Review: ‘A Couple’ (2022), starring Nathalie Boutefeu

October 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nathalie Boutefeu in “A Couple” (Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films)

“A Couple” (2022)

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place sometime between 1910 and 1919, on Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, France, the dramatic film “A Couple” has only one person in the movie’s cast, in a portrayal of Russian writer Sophia Tolstaya, widow of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

Culture Clash: In the movie, Tolstaya reads out loud portions of letters and diary entries that she and Tolstoy wrote that detail their volatile and depressing marriage.

Culture Audience: “A Couple” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Frederick Wiseman and Tolstoy, as well people who are interested in the private life of a famous writer, but everyone else might be very bored by this movie.

Nathalie Boutefeu in “A Couple” (Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films)

“A Couple” is really about one-half of a couple. It’s a series of monologues where Nathalie Boutefeu portrays widow Sophia Tolstaya griping about how her marriage to Leo Tolstoy was unhappy. Boutefeu’s compelling performance saves this very repetitive film. Even though this writer couple was Russian, “A Couple” is a French-language film, probably because Boutefeu is French. The movie was also filmed on Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, France.

“A Couple” director Frederick Wiseman is mostly known for making documentary films, so “A Couple” is a departure for him, because it is a narrative feature, based on the personal writings of Tolstaya and Tolstoy. (Nominated several times for Nobel prizes, Tolstoy is best-known for his novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”) Wiseman and Boutefeu co-wrote the adapted screenplay of “A Couple.” The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy and its North American premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

Boutefeu (in the role of Sophia) is the only person who appears on screen for the entire movie. She gives monologues where she reads letters and diary entries written by Tolstaya and Tolstoy that detail the couple’s troubled marriage. (For the purposes of this review, the movie character is referred to as Sophia, while the real-life Tolstaya is referred to as Tolstaya.) Tolstaya’s writings are read more in the movie than Tolstoy’s writings.

What emerges is a portrait of a cold and domineering husband who frequently cheated on his wife and inflicted various forms of emotional abuse on her. He mistreated her and acted like he wasn’t in love with her, but he also didn’t want her to leave him. In other words, “A Couple” isn’t a feel-good movie.

What the movie doesn’t give is any background information on the two people in this miserable marriage. In real life, Countess Sophia Behrs married Leo Tolstoy in 1852, when she was 18, and he was 34. They were married for 48 years, until his death in 1910, at the age of 82. Tolstaya died in 1919, at the age of 75. The couple had 13 children together, but Tolstoy fathered at least one other child through his chronic extramarital infidelity, according to this movie.

“A Couple” begins and ends with the widowed Sophia in a dimly lit room holding the letters that she will end up reading out loud during the course of this 64-minute movie. The rest of the film takes place entirely outdoors with lovely scenic views of the terrain where the monologues were filmed in grassy areas and on rocks near a beach. There are also some close-ups of some of the small outdoor insects (such as butterflies) that live in the grassy areas.

In these monologues, Sophia talks about her husband’s cruelty and how he often seemed like he regretted marrying her. “It took me years to understand your moods, your demons,” she says. She also seems to struggle with her love/hate feelings about her husband.

“I am still in love,” she says. “You illuminate my life.” But she also says, “For you, I am nothing but a mangy dog.” She continues, “I feel abandoned. I don’t have a husband/friend.” She later says, “I envy the couples who enjoy a spiritual bond with a physical relationship.”

Sophia details this loneliness in the marriage when she talks about how her husband preferred to spend time playing piano for four to six hours a day, or taking long walks by himself, instead of spending that time with her and their children. He was also disinterested in putting up a happy front to people about this marriage. “Remember the modest party for our 10th anniversary?” she asks aloud in a superficial manner, as if the size of an anniversary party is supposed to reflect how much spouses love each other.

To add insult to injury, her husband’s mistress lived nearby with the son allegedly born from this extramarital affair. And so, Sophia has to endure the humiliation and having this reminder of his infidelity near her and the children. “Disenchantment has invaded our life,” she says mournfully. If the marriage had any happiness, it’s not depicted in this movie.

Sophia also expresses bitterness about how in 30 years of marriage, her husband never spent time showing concern when any of their children got sick. She talks about feeling like the only one in the marriage who took on the responsibility of being a nurturing parent to their children. And it goes without saying that Sophia’s writing career wasn’t allowed to flourish in the way that her husband’s writing career thrived.

The movie’s scenes also include descriptions of the husband’s vicious temper. According to the movie, he would throw breakable things when he got angry. And when Sophia tried to leave him, he dragged her while she was “half-naked” back their house. The abuse in the marriage got so bad for her, Sophia exclaims in a diary entry: “Take me to the police or to the madhouse!”

Boutefeu infuses these monologues with all the visceral emotions of a spouse desperately trapped in a bad marriage but conflicted enough that she holds out hope that things might improve and her husband will show that he might still love her. Sophia mentions that their children are her main sources of joy and the biggest reason why she’s staying in the marriage. It’s a story that unfortunately is not unique to any particular time period or culture, because these toxic relationships can happen to anyone at any time.

Boutefeu’s acting is the main thing that “A Couple” has to offer that gives some emotional context to the words that are being recited on the screen, because there’s nothing particularly special about the movie’s cinematography or editing. After a while, it gets redundant to hear the same marital complaints being said out loud. Don’t expect “A Couple” to give any major insight into how these literary couple worked on any of their writings that weren’t these diary entries or personal letters.

If the total running time of “A Couple” had stretched to 90 minutes or more, the movie definitely would have overstayed its welcome. Clocking at a little over one hour is just about the length time before “A Couple” would start to slide into irredeemable monotony. This movie would have been even better if it had been a short film. As it stands, “A Couple” can be recommended only for those curious to take an uncomfortable peek inside the grim marriage of Tolstoy and Tolstaya, giving some insight into why their writing was about so much angst, suffering and betrayal.

Zipporah Films will release “A Couple” in select U.S. cinemas on November 11, 2022.

Review: ‘Till,’ starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett and Whoopi Goldberg

October 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jalyn Hall and Danielle Deadwyler in “Till” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures)

“Till”

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1955 in Illinois and Mississippi, the dramatic film “Till” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After her 14-year-old son (and only child) Emmett Till is murdered in a racist hate crime, Mamie Till-Mobley fights for justice in a system where white supremacy is enabled and enforced. 

Culture Audience: “Till” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as to people who are interested in well-acted biographical stories about the civil rights movement in the United States.

Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg in “Till” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures)

The heartbreaking and inspiring drama “Till” admirably tells the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley and how she not only fought for justice for her murdered son, Emmett Till, but also how she became an often-overlooked pioneer in the U.S. civil rights movement. Even though the events in “Till” take place in the 1955, everything about the movie remains relevant, as long as people are getting murdered, abused or harassed simply because of race or other parts of their identities. Danielle Deadwyler gives a stunning and emotionally stirring performance as a humble woman who channeled her grief into positive activism that has far-reaching effects that can be felt for years to come.

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, “Till” could have easily been yet another civil rights movie about a crusading lawyer, a law-making politician, a famous activist with a large following, or a hate-crime victim. And although these characters are definitely in “Till,” all of these characters in this history-based movie are male. It’s rare that a movie about the U.S. civil rights movement focuses on an African American woman, even though African American women have been the backbone of many important social movements in the United States.

“Till” had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City. At the New York Film Festival’s “Till” press conference, which took place on the morning of the gala premiere, filmmaker Chukwu said that she didn’t want to direct the movie unless it centered on Till-Mobley. The movie’s producers agreed, and Chukwu presented her vision of the story, which included a rewrite of the screenplay to focus on Till-Mobley’s perspective. (Chukwu co-wrote the “Till” screenplay with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, two of the movie’s producers.)

It turned out to be the correct decision. One of Chukwu’s strengths as a director is in making great casting choices. Deadwyler, in the role of Till-Mobley, anchors the movie in a way that is the epitome of portraying inner strength and an ordinary person who becomes an extraordinary catalyst for social change. The movie also shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways how grief and pain can be turned into something positive that becomes much bigger than being about just one person.

Many people watching “Till” might already be familiar with the name Emmett “Bo” Till and might already be aware of how the racist torture and murder of this innocent 14-year-old boy in 1955 was a turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement. The movie “Till” brings him to life in the performance of Jalyn Hall, who depicts Emmett as an outgoing and fun-loving teenager who liked to hang out with his friends and occasionally flirted with girls who caught his attention. People who know Emmett very well usually call him by his nickname Bo.

Born in 1941 in Chicago, Emmett was raised in Chicago, where his mother Mamie worked as an educator. Emmett was Mamie’s only child. In 1945, Emmett’s military father, Louis Till, died at the age of 23 in combat during World War II. Mamie then had a short-lived marriage (lasting from 1951 to 1952) to Pink Bradley, with the marriage ending in divorce. Mamie grew up in her home state of Mississippi but had relocated to Chicago in search of better work opportunities and a less oppressive racial environment.

That doesn’t mean racially integrated Chicago or anywhere is immune to racism. An early scene in “Till” shows Mamie shopping in a Chicago department store and asking a white store clerk about an item. The store clerk suggests to her that she shop in the basement, which was his way of saying that he didn’t want black customers to be shopping in the store’s main area.

With her head held high, Mamie looks him in the eye and calmly asks him, “Do the other customers know that too?” In other words, “Are you telling the white customers the same thing? Probably not.” It’s the first sign in the movie that Mamie is not going to play the role of a head-bowing, foot-shuffling servant, and that she can stand up for herself with intelligence and class.

In 1955, Mamie was in a happy and supportive relationship with Gene Mobley (played by Sean Patrick Thomas), who would eventually become her husband. Gene would become one of strongest sources of support during the family’s ordeal. Mamie and Gene didn’t legally marry until 1957 (two years after Emmett’s death), but they referred to each other as spouses, in a common-law way.

In August 1955, Mamie allowed Emmett to visit some of her relatives near Money, Mississippi, as part of his summer vacation. In the movie, perhaps out of a maternal instinct and concern, Mamie is apprehensive about sending Emmett to Mississippi by train on his own. At a time when racial segregation was legal and enforced in the South, she warns him that that “there are a different set of rules” for people who aren’t white in the South.

Emmett thinks that Mamie is being overprotective and maybe paranoid. Mamie’s mother Alma Carthan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) thinks so too. Alma tells Mamie that it’s time that Emmett be more independent since he’s close to being an adult and has to learn how to do things on his own. While Mamie says goodbye to Emmett the train station and he boards the train, she has a sudden look of fear on her face, which could be interpreted as a premonition that something terrible might happen to Emmett.

In Mississippi, Emmett stays with the Wright family, who are relatives on his mother’s side of the family. They include Emmett’s great-uncle Moses Wright (played by John Douglas Thompson); Moses’ wife Elizabeth (played by Keisha Tillis); and their son Maurice (played by Diallo Thompson). Moses makes money as a seller of cotton, and he oversees other African American men who pick cotton in the fields.

Emmett is expected to help out with this field work while he’s in Mississippi, but a city boy like Emmett immediately dislikes this type of physical labor. In the cotton fields, Emmett complains that picking cotton is a “square thing to do” (in other words, it’s too “country” for him), and he doesn’t take the work seriously. Instead, he sometimes goofs off on the job, such as pretending to pass out and getting a laugh when he reveals that nothing is wrong with him. It’s an example of Emmett’s impish sense of humor but also his naïveté at how different the lifestyle is for his working-class relatives in rural Mississippi, compared to the middle-class lifestyle he has in a big city like Chicago.

Maurice, who is in his late teens or early 20s, is a stern taskmaster who constantly warns Emmett not to be so cavalier about work and being an African American in an area where African Americans are targeted for lynchings and other hate crimes by white racists. During his stay in Mississippi, Emmett hangs out with Maurice and two of Maurice’s teenage pals who also work in the cotton fields: Wheeler Parker (played by Gem Marc Collins, also known as Marc Collins) and Simmy (played by Tyrik Johnson). Maurice is the unofficial leader of this group of friends.

When Emmett playfully flirts with some white teenage girls nearby, Maurice tells Emmett that he better not act that way with any white people, or else he could be killed. Emmett doesn’t take this warning seriously, because in his young life, he has personally never known anyone who was killed because of racist hate. And in Chicago, it’s not taboo for black people and white people to interact with each other.

One day, when Emmett, Maurice, Wheeler and Simmy have some time off from work, they hang out in front of a small grocery store. Emmett goes inside to buy a bottle of soda. The cashier behind the counter is Mrs. Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett), a white woman in her late 20s or early 30s. Emmett is friendly and open with everyone he meets, so he greets Carolyn with a smile and looks directly in her eyes.

In this racist area, where a black person is expected to act fearful and deferential toward white people, Emmett’s friendly confidence immediately makes Carolyn fill uneasy. She glares at him suspiciously has he pays for his soda. Emmett then tells her as a compliment, “You look like a movie star.”

Carolyn stares at him as if she can’t believe a black person is talking to her in this way. Emmett is oblivious to her silent hostility and takes his wallet and shows her a photo of actress Hedy Lamarr that he keeps in his wallet. “See?” Emmett says to Carolyn, as a way to point her physical resemblance. Carolyn looks even angrier, but Emmett doesn’t seem to notice.

Instead, Emmett cheerfully waves goodbye. And as if to make it clear that he thinks that Carolyn is pretty, she looks back at her and gives a flirtatious whistle. Carolyn is so incensed at this point, she leaves the counter to get a shotgun, which she plans to aim at Emmett. When Emmett sees that he could get shot but this angry racist, he suddenly understands the enormity of the situation.

Emmett runs outside while Carolyn follows him with the shotgun in aimed at him. Emmett and his pals quickly get in their truck and drive away before the situation escalates. Maurice is furious when he finds out what Emmett said and did. Maurice immediately wants to tell his father what happened, but Wheeler and Simmy convince Maurice to keep it a secret between the four of them.

However, this incident isn’t kept a secret by Carolyn. A few days later, her husband Roy Bryant (played by Sean Michael Weber) and his half-brother JW Milam (played by Eric Whitten) force their way with guns into the Wright family home, kidnap Emmett, and take him in their truck, where Carolyn and a few other men have come along for the ride. After Carolyn identifies Emmett as the teenager who flirted with her, Emmett is taken to an isolated farm area.

“Till” does not show on screen what happened to Emmett after he was kidnapped, but the movie does have some disturbing sound effects that don’t leave any doubt that he was tortured and beaten. At the New York Film Festival press conference for “Till,” Chukwu said she made a conscious decision for the movie not to show any physical violence against “black bodies.” It was the correct choice, because showing this type of violence could be thought of as exploitation and gives too much agency to the murderers.

Mamie finds out that Emmett has been kidnapped. Friends, family—including Mamie’s father, John Carthan (played by Frankie Faison), who is divorced from Alma and has remarried—as well as other people in the African American community join Mamie in their frantic search for Emmet. And then, they get the devastating news three days after his abduction that Emmett was found murdered (he was beaten and shot to death) in the Tallahatchie River. These scenes are heart-wrenching to watch.

Overwhelmed by grief, Mamie’s first priority was to get Emmett’s body returned to her so that he could be buried in Chicago. She wasn’t thinking about becoming an activist. But after seeing his disfigured and bloated body (which is replicated on screen), Mamie makes a crucial decision to let Emmett’s body be photographed and published by the media.

Mamie also decides that his funeral would be an open-casket funeral, where the thousands of attendees could see for themselves what the horrors and evils of racism look like up close. As Mamie says later in the movie when she tells reporters how she felt when she saw Emmett’s dead body: “My son came home to me reeking of racial hatred.”

The rest of “Till” takes viewers on an emotional journey as Mamie uses her inner strength to get justice for Emmett, which was also really a battle for anyone else wronged by a racist American society. Along the way, she meets some influential people who help her and teach her how to navigate being a civil rights activist with the agendas of politicians, lawyers and the media. Mamie also became more involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a result of her political awakening.

Rayfield Mooty (played by Kevin Carroll), a Chicago labor who also happened to be Mamie’s second cousin, was instrumental in putting Mamie in with the NAACP. In the movie, Rayfield is the first person to bluntly tell Mamie that she has to think strategically. “It would be a good opportunity for a politician to take on Emmett’s cause in an election year,” he advises her.

Her other allies include NAACP attorney William Huff (played by Keith Arthur Bolden), who was recommended to Mamie by Rayfield; civil rights activists William Medger Evers (played by Tosin Cole) and Myrlie Evers (played by Jayme Lawson), Medger’s wife. “Till” shows how the murder of Emmett was just the beginning of the trauma, since murder trial was a continual barrage of racial inequalities that gave preference to the white defendants. Although it is widely believed that several people were involved in Emmett’s murder, only Bryant and Milam went on trial for the murder.

The murder trial in September 1955 (a quick turnaround, considering the murder happened just a month before) is an example of how there are often two types of justice, based on the races of the people involved. Although many “Till” viewers will already know the outcome of the trial before seeing the movie, it doesn’t make the outcome any less impactful. “Till” has a lot of riveting scenes that are meant to upset and enlighten people.

“Till” also shows that sexism against women also played a role in how Mamie was mistreated and misjudged by bigoted members of society during the media coverage of the trial. (Her morality was attacked because she had been divorced, which is criticism that would have been less likely to be inflicted on a divorced man.) She was also advised to not look angry in public, even though she had every right to be angry about what happened to her only child.

And that’s why it’s important for this movie to be shown from a female perspective. In 1955 American society, Mamie didn’t have the privilege of being a church leader or a chapter president of the NAACP, since those leadership positions were almost always were held by men. Even in the early civil rights movement, women were rarely allowed to give long and passionate speeches in public. It’s why what Mamie accomplishes goes beyond racism but also speaks to how she dealt with gender inequalities within the civil rights movement.

“Till” also shows in effective ways the burden of guilt that the women in Emmett’s family feel because they made the decision to let him take that fateful trip to Mississippi. One of Goldberg’s best scenes in the movie is showing through her body language the heavy heart that Alma must have felt in knowing that she was the one to convince Mamie that Emmett needed to go to Mississippi on his own. When Alma breaks down in tears and expresses an outpouring of guilt to Mamie, it’s an example of how trauma often makes loved ones feel responsible for what happened, or feel like they didn’t do enough to protect their loved one, even though it wasn’t their fault.

The movie also accurately depicts that Mamie did not become an activist overnight. It was a gradual process as she began to understand that no one else could be a better advocate for Emmett than she was. Mamie did not ask to become a public figure who was thrust into the spotlight. It was a calling that she answered, out of love and necessity.

Chukwu brings solid direction to “Till,” with many artistic choices in sound, production design, film editing, music, costume design and cinematography. It would be tempting for any filmmaker to make “Till” look like a sweeping epic melodrama. But thankfully, Chukwu and the other “Till” filmmakers refrained from making “Till” look like a social justice soap opera.

An over-the-top tone would ruin the whole point of the movie, which is to make the story relatable. “Till” shows in many ways that the horrific crime that happened to Emmett and his family can, has and does happen to ordinary, law-abiding people through no fault of their own. And, just as importantly, the movie helps people understand that you don’t have to come from a rich or privileged background to make a difference in society.

The technical aspects of “Till” work very well for the movie, but the story unquestionably has a particular resonance because of how Deadwyler and the rest of the cast members fully embody their characters with authenticity. Even when experiencing so many indignities, Deadwyler shows through her nuanced and outstanding performance how Mamie remained dignified and steadfast in her search for justice. “Till” is a necessary reminder that the work of Till-Mobley and other civil rights advocates is far from over, because racism is everyone’s problem, not just the problem of the people who are targets of this hate.

Orion Pictures will release “Till” in select U.S. cinemas on October 14, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘White Noise’ (2022), starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Don Cheadle

September 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sam Nivola, Adam Driver, May Nivola, Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy and Dean Moore or Henry Moore (pictured in front) in “White Noise” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Netflix)

“White Noise” (2022)

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ohio, the comedy/drama film “White Noise” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college professor and his family begin to see life differently after a toxic pollution disaster forces residents in their area to evacuate and take shelter in public places.

Culture Audience: “White Noise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Noah Baumbach; stars Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle; and comedy/drama films with life-and-death themes.

Don Cheadle and Adam Driver in “White Noise” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Netflix)

With acerbic wit about life and death, “White Noise” memorably shows how a college professor and his family cope with an unexpected evacuation from a pollution disaster. In this well-acted but uneven comedy/drama, the real disaster is dishonesty in relationships. The movie covers both familiar and unfamiliar territory for writer/director/producer Noah Baumbach, whose speciality is making movies about neurotic, middle-class people who deal with problems that they usually bring on themselves.

“White Noise,” which is based on Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name, had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy and its North American premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City. The “White Noise” movie is also set in the early-to-mid-1980s. Baumbach’s “White Noise” cinematic adaptation is quintessential Baumbach, with a talented cast who adeptly handle the verbose dialogue. In Baumbach’s movies, the characters tend to do an over-analysis of people and life, to great comedic effect.

What isn’t typical of Baumbach is for him direct a movie from an adapted screenplay. The previous movies that Baumbach has directed were from his own original screenplays. Baumbach also never done a disaster movie that will get some comparisons to the way that Steven Spielberg does disaster movies.

“White Noise” isn’t a big-budget blockbuster. However, “White Noise” does have some tense action sequences of people trying to find shelter in a disaster, in scenes that are very reminiscent of Spielberg’s 2005 version of “War of the Worlds.” There’s no outer-space alien invasion in “White Noise. The real disruption comes to members of a family who are forced to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves after they evacuate from their home during the disaster.

In “White Noise,” which takes place in an unnamed cities in Ohio, a college professor named Jack Gladney (played by Adam Driver) thinks he’s living a very safe and comfortable life where he has a lot of patriarchal control. Jack teaches the unusual subject of “advanced Nazism” at a learning institution that is never named in the movie, but is referred to as the College on the Hill. Jack usually thinks he’s the smartest person in the room at any given time (a personality trait of least one main character in a typical Baumbach film), so Jack tends to be overbearing and arrogant, but not to the point of being completely obnoxious.

Jack lives with his wife Babette (played by Greta Gerwig), who works as an activities director at a senior living center. Babette and Jack have a blended family that includes four children. Eldest child Heinrich (played by Sam Nivola), a son from Jack’s previous marriage, is about 16 years old and has a keen interest in science. The middle children are Babette’s two daughters from her previous marriage: Denise (played by Raffey Cassidy), who’s about 15 years old, and Steffie (played by May Nivola), who’s about 12 years old. Jack and Babette have a biological child together named Wilder (played by identical twins Henry Moore and Dean Moore), who’s about 4 years old.

The first third of the movie mostly shows how Jack interacts with people in his home and at work. At home, Jack and his very opinionated family frequently talk over each other and have simultaneous conversations with each other. Babette tends to be cheerful and optimistic. Jack tends to be stern and cynical. Mornings in the kitchen and dining room can be described as ordered chaos, as Heinrich, Denise and Steffie sometimes bicker, while their parents try to get everyone out of the house in time to go where they need to be.

At work, Jack takes pleasure in commanding the room with his in-depth lectures about Nazis. The movie never explains why Jack is so fascinated with Nazis (he does not endorse this hate group), but in his lectures, Jack drops hints that people need to study what the Nazis did so that atrocities like the Holocaust won’t happen again. As a history expert, Jack is profoundly awestuck by how quickly Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime took over Europe and had far-reaching effects across the world.

Jack has a friendly rapport with his Murray Suskind (played by Don Cheadle), an entertainment industry professor at the same college. In the opening scene of “White Noise,” Murray is seen giving an enthusiastic lecture about the art of car crashes in American movies. He even goes as far to say that car crashes in American movies are superior than car crashes in European movies.

Murray tells his students that these cinematic car crashes are “a long tradition of American optimism” and “self-celebration.” Murray adds, “Look past the violence, I say, and there is a wonderful, brimming spirit of innocence and fun.” Murray’s lecture is the movie’s first indication that several of the movie’s characters are living in a safe bubble that’s about to be popped.

Murray greatly admires Jack’s lecture styling, so later in the movie, there’s an amusing scene where Jack (at Murray’s invitation) is a guest speaker in Murray’s classroom. The topic is about Elvis Presley, but Jack has been asked to give information showing how Presley and Hitler had many things in common. For example, Presley and Hitler both had fanatical followings and both were “mama’s boys” with domineering mothers.

This “Presley/Hitler” lecture starts off as a dual presentation, with Murray and Jack taking turns giving factoids about Presley and Hitler. But then, Jack shows his tendency of taking control of everything he does, and Jack ends up taking over the lecture and doing all the talking. Jack gets so worked-up and passionate in his speaking that he almost acts like a pastor preaching to a congregation.

Jack’s speech culminates with Jack getting a standing ovation from everyone else in the room, including a few other faculty members who stopped by to hear Jack speak in this class. One of these co-workers is a professor named Elliot Lasher (played by André Benjamin. also known as André 3000), who’s a mild-mannered eccentric who doesn’t do much in his scenes except smile and give words of encouragement to the people around him.

Jack’s ego certainly gets a boost from this standing ovation. But within the 24 hours, his world will come crashing down with an avalanche of insecurity, deceit and mistrust. It starts off when Denise tells Jack that, in the kitchen garbage can, she found an empty prescription pill bottle owned by Babette. The prescription label on the bottle says that it contained a drug called Dylar.

Denise is worried because she can’t find Dylar in any medical book. (Remember, this story takes place in the 1980s, before the Internet existed.) Jack acts like he isn’t too worried, but deep down, he’s concerned too because he didn’t know anything about this prescription. Jack doesn’t confront or ask Babette about this secret prescription right away.

But something about this deception must have triggered something in Jack, because he starts to have harrowing nightmares that seem real. For example, he has a vision of a Jack clone or alter ego climbing into bed with him and sleeping in the place on the bed where Denise usually sleeps. In one of these nightmares, this Jack “clone” almost get suffocated by a blanket by an unseen force.

Meanwhile, a truck carrying toxic chemicals crashes into a moving train when the truck driver is distracted by grabbing a bottle of liquor from a passenger seat. It results in a massive train wreck and an explosion that destroys the truck and sends toxic chemicals in the air. The smoke can be seen for miles away.

One of the people who sees this smoke is Heinrich, who looks at it from afar with his binoculars. Heinrich heard about the train wreck on the local TV news. And he’s afraid that the toxic chemicals could pollute the air and be disaster for the area residents. Henrich tells his parents that maybe they should temporarily evacuate if the smoke comes any closer.

At first, Jack and Babette (especially Jack) are dismissive of Heinrich’s concerns. Jack says that it’s unlikely that the family will be affected by the smoke, since it’s not windy outside at the moment. And when it does get windy, Jack says that wind tends to blow in the direction that’s the opposite of their house.

It turns out that Jack is very wrong about his assumptions. The TV news descriptions of this pollution goes from being described as “a black billowing cloud” to “the airborne toxic event.” Emergency officials are ordering local residents to evacuate. Still in denial, Jack and Babette don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

But their attitude quickly changes when they see their neighborhood become deserted, with fire trucks and other emergency vehicles racing everywhere. By the time the Gladney family members evacuate their home, they’re in a sheer panic. While driving in the family car to go to the nearest designated shelter, they encounter many obstacles, including a traffic jam.

The rest of “White Noise” shows how the family members bond together and fall apart in certain ways during this disaster. While in the car, Jack notices Babette put something in her mouth and quickly swallow it, so he asks her what she just swallowed. Babette says it was a piece of Life Savers candy, but Jack is doubtful. He begins to wonder if it was a pill of the mysterious drug Dylar.

“White Noise” shows in clever and sometimes oddly amusing ways how the problems that are exposed in the Gladney family are a microcosm of a larger society problem of people being lulled and sometimes programmed into a false sense of security. It comes out in subtle and not-so-subtle symbolism and conversations in the movie. The character of Jack embodies this dichtomy of someone who thinks he’s in total control of his life but finds out that his life can quickly get out of his control, thereby making him question how much control he really has.

For example, when Henrick warns his family that the mysterious smoke could be dangerous pollution, Jack’s condescending comments is that if it turns into a disaster, the “poor and uneducated” will be the ones who will be hurt the most. Jack’s attitude is a satire of a very real mentality that middle-class and upper-class intellectuals have that they are somehow “immune” from catastrophes because they think they’re too smart and will somehow know how to avoid them.

Jack’s ego gets a little confused and flustered when he finds out that Heinrich knows a lot more about this type of science than Jack does. Jack seems proud of Heinrich for this knowledge, but it still makes Jack a little uneasy that Heinrich correctly predicted this disaster when Jack had been so dismissive and wrong about it. And with Heinrich outsmarting Jack when it comes to the science of this disaster, Jack turns toward his marriage to assert some of the dominance that he expects.

All of the cast members are well-suited to their roles, but the movie is really about what happens between Jack and Babette. They don’t have the type of marriage that is headed for divorce, unlike the couple in Baumbach’s 2019 drama “Marriage Story,” for which Driver earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Instead, Jack and Babette go through experiences that will make them reconsider how they are going to handle their marriage after the evacuation is over.

The fear of death and how to prepare for death are overarching themes in “White Noise,” as the pollution disaster makes several people confront their mortality. Early on in the movie, before even knowing that this disaster would happen, Jack tells Babette that he wants to die before her and that her death will be more spectacular than his. Jack says that Babette would be able to cope with being a widowed spouse better than he would be able to cope with being a widowed spouse. It might sound like a backwards compliment to Babette, but it’s really Jack’s way of saying that he doesn’t want to be a lonely widower who dies alone.

“White Noise” is hit or miss when it comes to character development. Cassidy (as Denise), Sam Nivola (as Heinrich), May Nivola (as Steffie) have believable chemistry together as stepsiblings trying to adjust to their blended family situation. (Sam and May Nivola are siblings in real life. Their parents are actors Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer.) By the last third of the movie, the kids are essentially sidelined for some soap opera-ish drama between Jack and Babette.

Jack’s college professor colleagues are undeveloped supporting characters. Viewers won’t find out much about Murray, Elliot and the other co-workers who frequently have lunch with Jack: neurochemist Winnie Richards (played by Jodie-Turner Smith), Alfonse (played by Sam Gold) and Cotsakis (played by George Drakoulias). Barbara Sukowa makes the most out of her cameo as an atheist nun called Sister Hermann Marie. Other characters appear in and out of the story like comedic plot devices, rather than people with fully developed personalities.

The conversations in “White Noise” have a cadence that might remind viewers of a stage play. Baumbach and the cast members have given interviews, including a press conference held after the movie’s New York Film Festival’s “White Noise” press screening, where it’s mentioned that the cast members had one month of rehearsals before filming the movie. Most movie productions do not have that rare rehearsal privilege for cast members.

The ending of “White Noise” might seem a little too conveniently contrived for some people’s tastes. However, the end-credits sequence is a must-see for viewers, because this sequence artfully ties in together many of the movie’s themes, (The end-credits sequence involves dance choreography at an A&P grocery store while the LCD Soundsystem song “New Body Rhumba” plays on the movie soundtrack.) The “white noise” of life can either pacify, agitate or do both, depending on the people and the circumstances. The movie “White Noise” asks people and wants to know: “Are you paying attention to the white noise in the first place?”

Netflix will release “White Noise” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 30, 2022.

Review: ‘On the Come Up,’ starring Jamila C. Gray, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Lil Yachty, Sanaa Lathan and Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jamila C. Gray, Justin Martin and Mike Epps star in “On the Come Up” (Photo by Erika Doss/Paramount+)

“On the Come Up”

Directed by Sanaa Lathan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional inner-city U.S. neighborhood of Garden Heights and briefly in Atlanta, the dramatic film “On the Come Up” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old girl, who’s an aspiring rapper involved in rap battles, has to decide if she will follow her manager’s advice to present a false image of herself as a “gangster rapper,” in order to become popular and get a record deal.

Culture Audience: “On the Come Up” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of hip-hop culture and coming-of-age stories where teenagers try to define their identities.

Michael Cooper Jr. and Jamila C. Gray in “On the Come Up” (Photo by Erika Doss/Paramount+)

Based on Angie Thomas’ 2019 bestselling novel of the same name, “On the Come Up” is a fairly entertaining but predictable drama about a 16-year-old inner-city girl who wants to become a rapper and gets involved in her local rap battle scene. There are better movies about aspiring rappers who do rap battles, but at least “On the Come Up” centers on a rare female perspective that’s refreshing from the cliché machismo in rap. The movie’s appealing performances overcome some flawed film editing.

“On the Come Up” is the feature-film directorial debut of Sanaa Lathan, who helmed the movie with a lot of heart, but the movie needed some technical finesse. Some of the scenes are choppily edited, so that instead of appearing seamless, the scene transitions look abrupt and don’t flow well with the story. However, the movie (whose adapted screenplay was written by Kay Oyegun) excels when it comes to the correct casting choices, since all of the cast members give believable performances. “On the Come Up” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The protagonist of “On the Come Up” is 16-year-old Brianna “Bri” Jackson (played by Jamila C. Gray, making an impressive feature-film debut), a talented writer who wants to pursue a career as a rapper. She lives in an unnamed U.S. state in the South in an inner-city neighborhood called Garden Heights. Bri is polite but outspoken and not afraid to stand up for herself.

Bri and her older brother Trey (played by Titus Makin) spent much of their childhood in foster care, because their single mother Jada “Jay” Jackson (played by Lathan) abandoned them and was a heroin addict for many years. Jay has now been clean and sober for the past three years and has regained custody of Bri, but Jay is struggling financially. Trey, who is now in his early 20s, quit a master’s degree program to get a job to help with the family finances. He currently works at a low-paying job at a restaurant called Sal’s.

Bri’s father was a semi-famous rapper called Lawless, who died when she was a very young child, so Bri never got to know him. His cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. Jay met Lawless (whose real name was Lawrence) when she was hired to be a “video vixen” in one of his music videos. Lawless was the type of rapper who was on his way to becoming a big star, but he never quite reached those heights and therefore never became wealthy.

In Garden Heights though, Lawless is kind of a legend in the neighborhood. Garden Heights even has a street mural dedicated to Lawless that Bri often passes when she’s walking down that street. As an aspiring rapper, Bri feels that she’s living in the shadow of her deceased father, but she’s also proud of being his daughter. That’s why her chosen rap name is Lil Law. Even though rap is a big part of her life, Bri has a geeky side to her, because she’s a self-described “Star Wars nerd.”

Bri is currently a student Helen McCoy High School, which has a racial integration program, where low-income kids (who are usually African American and Latin) are bused to the school, which has a large population of middle-class white students. To make some money, Bri sells candy to some of her classmates. Her two best friends are also her schoolmates: laid-back Malik (played by Michael Cooper Jr.) and gossipy Sonny (played by Miles Gutierrez-Riley), who is very caught up in social media and viral videos that are trending.

Jay’s younger sister Patricia, who’s nicknamed Aunt Pooh (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), supports Bri’s dreams to become a famous rapper, and has volunteered to become Bri’s manager. Aunt Poo is also struggling financially, so she sees Bri as a potentially big ticket to a better life as the manager of a rich and successful rapper. Aunt Poo is inexperienced as an artist manager, but she tries to make up for that inexperience with a lot of sassy bravado and street smarts.

In Garden Heights, people gather on a regular basis for rap battles, which are set up like boxing matches. But instead of throwing punches, the opponents in the ring throw insults at each other in impromptu rap lyrics. The winner (whoever gets the louder cheers from the audience) receives a three-figure cash prize, usually $500. A local radio DJ named DJ Hype (played by Mike Epps) is the main emcee for these rap battles in Garden Heights. Bri compares getting in this rap battle ring to being like “‘The Hunger Games’ of hip-hop.”

Bri’s very first rap battle is a disaster for her, because she’s too nervous and freezes up when it’s her turn to speak. Unfortunately, some people in the audience took videos of this embarrassing moment. The videos go viral. Instead of being defeated by this setback, Bri is determined to win in her next rap battle.

Her opponent in this next battle is an up-and-coming rapper in his late teens or early 20s named Milez (played by Justin Martin), who is the son of a smooth-talking, successful music manager named Supreme (played by Cliff “Method Man” Smith). Supreme is at the rap battle that has Bri and Milez facing off with each other. It just so happens that Supreme has an indirect connection to Bri, because he used to be the manager of her late father, Lawless.

The outcome of the rap battle between Bri and Milez won’t be revealed in this review (it’s easy to guess), but it’s enough to say that Supreme is so impressed with Bri’s rapping skills, he offers to become her manager. Supreme tells Bri that he can take her career to the next level by getting her a record deal and making her a star. Bri accepts Supreme’s offer. Where does that leave Aunt Poo? Feeling rejected and bitter.

Meanwhile, “On the Come Up” has a subplot about law enforcement brutality by security officers at Helen McCoy High School. One day, Bri is walking in a school hallway, when two security officials named Officer Long (played by Malachi Malik) and Officer Tate (played by Cuyle Carvin) approach Bri and demand to see what’s in her backpack. Bri exercises her right to refuse, since these security officers don’t have a warrant or any reason to search her personal belongings.

Officer Long (who is African American) and Officer Tate (who is white) immediately escalate the situation. Officer Long, who is the more aggressive one, ends up tackling Bri in the hallway, and he places handcuffs on her. It’s unlawful brutality (especially since Bri is unarmed), but the school sides with the security officers and gives Bri a two-week suspension.

There are racial overtones to the unfair way that Bri was treated. In a meeting with the school’s Principal Rhodes (played by L.A. Winters), who is white, the principal talks to Bri and her mother Jay in a condescending manner. The principal, who seems to have a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude toward Bri, says that teachers have been complaining that Bri is disruptive in class. These are vague accusations that the principal never backs up with evidence.

When Bri tells Principal Rhodes that the school’s security officers target African American and Latino students more by than the white students. the principal is dismissive of this complaint. Bri finds out Officer Long felt he had a right to search Bri’s backpack because of rumors that Bri is a drug dealer. Bri vehemently denies that she’s involved with drugs (she’s telling the truth), and she says that she only sells candy out of her backpack. The principal shows a racial bias by seeming skeptical of Bri, but Principal Rhodes offers to do an investigation.

Jay is outraged that Bri has gotten suspended when Bri didn’t do anything wrong. Malik and Sonny want to have student protests against law enforcement brutality, and they want to start a viral video campaign showing Bri getting unlawfully manhandled by Officer Long. Bri refuses, because she thinks getting involved in protests will damage her rap career. During her two-week suspension, Bri’s career progresses, and she begins to wonder if going back to high school is really necessary when she could start being a full-time rapper.

Bri ends up making some money by winning rap battles. The money (which Bri gives to her mother) comes in handy, because Jay has recently been laid off from her church job due to budget cuts. Jay is having a hard time finding a new job. Things have gotten so bad, the apartment’s electricity has been turned off due to non-payment of this ultility bill.

Supreme dazzles Bri with big promises and sets up her very first recording session after he whisks away Bri, Malik, Sonny and Miles to a trip to Atlanta. During this trip, Bri meets an up-and-coming rapper named Infamous Millz (played by Lil Yachty), who is also from Garden Heights. And two romances develop between the young people in the story. One romance is more predictable than the other.

Bri’s blossoming rap career comes at a high price though: Supreme has convinced her to create a fake image of being a gangster rapper. Bri doesn’t carry guns, is not involved with crime, and has never been arrested. However, Supreme tells Bri that most people who buy rap music are suburban white kids, and the only way to become a successful rap artist is to make the type of music that will scare these kids’ parents. Needless to say, Bri’s family members and friends think she’s making a big mistake by not being her authentic self as an artist. Lathan and Gray have some well-acted scenes together when Jay and Bri have some disagreements with each other.

“On the Come Up” has some realism in how the music business works when it comes to rap, but the movie definitely takes a glossy view of how much sexism is ingrained in rap, a music genre that’s dominated by black male artists. There’s only one scene in the movie that shows a female rapper other than Bri. It’s when Bri and a young woman named Latrondra (played by Samantha Peel)—who uses the rap name Mystique and looks like a Nicki Minaj wannabe—do a spontaneous rap battle against each other in a parking lot. Latrondra/Mystique is never seen or heard from again in the movie.

Bri also doesn’t struggle much before she signs with an influential and experienced manager. As an attractive underage teenager, Bri would definitely be a target for predatory people in the music business. However, “On the Come Up” presents a very sheltered version of the harassment and discrimination that Bri would face as a teenage girl who wants to become a rapper. She gets a few snide and sexist comments, but that’s about it.

Because “On the Come Up” is rated PG-13 (suitable for people ages 13 and up) by the Motion Picture Association of America, the language in the movie is very tame compared to the langauge of hip-hop culture in real life. Therefore, the lyrics in the rap battle are sometimes a little corny. For uncensored and more adult-oriented lyrics in a rap battle movie, check out the 2017 drama “Bodied,” or for a more mainstream option, the Oscar-winning 2002 drama “8 Mile,” starring Eminem in a semi-autobiographical role.

Much of what holds “On the Come Up” together is the winning performance of Gray. Even with Bri’s realistic flaws, viewers will constantly be rooting for Bri to succeed. It’s a typical underdog story in many ways, but “On the Come Up” presents a unique and engaging story of a female rapper—the type of artist who rarely gets to be the star protagonist in a feature film.

Paramount Players/Paramount Pictures released “On the Come Up” in U.S. cinemas and on Paramount+ on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Don’t Worry Darling,’ starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll and Chris Pine

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in center: Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in “Don’t Worry Darling” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Don’t Worry Darling”

Directed by Olivia Wilde

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional California community named Victory, the sci-fi/drama film “Don’t Worry Darling” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A homemaker wife with a seemingly perfect life finds her life unraveling when she witnesses things that are too disturbing to ignore, but other people try to convince her that she’s paranoid and mentally ill.

Culture Audience: “Don’t Worry Darling” will appeal mainly to people who fans of stars Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, but this disappointing dud of a movie serves up an over-used concept that becomes tedious and repetitive with a bungled ending.

Pictured in front, from left to right: Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll and Chris Pine in “Don’t Worry Darling” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Take a little bit of “The Stepford Wives,” add a lot of “The Twilight Zone,” and remove any real ingenuity. What’s left is a mishandled mush called “Don’t Worry Darling.” The central mystery of the story is too easy to solve, because a similar concept has been used in much better movies. Even without that problem and even with Florence Pugh’s talent, “Don’t Worry Darling” comes undone by a sloppily constructed conclusion.

Directed by Olivia Wilde and written by Katie Silberman, “Don’t Worry Darling” is one of those movies where the off-screen drama is more interesting than the movie itself. This review won’t rehash all the tabloid stories (including all the brouhaha at the movie’s world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival), but what most people will remember about “Don’t Worry Darling” is that it’s the movie that led to Wilde and co-star Harry Styles becoming romantically involved in real life. “Don’t Worry Darling” isn’t a complete train wreck, but it spins its wheels too many times to the point of monotony, and everything goes completely off the rails in the movie’s last 15 minutes.

We’ve seen this scenario many times before: A movie starts out with a picture-perfect couple who seems to have a picture-perfect life. They seem to be passionately in love. They live in a well-kept house with a perfectly manicured lawn, and the neighboring houses have an eerily similar aesthetic. And all the neighbors lead seemingly idyllic lives too. But, of course, it’s later revealed that the community is far from perfect and is actually quite hellish.

In “Don’t Worry Darling,” the central “perfect” couple are spouses Alice Chambers (played by Pugh) and Jack Chambers (played by Styles), who live in a planned California community named Victory, which is filled with palm trees and is near a desert. (“Don’t Worry Darling” was actually filmed in Palm Springs, California.) Based on the fashion, hairstyles and cars, Alice and Jack seem to be living in the 1950s. Alice is a homemaker, while Jack (and the other men in the community) all work for the Victory Project, a mysterious technological business venture led by a charismatically creepy CEO named Frank (played by Chris Pine). Jack’s job title is technical engineer.

Alice and Jack, who are both in their 20s, have no children. Jack and Alice tell people that they haven’t started a family yet because they want to enjoy life for a while in a child-free marriage. The movie’s opening scene shows Alice and Jack having a house party, where everyone is drunk or tipsy. Alice and some of the other people are playing a game to see who can balance a tray and drinking glass the longest on the top of their heads.

Two of the party guests are a married couple in their late 30s named Bunny (played by Wilde) and Dean (played by Nick Kroll), who like to think of themselves as the “alpha couple” of the Victory community because they’re older than everyone else. Dean is especially eager to be perceived as Frank’s favorite employee at Victory. Bunny (who is sassy and sarcastic) and Dean (who is high-strung and neurotic) have a son and a daughter who are about 5 to 7 years old. Bunny half-jokingly tells Alice that the kids like Alice more than they like Bunny.

Another couple in the Victory community are spouses Peg (played by Kate Berlant) and Peter (played by Asif Ali), who are little quirky but ultimately underwritten and underdeveloped. If Peg and Peter weren’t in the movie, it would have no real impact on the plot at all. Also underdeveloped is a scowling scientist character named Dr. Collins (played by Timothy Simons), who shows up later in the movie and is described as one of the founders of the Victory community.

Frank’s wife is an emotionally aloof diva named Shelley (played by Gemma Chan), who leads the Victory women in group ballet classes. All of the women seem to be a little bit afraid of Shelley. She gives the impression that she can be ruthless if anyone betrays her or the Victory Project.

One day, at one of the ballet classes, Shelley tells the assembled women that a new couple is moving into the neighborhood because the husband will be starting a new job at Victory. The spouses’ names are Bill Johnson (played by Douglas Smith) and Violet Johnson (played by Sydney Chandler), who are both anxious to fit in with this tight-knit Victory community. Bill is a little bit wimpy and socially awkward, while Violet is very demure and introverted.

To welcome Bill and Violet to the Victory community, Frank assembles the community members outdoors on the streets and gives a rousing speech. Bill and Violet look a little overwhelmed. Dean tries to assert himself by chastising Bill for not thinking of Frank with enough reverence. Later, Alice privately tells Bunny that Violet reminds Alice of a “beautiful, terrified baby deer.”

When talking to Bunny, Alice notices a neighbor named Margaret (played by KiKi Layne) standing outside on the front lawn of the house that Margaret shares with her husband Ted (played by Ari’el Stachel). Margaret, whose eyes are closed, seems to be in a daze as she clutches a red toy plane in her hand. It’s enough to say that Alice sees some other disturbing things pertaining to Margaret, including an apparent suicide attempt where Margaret is up on her house roof and looks like she’s ready to jump. (The trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” already revealed this plot development.)

At the outdoor gathering, Margaret asks people, “Why are we here?” Ted doesn’t like the way that Margaret is asking is question, so he tells Margaret to keep quiet and whisks her away into their house. Margaret is rarely seen out of the house after that, while Alice sees indications that Ted is keeping tight control over Margaret and trying to prevent Margaret from interacting with other people.

Margaret has also been speaking out against Frank and questioning his intentions. It isn’t long before gossip spreads in the neighborhood that Margaret is a mentally ill troublemaker who must be shunned. If this Victory community sounds like a cult, a party scene at Frank’s mansion removes all doubt.

This party scene (like most of the movie’s plot) is already partially revealed in the “Don’t Worry Darling” trailer. At this party, Frank asks Dean in front of the assembled Victory people: “Dean, what’s the enemy of progress?” Dean dutifully replies, “Chaos.” Frank then says, “I see greatness in every single one of you. What are we here for?” The crowd chants, “We’re changing the world!”

Victory has a trolley that is the main form of public transportation in the community. One day, Alice is the only passenger in the trolley when she sees in the distance that a red plane has crashed into a cliff area near the desert. When Alice asks the trolley driver (played by Steve Berg) if he saw the plane crash, he says he didn’t see anything.

Alice begs the trolley driver to go to the plane crash site to get help, but the driver is too afraid and says that it’s a restricted area. Alice decides to walk to the area by herself. What happens after that sets her on a path where she and other people start to question her sanity.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” already gives away the fact that this movie has men in red jumpsuits chasing after people, so it’s easy to figure out that these men are sent to oppress people who “disobey” the Victory rules. Guess who becomes one of those targets? It’s all so predictable.

Pugh does a skillful job of portraying Alice’s psychological torment, but ultimately, Alice (like all of the characters in this movie) are very hollow. Styles is adequate as Alice’s increasingly estranged husband Jack, who is torn between his loyalty to Alice and his loyalty to Victory. But after a while, the obvious and over-used plot development of “the woman who is not believed and labeled as mentally ill” gets run into the ground early and often in “Don’t Worry Darling,” At a certain point in the movie, you just know the men in the red jumpsuits will be part of a big chase scene, because it’s already revealed in the movie’s trailer.

“Don’t Worry Darling” tries to have some visual flair, with repetitive images of the people of Victory moving in sync with each other, as if they’re pre-programmed robots. This visual styling is shown in the scenes with the ballet classes, as well as the Victory community’s morning ritual of the wives going on their front lawns to wave goodbye to their husbands, who drive off to go to work in perfect sync in their flashy cars. The movie also repeats images (many of them psychedelic) of things in the shape of a circle, whether they are close-ups of eye pupils or women dancing like they’re in a Busby Berkeley musical.

All of this eye-catching cinematography comes off as shallow and a bit pretentious after a while, because the story falls so flat toward the end. “Don’t Worry Darling” hastily throws in some heavy-handed feminist messages but doesn’t have anything clever or new to say that 1975’s “The Stepford Wives” didn’t already cover decades ago. The half-baked ending of “Don’t Worry Darling” just brings up questions that are never answered.

Wilde and Silberman previously collaborated on the 2019 teen comedy “Booksmart,” which was Wilde’s feature-film directorial debut. And although the critically acclaimed “Booksmart” uses a lot of familiar teen comedy plot devices, “Booksmart” has dialogue, acting and character development that are appealing. The same can’t be said for “Don’t Worry Darling,” which has talented cast members, who look all dressed up but have nowhere artistically to go in this boring sci-fi tripe posing as an intriguing psychological thriller.

Warner Bros Pictures released “Don’t Worry Darling” in U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Fall’ (2022), starring Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner and Jeffrey Dean Morgan

September 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Grace Caroline Currey in “Fall” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Fall” (2022)

Directed by Scott Mann

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

Culture Clash: Two young women set an adventure challenge for themselves by climbing a 2,000-foot TV tower in a remote desert area in California, but then they get stranded on the tower without being able to get signals on their phones to call for help.

Culture Audience: “Fall” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching survival thriller movies that aren’t award-worthy but offer plenty of suspense and satisfactory entertainment.

Virginia Gardner in “Fall” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Fall” is a suspenseful “lives in peril” thriller with a key part of the story that requires some suspension of disbelief. The movie also runs longer than necessary. However, there’s enough realism and competent acting to overcome any of the movie’s flaws.

Directed by Scott Mann (who co-wrote the “Fall” screenplay with Jonathan Frank), “Fall” is starts off as a fairly straightforward survival story, but it has two major plot twists that should surprise most viewers. One of the plot twists has a soap opera element to it, and it’s not as surprising as the other plot twist. “Fall” could have used better film editing, which drags out the movie’s middle section and then rushes the movie’s ending.

“Fall,” which takes place in California, opens with a scene of three adventurous people in their late 20s on a mountain climbing trip where they are using ropes for safety but are climbing the rocks with bare hands. The three people on this trip are Becky Connor (played by Grace Caroline Currey); Becky’s husband, Dan Connor (played by Mason Gooding); and Becky’s best friend Shiloh Hunter (played by Virginia Gardner), who wants to be called Hunter. Suddenly, a bird flies out of a crevice and startles Dan, who slips and falls to his death.

The movie’s timeline then fast-forwards nearly one year later (51 weeks, to be exact) and shows a grieving and depressed Becky, who has become a recluse on her way to becoming an alcoholic, if she’s not an alcoholic already. Her father, James (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has become very worried about Becky’s physical and mental health, but she brushes off his concerns. She’s been ignoring his phone calls and avoiding him in other ways.

In one of his voice mail messages, James tells Becky: “A horrible thing happened to you, but you have to start living your life again. There’s a whole big, wide world that needs you. And believe it or not, I need you.” It’s mentioned early on in the movie that James did not approve of Dan, and it’s one of the reasons why Becky has been estranged from James.

One night, James sees a drunk Becky coming out of a bar. He offers to give her a ride home, but she refuses. James then tells Becky something that makes an emotional impact on her: James says that if Becky had died on that fateful trip, and Dan had lived, Dan would not be “drowning in his sorrows.” Later, when Becky is at home, she finds out that Dan’s cell phone number, which she had been calling just to hear his outgoing voice mail message, has now been disconnected.

Becky sees this phone disconnection as a sign that she should start trying to move on with her life. Around the same time, Becky hears from someone she hasn’t really been in touch with since Dan’s death: Hunter, the best friend who also witnessed everything in Dan’s fatal accident.

Becky and Hunter have had opposite reactions to Dan’s death. Becky has become emotionally withdrawn and is now terrified of heights. Hunter has become more of a daredevil and has created a social media persona for herself called Danger D, so that she can become famous for doing risky stunts.

Hunter has reached out to Becky to pitch an adventure challenge that Hunter wants to put on Hunter’s social media channels: Hunter and Becky will climb to the top of the B67 TV Tower, which is 2,000 feet high and in a remote desert area. The B67 TV Tower is a fictional name for the movie, but it’s based on the real-life 2,000-foot KXTV/KOVR radio tower, also known as the Sacramento Joint Venture Tower, in Walnut Grove, California. A much-smaller replica (about 60 feet high) of the Sacramento Joint Venture Tower was used for “Fall,” and the 2,000-feet-high appearance was created through visual effects.

Becky’s first reaction to Hunter’s invitation is to immediately say no. Hunter pleads with Becky: “It would be an adventure, like old times. And you can scatter Dan’s ashes on top [of the tower] … If you don’t confront your fears, you are always going to be afraid.”

After thinking about it for a short time, Becky agrees. She says to Hunter, “If you’re scared of dying, don’t be afraid to live. That’s what Dan used to say. Let’s do it. Let’s climb your stupid tower.”

The two pals go on the trip, which includes walking about one mile to get to the tower. The movie never really explains why Becky and Hunter couldn’t drive closer to the tower except to say that they just couldn’t. Another unexplained aspect of the story is why Becky and Hunter didn’t carry enough food and water with them for their tower climb. Hunter and Becky only brought a few granola bars and two bottles of water. It’s a foolish decision they will soon regret.

Becky and Hunter have their cell phones with them though. Hunter uses her phone to take photos and videos to post on social media. Hunter also announces to her several thousand followers on social media that she and Becky will be climbing the B67 TV Tower. When Becky and Hunter get to the tower, Becky hesitates and says she can’t go through with climbing it. But once again, Hunter convinces Becky to change her mind.

On the climb up, the movie foreshadows the danger to come by showing how, unbeknownst to Becky and Hunter, a few screws have come loose from the tower during their climb up. Becky and Hunter are too far away to see these screws fall out of their sockets. However, what Hunter and Becky do see is that this creaky tower is rusty and rickety, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to climb up this shaky-looking structure.

Most people who see “Fall” will probably know before watching the movie that the story is about two women who get trapped on a very high tower in the desert. (It’s also shown in the movie’s trailer.) Hunter and Becky get trapped when the tower’s ladder falls down, due to the missing screws, and both women find out that they can’t get signals on their phones from where they are trapped on the tower.

The rest of “Fall” is about Hunter and Becky’s desperate efforts to get help, since the now-useless ladder was their only means of getting down from the tower. Becky and Hunter have ropes, but the ropes aren’t long enough to slide back down to the ground. Perhaps the movie’s biggest plot hole is that it tries to make it look like no one will come looking for Becky and Hunter. But this wasn’t a secret trip: Hunter already announced in real time on social media that she and Becky were going to climb this tower.

In the meantime, the movie depicts the dangers of being stranded in a remote area without enough food and water. And, as expected in a movie titled “Fall,” there are plenty of scenes that are meant to give the feeling of vertigo to anyone watching. Hunter and Becky come up with some ideas to try to get help, but there are some setbacks when they try these ideas.

When “Fall” tends to get repetitive and the pacing gets a little sluggish, what makes the movie worth watching are the believable performances by Currey and Gardner as estranged friends who share a tragedy and whose attempt to reconnect goes terribly wrong in many ways. No one is going to get nominated for any major awards for “Fall,” but the cast members are convincing in the roles that they perform for this movie. “Fall” also shows in effective ways that the movie isn’t only about conquering a fear of heights but also about conquering a fear of heartbreak.

Lionsgate released “Fall” in U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Sniper: The White Raven’ starring Aldoshyn Pavlo

September 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Aldoshyn Pavlo in “Sniper: The White Raven” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Sniper: The White Raven”

Directed by Marian Bushan

Ukrainian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Donbas region of the Ukraine from 2014 to 2022, the dramatic film “Sniper: The White Raven,” which is based on real events, features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his pregnant wife is murdered by invading Russian soldiers, a former pacifist Mykola Voronin joins a paramilitary group, where he becomes an expert sniper fighting against invading Russians.

Culture Audience: “Sniper: The White Raven” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in seeing war movies that are set in the Ukraine, but this movie quickly becomes tedious and formulaic.

Aldoshyn Pavlo (pictured at far left) in “Sniper: The White Raven” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

There’s no other way to say it: “Sniper: The White Raven,” which takes place Ukraine’s Donbas conflict from 2014 to 2022, is one of the dullest war movies you’ll ever see. The movie becomes cliché-ridden, with acting as hollow and action as trite as anything in a shoddy video game. “Sniper: The White Raven” is based on the real-life story of Ukrainian sniper Mykola Voronin, whose life is a lot more interesting that what this snoozefest of a movie portrays.

Directed by Marian Bushan (who co-wrote the “Sniper: White Raven” screenplay with Voronin), “Sniper: The White Raven” starts out promising when it shows Mykola Voronenko (played by Aldoshyn Pavlo), before his life was turned upside down by a horrific tragedy. In the beginning of the movie, it’s 2014 in the Ukraine region of Donbas. Mykola is a physics teacher and ecologist who is living a lifestyle that’s very different from his peers: Mykola and his wife Nastya (played by Maryna Koshkina) have decided to live in a solar-energy house in an isolated field. Mykola and Nastya call themselves “eco settlers”: people who live off of the land in fully sustainable lifestyles, without using any fuel or electricity.

This lifestyle is unusual enough that Mykola and Nastya are interviewed about it on the local news. Mykola comments on his eco settler lifestyle: “We have a chance to save the planet and save ourselves.” Nastya is pregnant with the couple’s first child. In a TV interview, Mykola and Nastya say that they plan to raise their child in this eco settler lifestyle. Mykola gets some teasing about his lifestyle from some of his work colleagues, who think he’s a little weird. Mykola is also a staunch pacifist when this story begins.

“Sniper: The White Raven” gets its title from a scene early in the movie, when Mykola talks about an ancient legend about a white raven. The raven created the world out of darkness, by waving its wings. The world was a black ocean with a shore that soon became inhabited by people. The raven felt pity for the humans and turned the ocean’s salt water into fresh water and food. But in return, the raven had to sacrifice its white feathers.

Trouble is brewing in the Ukraine in 2014. Mykola sees a TV news report that Vicktor Yanukovych, who was Ukraine’s president since 2010, refused to sign an agreeement with the European Union that would “set a course for improving relations with Russia.” Yanukobyen exited his commander-in-chief position, leaving Ukraine vulnerable to a Russian invasion. It’s a fate that happened to Crimean Peninsula, which Russia invaded and then annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.

When the Russians invade Ukraine, it hits Mykola in one of the most brutal ways possible. He races home on his bicycle to find two Russian soldiers who are holding Nastya hostage on the property. The invaders physically assault Mykola and Nastya, who beg for Nastya to spared, in order to save the life of their unborn child. The soldiers ignore their pleas, shoot Nastya dead, and then burn the couple’s home to the ground.

One of the soldiers also takes an illustration of a white raven in the home and burns it. This movie is not subtle at all with its heavy-handed symbolism. Mykola manages to escape this home invasion, but he is the taken by two local men to join a paramilitary group that is fighting the invading Russians. Needless to say, an embittered and angry Mykola is no longer a pacifist. He now has one goal in life, when it comes to invading Russians: “I want to drive them out of our land.”

The rest of “Sniper: The White Raven” is a tedious slog of Mykola training as a sniper and going into combat zones. This former pacifist suddenly has an extraordinary ability to use guns. His super-skills are shown in such a quick period of time, these skills look too good to be true and exaggerated for a movie. For example, soon after joining this paramilitary group, Mykola (who now goes by the name Private Raven) assembles a gun blindfolded in just 18 seconds, during one of his early training sessions.

The problem with “Sniper: The White Raven” is that after a while, all of the characters (including Mykola) are presented as killing machines, with no sense of real camaraderie between these paramilitary soldiers. Not everyone makes it out alive, but the actors in this movie’s cast aren’t convincing enough that the surviving soldiers feel any genuine loss about their fallen comrades. Expect to see a lot of dragged-out scenes of snipers just lying in wait, with their guns ready to aim, but no real action happening.

Mykola predictably has a brigade commander (played by Roman Semysal), who becomes his mentor. The brigade commander is so generic, “Sniper: White Raven” never even bothered to give this character a name. By the end of this forgettable film, you probably won’t remember much about any of the supporting characters. And when a war combat movie doesn’t make the people in combat worth remembering, that’s always a sign of a lousy war movie.

Well Go USA released “Sniper: The White Raven” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 1, 2022. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 13, 2022.

Review: ‘Blonde’ (2022), starring Ana de Armas

September 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ana de Armas in “Blonde” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Blonde” (2022)

Directed by Andrew Dominik

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the Los Angeles area, from 1933 to 1962, the dramatic film “Blonde” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a troubled childhood being abused by her mentally ill single mother, Norma Jeane Mortenson becomes a superstar actress named Marilyn Monroe, but her personal demons haunt her and lead to a life of failed romances, drug addiction and unfulfilled wishes to become a mother.

Culture Audience: “Blonde” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Marilyn Monroe and “Blonde” star Ana de Armas, as well as anyone who has a tolerance for seeing movies that show the very dark sides of fame and Hollywood.

Ana de Armas in “Blonde” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Marilyn Monroe Trauma Porn is a more accurate title for this very divisive drama, which blurs fact and fiction, with mixed results. Ana de Armas’ risk-taking, tour-de-force performance (which still has some flaws) is the main reason to watch when this bloated movie drowns in its own tacky pretension. How tacky and pretentious can “Blonde” be?

In real life, legendary actress Marilyn Monroe desperately wanted to become a mother but never achieved her dream of having children because of she had miscarriages and abortions. In “Blonde,” there’s a scene showing a doomed, talking fetus inside Monroe’s body—one of several fetus scenes in the movie. The movie also has multiple bloody and graphic scenes of some of these miscarriages and abortions. In de Armas’ striking performance as Monroe, “Blonde” wants viewers to viscerally react to the kind of pain Monroe went through in her life, no matter how uncomfortable it is to watch.

“Blonde” (written and directed by Andrew Dominik) has some stunning and poignant scenes that are meant to shock people or wrench viewers’ emotions out of their hearts. The movie, which had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy, randomly alternates between scenes in color and scenes in black and white. There isn’t a bad performance in “Blonde,” but de Armas is the cast member who undoubtedly elevates the movie the most.

“Blonde” isn’t all gloom and doom, since it also artfully and faithfully recreates many of Monroe’s most iconic movie movements. They include Monroe performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Monroe’s famous scene from 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch,” where she stands on a New York City subway grate, and the air gusts from below make the white dress that she’s wearing billow up around her and expose her underwear.

Still, the biggest shortcoming of “Blonde” is that it relentlessly presents Monroe as a trauma victim, when she was actually a much more well-rounded person in real life. (Monroe died in her Los Angeles home of a barbiturate overdose in 1962, at the age of 36.) “Blonde” is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel of the same name. The novel was also adapted into a two-episode miniseries, which was televised on CBS in 2001, with Poppy Montgomery in the role of Monroe.

The “Blonde” movie and the “Blonde” miniseries are very different from each other. The “Blonde” minseries was middling and unremarkable. The “Blonde” movie goes to extremes that some viewers think go too far. The Motion Picture Association of America gave “Blonde” movie a rare NC-17 rating (prohibiting people under the age of 17 from seeing the movie in U.S. theaters), because of the movie’s sexual content. However, “Blonde” never actually shows full-frontal male nudity (one of the main reasons why movies can get the NC-17 rating) but shows de Armas simulating sex acts that could be disturbing to some viewers.

The “Blonde” novel was also very controversial, even though the “Blonde” movie and book are clearly labeled as works of fiction. The story draws from many facts about Monroe’s life but fabricates many of the hallucinatory sequences, conversations and experiences that are based on speculation on what she could have said and done if she were really in those situations. It’s this speculation that seems to irk people the most, but that seems to be a problem for people who don’t know or who forgot that “Blonde” is labeled a work of fiction.

For example, in real life, when Monroe was a starlet in the late 1940s, there were rumors that she was dating Charlie Chaplin Jr., as reported in the media back then. In Dominik’s “Blonde” movie, this relationship is turned into a three-way romance between Marilyn, Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (played Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. “Eddy” Robinson Jr. (played by Evan Williams), where they engage in sexual threesomes. It’s one of the few times in the movie where Marilyn seems to be truly happy. (For the purposes of this review, the “Blonde” protagonist character is referred to as Marilyn or Norma Jeane, while the real-life Monroe is referred to as Monroe.)

There have been so many books, news reports, feature articles, impersonators and on-screen portrayals of Monroe, it’s almost impossible for anyone who knows about pop culture not to know something about her. People already have their opinions of Monroe and expectations of how she should be portrayed in anything that could be considered biographical. One of the frustrations of the “Blonde” movie is that this 166-minute film drags on for too long and keeps repeating certain scenarios while leaving out important aspects of Monroe’s life.

For example, the movie’s early scenes show the horrific abuse that Marilyn (then known by her birth name, Norma Jeane Mortenson) endured as a child, but does not show any other aspect of her childhood, such as her education or who her childhood friends were. “Blonde” shows Norma Jeane as a 7-year-old, portrayed by Lily Fisher. Norma Jeane’s mentally ill, single mother Gladys (played by Julianne Nicholson) would beat her, strangle her and once attempted to drown her in a bathtub. Gladys was eventually put in a mental health institution, and Norma Jeane spent the rest of her childhood in foster care.

In these childhood abuse scenes, three themes emerge that are repeated throughout the rest of the movie. The first theme is that Norma Jeane/Marilyn pines for her absent father, whom she never knew. Gladys would tell Norma Jeane and other people stories about Norma Jeane’s father being a “titan of the industry” (what industry, Gladys would never say), when in all probability, he was just an anonymous deadbeat dad. Throughout most of her life, Norma Jeane imagined that her father (who’s heard in a voiceover) would write loving letters to her and promise to reunite with her some day. This fantasy contradicts what Gladys would tell Norma Jeane when Gladys would fly into a rage: Norma Jeane’s father left Gladys because Gladys got pregnant with Norma Jeane.

The second theme uses fire as a visual manifestation of Marilyn’s inner torment. An early scene shows an intoxicated and apparently manic Gladys insisting on driving through a California wildfire, with Norma Jeane as a terrified passenger. Gladys gets agitated when she’s stopped by a police officer, who orders her to go back home. The house ends up catching on fire. There are also recurring images of Norma Jeane/Marilyn walking through a burning building.

The third theme has to do with turmoil over caring for an infant. Gladys tells 7-year-old Norma Jeane that when Norma Jeane was a baby, Gladys couldn’t afford a crib, so she would put Norma Jeane in a dresser drawer to sleep. For the rest of the movie, there are images of Marilyn being haunted by the sounds of a baby crying in a dresser drawer. She tends to experience these hallucinations shortly before or after one of her pregnancies ends in heartbreak for her.

With repetition of these themes during depictions of Marilyn’s failed romances, “Blonde” curiously omits any mention of her first marriage: In real life, Monroe married factory worker-turned-merchant-Marine James Dougherty in 1942, when she was 16. The marriage ended in divorce in 1946, when up-and-coming actress Monroe was on the cusp of major fame.

She would then get married and divorced two more times. Her second husband was to retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio (played by Bobby Cannavale), whose “Blonde” movie character is named The Ex-Athlete. Their marriage, which lasted from 1954 to 1955, was reportedly plagued by his physical abuse to her. Her third and last husband was writer Arthur Miller (played by Adrien Brody), whose “Blonde” movie character is named The Playwright. In real life, Monroe and Miller were married from 1956 to 1961, during the years when her drug addiction worsened.

“Blonde” also portrays Marilyn’s volatile experiences filming director Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy “Some Like it Hot” (co-starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis), with Marilyn and Billy Wilder (played by Ravil Isyanov) clashing with each other, on and off the movie set. The expected Marilyn meltdowns are depicted, with enablers always nearby and ready to give injections or pills to Marilyn, in order to prop her up and keep her working.

In the last few years of her life, Marilyn’s sexual relationship with then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy is depicted as superficial, at least on his part. “Blonde” only lists this character’s name as The President (played by Caspar Phillipson), but it’s obviously supposed to be Kennedy. Marilyn seems to have romantic feelings for him but is afraid to express them, out of fear of not wanting to look like a clingy mistress. When she is literally carried by two aides to President Kennedy’s hotel room for a tryst, an intoxicated Marilyn asks, “Am I room service?” It’s sarcasm with some truth.

Marilyn gives President Kennedy oral sex in a scene that actually has no nudity. But because he calls her a “dirty whore” during this sex act, it’s meant to be entirely degrading for her. At one point, he grabs her by the hair and pushes her, and the movie abruptly cuts to the next scene. Whether or not this aggressive pushing resulted in rape is open to debate, but “Blonde” doesn’t show President John F. Kennedy raping Marilyn Monroe, no matter what some uninformed reports about the movie would suggest.

“Blonde” makes it look like, except for her mother Gladys, the people who repeatedly abused and exploited Marilyn were predatory men, including the unnamed studio executive who gave Marilyn her first big break. The sex scene with him (his face is never shown) can be interpreted as rape or “casting couch” sexual harassment. However, critics of “Blonde” certainly can find unintentional irony in a movie that seems to condemn men who exploit women in the entertainment industry, when “Blonde” (written and directed by a man) can also be interpreted as continued exploitation of Monroe.

The difference in this Monroe quasi-biopic is that de Armas clearly took extra care and control in how she portrayed Norma Jeane/Marilyn, and de Armas added many emotional layers that are not often seen in other on-screen portrayals of Monroe. In her portrayal of Norma Jeane/Marilyn, de Armas shows every range of emotion and makes the audience feel these emotions in several scenes that are sure to nauseate or repulse some viewers. However, de Armas (who is originally from Cuba) is not flawless in her accent work for Marilyn, since her Cuban accent sometimes can be heard in some scenes. This accent inconsistency is a distraction, but it doesn’t ruin the movie.

“Blonde” is one of those movies where the star gives a very memorable and harrowing performance, but most viewers probably will not want to see this movie more than once. Before seeing “Blonde,” many viewers will already know that underneath the glitz and glamour, the real-life Monroe often had a sad, lonely and troubled life. All of that is important to point out, which “Blonde” does almost to a fault. In trying not to over-sanitize Monroe’s story, “Blonde” goes in the complete opposite direction and will make a lot of viewers feel like this story is too dirty and sullies Monroe’s legacy.

Netflix released “Blonde” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022. The movie is set to premiere on Netflix on September 28, 2022.

Review: ‘The Silent Twins,’ starring Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance

September 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tamara Lawrance and Letitia Wright in “The Silent Twins” (Photo by Lukasz Bak/Focus Features)

“The Silent Twins”

Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United Kingdom from 1973 to 1993, the dramatic film “The Silent Twins” features a cast of white and black characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on a true story, twin sisters with a co-dependent relationship speak to each other in their own secret language, and they refuse to talk to most other people in their lives, which are affected by the twins’ stints in mental health facilities and involvement with crime and drug abuse.

Culture Audience: “The Silent Twins” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted, cinematic versions of “strange but true” stories, but viewers should not expect “The Silent Twins” to be a traditional biopic.

Leah Mondesir Simmons and Eva-Arianna Baxter in “The Silent Twins” (Photo by Jakub Kijowski/Focus Features)

Whenever a movie is based on a true story, the filmmakers have a choice of which perspectives to focus on the most in the film. For “The Silent Twins,” the intention is to immerse viewers completely into the psyches of the real-life Jennifer Gibbons and June Gibbons, identical twins of Barbadian British heritage, who refused to speak to most people they met in their lives. Jennifer and June—who were born in 1963, and who spent most of their lives in Wales—have a tragic and bizarre story that is already familiar to many people, due to a lot of media attention, including news articles and TV documentaries.

Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska and written by Andrea Seigel, “The Silent Twins” is based on journalist Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 non-fiction book of the same name. It’s not a conventional biopic about these real-life twins who refused to talk to most people they encountered. This uneven drama is a psychological kaleidoscope that’s worth watching for the fascinating performances by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance. Wright has the role of the adult June (the more passive twin), and Lawrance has the role of the adult Jennifer (the more dominant twin).

“The Silent Twins” begins in 1973, by showing the twins at 10 years old. The childhood June (played by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds) and Jennifer (played by Eva-Arianna Baxter) are together in their bedroom while pretending to be radio broadcasters who are hosting their own talk show. It’s soon revealed that Jennifer and June have not spoken to their family members and most other people in years. The twins communicate with their family through handwritten notes and letters.

However, June and Jennifer speak to each other. In the movie, they talk quickly, often in hushed tones, and with unusual linguistic quirks, such as pronouncing the letter “s” as “sh.” In real life, the twins created their own patois way of communicating, which obviously would not work as well in a movie. In the movie, they speak English with a thick British-Caribbean accent, although some viewers might have a hard time understanding some of what is being said.

When June and Jennifer are together, they live in a fantasy world that they created. The twins have concocted imaginary characters with elaborate stories, which were often about fractured families, emotional pain and death. When they become teenagers, they write down and type out these stories, in efforts to become published authors. The movie shows that the twins continued to write into their 20s, but most of their work remained unpublished. Many of the twins’ real-life stories are incorporated into the movie as voiceover narration from the actresses portraying the twins, with stop-motion animation re-enacting the stories

The movie mentions that June and Jennifer are daughters of immigrants from the Barbados. Because the twins’ military father Aubrey (played by Treva Etienne) was an traffic controller for the Royal Air Force, the family immigrated to England and then later moved to Wales. Aubrey’s homemaker wife Gloria (played by Nadine Marshall) is the parent who is depicted in the movie as being more disturbed than her spouse by the twins’ silence.

Jennifer and June were born in Yemen, because their father was stationed on a British military base in Yemen at the time. June and Jennifer have three siblings: older sister Greta (played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), born in 1957; older brother David (played by Hubert Sylla), born in 1959; and younger sister Rosie (played by Lara Nieradzik-Vasconcelos), born in 1967. (The movie makes Rosie look a lot younger than 6 years old in the 1973 scenes.)

As pre-teen children, Jennifer and June go to a school where they are the only black students. They are bullied mercilessly and treated like outcasts and freaks. For example, there’s a scene where a boy pins down Jennifer in the school yard, spits on her, and demands that she swallow his spit. This type of bullying just makes June and Jennifer even more withdrawn from everyone else.

The school’s teachers don’t know what to do with June and Jennifer, who are intelligent, but they refuse to speak to anyone in the school. The school’s administrators are thinking about transferring June and Jennifer to a special education school if the twins’ muteness continues. The twins’ parents don’t want that to happen because they know that June and Jennifer do not have any learning disabilities.

The family is referred to child psychologist Tim Thomas (played by Michael Smiley), who makes several efforts to have a communication breakthrough with June and Jennifer. For example, he leaves two tape recorders in a room when the twins are alone together. On one tape recorder that he leaves in play mode, he asks simple pre-recorded questions that he hopes the twin will answer. (The questions include “Do you have any hobbies?,” “How would you describe your personalities?” and “What’s your favorite subject?) The other tape recorder is in recording mode, in case the twins respond to the questions.

Not surprisingly, the twins don’t respond. And things get more strained in their family, as a frustrated, angry and hurt Greta tells the twins that she done with trying to communicate with them. She also yells at the twins that they’re an embarrassment to the family. At this point in 1973, Greta is married with a child and says that the twins’ deliberate silence is so upsetting, Greta doesn’t want to come to the parents’ house anymore when the twins are there. The twins act like they don’t really care.

The biggest question that the movie doesn’t really answer is why the twins stopped talking to other people at such a young age. (News coverage and books about June and Jennifer go into more detail. It’s because the twins made a secret pact to be mute.) In meetings with teachers, school administrators and therapists, Aubrey and Gloria insist that all of their children were raised with love and support and were never abused. And if the twins experienced something that triggered their muteness, well, they’re not talking about it.

When they become teenagers, Jennifer and June’s antisocial behavior turns into criminal activities. They both have a crush on a troublemaking American teen named Wayne (played by Jack Bandeira), whose family lives on the same military base. Jennifer and June break into Wayne’s house when no one is there and snoop through his things in his bedroom and eat some of the family’s food.

But Wayne’s parents come home and find the twins. Instead of having the twins punished for this break-in, Wayne’s parents feel sorry for June and Jennifer because they think the twins are lonely and looking for friends. Wayne’s parents let the twins hang out with Wayne, who introduces them to smoking marijuana and sniffing glue. As depicted in the movie, Wayne is one of the few people who has conversations with June and Jennifer.

Wayne also gets sexually involved with June and Jennifer (they lose their virginity to him), but it’s not a romance. He’s using them both for sex and mind games, knowing that the twins are emotionally vulnerable and are falling in love with him. In real life, June and Jennifer did have this real-life relationship. But what the movie doesn’t show is that Wayne had three brothers—Lance, Jerry and Carl—and June and Jennifer were intimately involved with Wayne, Jerry and Carl at various times.

In the movie, June and Jennifer’s involvement with Wayne leads them down a more destructive path of drug abuse and violent crime. However, the movie makes it clear that Wayne cannot be completely blamed for the twins’ bad choices, because the twins were already very troubled by the time they met Wayne. As close as June and Jennifer were, they also had a love/hate relationship with each other that would result in them getting into brutal physical fights with each other.

At the same time, June and Jennifer were so co-dependent that they couldn’t function without each other. The movie shows that when the twins are forced to separate by psychiatrists, June and Jennifer essentially have nervous breakdowns. But when the twins reunite and start living together again, their downward spiral continues for other reasons that are public knowledge but won’t be revealed in this review, so as not to give away spoiler information for people who don’t know.

Because the “The Silent Twins” movie is told only from the perspectives of June and Jennifer, the movie offers fragments of June’s and Jennifer’s lives, to replicate the fragments of memories that these twins had during their strange and traumatic existence. At one point, when the twins are at their most obsessive with each other, it’s as if their family just fades away. In the early 1980s, June and Jennifer eventually meet Sunday Times journalist Marjorie Wallace (played by Jodhi May), who has a communications breakthrough with the twins.

The tone of “The Silent Twins” is meant to keep viewers slightly off-balance, as if to replicate how the twins probably felt out of sync with most people they encountered in life. This approach to telling Jennifer and June’s story might be less interesting to watch if not for the performances of Wright and Lawrance. Aside from their skillful use of facial expressions and body language to portray these silent sisters, Wright and Lawrence (who obviously don’t look like identical twins) are also convincing in portraying twins who become so delusional, they began to think that they are the same person.

However, the twins show definite personality traits that set them apart from each other. Jennifer is the more mean-spirited of the twins, but she’s also the more talented and more prolific writer. The twins seem to be at their happiest when they’re creating stories. When they get a typewriter and are later accepted into a mail-in creative writing program, they’re ecstatic.

But the happiness in the twins’ lives turns out to be fleeting. Their drug abuse and continued muteness get in the way of the twins becoming healthy, fully functioning adults. What the movie accomplishes is showing that although the twins’ silence seemed like they were at war with the outside world, the twins were really at war with themselves and felt trapped together to the point of no return.

Focus Features released “The Silent Twins” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘Running the Bases,’ starring Brett Varvel, Gigi Orsillo, Todd Terry and Cameron Arnett

September 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Brett Varvel in “Running the Bases” (Photo courtesy of UP2U Films)

“Running the Bases” (2022)

Directed by Marty Roberts and Jimmy Womble

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas and briefly in Arkansas, in the early 2020s and the early 2000s, the faith-based dramatic film “Running the Bases” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After experiencing a tragedy that derailed his baseball dreams when he was a teenager, an Arkansas man in his late 30s becomes a coach of a high school baseball team in Texas, where he comes up against opposition to his religious ritual of running the bases. 

Culture Audience: “Running the Bases” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching faith-based movies or sports movies with a good story and a meaningful message about courage and standing up for one’s beliefs.

Todd Terry in “Running the Bases” (Photo courtesy of UP2U Films)

As a faith-based drama, “Running the Bases” has the expected religious preaching. Some of the movie’s supporting performances are subpar. However, this good-natured movie is saved by an appealing lead performance by Brett Varvel and some laugh-out-loud comedy. “Running the Bases” should be avoided by anyone who gets turned off by any religious dogma in a movie. But for anyone looking for family-friendly entertainment and can tolerate an unapolegetically Christian-leaning movie, “Running the Bases” is a viable option since it’s slightly better than the average low-budget, faith-based film.

Written and directed by Marty Roberts and Jimmy Womble, “Running the Bases” begins with baseball coach Luke Brooks (played by Varvel) on a baseball field during a pivotal moment in his life. Viewers later find out that Luke is a coach for a high school team called the Parkwood Lions. Luke says in a voiceover, “The path that led me to this moment is not what I had planned for my life.”

Luke mentions God’s purpose and what God the Creator had planned for him. Because the movie shows its religious tone within the first few minutes, viewers will know what to expect for the rest of the movie. The Bible gets mentioned quite a bit and becomes a catalyst for one of the major conflicts in the story.

“Running the Bases” then flashes back to 20 years earlier, when Luke was about 17 or 18 years old and in his last year of his school. The teenage Luke (played by Raphael Ruggero) and his fraternal twin brother Josh (played by Brendan Carl Reimer) are baseball fanatics whose dream is to play professional baseball. Luke and Josh, who are both on their school’s baseball team, live with their parents on a farm in Harrison, Arkansas. Josh is the “alpha male” of this brotherly duo, since he usually takes the lead in whatever he and Luke do.

Both brothers are fairly obedient and respectful. Their idea of rebelling is sneaking off to go fishing with their best friend Jessica (played by Dakota Bruton) instead of doing chores at the farm. The brothers’ mother, Diane Brooks (played by Anita Cordell), is very outspoken in her desire for Luke and Josh to stay in the family farming business.

Diane isn’t very happy that Luke and Josh have applied to a university that can offer full scholarships and where the twins hope to be recruited by a Major League Baseball team. “There’s more to life than baseball,” Diane says to Luke and Robert, much to the brothers’ dismay. Diane’s husband Matt Brooks (played by Stephen Caudill) is more neutral about this matter, but Matt wants the twins to help out with farming duties as much as they can, as long as they’re living there.

One day during a school baseball game, Josh collapses on the field and suddenly dies. The medical diagnosis was that he had an undetected heart defect. It’s also discovered that Luke was born with the same heart condition. He’s told by the attending physician Dr. Spurlock (played by Verda Davenport) that Luke cannot play baseball or do any activity that would put a lot of strain on his heart.

Needless to say, the Brooks family is devastated by losing Josh. There’s a very cringeworthy scene with some bad acting when a grief-stricken Luke is seen by himself wailing and shouting to God: “I’ve got nothing left. No brother, No baseball. Nothing!” he adds, “Can you hear me? Can you even see me?”

Shortly after Josh’s funeral, Luke gets a letter in the mail informing him that he’s been accepted to his top-choice college: Evangel University (where Josh also planned to attend) with a full scholarship. Luke tells his mother Diane that he has no desire to go.

But she has a change of heart about Luke going away to college. She tells him it’s what Josh would have wanted. Diane says tearfully to Luke, “He ran his race. He’d want you to finish yours.” Luke agrees to go to Evangel University. Sometime during Luke’s university years, Luke and Jessica get married.

“Running the Bases” then fast-forwards 20 years later. Luke is still in Harrison and working as a successful baseball coach for the same high school that he and Josh attended. Luke and Jessica (who is a homemaker) are happily married and the parents to a teenage son named Joshua (played by Bridger Trent) also known as Josh, who was named after Luke’s dead twin brother. Luke’s son Josh is about 16 or 17 years old and is in his junior year in high school.

Luke is such a great baseball coach, he has won nine state championships with the teams he’s coached. And so, it should come as no surprise that he gets a job offer from another high school. The person who recruits him is Michael Jamison (played by Todd Terry), the school district superintendent of Parkwood High School, which is in an unnamed city in Texas. Michael offers Luke a salary that is double of Luke’s current salary.

Luke wants to take the job, but Jessica (played by Gigi Orsillo) and Josh don’t want to move out of the only hometown they’ve ever known. In the end, Luke thinks the job offer is God’s way of saying that Luke needs to take on new challenges, so he takes the job. It’s also hinted that Luke still has painful memories of Josh dying on the baseball field where he has to coach his team, so he thinks moving to a new place might help ease those bad memories.

Relocating to Texas has some advantages and disadvantages. Luke and Jessica now live in a much bigger city and are delighted that they can now enjoy some conveniences, such as food delivered to their home, which is a service they didn’t have in rural Harrison. However, Luke is in for a shock when he finds out that the baseball team he’s coaching is so underfunded, they don’t have their own practice field, and they have to use a local park to practice.

Luke also gets mixed reactions as a newcomer to this school. Booster club president Ted Graham (played by Garry Nation) and assistant coach Cage Tyson (played by Stephen C. Lewis) are among those who welcome Luke without hesitation. Alex Kinney (played by Van Stewman Jr.) is an elderly man who’s been a longtime baseball coach for the school, so he’s not as friendly to Luke, because he knows that Luke is essentially replacing him.

Charlie Rogers (played by Robert Thomason), the school’s principal, is cautiously optimistic about Luke. Meanwhile, hard-driving superintendent Michael lets Luke know on several occasions that he expects Luke to turn the baseball team into state champions and do whatever it takes to win. This “win at all costs” attitude is not the same attitude that Luke has, so it should come as no surprise that Michael and Luke end up clashing with each other.

Meanwhile, Luke’s son Josh is on the baseball team but Luke tells everyone that no one on the team, including Josh, will get any unfair special treatment from Luke. Michael’s son Ryan (played by Justin Sterner), who’s kind of a know-it-all brat, is also on the team, and he tests Luke’s authority on the very first day that Luke becomes the team’s coach. However, Luke lets it be known immediately that Ryan won’t get any special privileges just because Ryan’s father is the school district superintendent.

Also on the team is an angry troublemaker named Cody Garrison (played by David Michael Reardon), who becomes an enemy of Josh for various reasons. One of them is because of a love triangle. Josh, who’s a new student at this school, has immediately gotten romantic attention from a schoolmate named Danielle (played by Amber Sweet Sterner), and Cody is jealous because Cody has wanted to date Danielle for quite some time, but she’s rejected Cody.

Ryan’s two best friends are also on the baseball team: easygoing Jerry Wilhite (played by Stephon Gryskiewicz) and energetic Cameron Scott (played by Will Oliver), who are essentially sidekick characters. In one of thee team’s first practices with Luke, the coach notices that school custodian Samuel “Sam” Parker (played by Cameron Arnett) is an enthusiastic watcher of these practices, so Coach Brooks immediately makes Sam an assistant coach for the team. Sam is so delighted and appreciative, he becomes a loyal ally to Luke when things get tough for Luke.

Luke is a coach who leads by using respect, not fear. He tells the team that winning is a goal, but it’s not the most important thing in the game. He says repeatedly that he thinks it’s much more important that they do their best, regardless of the outcome. He also firmly believes in this principle, which he imparts to the team: “Greatness isn’t defined by winning. It’s how you conduct yourself on and off the field.”

All of this might sound very corny, but the movie shows that Luke comes up against obstacles where he is tested and has to show if he practices what he preaches. Ever since his brother Josh died, Luke made it a ritual to run around the bases of a baseball field during practice and pray out loud while running. It’s Luke’s way of honoring God and paying respect to Josh.

However, superintnedent Mike is a staunch atheist, and he thinks that Luke’s religious ritual (which Luke does not force anyone else to do) has no right to be part of the team’s practices or games. And it just so happens that there’s a city ordinance that prohibits city-owned land for being used for religious purposes. Mike demands that Luke stop praying out loud during this “running the bases” ritual, but Luke refuses.

It leads to a feud between Luke and Mike. This feud escalates when Mike finds out that Ryan is showing interest in becoming a Christian, after Ryan spent some time with Jerry and Cameron for a barbecue and casual overnight visit in the Brooks home. And the next thing you know, Ryan is getting baptized. Mike gets even angrier when he discovers that Luke gave Mike a Bible as a gift.

Mike thinks religion is a “fantasy,” and he demands that Ryan have no part of it. One of the reasons why Mike is so against religion is because his wife/Ryan’s mother died of cancer when Ryan was 6 years old. A statement that Mike makes in the movie implies that Mike was probably religious in his past, but he turned against God and religion because of his wife’s death.

Even though Ryan’s home life is unhappy, he is the goofy comic relief in the story. The movie’s funniest moments have to do with a pink Love Rope that Luke uses to discipline and embarrass team members who are temporarily suspended for violating any of the team rules or disrupting the team. The rule-breaking team members have the Love Rope tied to each other and are forced to wear it for a specified period of time while watching the team practice from the sidelines. This Love Rope results in some amusing slapstick comedy in “Running the Bases.”

Even though the movie has some intentionally funny moments, “Running the Bases” is very much a drama. There are some very hokey moments in “Running the Bases,” but there’s nothing in this movie that’s entirely unrealistic. There are no “it’s a miracle” moments, but some viewers might roll their eyes in cynicism at how some conflicts are resolved.

A lot of credit should be given to Varvel in making Luke a believable person and delivering the sometimes very corny dialogue in a way that looks fairly natural. Luke is not perfect (he can be stubborn to a fault), but he can be relatable in some way to most viewers. Arsillo is also quite good in her role as the Jessica, but “Running the Bases” falls into the same stereotypes of a lot of faith-based movies that make female characters with the most significant roles as secondary to the male characters—usually as a love interest or family member of the male protagonist.

And although “Running the Bases” admirably has racial diversity in casting several African Americans in significant roles, there could have had more realistic Latin representation in a movie that’s supposed to mostly take place in Texas, a state that has a very large Latin population. And speaking of casting, unfortunately, some of the movie’s co-stars have awkward and stiff delivery of their lines. But because they are supporting characters, this substandard acting doesn’t ruin the movie.

“Running the Bases” doesn’t try to be anything else but what it is: an earnest and entertaining faith-based film. At least the movie is very up front about its religious elements and mostly succeeds with its intentions. “Running the Bases” also gives ample time to an atheist perspective by not condemning it but by showing the debate over religious freedoms and how they can or cannot be protected secular laws. Stick around for the movie’s end credits for an amusing scene that solves a big mystery that was presented in the story.

UP2U Films will release “Running the Bases” in U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022.

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