Review: ‘Six Minutes to Midnight,’ starring Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench

April 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench in “Six Minutes to Midnight” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Six Minutes to Midnight”

Directed by Andy Goddard

Culture Representation: Taking place in England in 1939, the spy drama “Six Minutes to Midnight” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and various government officials.

Culture Clash: On the brink of World War II, a German British spy poses as an English teacher at a boarding school in England for daughters of powerful German Nazis.

Culture Audience: “Six Minutes to Midnight” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories about spies who target Nazis, but the movie ineptly bungles what are supposed to be the most suspenseful parts of the story.

Carla Juri and Judi Dench in “Six Minutes to Midnight” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench star in a movie about a spy who infiltrates a boarding school for Nazi teenage girls. What could possibly go wrong? In the case of the woefully misguided “Six Minutes to Midnight”: Everything. The story’s “mystery villain” is revealed about halfway through the film, and the rest of the story consists of far-fetched chase scenes and shootouts.

The only realistic thing about “Six Minutes to Midnight” is that the story was inspired by the real-life Augusta-Victoria College, a prestigious independent boarding school for mostly teenage girls in the coastal town of Bexhill-on-Seas, England, which is Izzard’s hometown. Augusta-Victoria College existed from 1932 to 1939, and it enrolled German female students ranging in ages from 16 to 21. It was a school intended to foster good will between British and German cultures. The school’s students weren’t just any students though: They were the daughters of high-ranking Nazis.

According to the “Six Minutes to Midnight” production notes, Izzard was so intrigued by the history of Augusta-Victoria College, it inspired Izzard to want to do a movie about it. Andrew Goddard directed “Six Minutes to Midnight” from a screenplay that he wrote with Izzard and Celyn Jones. Izzard is also one of the producers of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” which comes across as a bit of a vanity project where Izzard wants to be a spy character who’s an action star, without the suave flair and dazzling stunts of James Bond.

Fair enough, but it’s unfortunate that Izzard was a major creator for this clumsily constructed movie. “Six Minutes to Midnight” also shamefully glosses over the horrors of Nazi evil and is instead more concerned with whether or not Augusta-Victoria College’s lonely spinster headmistress will be separated from her students, as war appears inevitable between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. By the end of the movie, viewers will learn almost next to nothing about Izzard’s Thomas Miller character, except that he sure likes to use the beach a lot as a hiding place.

“Six Minutes to Midnight,” which takes place over a period of less than a month, begins on August 15, 1939, in Bexhill-on-Sea. A middle-aged man who goes by the name of Wheatley (played by Nigel Lindsay) is in a classroom, as he frantically looks for something that’s in a hidden space behind one of the room’s book shelves. He takes out a small box and is visibly upset when he finds out that what he’s looking for isn’t there.

Viewers find out a short time later that this classroom is at Augusta-Victoria College, which is sprawled out on a large property near the beach. As a distraught Wheatley quickly rides off on a bicycle, he is being watched through an upper-room window by the school’s headmistress/principal Miss Rocholl (played by Dench), who’s got that hard-nosed “Don’t try to mess with me” look that Dench has for most of the characters she tends to play. Wheatley goes to a phone booth, where he makes a panicky phone call to an unidentified man.

“It’s missing!” Wheatley shouts. “Don’t you understand? They’ve taken it!” The man on the other line can be heard saying something about duty. Wheatley responds, “They know they’re being watched! I can’t go back!”

So now that it’s been established that Wheatley has been caught spying on Augusta-Victoria College, it’s kind of a no-brainer to figure out who sent him there. The person on the other line was guilt-tripping Wheatley about “duty.” And that just screams “service to the government.”

The fact that Wheatley is a government spy isn’t the mystery. The mystery is what happened to Wheatley, who is shown sitting at a table on a pier’s wooden deck after making his upsetting phone call. And then, the next thing you know, all that’s seen is that Wheatley is missing from the deck and his bowler hat is flying off in the wind. Did he disappear? Is he dead? Did he give his two weeks’ notice? Does anyone care?

Izzard’s Thomas Miller character comes into the picture soon afterward, when he interviews at Augusta-Victoria College, as a replacement for Wheatley. The school found Wheatley and Thomas through the same employment agency. Thomas is greeted in a friendly and upbeat manner by schoolteacher Ilse Keller (played by Carla Juri), who is Miss Rocholl’s trusted right-hand person.

What’s somewhat laughable about this badly made film is that even though there are only 20 students currently at this school, Ilse and Miss Rocholl are the only faculty members seen at Augusta-Victoria College. Where are the other employees? There isn’t even a janitor or caretaker in sight for this sizeable property.

Augusta-Victoria College is portrayed in the movie as a high-level finishing school for girls (they practice things such as poise and balance by walking with books on their heads), but there no servants shown on the premises of this boarding school. After all, how can these Hitler youth practice a bigoted Nazi sense of superiority without “lowly” staffers to boss around? The main indication that the students are in a cult-like environment is when Ilse frequently takes the students to the nearby beach, where the students stand in military-like formations and move when she commands them to, like good little Stepford Nazis.

Thomas predictably gets hired at the school, so he’s technically the third faculty member shown in the movie. However, he doesn’t become a permanent staffer, because Miss Rocholl tells Thomas when she hires him that she wants to test him out on a trial basis first. In other words, he’s a temporary employee. This job interview takes place on August 21, 1939, which is six days after Wheatley has disappeared. By the time that the end of the story happens on September 3, 1939, Thomas will be long gone from his employment at Augusta-Victoria College.

In his job interview with Miss Rocholl, she is stern and judgmental. She asks Thomas about his personal life and finds out that he’s a bachelor with no children . When she asks him, “What sort of Englishman would accept a post teaching Herr Hitler’s legal German girls?” Thomas tells her that his father is German. And it’s convenient that he’s bilingual because Thomas has been hired as the school’s English teacher.

Miss Rocholl admits to Thomas that the school needed to hire someone on short notice because Thomas’ predecessor turned out to be “unreliable.” She adds, “My girls need order. Next week, we present them to the Anglo-German fellowship.” Thomas doesn’t bother to ask her what happened to his predecessor, because he already knows that Wheatley has disappeared. Thomas and the rest of the school will eventually find out what happened to Wheatley.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has some filler and predictable scenes that always seem to be in movies where one of the main locations is a school for teenagers. There’s the stereotypical “mean girl”/queen bee student, whose name is Astrid (played Maria Dragus). And there’s the socially awkward outcast student, whose name is Gretel (played by Tijan Marei). The rest of the students are written with indistinguishable personalities. And most of the students do not have any speaking lines in the movie.

Astrid and Gretel are written as such extreme opposites that their characters are almost caricatures. Astrid is the outgoing popular student who excels in athletics and academics. Gretel is the shy misfit who’s smart but she doesn’t know how to swim, which is the main physical sport that the students have at the school. Gretel often spends time by herself while the other students participate in athletic and social activities.

Astrid is the type of person who will smile in someone’s face and then make insulting remarks behind that person’s back. That’s what she does to Thomas on his first day on the job at Augusta-Victoria College. Astrid is the first student to welcome him in the class, but later on, Thomas overhears Astrid telling another student with a smirk that Thomas wouldn’t be considered “man enough” for the Fuhrer, in other words, Adolf Hitler.

Meanwhile, Thomas establishes a bit of a rapport with bashful and sensitive Gretel, because he can relate to feeling like an outsider in this stuffy and elitist environment. He notices that Gretel is frequently shunned by her classmates, so he occasionally gives her little pep talks. But Thomas’ interactions with the students are not shown very much because he’s got an ulterior motive for being at this school. It isn’t long before Thomas is snooping around because he was sent to Augusta-Victoria College to find out what happened to Wheatley.

The movie makes subtle and not-so-subtle references to Augusta-Victoria College being a school that taught Nazi propaganda. Thomas finds an Augusta-Victoria College school crest embroidered on a patch, which has a lion flanked by the United Kingdom flag on one side and a Nazi swastika on the other. (This movie uses the real-life Augusta-Victoria College crest.)

One day, Thomas walks by a classroom and sees Miss Rocholl and the students listening to a Hitler speech on the radio. To his surprise, Miss Rocholl joins the students in a Nazi salute while they chant “Sieg Heil!” At that moment, Miss Rocholl and Thomas make eye contact, and she can sense his disgust.

Later, in a private meeting between Miss Rocholl and Thomas, she tries to justify her apparent allegiance to the Nazis. Miss Rocholl has this to say about joining in on the “Sieg Heil” chant: “It means ‘Hail Victory.’ That’s all … Why should we criticize a country that strives to be great?”

Miss Rocholl then tries to appeal to Thomas’ empathetic side by telling him: “These girls are my life. They give me hope. And that’s why I join in when they say, ‘Hail Victory.'” In another part of the story, Miss Rocholl also says to Thomas that she wants to keep the girls as sheltered as possible from the outside world. Can you say “Nazi brainwashing school?”

And if it isn’t made clear enough that Augusta-Victoria College is a training ground for Hitler’s Nazi youth, there’s another scene where Thomas (who lurks quite a bit in the school hallways) walks by a classroom and sees Ilse pivoting a discussion with the students into an anti-Semitic lecture. Ilse starts off talking about how it’s hard to tell from appearances if someone is good or evil. Then she asks the students for examples of how to spot the differences between animals of the same species. And then she turns it into a discussion about how to find out the differences between Jews and Gentiles. The movie stops short of showing her going into details about how to identify Jewish people.

And what about Thomas’ spy mission? There are the predictable scenes of him hiding in places to eavesdrop on conversations. And don’t forget the formulaic scene of Thomas rifling through desk drawers and secretly photographing certain documents with a miniature camera that’s the same size as a modern-day flash drive.

The title of “Six Minutes to Midnight” comes from Thomas using the code 1154 (as in, 11:54 p.m.) to identify himself when he calls into spy headquarters. Technically, if he were using government time codes to signify “six minutes to midnight.” he should have used the digits 2354. But that’s the least of this movie’s problems with logic.

There’s also a fairly ludicrous scene of Thomas having a tension-filled meeting with his supervisor Colonel Smith (played David Schofield) at, of all places, a live comedy show. Let’s see: You’re an undercover spy who’s supposed to be having a secret conversation with your boss about a clandestine mission. And you think the best place to have this confidential conversation is in the audience of a show where you have to raise your voice in order to be heard because someone’s performing on stage while you’re talking. And you’re surrounded by people who could hear what you’re talking about in a theater that’s fairly dark, so you don’t really know who could be eavesdropping. Somewhere, James Bond is laughing.

The very talented Jim Broadbent is in the cast of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” but he’s barely in the movie. His scenes last for less than 10 minutes, thereby squandering Broadbent’s talent. It’s another reason why “Six Minutes to Midnight” is foolish and annoying. Broadbent portrays a friendly man named Charlie, the owner of a private bus service called Charlie Bus Hire. It’s a small business that seems to have only one bus, and Charlie is the driver.

Thomas and Charlie cross paths a few times in the movie when Thomas needs a bus ride to wherever he needs to go. The government didn’t provide a car for Thomas while he was undercover for this assignment, presumably to make his teacher impersonation more believable. A low-paid teacher wasn’t supposed to be able to afford a car in those days.

Charlie is the type of small role that should have gone to a lesser renowned actor. An actor of Broadbent’s caliber should have been showcased more in this movie. It’s disappointing to see Broadbent, who is capable of better and more substantial work, in such a poorly written role that reduces him to some wisecracking jokes that don’t land well at all.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” really falls off the rails when Thomas goes on the run after being accused of a murder he didn’t commit. One of the characters ends up getting shot in front of Thomas one rainy night. Viewers get to see who the shooter is, but Thomas doesn’t see the killer because it was raining so hard and he was in a car when it happened.

After the murder, the shooter ran away and dropped the gun, with the intent to frame Thomas for the murder. And sure enough, Thomas ran out of the car and picked up the gun, right at the same moment that a police officer arrived to see Thomas with blood on his clothes and holding the murder weapon. What a coincidence.

James D’Arcy has the role of Captain Drey, the law enforcement officer who’s in charge of investigating the murder. Captain Drey doesn’t believe Thomas’ proclamations of innocence. Thomas and Captain Drey have the expected personality clashes. And you easily can predict how this murder is going to affect Thomas’ ability to stay undercover as a spy.

Izzard seems to be trying earnestly to be an action hero, but it’s just not believable in the context of how ridiculously many of the scenes are staged. The shootout scenes lack credibility because “Six Minutes to Midnight” is one of those movies where people spend more time talking while they’re aiming their guns than actually shooting their targets. And get used to aerial shots of Izzard running away on a beach, because there’s plenty of that repetition in the movie.

As for Dench and Juri, they’ve played the same types of characters in other movies before: Dench as the no-nonsense taskmaster, Juri as the helpful assistant/sidekick. The acting from the cast members isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing extraordinary or noteworthy about it either. The character of Thomas is very hollow and uninteresting. It’s kind of mind-boggling that Izzard (one of the screenplay co-writers) couldn’t come up with a better character for this starring role.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” director/co-writer Goddard puts some effort into making the scenes try to look artistic. The big showdown at the end of the movie takes place on a beach at night. Some flare guns are used in this scene, to visually stunning results. But those are just superficial effects. The actual confrontation with weapons in this scene ends up being very dull and anti-climactic.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has an almost flippant and dismissive attitude about the disturbing genocide and other mayhem caused by Nazis. The movie only wants to address the Nazis’ destruction in vague, abstract terms. The characters in the movie don’t really talk about why the United Kingdom is headed toward war with Nazi Germany. Instead, it becomes all about whether or not Thomas can prove his innocence in the murder case and what’s going to happen to the Augusta-Victoria College students.

This movie didn’t have to be a history lesson, but it’s very off-putting that all these characters in “Six Minutes to Midnight” who work for the British government won’t even acknowledge the suffering of the people who are the targets of Nazi hate. It might have been the filmmakers’ way of showing how people were in denial or willing to enable Nazi atrocities. But it’s a weak excuse when most of the main characters in the story are not ignorant citizens and they know exactly why Great Britain is going to war with Nazi Germany.

Simply put: “Six Minutes to Midnight” gives a much higher priority in trying to make viewers care about the comfort and well-being of Nazi youth and their British teachers than it does in trying to make viewers care about the people whose lives were destroyed by Nazis. It’s a completely tone-deaf movie that couldn’t even deliver a suspenseful mystery story. And in the end, “Six Minutes to Midnight” is a time-wasting film where the main characters don’t seem to have any emotional growth because they’re all so emotionally barren from the start.

Review: ‘Voyagers,’ starring Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead and Colin Farrell

April 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lily-Rose Depp and Tye Sheridan in “Voyagers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Voyagers”

Directed by Neil Burger

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in a spaceship from Earth, the sci-fi drama “Voyagers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) who portray American scientists and crew members involved in exploring a new planet where human beings can possibly live.

Culture Clash: A power struggle erupts among the crew members, and it turns deadly.

Culture Audience: “Voyagers” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching derivative sci-fi movies that borrow heavily from dystopian young-adult novels with “survival of the fittest” themes.

Quintessa Swindell, Reda Elazouar, Fionn Whitehead, Archie Madekwe and Lou Llobel in “Voyagers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Voyagers” is a disappointing space travel movie that’s the equivalent of being stuck on a pointless road trip with bickering 20-somethings from a bad soap opera. “Voyagers” is not an adventure story about exploring a new planet. The movie is really about a group of young people isolated on a spaceship in a bland ripoff of “Lord of the Flies.” The cast members’ overall serviceable performances can’t quite save “Voyagers” from the movie’s annoying “bait and switch” in its story, which has too many plot holes and not enough originality for it to be a truly enjoyable film.

Written and directed by Neil Burger, “Voyagers” begins with a captioned intro that explains why this space voyage is taking place: “As the Earth grows hotter, and drought and disease ravage the population, scientists look for a new planet—one that can support human life. In 2063, they find it. The human voyage to the planet will take 86 years.” Although the movie never says which government is spearheading this voyage, viewers can assume it’s the United States because all of the people involved have American accents.

Leading this experimental voyage is a scientist named Richard (played by Colin Farrell), who tells people in a meeting that the plan is to have 30 qualified crew members—all who were born and bred to live on a spaceship. These crew members (who were born from artificial insemination) will have a pre-determined number of children and grandchildren during this 86-year journey in outer space. During this time, these voyagers and their descendants are supposed to learn enough about this new planet to return to Earth and bring back this knowledge so that other humans from Earth can possibly start relocating to this new planet.

From the start, there are some major problems with the story. Richard is the only person who’s shown interacting with and educating the children who were selected to be born and and bred for this program. He has been involved in raising them since birth. The movie should have had more scientists and government officials involved in this training. Just because “Voyagers” is a low-budget independent film is no excuse for this lack of credibility. If you can afford Colin Farrell to be in your movie, you can afford to hire some more cast members to portray the people training the children.

The children, who are in the same age group, are first seen as 4-year-olds in a sterile spaceship simulation environment where they are solving puzzles on computers. Richard interacts with them while wearing a hazmat suit. He is kind and patient with the kids, who have deliberately been raised indoors their entire life. The reason for always keeping the children indoors is because if the kids knew what it was like to be outdoors on Earth, it could have negative effects on their mental health if they knew what they were missing on Earth.

There’s a scene early in the movie that completely contradicts what happens later in the story. During a teaching session, all of the kids are happy to see Richard when he enters the room. Most of the kids run up to him and hug him, and he hugs them back. But later in the story, when the children begin the voyage when they’re 24 years old, they act as if they’ve never expressed public displays of affection before. It doesn’t ring true at all, but it’s the basis for a huge turning point in the movie.

Richard, who is a bachelor with no kids of his own, has grown attached to these children. He’s so attached that he wants to go with them on this voyage. His supervisor Marianne Sancar (played by Veronica Falcón) is very reluctant to allow it. However, Richard tells her that he really won’t miss living on Earth at all. And the next thing you know, Richard is the only adult over the age of 30 who’s with the crew members who were bred for this voyage. Once Richard and the crew members live on the spaceship, he no longer has to wear a hazmat suit when he’s around them.

Here’s another problematic part of the story: No government would realistically allow a bunch of 24-year-olds who don’t have any life experience outside of a spaceship environment to be on their own to explore a new planet. It’s what would have happened if Richard had not insisted on going on this voyage too. Any scientific exploration like this one would require people who would know what it’s like to live on Earth (indoors and outdoors), to make informed decisions on whether or not a new planet could be inhabitable by human beings whose biology was wired to live on Earth through centuries of evolution. It’s basic science for any scientific exploration to have that comparison point.

The “bait” part of “Voyagers” starts off misleading viewers into thinking that these young people, who’ve been trained specifically to explore this new planet, will get to do this exploring in the movie. But no, here comes the “switch” part of the movie: “Voyagers” has absolutely zero screen time of these so-called explorers doing any exploring. It’s not really spoiler information to reveal this fact about “Voyagers.” It’s a fair warning to viewers that this so-called “new planet” is never seen in the movie. Instead, “Voyagers” is essentially a predictable and often-dull soap opera on a spaceship.

Out of the 30 young people who are the crew members, three are the main focus of the story. It’s telegraphed early on that these three are the main characters, in a scene with the future voyagers as 4-year-olds. They are the only three characters Richard is shown tucking into bed and calling them by their names when he says good night to them.

The three main characters at 24 years old are:

  • Christopher (played by Tye Sheridan), who is even-tempered and analytical.
  • Sela (played by Lily-Rose Depp), who is the group’s assertive and intelligent chief medical officer.
  • Zac (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is the group’s rebellious chief surveillance officer.

And because “Voyagers” is really a soap opera in space, you know what that means: love triangle. There are some other crew members whose personalities are given some notable screen time. They include:

  • Kai (played by Archie Madekwe), a mischief maker who likes breaking the rules.
  • Julie (played by Quintessa Swindell), a flirtatious engineer who has a mutual attraction to Kai.
  • Peter (played by Viveik Kalra), who becomes a rival to Kai for Julie’s affections.
  • Phoebe (played by Chanté Adams), who is the group member most likely to stick to the rules and protocol.
  • Edward (played by Isaac Hempstead Wright), a nerdy control room officer who’s the most “book smart” one in the group.
  • Anda (played by Madison Hu), a level-headed type who is good at negotiating.

All of the crew members except Richard are given a blue liquid called (unimaginatively) The Blue as part of their dining routine. Christopher finds out through some computer hacking that The Blue is really a drug that dulls human senses. It contains a toxin called T56j, which makes people docile and eliminates sexual desire and other sensual urges.

Zac is with Christopher when this information is discovered. Christopher then confronts Richard about it. Richard admits that The Blue is a medication that was given to the crew members to make them less likely to rebel or get distracted.

It’s also explained in the movie that the outer-space program doesn’t want the crew members to conceive children naturally. All conceptions are supposed to be by artificial insemination. It’s been pre-determined how many children and grandchildren each voyager will have, in order to prevent over-population.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t sit too well with Christopher and Zac to find out that their lives have been strictly controlled and manipulated by being given The Blue drug without their knowledge and consent. They decide to stop taking The Blue. And eventually, Christopher and Zac tell some other crew members that The Blue is really a drug to keep them complacent. And, of course, the word gets out to everyone else, and they also stop drinking The Blue.

Remember that scene of the cute and cuddly kids running up to Richard and hugging him? Well, the filmmakers of “Voyagers” want people to forget that scene, because (plot hole alert) they want viewers to think that these kids have now grown up to be people who don’t know what it’s like to express affection. It’s unclear how long the voyagers were taking The Blue, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not a drug that causes amnesia where they would forget childhood memories.

There’s a scene on the spaceship where Christopher sees Richard and Sela talking, and Richard has his hand affectionately on Sela’s shoulder, like a father would for a daughter. Christopher gets a little freaked out and acts as if Richard is one step away from being a sexual predator because Christopher can’t believe that someone is actually touching Sela. It’s all just sloppy and contradictory screenwriting.

Keep in mind, these voyagers are the same people who, when they were children, were jumping up and hugging Richard and letting him tuck them into bed. It’s quite an unrealistic stretch that Christopher, now in his 20s, would suddenly act like he’s never seen Richard touch Sela in a fatherly way before, when Richard was essentially the only father these kids had ever known. By the way, this movie never shows the young voyagers being curious about who their biological parents are, even though Christopher mentions in a conversation that they’ve inherited physical and personality traits from their unknown parents.

After certain characters in “Voyagers” stop taking The Blue, the movie makes a big deal of showing them acting out their inhibitions. For Zac, that means a touch can’t just be a touch. When he touches Sela’s face affectionately, it quickly turns into fondling her breasts without consent. Zac and Christopher suddenly get the urge to wrestle each other a lot. And there are multiple scenes of the crew members running playfully through hallways, as if they’ve never done it before in their lives.

Through a series of circumstances, the voyagers also learn about violence. And the rest of the movie plays out as predictably as you think it would. Christopher and Zac go from being friends to being bitter enemies. And in true “Lord of the Flies” fashion, people take sides, and there’s a battle over who’s going to be in power.

And what about the mission to explore this new planet? That gets lost in the arguing and fights that take up almost all of the last third of the movie. And there’s some nonsense about a possible alien that’s invaded the ship, which is a fear that Zac uses to manipulate people to do what he wants.

While all of this childish drama is going on, no one seems to be operating the spaceship. It must be on auto-pilot, just like this formulaic, substandard sci-fi flick is on auto-pilot for almost its entire duration. Out of all the actors portraying the young voyagers, Whitehead seems to be the one having the most fun (probably because he’s playing a villain role), and he smirks it up to the hilt.

Unfortunately, the scenes in the movie where the voyagers have been taking The Blue drug require them to talk in almost-robotic monotones. And so, there are long stretches of “Voyagers” that are quite boring because the actors are supposed to be portraying “numb” people. Richard is the only character on the spaceship who maintains a strong sense of lucid humanity, but the power structure ends up changing on the spaceship, so Richard isn’t in the movie as much as some viewers might think he would be.

The cinematography and visual effects for “Voyagers” aren’t terrible but they’re not outstanding either. The movie’s production design for the spaceship isn’t entirely convincing. The interior rooms often just look like a shiny, sterile cafeteria, office building, or lounge space. There aren’t many exterior scenes in the movie because the voyagers spend more time quarreling or goofing off inside than actually working outside.

You know that “Voyagers” is a terrible sci-fi movie because it cares so little about this mission to explore a new planet. Not once do any of the voyagers talk about any hopes or fears that they have about what they might find on this new planet. You’d think that people who were raised to be these pioneering explorers would be curious. But no, not in this movie. “Voyagers,” just like the space mission in the movie, was badly conceived from the start and should have been aborted.

Lionsgate released “Voyagers” in U.S. cinemas on April 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Enforcement,’ starring Simon Sears, Jacob Lohmann and Tarek Zayat

April 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Simon Sears, Jacob Lohmann and Tarek Zayat in “Enforcement” (Photo by Tine
Harden/Magnet Releasing)

“Enforcement”  

Directed by Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid

Danish, Arabic and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark, the dramatic film “Enforcement” features a cast of white people and Arabic people representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: During racial riots over police brutality, two white police officers are stuck in a predominantly Arabic/Muslim neighborhood after arresting an Arabic teenager for vandalism.

Culture Audience: “Enforcement” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in gritty dramas that explore issues of race and police brutality, even if some of the movie’s situations are too contrived to be entirely realistic.

Simon Sears, Jacob Lohmann and Tarek Zayat in “Enforcement” (Photo by Jacob Møller/Magnet Releasing)

“Enforcement” turns up the suspense and melodramatic moments in a tale of how prejudice and police brutality affect people in Copenhagen, Denmark. The movie mostly succeeds because of realistic portrayals of racism’s damage and because of the actors’ impressive performances. What isn’t so realistic is the movie’s plot: Two white cops in Copenhagen are stuck in a racial riot for hours without any backup.

Written and directed by Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid, “Enforcement” was formerly titled “Shorta,” which is the Arabic word for “police.” The movie is told from the cops’ perspectives, since viewers will find out more about their personal lives and feelings than the personal lives and feelings of the Arabic/Muslim people who are the targets of racial profiling and police brutality in this story. “Enforcement” shows what happens when two white Danish cops find themselves way outside of their comfort zone, in a situation where they’re in the racial minority and aren’t in the type of control that they’re used to having.

The movie takes some simplistic shortcuts in trying to find some healing among the racial/ethnic hatred that’s portrayed in this story. And that’s why “Enforcement” isn’t completely convincing in how it depicts law enforcement’s response to an uprising from people pushing back against police racism. “Enforcement” is essentially a chase movie about a “worst case scenario” for cops when they lose their power and authority in their jurisdiction because they’re being hunted and are outnumbered by angry rioters. It’s a situation that could happen in real life, but not to the extreme where two cops in a big city are completely abandoned by their colleagues during a riot.

It’s not spoiler information for this movie, because it’s the basis of what happens for most the story. In reality, the nation’s military and other federal law enforcement would get involved if the local police were overwhelmed during a riot. And so, viewers will have to suspend some disbelief that the two cops in this story have to fend for themselves for hours while they’re trapped in a neighborhood that’s under siege.

The two cops who are at the center of the story are Jens Høyer (played by Simon Sears) and Mike Andersen (played by Jacob Lohmann), two police partners who have opposite personalities. You know where this is going, of course: One is a “good cop,” and the other is a “bad cop.” Jens is the quiet and sensitive “good cop,” who is happily married and respectful of women. Mike is the loudmouthed and aggressive “bad cop” who is a bigot and cheats on his wife. Mike is about 10 to 15 years older than Jens.

In the beginning of the movie, Copenhagen is in upheaval over a police brutality case: An unarmed 19-year-old black Muslim named Talib Ben Hassi was strangled by two cops named Kofoed and Poulsen, who put the teenager in a chokehold while trying to detain him. During this assault, which was caught on video, the teenager shouted, “I can’t breathe!”

Ben Hassi is now in a coma in a hospital’s intensive care unit. The cops involved in the incident have been placed on a leave of absence while the Copenhagen police’s internal affairs department investigates. The controversy has caused riots and arrests in the city.

The center of the civil unrest is in Copenhagen’s low-income Svalegården neighborhood, which is where the Ben Hassi family lives. Svalegården has a large population of Muslim people of color. The cops in the movie repeatedly refer to Svalegården as a “ghetto.”

It’s established early in the movie that Mike is going to cause problems. A female colleague named Rønning (played by Josephine Park) has a conversation with Jens before they head into a staff meeting. Jens will be partnered for the first time with Mike, who has a reputation for being a racist and sexist bully. Rønning doesn’t hold back in telling Jens what she thinks of Mike, by saying that she’d rather “blow my brains out” than work with Mike as a cop partner.

During the staff meeting, their boss Captain Hedegaard (played by Michael Brostrup) tells the assembled cops to stay clear of Svalegården because an increased police presence will just agitate the people there even more. But of course, there would be no “Enforcement” movie if Mike and Jens followed those orders. Jens and Mike find out the hard way how much their captain meant when he said that he didn’t want send any more police into Svalegården.

During Jens and Mike’s first day together as cop partners, Mike doesn’t waste time trying to dig into Jens’ personal life to try to get a read on him. While they’re driving in their squad car (with “alpha male” Mike as the driver), Mike asks Jens if he’s married and has children. Jens says he’s married but doesn’t have children. Mike says he’s married with kids and then makes a derogatory comment about their female colleague Rønning by asking Jens if Jens has had sex with Rønning yet. (Mike uses cruder terms than what’s described here.)

Jens replies that Rønning is a former trainee of his and that it would be inappropriate to have sex with her. Mike replies: “That makes it even hotter: a bit of student/teacher action.” Mike also makes it clear that he has no qualms about cheating on his wife. As Mike and Jens patrol the streets in their squad car, Mike lets it be known that he thinks the cops in the Ben Hassi case should be completely exonerated. Mike also spews some bigoted comments about gypsies to make it obvious that he’s prejudiced against people who aren’t white.

Jens feels pressure to impress Mike, knowing that he’s stuck with Mike, and Mike has seniority over Jens. Jens tells Mike a story about how he accidentally set off a box of grenades at a police department where he previously worked. The building was evacuated, but people forgot for a few hours that there were two gypsies left behind in the lockup area. When they found the gypsies, they were terrified out of their minds. Mike and Jens laugh about this story, with Mike commenting about how funny it must have been to see that the gypsies had soiled themselves from fear.

It’s in this scene that viewers get the first indication that although Jens is the “good cop,” he’s willing to go along with what he thinks Mike wants, even if it means pretending that he might be as prone to corruption as Mike is. (This relationship might remind people of the cop characters that Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke portrayed in the 2001 movie “Training Day.”) A great deal of “Enforcement” is about answering this question: Is it possible for Jens to do the right thing when he’s faced with an ethical dilemma?

While on patrol duty, Jens and Mike follow a Mercedes-Benz E-Class that’s registered to a suspected criminal named Hamza Alfarsi. They follow the car into Svalegården, despite being given orders to steer clear of the neighborhood. Jens is a little hesitant about being in Svalegården, but since Mike is in the driver’s seat, Jens has no choice but to go along.

To no one’s surprise, Mike’s motivation for following the car is so he can see if there’s a way to harass the Arabic people who are in the car. Mike tries these intimidation tactics when he follows the car to a house and orders the people in the car to get out. However, Mike is soon surrounded by some Arabic men, and he backs off when he sees that someone is filming him with a phone.

Mike doesn’t say it loud, but viewers of this movie can tell that he’s infuriated about being embarrassed in front of Jens for this failed harassment attempt. And so, it’s easy to predict that Mike doesn’t want to leave Svalegården until he’s taken his anger out on other Arabs whom he wants to arrest. But before that happens, the two cops stop by a local boxing gym, where Mike does some more ego posturing, to show Jens that Mike is well-known in the neighborhood.

The gym is run by a man named Sami (played by Dulfi Al-Jabouri), who seems to tolerate Mike because he doesn’t want to get on Mike’s vengeful side. The movie makes a point of showing that someone has graffitied “Die Pigs” on one of the gym walls. In the gym are two teenagers named Iza (played by Issa Khattab) and Daniel (played by Abdelmalik Dhaflaoui), who are about 16 or 17 years old. Iza tells Sami that he wants to be a Big Brother (as in the Big Brothers mentor program), but Sami tells Iza that he isn’t old enough yet. It won’t be the last time that Iza and Daniel are seen in this movie.

Jens and Mike then go outside, where Mike spots his next Arab target. He detains a teenager named Amos Al-Shami (played by Tarek Zayat) to harass him, even though the teenager isn’t doing anything wrong. Amos is about 18 or 19 years old. Mike wants to provoke the teen into doing something that would be grounds for arrest.

After demanding to see Amos’ photo ID, Mike asks for the last four digits of the Amos’ Social Security number. Amos refuses. Knowing his rights, Amos takes out his phone and starts filming this harassment. This act of self-protection seems to anger Mike even more. Meanwhile, Jens is standing by in case things turn violent. Some other teenagers, who are not too far away, are witnessing the harassment. Although the other teens can’t hear the conversation, they can see what’s going on.

Mike humiliates Amos with an illegal strip search, by ordering Amos to take off his trousers. Amos complies out of fear of being arrested, During the strip search. Amos remains stoic and calm, with a demeanor that seems to silently say, “You can’t break me.” Amos certainly has more dignity than the racist cop who abuses his power to bully people. The teens watching this harassment begin shouting at and jeering at the cops. Mike eventually backs off because the entire incident is being recorded on video and he feels that he has sufficiently embarrassed Amos.

As Jens and Mike drive off in their squad car, someone throws a cup of milkshake on the windshield of the car. (The movie never shows who was the culprit.) The teenagers scatter as the cops give chase, and Amos is the one who’s caught. Mike and Jens quickly arrest Amos for vandalism, but Amos protests and says he wasn’t the one who threw the milkshake.

The word soon rapidly spreads in Svalegården that another Muslim of color has been harassed by white cops. And that brings out an angry mob of mostly young Muslim men. The mob doesn’t come out all at once, but Jens and Mike quickly figure out that they’re not safe in this neighborhood.

And something happens to Jens and Mike’s squad car so that they can’t escape in the car. Eventually, Jens and Mike have to replace their police clothing items with civilian clothes, so that they aren’t recognizable as police officers. And to the dismay of these two cops, they call for backup and are told that their police department won’t send anyone to help them because it’s too dangerous.

There are some twists and turns to the story (some that are more predictable than others), which keeps the film moving with a tension-filled pace. Jens, Mike and Amos (who’s still in police custody) spend a lot of the movie just trying to stay alive. Although Jens appears to be the main protagonist at the beginning of the movie, there’s an entire section in the last third of the movie where Mike is the focal point after he and Jens get separated in the chaos.

Amos lives with his single mother Abia (played by Özlem Saglanmak) and his 5-year-old sister Amira (played by Lara Aksoy) in an apartment building. As day turns into night and Amos still hasn’t come home, there are scenes of a worried Abia wondering where Amos is, when she knows that there are riots going on and she’s fearing the worst. Amos hasn’t been answering his cell phone. It’s shown in the movie what happened to his phone. And for obvious reasons, Abia doesn’t call the police to report her son missing.

Aside from the expected shootouts and chase scenes, the real intrigue of “Enforcement” is in how Mike, Jens and Amos navigate the changing dynamics of their relationship as the story goes on and how race plays a role. Although it might be easy to assume that Mike and Jens should have let Amos go so that the cops could focus on defending themselves, Mike and Jens actually need Amos for protection. The cops know that the rioters are less likely to attack the cops if they have a person of color with them.

The cops begin to understand that, under these circumstances, their “white privilege” is actually a detriment that could cost them their lives. “Enforcement” isn’t subtle at all with this message. The movie shows in various ways how a racist cop like Mike, who’s become accustomed to getting away with inflicting terror on people because of their race, is now getting a taste of his own medicine. Jens, who represents white people who enable white racists, also learns some very hard lessons on what it’s like to be targeted for race-based violence.

The performances of Sears, Lohmann and Zayat get the majority of screen time. All three actors carry the movie quite well, even when some scenarios look over-dramatic. As filmmakers, Ølholm and Hviid show a knack for telling this story in a compelling way that doesn’t tie up all loose ends with a pleasant and pretty bow. “Enforcement” takes place in a 24-hour period, but the movie is clear with its message that systemic racism doesn’t go away after a night of rioting.

Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet Releasing released “Enforcement” in select U.S. cinemas and on demand on March 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Dolphin Island,’ starring Peter Woodward, Tyler Jade Nixon, Dionne Lea, Bob Bledsoe, David Raizor, Annette Lovrien Duncan and Aaron Burrows

April 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tyler Jade Nixon in “Dolphin Island” (Photo courtesy of Entertainment Squad)

“Dolphin Island”

Directed by Mike Disa

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Bahamas, the family drama film “Dolphin Island” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white and black) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A British paternal grandfather, who has custody of his orphaned American teenage granddaughter, lives with her on a boat in the Bahamas, but the teenager’s maternal grandparents from New York City don’t approve of her living situation and want custody of her. 

Culture Audience: “Dolphin Island” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in sentimental family-oriented entertainment, but the movie’s substandard acting and overly sappy screenplay will be too low-quality for many people’s tastes.

Peter Woodward and Tyler Jade Nixon in “Dolphin Island” (Photo courtesy of Entertainment Squad)

The filmmakers of “Dolphin Island” clearly intended to make this drama a family-friendly story. However, the movie has too much unrealistic corniness, sloppy predictability and terrible acting for it to be recommended to anyone looking for passably good, memorable entertainment. “Dolphin Island” is as formulaic as can be, but it’s made worse by the insipid dialogue and awkward performances by many of the cast members.

“Dolphin Island” was directed by Mike Disa, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Shaked Berenson and Rolfe Kanefsky. The movie takes place in the Bahamas. And if nothing else, at least people will see some nice Caribbean scenery. But right away, the movie has a sheen of phoniness in the opening scene on an island pier, which features the local people acting way too upbeat and chipper, as if they’re in an infomercial for Bahamas tourism. You almost except them to break out into song, like a Disney musical.

British native Jonah Coleridge (played by Peter Woodward) has been living in the Bahamas for the past 10 years with his 14-year-old granddaughter Annabel (played by Tyler Jade Nixon) on a small house boat/fishing vessel that he owns. Annabel is homeschooled, and Jonah makes a living by giving boat tours around the island. Annabel’s parents were marine biologists who died 10 years earlier in a diving accident. Jonah’s son was Annabel’s father.

Annabel’s parents co-founded a non-profit wildlife research and conservation center, which is is still open for business. However, it’s mentioned that business has slowed down because of the most recent hurricane. Annabel loves animals and ocean life, so it’s hinted that she probably wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps and possibly work at the wildlife center someday.

Jonah is currently a bachelor. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his second and most recent wife is now deceased. After Annabel’s parents died, Jonah moved to the Bahamas to take permanent custody of Annabel because he didn’t want to disrupt her life by having her move to another country. And he also fell in love with the Bahamas.

The opening scene of “Dolphin Island” is intended to show that despite their family tragedy, Jonah and Annabel have managed to have a pretty blissful life together. And since this movie is called “Dolphin Island,” you just know that there’s going to be a cute dolphin that does tricks in the movie. Her name is Mitzy, and Annabel considers Mitzy to be her best friend.

Jonah and Annabel adore each other. And as they walk through the pier, which has local businesses nearby, everyone greets each other with smiles, waves and friendly banter. It’s all a big lovefest where everyone gets along with each other. Well, gosh golly gee willikers, isn’t that sweet?

Too bad some of this good cheer is ruined by embarrassingly bad lines of dialogue. Jonah, who likes to smile a lot, declares about Annabel and Mitzy: “Every day is a good day, as long I have my two girls!” When Annabel stops to talk to a couple of the local men lounging at the pier, she foists a corny joke on them: “Where does a fish keep money? In a river bank!”

This is going to be an excruciating stay on Dolphin Island because the bad dialogue gets worse. Annabel and Jonah have a near-perfect life in paradise. What could possibly go wrong?

The first sign that things are amiss comes when a teenage boy, who’s around Annabel’s age, pickpockets a wallet from an unsuspecting tourist. As soon as the boy has the wallet, he turns around and pretends that the wallet fell out of the tourist’s pocket and plays the role of a Good Samaritan who’s returning the wallet. It’s a well-known scam where the con artist hopes that the wallet owner will offer a reward for the “found” wallet. And it works, because the tourist gives the teenager some cash as a thank you.

The next time that the pickpocket pulls this con game on another tourist, Annabel sees it happening not too far away, and the boy notices that Annabel has witnessed him committing this crime. She shakes her head in disapproval and points at the boy silently to indicate that he needs to confess immediately. The boy sheepishly tells the tourist that the wallet wasn’t lost but that he actually stole it. The tourist accepts the boy’s apology.

One of the things that’s problematic about this whole scenario is its racist overtone. The teenage pickpocket is black and the tourists are white. When viewers find out who the pickpocket is, it’s obvious that there was no reason to portray him in the movie as a criminal. Movies and TV shows have already oversaturated people with negative stereotypes of young black men as criminals. It’s disappointing that a supposedly wholesome movie like “Dolphin Island” has pandered to this damaging and racist stereotype for no good reason.

It turns out (and this isn’t spoiler information) that the teenage boy is new to the area. His name is Mateo Rolle (played by Aaron Burrows), and he’s not a poor and desperate street kid. He lives with his divorced mother in a loving, middle-class home. The movie gives no explanation for why he was pickpocketing people. It’s a horrible way to introduce a character who happens to be black by making it look like this person is a criminal.

The movie also makes it look like Mateo’s “crime spree” ended only because Annabel stopped it, which is the filmmakers’ way of making Annabel (who is white) look more virtuous than Mateo. The racist subtext is pretty obvious. At any rate, now that Mateo has been shamed and has shown remorse, he and Annabel start talking and quickly end up becoming friends. Because that’s what happens in a corny movie like this one.

Meanwhile, Annabel is going to have more to worry about than busting teenage pickpockets. A child protective services worker named Desaray Rolle (played by Dionna Lea) from the Freeport Social Services Department has shown up on Jonah’s boat to let him know that she’s investigating him, due to a complaint that was filed about the living conditions he has for Annabel. Desaray says she’s taken over for the previous case worker who passed away.

Jonah is immediately defensive and argumentative. He makes a bad impression on Desaray, who is skeptical of Jonah’s proclamations that Annabel is living in a safe and loving environment. It doesn’t help that Desaray sees some local men napping on chairs nearby on the pier, with some beer bottles near the chairs. Desaray assumes that these men are passed out drunk and that Annabel is living among a bunch of degenerate partiers.

Desaray tells Jonah that she thinks Jonah is a “beach bum … I should know. I was married to one!” Even if viewers didn’t know Desaray and Mateo’s last name was the same, the way that Desaray and Mateo are introduced in the story makes it pretty obvious that they are both related, in order to create come more dramatic tension. Eventually, it’s revealed that Desaray is Mateo’s mother. And so now, Annabel has found out that her new friend/potential boyfriend Mateo has a mother who has the power to determine if Jonah is an unfit guardian or not.

Who filed the complaint to investigate Jonah for how he’s raising Annabel? Jonah finds out when he gets a visit from a sleazy lawyer named Robert Carbunkle (played by Bob Bledsoe), who tells Jonah that he’s the attorney for the people who filed the complaint: Annabel’s well-to-do maternal grandparents Samuel Williams (played by David Raizor) and Sheryl Williams (played by Annette Lovrien Duncan), who live in New York City. Samuel and Sheryl, who haven’t seen Annabel in 10 years, have decided that they miss Annabel, and they want her to live with them in New York.

Robert offers Jonah a sizeable amount of money to give up custody of Annabel to the other grandparents. An infuriated Jonah immediately turns down the offer. And it’s during this heated discussion that viewers find out, when Jonah tells Robert, that before Annabel’s parents were married, Samuel tried to bribe Jonah’s son to break up with Samuel’s daughter because Samuel didn’t approve of the relationship. Jonah’s son refused the offer. And when Samuel’s daughter found out about the bribe offer, she remained estranged from her parents until she died. Samuel and Sheryl last saw Annabel at the funeral for Annabel’s parents.

Of course, this custody battle turns into a war. Samuel and Sheryl eventually arrive in the Bahamas for legal proceedings. A lot of what the judge will decide depends on what Desaray puts in her evaluation report. But Jonah has already said and done a lot to alienate Desaray, even though the way that Jonah and Desaray met just screams “meet cute moment,” where people who dislike each other when they first meet end up being attracted to each other.

Samuel is more ruthless about the custody fight than Sheryl is because Samuel thinks he can buy his way into getting whatever he wants. Annabel and Jonah don’t want to be separated from each other, so there are tears and meltdowns aplenty. The acting from most of the cast members is just plain amateurish, with many of the actors going too over-the-top with melodramatics. Woodward has moments where he shows he has more talent than the other actors, but he too eventually sinks into the quagmire of mawkishness.

People who have seen enough of this type of formulaic mush can easily figure out what happens for the rest of the story. The last third of the movie has an almost-laughable “race against time” chase scene in the water, because we can’t forget that the dolphin has to be useful in this schlocky film. If you’re going to visit “Dolphin Island,” just know you’ll be stuck neck-deep in silly schmaltz that will leave you cringing.

Entertainment Squad released “Dolphin Island” on digital and VOD on March 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Falling’ (2021), starring Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen and Laura Linney

April 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lance Henriksen and Viggo Mortensen in “Falling” (Photo courtesy of Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution)

“Falling”

Directed by Viggo Mortensen

Culture Representation: Taking place in Southern California and an unnamed state on the East Coast of the U.S., the dramatic film “Falling” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An openly gay, middle-aged man has conflicts with his bigoted father, who has early signs of dementia. 

Culture Audience: “Falling” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about dysfunctional families and dealing with dementia, but the movie’s constant vitriol from one of the characters might be a turnoff to some viewers.

Terry Chen, Gabby Velis and Lance Henriksen in “Falling” (Photo courtesy of Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution)

If not for the commendable acting from the stars of the movie, “Falling” would be a very unpleasant chore to watch. This dramatic movie is the feature-film directorial debut of Viggo Mortensen, who also wrote the film’s screenplay and musical score. Mortensen is also one of the stars and producers of the “Falling,” which tells the story of how a hate-filled old man and his middle-aged children (especially his son) deal with the old man’s dementia and his search for a place to retire.

The direction of the movie veers between fluid and uneven. There are parts of the story that become too repetitive with bigotry and other bad behavior. However, there’s enough authenticity in the cast members’ performances in “Falling” that makes the movie worth watching to see how this emotionally damaged family is going to cope with family problems. In interviews, Mortensen has said that “Falling” is not biographical, but some parts of the film were inspired by what he’s experienced in real life.

There’s no other way to describe Willis Peterson (played by Lance Henriksen), the family’s patriarch: He’s a racist, homophobic, sexist, self-centered, foul-mouthed bully. Willis tests the patience of his family members (and people watching this movie) with his increasingly erratic and unhinged actions. Willis, who is in his 70s, is looking for a place to retire, possibly in California, and he’s being helped by his openly gay son John (played by Mortensen), who lives in Southern California.

Willis has another child named Sarah (played by Laura Linney), John’s younger sister, who isn’t in the movie for very long. But her presence in “Falling” brings a valuable perspective on how this family became such a mess of emotional terrorism by Willis. There’s a lot of unspoken resentment from the family members who put up with his disgusting nonsense. Sarah’s involvement is brief but impactful. “Falling” is really a father/son story, told from the perspective of Willis and John and their memories.

There are several non-chronological flashbacks in the movie that viewers have to put together like pieces in a puzzle to explain how and why this family ended up this way. The flashbacks go as far back as the early 1960s, when a young Willis (played by Sverrir Gudnason) and his wife Gwen (played by Hannah Gross) are parents to John when he was a baby. Willis says half-jokingly to baby John (played by twins Liam and Luca Cresctielli): “I’m sorry I brought you into this world so that you can die.” The family lives on an isolated farm in an unnamed state on the East Coast.

The movie’s flashbacks never show Sarah as a baby, but she’s about five years younger than John. The movie’s flashbacks show Sarah at approximately 4 to 6 years old (played by Carina Battrick) and at 11 years old (played by Ava Kozelj), while John is shown at 4 years old (played by Grady McKenzie), approximately 9 to 11 years old (played by (Etienne Kelliciand), and at age 16 (played by William Healy). It becomes apparent that Willis was a selfish person as a husband and a father. He’s the main cause for the family’s unhappiness.

Narcissistic people who become parents often have resentment when their children don’t pay as much attention to the narcissist as the kids did when they were younger. Based on what’s shown in the flashbacks, that’s exactly what happened with Willis. Gwen and Willis’ marriage began to crumble as their kids grew up and started to develop their own personalities and opinions. It’s a lot easier to boss around a 4-year-old than it is to boss around a 16-year-old.

There’s a flashback scene in the movie of Willis teaching 4-year-old John how to duck hunt. It’s one of the few scenes in the movie that show Willis and John seeming to be happy spending time together. After shooting a duck, John takes the dead duck home with him and refuses to give it to his mother to cook. Instead, John insists on treating the duck like a toy, even to the point of bringing the duck with him to bed. (Mortensen says that this happened to him in real life when he was a child.) Gwen eventually convinces John to give her the duck so that she can cook it.

But as John and Sarah got older, Willis’ nasty side came out even more. There’s a scene of John, at approximately 9 to 11 years old, having a birthday party in the family home. Gwen, Sarah, several children and their mothers are also at the party, which is a happy celebration until Willis tries to ruin it. Willis lurks nearby with a jealous look on his face, as if he can’t stand that he’s not the center of attention in his home. And sure enough, Willis blurts out something demeaning to humiliate John, while an embarrassed Gwen tries to ignore what happened and pretend that everything is okay.

But everything is not okay. In flashbacks, it’s shown that Willis cheated on Gwen with a younger woman named Jill (played by Bracken Burns), who was either a friend of Gwen’s or someone whom Gwen trusted enough to let Jill be a babysitter before the adultery betrayal. Willis and Jill moved in together around the time that John was 9 to 11 years old. Gwen and Willis got divorced. Gwen got full custody of the kids, with Willis getting visitation rights.

But when Gwen started dating another man, jealous Willis decided to not return John and Sarah from one of his visitations. The details are sketchy in the flashbacks, but it seems as if Willis and Jill took John and Sarah on an extended road trip without permission, which was a violation of the custody agreement. Willis freely admits to Jill that he didn’t want to return the kids to their mother, just to spite Gwen. It’s unclear if Willis went to jail over it, but he and Jill had the kids long enough where there’s a scene of Willis and Jill with the kids in a diner, the children look miserable, and the kids ask when they can go home.

By the time John became a teenager, John and Willis’ relationship had deteriorated to the point of them getting into physical fights. There’s a scene of Willis and a 16-year-old John getting into an argument and brawling while they were horseback riding together. Willis is the aggressor, and viewers can easily speculate that it’s not the first time that Willis has been physically abusive to John. It’s shown throughout the story that horses are a big deal to Willis, who seems to like horses more than he likes people.

Gwen eventually got remarried to someone named Danny, an artist whom Willis despised. Jill never married Willis but lived with him for a few years, and she eventually left Willis for a man she married named Michael White. Willis hated Michael too. Jill and Gwen are now both deceased. Willis never got remarried, which is no surprise because no one in their right mind would think that Willis would be a good husband.

Willis’ dementia causes him to sometimes confuse Gwen and Jill when he’s talking about them. And sometimes, he thinks Gwen and Jill are still alive. At one point, he calls Gwen a “whore” in one of his rants. In another scene, he calls Jill a “fucking saint.”

All of these details are not revealed in a smooth and straightforward manner in the movie. There’s a lot of timeline jumps that don’t always flow well with the story. People watching this movie also have to pay attention to conversations to pick up details about the Peterson family.

The main actors in “Falling” also communicate non-verbally (with facial expressions and body language) to express how their characters are feeling inside. Linney, who is always terrific in her performances, excels in this actor technique. In other words, “Falling” is a movie that is best appreciated if viewers are not distracted by anything else while watching it.

In a present-day scene, John (who used to be in the U.S. Air Force) mentions during one point in the movie that he didn’t accept that he was gay until he was in the military and he came out as gay around the same time. It’s unclear how long John was in the military, but there’s mention of him working as a pilot after he got out of the Air Force. John and Sarah, who live in Southern California, are now both happily married with children.

John’s husband Eric (played by Terry Chen) is a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital. John and Eric have an adorable adopted daughter named Mónica (played by Gabby Velis), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Sarah and her husband (who is never seen in the movie) live in Ventura and have two teenagers: Paula (played by Ella Jonas Farlinger), who’s about 18 years old, and Will (played by Piers Bijvoet), who’s about 15 or 16. Willis shows some grandfatherly affection for Mónica, probably because she’s at an age where she’s easier to control than a teenager, and she might be too naïve to see what an awful person Willis is.

In one of the early scenes of “Falling,” John and Willis are on a plane because Willis is traveling from wherever he lives to visit John and Sarah in California. The other purpose of the trip is so that Willis can look for a possible retirement place in California, but it soon becomes clear that California is not exactly his first choice. Willis’ dementia has reached a point where it’s not safe for him to travel alone. He often gets confused about where is and what year it is.

This confusion becomes immediately apparent, when Willis causes a ruckus on the plane during mid-flight because he thinks he’s at home with Gwen instead of on a plane with John. John tries to calm Willis down, but Willis gets even more belligerent, as he gets up and yells for Gwen. John ends up having to physically restrain Willis. And when they disembark from the plane, Willis wanders away from the baggage claim area when John steps away for a few minutes.

It’s too bad that Wills’ vile temper can’t be restrained. The movie is filled with Willis’ unbridled rants where he makes it clear to anyone who listens that he’s a politically conservative bigot. Willis expresses disgust that John voted for Barack Obama, whom Willis calls a “Negro,” which might have been an acceptable term for black people before the 1970s, but not these days.

Willis also uses a homophobic slur for gay men several times through the movie. At one point, Willis asks John if John is sure that he’s gay. Willis’ tone of voice makes it clear that he wishes that John were straight. As for Willis’ thoughts on possibly moving to California, he shouts: “California is for cocksuckers and flag burners!”

Willis barely tolerates John’s husband Eric, whom Willis keeps misidentifying as Japanese, when Eric is actually Chinese and Hawaiian. Based on Eric’s reaction (he politely corrects Willis), this racial insensitivity is something that Eric has gotten used to from Willis, and it can’t be blamed on dementia. It’s made pretty clear from the flashbacks that Willis has been a jerk for a very long time.

And so, this obnoxiousness goes on and on for the entire movie. During a meal at John and Eric’s house, Willis lights up a cigarette, but John politely reminds him that they don’t allow smoking inside the house. What does Willis do? He puts out his cigarette in the food he was served. In another scene later in the movie, Willis throws raw eggs at John when John suggests that Willis have a healthier diet.

A family meal at Sarah’s home with John, Eric, Sarah and their kids cant go without Willis making derogatory comments. Sarah’s son Will has recently dyed his hair blue. Willis comments on his grandson’s hair by saying, “Do you want to be a homo?” He makes other homophobic comments until a distressed Will gets up and leaves the table, but not before telling Willis that he’s ashamed to be named after him.

As insufferable as Willis is, there are miserable haters like this who exist in the world, and they want everyone else to be as miserable as they are. Willis might be difficult to watch, but “Falling” seems to be making an often-heavy-handed point that this is what happens when toxic people go unchecked. Pity anyone who has to live with someone like Willis in real life.

Willis’ filthy mouth isn’t just about spewing hate speech. This movie has a lot of talk of bodily functions (urinating, defecating and farting), and most of these cringeworthy comments are from Willis. In one scene in the movie, Willis tells his granddaughter Mónica  that when John was a child, John used to be so frightened of an imaginary monster named Mortimer, that John used to “shit the bed.”

In another scene, Willis has a prostate exam to determine if he needs surgery for prostate cancer. In the examination room, with John in the room, Willis tells the physician named Dr. Klausner (played by filmmaker David Cronenberg, who’s worked with Mortensen on several movies): “Don’t let my son anywhere near my asshole. He’s likely to get excited.”

John and Sarah mostly react to their father’s hate-filled rants by trying not to argue with him. A lot of viewers will be frustrated by how Willis isn’t called out enough for his despicable comments and actions, regardless if he has dementia or not. However, as uncomfortable as it may be to watch, John and Sarah’s enabling is very realistic of how people try to ignore bigotry and hate instead of trying to confront it and stop it.

John and Sarah also seem afraid to confront their father because even though he’s an ailing old man, John and Sarah still seem to be a little bit afraid of him. Scenes in the movie show that Willis has a violent temper. And so, there’s probably unspoken violent abuse that Willis inflicted on his kids when they were young that still haunt John and Sarah.

However, the best scene in the movie is when John finally unleashes and gives Willis the verbal takedown he very much deserves. A lot of viewers will be thinking about John finally standing up to his father: “What took you so long?” Other viewers might have different reactions.

One of the few scenes in the movie where the family isn’t under some kind of emotional attack from Willis is when John, Eric, Mónica and Willis all go to an art gallery together. John’s mother Gwen loved art, so this trip to the gallery is his way of trying to pass along Gwen’s appreciation of art to Mónica. However, this relatively calm family outing is rare, because most of what the Peterson family experiences in this story revolves around Willis’ negativity and problems that he usually creates.

The flashback scenes in “Falling” answer some questions about the Peterson family dynamics, but leave other questions unanswered. For example, viewers never get to see how John and Sarah were raised by Gwen after the divorce. And this omission is an indication that the flashbacks are mostly from Willis’ perspective. Maybe this disjointed way of telling the story is writer/director Mortensen’s way of depicting what fractured memories in dementia feel like. The final scene of “Falling,” just like the rest of the movie, can be frustratingly muddled, because it’s better at expressing moods than fine-tuning the details.

Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution released “Falling” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on February 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Night of the Kings,’ starring Bakary Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Jean Cyrille Digbeu, Abdoul Karim Konaté and Laetitia Ky

April 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Koné Bakary (center) and Anzian Marcel (holding lamp) in “Night of the Kings” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Night of the Kings”

Directed by Philippe Lacôte

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Ivory Coast prison of MACA, the dramatic film “Night of the Kings” features a nearly all-black African cast of characters (with one white person) who are prisoners, prison employees or imagined African royalty.

Culture Clash: During a powers struggle in the prison, a young man is chosen by the inmate leaders to entertain the prisoners by telling a story as part of a ritual.

Culture Audience: “Night of the Kings” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in African cinema and stories about prison subcultures that are rarely told in narrative feature films.

Steve Tientcheu in “Night of the Kings” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Night of the Kings” is set in a prison, but the film is more about the freedom of imagination under oppressive conditions. It’s probably one of the more unique prison movies ever made. But much like a stylistic fever dream, not all of the storyline will be easy to follow for people who prefer more straightforward narratives. “Night of the Kings” (written and directed by Philippe Lacôte) is still riveting cinema for people who appreciate filmmaking that doesn’t follow all the usual clichés of movies that are set in a prison.

That’s because the Ivory Coast prison where the movie takes place is MACA (also known as La Maca), a facility for male inmates that is said to be the only prison in the world unofficially run by the inmates, according to prison warden Nivaquine (played by Issaka Sawadogo). The prison guards and other employees just watch the inmate spectacles and stay alert for any violence that might break out. Inside MACA, like any other prison, there is a hierarchy.

According to the production notes for “Night of the Kings,” the real MACA (where exterior scenes for the movie were filmed) has a racially diverse population. The MACA shown in this movie consists almost entirely of black Africans, with a mute, middle-aged white prisoner named Silence (played by Denis Lavant), who is depicted as an eccentric who likes to carry a chicken on his shoulder.

The MACA prisoners walk around freely without shackles or handcuffs. And the main reason why they’re kept under control is because the prison guards have guns, while the prisoners do not. However, that doesn’t mean that violence can’t erupt any any given time.

In the beginning of the movie, a written intro is shown to explain the MACA power structure and traditions: “The MACA prison is a world with its own codes and laws. The first law is that the Dangôro, the supreme master, rules the prisoners. When the Dangôro falls ill and can no longer govern, he must take his own life.”

In this movie, the ailing Dangôro is named Blackbeard, or Barbe Noir (played by Steve Tientcheu), who has two prisoners competing to replace him: coldly calculating Lass (played by Abdoul Karim Konaté) and impulsive hothead Half-Mad, also known as Demi-Fou (played by Jean Cyrille Digbeu). In an early scene in the movie, Blackbeard (whose ailment isn’t described, but he wears an oxygen mask) has a verbal confrontation with Lass, who doesn’t try to hide that he’s impatient to take control of the prison.

Blackbeard warns Lass, “If you keep disrespecting me, Lass, you’ll lose your protection. If you lose my protection, you’ll be another lackey.” Lass replies, “You’re asking for a war. Open your eyes, Blackbeard. And look around. You’re not in charge anymore.” An offended Blackbeard yells at Lass, “Shut up!”

Whenever there is a rising red moon, the MACA tradition is to choose a prisoner to tell a story to the rest of the inmates. This storyteller is called a Roman. Blackbeard announces that he’s going to announce a new Roman for the upcoming rising red moon.

And new Roman (played by Bakary Koné) is also a new prisoner. He’s a 19-year-old pickpocket, and his real name is never revealed in the story. He is just called Roman. When Roman arrives in Nivaquine’s prison warden office, Nivaquine interrogates him and slaps him. In the office, Roman notices a magazine with a cover headline that reads “War Against the Microbes.” This magazine cover later gives him the inspiration for the story that he tells the prisoners.

When Roman finds out that he’s been chosen to tell the story, he’s treated almost like a hero and lifted on the shoulders of the other inmates. Roman also meets a potential friend in the shower area named Razor Blade, also known as Lame de Rasoir (played by Macel Anzian), who’s around the same age. Razor Blade is a self-described street kid who used to work on a cocoa plantation near Tiassalé.

But it’s not all camaraderie in this prison. A transgender female prison named Sexy (played by Gbazi Yves Landry) is sexually harassed and cornered by several of the inmates. One prisoner named Koby (played by Stéphane Sebime) is particularly aggressive to Sexy and it’s implied that it’s because she is transgender. And later, a near-riot breaks out as prisoners express their loyalties to Lass or Half-Mad.

The only thing that brings some peace and distraction to this discord is Roman’s captivating storytelling. The inmates gather around Roman as he weaves this tale. It’s here in the movie that “Night of the Kings” starts to resemble live theater, with the prisoners sometimes chiming like a Greek chorus or sometimes dancing in unison.

Roman’s story is about he grew up with Zama King, the king of the Microbes, whom Roman says he met because they went to the same school together. Roman begins by invoking some religious preaching: “If God says you’ll be a thief, you’ll be a thief. If God says you’ll be a murderer, you’ll be a murderer. If God says yea, no one can say no.” He calls himself a “pickpocket, a swindler, shyster, scoundrel, a real thief.”

Roman then spins a tale about how he grew up with his aunt Salimata, a traditional griot. Through re-enactments that re shown in the movie, Roman then goes on to describe how Zama King’s father Soni (played by Rasmané Ouédraogo) was a beggar and how Soni’s relationship developed with the women who wife Hélène (played by Marie-Josée Néné). Roman also tells the story of the Queen (played by Laetitia Ky), who would rise to power with Zama King.

Much of “Night of Kings” depends on the charisma of Roman, who has command of the room but also knows that he’s making a lot of things up as he goes along and that the crowd could easily turn on him if they become bored or skeptical of his story. Bakary Koné makes an admirable acting debut in “Night of the Kings.” His performance seems natural in a way that perhaps might have been too polished if the role went to a more experienced actor.

With “Night of the Kings,” Lacôte has creatively crafted a story within a story, but is not a perfect film since some of the editing choices could have been better. As Roman tells his tale of power struggle in the world of Zama King, the MACA prison is undergoing its own conflicts over power. Roman learns how to express himself as an individual and how the power of storytelling can bring people together. Regardless of how the movie turns out, viewers are left with the feeling Roman has a new appreciation for freedom of personal expression, and this knowledge will stay with him, whether he’s kept behind prison walls or not.

Neon released “Night of the Kings” in select U.S. cinemas on February 26, 2021, and on VOD on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘My Salinger Year,’ starring Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver

April 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Margaret Qualley in “My Salinger Year” (Photo by Philippe Bosse/IFC Films)

“My Salinger Year”

Directed by Philippe Falardeau

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and briefly in Washington, D.C., during the years 1995 and 1996, the dramatic film “My Salinger Year” features a predominantly white group of people (with one black person and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A grad school dropout, who wants to become a professional writer, gets a job as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent and breaks the agency’s cardinal rule of how to answer Salinger’s fan mail. 

Culture Audience: “My Salinger Year” will appeal primarily to fans of co-star Sigourney Weaver and people interested in movies about the New York literary world in the 1990s, but the movie lacks credibility in many crucial areas and portrays its main female characters as stereotypes.

Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley in “My Salinger Year” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The dramatic film “My Salinger Year” (written and directed by Philippe Falardeau) is based on Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir of the same name, but the movie comes across as a fantasy of what women experience in the book publishing world. The female protagonist is an aspiring writer, but she does almost no work on her writing and instead spends most of the story obsessing over famed reclusive author J.D. Salinger and his fan mail, after she becomes an assistant to Salinger’s literary agent. The irony of her spending so much time reading Salinger’s fan mail is that she hasn’t read any of Salinger’s work, but she’s foolishly arrogant enough to think she can judge how his fans should respond to his work.

“My Salinger Year,” which takes place from 1995 to 1996, is one of those “bubble” biopics where the protagonist Joanna Rakoff (played by Margaret Qualley) lives in a privileged bubble mentality. Joanna, who is in her early 20s when this story takes place, expects to get “discovered” as a writer without actually writing anything substantial. She thinks the rules don’t really apply to her in her office job. And she never acknowledges that people who are less privileged than she is have it much harder to get the opportunities that are handed to her because she’s young and has a certain level of physical attractiveness. Her idea of “suffering” is living in a Brooklyn apartment that doesn’t have a kitchen sink.

Joanna is intended to be a stereotypical wide-eyed, charming ingenue in this movie. But her actions show that she’s actually quite self-centered and dishonest—not all the time, but enough for viewers to see that beneath the pretty surface is someone who’s kind of a spoiled brat. Joanna is a dreamer who doesn’t like being reminded that people have bigger problems than she does. As such, the movie tries too hard to be whimsical by showing many fantasy sequences of Salinger’s fans speaking to the camera, as if they’re also speaking to Joanna.

Joanna doesn’t come from a rich family, but she aspires to be accepted into the sophisticated and educated social circles of people in Manhattan who have servants and read The New Yorker, her favorite magazine. She isn’t a snob, per se, because a snob’s sense of superiority comes from thinking about other people as being “lower-class,” whereas Joanna doesn’t really think about other people at all, except for what other people can do for her.

In the beginning of the movie, Joanna says in a voiceover: “I grew up in a quiet, suburban town just north of New York. On special occasions, my dad would take me into the city and we would get dessert at the Waldorf or the Plaza. I loved watching the people around us. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to write novels and speak five languages and travel. I didn’t want to be ordinary. I wanted to be extraordinary.”

The operative phrase here, which explains Joanna’s mindset and personality, is “I want.” She wants all these glamorous fantasies for herself, but actually doesn’t want to put in a lot of the hard work to achieve those dreams. You don’t learn five languages just by imagining yourself doing it. And that’s the same attitude that she has about her career goal of becoming a famous and respected writer. Her only experience at this point is having a few pieces published in The Paris Review.

As Joanna says in a voiceover in the beginning of the movie, she was a grad student at the University of California at Berkeley when she decided to visit her childhood best friend Jenny (played by Seána Kerslake) in New York City for a few days. Joanna’s original plan was to return to Berkeley, where her boyfriend Karl Ansari (played by Hamza Haq) was waiting for her. Instead, Joanna explains, “something shifted.”

As far as Joanna is concerned, she can’t be a real writer without living in New York. And so, she never went back to Berkeley, she dropped out of grad school, and decided to move permanently to New York. And she never bothered to tell Karl that she was breaking up with him and why. So selfish. Karl knew that Joanna wanted to stay in New York, but he was misled into thinking that they would have a long-distance relationship. He eventually figured out that Joanna wanted to end the relationship when she stopped being in contact with him.

Joanna is never seen in Berkeley, as if she and the movie want to erase that part of her life. Instead, Joanna slides right into an easy living arrangement in New York City, where she becomes the roommate of Jenny and Jenny’s boyfriend Brett in the fall of 1995. Joanna isn’t a freeloader because she looks for a job by signing up with an employment agency. But, as can only happen in a movie with a privileged protagonist like this one, she gets a job right away by lying her way into it.

Joanna experiences no real struggles, no series of rejections that young, inexperienced writers often have to face when they’re just starting out in the workforce. (And experienced writers get rejected too.) No, that’s not to supposed to happen to Joanna, because the “My Salinger Year” filmmakers insult viewers’ intelligence by making it look like all you have to do is be a young, attractive female of a certain race to have people going out of their way to help you.

Joanna quickly gets an administrative assistant job at the fictional A&F Literary Management by lying that she knows how to type 60 words per minute. In reality, Joanna doesn’t know how to type. And she’s never given a typing test before she’s hired.

Joanna’s lack of typing skills is an indication that Joanna was too lazy to learn how to type during all of her years in college when she would’ve greatly benefited from having typing skills. Viewers have to assume that Joanna got other people to type her college assignments for her. More privilege on display.

Even when Joanna’s prickly and demanding boss Margaret (played by Sigourney Weaver) finds out later in the story that Joanna can’t type (due to all the mistakes that Joanna makes when she tries to type), Joanna doesn’t get fired. Why? Because Joanna told another big lie in the interview: When Margaret says she doesn’t like to have assistants who are aspiring writers, Joanna tells Margaret that she’s not an aspiring writer. Margaret’s dislike of having aspiring writers work for her is because she thinks wannabe writers give more priority to working on their own material instead of doing the work they were hired to do for the agency.

Margaret’s most famous client is reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whose main claim to fame is his influential 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” a tale of a rebellious teenager named Holden Caulfield. Salinger’s last published work was the novella “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which The New Yorker published in 1965. Joanna knows how famous Salinger is, but she’s never read any of his work. It’s a secret that Joanna only admits to a few trusted people in her life because she doesn’t want to look ignorant when it comes to literature.

During the job interview, Margaret (who refers to Salinger as “Jerry”) tells Joanna that Jerry isn’t a problem but his people (in other words, his other gatekeepers and his obsessive fans) are a problem. Margaret warns Joanna: “You must never, ever give out his address … Remember, there’s no shortage of college graduates who want this job. Be prepared to work long hours.” Joanna acts like an eager beaver who will do whatever Margaret wants, so Joanna gets hired on the spot and is told her first day as an A&F employee will be on January 8, 1996.

Also in the room during the interview is a high-ranking A&F executive named Daniel (played by Colm Feore), who’s about the same age as Margaret. He seems to have enough of a comfort level with Margaret where he can call her a “tyrant” while she’s in the room. When Joanna is hired and gushes that she’s “honored and thrilled,” Daniel says cynically, “No need to be honored. Thrilled, maybe.” Joanna is then seen looking starry-eyed and hopeful as she walks through the hallways of A&F Literary Management to look at the photo-portrait wall hangings of famous authors who were the company’s past and present clients, such as Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.

During her first day on the job, Joanna meets three other employees who have lower rankings than Margaret and Daniel. Hugh (played by Brían F. O’Byrne), who takes care of legal matters such as contracts and correspondence, is the employee whom Joanna interacts with the most, other than Margaret. Hugh tells Joanna that he used to have her job when he started out at the company. On her first day on the job, Joanna also meets literary agents Max (played by Yanic Truesdale) and Lisa (played by Xiao Sun), who seem to be in this movie as token people of color, since their roles are not substantial to the story.

Hugh tells Joanna on her first day on the job, as he hands her stack of Salinger’s fan mail, that Salinger does not want to receive any mail from fans and other people requesting things from him. Instead, Hugh tells Joanna that the company’s policy is that people who write to Salinger are sent a standard form letter explaining that Salinger does not accept any mail. The form letters that are sent out must be identical. Sending a personal reply is strictly forbidden. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that Joanna is going to break that rule.

Hugh also explains to Joanna that all mail addressed to Salinger has to be opened and read as a safety precaution. Hugh makes a reference to Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon who had a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” with him when Chapman was arrested in December 1980 right after the murder. John Hinkley Jr., who tried to assassinate then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan in March 1981, was also obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Hugh says not all of Salinger’s fan mail comes from unknown people of questionable mental stability, because some famous and highly respected people sometimes try to contact Salinger by mail too. If the mail looks like it should be brought to a superior’s attention at the company, whoever reads the mail should do that. Otherwise, the mail has to be shredded. Needless to say, Joanna breaks that rule too, because she steals a lot of the fan mail to take home and read.

After moving to New York, Joanna doesn’t waste time in finding a new boyfriend. His name is Don (played by Douglas Booth), and he’s about five or six years older than Joanna. They met while he was working at a socialist bookstore. A love of reading and being aspiring writers are two of the few things that Joanna and Don have in common.

Don sees himself as a die-hard socialist, and he thinks a magazine like The New Yorker is a bourgeois joke that glorifies greed and capitalism. Considering that The New Yorker is Joanna’s favorite magazine and she has aspirations to lead a high-society, jet-set lifestyle, viewers can easily see how incompatible Joanna and Don are. Later on in the story, there are issues of control, respect and emotional manipulation that affect their relationship.

When Jenny drops hints to Joanna that Joanna has overstayed her welcome at Jenny’s apartment, Joanna decides to move in with Don after not knowing him for very long. Don and Joanna go apartment hunting together, and Don impulsively decides that they should live in a run-down apartment in Brooklyn that’s within their price range, even though they can barely afford the rent on their meager salaries. However, Don doesn’t want his name on the lease because he says he has bad credit (red flag warning signs right there), so Joanna is the one whose name is on the lease. In other words, she’ll be stuck paying the rent if the relationship doesn’t work out.

It isn’t until after she signs the lease that Joanna notices that the apartment doesn’t have a kitchen sink, and she’s not happy about it. Don tells her that it’s no big deal because they can wash dishes in the bathtub. Joanna is determined to convince herself that somehow this is all part of her fantasy of being an aspiring writer in New York. But viewers can easily see where this is going to go, considering that Joanna is the type of person who wants to hang out at the Waldorf Astoria and eat overpriced desserts. (And it’s exactly what she does later in the movie.)

While Don actually does a lot of writing (he’s working on his first novel), Joanna spends her days doing secretary work for Margaret and spends her nights reading Salinger’s fan mail. Joanna shows no passion for writing her own work at all. She doesn’t even have writer’s block as an excuse. And it isn’t until very late in the story, when she has an epiphany about her aimless life, that she finally gets around to reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”

There are some very mid-1990s references in the movie, such as Margaret’s skepticism about using the Internet. Margaret is so “old school” that she doesn’t even want her office to have computers, until she finally relents and gets one computer that she looks at it as if it’s an invention from outer space. And because digital recorders didn’t exist back then, Joanna has to use a cassette dictaphone to transcribe Margaret’s recordings.

The Margaret character might be compared to the tyrannical Miranda Priestly character (played by Meryl Streep), the fashion magazine boss in the much more entertaining 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” which was also based on a memoir written by a former administrative assistant in the New York City publishing industry. Just like Miranda has a brusque attitude toward her assistants, so too does Margaret. However, Margaret has more heart and is not as over-the-top as Miranda with her domineering ways.

Unlike Miranda, Margaret doesn’t take pleasure in demeaning her underlings. In fact, when Margaret finds out that Joanna lied about knowing how to type, and Joanna commits other betrayals of trust, Margaret doesn’t fire her. (Miranda Priestley would never show that type of mercy.) Weaver’s nuanced portrayal of Margaret is as a boss who actually wants to mentor someone, as long as that person is an aspiring literary agent, not an aspiring writer.

As a character, Margaret is a lot more believable than Joanna, although they are both written as stereotypes of women in the workplace: the battle-axe boss and the inexperienced ingenue. Viewers of “My Salinger Year” might find Joanna tolerable because of Qualley’s sympathetic portrayal of this character. Joanna looks an innocent beauty, and that’s why people easily forgive her, even though you know that people wouldn’t be so forgiving if she had a different physical appearance. Time and time again, Joanna is given many chances after she messes up or is caught in a big lie.

Even when Joanna gets her head out of her privileged bubble to acknowledge that other people have more emotional pain than she does, there’s an air of “ulterior motive” about it. When Margaret experiences a tragedy and takes time off from work, Joanna shows up unannounced at Margaret’s apartment with a bouquet of flowers and Margaret’s favorite soup. It’s a compassionate thing to do, but if we’re being honest, it’s also trying to impress the boss.

And when Joanna decides to accept her ex-boyfriend Karl’s invitation to meet with him while he’s in Washington, D.C., it’s only after Margaret tasks Joanna to spy on Salinger when Salinger goes to Washington to meet with a publisher named Clifford Bradbury (played by Matt Holland), who might publish Salinger’s next work. In other words, Joanna is only in Washington because her job is paying for the trip, not because she’s making any personal sacrifices to see Karl again. And she only shows remorse for how she treated Karl after she starts having problems with Don.

Yes, there’s a scene in the movie where Joanna spies on J.D. Salinger. The movie goes to great lengths to show Salinger (played by Tim Post) as a mysterious figure when Joanna sees him in person. His face is obscured or he’s shown only from the back. Salinger also talks to Joanna briefly over the phone, and she is predictably star-struck. Joanna is flattered and somewhat giggly when Margaret tells her that Salinger likes Joanna.

There’s a creepy subtext to all of that if viewers of this movie know that a grandfather-age Salinger had real-life predatory ways with women in their late teens and early 20s, according to author Joyce Maynard, who detailed her youthful experiences with Salinger in her 1998 memoir “At Home in the World.” Since that book was published a few years after the story takes place in “My Salinger Year,” it’s understandable that the movie doesn’t mention that Salinger wasn’t so reclusive after all when it came to trying to seduce his young female fans.

Speaking of older men who prey on younger, less-experienced women, “My Salinger Year” ignores the reality that someone like Joanna would definitely have older men in the publishing industry trying to abuse their power by pressuring her to go on dates with them or other forms of sexual harassment. The movie also doesn’t acknowledge that there’s rampant sexism in the media/book publishing industry. The “My Salinger Year” movie is very much a fantasy version of what a woman like Joanna would experience in real life.

Even though in the beginning of the movie, Joanna shares fond childhood memories of time that she spent with her father while they visited New York City, “My Salinger Year” oddly never mentions Joanna’s family again. Viewers don’t know if her parents are still alive, and if they are still alive, what her parents think about Joanna dropping out of grad school to pursue a writing career in New York City. It’s an example of how the movie treats Joanna as an incomplete sketch in its relentless push of the ingenue narrative for her.

“My Salinger Year” has brief portrayals of a few other authors in addition to Salinger. Judy Blume (played by Gillian Doria) has a contentious meeting with Margaret at the A&F offices. Joanna is in awe of Judy because she read Judy Blume books when she was a child, so Joanna thinks she’s some kind of Judy Blume expert. And like a know-it-all, Joanna blurts out her opinions to Margaret on how Margaret mishandled the meeting with Judy, even though Joanna wasn’t even in the meeting.

In an earlier part of the movie, Joanna meets author Rachel Cusk (played Hayley Kezber), while Rachel is having lunch at a restaurant with Margaret, Daniel, Daniel’s wife Helen (played by Lise Roy) and Max. Joanna is there because Daniel happened to see Joanna walking outside and invited her into the restaurant to join them. When Margaret sees that Joanna and Rachel have a friendly rapport with each other, Margaret shows her spiteful side by coldly dismissing Joanna from the luncheon and telling her to go back to the office and work.

One of the most annoying aspects of “My Salinger Year” is how it portrays Salinger’s fans who write to him as sad, lonely people who act as if their lives will be ruined if Salinger doesn’t reply to their mail. These fans are all fictional characters in the movie, but that doesn’t make this movie’s depiction of them any less insulting to Salinger’s fan base. Joanna reads the fan letters in a mostly “holier than thou” way, but she admits that some of the letters affect her emotionally because she can sometimes relate to the fans who are aspiring writers.

But since the movie makes the fans who get screen time look like they might be mentally unhinged, sure enough, one of these fans (a teenage girl, played by Romane Denis) ends up showing stalker-like behavior when Joanna makes the mistake of writing back condescending, unsolicited advice about being a writer. The teenage fan unexpectedly shows up at the A&F offices to angrily confront Joanna. It’s one of the few times that Joanna gets a much-needed reality check about how her cavalier actions can have serious consequences.

The Salinger fan who gets the most screen time is a man in his late teens or early 20s named Fernell Breault (played by Théodore Pellerin), who’s from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Joanna becomes so fixated on his letters, that the movie’s fantasy sequences of Fernell evolve from him talking to the camera while he’s in North Carolina to actually appearing in front of Joanna and talking to her while she’s on a train, as he appears to her in a hallucination. So pretentious.

Far from being a female empowerment story, “My Salinger Year” shows that Joanna willingly mutes her own voice as a writer for almost the entire movie so that she can be second-fiddle to a famous male writer. This movie isn’t about Joanna being a writer. It’s about her answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail.

Joanna moved to New York City to become a writer, but while she’s living in New York, not once does the movie give an indication about what type of writing Joanna is capable of doing in her free time, except toward the end of the movie when she mentions some new poetry that she’s written. However, the poetry isn’t shown or spoken at all in the movie. Nor is there any indication if she’s good enough to be a professional writer. (Answering fan mail doesn’t count.)

Predictably, Joanna expects to be given a shortcut to her work getting published, but there isn’t a scene of her actually working at writing. It’s all such a wasted opportunity for this movie to show a young aspiring writer developing her craft. Instead, she’s portrayed as a fickle and flighty individual who would much rather wallow in fantasies and read someone else’s fan mail. And the title of this movie says it all: Joanna’s own story isn’t told without using the name of a famous male author.

IFC Films released “My Salinger Year” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?,’ starring Jasna Đuričić, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Ler, Dino Bajrović and Boris Isakovic

April 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Johan Heldenbergh and Jasna Đuričić in “Quo Vadis, Aida?” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)

“Quo Vadis, Aida?”

Directed by Jasmila Žbanic

Some language in Bosnian and Dutch with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in 1995 in Bosnia, the dramatic film “Quo Vadis, Aida?” features a white and Arabic cast of characters representing middle-class and working class Bosnians, military Serbs and Dutch military officials.

Culture Clash: A United Nations translator frantically tries to save her family during a Serbian military invasion of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Culture Audience: “Quo Vadis, Aida?” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing a dramatic yet realistic portrayal of a diplomat’s perspective of the Bosnian War.

Emir Hadžihafizbegović (third from left), Jasna Đuričić (center) and Johan Heldenbergh (second from right) in “Quo Vadis, Aida?” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)

The title of the heartwrenching dramatic film “Quo Vadis, Aida?” (from Bosnia and Herzegovina) translates to “Where are you going, “Aida?” It’s a reflection of the dilemmas faced by the story’s protagonist Aida Selmanagić (played by Jasna Đuričić), a United Nations (UN) translator who is torn between various different loyalties while trying to save her family during the Bosnian War. She has to make tough decisions and experience life-threatening situations. And like any war story, not everyone gets a happy ending.

Written and directed by Jasmila Žbanic, most of “Quo Vadis, Aida?” takes place mostly in July 1995, when the Serbian army took over the small town of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Aida lives with her husband and two sons. Although she is a fictional character, her story could easily have happened to anyone under the same circumstances in real life. For most of the movie, Aida is caught in a terrible situation where she has to try to save her family from being sent to an area where they will experience almost certain death by Serbian military execution. Her UN privileges can only be used for herself and possibly only one other member of her family, so there’s a very real possibility that her family will be forced to split up.

The movie presents the horrors of war from an interior battlefield—the back offices where military and government officials make tense attempts to negotiate or issue ultimatums during a war. The negotiations sometimes fail, and the results are often genocide and other forms of destruction. It’s in one of these rooms that Aida is shown near the beginning of the movie, as there is a looming threat of a Serbian invasion in Srebrenica.

On one side of this stressful discussion are Bosnian officials who are unhappy with the increasing Serb military presence and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not taking a stronger stand against the Serbs. On the other side are Dutch military officials who are in charge of a nearby UN refugee camp. Aida is in the room as a translator for both sides.

Leading the Dutch side is Colonel Thom Karremans (played by Johan Heldenbergh), while the Bosnian side is led by Srebrenica’s mayor (played by Ermin Bravo). Colonel Karremans says in a reassuring voice about the escalating Serbian threat, “We are doing everything we can. They have been issued formal ultimatums. They have until 6 p.m. to withdraw all of their heavy weapons. If they fail to comply, NATO will attack all their positions.”

The skeptical mayor replies, “You said that two and three days ago. You said that their tanks wouldn’t get closer, and yet they’re getting closer. The tanks are getting closer and closer by the hour.” Karremans remains firm and tells the mayor that the people of Srebrenica should feel safe in their homes and don’t need to go to a shelter. The mayor says to Karremans: “You will be accountable if the Serbs come to town.”

Karremans then responds, “I’m just the piano player,” as if the decision is out of his hands and he’s just relaying the message. The mayor takes offense at Karremans’ seeming detachment from the matter, and the mayor looks angry enough to start a big argument. Aida attempts to diffuse the situation. The meeting abruptly ends before the two leaders can get into a shouting match.

Aida lives in Srebenica with her husband Nihad Selmanagić (played by Izudin Bajrović) and their two sons: Hamdija Selmanagić (played by Boris Ler), who’s a musician in his early 20s, and Sejo Selmanagić (a played by Dino Bajrović), who is 17 years old. Nihad, who can speak German and is happily married to Aida, has a career background in education: He’s been a history teacher and a high-school principal Although it’s not really said out loud, it’s shown in the movie that Sejo is Aida’s favorite child. She sometimes jokes about what a heartthrob Sejo is to young ladies.

The people of Srebenica’s worst fears come true, and the Serbs invade. It happens so quickly that Nihad, Hamdija and Sejo only have time to grab some portable belongings and leave. They head to the UN refugee camp, which has been declared a neutral zone. But Aida’s husband and sons have to wait outside with a crowd of hundreds of people that soon turn into thousands.

Meanwhile, the refugee camp (which is in military-styled barracks) is already crowded. The Dutch military officials in charge have ordered that no one else is allowed inside the camp unless they have pre-approved clearance, which is usually limited to people who work in the refugee camp, such as Aida. She frantically leaves the building and searches for her family to see where they could be outside. It’s not an easy thing to do when widespread cell phone use didn’t exist back then.

To make matters more complicated, Aida is on duty and isn’t supposed to abandon her job. She asks a co-worker translator named Tarik (played by Alban Ukaj) to temporarily take over for her while she looks for her family outside. However, Aida is told that even if she finds them, her husband and sons won’t be allowed inside the camp because her husband and sons don’t have pre-approved UN clearance. There are multiple times in the movie where Aida has to fight to keep her family together during this chaos.

If Aida defies orders and gets fired, she will loses her UN privileges. These privileges are the best hope she has to try to keep her family safe. As the Serbs continue to escalate their military presence, there is debate among the officials in charge of the camp over whether or not to keep the refugees there or to evacuate them. One of the biggest issues is that there isn’t enough food, water or restroom facilities for the crowd outside the camp who want to be inside.

In addition to Karramens, three of his underling Dutch military officials have an influence on what can happen to Aida and her family: Lieutenant Rutten (played by Juda Goslinga), who is inclined to do whatever Karramens orders; Major Rob Franken (played by Raymond Thiry), who shows the most loyalty to UN policies that Karramens sometimes ignores; and Captain Mintjes (played by Teun Luijkx), who is the most sympathetic to Aida’s plight.

The power dynamics within the Dutch military faction at the refugee camp play out when Karramens asserts his authority during a disagreement within the faction. The UN’s policy for the refugee camp is that no war military personnel is allowed to enter the politically neutral camp. However, a Serbian military official named Joka (played by Emir Hadžihafizbegović) shows up with some troops and demands to inspect the camp to see if any of the refugees have weapons. Franken doesn’t want to let Joka into the camp, but Franken is overruled by Karramens.

At one point in the story, Aida (who’s one of the few people at the camp who can speak Bosnian, Dutch, English and Serbian) is called on by the Dutch officials to get citizen volunteers at the refugees who can be informal, non-political Bosnian ambassadors. The plan is for these civilians to meet with Serbian military leader General Ratko Mladić (played by Boris Isaković), to appeal to any humanity that he might have not to destroy Srebenica. Aida has also been tasked as a translator for this meeting.

Amid this horrifying experience of being under siege, there’s a moment in “Quo Vadis, Aida?” where Aida thinks back to a happier time before the war, when she entered a contest for the best hairstyle of 1991-1992. The contest is in a dance hall, which has a festive celebration during the event. Aida didn’t win the contest, but she and her husband Nihad are shown jubilantly dancing in a circle with a group of other people. Too often, war movies focus on pain and misery during the war, but this scene is a poignant reminder of the kind of tranquil life that Aida had that she might not be able to get back because of the war.

Đuričić’s performance as the loyalty-torn Aida is absolutely riveting in this story, which is essential in showing how the brutalities of war don’t care about UN protections and privileges. Žbanic’s writing and direction succeed in balancing this very intimate story about a specific family with an overview of the suffering of thousands of people who were affected by the Bosnian War. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” isn’t just about the war, because it’s also about the resilience of the human spirit despite tragic atrocities.

Super LTD released “Quo Vadis, Aida?” in select U.S. cinemas on March 5, 2021, and on VOD on March 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Burn It All,’ starring Elizabeth Cotter, Emily Gateley, Ryan Postell, Elena Flory-Barnes and Greg Michaels

April 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Elizabeth Cotter in “Burn It All” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Burn It All”

Directed by Brady Hall

Culture Representation: Taking place the Seattle area, the dramatic film “Burn It All” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: An angry woman goes after criminals who have stolen her mother’s body to harvest organs. 

Culture Audience: “Burn It All” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching movies that are supposed to be thrillers but are actually dull and badly made.

Greg Michaels in “Burn It All” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

If someone put together a list of movies that are an unintentionally bad parody of feminism, then “Burn It All” should be on that list. “Burn it All” (sloppily written and directed by Brady Hall) is supposed to be about an angry female vigilante who goes on a rampage to punish some male criminals who harvest body organs. She has a personal reason for being this rage-fueled, one-woman assassin juggernaut: The body of her estranged mother has been stolen for organs, and she’s going to get revenge on the men who are responsible, all within a 24-hour period. And how was your day?

Unfortunately, “Burn It All” (which was filmed on location in the Seattle area) is the type of garbage film where the dumb and unrealistic dialogue is made worse by the terrible acting from most of the cast, including star Elizabeth Cotter. She has the role of the story’s protagonist named Alexandra “Alex” Nelson. Just like the performances from the actors, the movie’s action is stilted and mind-numbing. It’s so boring that it might put viewers to sleep if they have the patience to try to watch all of this awful dreck.

Alex is angry because she’s been wronged by people in her life, especially men. The movie keeps shoving this “#MeToo survivor out for revenge” gimmick in viewers’ faces so much that it becomes almost as obnoxious as Alex. Note to filmmakers: True feminism is about believing in gender equality, not being a man-hating killer.

In the beginning of “Burn it All,” viewers first see Alex at a low point in her life, when she’s in her home and feeling suicidal. The movie goes over-the-top in showing how Alex gets no respect when she reaches out for professional help, because she’s been put on hold during a call to a suicide prevention hotline. While she’s on hold, Alex gets a call from a medic telling her that Alex’s mother Margaret Nelson has had a stroke. The medic explains that Alex was called because Alex’s name was the first one listed in Margaret’s address book.

Alex replies, “I haven’t talked to her in six years.” The medic tells Alex that her mother is likely to pass away in the next six hours. Alex responds tearfully, “You can’t do this,” before hanging up. She takes some OxyContin pills from a prescription bottle with the name Jacob Kerry on it. And then, she vomits in the toilet. The movie doesn’t explain many things, including who Jacob Kerry is, why or how long Alex has had suicidal thoughts, or how long she’s been hooked on OxyContin.

But now that viewers know that Alex is a self-hating opioid user who steals or unlawfully uses someone else’s OxyContin prescription pills, the movie then shows Alex getting another phone call to tell her the news that her mother has died. During this phone call, Alex is also told that her mother’s body is at a place called Kanasket Funeral Home. Before she goes to the funeral home, Alex drives to her mother’s house (which looks like a hoarder’s dump) and finds out that the house has been broken into through the front door, because the lock is broken.

This movie is so badly written that it doesn’t explain anything about Alex’s family except eventually revealing that Alex has an estranged younger sister named Jenny (played by Emily Gateley), who appears to be in her late teens and who doesn’t live with Alex. Viewers have to assume that Alex’s mother lived alone because when Alex gets to the house, she doesn’t try to look for Jenny. It’s also implied that Alex will be the one taking care of any funeral arrangements, since she’s going to the funeral home to claim the body.

While Alex is looking around her dead mother’s house, she gets a surprise visit from the sheriff of Cumberland County. His name is Travis Kinney (played by Ryan Postell), and he happens to be an ex-boyfriend of Alex, who isn’t thrilled to see him at all. Travis tells Alex that he’s there because a neighbor reported seeing a prowler on the property.

“This is my house!” Alex shouts at Travis, as she tells him that her mother has died. She then calls Travis a “bully” and describes him as someone who “went from being a knife hit novice to a police chief.” Alex says she’s on the way to the funeral home, and she gets even more upset when Travis tells her that her mother “probably has been cremated by now.” It’s an odd thing to say in a movie about body snatchers.

And why does Travis think he knows if Margaret Nelson wanted to be buried or cremated? Shouldn’t a funeral home wait to hear from the next of kin? It’s an example of some of the poorly thought-out dialogue in this movie. The dimwitted lines and illogical scenarios get worse.

Meanwhile, it’s revealed why Alex hates Travis. She’s triggered when he tells her, “We had some good times.” She angrily reminds him that he shoved her into a wall when they were in a relationship. She also yells at Travis because he “took advantage of my little sister, who was a child!” Travis looks guilty and nervously backs off of Alex. But is this the last that viewers will see of Travis in a predictable revenge movie like this one? Of course not.

Alex goes to the funeral home and notices two men in their 20s acting suspiciously behind the building. Their names are Curtis Lee (played by Adrian Renon) and Justin (played by Tyler Scowcroft), and it looks like they’re putting a body bag (with an adult-sized corpse in it) in their truck. Curtis and Justin see that Alex has witnessed them during this theft, and so they kidnap her by strangling her and putting her in the truck. To throw in a bizarre coincidence, Alex already knows Curtis because she used to babysit him when he was a kid.

Alex is driven to a farmhouse, and she’s put in a barn with a thug named Bill (played by Lance Caver), who pulls a gun on her. Bill asks Alex, “Why are you so angry?” She replies, “You remind me of a teacher who liked to put his hand down my shirt. And much like him, I’m sure you don’t want any extra attention for your misdeeds.” Who talks like this when they have a gun to their head? No one except an unrealistic character in a bad movie.

The movie rapidly goes even further downhill from there. It should come as no surprise that the body in the bag is Alex’s mother and that the thugs are going to harvest her mother’s organs and tissues. When Alex finds out, that really sets her off to want to kill these guys, when most people would just be happy to escape from these kidnappers. But no. Alex wants to kill them all. It goes without saying in this fake feminist movie that all the people she wants to murder are men.

The thugs are so idiotic about what kinds of bodies they’re stealing that they didn’t know until Alex told them that her mother died of a stroke—not exactly the ideal corpse that can get the highest market rate for healthy human organs and tissue. The movie never explains how this body harvesting operation works. Do they have inside connections at a funeral home or a morgue? In the end, it doesn’t matter because this movie is just all about shootouts and fight scenes from an unhinged man-hating vigilante that the “Burn It All” filmmakers wrongfully want to label a feminist.

The movie never explains why Alex’s relationship with her sister and mother went sour. Although as time goes on and Alex becomes more and more insufferable, it’s easy to see why people wouldn’t want to be around her. Still, it’s quite a leap to go from someone who stopped talking to her mother for the past six years to being ready to murder people who stole her mother’s body. But since the body snatchers are men and Alex is supposed to be someone who hates men, the “Burn It All” filmmakers want people to believe that Alex’s killing spree is justifiable.

And so begins a tedious slog of chases and murders, where the body snatchers try to keep Alex captive but she finds ways to fight back after she manages to steal Bill’s gun. Don’t expect an explanation for how she suddenly has combat and stunt skills like a pro. The filmmaking in “Burn It All” is so lazy that it doesn’t throw in the usual explanation that a vigilante with these skills has either a background in the military or law enforcement. In fact, Alex’s job history is never even mentioned in the movie.

“Burn It All” also wants viewers to believe that Alex doesn’t have a phone with her to call for help. It’s never explained why she doesn’t have a phone. This plot hole could’ve easily been avoided by having one of the thugs tell Alex that they took her phone when they kidnapped her.

Alex finds a rotary phone at the farm though. It’s the only landline phone shown in the movie, but of course the rotary phone doesn’t work when Alex needs it to work. What year is this? 1971? The obsolete rotary phone is another odd and illogical choice made by the filmmakers for a movie that’s supposed to take place in the present day.

Along the way, some of the action happens in a wooded area, where Alex runs into a woman named Donna (played by Elena Flory-Barnes), who has an infant son with her in a baby carrier sling. Alex asks to use Donna’s phone. And what do you know, Donna doesn’t have a phone with her either.

It turns out that Donna works as a housekeeper for this gang. Donna is aware that there’s criminal activity going on at the farmhouse, but she has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude with her employers. Donna clearly isn’t thinking about the safety of her son either because she walks around with her baby in the woods without an emergency phone with her. Will Donna end up helping Alex in some way? Will viewers even care?

The leader of this gang is named Bishop (played by Greg Michaels), who is as generic and forgettable as can be when it comes to movie villains. The only reason why these hollow criminals are in the movie is so Alex can bounce some cringeworthy “feminist” lines off of them. This is one of those silly movies where the criminals’ problem of getting rid of an eyewitness could be solved by killing the witness immediately, but instead the thugs stand around and trade insults with the person they want to kill.

At one point in the movie, one of the body snatchers tells Alex that her mother is now “just a dead bundle of meat.” She replies, “You’re really trying to mansplain my dead mother to me right now?” How is that mansplaining? A woman could easily have said this awful “dead bundle of meat” comment. And it still wouldn’t have made the line better in this dreadful movie.

In another part of “Burn It All,” Alex gets in a showdown with Curtis and Justin and tells them: “Maybe rethink your employment situation.” It’s supposed to be a funny line, but comes off as very condescending. Who is Alex to lecture about life choices? This is coming from someone whom viewers know almost nothing about, except that she’s a drug abuser who takes someone else’s OxyContin prescription and she has mental-health issues that could be blamed on past abuse. And now, she wants to kill the men who are trying to harvest her dead mother’s organs.

What the filmmakers of “Burn It All” failed to understand is that unless you’re doing a mystery movie, viewers need to know more about a protagonist in order to root for or relate to that person in some way. The definition of creating a meaningful character is not spouting a bunch of vapid lines. And in this case, Alex’s personality is not even a worthwhile caricature.

“Burn It All” might have been improved if the movie had a campy or ironic tone to it, because the movie’s dialogue and acting are so horrendous. However, there is no self-awareness to this movie at all. It’s a really pathetic attempt to be a heavy-handed “statement” film about feminism and the #MeToo movement. The “Burn It All” title is an apt description of what should’ve happened to this abysmal screenplay so this vile movie wouldn’t have gotten made in the first place.

Vertical Entertainment released “Burn It All” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Haymaker’ (2021), starring Nick Sasso, Nomi Ruiz, John Ventimiglia, Veronica Falcón, Udo Kier, Zoë Bell and D.B. Sweeney

March 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nomi Ruiz and Nick Sasso in “Haymaker” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

“Haymaker” (2021)

Directed by Nick Sasso

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, Los Angeles, Greece, Thailand and Mexico City, the dramatic film “Haymaker” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos, African, Americans and Asians) representing people in the entertainment industry and the world of Muay Thai fighting.

Culture Clash: A Muay Thai fighter becomes the bodyguard of an up-and-coming singer and gets more than he bargained for when he starts to have romantic feelings about her.

Culture Audience: “Haymaker” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a movie that’s a series of tedious scenes that don’t add up to much of a plot.

Nomi Ruiz in “Haymaker” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

The dramatic film “Haymaker” is a globe-trotting film that had the potential to be a compelling adventure/love story. However, the movie’s incoherent storyline, badly written dialogue and dull acting make it very forgettable. “Haymaker” is the feature-film directorial debut of Nick Sasso, who also directed the movie and is the star of the film as the story’s protagonist. But his Nicky “Mitts” Malloy character is so lacking in charisma that he is easily outshined by co-star Nomi Ruiz, who plays the seductive singer (also named Nomi) who steals Nicky’s heart.

In “Haymaker,” Nicky is a retired championship Muay Thai fighter who is now working as a bouncer/security staffer at a New York City nightclub. It’s the type of nightclub where young people like to party but some shady criminal types hang out there too. In the beginning of the movie, Nicky sees Nomi being sexually assaulted in the dressing room by a thug named Bluto (played by Olan Montgomery) before she goes on stage.

Nicky comes to Nomi’s rescue by beating up her attacker, who leaves the club. There’s no mention in the movie of calling the police to report this sexual assault because it’s implied that this is the type of nightclub that doesn’t want the cops anywhere near the place. Nomi, who is a dance/pop artist, thanks Nicky, manages to compose herself, and she performs on stage like a pro.

Nicky is transfixed and awed, as he watches Nomi perform while he stands near the bar. He looks at her in a way that it’s pretty obvious that these two are going to be headed toward a romance at some point in the story. Ruiz is a pretty good singer/performer, but the songs she does in “Haymaker” are very generic.

After the nightclub closes for the night, Nomi says to Nicky while they’re seated at the bar: “You know, I owe you a drink.” Nicky replies, “No, you don’t.” Nomi then says, “I could use one.” This is an example of the simplistic and boring dialogue that drags down the film. The actors also sometimes recite their lines awkwardly, with pauses that are little too long and pacing that doesn’t sound like an authentic conversation.

Because Nomi was impressed with how Nicky fought to protect her, she offers him a job as her bodyguard. Nomi says she needs protection from “her fans,” but her half-joking tone of voice when she says it will make people wonder if she’s serious or not. Nicky is going to need this bodyguard job, because shortly after he and Nomi have the conversation, he gets fired by his boss Javier (played by John Ventimiglia) at the nightclub.

Javier tells Nicky that the firing is nothing personal against Nicky, but it’s because Bluto is “a friend of the club,” and the boss can’t risk alienating this thug. The implication is that Bluto is some kind of gangster or shady person who’s given this nightclub boss a reason to choose Bluto over Nicky. Now that he’s been laid off from the nightclub, Nicky can spend more time being Nomi’s full-time bodyguard. How convenient.

Nicky and Nomi have a conversation outside of the nightclub where they both talk a little bit about their backgrounds. They’re both New York City natives. He’s from The Bronx, while she’s from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.

Nomi tells Nicky that he’s also going to be her driver because she doesn’t have a car. Nicky doesn’t even bother to charge her extra money for this added responsibility. It’s pretty obvious that he’s infatuated with her and he thinks getting paid to be around Nomi is just a bonus. Nicky and Nomi exchange phone numbers and then part ways for the night.

The first time that Nicky goes to work for Nomi, she wants him to drive her to a recording studio. He picks her up at her modest apartment, where Nomi lives with her bed-ridden grandmother, whom she calls Mama (played by Kathryn Kates). While at the apartment, Nicky and Nomi talk some more about their lives. They both find out that they have something in common: They were both expelled from high school.

Nicky is the “strong, silent type,” so even though viewers can see that he’s probably falling for Nomi, he doesn’t really outwardly express it. In terms of personality, Nicky and Nomi are opposites (he’s an introvert, she’s an extrovert) and have very different lifestyles. Nomi is a bit of a wild child who likes to party (she does cocaine and Ecstasy in a few scenes), while Nicky seems to be leading a fairly straight-laced lifestyle.

Nomi is unpredictable and sometimes irrational, as Nicky finds out when he takes her to the recording studio. She orders Nicky to wait for her in the reception area until she completes her recording session. But then, a rapper named Logan (played by Ty Hickson) in the recording studio picks a fight with Nomi, so the recording session is cut short.

Nicky has no way of knowing about this argument because he’s in another part of the building and couldn’t hear what was goin on. But that doesn’t stop Nomi from storming out of the studio and berating Nicky for not coming to her rescue. Nicky tells Nomi that she’s being unreasonable, but she makes it clear that she gets to decide what Nicky should be doing because she’s paying him. Nomi seems to be treating Nicky like a chump, so this movie will have a hard time convincing viewers that this would-be romance is built on mutual respect.

One of the biggest flaws in “Haymaker” is that it constantly hints of an intriguing backstory for Nomi, but then just leaves those hints hanging with no elaboration. For example, one night, Nick goes back to the nightclub where he used to work. He happens to see Nomi at the club. She’s sitting at a table with a mobster type named Fürst (played by Udo Kier, who has a brief cameo) and two couples who appear to be part of Fürst’s entourage.

Nick joins them at the table, but he looks and feels uncomfortable. Fürst talks about how Nomi burned down his Malibu house, but it was an accident. Fürst then tells Nomi in a slightly menacing voice, “You owe me.” After Nomi snorts some cocaine, Nicky escorts her out of the nightclub. Fürst is never seen or heard from again. It’s never revealed in the movie how Nomi and Fürst know each other, what she was doing in Malibu, and what she “owes” him.

And the movie hints at but never explores the fact that Nomi is a transgender woman, as is Ruiz in real life. There’s a scene that’s in the “Haymaker” trailer where she reveals to Nicky that she’s transgender, but that scene was cut from the movie. In the scene, Nicky and Nomi are in someone’s home while he looks at several framed family photos displayed on a table. He picks up a photo of a little boy and asks who the boy is. Nomi replies, “Me.”

Nomi says a few things in the movie that give hints about her transgender identity, by telling Nicky that she can’t really reveal all of herself to him and that she’s not who she appears to be. However, since the filmmakers cut out the scene of Nomi telling Nicky that she lived as a boy when she was a child, the movie doesn’t have a big reveal about Nomi being transgender.

Because Nicky is never told in the final cut of the movie that Nomi is transgender, this omission can be considered careless at best or deliberately dishonest at worst. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want Nomi’s transgender identity to be a distraction to the story. Or maybe they feared that it would alienate transphobic viewers. Whatever the reason, muting or possibly trying to erase Nomi’s transgender identity was a missed opportunity to make this very tedious movie more interesting.

There’s another part of the movie where Nicky briefly meets Nomi’s mother Marisol (Veronica Falcón), and it’s hinted that Nomi and Marisol were estranged at some point. It’s also implied that Nomi spent a great deal of her childhood being raised by her grandmother. But the movie never goes into details over why Nomi was closer to her grandmother than she was to her mother.

Not much is told about Nicky’s background either. He has an older brother named Mack (played by D.B. Sweeney), who has been his trainer. And during a conversation between Nicky and Nomi, Nicky mentions that he had a fiancée, who was his co-worker, but the fiancée broke up with Nicky after he lost a fight. Nicky describes the breakup this way to Nomi: “She was cool. I hurt her feelings. The end.”

Even though it’s never said out loud in the film, and it’s not spoiler information, viewers can easily figure out the ex-fiancée is a woman named Rosie (played by Zoë Bell), who works at a gym where Nicky did a lot of training. Rosie’s brief interactions with Nicky give the impression that they used to be romantically involved and they’re now trying to keep things professional, but Rosie still cares about him as a friend. Nicky seems to have some hard feelings about the breakup though, because he’s a little bit standoffish toward Rosie.

A lot of “Haymaker” is a mishmash of scenes of Nicky going on tour with Nomi in various places, such as Los Angeles, Greece and Mexico City. She’s well-known enough to headline at large nightclubs that hold about 1,000 people, but she’s definitely not very famous. People watching this movie should be prepared to see a lot of scenes of Nicky literally standing around while he watches Nomi perform on stage, or else he’s lingering in the background while she parties in hotel rooms or nightclubs and he barely talks to anyone.

A major problem with “Haymaker” is that the filmmakers seemed more concerned with filming the actors in exotic settings than making this story interesting. Nomi actually doesn’t have anyone in her life who’s a real threat to her, so the supposed “protection” she needs is a very misleading part of this movie. Don’t expect “Haymaker” to be like an indie film version of the 1992 Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner blockbuster “The Bodyguard.” There are no chase scenes, stalkers or assassination attempts in “Haymaker.”

As for the romance in “Haymaker,” it might have been intended as a “slow burn,” but it’s more like a “big snooze.” Because the dialogue is so dumbed-down, Nicky and Nomi don’t have any meaningful conversations that would make it believable that they’re connecting on a level that goes beyond physical attraction. The movie also doesn’t adequately address how Nomi takes advantage of the power imbalance that she has as Nicky’s employer.

Some very cliché jealousy issues happen between Nicky and Nomi. At one point in “Haymaker,” Nicky comes out of Muy Thai retirement, trains in Thailand, and does a Muy Thai fight with Brett “The Threat” Hlavacek, who portrays himself in the movie. But even the fight scenes and the outcome of the fight are formulaic and extremely predictable.

For a low-budget independent movie, “Haymaker” makes an admirable attempt to look stylish, since many of Nomi’s performance scenes and the outdoor vistas benefit from cinematography that tries to make the movie look more glamorous than it really is. “Haymaker” also has a few light touches of comedy, such as a scene where Nomi wants to spend time at a beach, but Nicky doesn’t have a swimsuit. They go into a public restroom and she makes him wear the type of swimsuit he doesn’t like: a Speedo.

Ultimately though, “Haymaker” is too disjointed with its poorly conceived screenwriting, amateurish directing and choppy editing. No one is expecting the Nicky character to be a talkative intellectual (look at “Rocky” movie hero Rocky Balboa, for instance), but viewers expect a leading man to at least have something magnetic about his personality. Unfortunately, between Nicky’s dullness and Nomi not doing much except pouting, singing and acting sexy, “Haymaker” is just a disappointing dud. The movie might have been filmed in various locations around the world, but “Haymaker” ends up going nowhere if people are looking for a quality story that’s entertaining.

Kamikaze Dogfight and Gravitas Ventures released “Haymaker” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 29, 2021.