Review: ‘The Sound of Violet,’ starring Cason Thomas, Cora Cleary, Jan D’Arcy, Kaelon Christopher and Michael E. Bell

May 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cora Cleary and Cason Thomas in “The Sound of Violet” (Photo courtesy of Atlas Distribution)

“The Sound of Violet”

Directed by Allen Wolf

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle, the dramatic film “The Sound of Violet” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young autistic man, who lives with his widowed grandmother, falls in love with a prostitute, much to the disapproval of his grandmother and his older brother.

Culture Audience: “The Sound of Violet” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in schmaltzy movies that preach the sexist belief that women sex workers need to be saved by religious men.

Michael E. Bell and Cora Cleary in “The Sound of Violet” (Photo courtesy of Atlas Distribution)

Sappy and preachy to a fault, the melodrama “The Sound of Violet” pushes the sexist message that a woman who’s a sex worker can’t be happy unless she’s rescued by a man with enough money to take care of her. It’s the type of fantasy that was peddled in the 1990 hit film “Pretty Woman,” but “The Sound of Violet” puts a religious spin on it with a cringeworthy story and embarrassing acting. In “Pretty Woman,” the male “rescuer” is a ruthless businessman who finds his sensitive and loving side when he gets involved with the prostitute who’s the movie’s title character. In “The Sound of Violet,” the male “rescuer” is a mild-mannered Christian nerd, who lives in a high-rise apartment building with his religious grandmother and is the direct heir to his grandmother’s upper-middle-class financial assets.

Written and directed by Allen Wolf, “The Sound of Violet” is Wolf’s feature-film directorial debut and is based on Wolf’s 2021 novel of the same name. The movie was originally titled “Hooked” and had this tagline: “He didn’t get women until he got Hooked.” Based on the plot of this woefully amateurish movie, “Hooked” is a play on words, essentially saying that a prostitute is going to come along and trap this socially awkward man into falling in love with her.

“The Sound of Violet” (which takes place in Seattle) states the intentions of the unlucky-in-love sap from the beginning: He wants to find a “nice girl” to marry. His name is Shawn (played by Cason Thomas), who is in his early-to-mid-20s. Shawn happens to be autistic, and he’s never had a serious girlfriend. His strict grandmother Ruth (played by Jan D’Arcy) has deliberately kept him sheltered. Shawn also has the type of autism where he dislikes it when people touch him.

Thomas (who makes his feature-film debut in “The Sound of Violet”) is not autistic in real life, but his main autism consultant for the movie was a “Sound of Violet” camera operator who happens to be autistic, according to a statement on the movie’s official website. Thomas’ portrayal of autism is to act naïve for the majority of his screen time in “The Sound of Violet.” Expect to see a lot of scenes of a wide-eyed Shawn blinking nervously or looking shocked when he finds out some of life’s harsh realities.

Even though Shawn is very inexperienced when it comes to dating, he works as a computer programmer for a company that operates a dating app/website. The company has a lenient policy of letting its employees use the company’s dating service for their personal lives. Shawn has been using the app to find women to date. And the results have been that Shawn is getting a series of rejections.

“The Sound of Violet” opens with a scene showing one of these rejections. Shawn is on a date with a woman who’s about the same age. He unwittingly insults her by telling her that he’s disappointed that she looks different from her profile picture. “Your profile picture isn’t very up-to-date,” he adds. She doesn’t seem to mind this criticism, because she tries to hold his hand, but Shawn pulls away and says, “I’m sorry.” Shawn’s discomfort is enough to put her off, so that when Shawn is not looking, she literally runs away from him to end the date.

After this rejection, a self-pitying Shawn complains to his grandmother Ruth: “I’m never getting married.” Ruth quips, “Married? We just need you to get a second date.” Ruth sometimes has sassy lines of dialogue which bring some comic relief to this otherwise heavy-handed melodrama. And why is Shawn in such a rush to get married? He tells his grandmother: “I need to find someone before you die.”

It might not have been intentionally insensitive, but “The Sound of Violet” has a tacky way of making Shawn the butt of several jokes because of his autism. He often says and does things that are tactless or too trusting, which put him in humiliating situations, many of which are intended to make audiences laugh at Shawn. And at other times, the movie goes overboard to make viewers pity Shawn. Either way, “The Sound of Violet” has a questionable depiction of an autistic person.

Not long after experiencing his latest dating embarrassment, Shawn is at his job (where he works in a bland cubicle), when his conceited and arrogant boss Jake (played by Tyler Roy Roberts) announces that the company has changed its policy so that employees can no longer use the company’s app for dating in their personal lives. Jake makes a point of telling Shawn that one of the main reasons for this policy change is because the company has been getting some complaints from the women who went on dates with Shawn. Jake, who owns the company, doesn’t particularly like Shawn, and he doesn’t want Shawn at an upcoming company party that will be held at a nightclub.

Shawn is generally liked by his co-workers, who encourage him to go to the party anyway. One of the male co-workers attempts to help Shawn by giving him tips and advice on how to approach women whom Shawn might want to date. He tries to get Shawn to practice some pickup lines, but even this co-worker thinks Shawn could be a lost cause. He eventually tells Shawn, “All women might be out of your league.”

The theme of the party is “Pimps and Hos,” which says a lot about what kind of boss Jake is. Viewers later find out that Jake hired female sex workers to be at the party, but most of the company employees don’t know it. One of these sex workers is named Violet (played by Cora Cleary), who is about the same age as Shawn or maybe slightly older. She’s definitely got a lot more life experience than Shawn, who sees her at the party and is immediately attracted to her.

Shawn and Violet have an awkward first conversation, where he ends up asking her on a dinner date to take place in his home. Violet tells him, “You’re at a Pimps and Hos party. You’re talking to a ho.” Violet tells Shawn that she charges $300 an hour to do “everything.” Shawn thinks that Violet is joking about being a prostitute. Violet agrees to his request that she come over to his place for their date, which he says should last from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

When Violet arrives at the apartment, Shawn quickly introduces her to his grandmother Ruth. To Shawn, it’s an innocent introduction. To Violet, it looks like she might have been hired to have a kinky threesome. Violet immediately tells Shawn: “No touching until I say so.” Ruth says to Violet and Shawn: “I’ll be in my bedroom, so you two can get started.” Meanwhile, Violet has a look of dread on her face that seems to say, “What have I gotten myself into?”

The double entendre misunderstandings continue in what’s supposed to be a comedic scene. Violet asks Shawn: “Do you want the girlfriend experience?” Shawn smiles and replies, “Only if it will lead to more.” There are some muffins on the dining table. Violet licks one of the muffins in a sexually suggestive manner. Shawn tells her, “You really like those muffins.”

Here’s what so phony and dumb about this “first date” scene: You don’t have to be a sex worker to know that prostitutes expect payment up front before they continue with a “date.” The issue of payment doesn’t come up in Violet and Shawn’s “date” until much later than what would be realistic. Even when Violet mentions to Shawn how much she expects him to pay for the date, he’s still confused and doesn’t understand that she’s a sex worker.

But “The Sound of Violet” doesn’t care about a lot of realistic details. It’s mainly about preaching that Violet is a “sinner” who needs to be saved by a “saintly” man. Violet eventually figures out that Shawn doesn’t have the cash or credit card that she was expecting, and he still has no idea that she’s a sex worker, so she abruptly ends the date. However, Violet is mildly amused and entertained by Shawn’s obvious infatuation with her, so she lets him tag along with her for their next “date.”

On this next “date,” Violet lies to Shawn and says that she’s an actress who needs to go on some auditions that day. She has a car driver, who takes Violet and Shawn around town on these “auditions.” Violet tells Shawn to wait in the car while she goes on these “auditions,” which all take place in private homes. Shawn is a little curious about why these auditions are in homes, not offices, but Violet tells him that it’s not unusual to have acting auditions in people’s homes. Of course, viewers know the real reason why Violet is going to these homes.

During this ride-along “date,” Violet gets a call from her controlling and abusive pimp Anton (played by Michael E. Bell), who keeps track of her every move because he has a tracker app on Violet’s phone. Violet lies to Shawn and says that Anton is her “manager.” Much of “The Sound of Violet” is about Violet continuing to lie to Shawn about what she does to make money. Later in the movie, it should come as no surprise when it’s revealed that Violet isn’t her real name.

Many faith-based drama movies that are about women or girls involved in prostitution have a problematic and racist pattern of putting African American men in the roles of pimps. “The Sound of Violet” is one of those movies, which refuse to acknowledge that most of the pimps in America are actually white. Anton later does something heinous (he sets Violet up to be drugged and raped) that results in Anton getting sexually explicit photos of Violet. Anton threatens to send the photos to Violet’s family members, who have no idea that Violet is a sex worker. It’s essentially Anton blackmailing Violet to continue working for him.

Anton has two other female sex workers under his control named Aleesha (played by Embeba Hagos) and Nadia (played by Esha Moore), who are portrayed as loyal friends to Violet but also as money-hungry thieves. Nadia also has a drug habit. Aleesha and Nadia eventually meet Shawn and Ruth in a very fake-looking and clumsily staged scene. It’s the movie’s way of saying, “Why save just one hooker when you can save three?”

Violet and Shawn start seeing each other on a regular basis, but how much longer can Violet keep up her charade? Ruth doesn’t approve of the relationship because she thinks Violet isn’t good enough for Shawn. Shawn’s protective older brother Colin (played by Kaelon Christopher), who works as a waiter at a local diner, doesn’t trust Violet either. Ruth and Colin and rightfully suspect that Violet isn’t being entirely truthful about who she is. Colin even has a private meeting with Violet to tell her to stop dating Shawn. She refuses.

Even though Violet and Shawn seem to be very different from each other, they both have something in common: dysfunctional family members who caused them trauma. Violet and Shawn tell each other about it as they get to know each other better. Shawn says that his parents split up when he was young, and his father was an alcoholic. Shawn’s mother, for unnamed reasons, was not able to take care of Shawn and Colin, so Ruth raised the two brothers. As for Violet’s childhood, Violet says that her father abandoned her, and she was sexually abused by her father’s brother.

But wait, there’s more: Shawn has synesthesia, a sensory condition, where he mixes up colors with sounds. And so, throughout the movie, there are cheesy visual and audio effects of Shawn experiencing sounds and seeing things glow when he looks at people who emotionally affect him, such as Violet. And now you know why this movie is called “The Sound of Violet.” Speaking of human senses, let’s not forget that Shawn doesn’t like to be touched, which is a challenge/frustration for Violet, who starts to grow fond of Shawn and wants to connect with him sexually.

“The Sound of Violet” gets into some more badly contrived drama about Shawn wanting to marry Violet, and a disgusted Ruth thinking that Violet is a gold digger who’s after Shawn’s inheritance. All might be forgiven if Violet gives up her “sinful” lifestyle and starts going to church with Shawn. Unfortunately, “The Sound of Violet” does almost nothing to adequately address the realities that sex workers need more than a few church services and a sweet-natured guy who’ll pay their expenses to heal from any trauma they experienced.

The movie also has a treacly and somewhat unnecessary subplot about Ruth finding love too. Her love interest is an elderly man named Douglas (played by Malcolm J. West), who works as a doorman in the building where Ruth and Shawn live. Douglas has apparently had a crush on Ruth for quite some time, but she’s still grieving over the death of her husband, and she doesn’t seem ready to start dating again. Ruth and Douglas attend the same church, so you know where this is going, of course.

The cast members’ overall acting in “The Sound of Violet” is not completely terrible, but it’s often wooden and not very convincing. This is a movie that irresponsibly pushes the story of an “against all odds” romance by oversimplifying complex issues such as autism and sex trafficking. The characters in the movie aren’t presented as well-rounded people but as stereotypes. And when it comes right down to it, “The Sound of Violet” is completely tone-deaf.

Atlas Distribution released “The Sound of Violet” in select U.S. cinemas on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘Pleasure’ (2021), starring Sofia Kappel

May 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sofia Kappel and Xander Corvus in “Pleasure” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Pleasure” (2021)

Directed by Ninja Thyberg

Some language in Swedish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the dramatic film “Pleasure” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Swedish immigrant in her early 20s moves to Los Angeles to become a porn star, and she finds out how far she’s willing to go to fulfill that goal.

Culture Audience: “Pleasure” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in very adult-oriented and voyeuristic-styled stories about people obsessed with pursuing fame and fortune.

Sofia Kappel and Zelda Morrison (also known as Revika Reustle) in “Pleasure” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Pleasure” takes a raw and realistic look at what women who want to be porn stars have to do to “make it” in adult entertainment. The movie’s ironic title comes from showing that the business of pleasure comes at a cost of emotional pain to the performers. Needless to say, “Pleasure” is not a movie for people who are easily offended by explicit sexual content or who are too young for this subject matter. Writer/director Ninja Thyberg makes a bold and uncompromising feature-film debut with “Pleasure,” which doesn’t sugarcoat the damage (sometimes self-inflicted) caused by being exploited in the porn industry.

Thyberg (who co-wrote the “Pleasure” screenplay with Peter Modestij) is Swedish, and so is the protagonist of “Pleasure”: a woman in her early 20s whose porn name is Bella Cherry (played by Sofia Kappel), but her real name is Linnéa. Only a few people in the story know Bella’s real name. She wants everyone in her porn life to call her Bella, because she is fixated on reinventing herself as a porn star. “Pleasure,” which takes place over the course of less than six months, is about Bella’s attempts to accomplish that goal.

Viewers will find out very little about Bella’s life before she moved to Los Angeles. The fact that Thyberg and Bella are both Swedish is an interesting creative choice, because it makes Bella’s story not only a story about an aspiring porn actress but also an immigrant story. In either case, Bella is an outsider who strives to be accepted into a culture where people have been in the culture a lot longer than she has. Kappel, who is also Swedish, makes a memorable feature-film debut in her role as Bella. Kappel’s performance is what keeps “Pleasure” interesting because of how authentically she portrays all the emotions that Bella goes through in the movie.

The movie opens with Bella being questioned at an airport customs area in the United States, where she is asked if she’s visiting for business or pleasure. Based on the title of this movie, it’s easy to predict Bella’s answer. Viewers later find out that Bella has lied to her mother about why she’s going to Los Angeles. She’s told her mother that her trip is because she got an internship at a sponsoring company whose industry is not mentioned in the movie. If Bella has any other family members, then they’re not mentioned in the movie either.

Bella’s mother has no idea that Bella actually financed the trip herself with one purpose in mind: to become a porn star and to get a work visa so that she can stay in America. Bella is living in a non-descript, somewhat shabby place that’s called a house for models, but the four or five female models who live there are really actresses in adult entertainment. Most are in their 20s, but a few are over the age of 30.

One of these housemates is Joy (played by Zelda Morrison, also known Revika Reustle), who is in her 20s. Joy becomes Bella’s closest friend in Los Angeles. At one point, Joy and Bella tell each other their real first names and a little bit more of their backgrounds. Joy’s real name is Katie, and she’s originally from Florida.

Joy also cheerfully describes herself this way: “I do everything. I’m a whore.” Very little is revealed about Joy’s background, except she mentions that most people in her life have disappointed her or betrayed her. Joy is looking for a true friend in Bella, who likes Joy too, but Bella is more guarded about how close she wants to be to anyone else in the house.

Another woman in the house is a longtime porn actress named Ashley (played by Dana DeArmond), who is in her late 30s or early 40s. Ashley is very aware that she’s in an age group where women become less employable in porn, so she has to start thinking about other ways to make money. On the night of Ashley’s birthday, she and the other women in the house celebrate by getting drunk, smoking some marijuana, and heading out to a private party attended by other people in the adult entertainment industry.

“Pleasure” skips over a lot of details about what happened to Bella from the time that she arrived at the airport in Los Angeles to the time she does her first sex scene in a porn movie. It’s never shown how Bella ended up living in the house, which is occupied by women (including Bella), who all have the same agent. His name is Mike (played by Jason Toler), who actually is not a predator but who is someone who treats his clients with a decent amount of respect. However, as Bella later finds out, Mike has no use for clients who are hopelessly naïve about the type of work required in porn. Mike also doesn’t like it when people make promises that they can’t keep.

Bella’s first sex scene in a porn movie (which is filmed at a house) shows how she has a mixture of real and false confidence in how she wants to do this work. Before she starts filming the scene, she does a required video interview with a “jack of all trades” porn worker named Bear (played by Chris Cock), who acts as a camera operator, human resources supervisor and a porn actor—sometimes all on the same day. Bear is an easygoing person who has a secret that Bella finds out later in the movie. Bear’s secret isn’t shocking, but it’s surprising to Bella.

In the video interview, which is done for legal reasons, Bella has to show proof that she’s at least 18 years old by showing her ID. She says she was born on April 27, 1999, and she holds that day’s newspaper up to prove the date that she made this video. The video interview also includes Bella consenting to whatever she ends up doing on camera. In addition, she has to sign release forms and other legal paperwork related to making this porn movie. She does all of these procedures with self-assurance and no hesitation.

Even though Bella claims that her biggest goal in life is to be a porn star, she gets nervous and scared before her first sex scene, where she will be performing different sex acts with a flabby man who appears to be in his mid-to-late 40s. It’s one of many examples of “Pleasure” showing the double standard in the physical appearances of men and women performers who get hired to do porn movies. Unless the porn movie is about a specific fetish for big women, the women in professional porn movies are rarely allowed to be pudgy, overweight or over the age of 50, while men are allowed to be a variety of ages and body types.

Sensing her hesitation, the director tells Bella that she has “stage fright.” Bella says, “I feel so stupid.” The director than tells her, “You just overcome it and push past it. But no pressure.” He then adds to convince her to do the scene: “I need you to be a little shy,” since the scene is about a virginal young woman being “seduced” by an older man.

After Bella finishes her scenes in the movie, she proudly takes photos of herself with semen all over her face and posts the photos on her social media, to announce to the world that she is now officially a porn actress. Later, Bella relaxes near the house swimming pool with Bear and the director. She asks the director for advice on how to become a successful porn star. He tells her, “Just look like you’re enjoying yourself.”

Later, when Bear gives her a car ride, he asks her why she moved all the way from Sweden to become a porn star. Bella replies: “I’m out here because I just want to fuck. And Swedes, they just suck. They’re boring. They enjoy feeling sorry for themselves.”

Despite this display of arrogance, Bella still shows how young and naïve she is when she expresses surprise after Bear (who is African American) tells her that interracial sex scenes in porn are considered more taboo and more “deviant” than almost any other sex acts. When Bella tells Bear that this attitude sounds racist, he bluntly tells her that it is, but it’s reality. Bella says that if the opportunity came up, she wouldn’t mind doing a sex scene with Bear, who tells her that he will be there for her if she ever needs advice or help.

In an early scene in the movie, Bella also says that she’s open to any sex with a man or a woman on camera, except for anal sex. It’s another an example of how clueless Bella is if she thinks she can become a major porn star without doing anal sex on camera. It’s not long before she finds out that she’ll have willingly to change her “no anal sex on camera” rule if she wants to be a porn star.

The most sought-after porn agent in Los Angeles County is a sleazy-looking, middle-aged schlump named Mark Spiegler, playing a version of himself. “Pleasure” has several cast members who are in the adult entertainment industry in real life, including Mick Blue, Xander Corvus, Chanel Preston, Small Hands, Abella Danger and Ryan Mclane. Some are playing versions of themselves with the same names, while others are playing fictional characters with different names. It’s repeated several times in “Pleasure” that the actresses who work for Mark, who are often called Mark Spiegler Girls, are among the highest-paid in porn, because they are willing to do extreme sex acts on camera.

It should come as no surprise that Bella and Joy want Mark to be their agent. On the night of Ashley’s birthday, the women housemates head to a private party at a mansion, where they look on enviously outside the party, as Mark and his entourage are treated like porn royalty. Bella sees Bear outside as he’s about to go inside the mansion. Bella approaches Bear with a hug and a smile, and she uses him to gain admission, while leaving her housemates outside to figure out on their own how to get into the party. It’s the first sign that Bella will place her own needs above loyalty to any of her friends.

The other housemates end up getting access to the party, which has a special roped-off section reserved just for Mark and his entourage. Once inside the party, Joy and Bella try to figure out a way to get access to Mark. But in the meantime, Joy (who’s very drunk) gets somewhat giddy and star-struck when she sees a good-looking porn star named Caesar (played by Lance Hart), whom she finds very attractive.

Not long after eying Caesar from afar, Joy goes up to Caesar (who is talking in a group of people), and tries to flirt with him, but he calls her “trashy” and essentially dismisses her. An insulted Joy yells at Caesar and then pushes Caesar into a nearby pool. Joy, Bella and the rest of the housemates are kicked out of the party. There are repercussions to this incident that are shown later in the movie.

Joy has a quick temper, but she also has a very generous side, such as being willing to help the less-experienced Bella in many aspects of adult entertainment, including how to pose in photo shoots. At one such photo shoot, Joy and Bella meet a porn model/actress named Ava (played by Evelyn Claire), who is as standoffish as she is pretty. Ava has this snooty response when Joy tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her: “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to work.” Ava also plays a big role in a major turning point in Bella’s journey in the porn industry.

People often hear that in the porn industry, female entertainers are generally paid more than male entertainers. But what “Pleasure” shows in no uncertain terms is that women in porn are degraded on camera much more than men in porn. Men are also usually the people in control of directing and owning the porn content. And the business owners (who are almost always men) of porn are really the ones who profit the most from porn. In other words, as much as some women can claim that doing porn is “empowering” for women, the reality is that porn is mainly controlled and dominated by men, who have most of the power in porn.

During the course of Bella’s experiences in porn, almost all the directors, crew members and photographers who tell her what to do are men. If there are any female crew members on the movie set or photo shoot, they have stereotypical non-supervisor roles of doing hair and makeup. On the rare occasion that Bella works with a female director (Aiden Starr, playing a version of herself), “Pleasure” shows how differently Bella is treated on a porn movie directed by a woman. The process is more collaborative, and more care is taken to check in on Bella’s safety and what she’s willing or not willing to do on camera.

Most of all, “Pleasure” isn’t so much about the sex acts that are done in the movie. It’s about how blind ambition can chip away at someone’s self-worth and soul in an all-consuming quest for fame. At one point, Bella becomes so desperate, she offers to do porn for free.

There are moments in the movie when Bella trusts her instincts and knows that she’s doing things that she doesn’t really want to do in these porn movies, but she’s made to feel guilty by people telling her in various ways that if she hesitates, she’s being “unprofessional” and “immature” and “not ready” to be a porn star. And if she hesitates, she’s also put on a guilt trip (usually by the male director) about how her hesitation can cost everyone money on this movie production. Bella begins to experience more self-doubt, which further fuels any insecurities she already had.

At the same time, “Pleasure” doesn’t let Bella off the hook either, because she often brags to people that she’ll do whatever it takes to become a porn star. But when she’s expected to do “whatever it takes,” she sometimes backtracks. And that should be her right. However, “Pleasure” shows (without passing judgment) that a lot of people who think they can handle doing porn (and the repercussions that come with it) really are not emotionally equipped to handle it at all. Bella changes her mind about a lot of her “boundaries,” which is realistic for anyone who wants to become a porn star as badly as she does.

People who pay attention and notice if a movie has a “male gaze” or “female gaze” will notice that “Pleasure” can be considered a “female gaze” film. Full-frontal female nudity in “Pleasure” is rarely shown in the sex scenes, but male full-frontal nudity is shown more often. Female genitals are shown in the context of things other than sex, such as when Bella is shaving her vagina. The movie’s sex scenes show suggestions of what’s happening, but not actual penetration.

And although the scenes involving degradation and exploitation will be very difficult to watch for many viewers, “Pleasure” ultimately shows that in every situation, Bella does have the option to stop. This isn’t rape, forced prostitution or sex trafficking, but “Pleasure” shows how dangerously close the porn industry comes to taking away consent when pressuring people into doing things they feel hesitant about doing.

As realistic as “Pleasure” is in many aspects, the movie is a not a comprehensively accurate movie in how it depicts the porn industry. For example, issues regarding sexually transmitted diseases and rampant drug/alcohol abuse are barely mentioned or not mentioned at all. In real life, porn performers who do sex acts with people on camera are quick to tell people that they regularly get tested for STDs before being allowed to work in professional porn jobs. None of this STD testing is shown or mentioned in “Pleasure.” And neither is the porn occupational hazard of addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Bella is also a blank slate when it comes to her motivations in becoming a porn star. The only slight insight that the movie shows is when an emotionally bruised Bella has a phone conversation with her mother. In this conversation, Bella seems to want to go back to Sweden, without telling her mother the real reason why. Bella tries to blame it on the people in Los Angeles, but her mother comments that Bella needs to face whatever problems she’s having in Los Angeles, because there will be difficult people no matter where she lives. This conversation reveals that Bella thought she’d be happier if she reinvented herself in another country, but she’s finding out that she can’t find happiness in superficial ways if she’s still unhappy within herself.

“Pleasure” is not going to be enjoyed by people who expect morality preaching about porn. Some viewers might also be disappointed if they expect “Pleasure” to have a very clear and definable ending. Bella’s ambivalence and contradictions about how far she’s willing to go are very realistic of people who do porn but who do not have a strong sense of who they really are. Porn might be an extremely risky way to find fame, but “Pleasure” shows how a fame-chasing mindset in any profession can lead to cutthroat acts of exploitation and degradation.

Neon released “Pleasure” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022. The movie was released in Sweden in 2021.

Review: ‘Firebird’ (2021), starring Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii and Diana Pozharskaya

May 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in “Firebird” (Photo by Herrki-Erich Merila/Roadside Attractions/The Factory)

“Firebird” (2021)

Directed by Peeter Rebane

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Estonia and Russia, from 1977 to 1983, the dramatic film “Firebird” (which is inspired by a true story) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men, who begin a secret love affair while they are in the Estonian military together, continue their love affair even after one of the men marries a woman and has a child with her. 

Culture Audience: “Firebird” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories about closeted gay people, but the movie is frequently dull and has questionable acting.

Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in “Firebird” (Photo by Herrki-Erich Merila/Roadside Attractions/The Factory)

Regardless of the sexualities of the characters in the drama “Firebird,” this monotonous film glorifies a relationship as romantic, when it’s really a doomed love affair where one person in the relationship is very selfish and manipulative. Viewers with common sense can easily see that the love triangle depicted in “Firebird” is not true love. It’s a story about someone taking advantage of two vulnerable people who deserved a better love partner. It doesn’t help that some of the acting in “Firebird” is very stilted and awkward, which makes a lot of the movie very emotionally unconvincing.

Inspired by real events, “Firebird” was directed by Peeter Rebane, who co-wrote the “Firebird” screenplay with “Firebird” star Tom Prior. The movie takes place from 1977 to 1983, in Estonia and Russia, with homophobia and the military ban on homosexuality serving as the reasons why the two men in the love triangle have to keep their affair a secret. “Firebird” isn’t the first movie to cover this topic, but “Firebird” unfortunately and mistakenly tries to make the liar and cheater in the relationship look like some kind of tragic hero.

In the beginning of the “Firebird,” it’s 1977. Sergey Serebrennikov (played by Prior) is a military private in his mid-20s at Haapsalu Air Force Base in Soviet Union-occupied Estonia. Sergey does well in the military, but his real passion is in creative arts. He’s an enthusiastic photographer, and what he really wants to do with his life is become an actor. Sergey’s closest friends at the Air Force Base are Siderov Volodja (played by Jake Henderson) and Luisa (played by Diana Pozharskaya), who are about the same age as Sergey.

Siderov is a slightly rebellious type who has a knack for getting away with some mischief. The movie’s opening scene shows Sergey, Siderov and Luisa taking a swim in a lake at night when they’re supposed to be in their sleeping quarters on the Air Force Base. Two security officers who are patrolling the area hear the commotion in the lake, and one of the officers shines a flashlight and threatens to shoot. While Sergey and Luisa hide, Siderov comes out from the shadows and identifies himself.

One of the security officers says to Siderov, “You again?” Ultimately, the security officers do nothing and walk away after telling Siderov to go back to the base, although one of the officers mutters to his co-worker, “Next time, I’ll shoot him.” Siderov’s confidence in being able to break the rules is in marked contrast to Sergey, who is terrified of getting himself and other people into trouble. It’s one of the reasons why Sergey stays too long in an on-again/off-again relationship with the deeply closeted man who ends up taking more than he gives in their relationship.

Sergey never explicitly states what his own sexuality is in the entire story. In the beginning of the movie, he has a massive crush on Luisa. Sergey gets secretly upset when Luisa dates other men. Luisa has firmly put Sergey in the “friend zone,” although sometimes she flirts with Sergey too. Siderov tries to give Sergey confidence-boosting talks on how he can win over Luisa, but Sergey seems to know that Luisa will see Sergey as nothing more than a close friend.

One day, a good-looking fighter pilot named Roman Matvejev (played by Oleg Zagorodnii), who’s in his late 20s or early 30s, arrives at the Air Force Base. The first time that Sergey sees him, Sergey is outside with his constant companions Luisa and Siderov while trying to take a “selfie” group photo of the three of them. Roman walks up to the trio and offers to take a picture of the three pals instead. Roman looks at Sergey in a way that suggests that he might want more do more to Sergey than take a picture of him.

Roman has been recruited to the Air Force Base because it will be his duty to prevent a B-52 bomber with a thermonuclear device from slipping through an air corridor to Leningrad. Roman’s immediate supervisor is Major Zverev (played by Margus Prangel), who is every worst stereotype of a homophobe. Major Zverev reports to Colonel Kuznetsov (played by Nicholas Woodeson), a tough but fair-minded supervisor, who believes in Roman’s talent and seems to want to be Roman’s mentor.

Because of Sergey’s interest in photography, he encounters Roman on some occasions when Sergey is developing photos in the photo darkroom on the Air Force Base. During their conversations, an unspoken attraction grows between Roman and Sergey. Roman, who is older and more experienced, makes the first move when he and Sergey kiss each other for the first time. It isn’t long before Roman and Sergey are sneaking off together for sexual trysts, including a hookup in the same lake where Sergey and Luisa were almost caught with Siderov.

At some point, Sergey decides that he would be happier being an actor than a military person, so his request to be discharged is granted. Sergey, who grew up on a farm, plans to go to Moscow to pursue his dream of being an actor. Roman and Sergey both share an interest in live theater, and they even go see a theater show together on a date. During a secret rendezvous, Sergey half-jokingly tells Roman that they should run away to Moscow together. Considering that Roman wants to stay employed by the military for as long as possible, the idea of Roman and Sergey living in bliss together for the rest of their lives is a pipe dream at best.

Someone at the Air Force Base must have seen Roman and Sergey together, because Major Zverev gets an anonymous complaint that Roman is having a same-sex affair, which is grounds for a dishonorable discharge and a prison sentence. Roman is ambitious and want to rise through the military ranks, so his response to the accusation is entirely expected: He denies everything.

Major Zverev doesn’t really believe Roman, but Colonel Kuznetsov is willing to give Roman the benefit of the doubt, especially since the complaint was anonymous, and the complaint did not have any proof. “Firebird” has a few tension-filled scenes where a suspicious Major Zverev tries to find proof that Roman is having a sexual relationship with a man. Meanwhile, Roman becomes paranoid and tells Sergey to stop talking to him in public. Sergey, who is about to leave the military in the near future, is crushed by this rejection.

It sets the tone for their relationship though. Every time Roman thinks that he will be “outed,” he distances himself from Sergey, who gets emotionally hurt, but then is willing to take Roman back when Roman is ready to resume their affair. Sergey is in love with Roman and wants to do whatever it takes to please him. And here’s the thing that makes Roman an even more despicable lout: Roman decides he’s going to marry Luisa, knowing that Sergey was kind of in love Luisa too, although Sergey’s romantic feelings for Luisa are not as strong as how Sergey feels about Roman.

Luisa, who has fallen deeply in love with Roman, has no idea that Sergey and Roman have been secretly hooking up with each other. Roman is not in love with Luisa. He’s only marrying her so that he can stop any speculation that he might be gay, and because he knows that having an image of being a heterosexual married man can benefit his career. Meanwhile, an emotionally tortured Sergey has to pretend to be happy for Luisa and Roman getting married, so that Luisa won’t get suspicious. Sergey even attends the wedding. Roman and Luisa eventually have a son together.

“Firebird” is an often-dreary slog of this very dysfunctional love triangle that has Roman calling all of the shots. Even after Sergey relocates to Moscow and tries to move on with his life without Roman, the chronically deceitful Roman finds a way back into Sergey’s life. In real life, a lot of people fall in love with people who are no good for them. It doesn’t mean that a movie has to make this type of toxic relationship look like true love. It isn’t true love. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen.

Making matters worse for “Firebird,” the movie is very disjointed in how it tells this story. In the first third of the movie, there’s too much time spent on Sergey and his fellow conscripts going through boot camp-styled harassment, led by a homophobic and sadistic bully named Sergeant Janis (played by Markus Luik), who is physically and verbally abusive. Sergeant Janis particularly likes to target underlings whom he likes to accuse of being gay, if they can’t do what he tells them to do.

Most of the supporting cast members are adequate in their roles. The credibility problem is with the two “Firebird” lead actors. In the role of Sergey, Prior (who is British in real life) is never completely believable as someone from Eastern Europe, since his Eastern European accent is shaky at best. Meanwhile, as Roman, Zagorodnii gives the worst performance in the “Firebird” cast. Zagorodnii’s wooden acting drags down the film, and it makes viewers speculate that he must have been cast in this role mainly for his good looks.

And really, after a while, it’s hard to see what Sergey sees in Roman besides those good looks. Sergey is a loving and unselfish partner, but Roman is not treating Sergey as the great love of his life who deserves to be respected. Roman is treating Sergey like a “side piece” that Roman wants when it’s convenient for Roman. Viewers with enough life experience can see this mismatched relationship for what it is. These viewers won’t buy the “Sergey and Roman are soul mates” fantasy that “Firebird” is desperately trying to sell.

Roadside Attractions released “Firebird” in select U.S. cinemas on April 29, 2022. The movie is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on June 3, 2022. “Firebird” was released in Estonia in 2021.

Review: ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era,’ starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Hugh Dancy, Dominic West and Robert James-Collier

May 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (Photo by Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

“Downton Abbey: A New Era”

Directed by Simon Curtis

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1928, in the United Kingdom and in France, the dramatic film “Downton Abbey: A New Era” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In order to pay for extensive mansion renovations, the wealthy Downton Abbey clan of England reluctantly allows a movie to be filmed at Downton Abbey, while matriarch Violet Crawley finds herself embroiled in a battle over inherited property, health issues, and questions over who really fathered her son Robert Crawley.

Culture Audience: Aside from appealing to “Downton Abbey” fans, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of movies about 20th century upper-crust British people and their servants.

Hugh Dancy (second from left), Kevin Doyle (third from left), Alex Macqueen (second from right) and Michelle Dockery (far right) in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (Photo by Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is more comedic and bolder than its predecessor movie. It takes a less insular view of the world, from the central family’s perspective, thanks to encounters with the 1920s movie industry and a trip to the south of France. The wealthy British clan is impacted when a movie is made on the Downton Abbey estate (located in Yorkshire, England), while members of the Downton Abbey family go to the south of France and learn more about their ancestral history, which might be intertwined with a French aristocratic family.

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is a sequel to 2019’s “Downton Abbey” movie (directed by Michael Engler), which was in turn a continuation of the British “Downton Abbey” TV series, which was on the air from 2010 to 2015. (In the United States, the award-winning “Downton Abbey” series began airing in 2011.) “Downton Abbey” creator/showrunner/writer Julian Fellowes, who is also the writer of the “Downton Abbey” movies, makes each part of the franchise seamless without making it confusing to viewers who are new to the franchise.

In other words: It’s not necessary to see the “Downton Abbey” TV series (which takes place from 1912 to 1926) and 2019’s “Downton Abbey” movie (which takes place in 1927) before seeing “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (which takes place in 1928), although it is very helpful to see all things “Downton Abbey” before watching this movie sequel. As a bonus, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” has an introduction by Kevin Doyle, who plays valet Joseph Molesley, better known as Mr. Molesley. In this introduction, he catches viewers up to speed by providing a summary of what happened in the 2019 “Downton Abbey” movie. A “Downtown Abbey” TV series recap, although not part of “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” is available online and narrated by cast members Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan, who portray Downton Abbey servants Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes.

Directed by Simon Curtis, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” continues with the central family’s preoccupations with class status, royal titles, property ownership and who is (or who should be) the rightful heirs of various inheritances. The “Downton Abbey” franchise, just like much of Fellowes’ work, explores the “upstairs/downstairs” cultures, with the “upstairs” people being the wealthy employers and the “downstairs” people being the employers’ servants. What makes “Downton Abbey: A New Era” stand out from previous “Downton Abbey” storylines is that the “upstairs” and “downstairs” people of Downton Abbey, who usually only deal with British aristocrats, interact with two very different types of cultures: showbiz people and French aristocrats.

Because there are so many characters in the “Downton Abbey” franchise, here’s a handy guide of who’s who in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” and how their relationships affect each other:

The “Upstairs” People

  • Violet Crawley (played by Maggie Smith), also known as Violet Grantham (her maiden name) or Dowager Countess of Grantham. Violet is the widowed family matriarch. She is feisty, sarcastic and strong-willed when it comes to deciding the family’s power structure. Violet is the mother of two living children: son Robert and daughter Rosamund. Sir Marmaduke Painswick, one of Violet’s three children, is deceased and was never seen in the series.
  • Robert Crawley (played by Hugh Bonneville), 7th Earl of Grantham. Robert is Violet’s only living son. He is generally friendly but also very opinionated on how family matters should be handled.
  • Lady Rosamund Painswick (played by Samantha Bond), Violet’s other living child. Lady Rosamund usually defers to her mother and her brother, when it comes to major decisions for the family.
  • Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern), the Countess of Grantham. She is Robert’s kind, patient and dutiful wife. Robert and Cora are the parents of three daughters, one of whom is deceased.
  • Lady Mary Josephine Talbot (played by Michelle Dockery), previously known as Mary Crawley. Fair-minded and even-tempered, she is the eldest of Robert and Cora’s three daughters. In the “Downton Abbey” movie, Violet put Mary in charge of all Downton Abbey management decisions, but Mary struggles with having confidence in deciding what is best for Downton Abbey and the family. Mary experienced tragedy with the 1921 death of her first husband Matthew Crawley (played by Dan Stevens), who was a distant cousin. Matthew died in a car accident shortly after Mary gave birth to their son George Crawley (played by twins Oliver Barker and Zac Barker), born in 1921. In 1925, Mary wed her second husband Henry Talbot (played by Matthew Goode), who is not seen in “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” Henry is dashing and charming but often inattentive to his family because he frequently travels to attend car racing matches around the world. Mary says of Henry: “He’s in love with cars, speed and adventure.” Mary and Henry have a daughter together named Caroline Talbot (played by twins Bibi Burr and Olive Burr), who was born in 1926.
  • Lady Edith Pelham (played by Laura Carmichael), previously known as Edith Crawley), Marchioness of Hexham. She is the middle daughter of Robert and Cora. Edith is happily married and has been mainly preoccupied with raising children, after previous issues with conceiving. She is a journalist who still wants to continue her dream of owning and managing her own magazine. In late 1922 or early 1923, Edith gave birth to her daughter Marigold (played by twins Eva Samms and Karina Samms), whose biological father was The Sketch magazine editor Michael Gregson (played by Charles Edwards), whom Edith met when she wrote for the magazine. Edith and Michael were never married because he could not divorce his mentally ill wife. Michael died in 1923, during the Beer Hall Putch in Germany.
  • Herbert “Bertie” Pelham (played by Harry Hadden-Paton), 7th Marquess of Hexham, an amiable real-estate agent/military man. He is Edith’s second husband and the stepfather of Marigold. Bertie and Edith, who were wed on New Year’s Eve 1925, have a biological son together named Peter, who was born in 1927 or 1928.
  • Tom Branson (played by Allen Leech), an Irishman who used to be the Downton Abbey chauffeur, but he became part of the family when he married Sybil Crawley (played by Jessica Brown Findlay), Robert and Cora’s youngest daughter, who died from childbirth complications in 1920. Tom and Sybil’s daughter, born in 1920, is named Sybil “Sybbie” Branson (played by Fifi Hart).
  • Lucy Branson (played by Tuppence Middleton), Tom’s second wife, whom he began courting in the first “Downton Abbey” movie. Lucy is a former maid and formerly secret illegitimate daughter of Maud Bagshaw, who is a wealthy distant relative of the Crawleys. Maud has made Lucy the heir to Maud’s entire fortune. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” opens with the wedding of Tom and Lucy.
  • Maud Bagshaw (played by Imelda Staunton) is a steely socialite who has had a longstanding feud with Violet, because Violet thinks Maud should have made Violet son’s Robert the heir to Maud’s fortune, since Maud has no sons of her own. This feud reached a temporary halt when Lucy and Tom got married, since this marriage puts the Crawleys in close proximity to Lucy’s inheritance, because Robert’s granddaughter Sybbie is now Lucy’s stepdaughter.
  • Isobel Merton (played by Penelope Wilton), the droll-talking mother of the late Matthew Crawley. Isobel frequently trades sardonic barbs with Violet.
  • Lord Merton (played by Douglas Reith), Isobel’s laid-back second husband. He is usually a bystander in the family drama.

The “Downstairs” People

  • Thomas Barrow (played by Robert James-Collier), the Downton Abbey butler. He is somewhat rigid and uptight but not afraid to stand up for himself if he feels that he is being disrespected. Thomas is also a semi-closeted gay man. Only a few trusted people at Downton Abbey know about his true sexuality.
  • Daisy Parker (played by Sophie McShera), a Downton Abbey kitchen maid. She has a fun-loving and energetic personality. Daisy suffered a tragedy when her first husband William Mason (Thomas Howes), a second footman for the Downton Abbey family, died from World War I combat wounds.
  • Andy Parker (played by Michael Fox), the Downton Abbey second footman. Daisy and Andy fell in love and got married circa 1928. Andy is prone to get jealous and insecure, but Daisy likes that Andy is willing to go to extremes for their love.
  • Mr. Carson (played by Jim Carter), the on-again/off-again Downton Abbey butler. As the most experienced butler at Downton, he often sees himself as the unofficial leader of the staff, whether they want his advice or not.
  • Mrs. Hughes (played by Phyllis Logan), the Downtown Abbey head housekeeper, who is prim, proper, and frequently involved in keeping secrets to prevent Downton Abbey from being embroiled in scandals.
  • Mrs. Patmore (played by Lesley Nicol), the Downton Abbey chief cook. She has a no-nonsense attitude that keeps the other kitchen staff in check.
  • Mr. Bates (played by Brendan Coyle), the Downton Abbey valet. His arrogance sometimes alienates other members of the staff.
  • Anna Bates (played by Joanne Froggatt), wife of Mr. Bates and the maid to Lady Mary. She is generally well-liked but sometimes gets caught up in the Downton Abbey gossip.
  • Mr. Molesley, the aforementioned Downton Abbey valet who has a tendency to bumble and be socially awkward.
  • Phyllis Baxter (played by Raquel Cassidy), the lady’s maid for the Countess of Grantham. Phyllis and Mr. Molesley become each other’s love interest. “Downton Abbey: The Next Era” shows how far this romance goes.

The Newcomers

  • Jack Barber (played by Hugh Dancy), the director and producer of “The Gambler,” a drama film, set in 1875, about a seductive gambler who’s a con man and a heartbreaker.
  • Guy Dexter (played by Dominic West), the male titular star of “The Gambler.” Guy is charismatic, flirtatious, and might be secretly attracted to Barrow, the Downton Abbey butler.
  • Myrna Dalgleish (played by Laura Haddock), the female star of “The Gambler.” Myrna comes from a working-class background and has a thick Cockney accent. She is very conceited and rude to almost everyone.
  • Mr. Stubbins (played by Alex Macqueen), the sound engineer for “The Gambler.”
  • Montmirail (played by Jonathan Zaccaï), a French marquis from a wealthy family.
  • Madame de Montmirail (played by Nathalie Baye), Montmirail’s mistrusting mother.

It’s a lot of characters to take in for one movie, which is why viewers who know at least some basic “Downton Abbey” background will enjoy “Downton Abbey: A New Era” the most. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” also has two main storylines:

(1) British Lion Film Corp. Ltd. asks to film “The Gambler” at Downton Abbey for one month. Some members of the family think it would be crass and tacky to allow a movie to be made at their home, but Mary ultimately decides that the family could use the money to do extensive renovations at Downton Abbey, including the roof that has been leaking for years. After all, why use the family money for this refurbishing when it can be paid for by a movie studio?

“The Gambler” was originally going to be a silent film. However, the movie studio shuts down production of “The Gambler” because talking pictures are becoming popular. Mary comes up with the idea to make “The Gambler” a talking picture by dubbing in the audio with a separate recording.

However, Myrna’s speaking voice is considered too “low-class” and unacceptable for the role, and she says her lines of dialogue in a stiff and unnatural manner. A reluctant Mary is then recruited to be the speaking voice for Myrna’s character in “The Gambler.” Myrna predictably gets jealous. Most of the comedic scenes in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” revolve around the making of “The Gambler.”

(2) Violet finds out that she inherited a villa in the south of France from Montmirail’s marquis father, whom Violet spent just a few days with when she traveled to France as a young woman. This Montmirail widow is contesting this will and is threatening to take legal action against Violet. Robert, Cora, Edith, Bertie, Tom and Lucy all travel to France to meet the Montmirail widow and her son, to settle this matter, and to see the villa. Meanwhile, speculation abounds over why Violet got the inheritance. Was it because she and the marquis were secret lovers? Meanwhile, Violet is dealing with health issues that were mentioned in the first “Downton Abbey” movie.

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” keeps much of the snappy dialogue that’s characteristic of the “Downton Abbey” franchise, while the movie’s screenplay still maintains an air of intrigue and mystery of how the story is going to go. (Needless to say, the movie’s cinematography and production design are gorgeous.) And all of the cast members play their roles with considerable aplomb.

Violet, as usual, gets the best zingers. She’s one of the Crawley family members who is appalled that showbiz people have populated Downton Abbey to film “The Gambler.” Violet is particularly unimpressed with Myrna. Violet quips about Myrna: “She has all the charm of a verruca.” Violet also finds movies to be an uncultured form of entertainment. “I’d rather eat pebbles,” she says about watching movies.

If watching a film about stuffy British people and their servants isn’t something that you don’t want to spend two hours of your time doing, then anything to do with “Downton Abbey” is not for you. But if you want to see an intriguing and multilayered story about the dynamics between a complicated family, then “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is worth your time, especially if you know about who these characters are before watching the movie.

Focus Features will release “Downton Abbey: A New Era” in U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘Aline’ (2021), starring Valérie Lemercier

May 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Valérie Lemercier in “Aline” (Photo by Jean-Marie Leroy/Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Aline” (2021)

Directed by Valérie Lemercier

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Canadian province of Québec and various other parts of the world, the drama “Aline” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this dramatic film inspired by the life of French Canadian pop singer Céline Dion, fictional singer Aline Dieu overcomes childhood shyness to become a music superstar, but as an adult, she struggles with fame, infertility issues and her husband’s cancer diagnosis.

Culture Audience: “Aline” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Céline Dion and melodramatic movies about famous singers where the movies’ cinematic quality is questionable at best.

Valérie Lemercier and Silvain Marcel in “Aline” (Photo by Jean-Marie Leroy/Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Aline” is less of a Céline Dion tribute and more of a mishandled vanity project from director/writer/star Valérie Lemercier. In this frequently tacky drama, Lemercier portrays a superstar fictional singer named Aline Dieu (a character based on the real-life Céline Dion), from the ages of 5 to 50. Very few middle-aged people can convincingly depict a pre-teen child on camera. Unfortunately for the movie, Lemercier is not one of them.

It’s not a complete train wreck, but “Aline” is not very convincing as an “inspired by” biopic or as a work of fiction. And it has a lot to do with Lemercier’s often-cringeworthy performance of Aline as a child. Lemercier co-wrote the “Aline” screenplay with Brigitte Buc. And as the movie’s director, Lemercier had the bad judgment to cast herself in the role of Aline as a child. This directorial decision reeks of egotism and wanting to have as much screen time as possible, instead of casting a capable child actress in an age-appropriate role for the underage part of Aline’s life.

People who know Dion’s story already will find no surprises in “Aline.” The movie follows a “Behind the Music” format, by chronicling the rise of Aline from obscurity in Québec, to Canadian fame, to eventual international superstardom. Nearly one-third of the movie (which is told in chronological order) is about Aline under the age of 18. The movie shows Aline (just like the real Dion) growing up as a shy and introverted child in a loving and opinionated family that included her butcher father Anglomard Dieu (played by Roc Lafortune); her homemaker mother Sylvette Dieu (played by Danielle Fichaud); and eight sisters and five brothers.

Aline, the youngest child in her immediate family, first sings in front of an audience at the age of 5, at the wedding of one of her brothers. She instantly wows the crowd, of course. Aline and some of her siblings begin performing in the Dieu Family Band. (When she was a child, Dion also was in a singing group with some of her siblings.) The “Aline” movie also shows how—just like Dion in real life—Aline disliked school because other students bullied and teased for her physical appearance of being very thin and having crooked teeth.

By the age of 12, Aline is co-writing songs and singing on Canadian television. And she catches the attention of a talent manager named Guy-Claude Kamar (played by Sylvain Marcel), who’s old enough to be Aline’s father. There are some “I can make this kid a star” scenarios, which lead to Guy-Claude signing on as Aline’s manager. But his feelings for her aren’t fatherly at all.

The movie is deliberately murky on some of the details (probably for legal reasons), but Guy-Claude (a very married man with adult children) and Aline eventually fall in love with each other when she’s in her mid-teens. “Aline” depicts it as a chaste romance, where Aline and Guy-Claude would just look at each other lovingly and occasionally hug and hold hands. According to this movie, when Aline and Guy-Claude would travel together, he would just tuck her into bed at various hotels, and there would be no sexual contact between them when she was an underage child.

If you believe this movie, Guy-Claude’s personality was so charming, Aline was the one who wanted the relationship to turn sexual, but Guy-Claude turned down her “advances” until she was at the legal age of consent for a sexual relationship. (In Canada, the legal age of consent is 16.) Viewers can make up their own minds about how realistic or unrealistic the movie’s scenarios are of this underage and sheltered child pushing to have a sexual relationship with an adult who is not only enough to be the child’s parent but also has a position of authority and power over the child.

Aline’s protective mother Sylvette is very suspicious of Guy-Claude’s intentions to become more than Aline’s manager, so Sylvette threatens to harm him if he ever touches Aline inappropriately. But despite these threats, the fact is that Sylvette can’t be with Aline all the time. Aline and Guy-Claude spend a lot of time alone together behind closed doors, as he guides her career to more fame and fortune. Because of the creepy nature of Guy-Claude “falling in love” with underage Aline, it’s another reason why the scenes of Aline as a child make the movie look very awkward.

After a number of years, Aline becomes a legal adult. Guy-Claude announces that he’s getting divorced, and he eventually marries Aline. Her parents and siblings give begrudging approval, and they eventually accept Guy-Claude into the Dieu family. It probably helped that Guy-Claude was making Aline rich and famous.

The movie gets a little more interesting during this celebrity part of Aline’s life, but Lemercier’s performance as the adult Aline is still tainted by all the icky earlier scenes of her portraying a child who was seduced (and some would say exploited) by a man old enough to be her father. Marcel’s actor interpretation of Guy-Claude is as someone who was “misunderstood” and protective of Aline, while other people might see Guy-Claude’s attitude toward Aline as obsessive and controlling. The rest of the cast members’ performances are mediocre at best.

Every “inspired by” biopic about a famous entertainer has to include some tragedy and heartbreak, with the entertainer usually finding some way to recover on the road to a comeback. Unlike most famous singers, Dion (who was born in 1968) has not had a public battle with drug addiction or failed romances as the darkest moments in her life. Her most challenging personal experiences have to do with the death of her husband/manager and her brother within a short period of time. On January 14, 2016, Dion’s husband/manager Rene Angélil’s died of throat cancer, at the age of 73, just two days before he would have turned 74. On what would have been his birthday in 2016, Dion’s brother Daniel died of cancer.

Less tragic but still emotionally painful was her struggle to conceive children, which she eventually was able to do with the help of in vitro fertilization. In real life, Dion has three children, all sons: René-Charles Angélil (born in 2001) and fraternal twins Eddy and Nelson, born in 2010. The movie includes the expected emotional tug of war she felt when she had to leave her children behind during rigorous touring schedules, or when she couldn’t spend enough time with them as she wanted, because of the demands of her Las Vegas residency.

It’s all recreated in “Aline.” And because Dion’s life has been so public, none of this is spoiler information for the “Aline” movie. What makes it so hard to take is that this movie has a lot of cliché and hokey dialogue. And therefore, no further insight can be gained into what Dion’s life might have been really like behind the scenes, when so many of the movie’s conversations sound fake and too contrived. People can read Dion’s 2001 memoir “My Story, My Dream” for better insight into her early life, instead of the very bland version presented in this movie. And with a total running time of 126 minutes, “Aline” is just a little too long (with uneven pacing that sometimes drags) for what amounts to a scripted movie version of Dion’s Wikipedia page.

One of the ways that the movie badly falters is how it skimps on Aline’s performances, which include just snippets of Dion’s real-life songs. It’s an obvious sign that the movie couldn’t afford or were denied the rights to have renditions of Dion’s songs for longer than a minute. Most of the performances are less than a minute each, and they breeze by like a choppy music video. Victoria Sio, who provides the singing voice of Aline in this movie, does a fairly good impression of the real-life Dion, but this vocal talent can barely be appreciated when the songs aren’t played long enough in “Aline.”

And that’s not a good sign, when the performances are supposed to be the best part of this movie. The concert scenes of superstar Aline have faithful recreations of many of Dion’s real-life costumes and stage moves, but they are all superficial when the music is cut off so abruptly in many of these live performance scenes. Dion’s most famous hit—”My Heart Will Go On,” the Oscar-winning theme from 1997’s “Titanic”—is merely a blip in this assembly-line approach to showing Aline doing what she does best: sing. And a life as full of highs and lows as Dion’s deserves better than being treated as a formula that hits a lot of wrong notes.

Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Aline” in select U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022, with a wider expansion on April 8, 2022. The movie was released in Canada, France and other countries in 2021.

Review: ‘Nightride’ (2022), starring Moe Dunford

May 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mo Dunford in “Nightride” (Photo courtesy of Belfast Still Department/Brainstorm Media)

Nightride” (2022)

Directed by Stephen Fingleton

Culture Representation: Taking place in Northern Ireland, the dramatic film “Nightride” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A man who wants to leave his criminal lifestyle behind decides to do one last drug deal, but things go horribly wrong. 

Culture Audience: “Nightride” will appeal primarily to people who like watching crime dramas with unusual settings, since “Nightride” takes place mostly in a car.

Gerard Jordan and Moe Dunford in “Nightride” (Photo by David Bird and Stephen Fingleton/Brainstorm Media)

Not too many movies can make a lively thriller out of a story that’s mostly a series of phone calls, but “Nightride” succeeds in doing so. The movie overcomes some crime drama clichés with a riveting lead performance by Moe Dunford. Dunford is literally front and center for almost all of the movie’s screen time, which primarily features his “Nightride” character Budge talking on the phone, usually in his car. When Budge gets out of his car, it’s usually for a reason that adds to the tension in the story.

Directed by Stephen Fingleton and written by Ben Conway, “Nightride” takes place over the course of one night, somewhere in an unnamed urban part of Northern Ireland. Budge has been making money selling illegal drugs as a mid-level drug dealer, but he’s about to quit the drug trade to open a legitimate business with a good friend of his named Graham (voiced by Paul Kennedy), who is only heard in the movie through phone conversations. And yes, “Nightride” is one of those crime dramas were the protagonist wants to do “one last crime caper” before “going straight.”

Budge and Graham plan to open an auto body shop called Nightride Auto Body, which Budge describes as a place that will offer “bespoke” custom jobs. The two pals have a meeting scheduled to take place the next morning at a bank, to pay back £60,000 in cash that they owe on a bank loan to purchase the business. If Budge and Graham default on the loan, they lose all the money that has already been paid for the loan, and they’ll lose this chance to start the business. Graham’s parents mortgaged their house to help Budge and Graham as a business investment, so Graham feels extra pressure to make sure that this bank deal goes smoothly.

Budge plans to get the money by doing one last drug deal that will give him the cash that he and Graham need. Graham knows that Budge has been involved in criminal activities, but he has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes discussing it with Budge. All Graham knows is that Budge has promised him that no matter what happens that night, it will end with Graham getting the £60,000 in cash that they need. Budge has also promised Graham that it will be the last time he does anything criminal before they open their auto body shop.

Budge’s girlfriend Sofia (played by Joana Ribeiro), a Ukrainian immigrant, knows all of Budge’s plans, and she wants him to leave the criminal life behind too. Before Budge gets in his car to do the drug deal, Sofia tells him, “Don’t get lifted [slang for arrested]. Once you do this, you’ll be out. We’ll both be out.” Needless to say, Budge, Sofia and Graham are feeling very anxious, but Budge tries to hide his nervousness with a cool and confident manner.

They won’t be the only ones on edge about this drug deal. The plan is for two of Budge’s cohorts named Lefty (played by John Travers) and Beaker (played by “Nightride” director Fingleton) to pick up the drug supply in a van that has 50 kilograms of the drug. The name of the drug is not named in the movie. Lefty and Beaker are then supposed to drive the van to some Ukrainian gangsters, who will buy the drug supply, and give Budge’s henchmen the cash, which Lefty and Beaker they will hand over to Budge. Lefty and Beaker are supposed to get a pre-arranged cut of the cash as payment for their help.

And why isn’t Budge doing the delivery himself? He suspects that he’s under surveillance by law enforcement, so he doesn’t want to risk any chance of getting arrested. The gangsters who are buying this drug supply are led by a ruthless overlord named Felix (voiced by Andrew Simpson), who is already irritated with Budge because Budge has delayed this drug deal for a week. Felix says if the drug supply isn’t delivered by 11:15 p.m., the deal is off. At the time Felix tells Budge this deadline over the phone, it’s 10:40 p.m., and Felix think that’s enough time to get everything done. As a precaution, Felix sends a menacing goon named Troy (played by Gerard Jordan) to be his enforcer, in case things go wrong.

There would be no “Nightride” movie if things went smoothly. Lefty and Beaker are bumbling dimwits, so you know what that means. Other things go wrong too, but that information will not be revealed in this review. What can be mentioned is that the stakes keep getting higher for Budge. At one point, he has to choose whether or not to commit murder. Sofia begs him not to go to those deadly extremes, but will Budge listen to her pleas?

Other characters who get involved in one way or another in Budge’s drug deal gone wrong include a guy nicknamed Scholar (played by Ciaran Flynn), Budge’s middle-man accomplice who is a Ph.D. student dealing drugs to help pay for his school tuition; a man nicknamed Magic Shop (voiced by Desmond Eastwood), a drug buyer whom Budge turns to in a moment of desperation; and Joe (voiced by Stephen Rea), a loan shark who is described by someone as a “psycho.” Budge also has a 15-year-old female cousin nicknamed Cuz (played Ellie O’Halloran), who calls him at inconvenient times to talk about her love life, but she ends up giving some valuable help to Budge when things go awry. Cuz also wants to work at the auto body shop that Budge and Graham plan to own.

“Nightride,” which had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, was filmed in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and before COVID-19 vaccines were available. You can tell that the movie was filmed during the pandemic because most conversations take place over the phone, and most of the cast members are not seen in the movie. When any cast members are seen on screen together, they are not gathered in large groups; only two to four people are in the scene.

One of the best things about “Nightride” is how it makes great use of dialogue and facial expressions to give viewers important insight into the personalities of these characters. Budge is the type of character who will keep viewers curious about what he’s going to do next when another obstacle gets in his way. Things never get boring in “Nightride,” which is a testament to how this movie was filmed and edited, as well as the cast members’ performances, particularly the standout turn from Dunford. “Nightride” is not a completely groundbreaking film, but it has plenty to offer to viewers looking for an adrenaline-fueled and entertaining thriller.

Brainstorm Media released “Nightride” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on March 4, 2022.

Review: ‘9 Bullets,’ starring Lena Headey and Sam Worthington

May 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dean Scott Vazquez and Lena Headey in “9 Bullets” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“9 Bullets”

Directed by Gigi Gaston 

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the West Coast and Midwest of the United States, the dramatic film “9 Bullets” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Latinos, Asians and multiracial people) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A former burlesque dancer goes on the run with an orphaned 11-year-old boy, whose family was killed by gangsters.

Culture Audience: “9 Bullets” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching poorly made and implausible crime dramas.

Sam Worthington in “9 Bullets” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Fans of the 1980 crime drama “Gloria” (starring Gena Rowlands in the title role) might be repulsed if they have the misfortune of wasting time watching “9 Bullets,” which is a sloppy and pathetic imitation of that classic movie. It’s not an official remake of “Gloria,” but “9 Bullets” copies so many things about “Gloria,” it’s essentially a rehash of the same story, with names and locations changed. It’s truly unfortunate that “9 Bullets” star Lena Headey has gone from the glory of starring in the Emmy-winning “Game of Thrones” series to diminishing her talent by starring in bottom-of-the-barrel trash such as “9 Bullets.”

Written and directed by Gigi Gaston, “9 Bullets” rips off “Gloria” by having this concept: A “tough woman” with a shady past goes on the run with an orphaned boy, whose family was killed by gangsters because his father betrayed the gang. “Gloria” (written and directed by John Cassavetes) takes place on the East Coast of the U.S., mostly in New York City and briefly in Pittsburgh. “9 Bullets” takes place in the Midwest and West Coast regions of the U.S., with a road trip that goes from California to Utah, Montana and North Dakota. The woman on the run in each movie keeps repeating how much she doesn’t like kids, which is supposed to be the irony when she inevitably develops maternal feelings for the boy who unexpectedly ends up in her care.

In “9 Bullets,” Headey portrays a very jaded and abrasive dancer-turned-author named Gypsy (no explanation is given if that’s her real name or an alias), who lives in Santa Clarita, California. She’s a soon-to-be-retired burlesque dancer because she’s gotten a book deal to write her memoir, tentatively titled “Another Dance.” Throughout the movie, while she’s running for her life, Gypsy keeps her laptop computer with her so she can work on her memoir in between dodging bullets.

The movie’s opening scene shows Gypsy on her house’s front porch while she’s reading the book publishing contract that she’s received in the mail. She looks up at the sky and says, “I promise not to fuck it up this time.” It’s at this point in the movie that you know a loved one in Gypsy’s life has passed away, and she feels a lot of guilt when it comes to that person.

Because “9 Bullets” also tries to make Gypsy look sexy, the movie has her doing “one last performance” at the seedy bar where she works. The movie’s depiction of Gypsy’s burlesque dancing is showing some slow-motion shots of a woman’s barely clad rear end (it could have been a body double) and Headey doing some lackluster walking on a stage in a tacky-looking tight-fitting outfit. Gypsy thinks that after this last performance, she’ll be leaving behind her life of working in sleazy bars and dealing with criminal losers, so that she can start a new life as a successful author who goes on vacation cruises. But there would be no “9 Bullets” movie if that happened.

On the night of this last performance, Gypsy gets a call from a friend named Ralph Stein (played by Zachary Mooren), who at the moment is frantically speeding down a street in his car, with his widowed mother (played by Marlene Forte) and young adult daughter Caroline (played by Stephanie Arcila) as passengers. Ralph is terrified because he has stolen money from a vengeful gangster named Jack (played by Sam Worthington), who has sent some of his goons to kill Ralph and Ralph’s family. Someone who’s not in the car is Ralph’s 11-year-old son Sam (played by Dean Scott Vazquez), who minutes earlier, got a call from Ralph to start doing the emergency plan that they talked about, in case they need to run for their lives.

Ralph tells Gypsy over the phone that he “messed up” with Jack, and he begs Gypsy to protect Sam if anything happens to the family. As Ralph and his family race to their house to pick up Sam, who is home alone, the car is stopped on a residential street by Jack’s thugs, who shoot and kill everyone in the car. Sam is hiding outside nearby with the family’s pet dog Moses (a Chihuahua mixed breed), so Sam witnesses his family being murdered.

Jack’s murderous henchman are looking for a computer tablet, but they can only find a laptop in the car, so they steal it before driving away. A terrified and sobbing Sam goes back to his house, where Gypsy finds him. Sam tells her what he saw, and they go on the run, with the dog coming along for the ride. (In “Gloria,” the murdered family had a pet cat, but the orphaned boys in both movies have a physical resemblance with dark, curly hair. In “Gloria,” John Adames played the role of the orphaned boy, who was named Phil.)

At first, Gypsy wants nothing to do with taking care of this kid. Sam has a clergyman uncle in North Dakota named Rabbi Stein (played by John Ales), who is resistant to take custody of Sam, because the rabbi says he’s overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking care of his own kids. And then there’s the fact that the gang is looking to kill Sam too. Rabbi Stein reluctantly agrees to take custody of Sam, but the rabbi says he needs more time to prepare for Sam’s arrival.

It’s just an excuse for this movie to have a prolonged road trip. Gypsy lies to Sam and says that his uncle wants Sam to live with him, but Sam senses that she’s been dishonest. Sam then proceeds to cry, whine and pout for much of the road trip. Gypsy does hardly anything to comfort him because, as she tells Sam repeatedly, she’s not good with kids. But when Sam mentions that he’s a cryptocurrency whiz, suddenly Gypsy finds that this kid can be useful.

This poorly written movie has an odd detour where Gypsy goes to Jack’s mansion, with the intention of seducing him to back off from killing Sam. Gypsy leaves Sam behind in a motel, but she illogically takes Moses the dog with her on this visit. She wants to convince Jack that she doesn’t know where Sam is. This “seduction” is just a thinly veiled reason for “9 Bullets” to have a not-very-sexy sex scene, where Gypsy has nudity, but Jack doesn’t. Typical sexist double standard in a trashy movie.

Jack and Gypsy were in a relationship years ago, but she dumped him because he constantly cheated on Gypsy and was too possessive of her. Jack now tells Gypsy that he wants to get back together with her, but she refuses. It makes absolutely no sense for Gypsy to have the dog with her during this visit. The dog is only there so the movie can have a heinous scene where Jack threatens to steal the dog and kill it after Gypsy rejects him.

Jack is a stereotypical American gang boss in a movie, but Worthington (who’s Australian in real life) struggles with having a convincing American accent. Jack lounges around his house, barks orders at his underlings, and he has at least one female lover who’s willing to do whatever he wants her to do. Her name is Lisa (played by Emma Holzer), who helps take care of Jack’s horses. Later in the story, Lisa has one of the worst-delivered lines in the movie, when she smirks, “Never send a man to do a woman’s job,” after she commits a violent act.

Jack has three main goons doing the dirty work for this assassination. Mike (played by Chris Mullinax), the bossiest one, can be as ruthless as Jack. Tommy (played by Cam Gigandet) is dimwitted and cruel. Eddie (played by Martin Sensmeier) is loyal and has the most compassion out of all the thugs. There’s a scene in the movie where Eddie could’ve easily murdered someone, but he doesn’t. Eventually, Jack goes on the road with his thugs to look for Gypsy and Sam too, because Jack suddenly shows up in a few scenes where he’s with his henchmen in chasing after these two targets.

La La Anthony has an embarrassing and idiotic role in the movie, and her questionable acting skills don’t do much to help. She plays a sassy stripper named Tasmin, who was taking a nap in the back seat of a Porsche SUV when it gets stolen by Gypsy, who foolishly did not see Tasmin when Gypsy stole the car. Tasmin eventually figures out that Gypsy and Sam are in deadly trouble, but Tasmin acts as if it’s completely normal to tag along with these two strangers who have assassins looking for them.

Barbara Hershey has a thankless role as a former Princeton University professor named Lacey, who offers her Utah home as a place for Gypsy and Sam to temporarily hide. How does Gypsy know Lacey? Years ago, Gypsy was a Princeton student until she dropped out for reasons explained when bitter and emotionally damaged Gypsy ends up telling Sam her sob story.

Of course, in a silly movie like “9 Bullets,” Lacey is not quite the mild-mannered retired professor that she first appears to be. Headey and Hershey are accomplished actresses who deserve much better than this dreck, which is filled with plot holes, nonsensical scenes (including one where Jack and his thugs easily let Gypsy get away), horrendous editing, and acting that ranges from mediocre to truly unwatchable. Headey seems to be doing her best to commit to her role as Gypsy, but it’s a lost cause because of the movie’s low-quality screenplay and direction.

And why is this movie called “9 Bullets?” There’s a scene where Sam lectures Gypsy, by saying: “You better let someone love you before it’s too late.” Gypsy replies, “I’m a cat with nine lives. I’ll be fine.” Sam asks, “What does that mean?” Gypsy replies, “It takes nine bullets to kill me.” At 91 minutes long, it takes “9 Bullets” this amount of time to kill any hope of being entertained by a movie that amounts to nothing more than awful and pointless garbage.

Screen Media Films released “9 Bullets” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 22, 2022. The movie is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on June 7, 2022.

Review: ‘Paris, 13th District,’ starring Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant and Jehnny Beth

May 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Paris, 13th District”

Directed by Jacques Audiard 

French and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “Paris, 13th District” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four people, who are in their 30s and live in Paris, have lives that intersect as friends and as lovers.

Culture Audience: “Paris, 13th District” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about adults navigating complicated relationships.

Noémie Merlant in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The erotic-infused romantic drama “Paris, 13th District” uses a familiar formula of showing casual sex turning into love. The movie’s compelling performances and a few plot twists enliven a story that wants to be edgy yet sentimental. It’s yet another “singles who date” movie about two people in a “friends with benefits” relationship; one of them falls in love first with the other one; and both of them try to figure out what to do about it.

Adding to the complications in “Paris, 13th District” are the sexual and romantic entanglements of two other people whose lives are interconnected in some way to the would-be couple. The movie becomes like maze within a love quadrangle. And it’s a maze where some people might get lost and drift apart, while others find a way to each other. The “Paris, 13th District” director Jacques Audiard, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma co-wrote the movie’s adapted screenplay from short stories by Adrian Tomine.

“Paris, 13th District” (which is named for the location where most of the movie takes place) is a film in black and white, which instantly gives it a classic and somewhat artsy look. “Paris, 13th District” is not “color blind” when it comes to its casting and storylines, because racial issues are definitely not ignored in this movie, where most of the sex partners are interracial couples. Immigrant identities are also not erased for characters who come from immigrant families.

With that being said, even though “Paris, 13th District” tries to look like it’s completely progressive and modern, the movie still falls into some stereotypical and old-fashioned formulas in movies about casual sex turning into love. One of the biggest stereotypes is the emotionally unattainable ladies’ man, who tells his sexual conquests up front that he doesn’t want to be in a monogamous and committed relationship, but one of his sex partners tries to change his mind anyway. Some people might like think that “Paris, 13th District” (especially the ending) plays it too safe, while other people might think the movie is too vulgar.

The four people who are part of the movie’s “love quadrangle” are all in their 30s, and they are feeling discontent about various aspects of their lives.

  • Émilie Wong (played by Lucie Zhang) is a talkative free spirit, who comes from a Chinese immigrant family, where she is considered an underachiever. Émilie has a science degree but works as a telemarketer selling cell phone services. Émilie works in a call center, where she sometimes breaks the rules when she thinks she can get away with it. Émilie (who identifies as bisexual or queer) lives rent-free in an apartment owned by her grandmother. In contrast to Émilie’s aimless life, Émilie’s older sister is a successful medical doctor named Karin (played by Geneviève Doang), who often scolds Émilie for being immature and self-centered.
  • Camille Germain (played by Makita Samba), the movie’s Lothario, is a high school teacher who quits that job to pursue getting his Ph.D. in modern literature. At one point in the story, Camille starts working at a real estate agency to earn more money. Camille has a fairly good relationship with his immediate family: Camille’s widower father (played by Pol White) and Camille’s 16-year-old sister (played by Camille Léon-Fucien), who wants to be a stand-up comedian. However, Camille doesn’t visit them as much as they would like because he seems to want to avoid being reminded that his beloved mother is no longer with them.
  • Nora Ligier (played by Noémie Merlant) is a loner with a vague background. She’s originally from Bordeaux, France. In the beginning of the movie, Nora has enrolled in a criminal law class because her dream is to eventually become a lawyer. However, Nora ends up working as an agent for a real estate company, which is how she meets Camille. Nora also goes through some harrowing experiences because she’s often mistaken for a porn actress who uses the alias Amber Sweet.
  • Amber Sweet (played by Jehnny Beth), who wears a blonde wig styled in a shoulder-length bob, looks so similar to Nora, they could pass for fraternal twins. Amber is the most mysterious person of these four characters. However, she eventually opens up and becomes close to someone in this group of four people. It’s not really surprising who ends up befriending Amber, but some things that led up to that relationship are not as predictable.

In the beginning of “Paris, 13th District,” Émilie meets Camille for the first time, because he has answered an ad that she placed to look for a roommate. When he shows up at her door, she’s surprised that Camille is a man, because she assumed from his name that Camille was a woman. Even though Émilie lives rent-free in her apartment, she has a secret scam going on where she gets a roommate to give her the roommate’s share of the rent, and she keeps the money. The movie shows whether or not Camille finds out about this con game.

In their first conversation, Émilie and Camille (who seem to be instantly attracted to each other) don’t waste time getting personal and talking about sex after some small talk about what they do for a living. Émilie asks Camille to describe his love life. He replies, “My parents aren’t laughing.” Then, he adds, “I channel professional frustration into intense sexual activity. Nothing noisy or invasive for a roommate.”

When Camille asks Émilie about her love life, she sums it up this way: “Fuck first. See later.” Émilie also shows that she’s insecure about her physical appearance. Even though Émilie is already thin, she mentions that she likes to put Saran wrap around her body to “get thin.”

For Émilie, it’s an easy decision for Camille to move in with her. And they soon start having casual sex with each other. After just a week of these sexual hookups, Émilie grows very emotionally attached to Camille and shows signs that she’s falling in love with him. It makes him uncomfortable, so he tells Émilie that he doesn’t want to have sex with her on a regular basis anymore. “We have fun, but we’re not a couple,” Camille tells Émilie.

Émilie feels hurt and offended, but she tries to hide it by becoming standoffish to him. She tells Camille: “We need new rules. We share cleaning and food. And stop walking around naked.” As much as Émilie wants to pretend that she can handle these new boundaries, she becomes increasingly crabby and difficult. Camille starts casually dating a woman he works with named Stéphanie (played by Oceane Cairaty), who spends the night sometimes at the apartment. Predictably, Émilie gets jealous.

Émilie’s moodiness becomes too much for Camille, who eventually moves out of the apartment. But that doesn’t mean that he’s completely out of Émilie’s life. Camille and Nora end up working together. And because Camille is a ladies’ man, it’s not surprising what happens between him and Nora. Émilie (who eventually meets Nora) tries to move on from Camille by dating other people, but her mind is never far from thinking about Camille.

Meanwhile, Nora’s life collides with Amber’s when Nora goes to a nightclub wearing the same type of blonde wig that Amber wears in Amber’s porn videos. At the nightclub, several men start approaching Nora and treating her like a celebrity, by asking to take photos with her and being extra flirtatious with her. Nora is confused but flattered by this attention.

Nora later finds out why all these strangers acted as if she’s famous: Nora looks a lot like Amber Sweet when she wears the blonde wig. Nora has never heard of Amber Sweet until discovering that she’s an Amber Sweet look-alike, but she finds out the hard way that being mistaken for a porn star definitely has its down sides. Over time, Nora gets unwelcome and abusive attention when people think that she is Amber Sweet. It’s also eventually revealed that Nora and Amber both identify as queer or bisexual women.

One of the best things about “Paris, 13th District” is that the movie authentically shows how flaky, confused and desperate people can get when it comes to finding love and sex. The four central people in this story have a certain restless defiance that can come from people in their 30s who are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives, while other people in their age group are settling down with marriages, kids and careers. Émilie, Camille, Nora and Amber are not pressuring themselves to conform to society’s expectations, but they are putting certain pressures on themselves to find happiness wherever and whenever they can.

Émilie could have easily been written as a perfectly lovable ingenue to make it easier for audiences to root for her. But she’s often irritable, narcissistic and impatient, in addition to being someone who is capable of giving and receiving real love. She likes to think she’s independent, but she has the emotional maturity of a childlike woman who is very dependent on her family for financial support and approval. Émilie is a flawed but very believable character.

Zhang performs well in this role, while Samba’s performance as commitment-phobic Camille is also realistic. The roles of Émilie and Camille have better character development than the roles of Nora and Amber. Nora and Amber both have an intertwined storyline that seems a little too convenient and rushed into the plot toward the last third of the movie. Viewers never get to see any of Nora’s and Amber’s family members (it’s implied that Nora and Amber are estranged from their families), whereas Émilie’s and Camille’s family members are in the movie as integral to understanding Émilie’s and Camille’s personalities.

“Paris, 13th District” has some sex scenes that some viewers might think are a little risqué, but the movie doesn’t take many risks when it comes to a tired, over-used stereotype in movies about single people who are dating: A woman is always trying to get a man to commit to her. “Paris, 13th District” sacrifices aspects of Émilie’s free-spirited personality to make her sometimes look like a clingy shrew.

However, “Paris, 13th District” also makes a point of showing that many people are often full of contradictions. It’s a movie about people who appreciate and pursue the pleasures of sex, but they also use sex as a way to cover up a lot of emotional pain. And no matter what people’s attitudes are about sex, “Paris, 13th District” is essentially a movie that acknowledges that everyone wants to be loved in some way or another.

IFC Films released “Paris, 13th District” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 15, 2022. The movie was released in France in 2021.

Review: ‘The Duke’ (2021), starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren

May 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent in “The Duke” (Photo courtesy of Pathé UK/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Duke” (2021)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom cities of Newcastle and London, in 1961 and briefly in 1965, the dramatic film “The Duke” features a cast of nearly all-white characters (with one person of Pakistani heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An anti-establishment senior citizen, who is grieving over the years-ago death of his teenage daughter, pleads not guilty in his trial for stealing Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.

Culture Audience: “The Duke” will appeal primarily to people interested in old-fashioned but well-acted period dramas about feisty and opinionated British people that explore issues of rebelling against society and dealing with personal grief.

Fionn Whitehead and Jack Bandeira in “The Duke” (Photo by Nick Wall/Pathé UK/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Duke” is more than just a traditionally made movie about a man who goes on trial for stealing a valuable painting from London’s National Gallery. It’s also a witty and emotional drama about a family coping with grief. Based on a true story, “The Duke” is not as predictable as it might seem. The cast members greatly elevate the material, which might have become too lackluster or misguided with the wrong people cast in the roles.

Directed by Roger Michell (who passed away in 2021, at the age of 65), “The Duke” (which takes place in England, mostly in 1961) is really three stories in one, in telling what happened in the year of the life of 60-year-old Kempton Bunton (played Jim Broadbent) before, during and after he was put on trial for a famous art theft. The movie (written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman) focuses mostly on the “before” part of the story, which is somewhat a detriment to the flow of the narrative, which needed to give more screen time to the trial.

Kempton, who lives in Newcastle, is a spunky nonconformist with a keen sense of questioning government authority and wanting to be a champion for underdogs and underprivileged people. He is a taxi driver by trade, but early on in the story, he gets fired from his taxi job. On the day that Kempton gets fired, his no-nonsense supervisor Freda (played by Val McLane, in a scene-stealing cameo) starts off by telling Kempton that she’s been getting customer complaints that he talks too much. More importantly to the boss, Kempton has also been falling short of handing over the company’s commission for his taxi cash earnings. He’s not exactly accused of stealing, but Kempton’s excuses aren’t good explanations for the missing commission money.

Kempton mumbles something about how he took pity on a cab rider who couldn’t afford to pay the fare. Freda tells Kempton, “I might have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I’ve got the testicles of Henry VIII … I am running a taxi firm, not a charity!” When Freda decides to fire Kempton without paying him the salary that he’s owed, he disagrees with her, and she barks at him: “Sue me then. But fuck off first!”

Kempton’s loyal but frustrated wife Dorothy Bunton (played by Helen Mirren) has gotten fed up with Kempton’s erratic employment. Dorothy is essentially the main breadwinner for the household. She works as a housekeeper for a wealthy middle-aged couple, whose husband is a prominent doctor in the area. Kempton and Dorothy have two sons, both in their 20s.

Younger son Jackie (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is kind and obedient, works as a boat repairer/builder at a shipyard, and he lives with Kempton and Dorothy. Jackie has a crush on a young woman who’s close to his age named Irene Boslover (played by Aimée Kelly), and they have a sweet romance that starts off a little hesitantly, because Jackie is shy when it comes to dating. Jackie greatly admires his eccentric father Kempton, but Dorothy worries that Jackie will be influenced too much by Kempton’s disruptor ways.

Older son Kenny (played by Jack Bandeira), who is rebellious and outspoken, no longer lives with his parents. Kenny is involved in shady and illegal activities that he won’t discuss with his family. And much to Dorothy’s disapproval, Kenny plans to start living with his lover Pamela (played by Charlotte Spencer), nicknamed Pammy, who is legally married but separated from her husband. When Kenny and Pamela visit his parents, it leads to arguments and hard feelings between Kenny and his mother Dorothy.

Kempton and Dorothy are parents to a third child—a daughter named Marian—who died in 1948, at the age 18. She was killed in a car accident while riding a bicycle that Kempton gave her as a gift. Kempton feels tremendous guilt over Marian’s death and visits her grave on a regular basis. Kempton also likes to talk about Marian and reminisce about happy memories that he has of her.

By contrast, Dorothy refuses to discuss Marian and her death. She treats Marian’s death as if it’s a closed door that she doesn’t ever want to open again. She won’t even visit Marian’s grave. Because Kempton and Dorothy have handled Marian’s death in extremely different ways, it’s caused a strain in their marriage.

Kempton has written a drama manuscript, inspired by Marian, called “The Girl on a Bicycle” that he hopes will be produced for television. Later in the movie, Dorothy is horrified when she finds out about this manuscript. “Grief is private!” Dorothy gruffly tells Kempton.

One day, Kempton watches the TV news and sees a report announcing that the National Gallery in London has purchased a Francisco Goya portrait painting of the Duke of Wellington, also known as former U.K. prime minister Arthur Wellesley. The painting is worth £140,000 in 1961 money. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about £267 million in early 2020s money. Kempton scoffs at the extravagant purchase, because he thinks the U.K. government could have put the money to better use.

Kempton is more than a little irritated about it. In a typical Kempton Bunton comment, he remarks to Dorothy about the National Gallery’s purchase of this painting: “You know what’s going on here. Toffs looking after their own. Spending our hard-earned money on a half-baked board rate, by some Spanish drunk, of a duke who was a bastard to his men and was against universal suffrage.” The irony of this comment is that Kempton has not paid his taxes in years.

Later, Kempton goes to London, in an attempt to get media and government attention for his quest to make TV in the United Kingdom free for old age pensioners (OAPs), who are usually on a fixed and limited income. While in London, he sees a newspaper article about the painting where the National Gallery has issued this invitation to visitors who want to see the Duke of Wellington painting: “Line up to meet the Duke!”

And not long after that, the painting is stolen and hidden in the Bunton household. It’s the first time that any art has been stolen from the National Gallery. (And to this day, it remains the only major theft that the National Gallery has experienced.) An anonymous ransom note written and mailed by Kempton announces that the painting is being held “hostage” until the U.K. government agrees to give £140,000 (the price paid for the painting) to worthy causes supporting the elderly and military veterans.

Police commissioner Sir Joseph Simpson (played by Charles Edwards) leads the investigation, but “The Duke” predictably has two bumbling police detectives—DI (Detective Inspector) Macpherson (played by Dorian Lough) and DI Brompton (played by Sam Swansbury)—who do a lot of the grunt work. Commissioner Simpson has a public relations role of giving updates to the media about the investigation. He seems to want all the publicity and glory for solving the case.

The police make the mistake of dismissing the correct suspect profile that a handwriting expert named Dr. Unsworth (played by Sian Clifford) deduced from studying the ransom note and figuring out what type of person wrote it. These detectives are convinced by their own theory that the painting was stolen by an unknown sophisticated gang from another nation, probably from Italy. The detectives also say amongst themselves that a woman who’s a handwriting expert could not possibly know more than these experienced cops.

Through a series of events that won’t be revealed in this review, the painting is discovered in the Bunton house. It’s enough to say that Kempton decides to turn himself in and admit that he “borrowed” the painting, to point out wasteful government spending and to demand that the U.K. government invest in better care for the elderly and military veterans. He pleads not guilty to the theft. None of this is spoiler information, because the movie’s trailer already reveals that Kempton goes on trial for stealing the painting.

Kempton’s trial doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Kempton’s defense attorney Jeremy Hutchinson (played by Matthew Goode) sometimes clashes with Kempton behind the scenes, but they both want to win the case. And so, Kempton and Jeremy find some common ground of agreement. The story has a real-life plot twist revealed in the movie’s last 15 minutes, which show how far Kempton is willing to go to stand by his beliefs, even if it’s at great personal risk to himself.

With a working-class man in his 60s as the protagonist, “The Duke” is the type of British drama movie that doesn’t get made very much anymore. Dorothy is a formidable and strong-willed person in this story (and Mirren performs well in the role, as expected), but she’s really a supporting character who reacts to whatever chaos Kempton has created. Broadbent brings roguish charm to this role, and his performance (which is both amusing and heartbreaking) is the main reason to see this film.

“The Duke” is not perfect by any means. The movie takes a little too long to get to the trial, which is somewhat crammed in toward the end of the film. There are several scenes that over-explain how Kempton has trouble keeping a job because of his tendency to question authority. And there’s a repeated cycle of Dorothy getting upset by Kempton’s mischief, and Kempton promising that he won’t cause any more problems and won’t keep secrets from her. And then, he inevitably breaks his promise.

As an example of Kempton’s unstable employment, there’s a section of the movie showing Kempton in a job as an assembly line worker at a bread factory. He befriends a Pakistani co-worker named Javid Akram (played by Ashley Kumar), who is the only employee in that department who isn’t white. Kempton eventually gets fired for standing up to his racist boss Mr. Walker (played by Craig Conway), who bullies Javid by calling him a racial slur and singling him out for unfair treatment.

“The Duke” also tends to be a little too repetitive with Kempton’s bootlegging of the ITV network (which, unlike the BBC, requires payment to receive) on the TV set in his household’s living room. He tries to dodge the authorities he encounters who attempt to fine him for non-payment, but he eventually spends 13 jays in jail when he gets into a scuffle over it. During his ongoing dispute over this issue, Kempton stages protests on the street with “Free TV for OAP” signs, with Jackie recruited as Kempton’s protest companion. Most people who pass Kempton and Jackie on the street just don’t care—and neither will viewers after a while, since the stolen painting is the more interesting part of the movie.

When Kempton’s legal entanglements make the news, Dorothy is embarrassed, makes profuse apologies to her employer Dolly Gowling (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and promises that she’s not as “unstable” has her husband. Mrs. Gowling, who is married to a difficult and domineering man, has empathy for Kempton. Because she is a supporter of Kempton’s anti-establishment ways, Mrs. Gowling attends his trial as an eager spectator.

Any supporting characters outside of Dorothy and Jackie tend to be drawn in broad strokes that are a little stereotypical. They include the “law and order” characters, such as the aforementioned main detectives; Judge Aarvold (played by James Wilby); prosecutor Edward Cussen (played by John Heffernan); and junior counsel Eric Crowther (played by Joshua McGuire), who works with Jeremy on Kempton’s defense team. Despite some of these narrative flaws, “The Duke” has enough amusing banter, heartfelt moments and well-played scenes to hold the interest of people who are open to watching movies set in 1960s England and that have a retro filmmaking style that matches this era.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Duke” in select U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie was released in Canada and Australia in 2021, and in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan on February 25, 2022.

Review: ’21mu Tiffin,’ starring Niilam Paanchal, Raunaq Kamdar and Netri Trivedi

May 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Niilam Paanchal and Raunaq Kamdar in “21mu Tiffin” (Photo courtesy of Vijaygiri FilmOs)

“21mu Tiffin”

Directed by Vijaygiri Bava

Gujarati with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place somewhere in Gujarat, India, the dramatic film “21mu Tiffin” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged woman in an unhappy marriage gets a boost of confidence when a much-younger bachelor starts paying attention to her because of her tiffin-making skills. 

Culture Audience: “21mu Tiffin” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching dull stories about women going through a midlife crisis.

Niilam Paanchal and Netri Trivedi in “21mu Tiffin” (Photo courtesy of Vijaygiri FilmOs)

The lackluster drama “21mu Tiffin” is intended as a female empowerment story, but in the end, it’s really a disjointed tale about a middle-aged woman seeking approval from a younger man. Directed by Vijaygiri Bava and written by Raam Mori, “21mu Tiffin” (which means “21st Tiffin” in English) has a very underwhelming and abruptly odd ending that ruins whatever uplifting messages that this movie was trying to convey. The movie has some charming moments, but they are fleeting and mostly overshadowed by repetitive scenes that don’t do much to further the story. “21Mu Tiffin” is based on a short story from Mori’s 2017 anthology book “Mahotu.”

In “21mu Tiffin” (which takes place somewhere in place somewhere in Gujarat, India), Neeta mi Mummy (played by Niilam Paanchal), a homemaker in her 40s, is trapped in an existence where she feels unappreciated by the people who live with her. She’s in a longtime marriage with a husband named Mane Mari Javabdari (played by Deepan Shah), who treats her like a roommate whom he can barely tolerate. He acts like he never wants to remember anything romantic about their marriage.

Neeta and her husband have a 20-year-old daughter named Nital (played by Netri Trivedi), who is living in the same household while on a break from college. Nital is a whiny brat who sulks a lot and has disagreements with Neeta. Nital doesn’t want to do minor tasks that her mother asks her to do, such as doing basic chores around the house or helping her mother make tiffins. Nital just wants to hang out with her friends. Nital tries to be close to her father Mane Mari Javabdari, but he’s emotionally distant with her too.

Neeta’s biggest joy in life comes from cooking tiffins in her kitchen. She has been selling tiffins as a side business, which could be rapidly growing since everyone tells her how delicious her tiffins are. One day, Neeta gets her 21st tiffin customer: a bachelor named Dhruv (played by Raunaq Kamdar), who’s in his early-to-mid 20s. Dhruv eagerly shares these tiffins with his three male roommates, who are all in the same age group. It just so happens that Dhruv’s uncle Bhanudada (played by Hitesh Thakar) sells tiffins too—Neeta was one of Bhanudada’s tiffin customers—but Dhruv thinks Neeta’s tiffins are much better than his uncle’s.

Dhruv becomes such a fan of Neeta’s tiffins, he makes a point of visiting her at her home and giving her profuse compliments about her tiffin making. Neeta feels very flattered, and there are hints that she’s becoming attracted to Dhruv. He seems to know it, and he flirts with her. The movie then becomes a series of repetitive scenes where Dhruv and Neeta spend time together and don’t talk about the sexual tension between them.

When Dhruv comes over to visit, he shows no interest in talking to Nital, who is closer to his own age. In fact, he mostly ignores Nital, even when she’s in the same room. It’s a good thing that Nital doesn’t seem attracted to Dhruv, or else that would be yet another thing for Nital to pout about when it comes to her mother. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t go down a tacky route where mother and daughter compete for Dhruv’s attention.

Later in the movie, Neeta and Nital’s relationship does improve. But other subplots about Neeta’s family members end up being very inconsequential. Neeta’s mother suddenly becomes mute and shows signs of dementia. But surprise! She was only pretending because she wanted attention. When Neeta’s mother does talk, it’s mostly to praise Neeta for her tiffin making. Neeta’s mother seems to think that Neeta inherited these tiffin-making skills from Neeta’s maternal grandmother.

Neeta’s mild-mannered brother and his shrewish wife are not-very-important supporting characters who were put in the movie to recite their forgettable dialogue, with no real insight into who these characters really are. Neeta has a talkative best friend named Purvi (played by Jahanvi Patel), whose only purpose in the movie is to brag about how attentive and loving Purvi’s husband is, with no sensitivity over how Neeta must feel being stuck in a bad marriage. Needless to say, Purvi’s bragging makes Neeta feel worse about her life.

Neeta also has some health problems that aren’t dealt with in a meaningful way and are just used as plot devices that are left to dangle in the movie. She has low blood pressure. And all the work she puts into her tiffin making has given her a stress-related illness that almost leaves her bedridden or on the verge of a collapse, at different points in the movie. These health issues ultimately go nowhere in the story, because they end up being sidelined by the narrative that Dhruv is giving Neeta a new zest for life.

The problem with “21mu Tuffin” is that the movie is just a series of conversations and contrivances that don’t do much for character development. There’s nothing too impressive about the cast members’ acting, which is often hindered by the movie’s bland direction and uninspired screenplay. It seems contradictory that the movie tries so hard to make it look like Neeta is being “liberated” and feeling like an “independent woman” by her tiffin making, and yet she heavily relies on male approval to make her happy.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting male approval all the time, if you’re honest about it. But it’s very off-putting when you pretend that you don’t, by putting up a fake feminist front, and then being hypocritical by having your self-worth wrapped up in getting constant praise from men—and that’s essentially what “21mu Tiffin” does with protagonist Neeta. Regardless of issues related to gender or feminism, the movie seems to miss the point that real self-esteem comes from within yourself and shouldn’t be defined by how many people seem to like you for your cooking skills.

Vijaygiri FilmOs released “21mu Tiffin” in select U.S. cinemas on April 8, 2022. The movie was released in India on December 10, 2021.

Copyright 2017-2022 Culture Mix