Review: ‘A Thousand and One,’ starring Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross and William Catlett

January 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola in “A Thousand and One” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“A Thousand and One”

Directed by A.V. Rockwell

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, from 1993 to 2005, the dramatic film “A Thousand and One” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After she is released from prison for theft, a New York City mother illegally avoids child welfare services that want to put her underage son in foster care, so she moves to another part of the city with him and gives him a false identity. 

Culture Audience: “A Thousand and One” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching intense dramas about troubled families that are plagued by poverty and dysfunction.

“A Thousand and One” could be an apt description about all the storylines in movies and TV shows about African American pain and struggles. What makes this dramatic film different from the many that just wallow in negative stereotypes is how authentically the complex humanity is presented in the story. The well-worn subject of an African American family living in urban poverty gets a rarely seen perspective of an undocumented U.S.-born child living in America. The middle of the movie tends to drag, but the last third of the film is emotionally powerful.

Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, “A Thousand and One” won the grand jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere. “A Thousand and One”—which takes place in New York City, from 1993 to 2005—follows the lives of two people who are on the margins of society because one of them is a child with a false identity. “A Thousand and One” shows how this identity deception was made with good intentions to benefit the child in a system that often neflects or abuses children with unstable home lives. “A Thousand and One” shows in unflinching ways whether or not this decision to change the child’s identity was the right decision.

“A Thousand to One” begins by showing the woman who is the catalyst for most of what happens in the story. Inez de la Paz (played by Teyana Taylor) is a prisoner at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in 1993. The opening scene shows Inez appying makeup on the face of a female inmate. The movie then abruptly cuts to 1994, when Inez is 22 years old. Inez, who has a feisty and outspoken personality, is now out of prison and trying to get her life back on track.

Inez returns to her Brooklyn neighborhood and reconnects with a shy and quiet 6-year-old boy named Terry (played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who knows Inez as his mother, but he seems emotionally distant and very mistrustful of her. Terry refuses to talk to Inez and can barely look at her. That’s because for however long that Inez was in prison, Terry has been living in foster care, and he feels like Inez abandoned him.

Terry’s father has not be involved in raising Terry, who has no other known relatives. Inez has told people that her ex-boyfriend Lucky (played by William Catlett) is Terry’s father, but Inez says that Lucky and Inez broke up shortly after she gave birth to Terry. For now, Inez plans to raise Terry on her own. But because she currently has no job and no permanent home, it’s very unlikely that Inez will get custody of Terry.

Inez insists on spending time with Terry, whom she usually gets to see when he’s hanging out with his friends on the streets. She promises Terry that she will stay out of trouble and that she won’t ever leave him again. Eventually, Terry starts to warm up to Inez and begins to trust her again.

Meanwhile, Inez wants to work as a hairstylist, but her criminal record and not having a permanent address make it hard for her to get hired at places that do background checks. She also has a reputation in her neighborhood for being a convicted thief. In an effort to find work, she hands out flyers to advertise her services as an independent hair stylist.

A montage early in the movie shows Inez calling people she knows to find a place to stay, and she gets frustrated when people say no, or she can’t reach them on the phone because she gets voice mail or the phone number is no longer in service. Remember, this is in 1994, when most people did not have mobile phones, so Inez has to rely on pay phones to make her calls. Because Inez doesn’t have her own phone, it’s another reason why it’s hard for her to find a job.

Just as Inez thinks she’s making progress with Terry, he ends up in a hospital with a non-critical head injury from a fall out of a window. Although Terry says that he fell on his own, it’s implied that it’s very likely his foster mother abused him, and it resulted in the injury. One of the signs that Terry is being abused in his foster home is that he is afraid to go back and live there. Another sign is that Inez is told that Terry will probably be moved to another foster home after he’s discharged from the hospital.

Inez is so upset by the thought of Terry going back to a foster home, she asks Terry if he wants to stay with her for a couple of days. He says yes. That’s all Inez needs to hear to decide to take Terry with her without telling the proper authorities. Inez and Terry go to Harlem, where Inez grew up. They temporarily hide out with Inez’s close friend Kim Jones (played by Terri Abney), who has known Inez since childhood. Kim lives with her mother Mrs. Jones (played by Delissa Reynolds), who openly disapproves of Inez, because she thinks Inez is a bad influence on Kim.

Inez confides to Kim that Inez has illegally taken Terry and has no intention of returning him to the child welfare system. Inez makes Kim promise to keep it a secret. However, the local news is reporting that Inez has kidnapped Terry. Photos of Inez and Terry are on local TV stations and in other visual media’s news reports about this kidnapping. Even though the Internet was in its infancy in 1994, a kidnapping reported on the TV news would be a big deal in 1994, as it would be today. “A Thousand and One” doesn’t handle the effects of this mass-media coverage very realistically.

That’s why viewers need a huge suspension of disbelief for the rest of “A Thousand to One,” which shows that Terry and Inez stayed in Harlem through 2005, the year that the movie ends. This isn’t spoiler information, because the movie is being marketed as a story about a woman who kidnapped her son and was able to raise him through his teenage years by giving him a false identity. The movie’s remaining chapters take place in 2001, when Terry (played by Aven Courtney) is 13 years old, and in 2005, when Terry (played by Josiah Cross) is 17 years old.

It’s very hard to believe that people who know Inez (who makes no attempt to disguise herself) wouldn’t find out that she was in the news for kidnapping. It would be easier to believe that Inez got away with it for several years if Inez and Terry had moved to another part of the United States, or even out of the New York City metropolitan area. In real life, too many social workers and law enforcement officials (including parole officers) would be able to easily track down Inez and Terry because she went back to her childhood neighborhood.

And making things even more implausible, Inez and Terry stay in the same Harlem apartment for several years, which would make them even easier to find. (Most fugitives don’t live in one place for too long.) Inez and Terry live an apartment that has the number 10-01 on the door. This apartment number is the inspiration for the movie’s title, because without the hyphen, the number would be 1,001.

Terry is homeschooled for some of his early childhood when Inez goes into “hiding” with him, but Terry eventually goes to public schools, where Inez occasionally interacts with some of the schools’ faculty and staff. It’s another plot hole in the movie, because some of these school employees would realistically be aware of local child kidnappings that were in the news and would recognize Inez. It’s important to mention that Inez’s physical appearance barely ages in the movie. Through the years, her very distinctive face looks exactly the same in the photos of Inez that are shown in the news about the kidnapping case. Law enforcement wouldn’t have do any “aging updates” to her photos.

Inez and Terry being able to “hide in plain sight” and go undetected for years is this movie’s way of saying that children like Terry often “fall through the cracks” of the child welfare system, because no one is really looking that hard for them. A better and more realistic narrative to the story would have been that Terry’s disappearance would not have made the news at all. But because “A Thousand and One” repeatedly shows Inez’s and Terry’s photos on TV as a kidnapping case, this TV news coverage seems very contrived for the movie’s dramatic purposes, in order to make the character of Inez more paranoid about getting caught.

Despite the credibility flaws in this part of the kidnapping investigation narrative, “A Thousand and One” is more authentic in showing the turmoil and dysfunction that result from being an outlaw and having poverty problems. Yes, there are many cringeworthy scenes of Inez being the “angry black woman” stereotype, but Taylor delivers a good-enough performance that it doesn’t devolve into being a pathetic parody. Viewers will see more than enough of Inez’s “I’m angry because I’ve had a hard life” attitude.

However, “A Thousand and One” saves itself from being racially offensive with these negative stereotypes for Inez because the movie shows her vulnerable side, especially during Terry’s early teenage years when she starts to mellow out a little bit when the life that she makes for herself and Lucky becomes more stable. The movie also presents a variety of other African American people who are also living in poverty but who aren’t the clichés of being bitter and “ready to pick a fight” that Inez can often be. Inez’s friend Kim is street-smart too, but Kim is more compassionate and more patient than Inez.

Lucky comes back into Inez’s life, and he’s not quite the deadbeat dad that he could easily be if the movie followed the usual race-demeaning formulas that other movies and TV shows have about low-income African American fathers. Lucky is flawed but he does try to redeem himself as a parent. The scenes with Lucky and Terry are among the most authentic because they show that it takes time for Lucky to build trust as a father who was absent for Terry’s formative childhood years.

What will probably impress people the most about “A Thousand and One” is how superbly the movie shows Terry growing up into the bright and sensitive person that he is, with a lot of potential to succeed, despite Terry coming from dire circumstances and a volatile family background. Terry has a knack for science and technology. But what he really wants to do with his life is to be a music composer like his idol, Quincy Jones. Adetola, Courtney and Cross are all terrific in their roles as Terry in the three life stages that are depicted in “A Thousand and One.”

“A Thousand and One” has plenty of hard edges to its storytelling, but there are some sweet-natured scenes of teenage Terry awkwardly trying to impress his longtime crush Simone (played at age 14 by Azza El, and at age 17 by Alicia Pilgrim), who is dismissive and rude to Terry. As 17-year-old Terry, Cross is particularly skillful at showing introverted Terry’s frustration of wanting to be more confident, but his shyness and insecurity often get in the way. Terry has a slight stutter that is realistically depicted. There are also some tender mother/child moments between Inez and Terry.

“A Thousand and One” transitions between each of the three chapters of Terry’s life, by showing aerial views of New York City with audio clips of news reports about New York City’s mayor at the time. These transitions are an effective way to not only give a quick history lesson of New York City during these years but also put into context the types of mayoral policies that were put in place during these time periods. The news clips highlighted in the movie reflect the type of news that African Americans likely would be paying attention to the most because it’s news that would have an impact on African American communities.

For 1994 and 2001, these clips briefly encapsulate the reign of Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani, who is credited with “cleaning up” New York City and reducing the city’s crime rate, but who also instilled a damaging and racist “stop and frisk” police policy that disproportionately targeted African Americans and Latinos of the male gender. These clips have mentions of the police brutality cases that violated young, unarmed African American men Abner Louima (a victim of police sodomy in 1997) and Amadou Diallo (killed by 41 rounds of police gunfire in 1999), to serve as reminders of the racial dangers in New York City for young African American men like Terry. The 2005 audio excerpt of the reign of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg foreshadows how certain people will be affected by Bloomberg’s legacy of bringing more big business and more gentrification to New York City.

Viewers of “A Thousand and One” will get the sense that all the problems experienced by Inez and Terry are not meant to invoke condescension or pity, as some of the move’s more privileged characters react when they’re with Inez and/or Terry. Instead, the movie shows in frank and empathetic ways how quickly people’s lives can spiral in these circumstances. It would be very easy to judge people in these circumstances as self-destructive or lazy. But the ending of “A Thousand and One” makes it very clear that it’s a mistake to harshly judge someone without knowing that person’s whole life story, because some of life’s bad decisions start off as good intentions.

Focus Features will release “A Thousand and One” in select U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘A Guilty Conscience’ (2023), starring Dayo Wong, Tse Kwan Ho, Louise Wong, Renci Yeung, Fish Liew, Adam Pak and Michael Wong

January 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Renci Yeung and Dayo Wong in “A Guilty Conscience” (Photo courtesy of Edko Films Ltd.)

“A Guilty Conscience” (2023)

Directed by Wai-Lun Ng

Cantonese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hong Kong, the dramatic film “A Guilty Conscience” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A defense attorney, who dislikes his co-lead counsel and corrupt rich people, represents a single mother accused of killing of 7-year-old daughter. 

Culture Audience: “A Guilty Conscience” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of courtroom dramas and murder mysteries that have touches of sarcastic comedy.

Louise Wong in “A Guilty Conscience” (Photo courtesy of Edko Films Ltd.)

“A Guilty Conscience” is a well-paced legal thriller about a prickly defense attorney representing a single mother accused of killing her 7-year-old daughter. Vivid character personalities and occasionally comedic moments help make this movie compelling. If you like stories about defense attorneys who put extra effort into doing their own investigating, then “A Guilty Conscience” is your type of movie.

Directed by Wai-Lun Ng, “A Guilty Conscience” (which takes place in Hong Kong) was co-written by Ng, Jay Cheung and Terry Lam. The movie begins by showing the flawed and memorable protagonist Adrian Lam, also known as Lam Leung Shui (played by Dayo Wong), keeping people in a courtroom waiting, just because he can. Adrian is a defense attorney in criminal law who can be arrogant, self-absorbed and difficult. But he has a strong sense of right and wrong. He especially dislikes rich people who abuse their power.

Adrian has recently become frustrated with his job. He has a new boss named Christine whom he doesn’t really like, and he gets into frequent arguments with her. He also has to share co-counsel duties with Evelyn Fong (played by Renci Yeung), a younger woman whom he doesn’t really respect because he thinks she’s not on the same level as he is because she is less experienced in being an attorney.

Adrian also doesn’t like dealing with cases that he thinks are frivolous and a waste of his time. For example, in the beginning of the movie, he is shown in court defending someone who was charged with using obscene language on a subway. Adrian will soon get caught up in a more substantial case that’s literally a matter of life and death.

One day, Adrian finds out about a young, single mother named Jolene Tsang (played by Louise Wong), who has been accused of attempted murder of her 7-year-old daughter Elsa Tsang (played by Sherlock Mack), who is mute and can only communicate in sign language. Elsa was found beaten and bloodied on the living room floor in the home where she lives with Jolene, who was the only known person in the home during the time that Elsa was assaulted. Elsa is now in a coma in a hospital. This shocking crime has been all over the local news.

Jolene vehemently denies that she had anything to do with this crime. Jolene says that on the night of the assault, she was drunk and passed out in another room. Jolene also says there’s no way that she was so drunk that she could have blacked out and committed the crime. However, because Jolene was the one who found Elsa, and it’s common for attackers to pretend to be innocent witnesses, Jolene automatically comes under suspicion. With no other suspects, and because Jolene admits she was in the home during the attack, she is arrested.

Adrian and Evelyn become Jolene’s co-lead attorneys, but Adrian is the one who spends most of the time investigating, with help from junior attorney Kam Yuen Shan (played by Tse Kwan Ho). At first, Adrian doesn’t know what to think about Jolene’s guilt or innocence. But the more he interviews her and the more looks at some of the evidence, the more he is convinced that someone else committed the crime.

And where is Elsa’s father during this family crisis? Jolene says that Elsa’s father left her when he found out that Jolene was pregnant, and he was never invovled with raising EIsa. I’s already revealed in the trailer for “A Guilty Conscience” trailer that Elsa tells Adrian that Elsa has been having an affair with a married man named Dr. Desmond Chung (played by Adam Pak), who married into a wealthy and powerful family.

Desmond’s wife is the aloof and glamorous Victoria Chung (played by Fish Liew), who is close to her mother Madam Chung (played by Alannah Ong), domineering matriarch who is obsessed with the family having the right image. Also part of this clan is Victoria’s uncle James Tung (played by Michael Wong), an attorney who helps the family with legal matters, such as administering trust funds.

Jolene’s case gets a serious damage when a witness named neighbor named Ball Chan (played by Mak Tze Wan) testifies in court that on the night of the assault on Elsa, he was patrolling the area to do a neighborhood safety check. He says that he saw Jolene in her house, and she was struggling with a small person near a sliding glass door facing the street. The timeline matches the time that Elsa was attacked.

The case takes another turn when Elsa wakes up from her coma. Adrian and Kam rush to the hospital to interview Elsa and ask if her mother was the one who assaulted her. Through sign language, Else says no, it was someone else, but she can’t describe the person because Elsa didn’t get a good look at the attacker. Shortly after making this victim statement, tragedy strikes: Elsa falls into a coma and dies. Jolene is now charged with voluntary manslaughter.

“A Guilty Conscience” has some plot developments that are very easy to predict, but there are also a few twists that that make this a very engaging thriller. In addition to the investigation, the movie’s courtroom scenes stand out because of Adrian’s very dramatic style and sarcastic jokes that sometimes get him in trouble with the judge. You can see some “Perry Mason” influences in this movie from how Adrian’s questions in court are also part of the investigation, as evidence is still being uncovered during the trial.

Dayo Wong, an entertainer who’s known for being a stand-up comedian, brings a lot of comedic flair to his performance as Adrian. And balancing the comedy with the drama is not an easy thing to do in a movie that has the serious subject of parent on trial for killing a child. Adrian’s frequent outbursts are meant to be comic relief in the movie. In real life, much of it wouldn’t be as funny.

Most scripted movies about criminal cases will portray defense attorneys in one of two extremes: as crusading and saintly do-gooders, or as sleazy lowlifes who will do anything to get their guilty clients acquitted. Adrian is neither. He can be pompous and self-righteous in his search of justice for disadvantaged people he thinks has the system rigged against them. But he also has a nasty temper and can be very unprofessional inside and outside the courtroom.

And although he is compassionate with Jolene, there are signs that Adrian has some sexism toward his female colleagues. During the course of this case, he has to come to terms with his narrow-minded views about is female work colleagues who are in a position of authority. During this case, Adrian starts of thinking that he knows everything, but is then humbled to find out that he has a lot more to learn.

Louise Wong’s portrayal of Jolene is heartbreaking and a little melodramatic, but viewers will feel Jolene’s anguish of grieving over Elsa’s death and being locked up in jail for this crime that Jolene swears she didn’t commit. Yeung is quite good in her underdeveloped role as Evelyn, who is often overshadowed by Adrian and his controlling and showoff ways. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles.

“A Guilty Conscience” is more than a courtroom drama. It’s an exploration of how gender dynamics affect people’s egos and interactions in the workplace. It’s also an astute observation of how social class can affect people’s perceptions of a defendant in a criminal case.

Edko Films Ltd. released “A Guilty Conscience” in select U.S. cinemas on January 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Fancy Dance’ (2023), starring Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson

January 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Fancy Dance”

Directed by Erica Tremblay

Some language in Cayuga with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma, the dramatic film “Fancy Dance” features a cast of Native American and white characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with a troubled background comes up against obstacles in finding her missing sister, whose 13-year-old daughter could end up in the custody of the sisters’ estranged father. 

Culture Audience: “Fancy Dance” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally riveting movies about families coping with a missing loved one, and how issues of race and social class affect Native Americans in the United States.

“Fancy Dance” is a well-acted story of Native American culture and law enforcement’s treatment of cases involving missing Native American women, who are rarely the focus of narrative feature films. The relationships in the movie are depicted authentically. At a certain point in “Fancy Dance,” the movie’s last five minutes are easily predictable, but this last scene is handled with a mixture of sentiment and realism. Viewers who think the movie’s ending is too vague aren’t really paying attention, because there’s a certain inevitability to what will happen to the main characters. It’s just not explicitly shown in the movie.

Directed by Eric Tremblay (who co-wrote the “Fancy Dance” screenplay with Miciana Alise), “Fancy Dance” takes place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma (where the movie was filmed on location), and centers mostly on working-class members of the Seneca Nation tribe of Native Americans. The movie has several examples of how ancient traditions in the Seneca Nation have survived but sometimes clash or are misunderstood by a modern American culture dominated by white people. “Fancy Dance” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

At the beginning of “Fancy Dance,” viewers see Jax Goodiron (played by Lily Gladstone) working in tandem with her 13-year-old niece Roki Goodiron (played by Isabel Deroy-Olson) to steal some items from a middle-aged man who’s fishing by himself in a local creek. Jax, who is in her 30s, distracts the man by pretending to cool off with some water in the creek. She takes her top off to reveal her bra, because she knows that the man will be distracted by looking at her.

While the fisherman is ogling Jax in a voyeuristic manner, Roki sneaks up from behind and rifles through his belongings that are in a duffel bag in a nearby grassy area. Roki steals the man’s wallet, his car keys and some other items. After Jax finishes her contrived “bath,” she and Roki steal the man’s car to go to a grungy convenience store, which is an unofficial pawn shop. The store is operated by a scruffy dealer named Boo (played by Blayne Allen), who also sells illegal drugs out of the shop. After some bargaining, Jax and Roki sell a gold wedding band to Boo for $350.

At this convenience store, Roki sadly glances at a posted flyer for a missing woman named Wadatwai “Tawi” Goodiron, who is Roki’s single mother. (Roki’s father, who is briefly mentioned with contempt in the movie, abandoned the family and is not involved in raising her.) Viewers soon find out that Jax, Tawi and Roki all live together in a modest house on a Seneca Nation reservation.

Jax has a sullen, jaded attitude, but she has a soft spot for Roki, whom she treats as if Roki were her own daughter. Roki is inquisitive and has an upbeat personality. However, Roki is not so innocent, because she’s a willing accomplice in the thefts that Jax instigates, and Roki does some shoplifting on her own.

Tawi disappeared two weeks ago without any clues of where she went. Roki and Tawi are scheduled to appear at an upcoming powwow, where they are the reigning champs of a traditional mother/daughter dance. Jax has been keeping Roki’s hopes up that Tawi, who has never missed this powwow with Roki, will come home soon. But is this expectation realistic or false hope?

Tawi works as a dancer at a strip club called Tail Feathers, so it’s possible that she could have run into some sleazy people through her job and met with foul play. Jax is romantically involved with a dancer at the strip club named Sapphire (played by Crystle Lightning), who is also worried about where Tawi is, but Sapphire doesn’t know what happened to Tawi. Jax and Tawi have an older brother named JJ (played by Ryan Begay), a local police officer who hangs out at the strip club in his spare time.

Later, viewers soon find out that Jax is no stranger to felonious criminal activities. She spent time in prison for drug trafficking, although the movie doesn’t say how long her prison sentence was or how long ago it happened. Based on the crimes that Jax commits in the movie’s opening scene and later in “Fancy Dance,” she’s having a hard time “going straight” as a law-abiding citizen.

The disappearance of Tawi is the catalyst for almost everything that happens in the story. Law enforcement officials don’t take the disappearance very seriously, so Jax decides to investigate on her own. It’s implied that because Tawi is Native American and a stripper, authorities don’t really care about investigating her disappearance.

Tawi is a resident of a Native American reservation on federal land, so her disappearance falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI, which has sent an agent with the last name Morris (played by Jason Alan Smith) to investigate. Agent Morris makes it obvious to the family that this missing person case is a low priority. Jax asks some of the shady characters who might know what happened to Tawi, but Jax also gets a hostile or indifferent reaction.

Things get more complicated when the Goodiron siblings’ estranged father Frank Harris (played by Shea Whigham) shows up unannounced with his wife Nancy (played by Audrey Wasilewski), to check in on how Roki is doing. Frank is also a local police officer, who uses his law-enforcement connections later in the movie for other reasons. This fractured family has a lot of resentment and hard feelings that go back several years.

Frank was married to the mother of JJ, Jax and Tawi. After the mother died, Frank “ran off” with Nancy, according to what Jax says in a bitter argument with Frank. JJ seems to have forgiven Frank, but Jax and Tawi have not been as understanding. In fact, Tawi was no longer on speaking terms with Frank at the time that Tawi disappeared. Frank and Nancy are both white, so there are racial implications to how Frank and Nancy lead separate lives from the Native American side of Frank’s family.

Nancy is verbally pleasant but socially awkward with her stepfamily. In a scene demonstrating the racial tensions and cultural divide, Nancy makes ignorant remarks about the upcoming powwow. She calls the powwow regalia a “costume” and thinks of the powwow as some kind of “theater” event where people dress up like actors, instead of trying to understand that a powwow is a tradition that honors a tribe’s culture. It’s also an event where people are encouraged to be themselves. In other words, it’s not like a Halloween party where people dress up in costumed disguises.

When Nancy hears that Roki and Tawi are supposed to participate in a mother/dance at the powwow, Nancy gives a pair of Nancy’s old ballet slippers as a gift to Tawi to wear at the powwow dance. “Fancy Dance” isn’t subtle at all in showing that Nancy is somewhat dismissive of this Native American tradition and would rather impose the white, Eurocentric cultural ways that Nancy is used to living. Roki politely thanks Nancy for the gift, Roki but says that she has no interest in ballet. This misguided gift also shows Nancy’s ignorance or denial that ballet lessons cost the type of money that Roki and her mother obviously don’t have.

“Fancy Dance” has other examples of how Native Americans are treated differently by people in a culture that enables and encourages white supremacist racism. However, the movie doesn’t let Jax and Roki off the hook for some of the risky and illegal things that they do that cause more trouble for themselves. It’s enough to say that the search for Tawi gets more dangerous and complicated.

Jax’s competence as a temporary guardian for Roki also gets questioned because of Jax’s criminal record. Officials from child protective services get involved. Child custody arrangements could result in Frank and Nancy getting permanent custody of Roki if Tawi remains missing. Jax doesn’t want Frank and Nancy to raise Roki, because the spouses barely know Roki, and Roki will be forced to live away from her Native American culture on the reservation. Jax also doesn’t trust Frank, and she thinks that Frank and Nancy won’t be able to properly teach Roki about Native American culture.

What makes “Fancy Dance” such a compelling story is how the principal cast members are able to embody these characters in ways that look entirely natural—not staged, over-rehearsed or forced. The scenes and conversations flow with fluctuating energy that effectively convey what each character might be thinking or feeling, instead of putting too much emphasis on just the perspective of Jax, the lead character.

Still, Gladstone’s complex performance Jax is the heart and soul of the movie. Jax is caught between the seedy world of her criminal activities and the straight-laced life that she has to live if she wants to prove that she’s fit to be Roki’s legal guardian, in case Tawi remains missing. Jax has a combination of cockiness and self-loathing that sometimes makes Jax her own worst enemy.

However, there’s a seething, underlying anger to what Jax does, because she’s so frequently misjudged because of her race and social class. Her attitude seems to be, “People already think I’m a criminal. I might as well be who they think I am.” Even when Jax isn’t doing anything wrong, she is still treated as “inferior” or “suspicious” by certain people.

Roki is keenly observant of what goes on around her, and Deroy-Olson portrays Roki with a skillful blend of child-like optimism and adult cynicism. Viewers of “Fancy Dance” will feel some emotional investment or concern about how Roki is growing up, and who she might be when she’s an adult, considering her chaotic life so far. Is Roki better off living with Jax or with Frank and Nancy? The movie doesn’t offer easy answers—just like the lives of the main characters and people in real life who exist in the margins of degradation and turmoil, and they have a hard time getting out.

Review: ‘Hong Kong Family,’ starring Teresa Mo, Tse Kwan-Ho, Edan Liu, Hedwig Tam, Angela Yuen and Anson Lo

January 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tse Kwan-Ho, Hedwig Tam, Leung Cho Yiu, Teresa Mo, Fung So Bar, Luk Sze Wong and Edan Lui in “Hong Kong Family” (Photo courtesy of Edko Films Ltd.)

“Hong Kong Family”

Directed by Eric Tsang

Cantonese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hong Kong, the dramatic film “Hong Kong Family” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During a winter solstice family dinner, a violent fight tears the family apart, and eight years later, a visiting relative hopes to bring the estranged family members back together for another winter solstice dinner.

Culture Audience: “Hong Kong Family” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in capably acted dramas about family relationship problems, even if some of these issues have been presented in similar ways in much better movies.

Teresa Mo and Angela Yuen in “Hong Kong Family” (Photo courtesy of Edko Films Ltd.)

Sometimes realistic, sometimes overly melodramatic, “Hong Kong Family” is saved from an uneven story by good acting from most of the cast members. It’s yet another movie about family members who gather for a holiday meal, start arguing, and then let resentments fester for a long time. The big question these types of movies usually have is: “Will the feuding family members reconcile?” “Hong Kong Family” has an authentic-looking portrayal for the way the movie answers this question. Viewers will have to wait until the end of the movie to find out if there is any reconciliation.

Directed by Eric Tsang (who co-wrote the “Hong Kong Family” screenplay with Shiu-Wa Lou and Leung Chuen Yeung), “Hong Kong Family” begins with a Hong Kong family of four driving in a car to a grandmother’s house for a family gathering to celebrate winter solstice. During this drive, tension is brewing between the two spouses. Outspoken wife Ling (played by Teresa Mo), who works as a housecleaner, is complaining because her mild-mannered husband Chun (played by Tse Kwan-Ho), who’s a taxi driver by trade, is currently unemployed.

Ling gripes about being the family’s sole source of income: “Don’t just depend on me.” Chun suggests that they sell their apartment for which they still have a mortgage, but this idea gets Ling even more agitated. Finally, to get Ling to calm down, Chun says that he has an upcoming job interview. Also in the car are this couple’s children: 20-year-old daughter Ki (played by Hedwig Tam) and son Yeung (played by Edan Liu), who’s about 17 or 18.

The family is driving to the house of Ling’s mother (played by Fung So Bar), who does not have a name in the movie. Also at this family gathering are Ling’s brother Ming (played by Leung Cho Yiu) and Ming’s wife Samantha (played by Luk Sze Wong). Ming’s mother dislikes Samantha so much, she won’t call Samantha by her first name and will only call her “that woman.” Ming and Samantha have an underage daughter, who is not at this family gathering, because Ming and Samantha won’t let Ming’s mother see this grandchild.

Not long after the family has gathered, the arguments start. Ming sees his mother furtively counting a hidden stash money in another room. Ming accuses her of counting the money because he thinks she’s suspicious that he stole cash from her. Ming’s mother denies it, but then she verbally lashes out at him because she gave money to Ming and Samantha for a start-up business that failed. Ming’s mother also has a lot of anger over not being able to see the daughter of Ming and Samantha.

After having a somewhat tense meal with the family, Ming eventually storms out of the house because his mother keeps calling Samantha “that woman,” after Ming tells his mother to stop doing that. And soon, two other members of the family will be leaving the house with bad feelings. One of them will stay away for eight years.

Ling and Chun are in a room together when Ling tells Chun that she wants a divorce. A stunned Chun has what can best be described as a meltdown that contradicts his usually easygoing personality. At first Chun, who doesn’t want to get divorced, tries to reason with Ling. When she says she won’t change her mind, he becomes infuriated, takes a knife and waves it in her face in a threatening manner as he yells at her.

Yeung hears the commotion and bursts into the room. He tries to defend and protect his mother. Chun and Yeung get into a scuffle that ends when Chun slaps Yeung hard in the face. A terrified Ling and Yeung then run way from the house.

The movie then fast-forwards eight years later. Chun and Ling are still married but are very emotionally distant from each other. It’s then revealed that after the violent fight with his father, Yeung immediately moved out of his parents’ apartment and has not been back to visit any family member’s home for the past eight years. Yeung will occasionally talk to Ling and Ki, but Yeung refuses to speak to Chun.

Meanwhile, Ki is now divorced and has moved back in with her parents. Chun has gone back to being a taxi driver, while Ling is still a housecleaner. In a conversation that Ki has with a potential new boyfriend, Ki says that she got married in her early 20s to move out of her parents’ home, but the marriage lasted only two years. Ki is currently drifting with no real goals or plans for her life.

As for Yeung, he graduated from college, and he is now a developer for a technology start-up business that he founded with his talkative and hyper best friend Birdy (played by Anson Lo), who is the company’s only other employee. The two pals want their company’s specialty to be video games. However, Yeung has invented a virtual-reality experience where people wearing a headset can have two-way conversations with a hologram of anyone they want.

This invention is a clunky part of the story that isn’t explained very well and is sort of dropped into the movie like a science-fiction subplot. Yeung is still working out some bugs in the invention’s artificial intelligence, and he really doesn’t want this game to be made available to the public. Birdy disagrees and thinks this invention should be marketed as a fun game.

In private, Yeung tests out the invention to “talk” to someone and confess his true feelings. (You don’t need to be a genius to figure out who that someone is.) Meanwhile, Birdy and Yeung meet with a wealthy potential client: a famous video gamer, who uses the alias Brother Love (played by Chow Chi Fai). Brother Love has got some family heartache of his own.

Meanwhile, Ling has a niece in her 20s named Joy (played by Angela Yuen) who is visiting Ling and Chun from the United Kingdom. Joy’s widower father, who was Ling’s brother, has recently died. And so, Joy has come to Hong Kong to be with her closest living relatives. When Joy finds out why Yeung has stayed away from family gatherings for the past eight years, she becomes motivated to try to reunite Yeung with the family for the upcoming winter solstice dinner.

Ki has stayed out of the conflicts between her brother Leung and their parents, because she’s got issues of her own with their parents. Ki thinks Ling is overbearing, while Ki thinks Chun doesn’t express his feelings very well. At a train station, Ki meets a stranger from Malaysia named Norman (played by Wong Po Cheung), and they strike up a mildly flirtatious conversation. Norman is a drifter who sells decorative rocks on the streets. He says he collects these rocks from places where he has been.

Norman and Ki go their separate ways at the train station without exchanging contact information. However, Norman tells Ki that she can look him up on Instagram, which is how she finds out where Norman is selling his rock collection in Hong Kong. Ki surprises Norman with a visit while he’s selling on the street, and they begin a low-key romance.

Some of the scenes in “Hong Kong Family” work very well, such as anything involving the dynamics between Chun and Ling, or the estrangement of Chun and Yeung. Other scenes are lackluster, awkward or sometimes seem out of place. Some characters outside of the main family are also underdeveloped. And for an unexplained reason, Ming and Samantha are never seen or talked about again after that winter solstice family dinner near the beginning of the movie.

Some of the scenes that could have used better character development are when Ling cleans the home of her affluent brother-in-law LK (played by Cheung Max Tat-Lun), who has an adorable nephew named Jayden (played Wong Tsz Lo), who’s about 6 or 7 years old. Ling likes spending time with Jayden, but LK makes Ling uncomfortable. It’s probably because LK treats Ling more like a housekeeper than a family member. She also can’t help but be envious that LK is better-off financially than Ling and Chun. These financial issues continue to put a strain on the couple’s marriage.

“Hong Kong Family” has ebbs and flows in the storyline. Some of it has meaningful and well-performed emotional scenes. Other parts of the movie look like “filler” scenes. Seasoned actors Mo and Tse give the best performances as Ling and Chun, who feel trapped in a marriage where the passion and trust have died. “Hong Kong Family” also credibly shows how family feuds can drag on when there’s a lack of communication or miscommunication.

Will family member Joy be the catalyst for a possible reconciliation between Chun and Yeung? And what about all of Ling and Chun’s marital problems? What will happen to Ki’s budding romance with Norman? Don’t expect the movie to answer all of these questions, because some things are left to a viewer’s speculation. However, by the end of “Hong Kong Family,” viewers will get a better sense of how these family members deal with the past, who they want in their present lives, and what they hope the future will hold for them.

Edko Films Ltd. released “Hong Kong Family” in select U.S. cinemas on January 6, 2023. The movie was released in Hong Kong on November 24, 2022.

Review: ‘Missing’ (2023), starring Storm Reid, Joaquim de Almeida, Ken Leung, Amy Landecker, Daniel Henney and Nia Long

January 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Storm Reid and Megan Suri in “Missing” (Photo by Temma Hankin/Screen Gems)

“Missing” (2023)

Directed by Will Merrick and Nick Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2022, in the Los Angeles area and in Cartegena, Colombia, the dramatic film “Missing” (a spinoff of the 2018 film “Searching”) features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, Asian and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 18-year-old woman who lives in Van Nuys, California, goes on a frantic search (mostly on her computer and phone) to find out what happened to her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, who both disappeared during a vacation trip to Cartegena, Colombia.

Culture Audience: “Missing” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “Searching” and who are interested in fast-paced mystery thrillers.

Nia Long in “Missing” (Photo by Temma Hankin/Screen Gems)

“Missing” somewhat devolves into climactic scene clichés in the movie’s last 15 minutes. The rest of “Missing” is an absorbing and occasionally implausible twist-filled thriller about how technology can be used to solve mysteries. “Missing” is a spinoff movie of 2018’s “Searching” (about a father who uses computer technology to search for his missing teenage daughter), and “Missing” has some clever ideas and surprises that aren’t in “Searching.” However, the ending of “Missing” is a little too close to copying the ending of “Searching,” by playing too fast and loose with perceptions about the life or death of the missing person.

Will Merrick and Nick Johnson wrote and directed “Missing” (which is the feature-film directorial debut of Merrick and Johnson), after the duo served as editors of “Searching.” Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, who co-wrote “Searching,” are credited with the story concept for “Missing” and are two of the producers of “Missing.” Chaganty made his feature-film directorial debut with “Searching,” which showed most of the father’s investigation happening on various computer screens and smartphone screens.

“Missing” follows a similar format of having most of the investigation shown on computer screens and smartphone screens, but “Missing” flips the script of “Searching”: Instead of a parent looking for a teenage daughter, “Missing” has a teenage daughter looking for a parent. In the case of “Missing,” this daughter has no other family members who can help her in this search.

“Missing” begins by showing a family home video from April 13, 2008, during what will be the family’s last trip together. James Allen (played by Tim Griffin) is on a kitchen floor with a kitten and his daughter June Allen (played by Ava Lee), who’s about 4 yearsold and who has the nickname Junebug. It’s a lighthearted family moment until June’s mother (played by Nia Long) notices that James has gotten a nosebleed.

The movie then shows that someone is looking at this home video in 2022: June Allen (played by Storm Reid), who is now 18 years old. It’s June 2022, and June has been looking sadly at this video because her father died in 2008, and Father’s Day is coming up in less than two weeks. June lives with her overprotective mother Grace Allen in Van Nuys, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. June has recently graduated from high school, and she doesn’t have any big plans for the summer.

This year will be the first year that June won’t have Grace nearby on Father’s Day. That’s because Grace is going on a romantic vacation trip to Colombia with Grace’s fairly new boyfriend Kevin Lin (played by Ken Leung), who is the CEO of a start-up company called All-Brand Consulting. The movie later reveals that Kevin and Grace met through a dating app. June’s relationship with Kevin is emotionally distant, and he’s been making attempts to get her to accept him because he says he’s in love with Grace and expects to be in a long-term relationship with her..

June is looking forward to having the house to herself and no adult supervision during Grace and Kevin’s weeklong vacation in Cartegena, Colombia. June has been tasked with picking up Grace and Kevin from Los Angeles International Airport on June 20, 2022. Grace has left behind some spending money for June, who ignores Grace’s complaints that June’s voice mailbox is full and needs to be cleared. June sometimes gets frustrated or amused when her mother gets confused by how to use a smartphone, such as when Grace mixes up using FaceTime with using Suri.

Even though June is dependent on Grace for nearly every necessity in life, June is at an age where she resents being treated like a child. Grace has asked her close friend Heather Damore (played by Amy Landecker), who’s a well-meaning and inquisitive attorney, to check in on June while Grace is away. June, who doesn’t really care for Heather, says with annoyance: “Mom, I don’t need a babysitter!” June also gets very irritated when Grace calls her Junebug, because June thinks that she has outgrown this childhood nickname.

While her mother is away, June spends a lot of time partying with friends, including her best friend Veena (played by Megan Suri), who has bought alcohol by using money that June gave her from the amount that Grace left behind. Montages of photos on Kevin’s social media show that he and Grace are having a lot of fun in Colombia. When it comes time to pick up Grace and Kevin from the airport, June almost oversleeps.

June has let the house become a mess, so she quickly uses Taskrabbit (an app for temporary workers) to find a housecleaner to tidy up the house before Grace gets home. Taskrabbit is shown and talked about enough times in the movie, it’s a little bit of overload on brand placement. When Grace gets to the airport, Kevin and Grace aren’t there. Grace and Kevin also aren’t responding to any attempts to communicate with them.

Feeling worried and confused, June calls Hotel Poma Rosa, the place where Grace and Kevin were staying in Cartegena. Her concern turns to alarm when she finds out that Grace and Kevin were last seen leaving the hotel two days ago, but they left behind all of their belongings. June knows a little Spanish, but she is able to communicate better in Spanish by using Google Translate. The front-desk clerk who talks to June on the phone says that the hotel has video surveillance for the main front entrance, but after 48 hours, the video gets recorded over.

By now, Grace’s friend Heather and June’s friend Veena have joined in on the frantic search. Through her attorney connections, Heather has contacted the U.S. Embassy in Columbia to file a missing persons report. The FBI has assigned an agent named Elijah Park (played by Daniel Henney) to lead the investigation, but he warns June that the FBI doesn’t have jurisdiction for certain crimes in Colombia. First, the FBI has to find out if any crimes have been committed in this missing persons case.

The FBI can’t guarantee that someone can be sent in time to look at the hotel’s video surveillance footage. And so, June takes it upon herself to use Taskrabbit to find a local person in Cartegena to do it for her. She ends up hiring a compassionate and resourceful middle-aged man named Javi (played by Joaquim de Almeida), who becomes a valuable aide in many things that June asks him to do in the search. It’s explained in this “race against time” movie that June can’t go to Colombia herself because she’s finding out important things at such a rapid pace, getting on a plane to Colombia would slow down her investigation.

Much of June’s investigation involves Internet searches and video phone calls, but the tension is ramped up by quick-cutting editing, so that looking at all these computer screens doesn’t get boring for viewers of the movie. Just like in “Searching,” the more the protagonist investigates, the more information is revealed to expose certain secrets. “Missing” keeps viewers guessing until a certain point if Kevin is a victim of foul play, or if he had something to do with Grace’s disappearance. And just when it looks like the movie will go one way, it goes another way, until the last (very predictable) 15 minutes.

All of the cast members give watchable performances in “Missing,” with Reid offering a very realistic and empathetic portrayal of June. She carries the movie quite well in expressing the myriad of emotions and experiences that June has in the story. Most of the other characters in the movie are somewhat generic, except for enigmatic Kevin. Leung skillfully handles this role that viewers and some of the movie’s characters can’t quite figure out up until a turning point if Kevin is a “good guy” or “bad guy.”

“Missing” also credibly depicts the obstacles faced by a teenager looking for a loved one who’s disappeared, since some people don’t take June as seriously as they would if she were a much older adult. It’s why it looks very believable that tech-savvy June would want to take matters into her own hands instead of waiting for law enforcement officials who’ve already shown and told her that they’re very busy with other things. Even with June’s believable “take charge” attitude, there are still some hard-to-believe moments in “Missing,” which uses lot of the quick-cut editing to mask some very improbable occurrences that happen much quicker in the movie than they would happen in real life.

And woe to anyone watching this movie who’s computer-illiterate, because some of the computer terminology and functions in this movie will just be too confusing for people who aren’t familiar with the apps and gadgets shown in the movie. Conversely, “Missing” is so reliant on showing computer technology of 2022, this movie will eventually look very dated. (“Missing” also has inside references to “Searching,” including a scene where June watches a true crime show called “Un-Fiction,” which has an episode with recreations based on the case that was in “Searching.”) There’s nothing award-worthy about “Missing,” but it’s still very entertaining for anyone who wants to spend nearly two hours watching an intriguing mystery film.

Screen Gems released “Missing” in U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Vadh’ (2022), starring Sanjay Mishra and Neena Gupta

January 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Neena Gupta and Sanjay Mishra in “Vadh” (Photo courtesy of Yash Raj Films)

“Vadh”

Directed by Jaspal Singh Sandhu and Rajiv Barnwal

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Gwalior, India, the dramatic film “Vadh” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A retired schoolteacher and his wife, who are in heavy financial debt to a loan-shark thug threatening to kill them, become in involved in the murder of the thug. 

Culture Audience: “Vadh” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in crime dramas about murder cover-ups and don’t mind if the story is long-winded and disjointed.

Manav Vij in “Vadh” (Photo courtesy of Yash Raj Films)

“Vadh” has moments that can appeal to viewers interested in crime dramas, but the editing and storytellng for this overly long and tedious movie don’t quite come together in a cohesive way. The movie’s total running time is 170 minutes, when the story could have been told in a movie that is less than 120 minutes. Too many things about “Vadh” are repetitive. It’s also fairly easy to predict how the movie is going to end.

Written and directed by Jaspal Singh Sandhu and Rajiv Barnwal, “Vadh” (which means “slaughter” in Hindi) takes place in Gwalior, India, where retired schoolteacher Shambhunath Mishra (played by Sanjay Mishra) and his wife Manju Mishra (played by Neena Gupta) live quietly and modestly. Shambhunath and Manju have been married for 40 years, but trouble is brewing in this couple’s seemingly peaceful existence. Years ago, Shambhunath and Mishra borrowed a lot of money from a ruthless loan-shark thug named Prajapati Pandey (played by Saurabh Sachdeva), in order to send their only child Guddu (played by Diwakar Kumar) to college in the United States.

After graduating from college, Guddu decided to permanently reside in the U.S., where he lives with his wife and their baby daughter Erica. Guddu has a unnamed job where he earns enough money to easily pay back his parents for the college expenses, but Guddu doesn’t think of offering to repay his parents. Instead of being grateful to his parents, Guddu is arrogant and unappreciative.

Shambhunath and Manju are heartbroken that Guddu has a dismissive attitude toward them. Guddu also refuses to got to India visit his parents. In a video chat with Guddu (which Shambhunath and Manju have to do at an Internet cafe because they can’t afford Internet service at home), Guddu has this excuse for why he won’t visit his parents: “Do you know how expensive flights to India are?”

Meanwhile, Prajapati has gotten impatient with Shambhunath and Manju for taking years to pay off their debt to him. He starts making violent threats to the couple to demand payment in full, or else he says they will be tortured and killed. Fearing for their lives and desperate for money, Shambhunath and Manju beg Guddu to pay them back for some of the money that they spent on his college expenses. Guddu coldly refuses.

As already revealed in the “Vadh” trailer, after Prajapati assaults Shambhunath and does some other terrible things, Shambhunath brutally kills Prajapati. It’s a crime that Shambhunath and Manju cover up by dismembering the body and hiding everything. Shambhunath goes to the local police department and confesses to the crime, but the police deputy on duty—a buffoon named Sitaram Gadariya (played by Nadeem Khan)—doesn’t believe Shambhunath (who looks like a harmless old man) and doesn’t record the confession. Shambhunath goes home and thinks he’s gotten away with murder.

When chief police inspector Shakti Singh (played by Manav Vij) finds out about this confession, he’s infuriated and slaps Sitaram hard in the face. Inspector Singh then orders Sitaram to get Shambhunath back to the police station to record the confession. This time, Shambhunath denies knowing anything about Prajapat’s disappearance. And so begins a “cat and mouse” game between the police and the Mishra spouses.

One of the problems with “Vadh” is that the tone is so obvious in wanting the audience to root for Shambhunath and Manju. Therefore, every plot development seems too calculated to lead to a predictable conclusion. The acting in the movie also ranges from very good (Mishra gives a fairly credible performance) to mediocre (most of the cast) to downright awful (some of the cast members in supporting roles). The movie also tries to have some darkly comedic moments that just seem out of place with the rest of this grim story.

The scenes just drag on and on, with a lot of repetition. Inspector Singh is the type of generic police investigator that has been seen in countless other movies. Shambhunath and Manju made their problems worse, but they have a self-pitying attitude that gets very irritating after a while. “Vadh” tries to be a suspenseful film, but when the protagonists are presented from the beginning as elderly people who deserve sympathy just because they’re elderly and regardless of how many horrible things they do, there’s no suspense at all in how the movie is going to end.

Yash Raj Films released “Vadh” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘Vijayanand,’ starring Nihal, Anant Nag and Bharat Bopanna

January 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nihal and Bharat Bopanna in “Vijayanand” (Photo courtesy of VRL Film Productions)

“Vijayanand”

Directed by Rishika Sharma

Kannada, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India (mostly in the state of Karnataka), from 1969 to 2011, the dramatic film “Vijayanand” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Vijay Sankeshwar overcomes many obstacles, rivals and skeptics to become a successful entrepreneur and politician. 

Culture Audience: “Vijayanand” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in epic-styled biopics about business people and politicians, even if those biopics have exaggerated elements.

Nihal in “Vijayanand” (Photo courtesy of VRL Film Productions)

Based on a true story about how a family’s small business was turned into an empire, “Vijayanand” often looks like a glorified fairy tale and shameless promotion. However, this drama has enough realistic moments that can be entertaining and inspirational. It’s not just a story about success in business and politics. It’s also a story about fathers, sons, and the dreams they can pass on through generations.

Directed by Rishika Sharma, “Vijayanand” is a sweeping tale that takes place in India (mostly in the state of Karnataka), from 1969 to 2011. The movie (which is told in chronological order) clocks in at 159 minutes to make it look more like a saga than the average biopic. The story centers on real-life entrepreneur/politician Vijay Sankeshwar (played by Nihal) and his rise, fall and comeback in many areas of his life.

The movie protrays Vijay first defying expectations as businessman when his stern father B.G. Sankeshwar (played by Anant Nag) reacts with skepticism when Vijay has purchased a used, semi-automatic Victoria printing machine for the family’s printing press business. Vijay has inherited the business from B.G., but Vijay wants to radically revamp the business by pocket dictionaries and cookery books.

In order to buy the semi-automatic Victoria printing machine, Vijay had to take out loans totaling ₹80,000. B.G. thinks Vijay made a big mistake by going to this debt. Vijay disagrees and thinks it’s an investment. It should come to no surprise to viewers that Vijay made the right decision.

The movie depicts the courtship and marriage of Vijay and his wife, Lalitha Sankeshwar (played by Siri Prahlad), who got married in 1972. Also chronicled is the birth of their first child, a son named Anand Sankeshwar, who is portrayed as an adult by Bharat Bopanna. The adult Anand is also the movie’s narrator.

It should be noted that the real-life Anand is a producer for “Vijaynand,” which is distributed by Anand’s VRL Film Productions. Therefore, the movie is very biased, which explains why some parts look fabricated for the sake of making Vijay look like he’s got extraordinary physical strength. For example, in some parts of the film, Vijay turns into an amazing action hero in fight scenes with certain villains. These fight scene are overly staged and look very phony.

Shortly after Anand’s birth in 1976, Vijay took another big risk and announced that he was leaving the family printing business to his brothers because Vijay wanted to start a new business: truck transportation. The name of the new business would be Vijayanand, a combination of Vijay’s name and Anand’s name. And once again, Vijay takes on a huge amount of debt to launch this business.

Almost everyone in Vijay’s family—including his father B.G. and mother Chandramma (played by Vinaya Prasad), also known as Chandra—think he’s making another foolish mistake. And this time, B.G. tells Vijay that he won’t bail him out financially if Vijay can’t get out of debt and the business fails.

By 1983, Vijay expands into the grocery store business, by launching Hubli market. And he makes another big decision: He moves away from his parents and siblings to focus on this new business venture. But there are major setbacks, including public backlash against Vijaynand over labor issues, a devastating warehouse fire that injured about 45 people, and negative publicity from a newspaper owned by media mogul Rama Rao (played by Prakash Belawadi), who becomes a personal enemy of Vijay.

Vijay’s reinvention as a media mogul and a member of India’s parliament are also included in this biopic. Vijay also mentors Anand and grieves when his father B.G. passes away. “Vijayanand” chronicles the highs and lows of all these endeavors. The movie doesn’t really present Vijay as saintly (he can be stubborn and ruthless), but viewers will get the sense that the movie definitely left out a lot of unflattering details about how he conducted his business and personal life. Being this type of hugely ambitious workaholic can put a strain on family relationships, but those issues are barely acknolwedged in the movie.

Viewers who know in advance that “Vijayanand” is a movie financed by Anand Sankeshwar will have a better idea of what to expect from this biopic. The movie has a little something for everyone: drama, some comedy, action and musical numbers. At the very least, “Vijayanand” accomplishes its goal of presenting an engaging story with good acting in depicting persistence during tough challenges.

VRL Film Productions released “Vijayanand” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘Alice, Darling,’ starring Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Charlie Carrick and Wunmi Mosaku

January 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Anna Kendrick in “Alice, Darling” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Alice, Darling”

Directed by Mary Nighy

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, the dramatic film “Alice, Darling” features a predominantly white cast of people (with one black person and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who’s in an emotionally abusive relationship with a boyfriend comes to terms with the relationship when she goes on a secretive getaway vacation with her two closest female friends. 

Culture Audience: “Alice, Darling” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching psychological dramas about people in troubled relationships.

Wunmi Mosaku, Anna Kendrick and Kaniehtiio Horn in “Alice, Darling” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Alice, Darling” is a mostly compelling and realistic portrayal of the dysfunction and denial of being trapped in an emotional abusive relationship. Viewers should not expect much of a plot to this drama, which mostly presents a well-acted psychological portrait of how emotional abuse affects not only the target of the abuse but also the people closed to the abused person. The movie also offers incisive observations about how people can struggle with handling abuse that is not physical or not illegal. “Alice, Darling” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Mary Nighy and written by Alanna Francis, “Alice, Darling” begins by showing protagonist Alice (played by Anna Kendrick) seeming to be in an ideal, loving relationship with her live-in boyfriend Simon (played by Charlie Carrick), who is a painter artist. Alice is in her early-to-mid-30s, while Simon is 37. They both live in New York City. (“Alice, Darling” was actually filmed in Canada.)

It’s never stated what Alice does for a living. The only detail given in the movie is that she works for a company where she sometimes has to travel for business meetings. At one point in the movie, Simon tells Alice that he thinks that her job is beneath her and that she could do better than the job she currently has. But is Simon being helpful or hurtful with this criticism? The cracks eventually begin to show in their relationship.

Early on in the movie, Alice is shown meeting up with her two closest friends at a wine bar. Sophie (played by Wunmi Mosaku) is outgoing and sassy. Tess (played by Kaniehtiio Horn) is emotionally guarded and somewhat brooding. During their get-together, Sophie and Tess mildly tease Alice about their waiter (played by Ethan Mitchell) showing signs of being openly attracted to Alice.

Simon has asked Alice to invite Sophie and Tess to the opening of his most recent gallery exhibition. Even though Tess and Sophie said that they would both attend, only Sophie shows up. Alice is very upset by Tess not being there, but Sophie (who works at an unnamed non-profit group) tries to smooth things over, by saying that Tess sometimes “gets in her own head when she’s working.” It’s later revealed that Tess is an artist too, but she’s doing her work for free because it’s all the work she can get at the moment.

It’s eventually revealed that Tess does not like Simon at all, while Sophie is cordial with Simon and is trying to keep an open mind about him. Simon doesn’t care for Tess and Sophie, and he frequently tells Alice that she should end her friendships with them. Tess’ 30th birthday is coming up, so Sophie suggests that she, Tess and Alice celebrate by spending time at a cottage in upstate New York owned by Sophie’s parents, who will be out of town for a vacation.

Alice accepts the invitation, but she lies to Simon by saying that she’s going on a business trip. On the road trip to the cottage, the three pals stop at a convenience store, where Alice sees a missing person flyer for a young woman named Andrea Evans. This missing person case will affect Alice in ways she that she doesn’t expect.

While at the cottage, Alice is anxious and emotionally on edge, as Simon constantly calls her to check up on her. It reaches a point where Tess and Sophie take Alice’s phone away from Alice, who becomes increasingly agitated and paranoid that Simon will think she’s a horrible person for lying about where she was going on this trip. The rest of “Alice, Darling” shows what happens when Alice (as well as Tess and Sophie) can no longer ignore the problems in Alice’s relationship with Simon.

Several quick flashbacks of memories reveal what type of toxic relationship that Simon and Alice have. Simon seems to be a perfect gentleman in public, but he’s also deeply insecure and verbally abuses Alice in private. All of the cast members give realistic performances, but Kendrick has the most complicated role, and she handles it with admirable skill. The movie somewhat falters with a climactic scene that looks too staged. However, if anyone wants a better understanding of what emotional abuse looks like when it’s hiding in plain sight, “Alice, Darling” has a meaningful portrayal.

Lionsgate released “Alice, Darling” in Los Angeles on December 30, 2022. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas, exclusively at AMC Theatres, on January 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Anth the End,’ starring Divya Dutta, Mukul Dev, Dev Sharma, Samikssha Batnagar, Deepraj Rana, Arun Bakshi and Aman Dhaliwal

January 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Divya Dutta and Mukul Dev in “Anth the End” (Photo courtesy of Holy Basil Films)

“Anth the End”

Directed by K.S. Malhotra

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the dramatic film “Anth the End” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A serial killer escapes from prison and goes on a revenge mission against the person who got him arrested. 

Culture Audience: “Anth the End” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching ridiculous crime dramas where there is no suspense.

Dev Sharma and Samikssha Batnagar in “Anth the End” (Photo courtesy of Holy Basil Films)

As a mystery thriller, “Anth the End” is a shoddy mess with a “master of disguises” gimmick that fails to be convincing. The performances in the movie are also very substandard. The tone for “Anth the End” is too erratic to be taken seriously: Menacing murder scenes segue into giddy musical numbers, and vice versa. Bollywood movies are often known for putting song-and-dance scenes in all types of films, but these musical scenes look especially out-of-place in “Anth the End.”

Directed by K.S. Malhotra (who co-wrote the “Anth the End” screenplay with Hardev Singh), “Anth the End” (which takes place in an unnamed city in India) begins with serial killer Ranjeet (played by Deepraj Rana) escaping from prison by impersonating a doctor and killing the police security guard in a hospital room. Viewers find out early on in the movie that Ranjeet is a “master of disguises,” who can not only change his face but he can also change his height and body size to look like completely different people. He can turn himself into a tall, hulking brute named Vicky Sandhu (played by Mukul Dev), who uses at least one other alias.

It’s all just so unrealistic, but “Anth the End” does not have an explanation that is based in science-fiction or the supernatural as the reason why Ranjeet can go through these extreme chameleon-like transformations. Viewers are supposed to believe that Ranjeet is just a one-man visual effects team who can morph into these different physical appearances through unexplained skills. And when a vengeful serial killer breaks out of prison in an unimaginative movie like “Anth the End,” that can only mean one thing: The killer is going after the person who was chiefly responsible for his putting him in prison.

The person who is the main target of this vendetta is a fashion model named Simran (played by Samikssha Batnagar), who was a key witness in the case that sent Ranjeet to prison. Simran’s colleague is fashion photographer named Sumeet (played by Dev Sharma), also known as Samit, who is a formulaic “hero.” Simran and Sumeet also work with a model named Tarry (played by Aman Dhaliwal), who becomes a target by association. A generic, no-nonsense cop named Anarjeet Singh (played by Arun Bakshi) is the chief police investigator who’s lead the hunt to capture Ranjeet.

The news has gotten out about Ranjeet’s escape. Simran is already suspicious that somethig terrible is about to happen, because she tells Sumeet that a strange man recently barged into her home, but he ran off before he could be caught. Tarry is portrayed as a vain airhead who spends a lot of time bodybuilding in a gym.

To celebrate Simran’s birthday, Sumeet arranges a party for her at a nightclub. (It’s just this movie’s excuse to have a big song-and-dance numbers.) The festive mood is ruined when Ranjeet suddenly shows up at the party (in disguise, of course) and attacks Sumeet, who manages to fight off Ranjeet. As already shown in the movie’s trailer, Ranjeet gets away again, but not before Sumeet rips off Ranjeet’s disguise on his face to find out that Ranjeet is this mystery attacker. Everything this scene looks so fake, it’s almost laughable.

But the worst of the movie is yet to come. Ranjeet is looking for $100 million, he kidnaps someone for ransom, and something goes very wrong with the kidnapping. Ranjeet, in disguise as Vicky, then pretends to be a motorist who is stranded because of car trouble. As shown in the trailer for “Anth the End,” Ranjeet/Vicky sweet-talks his way into Sumeet’s house, where Sumeet’s wife Divya (played by Divya Dutta) is with their daughter Khushi, who’s about 5 or 6 years old.

You can easily guess what happens next: “Anth the End” turns into a stupid home-invasion movie. Everything is so badly staged and sloppily paced in “Anth the End,” absolutely none of it looks believable. Thankfully, this forgettable flop doesn’t make the mistake of dragging on for more than two hours (the movie’s total runtime is 106 minutes), but viewers looking for quality entertainment are better off looking anywhere other than at “Anth the End.”

Holy Basil Films released “Anth the End” in select U.S. cinemas on December 9, 2022. The movie was released in India on November 11, 2022.

Review: ‘Yaara Vey,’ starring Aleeze Nasser, Sami Khan, Faizan Khawaja, Jawed Sheikh, Marina Khan and Ali Sikander

January 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Aleeze Nasser and Sami Khan in “Yaara Vey” (Photo courtesy of Hum Films)

“Yaara Vey”

Directed by Manish Pawar

Urdu and Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Thailand and Dubai, the romantic drama film “Yaara Vey” features a predominantly Pakistani and Indian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A successful executive at a property-development company is torn between getting romantically involved with her ambitious co-worker or the aspiring restaurateur who is competing for the same land that her company wants. 

Culture Audience: “Yaara Vey” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching formulaic love stories in movies that are more than 150 minutes long.

Aleeze Nasser and Faizan Khawaja in “Yaara Vey” (Photo courtesy of Hum Films)

“Yaara Vey” is a tepid, long-winded movie made like a silly soap opera, with a predictable plot involving a love triangle and family secrets. The characters and dialogue fail to be interesting enough to justify the movie’s tedious run time of 157 minutes. “Yaara Vey” has good-looking main characters in scenic locations but they can’t distract from a flimsily constructed story.

Directed by Manish Pawar, “Yaara Vey” (which translates to “whose way” in Urdu) uses so many over-used clichés from romance-based dramas, it’s easy to predict within 15 minutes after the movie begins how everything is going to end. Too bad it takes such a painfully long time to get to that point. Mahwash Ajaz and Althea Kaushal wrote the bloated screenplay for “Yaara Vey,” which is made even worse by the movie’s clunky film editing.

“Yaara Vey,” which goes back and forth between Thailand and Dubai, begins in Thailand. It’s where an aspiring restaurateur in his 30s named Sameer Baig (played by Sami Khan) is awakened from a deep sleep by his assistant Sikander “Sikki” Raina (played by Ali Sikander), a stereotypical goofy sidekick to the leading man. It’s 10:30 a.m., and Sikki is waking up Sameer and scolding his boss for being late for an important business meeting that morning. Sameer was out partying the night before at a nightclub, so he’s feeling a little groggy and hungover.

The movie then abruptly introduces viewers to Sania Siddiqui (played by Aleeze Nasser), a hard-driving business executive at a property-development company in Dubai. An unidentified narrator describes Sania, who is in her 30s, as “impatient” and a “perfectionist.” She has a persistent suitor named Arman Syed (played by Faizan Khawaja), who is a fast-rising business star at the same company. Arman, who is close to the same age as Sania, is also a “perfectionist,” says the narrator. And even though Arman is an attractive, eligible bachelor who could have his pick of women, he has his sights set only on Sania.

Sania was raised in a single-parent household by her strong-willed mother Sonia “Soni” Siddiqui (played by played by Marina Khan), who told Sania that Sania’s father died before Sania was born. Soni is now a successful architect who is still very involved in her daughter’s life and wants a say in Sani’s choice of a future husband. Sania isn’t forceful about it, but she’s very opinionated and outspoken about who might be a good love match for Sania. Meanwhile, Sania does not want to be in her mother’s shadow and is focused on her own career.

Sania, Arman and some other co-workers have to travel from Dubai to Thailand for a business trip to look at the property where their company will be building a luxury resort called Dreamland Resort. Upon landing in Thailand and arriving at the airport, Sania is annoyed that her luggage hasn’t arrived yet. And then, Sameer accidentally runs into her at the airport and spills his coffee on her clothes. It’s a very unoriginal “meet cute” moment for these two strangers.

Sania is already in a bad mood, and she rudely calls Sameer a “moron” for this accident, even though he makes a profuse apology. When Sania gets to her hotel, she finds out that her room isn’t ready yet, so she has another minor hissy fit. And what a coincidence: Sameer is staying at the same hotel too. Sameer and Sania see each other in the lobby, where Sameer (who was recently dumped by his girlfriend of four years) is flirting with a hotel receptionist.

Sania is flustered and impatient over all these delays for her trip, so she doesn’t notice that she has dropped a book on the floor of the hotel lobby. An elderly man named Kabir (played by Jawed Sheikh), who’s also in the lobby, notices that she dropped the book and returns the book to Sania, who graciously thanks him. Kabir introduces himself and says that he’s a bookstore owner, and he invites her to visit his bookstore at any time. And what a coincidence: Kabir happens to know Sameer too, as Sania later finds out.

“Yaara Vey” has many contrived reasons from why Sameer and Sania keep seeing each other on this business trip. The biggest contrivance is revealed when Sania and Arman go to the property where Dreamland Resort will be built, and they find Sameer and Sikki there too, because Sameer says that he’s building his restaurant on the same property. The people on either side of this dispute end up arguing over contracts and who has the legal right to own the property.

It’s already revealed in the “Yaara Vey” trailer that there’s going to be a love triangle between Sameer, Sania and Arman. Unfortunately, the movie takes an awfully long time showing Sania not being able to make up her mind between these two suitors. Sania likes Arman’s compatible business ambitions and financial success, but Sameer is the one who makes her more comfortable and can make her laugh. It doesn’t take a genius to predict what will happen by the end of the movie.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot involving Kabir that the movie handles in a very sloppily filmed way. “Yaara Vey” is filled with too many mismatched, unevenly edited scenes. Some scenes that needed more explanation and context are abruptly cut in awkward transitions to the next scenes. Other scenes drag on for too long and are very repetitive.

All of the performances and dialogue in “Yaara Vey” range from mediocre to bad. There isn’t one single idea in this movie that is original. And yes, there’s a scene where someone rushes to the airport to catch up to someone getting on a plane, in order to reveal true feelings to that person before it’s too late. “Yaara Vey” isn’t the worst movie you could ever see, but it’s such a lazy and lengthy rehash of so many old clichés, everything ends up being a complete waste of time.

Hum Films released “Yaara Vey” in select U.S. cinemas and in Pakistan on December 2, 2022.

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