is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker to watch and it will be interesting to see what she does next.

Gravitas Ventures released “I Will Make You Mine” on digital and VOD on May 26, 2020.

Review: ‘Military Wives,’ starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan

May 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan in “Military Wives” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Military Wives”

Directed by Peter Cattaneo

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the comedy/drama “Military Wives” has a predominantly white cast (with some black and Asian people) representing middle-class people in the United Kingdom’s military.

Culture Clash: Two very different military wives sometimes have conflicts with each other in how to lead a singing group of fellow military wives.

Culture Audience: “Military Wives” will appeal primarily to people who like British films or movies about “against all odds” groups who have to band together to achieve a certain goal.

Laura Elphinstone, Gaby French, Amy James-Kelly, Laura Rossi, Roxy Faridany, Sharon Horgan and Nadine Higgin in “Military Wives” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Military Wives” takes the serious drama of the Lifetime TV series “Army Wives,” mixes it with the 1992 comedy musical movie “Sister Act,” and comes up with a familiar yet crowd-pleasing blend of female-centric inspiration. “Military Wives”—directed Peter Cattaneo and written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard—is based on a true story of a group of British military wives who form a singing group while their spouses are deployed during the war in Afghanistan.

The group’s story was also made into a 2011 BBC documentary miniseries titled “The Choir: Military Wives,” which featured choirmaster Gareth Malone leading a group of approximately 120 women (none who are professional singers) from RMB Chivenor military base in Devon to become good enough to perform at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The “Military Wives” feature film makes a feminist alteration to the story, by putting two military wives in charge of the choir. However, the movie falls into the predictable cliché of making the two women complete opposites, so that they will clash throughout most of the story.

The two women who are at odds in the film are Kate Barkley (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lisa Lawson (played by Sharon Horgan), who are from Flitcroft Garrison (an Army base) in England. Kate is married to a colonel named Richard (played by Greg Wise), while Lisa is married to a sergeant major named Red (played by Robbie Gee). Kate is grieving over the death of her and her husband’s only child, a son named Jamie, who was killed in the Afghanistan war. Lisa is fretting over the rebellious streak of her teenage daughter Frankie (played by India Ria Amarteifio), who has taken to coming home very late, sometimes drunk.

At the beginning of the story, it’s clear that the differences in Kate’s and Lisa’s social classes affect how they see the world and how they fit in with the rest of the garrison. Richard’s recent transfer has made Kate and Richard fairly new to the area. Lisa works part-time as a cashier at the garrison’s convenience store. The first time that Kate and Lisa meet, Kate swans into the store and asks if the store has any olive oil. Lisa gives Kate an “are you kidding me” look and replies, “We have oil,” as she points to basic grocery-store oil. In turn, Lisa doesn’t look too pleased that she has to settle for this downmarket choice.

Kate’s tendency to be a control freak is also evident when she has a minor argument with her husband over a photo of Jamie that she keeps on their refrigerator. Richard would prefer to have the photo framed and hanging on a wall, while Kate insists that the photo stay on the refrigerator because she thinks having the picture in a frame would be too restrictive for this obviously sentimental photo. Kate has a neat and orderly home, while Lisa’s house is fairly messy.

What both women have in common is the constant worry over their husbands being deployed on another tour of duty in Afghanistan. And that moment comes fairly early on in the movie. It’s Richard’s fifth tour of duty, and there’s added tension because Jamie was killed during Richard’s previous tour of duty.

Kate is the “stiff upper lip” sort of military wife who doesn’t want to be seen as getting weak and overwhelmed by her emotions. By contrast, Lisa doesn’t hide her anger and frustration over her husband being deployed. Lisa is abrupt and standoffish when Red shows affection to her before he leaves for his tour. She blurts out, “I’m just getting ready for another six months as a single mother!” Red is able to smooth things over, but both spouses know that this issue in their marriage won’t be going away anytime soon.

Meanwhile, there’s an Army employee named Brigadier Groves (played by Colin Mace), who oversees the garrison’s Welfare Centre, which houses the social activities. He thinks it’s a good idea that Kate has volunteered to start some new activities for the military wives at the Welfare Centre, because he believes that it will help her heal during the grieving process of losing her son. Kate also has a secret addiction to ordering things that she doesn’t need from home-shopping television. It’s implied that she might have gotten addicted after Jamie died, as a way to cope with the loss.

Lisa has been the unofficial leader of the military wives’ social activities, which consists mainly of informal get-togethers where they get drunk. Kate has other ideas on what the group should be doing. In Kate’s first meeting with the other military wives (a group that varies in size, but totals about 20 to 30 people), her “take charge” personality is on display when she suggests activities that are a little too highbrow for this group, such as exploring international cuisine or forming a club to discuss arthouse films.

Although Kate occasionally acknowledges that Lisa has been the group’s leader and has known these women longer than Kate has, Kate also undermines Lisa’s authority by constantly interrupting Lisa and relegating her to taking notes on what Kate is saying. Kate is able to get away with this bossy attitude because Kate’s husband has the highest military ranking, compared to the rankings of the other women’s spouses. A suggestion to start a knitting club is quickly abandoned when some of the wives try to start the club and end up just getting drunk instead.

One of the better-received suggestions is to start a singing group, but Kate and Lisa can’t even agree on what should be the musical direction of the group. Kate wants the group to be called a choir and sing traditional Christian hymnals. Lisa wants the group to be called a singing group and sing secular pop songs. During the military wives’ first rehearsal to determine their singing abilities, Kate leads them in singing the Christian hymnal “Morning Has Broken.”

But the performance is such a disastrous mess that Lisa walks out and says she won’t be a part of the group. Lisa and Kate have a heated argument that takes place away from the other military wives. Kate convinces Lisa to stay in the group by telling Lisa that she knows that the wives respect Lisa more than they respect Kate and that the wives will follow Lisa’s lead. Kate adds, “You might not need the choir, but those women do.”

And wouldn’t you know, Lisa just happens to have an old portable keyboard that she gets out of storage and she brings with her to rehearsals. Kate and Lisa try to co-lead the group, but it’s clear that Kate sees herself as the one who’s really in charge. However, Lisa gets her way in having the group perform pop songs, when it becomes obvious that pop is the music genre that everyone except Kate prefers for the group, which is called the Flitcroft Choir.

Awkward rehearsal scenes then ensue of the group singing tunes (mostly retro pop hits), such as the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” Yazoo’s “Only You” and Tears for Fears’ “Shout.” The group members venture out to a farmers market to do their first singing performance together. And it’s another out-of-tune disaster, which elicits lukewarm applause from the sparse audience.

However, just like any group that finds its footing, the more that the group members rehearse together, the better they become. There’s a pivotal scene where the military wives are hiking during a social outing, and it starts raining, so they take shelter in a tunnel. They start singing “Only You,” and it’s the first time that their performance really gels and they feel that they might have something special as a group.

In a movie like this, it wouldn’t be a good idea to spread the focus among too many of the group members because it would just take too long and it might cause viewer confusion. Therefore, only three other members of the group (besides Kate and Lisa) are given more of a spotlight in the story than others.

Sarah Wheeler (played by Amy James-Kelly) is a nervous newlywed, married to a private who’s been recently deployed to Afghanistan. Jess (played by Gaby French) is the best singer in group, but she’s terrified of being a soloist. Ruby (played by Lara Rossi) is the worst singer of the group (and she happens to be a lesbian whose wife/domestic partner has also been deployed), so the movie has numerous gags and jokes about other people trying to avoid telling Ruby that she’s a tone-deaf singer.

One day, Brigadier Groves is giving a garrison tour to a high-ranking Army official, who overhears the Flitcroft Choir singing. The official was apparently so impressed, that the next thing you know, Brigadier Groves is telling the wives that the Flitcroft Choir has been invited to perform a song at the nationally televised Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Will they be ready in time? And what happens when Lisa suggests on short notice that their Royal Albert Hall performance should be of an original song, with the music written by Lisa and the lyrics written by the group? Those questions are answered in the last third of the film, which has a tragic plot development, a predictable “race against time” scene and more conflicts between Lisa and Kate.

All of the cast members of “Military Wives” are very good but not outstanding in their roles. (At this point in her career, Scott Thomas seems to be somewhat typecast in playing haughty or uptight characters.) There’s nothing particularly cinematic about “Military Wives,” because seeing it on a small screen would have the same intended impact as seeing it in a movie theater. It’s the type of movie that ultimately has an uplifting message of believing in yourself and giving support to those in need. It might not be an original theme for a story, and the film isn’t made in an innovative way, but only the most miserable cynics won’t feel good after seeing this movie.

Bleecker Street released “Military Wives” in the U.S. in select virtual cinemas, digital, VOD and Hulu on May 22, 2020. Lionsgate released “Military Wives” in the U.K. on May 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Blue Story,’ starring Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward

May 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Micheal Ward and Stephen Odubola in “Blue Story” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Blue Story”

Directed by Rapman

Culture Representation: Taking place in southeast London, the drama “Blue Story” has an almost all-black cast representing the working-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: Two longtime best friends from school end up becoming bitter enemies in a gang war.

Culture Audience: “Blue Story” will appeal mostly to people who like gangster stories to have a high level of emotional drama as motivation for the brutal violence.

Stephen Odubola (center) and Khali Best (far right) in “Blue Story” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Movies about black gang members have primarily been the domain of American filmmakers, but the British film “Blue Story” (written and directed by Rapman) takes an unflinching look at gangster life from the perspective of young black men living in southeast London. Although there are many similarities in how black gangs are portrayed in American and British films, there are some noticeable differences. For starters, there’s less use of the “n” word in British films. And because British police do not carry guns, tales of black men being gunned down by police are far less prevalent in the United Kingdom as they are in the Untied States.

At the heart of “Blue Story” is the relationship between Timmy (played as teenager and adult by Stephen Odubola) and Marco (played as a teenager and adult by Micheal Ward), who first meet when they are 11 years old. Timmy is a “good boy” from Lewisham who has reluctantly transferred to a school in Peckham called Borough High. His mother has enrolled him in the school because she thinks it’s a better academic environment for him and because she wants Timmy to get away from a friend called Kiron, whom she thinks is a bad influence on Timmy.

On his first day at his new school, Timmy is rescued from a schoolyard fight by “bad boy” Marco, who steps in to protect Timmy. It begins a friendship that’s so close that Marco and Timmy are practically inseparable and they have a brotherly bond. By the time they are teenagers, Timmy is doing well academically, but Marco is a delinquent student who’s in danger of being expelled for failing grades. Timmy offers to help by doing Marco’s homework for him.

There’s a fierce rivalry between the gangs of Lewisham and Peckham (the movie portrays a lot of this real-life tension), which often results in violence with guns, knives and other weapons. Timmy (who’s an only child) and Marco frequently encounter Peckham gang members when they’re close by their school. Peckham is often referred to by the nicknames Vietnarm, Pecknarm or Narm, because of the war-like violence in the area. Timmy’s loyalty is constantly questioned by these gang members, who are suspicious since he doesn’t live in the area, but Marco is usually there to step in and protect Timmy from being attacked.

Two other boys who hang out with Timmy and Marco are bratty Dwayne (played by Rohan Nedd) and plus-sized Hakeem (played by Kadeem Ramsay), who live on the edge of gang activity. They aren’t Peckham gang members, but they do what they can to make it look like they’re on the gang members’ side, when push comes to shove.

However, Marco has real connections to the Peckham gang: His older brother Switcher (played by Eric Kofi-Abrefa) is a high-ranking member of the gang, which gives Marco and his friends a certain level of protection (or danger), depending on which gang territory they’re in at at the time. A protégé of an experienced and influential gang member is called a “younger.” Marco hasn’t become a full-fledged gang member yet, but he’s considered to be Switcher’s inevitable “younger.”

Although there is a constant threat of gang violence, the teenagers are also preoccupied with dating. Timmy has a crush on a fellow student named Leah (played by Karla-Simone Spence), but so does Dwayne. However, Dwayne sees Leah as more of a sexual conquest, while Timmy wants to have a real romance with Leah. Timmy’s friends tease him about his shy and romantic nature, but he takes the taunting all in good stride.

When Leah invites the four friends to a house party that she’s hosting, they all eagerly accept the invitation. Dwayne makes the first moves on Leah at the party, but she’s more interested in Timmy, and she asks him to dance. They have an instant connection, which leads to them dating and falling deeply in love with each other.

Around this time, Timmy runs into his former school friend Kiron (played by Khali Best), who now goes by the street name Killy. Timmy and Killy are happy to see each other, but Killy is part of the rival gang that clashes with Switcher’s gang. Marco is very suspicious and uncomfortable with Timmy’s friendliness to Killy, but Timmy swears his undying loyalty to Marco. Timmy tells Marco that he’s only nice to Killy because Timmy and Killy knew each other when they were kids. But that was in the past, and Timmy reassures Marco that Marco is still his best friend.

Meanwhile, a vicious gang fight breaks out between Switcher’s gang and the rival gang, which is led by a ruthless thug named Madder (played by Junior Afolabi Salokun). During the fight, Switcher deliberately guns down someone in Madder’s gang named Gyalis (played by Andre Dwayne), who was Madder’s younger. In a panic, Switcher goes back home and asks Marco to be his alibi. The murder of Gyalis sets off a chain of events that leads to violent acts of revenge, more tragedy, and the souring of Timmy and Marco’s longtime friendship.

“Blue Story” sets itself apart from the overabundance of movies and TV shows that portray black men as criminals by having well-developed characters and believable acting that gives this story more depth than the run-of-the-mill gangster film. The motivations for the revenge violence in this story isn’t about greed but more about personal loyalties, however misguided those loyalties might be.

“Blue Story” is the feature-film directorial debut of Rapman (whose real name is Andrew Onwubolu), who shows that he has talent for weaving together a cohesive story involving various characters caught up in dangerous and complex situations. “Blue Story” was clearly influenced by writer/director John Singleton’s 1991 debut film “Boyz N the Hood” (set in South Central Los Angeles), another coming-of-age drama about young black men affected by gang violence. Although “Blue Story” won’t be an Oscar-nominated classic like “Boyz N the Hood,” it compellingly addresses the deep-rooted problems behind gang violence in London.

“Blue Story” also has a unique narration technique, by having Rapman occasionally appear on screen to rap some of the movie’s plot. (Before he became a movie director, Rapman was also a rapper who conceived and directed the three-part YouTube musical drama series “Shiro’s Story,” which led to him making “Blue Story.”) This one-man rap chorus doesn’t come across as an annoying gimmick, mostly because the lyrics are on point, and Rapman’s screen time only takes up a few minutes of the movie.

There are some elements of “Blue Story” that are like a soap opera—not in a overly melodramatic way or in a way that’s too exploitative, but in a way that shows that the cycle of gang violence will keep going as long as revenge is a motivation. Yes, the violence is brutal, but the message of the movie is that gang culture is built on a false sense of pride and nobility. After all, there’s nothing noble about being locked up in prison or dying for crimes that end up destroying friendships and lives.

Paramount Pictures/Paramount Home Entertainment released “Blue Story” in the U.S. on digital and VOD on May 5, 2020. The film was already released in the U.K. in 2019.

Review: ‘Blood and Money,’ starring Tom Berenger

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tom Berenger in “Blood and Money” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Blood and Money”

Directed by John Barr

Culture Representation: Taking place in rural Maine, the drama/thriller “Blood and Money” has a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A retired widower takes a duffel bag full of cash that was stolen during a casino robbery, and the robbers come after him for the money.

Culture Audience: “Blood and Money” will appeal mostly to people who like crime movies with a very basic plot and a predictable ending.

Tom Berenger in “Blood and Money” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Blood and Money” has plenty of tension-filled moments, but it takes a while (about two-thirds of the film) to get there. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not a great one either. A solid performance from star Tom Berenger should keep people interested in this mostly dreary story that takes place in a snow-covered setting.

In “Blood and Money” (directed by John Barr), Berenger is retired military veteran Jim Reed, a widowed loner who lives in a remote cabin in rural northern Maine. It’s the kind of heavily wooded area where people can go for miles without seeing anyone else. The different checkpoint stations in the area are sometimes the closest places to get help.

In his free time, Jim likes to hunt deer. But right away, it’s shown that he has some health problems, because he coughs up blood while he’s out hunting. Jim takes medication, but it’s not specified why and for how long he’s had these medical issues.

He’s also suffering from grief and depression, not just for the loss of his wife but also for the death of his adult daughter, who was killed by a drunk driver. Jim brings out a newspaper clipping that covered the news of his daughter’s death. He reads it in a way that indicates that the emotional pain is still very raw and deep.

Occasionally, Jim stops by a local diner, where he has a cordial relationship with a waitress named Debbie Thibault (played by Kristen Hager), who’s in her 30s. They have casual and friendly conversations, including talking about a local casino robbery that happened the day before. The robbery is big news in the area. After having a meal at the diner, Jim sees Debbie crying in the parking lot and being comforted by a co-worker.

The next time that he’s at the diner, Debbie apologizes to Jim for the emotional meltdown that he saw. She tells him that she going through a lot because her daughter is sick. Debbie also expresses disappoint that her own life didn’t turn out the way she expected. A sympathetic Jim tells her that she doesn’t need to apologize. He also confesses to Debbie that she reminds him of his daughter.

A recovering alcoholic, Jim also attends support-group meetings for military veterans at a local American Legion Hall. At one of the meetings, he meets a fellow military veteran named George (played by James LeBlanc), who admits to the group that his alcoholism has led him to take his out his anger on his wife and kids. George doesn’t go into details, but it’s clear that he is still struggling with his personal demons.

Jim strikes up a conversation with George after the meeting. It’s in this conversation that Jim reveals that he has a son who hasn’t spoken to Jim in about a year. (It’s revealed later in the movie why Jim and his son are estranged.) When George’s wife and daughter stop by to pick George up from the meeting, Jim sees that Debbie is George’s wife.

Meanwhile, Jim has been told from a recent visit to a local checkpoint station worked named Bill (played by Paul Ben-Victor) that a checkpoint near Pinkham Road is temporarily closed after the area near the checkpoint went through some torrential rains. Bill also warns Jim, “Just be careful if you go out that way. There’s no way to track you.”

This is the part of the movie where you know that Jim will definitely go “out that way” and will be caught in a dangerous situation. While hunting in this risky area, Jim sees what he thinks is a deer and shoots. When he gets close to the fallen prey, he sees to his horror at that he actually shot a woman (played by Caroline Portu). With blood gushing from her, she makes this ominous threat as her last words before she dies: “You’re a fucking dead man!”

Viewers can see a duffel bag that’s lying near the woman, so it’s very easy to figure out who she is and what she was doing there, given what’s been reported in the local news. However, Jim doesn’t even see the bag lying right next to her, because he’s in a panic. Does he report the shooting, even though it was accidental? No.

For the next 15 minutes, the movie takes its time to get to the real action by having Jim act guilty when he races off to the nearest checkpoint station. But when he gets there, if he had any thoughts of reporting the shooting, he’s changed his mind. The checkpoint worker notices that Jim has blood on his jacket. Jim nervously tells him that he’s been coughing up blood. In order to make a hasty exit, Jim says that he has to leave to take his medication.

Jim relapses by going to a bar and drinking alcohol. While at the bar, he sees a TV news report with a surveillance photo of two of the five suspects in the casino robbery. And, of course, one of the people in the photo is the dead woman in the woods. It’s also in this TV report that Jim finds out that the robbers got away with an estimated $1.2 million.

While at home, Jim wakes up in the middle of a restless sleep when he remembers that he had been smoking when he was out hunting the day earlier, and he accidentally left a cigarette butt near the mystery woman’s body. So he races over to where he left the body, sees the duffel bag full of cash, and he takes it.

Of course, the other four robbers are looking for their missing crony in the woods. And when they find out what happened to her and that all of the robbery money is gone, it’s only a matter of time before they see Jim in the woods with the duffel bag, and they go on a bloody manhunt for him. The rest of the movie shows what happens when Jim tries to outwit and outrun these ruthless criminals.

The “Blood and Money” screenplay (written by Barr, Alan Petherick, Mike McGrale) is often a very by-the-numbers chase movie that feels like it took too long to get to this heart of the story. Although there are some good action sequences, and Barr’s cinematography serves the film very well, Jim makes some questionable choices during the chase that in reality would have accelerated the fate of certain characters in the movie.

Jim is also lucky that the robbers are very disorganized and don’t have a well-thought-out plan to ambush him. And he has the advantage of knowing the remote terrain better than they do. It’s still four against one though, so the odds seem to be stacked against him.

The ending of the movie is entirely predictable, so watching the last third of the film is really just to see who ends up dying or surviving and what happens to the money. As thrillers go, “Blood and Money” isn’t essential viewing, but it’s enough to fill the time for anyone who wants to see a formulaic “shoot ’em up” chase movie that doesn’t have much action until the last half-hour.

Screen Media Films released “Blood and Money” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.

Review: ‘Castle in the Ground,’ starring Alex Wolff, Imogen Poots, Tom Cullen, Keir Gilchrist and Neve Campbell

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tom Cullen, Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff in “Castle in the Ground” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Castle in the Ground”

Directed by Joey Klein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sudbury, Ontario, in 2012, the drama “Castle in the Ground” has a nearly all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 19-year-old straight-laced guy becomes addicted to opioids after getting involved with a female opioid addict and her problems with drug dealers and other criminals.

Culture Audience: “Castle in the Ground” will appeal primarily to people who like watching grim stories about drug addiction.

Alex Wolff in “Castle in the Ground” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

With numerous documentaries and scripted movies being made about drug addiction, there really isn’t a lot of mystery in showing how a seemingly straight-laced, middle-class young person can go from having a promising future to being a drug addict. “Castle in the Ground” (written and directed by Joey Klein) is not an innovative or particularly well-paced film, but a nuanced performance by Alex Wolff makes the movie worth a look for people who are interested in seeing yet another “wasted youth” story.

“Castle in the Ground” begins with 19-year-old Henry Fine (played by Wolff) going through the ritual of crushing a prescribed opioid pill and putting it in food that he serves to his bed-ridden mother Rebecca Fine (played by Neve Campbell), who has an illness that’s not explicitly stated but it’s implied to be cancer. Henry and his single mother (who are the only people living in their apartment in the Canadian city of Sudbury) are so close that he often sleeps in the same bed with her to be a comforting presence. (Henry’s father is neither seen nor mentioned in the film.)

Henry has chosen to delay going to college until his mother “gets well.” And he sincerely believes that she will recover from her illness. But there are signs that he’s also fearing the worst, because he’s begun praying in Hebrew. His mother somewhat teases Henry that she hasn’t seen him openly pray in years.

After a doctor’s appointment, Rebecca tells Henry the bad news that her health situation has gone through another “relapse,” and that they have to prepare for every possible outcome, including her death. He is in complete denial and doesn’t even want to think about his mother dying. Henry gets very upset when she tells him that after her death, she wants Henry to live with his Uncle Yosef and his wife, and the arrangements have already been made.

Meanwhile, a new neighbor has moved in directly across the hall from Henry and Rebecca. Details about the new neighbor are revealed in bits and pieces, as Henry sometimes looks through his apartment’s peephole to observe what’s going on at the apartment across from his. His neighbor (played by Imogen Poots) is a woman who’s about 10 years older than he is, and she likes to play music loud enough that Henry and his mother can hear it in their apartment. She also has a few men visiting her, whom she greets warmly when she answers the door.

One evening, while Henry is having dinner with his mother, his girlfriend Rachel (played by Star Slade) texts him. His mother asks Henry to tell Rachel that she’s interrupting their dinner. But because he wants to talk to Rachel, he takes the conversation with her out in the apartment hallway.

While Henry is on the phone with Rachel, a young man named Stevie (played by Kiowa Gordon) stops by the neighbor’s apartment and introduces himself. Stevie asks if Henry is someone named Polo Boy. Henry says no and tells him that his name is Henry. Before Stevie goes into the apartment, Henry politely asks Stevie to tell the friend who lives there to turn down the music.

Henry then meets up with Rachel for a date, which they spend at an arcade. When he gets home, he hears loud music again from the neighbor’s apartment, so he looks through the peephole and sees something bizarre: A tall man, wearing a face mask of a baby, is knocking on the door.

When the door is opened, the man barges in, and there’s the distinct sound of a woman’s scream and a physical fight. It sounds like a crime in progress, but it could also a prank, so Henry doesn’t call 911 or check to see if the neighbor is in danger or not. It’s revealed later in the movie what that incident was all about.

The next day, Henry is at the pharmacy to pick up some medication for his mother. He sees the mystery neighbor woman arguing with the pharmacist, who has refused to fill a prescription for her and threatens to call the police. The neighbor says that her phone is broken and angrily accuses the pharmacist of being rude and unfairly “profiling” her. It’s an obvious sign that the woman has a drug problem and is trying to fill a fraudulent prescription.

After this heated exchange, the neighbor walks away in a huff, while Henry gets the medication for his mother. As he’s about to leave, he sees the neighbor stealing candy from one of the pharmacy shelves. Henry introduces himself and asks her if she’s doing all right because he heard a scuffle in her apartment the night before.

She tells Henry that what he heard was no big deal, and she introduces herself as Ana. She’s also very agitated, and complains to Henry that pharmacies “hook you … and then fuck up your life.” And if it weren’t obvious enough that she’s a desperate junkie, Ana then asks Henry if she could borrow $40. When he tells her that he has no cash with him, she asks to borrow $20. He tells her the same answer.

Ana asks Henry what he was doing at the pharmacy, and he tells her that he was picking up allergy medication for his sick mother. The look on her face tells viewers that she knows Henry is probably lying, and his access to pain medication might be useful to her. Henry mentions that Ana sometimes plays music too loud, and he nicely asks her if she could turn down the music since his mother is sick.

Ana agrees, but then says since she’ll do that favor for him, she needs a favor from Henry. Ana asks Henry if she could borrow his cell phone and if he could give her a ride to somewhere she needs to go. Although Henry has some initial reservations about this obviously shady person, he seems fascinated and somewhat attracted to Ana, so he says yes to her requests.

When Ana is on the phone, she makes angry calls that indicate she’s probably trying to get in touch with someone who can give her drugs. Ana and Henry drive to an abandoned house, and when he gets tired of waiting for her, he goes into the house to see what’s going on. Henry tells Ana that he has to go, but she begs him to give her a few more minutes.

She then calls her doctor to refill her oxy prescription, since she’s out of methadone. The doctor refuses. So now that it’s been made clear that Ana is a drug addict, Henry has the choice to avoid her or get involved with her. It’s pretty obvious from the way she easily manipulated him what his choice will eventually be.

Shortly after Henry and Ana meet for the first time at the pharmacy, tragedy strikes: Henry’s mother dies in a way that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that he blames himself for her death. Henry is understandably grief-stricken and depressed. He also breaks up with his girlfriend Rachel, since she will be going away to college.

Alone and despondent, Henry is staying in the apartment with no visible means of income. However, viewers can assume that he might have gotten an inheritance from his mother, because Henry refuses an offer from his Uncle Yosef (played by Joseph Ziegler) to live with him and his wife.

When Henry goes through his mother’s belongings, he inevitably sees her bottles of medication. He continues the ritual of crushing the pills, but this time, he’s the one taking the drugs. And when he goes over to visit Ana at her place, she finds out that Henry has been getting high on his mother’s medication, which he ends up sharing with Ana.

The rest of the movie follows Henry’s downward spiral, as he gets more and more involved in Ana’s dangerous games. She’s constantly broke, so she owes drug dealers money, and she’s always thinking up ways to get money for drugs.

Ana has a job as a bartender at a local restaurant/bar, but she also gets money from her enabling mother, who pays for Ana’s rent. Ana’s mother is neither seen nor heard in the movie, but Ana frequently communicates with her worried mother by phone. Ana’s father is not seen or mentioned in the story.

As the more experienced drug user, Ana also gives Henry advice on what she considers to be the best way to use opioids. She doesn’t have a car, so Henry essentially because her willing chauffeur. Henry lets Ana use his cell phone, and eventually he gives her his dead mother’s cell phone, because Ana says that her phone is “busted” and she can’t afford a new one right now. (More likely, she’s stopped paying her cell phone bill.)

Ana constantly seems to be hiding from people who are looking for her, but she downplays any threats to their safety. However, Henry can’t ignore it when he and Ana start getting followed by men in a mysterious white van. And she also shows signs of paranoia that someone could try to break into her apartment while she’s gone, which is why she sometimes stays at Henry’s place.

Henry finds out that Ana’s main drug connection is a young dealer named Richard (played by Keir Gilchrist), who goes by the name Polo Boy because he used to wear preppy shirts with polo logos. Ana used to babysit Polo Boy, so she’s sometimes taunts him about his youth and tells him that he’s an “amateur” drug dealer who doesn’t have what it take to be in the big leagues.

However, Ana also offers sexual favors to Polo Boy when she can’t pay for the drugs that she wants. She makes this type of offer right in front of Henry—which is an indication that she doesn’t care if Henry knows how far she’s willing to go to get drugs. In a private conversation with Polo Boy and Henry, Polo Boy warns him about Ana: “She will sell your soul for something … that’s probably going to kill her.”

There’s also a fellow opioid addict named Jimmy (played by Tom Cullen), who’s close to Stevie and is part of Rachel’s circle of druggie friends. And this isn’t a harmless group: Jimmy, other clique members and the drug dealers they encounter carry guns and aren’t afraid to use them.

“Castle in the Ground” has some suspenseful moments, but much of the film realistically captures the foggy-minded, sluggish pace of people in the throes of opioid addiction, when there are long pauses in conversations, frequent nodding out, and difficulty focusing or doing simple things such as getting out of bed.  People should not expect this movie to have a lot of non-stop adrenaline-pumping action where the drug addicts careen from one dangerous situation to the next. There are some elements of that in the story, but “Castle in the Ground” is more of a character study than a crime thriller.

And this movie also isn’t one where the addicts are involved in moving large quantities of dope. Instead, “Castle in the Ground” is a microcosm of how addiction affects young, middle-class white people, who usually get sentenced to rehab instead of prison if they’re convicted of possession of drugs in small, personal quantities. The racial disparity in how drug addicts are treated by law enforcement is probably why police officers are nowhere to be seen in this movie, even though Ana and Henry go to a well-known drug house in the neighborhood and they hang out with gun-toting drug users.

There is no real backstory for Ana, other than she’s been a drug addict for a number of years. Because Ana is such a liar and a manipulator and because very little is known about her background, the movie gives no indication if she was always an untrustworthy person or if she turned into a habitual liar because of her drug addiction. Poots gives a good performance, but the character is the type of “dishonest and flaky” junkie who’s been seen before in many other movies and TV shows about drug addiction.

Ana might be a lost cause for rehab and redemption, but is Henry? Wolff does a very effective portrayal of someone whose life has changed for the worse in a short period of time. One of the strong points of “Castle in the Ground” is that the movie shows how quickly addiction can take over people’s lives.

Henry’s co-dependent relationship with his mother also explains why he gravitated to getting involved with Ana, another “sick” person whom he wants to “take care” of because he thinks she’s incapable of fully taking care of herself. And if that parallel isn’t made clear enough, toward the end of the film, Ana starts wearing a dress that used to be owned by Henry’s dead mother. Ana admits to Henry that she took the dress after his mother died, but he doesn’t object to her wearing it. It’s a haunting and disturbing image, indicating that Henry has to overcome other issues besides drug addiction in order to have a healthy life.

Gravitas Ventures released “Castle in the Ground” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.

Review: ‘Capone,’ starring Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Noel Fisher, Jack Lowden, Matt Dillon and Kyle MacLachlan

May 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tom Hardy in “Capone” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Capone”

Directed by Josh Trank

Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami Beach in 1947, the drama “Capone” has a predominantly white cast (with some Latino representation) and tells the story of the last year in the life of notorious mobster Al Capone.

Culture Clash: Suffering from neurosyphilis, a demented Capone has flashbacks to his gangster life and has conflicts with family members over his failing health.

Culture Audience: “Capone” will appeal mainly to people who are fascinated with famous American mobsters, but this incoherent movie gives little insight into Capone’s last days.

Tom Hardy in “Capone” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Just like the way that the title character acts in the movie, the dramatic film “Capone” is a lumbering, stumbling mess that has trouble focusing and has difficulty finding a purpose. Tom Hardy, who seems to be attracted to playing a lot of menacing characters who mumble a lot, is notorious Chicago gangster Alphonse “Al” Capone in the film. The once-powerful mob boss is a shadow of his former self in the last year of his life in 1947, when Capone was a 48-year-old recluse with neurosyphilis at his mansion in Miami Beach.

“Capone” (written, directed and edited by Josh Trank) is basically a 103-minute slog through various scenes of Capone (who insists that people call him Fonz, not Al) either hallucinating, having angry outbursts, or losing control of his bodily functions. Hardy—in grotesque makeup that makes him look like something out of a horror movie—gives it his best shot at delivering an earnest performance of Capone on a downward spiral, physically and mentally. But, unfortunately, the film is so poorly written and directed that “Capone” will be considered one of the low points of Hardy’s career.

There is no real plot to the movie, which takes place almost entirely at the mansion where Capone (released early from prison for tax evasion) is holed up with his loyal wife Mae (played by Linda Cardellini) and employees, including his main goon Gino (played by Gino Cafarelli).  Instead of having a coherent story, the movie is supposed to be more like a fever dream that culminates in a machine-gun massacre that didn’t happen in real life.

At different parts of the film, Capone has visions of himself as a child. And there are scenes of him having elaborate dinners with relatives that include his son Junior (played by Noel Fisher), who spends most of the film looking mournful over his father’s pathetic decline. And throughout the movie, a character named Tony (played by Mason Guccione), who’s supposed to be Capone’s long-lost son, keeps calling from Cleveland. Sometimes, Tony talks on the phone when he calls, and other times he calls and says nothing. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

There’s a character named Dr. Karlock (played by Kyle MacLachlan), who occasionally comes to visit and fret about Capone’s declining health. When the doctor tells Capone’s relatives that cigar-loving Capone has to give up smoking, the relatives act as if the news is as bad as getting a limb amputated. The doctor suggests that Capone chew on a carrot as a substitute for a cigar, and Karlock demonstrates how it can be done. In response, Gino mocks the doctor for looking like Bugs Bunny. However, for the rest of the movie, viewers will see the bizarre spectacle of Hardy trying to look tough with a carrot in his mouth.

There’s also a laughable scene where Capone is watching “The Wizard of Oz” in a private screening room, when he gets up and sings along to the Cowardly Lion song “If I Were King of the Forest.” In the scene, Cardellini has a hard time keeping a straight face. And most people watching will either laugh or be horrified that Hardy (who’s capable of doing Oscar-caliber work) sunk this low to do this poor-quality film that’s so bad, it’s almost campy.

Capone also has a friend that comes to visit named Johnny (played by Matt Dillon), whose history with Capone isn’t really explained, except that it’s implied that they’ve known each other since before he was in prison. And they know each other well enough for Capone to confide in Johnny while they’re on a fishing trip that Capone has $10 million hidden, but he can’t remember where he hid the money.

But is this real or all in Capone’s head? That question can be asked about many things in the movie. While Johnny drives the car that they take to the fishing trip, Capone is disguised as a woman because he’s paranoid about the government agents who are on his property and watching his every move. If the world needed to see a movie with Capone in drag, you now have writer/director Trank to thank for that.

Trank, by the way, cast himself in “Capone” in a cameo as a FBI agent named Clifford Harris, who accompanies another FBI agent named Stone Crawford (played by Jack Lowden) when they visit the ailing Capone at his home. The FBI agents are on a fruitless quest to get Capone to reveal the secret places where he might have hidden a fortune worth millions. Capone’s attorney Harold Mattingly (played by Neal Brennan) sits in on this pointless interview, and answers most of the questions on behalf of Capone, who can barely grunt answers to the questions.

And then there’s Capone’s nasty temper. He yells at the Latino employees who do yard work on his property, and shouts at one of them that if he touches a certain statue, he’ll blow his head off. While on the fishing trip with Johnny, Capone shoots an alligator for “stealing his fish.” And something as simple as seeing Gino eating at the dinner table is enough to set off Capone, who flings the tablecloth and food, and stomps around and howls like a gorilla that’s been stung by a bee.

Capone is also verbally abusive to his wife Mae. When he spits on her, she hits him so hard that he falls down and hits his head on a hard-surface floor. There’s no purpose to this scene, except to put some of the blame on Mae for the head injury that further causes Capone’s mental deterioration. Like many things in the movie, do not assume that any of it happened in real life.

And that’s not all the violence in the film. Capone has flashbacks or hallucinations about fatal shootings and brutal stabbings. There’s also a scene where he hallucinates that Johnny has pried his own eyes out and served the bloody eyeballs to Capone on a bedsheet. What’s the point of all this gore? Nothing, really, except to remind people that this is supposed to be a movie about a gangster.

Even the most die-hard fans of Hardy will have their patience tested by watching this mindless film, which has moments that are downright embarrassing to everyone involved in the movie. One can only assume that Hardy was attracted to this “Capone” role for a chance to play dress-up as one of the most famous American mobsters of all time. But he’s reduced to being a grunting, marble-mouthed caricature that can barely put a thought together. The movie has no impactful flashbacks that show Capone in his prime, except for a silly scene that has Capone imagining himself at a party where he gets up on stage with the band leader to sing Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.”

The blame for this sewage dump of a movie lies mostly with writer/director/editor Trank, whose previous film was the 2015 remake of “Fantastic Four,” another stagnant and messy flop. An epilogue in “Capone” says that most of Capone’s relatives changed their names after he died. After making the disastrous “Capone,” Trank might want to think about changing his name too.

Vertical Entertainment released “Capone” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on digital and VOD on May 12, 2020.