Review: ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter,’ starring Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince and Gil Birmingham

November 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Daisy Ridley in “The Marsh King’s Daughter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

“The Marsh King’s Daughter”

Directed by Neil Burger

Culture Representation: Taking place in Michigan, in 2002 and in 2022, the dramatic film “The Marsh King’s Daughter” (based on the 2017 novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Twenty years after her father was imprisoned for kidnapping her mother, a 30-year-old woman, who has tried to erase him from her life, finds out that her past has come back to haunt her when he breaks out of prison captivity to track her down.

Culture Audience: “The Marsh King’s Daughter” will appeal primarily to people who are don’t mind watching formulaic and ridiculous “women in peril” dramas.

Gil Birmingham and Daisy Ridley in “The Marsh King’s Daughter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

It’s ironic that much of “The Marsh King’s Daughter” takes place in a backwoods marsh area, because this entire movie is a soggy mess. It starts off as a monotonous drama and devolves into a series of silly action scenes that don’t look believable. There are no real surprises in this disappointing dud, except for the surprise that some viewers might feel about how “The Marsh King’s Daughter” get worse as the movie stumbles along to its very predictable conclusion.

Directed by Neil Burger, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is based on Karen Dionne’s 2017 novel of the same name. Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith co-wrote the unimpressive adapted screenplay for “The Marsh King’s Daughter.” It’s more of a series of plot checklists than an engaging story that flows well. The cast members, for the most part, just go through the motions in drab performances.

The tedious first third of the movie takes place in 2002, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where a reclusive family of three people are living “off the grid” in a remote wooded area near a marsh. Helena (played by Brooklynn Prince) is a 10-year-old who adores her father Jacob “Jake” Holbrook (played by Ben Mendelsohn), who teaches her the fundamentals of hunting and fishing. Jacob also has an unusual habit of giving underage Helena a tattoo every time she kills a specific animal.

Helena has a closer emotional bond with her father than she has with her mother Beth (played by Caren Pistorius), because Helena thinks that her mother is an uptight nag. “She’s always mad at me,” Helen complains to Jacob about Beth. From the beginning, it’s shown that Jacob is abusive to Beth.

Every time it looks like Beth wants to leave to go somewhere on her own, Jacob physically and roughly restrains her and prevents her from leaving. Helena witnesses some of this abuse, but she turns a blind eye to it because her father has convinced Helena that Beth deserves to be “disciplined.” Jacob is so manipulative, he has lied to Helena by saying Beth is trying to abandon them.

That’s why it should come as no surprise to “The Marsh King’s Daughter” viewers when it’s revealed that Jacob kidnapped Beth (whose last name is Ericson) about 12 years earlier and forced her to get pregnant. Helena was the result of this forced pregnancy. This secret isn’t revealed to Helena until something drastic happens.

By the end of the first third of the movie, Beth makes a daring escape with Helena, while Jacob is captured, convicted, and sentenced to several years in prison. Jacob murders an innocent ATV driver (played by Joshua Peace) during the escape of Beth and Helena. The media and law enforcement have given Jacob the nickname The Marsh King. None of this is spoiler information, since it’s already revealed in the trailer for “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” which gives away about 80% of the movie’s plot.

The middle and last sections “The Marsh King’s Daughter” take place in 2022. Helena (played by Daisy Ridley) is now a 30-year-old married mother, with the married surname Pelletier. Helena works in accounting at a local college. Beth is now deceased. It’s mentioned at one point in the movie that it took years for Helena and Beth to somewhat mend their relationship before Beth died.

Helena is deeply ashamed of who her father is, so she changed her own identity years ago. She has not told her businessman husband Stephen Pelletier (played by Garrett Hedlund) about her father and his sordid crimes. Instead, Helena has told Stephen that her father is dead. Helena and Stephen have one child together: an intuitive and curious daughter named Marigold (played by Joey Carson), who’s about 8 or 9 years old.

Helena’s world comes crashing down when Jacob escapes from being transported in a prison van and kills a few more people in the process. Jacob is determined to track down Helena, because in his warped mind, he thinks that he, Helena, and Marigold should live as a happy family in the marsh area where Helena spent much of her childhood.

Gil Birmingham has a thankless supporting role as an investigating police officer named Clark Bekkum, who was in love with Helena’s mother Beth. Clark and Beth never married, but Clark became like a stepfather figure to Helena when she was younger and when Jacob was in prison. Clark still wants to have that type of stepfather figure role in Helena’s life when Clark and Helena reconnect after not seeing each other for years. What happens to Clark in the movie is exactly what you think happens to Clark.

Mendolsohn has made a career out of playing movie villains, and he does more of the same posturing and sneering as “The Marsh King” serial killer Jacob in this tepid and uninspired drama. Ridley fails to convince during an abrupt transition when Helena goes from being a meek and introverted wife/mother to a badass action hero who thinks she doesn’t need law enforcement’s help in dealing with her dangerous father. There is so little suspense in how this story ends, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” simply exists as mindless mush.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “The Marsh King’s Daughter” in U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on November 21, 2023.

Review, ‘Our Father, the Devil,’ starring Babetida Sadjo, Souleymane Sy Savane, Jennifer Tchiakpe, Franck Saurel and Martine Amisse

November 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Souleymane Sy Savane and Babetida Sadjo in “Our Father, the Devil” (Photo courtesy of Cineverse/Fandor)

“Our Father, the Devil”

Directed by Ellie Foumbi

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Lucho, France, the dramatic film “Our Father, the Devil” features a cast of white and black characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A nursing home chef is disturbed when a Catholic priest is a visitor at her job, and she is convinced that he is the same person who caused trauma to her in her childhood. 

Culture Audience: “Our Father, the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful dramas about people with dark secrets.

Souleymane Sy Savane in “Our Father, the Devil” (Photo courtesy of Cineverse/Fandor)

“Our Father, the Devil” is a well-acted psychological drama that offers a fascinating portait of a woman’s complicated feelings about revenge, religion and redemption. The movie also explores issues regarding PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and long-term effects of childhood trauma. “Our Father, the Devil” is a slow-burn story that effectively shows how pent-up emotions can erupt in ways that lead to problematic consequences.

Writer/director Ellie Foumbi makes an assured feature-film directorial debut with “Our Father, the Devil,” which had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. The movie then made the rounds at several festivals in 2022 and 2023, including the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. In addition, “Our Father, the Devil” was nominated for Best Feature at the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

“Our Father, the Devil” takes place in Lucho, France, where protagonist Marie Cissé (played by Babetida Sadjo) is an African immigrant working as the head chef of nursing home. Marie, who is a bachelorette with no children, is very good at her job. Marie keeps mostly to herself and lives alone in a small apartment. Marie’s closest friend is a co-worker named Nadia Benoit (played by Jennifer Tchiakpe), who works as an orderly at the nursing home.

Nadia confides in Marie about her fertility issues. Nadia and her husband want to start a family, but Nadia hasn’t gotten pregnant. Nadia worried about her chances of getting pregnant after her husband will move out of the home for a long-distance job. Marie is a compassionate friend who comforts Nadia when Nadia gets emotional about these worries.

Marie’s boss is nursing home manager Sabine Leplanche (played by Maëlle Genet), who is demanding and shows hints of being xenophobic. In an early scene in the movie, Sabine goes in the nursing home’s kitchen to taste some of the food before it gets served to the residents. Sabine scolds the sous chef for making soup that is too spicy for Sabine’s taste. Sabine tells the sous chef in a condescending tone: “We’re not in Algeria,” Sabine comments. “The sous chef replies defiantly, “Good thing I’m French.”

One of the nursing home residents named Jeanne Guyot (played by Martine Amisse) has taken a liking to Marie, who has a good rapport with Jeanne. When Jeanne’s adult son Thomas Guyot (played by Maxence David) makes a rare visit to Jeanne at the nursing home, it’s obvious that mother and son have a tension-filled relationship. Later in the movie, Jeanne makes a confession explaining why she thinks she sees a lot of herself in Marie.

One day, Jeanne tells Marie that Nadia recently changed her will to cut Thomas out of any inheritance. Jeanne then surprises Marie by giving her the keys to Jeanne’s guest home, which is in remote wooded area. To Marie’s shock, Jeanne tells Marie that Jeanne has signed over the deed to the house to Marie. Jeanne insists that Marie accept this unexpected gift.

Marie seems comfortable around women, but she shows obvious discomfort and sometimes hostility in the company of men whom she thinks are giving her unwanted attention. An early scene in the movie shows Marie at a cafe, where a server named Arnaud Charpentier (played Franck Saurel) tries to flirt with her, but she’s standoffish and rebuffs his attempts to engage in a friendly conversation with her. Based on this brief and uncomfortable talk, Marie is a regular customer, and Arnaud has been noticing her for a while, because he knows what she likes to order.

Another scene shows just how “on edge” Marie is. She’s walking down a street by herself at night, when she notices a man walking behind her. She thinks this stranger is following her. And when he walks close enough to her, she pulls a knife on him. When Marie sees that the stranger means no harm, she quickly makes an apology. What would cause Marie to be so paranoid and combative?

The answer comes a little later in the movie, when a Catholic priest named Father Patrick (played by Souleymane Sy Savane) visits the nursing home to give a sermon. Marie looks like she’s seen a ghost when she first sees Father Patrick, who says he’s from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Marie goes to a computer and finds an article with the headline “Young Warlord ‘The Oracle’ Found Dead in a Bush.”

The sight of Father Patrick has unnerved Marie so much, she asks Sabine for a few days off, but Sabine declines the request because the nursing home is currently understaffed. In the nursing home’s cafeteria-styled dining area, Marie has to serve Father Patrick. Marie is visibly uncomfortable in his presence. Later, after the nursing home’s kitchen is closed, he goes to the kitchen to ask Marie if he can have more of the stew that he was served earlier. This conversation changes the course of the story.

Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that Marie is certain that Father Patrick is actually someone she used to know from her past. She thinks Father Patrick is someone who caused a lot of pain and trauma in her life. Father Patrick vehemently denies Marie’s accusations and insists that she has him mistaken for someone else.

There’s more to the story than this identity mystery. The truth is eventually revealed in a gut-wrenching emotional scene. Although all of the principal cast members give skilled performances, the movie’s emotional heart is in Sadjo’s riveting performance. For her role in “My Father, the Devil,” Sadjo was nominated for a 2023 Gotham Award for Outstanding Lead Performance. Foumbi’s absorbing writing and directing make viewers feel that they are right in the middle of the emotional journey that Marie goes on in the movie.

“Our Father, the Devil” raises provocative questions about how much people should be defined by past actions, how much people might be able to change, and how much trust can be put into people who might not be showing their true selves to others. Although some extreme things happen in the movie, “Our Father, the Devil” maintains a realism about it all that looks credible. This memorable film shows in intriguing ways how people judge themselves when they are judging others.

Cineverse and Fandor released “Our Father, the Devil” in New York City on August 25, 2023, and in Los Angeles on September 1, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 10, 2023.

Review: ‘Golda’ (2023), starring Helen Mirren, Camille Cottin and Liev Schreiber

November 18, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dvir Benedek, Lior Ashkenazi, Helen Mirren and Rami Heuberger in “Golda” (Photo by Sean Gleason/Blecker Street)

“Golda” (2023)

Directed by Guy Nattiv

Some language in Hebrew with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Israel, mostly in 1973, the dramatic film “Golda” (based on true events) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Israel prime minister Golda Meir deals with crises inside and outside her cabinet of quarreling subordinates during the 19-day Yom Kippur War while she secretly battles cancer (lymphoma). 

Culture Audience: “Golda” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Helen Mirren and history-based war dramas that play it too safe.

Helen Mirren and Liev Schreiber in “Golda” (Photo by Sean Gleason/Blecker Street)

“Golda” undercuts its intentions of being a gripping drama of Israeli leader Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War, by showing her as a mostly aloof politician making decisions in safe office rooms. Helen Mirren is not completely convincing as Meir. The movie did not have to be filmed like a documentary, but too much of this film has hokey and very fake-sunding dialogue and does very surface-level depictions of the horrors of this war.

Directed by Guy Nattiv and written by Nicholas Martin, “Golda” is mostly a series of tense meetings that Golda Meir (who was prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974) has with her all-male cabinet of subordinates and other politicians and bureaucrats during the 19-day Yom Kippur War in 1973. Through it all, she chain smokes, has occasional nightmares at home, and confides in her best friend/personal assistant Lou Kaddar (played by Camille Cottin), who was one of the few people who knew that Golda had cancerous lymphoma. (For the purposes of this review, the real Golda Meir will be referred to as Meir, while the Golda Meir character in the movie will be referred to as Golda.)

The movie begins in 1974, when Golda is being interviewed by a panel of five men during the Agranat National Commission of Inquiry in Jerusalem. She has to answer for her controversial decisions and actions during the Yom Kippur War, which started on October 6, 1973. Her attitude during this interrogation is defiant and defensive.

The war was also known as the October War, the Ramadan War, the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, and the Fourth Arab–Israeli War. Arab states (led by Egypt and Syria) tried to seize Israeli-occupied locations, with most of the fighting taking place at the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. In the end, Israeli was victorious, but it cost Meir her political career.

During the movie’s scene of Golda appearing before the Agranat National Commission of Inquiry panel, she explains her perspective of what happened during the Yom Kippur War. The rest of the movie is a flashback to that period of time in 1973. One of the problems with the way the story is told is that it gets distracted with a subplot about Israeli and Egyptian spies. A better movie would have stayed entirely focused on Golda’s perspective.

But even showing things from Golda’s perspective has some issues in this movie. She’s seen in places like boardrooms and control rooms, where she hears reports about the war and listens to conflicting advice about military strategy, but she doesn’t seem very interested in fully understanding the human costs of the war. It isn’t until one of her secretaries experiences a personal loss from the war that it starts to sink in with Golda that she’s been shielding herself from these realities of war for too long.

“Golda” will no doubt get some criticism for being a war movie that doesn’t show any combat scenes. On the one hand, it might be the filmmakers’ way of making a statement that prime ministers and other national leaders are far removed from the being in the trenches (so to speak) during war. On the other hand, it comes across as tone-deaf that the movie couldn’t even attempt to show more of what people on the frontlines of the war experienced. It’s also hard to believe the movie’s depiction of Golda being as sheltered as she is from witnessing the deadly consequences from her decisions.

Much of “Golda” is about her trying to navigate another war: the feuding between members of her cabinet. There were disagreements on military decisions, there were power struggles, and there were internal betrayals. The cabinet members who were at odds with each other included head of military intelligence Eli Zeira (played by Dvir Benedek), minister of defense Moshe Dayan (played by Rami Heuberger), and chief of staff David “Dado” Elazar (played by Lior Ashkenazi). All of the supporting cast members in the movie give capable but not outstanding performances.

“Golda” also has some underwhelming scenes of her interactions with Henry Kissinger (played by Liev Schreiber), who was a newly appointed secretary of state for the United States at the time. Henry was reluctant for the U.S. to get involved in the Yom Kippur War, while Golda was pressuring him to have the U.S. take a stand. Unfortunately, the way that “Golda” depicts her telling him about the war is with this trite comment when she talks to Henry on the phone: “We’ve got trouble with the neighbors again.”

Mirren certainly seems to be putting in an sincere effort to depict Meir with authenticity. However, the end result is that Mirren (who is British in real life) never quite embodies the Golda character in an entirely believable way and lets the makeup and costumes do a lot of the acting. Much of the dialogue also sounds very phony and overly simplistic.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about “Golda” is that by the end of the movie, viewers will feel like they will know about her military decisions during this war but haven’t learned much about Golda as a person. The tone of the film is a repeat loop of “and this happened, and then Golda did this, and then this happened.” This formula quickly becomes very monotonous.

There’s a scene in the movie when Golda tells Lou to let her know if she ever sees Golda showing the slightest sign of dementia. “You will tell me,” Golda says. “I can’t trust the flatterers.” The same can be said of anyone who over-praises this mediocre movie as anything but what it is: a very surface-level and often dull film where Mirren’s talent is squandered in doing a Golda Meir impersonation, not a Golda Meir revelation.

Bleecker Street released “Golda” in U.S. cinemas on August 25, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on September 19, 2023. “Golda” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on October 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Saltburn,’ starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver and Archie Madekwe

November 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Barry Keoghan in “Saltburn” (Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)


Directed by Emerald Fennell

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, mostly in 2006, the comedy/drama film “Saltburn” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A mysterious Oxford University student becomes infatuated with his rich male classmate, who invites him to spend the summer with him at his family’s sprawling estate, where mind games and chaos ensue. 

Culture Audience: “Saltburn” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and movies that skewer the upper class of society.

Jacob Elordi in “Saltburn” (Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

“Saltburn” seems inspired by “Brideshead Revisited” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with a touch of “Absolutely Fabulous. “Although not as great as these inspirations, “Saltburn” has memorable performances and eye-catching scenes. The ending has a major plot hole. This plot hole might be easily overlooked during the sequence of events that are meant to shock viewers, but it’s a plot hole that nearly ruins what could have been a completely believable conclusion. Hint: “Saltburn” ignores the fact that coroners exist.

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, “Saltburn” is her second feature film as a writer/director, following her 2020 feature-film directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman,” which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. “Saltburn” has many recycled plot points from other movies, so “Saltburn” is not really all that original, but it does have some scenes that are fairly unique. “Saltburn” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival.

“Saltburn” (which takes place mostly in 2006) begins by showing the arrival of a new student at Oxford University in England: Oliver Quick (played by Barry Keoghan) has joined the graduating Class of 2006 sometime in December 2005, close to the Christmas holiday season. Oliver is a loner who is the type of overachieving student who will read every book on a professor’s recommended list, even though he doesn’t have to do all that work.

One of the first people Oliver meets at Oxford is one of his roommates: Michael Gavey (played by Ewan Mitchell), who wants to be Oliver’s friend and is even nerdier and more socially awkward than Oliver is. Michael is the type of dork who will bark out demands that Oliver prove his knowledge of answers to random questions that Michael verbally throws at him. Michael likes to feel intellectually superior to almost everyone, even though he secretly craves acceptance from the popular students in the school.

The most popular clique in the class is led by a wealthy heartthrob named Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi), who uses his good looks and charm to get whatever he wants. The Catton family’s opulent and sprawling estate is called Saltburn. The other students in Felix’s clique are also affluent and/or come from prominent families.

The opening scene of “Saltburn” shows Oliver saying, “I wasn’t in love with him. I loved him, of course, Everyone loved him … I protected him … But was I in love with him?” Before he answers that question, the movie shows Oliver’s arrival at Oxford.

The “him” in Oliver’s opening monologue is Felix, of course. Oliver seems instantly infatuated with Felix the moment that he sees Felix. Oliver admires Felix from afar, until one day, Oliver is riding his bike on campus, when he sees Felix looking dejected as Felix is sitting near a tree-lined bikeway path. Oliver stops and asks Felix what’s wrong. Felix says that his bicycle has a flat tire.

Felix explains that he’s already late for a class, which is too far away for him to walk in order not to miss most of the class session. Oliver generously lets Felix borrow Oliver’s bike. A grateful Felix later invites Oliver to hang out with Felix and his inner circle at a local pub. It’s the beginning of a friendship between Felix and Oliver, who quickly shuns Michael after Oliver is accepted into Felix’s clique. Michael isn’t too happy about this rejection and later makes some hilarious cutting remarks to Oliver about Oliver’s social climbing.

Someone who also isn’t happy about Oliver joining the group is Felix’s American cousin Farleigh Start (played by Archie Madekwe), who sees Oliver as a socially inferior interloper. Farleigh already had a grudge against Oliver, who embarrassed Farleigh in front of one of their teachers named Professor Ware (played Reece Shearsmith), when Oliver showed he knew more than Farleigh about the topic of discussion.

However, Farleigh still has some clout with the professor, who confesses that Farleigh’s mother (a famous actress named Fredrika Start, who’s never seen in the movie) was his crush when he and Fredrika were students at Oxford. People who watch “Saltburn” shouldn’t miss the first 15 minutes of the movie, which quickly explains the backstories of Farleigh and Oliver, who end up having a rivalry over Felix’s attention.

Farleigh’s mother moved to the United States, where Farleigh was born and raised. She had some kind of mental breakdown and has financial problems, so she sent Farleigh to live at Saltburn, because her brother is Sir James Catton (played by Richard E. Grant), who is Felix’s father. Farleigh’s father is not in Farleigh’s life. It’s mentioned Farleigh has been expelled from many schools for getting sexually involved with male teachers. Farleigh feels a lot of resentment and shame for having to ask his uncle James for money.

As for Oliver, the word has gotten around to many students at the school that he’s on a scholarship. Oliver tells people that he is an only child, and his estranged parents are heavily involved in drugs. According to Oliver, his father is a drug dealer who’s been in and out of prison. His mother is a drug addict and an alcoholic. Oliver hints that he experienced a lot of abuse and trauma in his childhood. Oliver makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with his parents.

“Saltburn” breezes by the academic year to show the graduation of Oxford’s Class of 2006. With no immediate plans after graduation, Felix invites Oliver to stay for the summer with the Catton family at Saltburn. The best parts of the movie take place at Saltburn, which is not only a playground for the family’s indulgences but also a prison of bottled-up resentments, sexual manipulation, and psychological warfare. Oliver gets swept up in it all.

The other members of the Catton family at Saltburn are Felix’s self-centered and vapid mother Elspeth Catton (played by Rosamund Pike) and Felix’s jaded and insecure late-teens sister Venetia Catton (played by Alison Oliver), who have some of the best lines in the movie. Elspeth is the type of person who will smile and pretend that her insults are compliments. Venetia, who has an eating disorder, is both rebellious and needy.

All of the Catton family members don’t do much at Saltburn except smoke, drink, eat lavish meals, lounge around, and have parties. When the younger members of the family play tennis, they wear tuxedos and party clothes. The family has a longtime butler named Duncan (played by Paul Rhys), whose “stiff upper lip” mannerisms suggest that he’s heard and seen a lot of unmentionable things at Saltburn, but he is loyally discreet.

Carey Mulligan (the star of “Promising Young Woman”) has a small supporting role in “Saltburn” as Elspeth’s tattooed friend Pamela, who is staying at Saltburn after getting out of drug rehab. Pamela has overstayed her welcome, but Elspeth won’t come right out and tell Pamela to leave. The snappy rapport between redhead Pamela and blonde Elspeth will remind “Absolutely Fabulous” sitcom fans of the rapport between “Absolutely Fabulous” substance-abusing fashionista friends Edina “Eddie” Monsoon (the redhead) and Patricia “Patsy” Stone (the blonde).

“Saltburn” unpeels the layers of Oliver, who at first seems in awe and somewhat overwhelmed to be in the presence of the Catton family’s wealth. Slowly but surely, it’s revealed that there’s a lot more to Oliver than what he first appeared to be. And there are some things he does in the movie (especially those involving bodily fluids) that are intended to make viewers uncomfortable.

Keoghan gives a fascinating performance as Oliver, who is quite the chameleon. Madekwe is compelling in his depiction of the very snarky Farleigh, Oliver’s main adversary. Pike and Oliver are also standouts for their portrayals of a mother and daughter who are caught between smug vanity and crippling self-doubt. Look beneath the physically attractive surfaces of Elspeth and Venetia, and you’ll see two women who hate that their worth is defined by how they look and how much wealth they have.

Elordi is also quite good in his role as Felix, who is shallow but is a less-toxic member of the Catton family. “Saltburn” plays with viewers’ expectations of whether or not ladies’ man Felix will acknowledge Oliver’s obvious infatuation with Felix. And if so, what will be done about it? And what if Oliver gets rejected?

“Saltburn” has some stunning cinematography (by Linus Sandgren) that alternates between bright hues of idyllic luxury and the shadowy darkness of secrets and decadence. The movie’s production design and costume design are also noteworthy. “Saltburn” has some intense emotional scenes that are well-acted with clever dialogue.

Where “Saltburn” stumbles the most is in the last 20 minutes of the movie, which will be divisive to viewers. The concluding part of “Saltburn” is very suspenseful, but when answers to mysteries are finally revealed, they are rushed through the story and just create more questions that the movie never bothers to answer. Still, there’s no denying that the cast members’ performances are worth watching. And the movie’s flaws are outnumbered by the areas where “Saltburn” excels.

Amazon MGM Studios released “Saltburn” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Napoleon’ (2023), starring Joaquin Phoenix

November 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Joaquin Phoenix in “Napoleon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Columbia Pictures)

“Napoleon” (2023)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place in various countries in Europe from 1789 to 1815, the dramatic film “Napoleon” (a biopic of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Napoleon Bonaparte rises from humble beginnings to become emperor of France, but his life is plagued by power struggles, marital problems, and deep insecurities. 

Culture Audience: “Napoleon” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Joaquin Phoenix, director Ridley Scott and history-influenced war movies that put more importance on battlefield scenes than crafting compelling stories.

Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in “Napoleon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Columbia Pictures)

The long-winded “Napoleon” is a film that acts as if epic battle scenes are enough to make a great war movie. Overrated director Ridley Scott continues his awful tendency of shaming female sexuality more than male sexuality. Napoleon has an American accent. Historical inaccuracies aside—and there are plenty of these inaccuracies in the movie—”Napoleon” (which clocks in at a too-long 158 minutes) is ultimately a very superficial film that is more style than substance.

Although people can agree that “Napoleon” star Joaquin Phoenix is a very talented actor, there’s no legitimate reason for why he has an American accent in portraying a well-known French leader such as Napoleon Bonaparte, when all the other “Napoleon” cast members portraying French people do not have American accents. (They have British accents.) It wouldn’t have been that hard for “Napoleon” director Scott to require Phoenix to not have this phony-sounding and distracting American accent in this movie and instead have Phoenix be consistent with the other cast members’ accents for those portraying French people. It’s just lazy filmmaking, albeit on a very big budget for this overpriced film.

“Napoleon” takes place from 1789 to 1815. He was emperor of France from 1804 to 1814 and part of 1815. Napoleon died in 1821, at the age of 51. The movie has some moments of unexpected comedy, but a lot of that comedy is unintentional. Many lines of dialogue in the uneven “Napoleon” screenplay (written by David Scarpa) are so cringeworthy, they’re funny—as in, viewers will laugh at the dialogue, not laugh with it. The relationships in the movie are presented as very shallow, with poorly written conversations as flimsy substitutes for what are supposed to be meaningful emotional bonds.

As an example of the type of junk that viewers have to sit through when watching “Napoleon,” there’s a scene where quarrelling spouses Napoleon and Josephine (played by Vanessa Kirby) have one of their many arguments during a meal at a dinner party in their palatial home. Josephine calls Napoleon “fat” in front of their guests. Napoleon replies, “I enjoy my meals. Destiny has brought me here. Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!”

Napoleon’s courtship and subsequent marriage to Josephine are portrayed as fueled primarily by lust on his part (and his desire for her to give birth to a male heir) and desperate gold digging and social climbing on her part. Napoleon met Josephine after she was released from prison and essentially destitute. Napoleon gets Josephine’s attention when he sees her playing cards at a dingy nightclub and stares at her like a stalker. Their relationship in the movie consists of a few robotic-like sex scenes and more scenes of them having a dysfunctional and twisted rapport of insulting each other.

“Napoleon” makes it clear that petulant Napoleon and manipulative Josephine got some kind of sexual arousal from their war of words/verbal abuse, where each tried to assert control and dominance over the other. Very little is shown about how Josephine and Napoleon were as parents. Kirby and Phoenix give very capable performances, but neither performance rises to the level of outstanding, due to the substandard screenplay and the bloated direction for “Napoleon.”

Napoleon and Josephine were both admittedly unfaithful to each other during their marriage, but Josephine’s infidelities are repeatedly shown on screen, while Napoleon’s infidelities are not shown on screen and almost excused. The overwhelming sexist tone of this movie is that Napoleon deserved more sympathy for being cheated on, while Josephine is portrayed as a heartless “harlot” who deserved very little or no sympathy. It can’t be blamed on sexism in the 1700s and 1800s. “Napoleon” director Scott made the choices on what to show and what not to show in this movie.

Even though he is an unfaithful husband, Napoleon hypocritically thinks that he’s entitled to his infidelities, while Josephine gets no such entitlement. Napoleon’s jealousy goes beyond the norm and crosses the line into obsessive possessiveness. A scene in the movie shows Napoleon abruptly leaving his military duties on the battlefield to go home to Paris, to show Josephine that he “owns” her, after he hears that she has another lover. When Napoleon is later asked why he made such a sudden (and temporary) departure from his military command, Napoleon replies: “My wife is a slut.”

Napoleon was famous for his abrasive and cocky personality in real life. In this movie, Phoenix depicts not only that unlikeable side to Napoleon but also portrays Napoleon as an emotionally wounded man-child whose feelings get hurt if Josephine doesn’t act as if she’s a submissive wife who worships him. When Josephine doesn’t get pregnant as fast as he wants her to get pregnant, Napoleon blames her and acts personally offended that her body is not conceiving and delivering the heirs that he wants in the timetable he expects them to be born.

Napoleon’s family members are side characters who ultimately exist to react to his ego and whims. Napoleon’s younger brother Lucien Bonaparte (played by Matthew Needham) benefits from Napoleon’s political power. For a while, Lucien is Napoleon’s trusty sidekick, but then Lucien disappears for large chunks of the movie with no real explanation. Napoleon’s mother Letizia Bonaparte (played by Sinéad Cusack) was strong-willed and meddling in real life, but in this movie, she’s an underdeveloped and sidelined character.

“Napoleon” (which was filmed in Malta) becomes a repetitive slog of battle scenes on the field, his marital problems, and the occasional exile. It’s all formulaic at a certain point. Napoleon’s opponents and allies are nothing but hollow historical figures in this movie, which has admirable costume design and production design. Napoleon’s trusted political adviser Paul Barras (played by Tahar Rahim) has a hopelessly generic personality before he disappears from the story. British military commander Arthur Wellesley (played by Rupert Everett) has some of the most embarrassingly terrible lines in the movie.

Yes, the action scenes in “Napoleon” are visually impressive. But there are plenty of war movies with better action scenes. What happens in between those scenes are watchable moments at best and disappointing missed opportunities at worst.

Apple Studios and Columbia Pictures will release “Napoleon” in U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Waikiki’ (2023), starring Danielle Zalopany, Peter Shinkoda and Jason Quinn

November 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Danielle Zalopany in “Waikiki” (Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment)

“Waikiki” (2023)

Directed by Christopher Zalla

Some language in Hawaiian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, the dramatic film “Waikiki” features a predominantly Asian and white cast of characters (with a few Latin people and African Ameiricans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young homeless woman faces obstacles in trying get housing and a more stable life.

Culture Audience: “Waikiki” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching independent films that examine humanity in dire circumstances.

Nahinu Kalahiki and Claire Johnson in “Waikiki” (Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment)

“Waikiki” is an effective character study of what it’s like to be homeless on an island (Oahu) that many people consider to be a paradise. The movie blends harsh realities with the protagonist’s desire to escape through dream-like flashbacks. This is the type of movie were there are no definitive answers at the end. Rather, the movie puts an emphasis on how difficult it can be to get out of the rut of homelessness.

Written and directed by Christopher Kahunahana, “Waikiki” is an 83-minute movie that doesn’t have much of a plot, but the story is told in a compelling enough way, most viewers will be curious to find out what will happen next. The movie essentially shows the struggles of a woman in her 20s named Kea (played by Danielle Zalopany), who lives in Honoulu’s Waikiki neighborhood on Hawaii’s Oahu island. The movie is also a commentary on how homeless people aren’t always the stereotype of an unemployed person begging for money on the streets. Many homeless people have jobs.

Such is the case with Kea, who has three jobs: a hula dancer, a schoolteacher (of kids who look like they’re in fourth or fifth grade) and a server at a local bar. All of these jobs aren’t don’t pay enough for her to be able to find a permanent place to stay, so she’s been living out of her van. The beginning of the movie shows Kea applying for to rent a room in what appears to be some type of public housing facility. She’s told she will get a response to her in about application in about a week.

Then there’s an idyllic scene of Kea in her hula dancer job. While performing, Kea smiles as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. This scene is filmed almost like it would be a tourism video to visit Hawaii. But this seemingly picture-perfect scenario then gives way to showing Kea’s reality.

Once she gets off stage, she’s stressed-out and has to go to her night job in the bar. Kea has a flirtatious conversation with a customer named Jimmy (played by Durell Douthit), who looks old enough to be her grandfather. Jimmy gives Kean some cash that he says are for her kids. She reminds him that she doesn’t have any children and that he must have her confused with someone else.

The conversation then turns into a thinly veiled sexual proposition from Jimmy, who wants to pay her for whatever he’s proposing. Kea seems open to the idea (and it’s implied that she’s probably done it before for money), but then she’s interrupted by her boyfriend Branden (played by Jason Quinn), who storms into the bar and angrily pulls her out of the place, which he calls a “slut bar.”

Branden and Kea have an argument outside. And it’s soon reveals that Branden s verbally and physically abusive to Kea. He becomes enraged when he finds out that she’s been living out of her van. He demands that she hand over the keys. Instead, she drives off, nearly hitting Branden with her van in the process.

Kea is distraught as she driving on a deserted road. For a brief moment, she looks at her phone. And it turns out to be a big mistake. Looking at her phone distracts her from looking straight ahead while she’s driving. She hits a homeless man (played by Peter Shinkoda), who is lying unconscious on the street.

Kea calls Branden in a panic and tells him what happened. Branden asks Kea if anyone saw this accident and if anyone else is around. When she says no, he advises Kea to drive away immediately. They have another argument because she doesn’t want to leave this victim but she doesn’t want to report this incident either.

And so, Kea puts the unconscious man in her van. The rest of the movie shows the odd and unlikely acquaintance that Kea has with this man, who says nothing to her at first. Eventually, he tells her that his name is Wo.

One of the interesting things shown in “Waikiki” is how even though Kea is homeless too, she initially has a superior attitude toward Wo, who is a stereotypically dirty and disheveled. When he regains consciousness, one of the first things that Kea does is berate him, by calling him a “stupid-ass bum” and telling him other cruel things, such as saying that his family must be ashamed of him.

People who are familiar with psychology can easily see that Kea isn’t really angry at Wo. She’s angry at herself for being in a predicament where she is homeless too. And deep down, she’s afraid that she will end up just like Wo: looking dirty and desperate, with no safe place to sleep. Kea thinks she’s better than Wo because she’s working and has a van.

During the course of the movie, several things go wrong in Kea’s plans to get her life back on track. When things become too much for Kea, she starts having flashbacks to her childhood. A recurring flashback, which looks like a dreamlike version of reality, shows Kea at about 6 or 7 years old (played by Nahinu Kalahiki), in happier times with her grandmother (played by Claire Johnson), while they are in the middle of an ocean. The grandmother is sitting on a chair and sometimes sings to her.

Other childhood memories aren’t as pleasant for Kea. There’s another flashback that shows Kea, when she as bout 10 or 11 years old (played by Kealohi Kalahiki), was abandoned somewhere outside was told to wait for a call at a nearby pay phone. That call apparently never came. As an adult, pay phones can be “triggering” for Kea. Don’t expect to find out anything else about Kea’s past, such as where her parents are, or how long she and Branden have been a couple.

The movie has some touches of dark comedy. There’s a scene where Branden and Kea have another argument over the phone. Branden becomes so angry, he punches a hole in the wall. He then takes a picture hanging on the wall to cover up the hole, but the picture is covering up another hole in the wall. It can be presumed that this wall damage was also caused by Branden.

“Waikiki” has some very artistic-looking scenes for a movie with a low budget. Zalopany gives a mostly capable performance, although there are some moments where she awkwardly overacts. Perhaps the most disppointing thing about “Waikiki” is that the character of Wo is very underdeveloped, even though he barely talks in the movie.

However, “Waikiki” is really told from Kea’s perspective. She eventually starts to warm up to Wo but doesn’t care enough to ask him about who he is and what he wants out of life. If that seems a little heartless of Kea, the movie shows (but doesn’t tell) that Kea is in survival mode and is mostly thinking about herself and how she’s going to get through each day. She doesn’t have the emotional or financial resources to “save” Wo too.

Still, Wo and Kea come to rely on each other for companionship, for better or worse. “Waikiki” shows in its “slice of life” ways how people can end up in each other’s lives through unexpected circumstances. If you don’t mind seeing a movie with some suspense, some psychological drama, and an ending that’s open to interpretation, then “Waikiki” is worth watching for how it depicts the day-to-day challenges of being homeless.

Level 33 Entertainment released “Waikiki” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 27, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on December 5, 2023.

Review: ‘Radical’ (2023), starring Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Gilberto Barraza, Jennifer Trejo, Mía Fernanda Solís and Danilo Guardiola

November 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Eugenio Derbez in “Radical” (Photo courtesy of Participant/Pantelion)

“Radical” (2023)

Directed by Christopher Zalla

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2011, in Matamoros, Mexico, the dramatic film “Radical” (based on a true story) features an all-Latin cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A charismatic teacher uses unconventional methods to transform a primary school where more than half of the students fail or drop out.

Culture Audience: “Radical” will appeal primarily to people who like watching “against all odds” stories about teachers who make a difference in the lives of troubled or underestimated students.

Danilo Guardiola and Jennifer Trejo in in “Radical” (Photo courtesy of Participant/Pantelion)

“Radical” tells an impactful story about how inspiration can be found in unorthodox ways. Credible performances elevate this drama, which is based on real people—even when there’s a familiar formula about a charismatic teacher who changes students’ lives. There’s enough grit in “Radical” to prevent it from being an overly sentimental story. “Radical” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Festival Favorite Award, a prize voted for by the festival’s audiences.

Written and directed by Christopher Zalla, “Radical” has a screenplay adapted from Joshua Davis’ 2013 Wired magazine article “A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses.” There have been plenty of movies and TV shows about schoolteachers who shake up a problem-plagued school to make vast improvements in the classes that they are teaching, but Latin/Hispanic people are rarely at the center of these stories. “Radical” focuses entirely on people in Mexico and keeps the language in Spanish.

“Radical” takes place in 2011, in a crime-ridden and low-income part of Matamoros, Mexico. The main location in the story is Escuela Primaria José Urbina Lopez (José Urbina Lopez Primary School), a public school where more than half of the students are dropping out or failing in the beginning of the movie. The school is ranked last in Mexico’s ENLACE (Engaging Latin Communities for Education) test scores, a standard national exam in math, science and Spanish required for all students in third, fourth, fifth, sixth, ninth and 12th grades.

A new teacher has arrived at the school on short notice to replace a teacher named Mrs. Alvarez, who was out on maternity leave and has decided to quit to become a full-time mother. The new teacher is Sergio Juárez Correa (played by Eugenio Derbez), who makes an unforgettable first impression on his students o his first day of teaching at the school: He has overturned all the tables and chairs in the classroom. Sergio then tells the students (whose ages are about 11 and 12) to pretend that the room is an ocean, and the tables and chairs are boats.

Sergio pretends to drown, while the confused students stare at him. What the students don’t know yet but will soon find out is that this is Sergio’s way of teaching them about the physics of floating in water. He enthusiastically takes them to the school library, but when Sergio finds out that this underfunded school has outdated encyclopedias, decides to teach his students math and science in ways that don’t require books.

His first goal in the physics lesson is to motivate the students to get the correct answer to ths question: If two people (one fat, one muscular) who weighed the same were in the water, who would float better? You can easily guess what happens next when there’s a hot-tub-sized crate on the school property.

The school’s principal, whose name is only revealed as Chucho (played by Daniel Haddad), sees himself as a traditional disciplinarian. Chucho is taken aback and skeptical of Sergio’s unusual teaching methods. Sergio is frustrated by Chucho’s somewhat overbearing attitude and the underfunded school’s lack of resources. (The school’s only computer is in Chucho’s office.) It should come as no surprise that Sergio and Chucho have clashes, but their uneasy working relationship eventually evolves into a respectful friendship.

Sergio has several students, but three get the focus in this movie: brainy Paloma Novola (played by Jennifer Trejo), fun-loving Nico (played by Danilo Guardiola) and shy Lupe (played by Mía Fernanda Solís). All three of these students face obstacles from people in their lives who discourage them from graduating or getting a good education. Sergio somewhat acts like he wants to rescue them, but even he knows there are limitations on how much a teacher can get involved in the personal lives of his students.

Paloma is the smartest student in Sergio’s class, when it comes to math and science. She’s also one of the financially poorest students in the school and gets bullied by some of the students because of her poverty. Paloma lives near a garbage dump with her single father (played by Gilberto Barraza), who doesn’t have a name in the movie and who makes money by recycling trash. Her father discourages Paloma dream of becoming an aerospace engineer, because he thinks she shouldn’t get her hopes up too much from what to expect out of life. He even goes as far to burn the science magazines that Paloma has been reading.

Nico has a crush on Paloma and is insecure about showing her how he feels, because he thinks Paloma is too smart for him. There are a few endearing scenes where Nico seeks advice from Sergio on how to talk to a girl he likes. Sergio immediately knows that Nico is talking about Paloma. Nico’s education obstacle is that his older brother Chepe (played by Victor Estrada) is in a violent, drug-dealing gang that wants Nico to drop out of school and join the gang. The gang has already been using Nico to smuggle drugs.

Lupe has an interest and talent in philosophy. She loves to read. However, when she goes to a library to ask for certain academic books, a librarian tells her she’s too young to be reading these books. Eventually, a kind librarian gives Lupe the books she’s looking for, but Lupe’s biggest education obstacle comes from her own parents (played by Ermis Cruz and Viridiana López), who don’t have names in the movie. Lupe is in a large family that’s struggling financially. Lupe’s mother has gotten a new job with daytime work hours, and she expects Lupe to quit school to look after Lupe’s younger brother, who’s too young to go to school.

As for Sergio, who is he and what’s his story? The movie shows briefly that he’s married and has a baby son. And there are hints that Sergio has had a troubled past that has to do with his mental health. Things happen in the movie that test Sergio and his willingness to help his students thrive when getting pushback from many doubters and naysayers. Some of what happens takes a toll on his mental health and emotions.

“Radical” hits many of the same beats that movies have about a special teacher who transforms the minds and attitudes of students whose parents or communities have given up on them. Derbez (who is one of the producers of “Radical”) gives a magnetic performance that is a combination of Sergio being eccentric but relatable.

Sergio enthusiasm for teaching goes beyond wanting his students to get high test scores. It’s about changing the way they look at life and giving them the confidence to believe that they can accomplish things that other people say that they can’t. As time goes on, it’s obvious that Sergio understands his students because he’s gotten the same negative attitudes from his teaching peers and supervisors.

Guardiola and Trejo are also very good in their roles as Nico and Paloma, who start to see themselves as the individuals they are all instead of what other people in their lives expect them to be. Sergio obviously gives them encouragement to pursue their dreams, but the movie shows that Sergio alone isn’t responsible for the development of Nico and Paloma, since a lot of their personal growth comes from within themselves.

“Radical” isn’t a preachy movie about a know-it-all teacher. Sergio has moments of self-doubt and isn’t afraid to admit to his students when he doesn’t have all the answers to their questions. The biggest lesson that Sergio teaches these students are those that they can apply in and out of the classroom: Be curious, be bold in trying new things, and be yourself.

Pantelion and Participant released “Radical” in U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Rebel’ (2022), starring Aboubakr Bensaihi, Lubna Azabal, Amir El Arbi, Tara Abboud and Younes Bouab

November 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Aboubakr Bensaihi in “Rebel” (Photo courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures)

“Rebel” (2022)

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Arabic, French, Dutch and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Belgium and in Syria, from 2013 to 2016, the dramatic film “Rebel” features a predominantly Middle Eastern cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An amateur rapper in his 20s moves from Belgium to Syria to help war victims, but he is forced to join ISIS, while his adolescent brother is torn between obeying his mother’s wishes to be a good student in Belgium or running away to Syria to reunite with his brother. 

Culture Audience: “Rebel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing somewhat unconventional dramas about families who have internal conflicts about controversial politics and terrorism.

Aboubakr Bensaihi in “Rebel” (Photo courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures)

“Rebel” is a gripping story about a family torn apart by political extremism. Although this 135-minute drama is a little too long and needed tighter film editing, the story and performances are worth watching. “Rebel” has some music-video-styled interludes (where people break into a hip-hop performance, including having backup dancers) that are very unusual for a film with this subject matter. Some viewers will appreciate the film for having this non-traditional approach. Other viewers will dislike these musical scenes for being too distracting or too disruptive to the movie’s serious tone.

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, “Rebel” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. El Arbi, Fallah, Kevin Meul and Jan van Dyck co-wrote the “Rebel” screenplay. The movie alternates between showing the contrasting lives of two brothers and how their lives could be on a collision course to tragedy. “Rebel” is told in non-chronological order, but the movie shows the year in which a major scene is taking place.

When viewers first see 12-year-old Nassim Wasaki (played by Amir El Arbi), it’s 2015, and he thinks he is having a normal day at his school in the Brussels suburb of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (also known as Molenbeek), Belgium. Nassim is the son of a Moroccan immigrant named Leila Wasaki (played by Lubna Azabal), who is a single mother. On this particular day, Nassim is taken out of his classroom and sent to the school principal’s office, where a tearful Leila hugs him.

What’s the reason for this emergency visit? Leila’s older son Kamal Wasaki (played by Aboubakr Bensaihi) has been identified in the media as being part of a group of ISIS terrorists who were filmed on video executing people by shooting them. A TV news report says that Kamal was a local celebrity rapper using the stage name DJ Kawas, but he disappeared several months ago after drugs were found in his family’s garage.

Flashbacks show that Kamal had a history of getting in trouble with the law in Belgium, but this drug bust was the last straw for Leila, who told Kamal that he was no longer welcome in her home. Nassim, who has always looked up to Kamal, is devastated that Kamal has to move out of the family house. A homeless and aimless Kamal eventually met some people who convinced him to move to Syria to help war victims.

Kamal sees this relocation as an opportunity to turn his life around for the better, because he thinks he will be involved in a worthy charitable cause. Kamal finds out too late that he has really been recruited to join ISIS, along with several other young men from Syria and other countries. Kamal is forced into this ISIS recruitment program and is held captive, as he trains to be an ISIS soldier. Kamal eventually gets a new name while he is under ISIS control: Abu-Bakr Al-Belgik. A terrorist named Abu Amar (played by Younes Bouab) is also part of the story.

“Rebel” shows how the scandal of Kamal’s involvement with ISIS is processed differently by Leila and Nassim. Leila feels a lot of shame but also determination not to let Nassim fall prey to the same recruiters. Nassim has a childlike gullibility or ignorance in not fully understanding what Kamal is doing in Syria. Even though Nassim sees the news reports and videos on social media that show Nassim is now an ISIS soldier who kills people, in Nassim’s mind, he thinks that Kamal is helping people in Syria.

Meanwhile, Leila goes to support group meetings with other people whose loved ones have become lost in the grips of ISIS recruitment. Nassim slowly begins to see how Kamal’s activities are affecting their family’s reputation in Belgium. More people start to shun or avoid Nassim and Leila, who wants to protect Nassim from a lot of the trauma she is experiencing.

Nassim’s female classmate Hind (played by Malak Sebar) is his closest friend at school. At first, Hind is curious about Kamal and asks Nassim about him. Nassim tells her that Kamal is helping people in Syria. But when Hind’s parents find out that this is what Nassim thinks of Kamal, the parents greatly disapprove. Hind goes from not being allowed by her parents to sit next to Nassim on class, to not being allowed to hang out with him, to being pulled out of the school altogether, so Hind won’t have to see Nassim at all in school.

Meanwhile, an ISIS recruiter named Idriss (played by Fouad Hajji) has been hanging out at the schoolyard to talk to Nassim. It should come as no surprise that Idriss uses Nassim’s desperate desire to see Kamal as bait in these recruitment efforts. Idriss tells Nassim that Kamal very much wants to see Nassim, but that the only way is for Nassim to secretly go to Syria. Idriss says he will pay for the trip and be Nassim’s chaperone. The movie shows what Nassm’s decision is.

The middle section of “Rebel” tends to drag with repetitive scenes of shootouts and people being tortured. Viewers see that during this dark period in Kamal’s life, he found some brightness by meeting, falling in love with, and marrying a woman named Noor (played by Tara Abboud), who knows that Kamal is being forced to do ISIS activities. Kamal is faced with a moral dilemma when it comes to Noor, and his decision is the catalyst for many other things that happen in the story.

“Rebel” has good acting overall but not anything outstanding enough to get major awards. The movie has some visually ambitious and artistic scenes, but some of the narrative doesn’t flow very smoothly because of the way the movie’s non-chronological timeline has some jumbled editing. The last third of the movie is when “Rebel” is at its best in its intended emotional impact. Viewers who are patient enough to watch this entire movie might be left stunned by the outcome of events depicted in “Rebel.”

Yellow Veil Pictures released “Rebel” in select U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023. The movie was released in Morocco and in parts of Europe and Asia in 2022.

Review: ‘Stay Awake’ (2023), starring Wyatt Oleff, Fin Argus, Albert Jones, Cree Cicchino, Quinn McColgan and Chrissy Metz

November 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Wyatt Oleff, Chrissy Metz and Fin Argus in “Stay Awake” (Photo by Alejandro Mejia/Mar Vista Entertainment)

“Stay Awake” (2023)

Directed by Jamie Sisley

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

Culture Clash: Two young adult brothers have different ways of coping with their mother’s opioid addiction. 

Culture Audience: “Stay Awake” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing well-acted dramas about people affected by drug addiction and co-dependency.

Wyatt Oleff and Fin Argus in “Stay Awake” (Photo by Alejandro Mejia/Mar Vista Entertainment)

“Stay Awake” is a searing depiction of the damage that addiction and co-dependency can do to families. This drama is impactful in showing an addicted mother trying to hold on to her two sons, as one of them wants to break free of their dysfunctional cycle. Some of the movie drags with repetition, but the overall story is meaningful and realistically doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.

Written and directed by Jamie Sisley, “Stay Awake” had it world premiere at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. The movie is told from the perspectives of the two young adult sons who have contrasting ways of dealing with their mother’s opioid addiction. The story in “Stay Awake” takes place in Langford, Virginia, but the movie was actually filmed in upstate New York.

“Stay Awake” begins by showing an unpleasant routine that young adult brothers Ethan (played by Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (played by Fin Argus) have to go through, every time their divorced mother Michelle (played by Chrissy Metz) has gone missing at night: The brothers scour the area, starting with local bars or other places that serve alcohol. They also look for Michelle on the streets, hoping that she isn’t unconscious or dead somewhere.

As a last resort, they check the local hospitals. Ethan and Derek usually find Michelle in a drugged-out stupor. And when the brothers find Michelle, they put her in their family car and try to get her to stay awake on the drive back to their house.

Because of the drugs and alcohol Michelle has ingested, Ethan and Derek are never really sure if it’s at a level where she could die if she passes out. And sometimes, as shown in the beginning of “Stay Awake,” Michelle needs to taken directly to a hospital if she looks like she needs to be treated for an overdose or other medical emergency. These crises are starting to take their toll on everyone in this trio of family members.

Michelle, who sells lingerie through her home-based online business, is addicted to prescription opioids. “Stay Awake” doesn’t specifically name what Michelle’s drug of choice is, but that information doesn’t have to be mentioned, because the story is about how Michelle’s addiction affects her and her closest loved ones. The movie shows that she abuses alcohol too.

Ethan is about 18 years old, while Derek is in his early 20s. Their father Alex left the family years ago and has not been in contact with Michelle, Ethan and Derek. It’s hinted that Michelle’s addiction problems have been going on for years. And this addiction has caused Michelle and her sons to be caught in a miserable cycle where she often disappears for hours and sometimes days, without telling anyone where she is, while Ethan and Derek have to look for her.

Optimistic extrovert Derek, who is an aspiring actor, doesn’t hesitate to do what he can to look out for Michelle and take care of her. By contrast, moody and introverted Ethan is starting to become very bitter and resentful of all the burdens that Michelle’s addiction has placed on the family. These opposite attitudes inevitably cause conflicts between Ethan and Derek.

A great deal of the movie is about how these family members disagree about how Michelle should be handling this problem. Ethan strongly believes that Michelle should be in rehab. Michelle doesn’t really want to go to rehab, and Derek is inclined to go along with whatever Michelle wants. Like many addicts who are not in recovery, Michelle thinks she can conquer her addiction all on her own.

An early scene in the movie shows that Michelle is getting psychiatric treatment from Dr. Stanley Carson (played by Robert Vincent Smith), who asks Michelle if she’s had suicidal thoughts. “Doesn’t everybody?” Michelle asks. When Michelle sees that’s not the answer she should say to get the prescription pills that she wants, she changes her answer to “no.” With a world-weary attitude, Dr. Carson then writes a refill for Michelle’s prescription.

Much of “Stay Awake” shows the lives of Ethan and Derek when they’re not with their mother. Ethan, the “book smart” brother, is in his last year of high school. He works part-time at the Jolly Cow Drive-In, which is a popular hangout for many of the local teens. Ethan plans to go a university, and he will be the first person in his family to get a college education. Ethan’s choice in universities becomes the catalyst for a major conflict in one of the movie’s subplots.

Derek is a modestly successful actor who usually gets work in TV commercials. Because he doesn’t often get work as an actor, Derek has a job at a bowling alley called Langford Lanes. He’s been wanting to expand his acting experience, but Derek often doesn’t go to auditions if the auditions conflict with times that Derek wants to look after his mother Michelle.

Ethan has been trying to get Derek to stop being so co-dependent on Michelle and pursue acting jobs that would require Derek to travel. However, Derek refuses to consider any job opportunities that would take him far away from Michelle. Derek wants to make sure he’s near enough in case Michelle has another health emergency. Derek doesn’t want Michelle to think that he’s abandoning her.

“Stay Awake” also somewhat explores the love lives of Ethan and Derek. In the beginning of the movie, Ethan is dating a classmate called Ashley (played by Quinn McColgan), who also works at the Jolly Cow Drive-In. There’s a major turning point in their relationship regarding their college plans. Ashley also has issues over the physical intimacy part of their relationship. Ashley wonders why it’s not as passionate as she would like it to be.

The movie later shows, without saying it out loud, that Ethan is secretly gay or queer. Ethan is attracted to a classmate named Mark (played by Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), who befriends Ethan and has no idea that Ethan has romantic feelings for him. As for Derek, it’s mentioned that he has a pattern of dating girls who are still in high school. One of them is a girl named Melanie (played Cree Cicchino, also known as Cree), whose parents don’t approve of her relationship with Derek.

“Stay Awake” accurately shows the problems that many American families experience when they can’t afford rehab for someone in the family with addiction health problems. Michelle has been to rehab multiple times already and has always relapsed after brief periods of being clean and sober. In addition to trying to convince Michelle to go to rehab again, her sons have to figure out how to pay for their top-choice rehab center, which is a private facility.

If they can’t find the money to pay for it, Michelle would have to go to a rehab center that is run by the state government. Ethan and Derek both think the government-run rehab facility is inferior to the private rehab center that they think will give Michelle better treatment for her addiction problems. Albert Jones has a supporting role as Dennis, a no-nonsense rehab counselor who refuses to let Michelle manipulate him.

“Stay Awake” is as much about secrets and shame as it is about the question of whether or not Michelle will ever get clean and sober. (Metz’s effective performance as Michelle involves portraying the self-loathing of an addict on a downward spiral.) Because the story is told from the perspectives of Ethan and Derek, a big part of the movie is about how the brothers deal with the secrets and shame they have over their mother’s addiction. The coping mechanisms that Ethan and Derek use in dealing with this problem also spill over into how they deal with other issues in their lives.

All of the cast members in “Stay Awake” give authentic-looking performances. Oleff is a standout in how he portrays Ethan and the nuances of Ethan’s inner turmoil. Ethan is someone who both loves and hates the drug addict in his family. Meanwhile, Derek is grappling with his longtime perception of being “good son,” which is at odds with Ethan’s perception. Ethan doesn’t think that being a “good son” means being a co-dependent who can do more harm than good in getting an addict on the road to recovery.

There’s a point in the movie where “Stay Awake” could have gone down a very predictable path. However, the movie is consistently realistic and takes some unexpected turns, just like life can take unexpected turns. “Stay Awake” might not be an easy film to watch for people who are “triggered” by the issues that are shown in the movie. However, it’s a better-than-average character study of how addiction problems can be dealt with very differently in the same family.

MarVista Entertainment released “Stay Awake” in New York City on May 19, 2023, in Los Angeles in May 25, 2203. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 14, 2023.

Review: ‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,’ starring Charleen McClure, Moses Ingram, Reginald Helms Jr., Zainab Jah, Sheila Atim and Chris Chalk

November 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Jannie Hampton and Jayah Henry in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” (Photo by Jaclyn Martinez/A24)

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt”

Directed by Raven Jackson

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1970s to the 2020s, primarily in an unnamed rural part of Mississippi, the dramatic film “All Dirt Roads Taste of Saly” features an all-African American cast of characters representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: The story of a rural family struggling with poverty and grief in Mississippi is told across generations and mainly from the perspectives of the females in the family.

Culture Audience: “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching artistic and experimental movies about rural American families.

Sheila Atim and Kaylee Nicole Johnson in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” (Photo by Jaclyn Martinez/A24)

As the title suggests, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is not going to appeal to everyone, it’s not entirely comfortable to experience, and it’s probably an acquired taste. It’s a cinematic poem that is best appreciated by viewers who are open to watching slow-paced movies that don’t follow a traditional narrative structure. This unique and atmospheric drama shows the connection between nature and a rural Mississippi family.

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Raven Jackson, who has a background as a poet and photographer. These talents are evident in the often-abstract way that the story is told in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” and how this movie uses visuals to tell much of the story, which has very little dialogue. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival.

“All Dirt Roads of Salt” is told in non-chronological order and presented as pieces of a puzzle that challenges viewers to put these pieces together to see the bigger picture and the overall story. The rural Mississippi family who’s at the center of the movie is a tight-knit clan that has to cope with poverty, heartbreak and sudden tragedy. The family consists of spouses Evelyn (played by Sheila Atim) and Isaiah (played by Chris Chalk), who are happily married and live in a modest home with their daughters Mackenzie (nicknamed Mack) and Josie.

Mack (who was born in 1970) is about three years older than Josie. Mack is slightly rebellious and more outspoken than mild-mannered Josie. Kaylee Nicole Johnson has the role of Mack as a pre-teen. Charleen McClure, who makes her feature-film debut in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” portrays Mack as a teenager and adult. Jayah Henry has the role of Josie as a pre-teen. Moses Ingram depicts Josie as a teenager and as an adult.

It’s not mentioned in the movie how the parents make money, but it’s clear that the family members get a lot of their food from the land where they live. The movie’s opening scene shows Isaiah patiently teaching Mack how to fish, while Josie watches nearby. Another scene shows Evelyn teaching Mack how to skin a fish. Isaiah and Evelyn are loving parents who are strict. At one point in the movie, Evelyn tells Mack, “Don’t speak until you’re spoke to.”

Evelyn and Mack also spend some mother/daughter time together by digging for clay dirt, which Evelyn puts in a shoebox. Some African Americans, especially in the Southern part of the U.S., follow a tradition of eating clay dirt, in order to commune with nature. This tradition originated in West Africa.

Because “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” does not tell this family’s story in a linear manner, it’s up to viewers to pay attention and figure out what this family’s story is. Without giving away too many details in this review, it’s enough to say that this family goes through many difficult challenges. In one scene, Isaiah and some local men frantically try to put out flames on the family home as it’s being burned, while the other family members stand by and watch with sadness and fear. (No reason is given in the movie for how or why this fire occurred.)

There’s also a death in the family that drastically changes the childhoods of Mack and Josie. Their maternal grandmother Betty (played by Jannie Hampton) comes to visit during this time of grief. Like many grandmothers, Betty is able to hold the family together and be a source of comfort during overwhelming sadness. Betty also tells Mack and Josie some family history that these grandchildren did not know.

As a teenager, Mack falls for a local teen named Wood (played by Preston McDowell), and they have a sweet romance. There are clues that their relationship has been on-again/off-again, because by the time they are young adults, Mack and Wood (played by Reginald Helms Jr.) are no longer a couple. Mack is pregnant with Wood’s child, but he is married to a woman named Rita, who is never seen in the movie.

Mack and Wood still have a love connection and find ways to see each other for romantic trysts. Wood tries to show that he wants to be in this baby’s life, but Mack knows that it’s unlikely that Wood will leave his wife for her. Mack’s decision about how the baby will be raised is shown in the movie.

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” has several scenes that take place outdoors in the woods, especially when it’s raining. The movie’s immersive cinematography (by Jomo Fray) and sound mixing are sensory experiences in this world. The sights and sounds of nature are meant to be intertwined with the human condition that’s presented in this movie.

When Mack gives birth to a daughter named Lily and tells Lily as a baby (played by Naomi Glenn), “You’re made of dirt. You know that?,” it’s not meant as an insult but as a way to tell her child the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” philosophy of the life-death cycle. Lily (played by Robin Crudup) is later shown as a child who’s about 9 or 10 years old.

Because there isn’t much dialogue in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” the cast members often have to act with their facial expressions and body language. The performances in the movie are capable, but not spectacular. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is not about showoff performances but about naturalistic “slice of life” snippets of this family. Mack, the character who gets the most screen time, is the only character who is shown from infancy (played by Mylee Shannon) to middle age (played by Zainab Jah).

Why is eating clay dirt a tradition for some people? By eating the dirt, people who believe in this tradition also believe that they can detect the health of the earth around them. If viewers are patient enough to watch “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” they can see how the movie artfully shows that the well-being of nature can transform over time and can be connected to how people can transform over time as human beings.

A24 released “All Dirt RoadsTaste of Salt” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023.

Copyright 2017-2023 Culture Mix