Review: ‘Griffin in Summer,’ starring Everett Blunck, Melanie Lynskey, Owen Teague, Abby Ryder Fortson and Kathryn Newton

June 24, 2024

by Carla Hay

Everett Blunck in “Griffin in Summer” (Photo courtesy of Coveside Films)

“Griffin in Summer”

Directed by Nicholas Colia

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Borwood, Virginia, the comedy/drama film “Griffin in Summer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 14-year-old boy is obsessed with having a professional production of his latest play that he’s written, and he unexpectedly gets distracted by his attraction to a young handyman who has been hired to do work at his house. 

Culture Audience: “Griffin in Summer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and movie about queer young people discovering their sexual identities.

Owen Teague and Everett Blunck in “Griffin in Summer” (Photo courtesy of Coveside Films)

“Griffin in Summer” capably handles the nuances of telling the story of a teenage boy’s sexuality awakening without veering into lurid exploitation. The performances in this comedy/drama are memorable, even when the plot occasionally gets one-note. The movie’s protagonist is believable because he’s not a caricature and has very realistic personality flaws.

Written and directed by Nicholas Colia, “Griffin in Summer” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival, where it won two prizes: Best U.S. Narrative Feature and Best Screenplay (U.S. Narrative Feature). In addition, Colia received a special jury mention (the equivalent of second place) for the Best New Narrative Director Award. “Griffin in Summer” takes place in the fictional city of Borwood, Virginia. The movie was filmed on location in Virginia.

“Griffin in Summer” is a movie about a 14-year-old boy who gets a clear understanding that he’s gay or queer, even though he doesn’t have any sexual encounters in the movie. “Griffin in Summer” handles this sensitive subject with a tone that is frank without being explicit. For example, there are no sex scenes in the film or even discussions of homosexuality or queerness. The words “gay” and “queer” aren’t even said in this film to describe the teenage protagonist. Everything is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without any big, dramatic “coming out” moments.

“Griffin in Summer” begins by showing a student talent show at Borwood Middle School. This talent show takes place shortly before the school will be on a summer break. A boy named Mark (played by Ian Hernandez-Oropeza) and an unnamed girl (played by Aurora Richards) on stage are singing an off-key duet of Chicago’s 1984 hit “You’re the Inspiration.” Even though it’s a horrible performance, the audience politely claps.

Next up is 14-year-old Griffin Nafly (played by Everett Blunck), whose personality can best be described as precocious and prickly. Griffin is an aspiring playwright and has chosen to act out a scene from his play “Regrets in Autumn.” In this play excerpt, Griffin acts out the roles of an unhappily married couple named Harriet (a homemaker in her 50s) and her husband Walter, who’s a Wall Street banker.

Harriet accuses Walter of cheating on her. Walter accuses Harriet of abusing alcohol. It leads to a shouting match where Harriet blurts out: “Oh, and another thing, Walter: Those weren’t miscarriages. They were abortions!”

Needless to say, the audience of mostly students are taken aback by this intense drama and are stunned into mostly silence. Griffin doesn’t seem to care that only a small percentage of people are clapping with tentative applause. His performance got the desired effect of making everyone in the room pay attention to Griffin and his work. Griffin has big plans for this play, which he’s determined to make a reality before he starts high school after his summer break.

At home, Griffin’s supportive mother Helen (played by Melanie Lynskey), who works as a real-estate agent, asks Griffin (who is an only child) if he has any plans to “do anything else” for the summer. Griffin curtly tells her no. That’s because for this summer, Griffin has a single-minded goal to stage his first play in a real theater, which will be the first time any of his plays will be in a legitimate performing arts space instead of the basement of his parents’ home. The play, of course, is “Regrets of Autumn,” which Griffin describes as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” meets “American Beauty.”

Griffin plans to rent a small performance theater space “somewhere outside of Borwood” for the production. He has already decided who in his small circle of friends will be on his team for this production. Tyler Smoot-Rigsby (played by Gordon Rocks) will have the role of Walter, whom Griffin describes a “serial adulterer.” Winnie Hernandez (played by Johanna Colón) will have the role of Harriet, whom Griffin describes as an “alcoholic.” Pam Vanderworm (played by Alivia Bellamy) has the role of Scarlett, who is Walter’s “social-climbing mistress.”

Kara Pointer (played by Abby Ryder Fortson), who seems to be Griffin’s best friend, has been given the task of directing the play. However, it soon becomes very apparent that Kara has this title of “director” in name only because Griffin is the real director of the play, based on how he acts and the decisions that he makes. It would not be an exaggeration to describe Griffin’s bossy attitude toward his teammates as tyrannical and difficult.

Griffin wants intensive rehearsals that would require 60 hours week. It’s a lot to ask from anyone—let alone an underage teen—to give up that much of their time for an amateur, unpaid play. When Kara speaks on behalf of the castmates about this demanding work schedule and asks for them to rehearse for less hours per week, Griffin has this hostile reaction: “It’s the Equity standard!” (Griffin conveniently forgets that the Actors Equity Association standard also includes union-approved payments and insurance benefits, which obviously Griffin cannot offer.)

In the meantime, Griffin has been frantically putting the finishing touches of the play. He expects to work on the play in quiet solitude in his room. But those plans are disrupted when Griffin finds out that his mother has hired the young adult son of a neighbor named Mrs. Rizzo (played by Francine Berk) to do some handyman work inside and outside the Nafly family home. This handyman work inevitably involves using equipment noises that irritate Griffin.

The name of this handyman is Brad Rizzo (played by Owen Teague), who is an aspiring performance artist. Brad is not intellectual but he’s good-looking in a “lanky and laid-back” type of way. The first time Brad makes his noisy presence known, he’s doing some work on the front lawn, Griffin haughtily orders Brad to stop making noise because Griffin is working on writing a play. “Art comes from a quiet place,” Griffin tells Brad in a snooty tone.

Griffin wants Helen to fire Brad. She refuses. As Brad spends more time at the house, it soon becomes obvious that Griffin is attracted to Brad in a way that makes Griffin feel excited, confused and fearful at the same time. Griffin’s attraction to Brad becomes even stronger when he finds out that Brad is an aspiring performance artist who is only in Virginia to make enough money so Brad can go back to New York City and pursue his real goals of being a professional performance artist.

The rest of “Griffin in Summer” is how Griffin handles his feelings toward Brad while still juggling the stress of launching his “Regrets in Autumn” play. Things get complicated for Griffin when he finds out that Brad has a possessive and insecure girlfriend named Chloe (played by Kathryn Newton), who has known Brad since she and Brad were in high school. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that “Griffin in Summer” pokes some fun at how power dynamics and decision making can change when sexual attraction is part of the mix.

“Griffin in Summer” also has a subplot about how the somewhat troubled marriage of Griffin’s parents affects Griffin’s outlook on life. Griffin’s father Bill (played by Michael Esper) is frequently away from home because of his job. This absence has taken a toll on his marriage to Helen. At one point, Griffin hints that Helen has a substance abuse problem when he tells someone that Helen is “only into Chardonnay and Klonopin.”

As a character, Griffin has a few predictable stereotypes that are often given to queer male characters in movies. Griffin is sassy, fussy and has more than his share of “drama queen” meltdowns. However, the dialogue in the movie rarely strays from sounding authentic. If stereotypes exist for a reason, at least Griffin embodies those stereotypes in a believable way that don’t make him look like a caricature.

What’s special about “Griffin in Summer” is that it does the opposite of what many movies often do that are about underage teens discovering their sexuality: It doesn’t make any of the teens in the film in a rush to lose their virginities. And these teens aren’t fixated on sex and don’t make constant crude jokes about sex, which are other predictable clichés in teen-oriented movies with sexuality as a major theme. Griffin and his friends are still in their early teens and don’t have to be portrayed as if they’re horny 17-year-olds.

Blunck gives a very expressive performance where his face and body language show a lot of what Griffin is really thinking. Meanwhile, Teague gives a credible performance as Brad, who doesn’t initially pick up on the queer signals that Griffin is giving. Brad mistakenly thinks that Griffin is growing attached to Brad because Griffin sees Brad as being like an older brother.

Lynskey gives a solid performance as a harried mother trying to keep her family together, Helen seems to know that Griffin is gay or queer, but it doesn’t seem to be something she wants to discuss with Griffin until he’s ready to talk about it. Newton’s portrayal of ditsy Chloe is intentionally campy. The other supporting cast members give good performances in their very limited roles.

Doing a movie about teenage sexual identity is a tricky thing to do in a movie when the protagonist is under the legal age of sexual consent and the protagonist has a crush on an adult. “Griffin in Summer” isn’t just about sexuality; it’s also about self-acceptance. Through ways that are comedic and often poignant, “Griffin in Summer” shows that it’s much easier to put a label on a sexual identity than it is to have the self-confidence to live authentically, no matter how much it might hurt.

Review: ‘Kinds of Kindness,’ starring Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie and Hunter Schafer

June 20, 2024

by Carla Hay

Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

“Kinds of Kindness”

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Louisiana, the comedy/drama film “Kinds of Kindness” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Various people seek satisfaction in their lives but experience conflicts in this offbeat, three-story anthology. 

Culture Audience: “Kinds of Kindness” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and movies that are often strange but are well-acted.

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

It’s weird and not always wonderful, but “Kinds of Kindness” has committed performances from the cast members in this unpredictable anthology film. This acerbic comedy/drama cuttingly explores the dark sides of power, control and manipulation. Several scenes in “Kinds of Kindness” are deliberately off-putting and intended to make people squirm with discomfort.

For example, there’s a scene where a woman is drugged without her knowledge and consent, and then she is raped while she’s unconscious. (The sexual assault is not shown in graphic detail.) There’s another scene that shows animal cruelty. (A disclaimer in the movie’s end credits says that no animals were harmed while making the film.) In other words, “Kinds of Kindness” is not a family-oriented film that’s supposed to have mass appeal.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (who co-wrote “Kinds of Kindness” with Efthimis Filippou), “Kinds of Kindness” had its world premiere at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, where “Kinds of Kindness” co-star Jesse Plemons won the award for Best Actor. This anthology movie is told as three different stories, all taking place in Louisiana, where “Kinds of Kindness” was filmed on location. Lanthimos is known for making offbeat movies about people doing very unpleasant things to each other. Most of his movies also depict polyamory and/or sexual fluidity. “Kinds of Kindness” is more extreme and less straightforward than Lanthimos’ Oscar-winning films “The Favourite” and “Poor Things.” Some cast members from “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” are also in “Kinds of Kindness.”

In “Kinds of Kindness,” the three stories have these titles, shown in this order: “The Death of R.M.F.,” “R.M.F. Is Flying” and “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich.” (R.M.F. is a mysterious character played by Yorgos Stefanakos in all three stories.) All three stories feature the other main actors portraying different characters in each story. Emma Stone, Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn and Mamoudou Athie are the rotating star cast members in each story. Stone and Plemons get the most screen time. Hunter Schafer has a small role in “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich.”

Each story takes its time to reveal the motives of the central protagonists. Keeping the viewers guessing in this way has benefits and limitations. Viewers who have short attention spans will quickly grow tired of “Kinds of Kindness” because of all the guessing games that the movie has in revealing bits and pieces of each story. Many times, viewers will be asking themselves, “Where is this story going?” If you dislike how the first story plays out, then chances are you won’t like the rest of the movie either.

“The Death of R.M.F.”

Hong Chau and Jesse Plemons in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

In “The Death of R.M.F.,” Robert Fletcher (played by Plemons) and his wife Sarah (played by Chau) are a seemingly regular middle-class couple. Sarah and Robert have no children, but they have been trying to start a family. Sarah has gotten pregnant several times but lost all of the pregnancies.

Robert works for a company in an unnamed industry. It’s an office job where Robert is expected to wear business attire. Robert’s boss is Raymond (played by Dafoe), who is a demanding tyrant. Robert and Raymond have been in each other’s lives for about 10 years.

It soon becomes apparent that Raymond wants complete control over certain people in his life. For example, Raymond dictates what Robert and Sarah can eat and when the couple can have sex. Raymond also tells Robert that Robert needs to gain a few more pounds. Raymond expects Robert to confirm every day that Robert has followed Raymond’s orders. Robert willingly complies.

However, there’s one demand from Raymond that Robert has a problem carrying out: Raymond has ordered Robert to kill someone by crashing Robert’s car into the other person’s car. Raymond insists that this car crash has been arranged by a suicidal person whose car will be hit by Robert’s car. Robert is supposed to get a description of the car and the crash victim in advance.

Robert is very reluctant to follow this order from Raymond. Near the beginning of the movie, R.M.F. is shown as someone who’s in another car that Robert crashes into with his car. The fate of R.M.F. is shown in this story. Meanwhile, Raymond’s willing accomplice in these bizarre suicide arrangements is his lover Vivian (played by Qualley), who has been put in charge of meeting with the future car crash victims and asking them to pose for photos that she sends to Raymond for his approval.

It’s soon revealed that Robert is also sexually involved with Raymond, who expects to have complete control over Robert, Vivian and other people. Raymond sometimes gives rare collectibles to manipulate people into thinking that he likes them. In the beginning of the story, Raymond has gifted to Robert and Sarah a tennis racket that was smashed by John McEnroe in 1984.

Alwyn has a cameo as a collectibles appraiser who meets with Raymond. Athie is briefly seen in this story as a character named Will, who also works for Raymond. Stone has the role of a lonely bachelorette named Rita, whom Robert asks on a date after Robert sees that Raymond is also dating Rita.

“R.M.F. Is Flying”

Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons in in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

In “R.M.F. Is Flying,” Daniel (played by Plemons) and Neil (played by Athie) are best friends and police officers who work together. Daniel and his wife Liz (played by Stone) are very close to Neil and his wife Martha (played by Qualley) and spend a lot of time at each other’s houses. The two couples are so close, it’s eventually revealed that they are swingers who have foursome orgies with each other that they record on video.

In the beginning of this story, Liz (who is a marine biologist explorer) has been missing during a deep-sea exploration trip. However, Liz has been found on a remote island and has been rescued by helicopter. When she arrives home after a brief stay in a hospital, Daniel notices that Liz has a hard time putting on her shoes, because her feet seem slightly bigger than her shoes. Liz says her feet must be swollen.

Other things happen (as shown in the story) that convince Daniel that the person who was rescued and claims to be his wife Liz is an imposter. Is Daniel imagining things or is he correct? Liz’s father George (played by Dafoe) disapproves of how Daniel has been acting cold and distant to Liz, ever since the rescue. Chao has the role of George’s supportive wife Sharon. Alywn appears in the movie in a brief role as a defiant and intoxicated passenger in a car that gets pulled over by Daniel for reckless driving.

“R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich”

Emma Stone in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures)

In “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” Emily (played by Stone) and Andrew (played by Plemons) are on an intense search for a woman who saved Emily’s life when Emily almost drowned in a swimming pool. At first, Emily and Andrew seem like they’re a couple. But it’s eventually revealed they’re in some kind of polyamorous sex cult led by a domineering guru named Omi (played by Dafoe), who decides which people in the cult will have sex with Omi and when. A mother named AKA (played by Chau) has a certain “tastemaker” role in the cult.

Emily is literally a hard-driving person: She speeds, careens and skids around in a dark purple Dodge Challenger, as if she’s in a demolition derby race. Emily is rude and impatient in her obsessive search. The reason for the search has to do with special powers that she thinks her rescuer has.

Qualley portrays identical twins Rebecca and Ruth in this story. Schafer has a small role as a woman named Anna, who is examined by Emily in a hospital and is quickly rejected as not being the woman whom Emily is seeking. Alwyn portrays Joseph, Emily’s estranged husband, who has custody of their unnamed daughter (played by Merah Benoit), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Athie has the role of an unnamed morgue nurse.

Of these three stories, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich” is the most memorable and the most disturbing. It’s also sure to be the most divisive part of “Kinds of Kindness” because of the way it depicts spiritual beliefs and sex in the context of a cult. The main reason to keep watching is to find out what happens in the story’s mystery.

Because “Kinds of Kindness” has two stories in this movie where Dafoe portrays a leader who controls other people’s sex lives, “Kinds of Kindness” seems to be repeating itself in this way, which is to the movie’s detriment. Some of the movie’s bizarre scenes can be amusing, while other weirdness is just plain irritating and serves no other purpose but to show something weird. The cinematography (by Robbie Ryan) gives “Kinds of Kindness” a compelling modern noir tone.

The cast members’ performances make much of the movie more interesting. Stone excels in portraying three very different characters. The other cast members also capably handle their roles. Plemons’ three characters (Robert, Daniel and Andrew) all have loss of control as a major part of their stories, so his “Kinds of Kindness” characters are not as varied as Stone’s characters in this movie.

Viewers of “Kinds of Kindness” should not go into this movie expecting to see charming characters who are easy to like. The movie goes out of its way to have characters who are unlikable or are sometimes difficult watch. “Kinds of Kindness” is like sushi smothered in wasabi. Many people won’t be able to tolerate the parts that sting, but there are other parts that go down easier and have more substance if people are curious to see how everything ends.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Kinds of Kindness” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024.

Review: ‘The Bikeriders,’ starring Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist and Norman Reedus

June 18, 2024

by Carla Hay

Boyd Holbrook, Austin Butler and Tom Hardy in “The Bikeriders” (Photo by Mike Faist/Focus Features)

“The Bikeriders”

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the Chicago area, from 1963 to 1973, the dramatic film “The Bikeriders” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman struggles to keep her marriage intact as her husband gets more involved in a motorycle gang called the Vandals. 

Culture Audience: “The Bikeriders” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and history-based stories about motorcycle gangs.

Mike Faist and Jodie Comer in “The Bikeriders” (Photo by Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features)

“The Bikeriders” could have been a typical macho movie about a gang, starring actors who are much better-looking than the average gang member. This gritty drama has a lot of predictability, but it avoids some clichés by having a female narrator for an otherwise very masculine film about a violent gang. Jodie Comer gives a standout performance in the role of the movie’s narrator/chief protagonist, who tells the story of this dangerous and dysfunctional American gang from her perspective. “The Bikeriders” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, “The Bikeriders” is inspired by photojournalist Danny Lyon’s 1968 non-fiction book “The Bikeriders,” which chronicled Lyon’s four years as a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The movie takes place from 1963 to 1973, with the story told in non-chronological order. Some viewers might be confused or annoyed by this timeline jumping. The gang at the center of the story is the fictional Vandals, which began in Chicago and eventually expanded to other cities throughout the Midwest. (“The Bikeriders” was actually filmed in Cincinnati.)

“The Bikeriders” structures the narrative by having it in the context of former Vandals insider Kathy (played by Comer) telling the story of the gang to a journalist named Danny (played by Mike Faist) during a series of interviews in 1973. The movie then has several flashbacks to Kathy’s life as the girlfriend and then wife of Vandals member Benny Cross (played by Austin Butler), who becomes increasingly unstable and at risk of dying while he’s in the gang. Kathy is the only substantial female role in the movie. All the other women in with speaking roles in “The Bikeriders” get very little screen time and mostly portray friends or acquaintances of Kathy.

Benny is a typical brooding outlaw, who doesn’t talk much about his past. However, Benny is clear about one thing: He has a passion for motorcycle riding, even though he’s had too many motorcycle crashes by any standard. Benny also has an arrest record, for things such as disorderly conduct, driving without a license, and resisting arrest. After he joins the Vandals, Benny will get involved in more serious crimes.

Benny, who has spent much of his life as a loner, finds camaraderie in the Vandals. The leader of the Vandals is a menacing brute named Johnny (played by Tom Hardy), who expects unwavering loyalty to the gang at all costs. And Benny is a very loyal member. The opening scene in the “Bikeriders” shows Benny getting brutally beaten up by two men in a bar just because Benny refuses their demands to take off his Vandals motorcycle jacket.

There’s a scene in “The Bikeriders” were Johnny says he was inspired to create the Vandals motorcycle club after seeing Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” the 1953 drama in which Brando has the role of Johnny Strabler, the troublemaking leader of a motorcycle gang. It’s no coincidence that Johnny has the same first name as this iconic movie character. Hardy’s performance in “The Bikeriders” is obviously influenced by Brando’s performance in “The Wild One.” Benny and Johnny form a close friendship, in which Johnny becomes a mentor to Benny.

The other core members of the Chicago chapter of the Vandals are practical-minded Brucie (played Damon Herriman), who is Johnny’s right-hand man; easygoing Cal (played by Boyd Holbrook), who’s originally from California; eccentric Zipco (played by Michael Shannon), who was rejected when he volunteered for military duty for the Vietnam War; fidgety Cockroach (played by Emory Cohen), who is a family man; raggedy Funny Sonny (played by Norman Reedus), who asks to join the Vandals; and best friends Corky (played Karl Glusman) and Wahoo (played by Beau Knapp), who are like the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Vandals. There’s also an ambitious younger gang member, who is just called The Kid (played by Toby Wallace), and he has a pivotal role in the story.

When Kathy tells the story of the Vandals from her perspective, she is at various times sassy, jaded, nostalgic or heartbroken. “The Bikeriders” follows her journey from being relatively straight-laced and naïve about gang life to becoming so involved in gang life, it becomes very difficult for her to leave, out of fear of getting assaulted or killed. Most of the conflicts in her marriage to Benny are about how she wants him to leave the Vandals, but he stubbornly refuses.

The first time Kathy meets Benny, it’s 1963, and he’s playing pool at a bar that is a regular hangout for the Vandals. Kathy and Benny lock eyes in the way that people do in a movie that makes it obvious that they’re eventually going to get together. Benny and Kathy exchange the type of banter where they’re intensely attracted to each other but they want to play it cool.

And the next thing you know, Kathy is on the back of Benny’s motorcycle while they ride around town. Kathy says in a voiceover about the first time she rode on a motorcycle with Benny: “I have to admit, it took my breath away.” Benny is portrayed as a scruffy and tough James Dean type, who constantly has to prove to others that he’s more than just a pretty face.

At the time Kathy meets Benny, she already has a live-in boyfriend named David (played by Michael Abbott Jr.), who’s about 10 years older than Kathy. But Kathy’s relationship with David doesn’t stop Benny from pursuing Kathy. After Benny drops Kathy off at her house on the first night they meet (which is the first time an annoyed David sees Benny), Benny decides he’s going come back later and wait across the street for the entire night and part of the next day to see Kathy again.

This stalking would be a red flag for a lot of people, but Kathy is charmed and thinks it shows Benny must really be into her, even if she thinks Benny is a little unhinged and obsessive. These personality traits also apply to how Benny feels about the Vandals. Eventually, there comes a time when Kathy wants to choose between her and the Vandals.

Benny doesn’t have to say a word to David or get in a fight with David to literally drive David away. There’s a scene where David is very unnerved by seeing Benny waiting across the street, soon after Benny met Kathy. David storms into the house, has a brief but angry argument with Kathy, and then announces to Kathy: “We’re done!” David drives off in his truck with his possessions and is never seen in the movie again.

Kathy in 1973 is then seen smirking when she tells journalist Danny about what happened next between her and Benny: “Five weeks later, I married him.” The rest of “The Bikeriders” shows the ups and downs of the marriage of Kathy and Benny as he becomes involved in deadly crimes with the Vandals. The movie shows the expected fight scenes and gang rivalries.

The Vandals open up chapters in other cities (Milwaukee is mentioned the most), but Johnny has difficulty managing so many different chapters as the overall leader of the Vandals. Johnny doesn’t really want to admit he’s losing control of a rapidly expanding gang with various agendas, but other people see flaws in Johnny’s leadership, so there are inevitable power struggles. A few gang members occasionally challenge Johnny to replace him as the leader of the Vandals. Johnny gives these challengers a choice to fight him with their fists or with a knife.

“The Bikeriders” doesn’t have a lot of surprises but can maintain viewer interest because of the talented cast members’ performances. Comer and Hardy (who are both British in real life) have accents in this movie that will get different reactions. Comer’s Midwestern twang sounds very authentic and actually makes her plain-spoken, often-sarcastic storytelling have more resonance. Hardy (who’s doing yet another role as a mumbling tough guy) has an American accent that sounds a lot more contrived, although at this point Hardy has mastered the type of character who looks like he could hit someone and hug the same person within a span of seconds.

Butler’s depiction of Benny isn’t outstanding, but it’s not terrible either. Is he convincing as a gang member? The scenes where he’s on a motorcycle or being a “bad boy” lover to Kathy are better than his scenes where he’s in gang-related fights. Benny could have easily been the narrator of “The Bikeriders,” but writer/director Nichols wisely chose to avoid such a predictable perspective. Benny’s obsession with the Vandals is a hint that there’s a huge void in Benny’s life that isn’t fully explained.

It’s perhaps the biggest flaw of the movie: Benny is just too mysterious. He’s not exactly a gang member with a heart of gold, but the movie wants to keep people guessing until the very end: Is Kathy or the Vandals gang the one true love of Benny? The answer comes at the end of “The Bikeriders,” which isn’t a groundbreaking movie about motorcycle gangs but it’s satisfying enough for people who want to see a version of gang life with people who mostly look like Hollywood actors.

Focus Features will release “The Bikeriders” in U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2024.

Review: ‘All That We Love,’ starring Margaret Cho, Kenneth Choi, Alice Lee, Atsuko Okatsuka, Devon Bostick, Missi Pyle and Jesse Tyler Ferguson

June 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Margaret Cho in “All That We Love” (Photo courtesy of Ley Line Entertainment and Ten Acre Films)

“All That We Love”

Directed by Yen Tan

Culture Representation: Taking place in Austin, Texas, the comedy/drama film “All That We Love” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white and a few Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged divorcée copes with the death of her beloved dog and other changes in her personal life, such as her ex-husband moving back to the same city, and their adult daughter moving to Australia. 

Culture Audience: “All That We Love” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and realistic stories about divorced parents of adult children.

“All That We Love” is a smart and mature comedy/drama about the changes that adults go through in personal relationships, from the perspective of a neurotic, divorced mother. Margaret Cho gives a credible and impressive performance. People who are familiar with Cho as only being a comedian will be pleasantly surprised at how good her dramatic talent is too, as demonstrated in this low-key but emotionally honest movie. “All That We Love” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Yen Tan (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Clay Liford), “All That We Love” takes place in a city that is not named, but the movie was filmed in Austin, Texas, and includes some familiar Austin landmarks. In the beginning of the movie, divorcée Emma (played by Cho) is feeling down because her beloved dog Tanner (a brown Collie) has died from cancer. Emma chose to have Tanner cremated. She plans to spread his ashes but hasn’t yet decided where.

Tanner was more than just a dog to Emma, who lives alone. She says multiple times in the movie that Tanner was her main source of comfort and “the love of my life.” There will be more upheavals in Emma’s life during the course of the story. These changes get different reactions from Emma and the people who are close to her. A great deal of the movie is how people deal with unexpected turns in their lives and how much of the past should influence their decisions about relationships.

The two most important people in Emma’s life are her impulsive daughter Maggie (played by Alice Lee), who’s in her early 20s, and Emma’s gay best friend Stan (played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who is getting back into the dating scene after a long period of mourning over the death of his longtime boyfriend Craig. Craig’s cause of death is not mentioned in the movie, but it’s mentioned that Stan and Craig were a couple for more than 15 years. Stan is a somewhat stereotypical gay best friend who makes sassy and sarcastic comments. Emma resists Stan’s efforts to play matchmaker for her.

Emma and Maggie are very close, almost like sisters. It’s revealed later in the movie that Emma and Maggie have bonded over their shared trauma of bad times with Emma’s ex-husband Andy (played by Kenneth Choi), who is Maggie’s father. Andy, who is an actor, is described as an alcoholic and a selfish deadbeat dad, who abandoned Emma and Maggie to be with another woman, whom he eventually married after Andy and Emma got divorced. Andy moved to Singapore and hasn’t been in contact with Emma and Maggie for an untold number of years.

Lately, Emma has started to feel like Maggie’s life is going in a direction that’s different from what Emma wants or expects. Maggie is in a serious relationship with her boyfriend Nate (played by Devon Bostick), who is originally from Melbourne, Australia, where his parents and other family members live. Emma doesn’t dislike Nate (who is easygoing and a little goofy), but she doesn’t entirely approve of the relationship either. Emma hasn’t taken the time to get to know Nate, so she’s somewhat suspicious of him.

Emma works at an unnamed company that publishes catalogues. The company has recently been been acquired by a large corporate firm. This merger resulted in layoffs and a more formal work culture that is causing many longtime employees to feel uncomfortable and insecure about their jobs. They don’t think this company is as fun and relaxed as it used to be before the merger. If Emma is feeling afraid she might be laid off, she’s not showing it, and there are no indications that she’s looking for another job.

Emma supervises a team of people whose job is to come up with the designs and words for the catalogues. Even though Emma can be very insecure in her personal life, she’s a demanding and assertive boss at work. For example, she’s shown in a staff meeting getting annoyed and fixated on how an unseen employee named Brian, who is fairly inexperienced, has made a lot of errors in a draft of a catalogue. Later, Emma is stung by a comment from a subordinate, who says that Emma seems to have a more rigid attitude ever since the merger, and Emma is not as friendly and approachable on the job as she used to be.

Stan is a real-estate agent who is contemplating entering into a “throuple” relationship with a gay couple named Julio (played by Joe Souza) and Bob (played by Marcus DeAnda), who recently bought a house from one of Stan’s clients. Julio and Bob have been heavily flirting with Stan, who doesn’t really know how to handle this attention from the couple. Stan also hints that he’s never dated a couple before. Stan is also exploring his options through online dating and asks for Emma’s help in taking a profile photo that Stan hopes will make him look sexy and attractive.

Meanwhile, Emma’s personal life gets turned upside down with news that happens within a day or two of each other. First, Maggie tells Emma that Maggie plans to spend more than just a few weeks with Nate when they visit his family in Australia for an upcoming trip. Maggie has decided that she will be spending five months in Australia and is quitting her job instead of taking a leave of absence. (The movie doesn’t say what kind of job Maggie has.) Emma thinks that Maggie is making the wrong decision about leaving a job for a temporary visit to another country. What really bothers Emma more (but she doesn’t say it out loud) is that she’s afraid that Maggie is starting to see Nate as more important to Maggie than Emma.

Not long afterward, Emma gets even more surprising news: Her ex-husband Andy has moved back to town. Andy surprises Emma with a visit and tells her that his career in Singapore (where he was the star of a successful TV series) got ruined because he was arrested for drunk driving, which was a big scandal. His most recent marriage also fell apart, and he’s now divorced again. He’s also financially broke. Andy is sheepish about these recent failures in his life, but he’s not looking for Emma’s pity or help.

Andy tells Emma that he has now permanently moved to the United States, where he hopes to revive his acting career. In the meantime, he’s working as a barista in a cafe, because he can’t find any jobs as an actor, although he’s hoping an offer that he got to be in a frequently delayed movie will work out for him. Andy is so broke, he can’t afford his own place. Andy has to live with his younger bachelorette sister Raven (played by Atsuko Okatsuka), a YouTuber whose channel is about doing food-related stunts for comedy. Raven has more than 1 million subscribers and makes a full-time income from what she does on YouTube.

Andy seems to be remorseful for how badly he treated Emma and Maggie in the past. He claims that he is now clean and sober and plans to stay that way. Emma is very skeptical at first, but the more time she spends with Andy, the more she is surprised by how different he seems from when they were married. He’s kind, polite and he makes her laugh. Some of their romantic sparks come back. Can this lead to a rekindled romance?

However, things are complicated because Andy wants to make peace with Maggie, who is still deeply hurt and resentful of the neglectful father she used to know. Emma doesn’t quite know when or how to tell Maggie about Andy moving back to same area. And then there’s Stan, who really disapproves of Emma giving Andy another chance because Stan thinks Andy will hurt Emma again.

“All That We Love” has obvious themes of when or if to let go of emotional baggage and whether or not to forgive someone who has been hurtful in the past. There are also some parallels about altered dynamics in close relationships. At various points in the story, Maggie and Emma want to be free to make certain life decisions without the harsh judgments of loved ones who are close to them.

The movie has a somewhat cutesy subplot involving one of Emma’s subordinates named Kayla (played by Missi Pyle), a devout Christian. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Kayla tells Emma that she wants to take an early buyout from the company instead of waiting to be laid off because Kayla wants to spend time doing her “true calling” of church work. Kayla also volunteers as a foster caregiver for dogs. You can easily predict where this subplot will go as soon as Emma visits Kayla at Kayla’s home.

All of the cast members give very good performances, but the movie’s authenticity rests largely on Cho’s nuanced performance as someone who’s feeling the discomfort of unpredictable life events while going through a grieving process. “All That We Love” excels in depicting complicated emotions and situations that arise when formerly feuding divorced parents reach a tentative reconciliation after years of anger and resentment. What does this do to the rest of the affected family members, who might not be ready to forgive and let go of the past?

A few moments in “All That We Love” veer into sitcom territory, particularly in a scene where Emma is asked to leave a house party, and she urinates in the lawn bushes because she doesn’t want to ask the party host to let her back in the house to use the bathroom. However, this well-written and capably directed film shows an overall wisdom of life’s messiness and how people can arrive at different conclusions based on how they deal with the past and the present. In its own observational way, “All That We Love” is a poignant testament of how letting go of previous experiences and facing an uncertain future can be much harder than holding on to the past.

Review: ‘Vulcanizadora,’ starring Joshua Burge and Joel Potrykus

June 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Joshua Burge in “Vulcanizadora” (Photo courtesy of Dweck Productions/Factory 25 Productions/Sob Noisse Movies)


Directed by Joel Potrykus

Culture Representation: Taking place in Michigan, the dramatic film “Vulcanizadora” (a sequel to 2015’s “Buzzard”) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two friends go on a camping trip in the woods and plan to commit a sinister act.

Culture Audience: “Vulcanizadora” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Joel Potrykus and provocative movies about the dark side of human nature.

“Vulcanizadora” is a mind-bending drama that sneaks up on viewers and goes to unpredictable places. This sequel to “Buzzard” requires patience during the meandering first third of “Vulcanizadora.” The rest of the film will keep viewers on edge.

Written and directed by Joel Potrykus, “Vulcanizadora” takes place in Michigan, and was filmed on location in the Michigan cities of Manistee and Grand Rapids. “Vulcanizadora” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. Most of the film takes place in an isolated wooded area near a beach.

“Vulcanizadora” has a relatively small number of people in the cast. Two main characters getting the most screen time. Marty Jackitansky (played by Joshua Burge) is the protagonist from “Buzzard,” a movie about Marty committing crimes, such as financial fraud, by stealing and forging checks. The other main character in “Vulcanizadora” is Derek Skiba (played by Potrykus), who was a supporting character in Buzzard.”

“Buzzard” had its world premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival and was released in 2015. In “Buzzard,” Derek was Marty’s co-worker at a company called First File Mortgage, where Marty was a temp worker who stole checks and committed other fraud. Fearing that he would get caught, Marty hid at Derek’s place, while Derek lied to their boss and said that Marty was sick and unable to go to work. The rest of “Buzzard” shows what happened to Marty.

Viewers of “Vulcanizadora” don’t need to see “Buzzard” to understand what happens in “Vulcanizadora.” However, seeing “Buzzard” before seeing “Vulcanizadora” will give viewers a better understanding of who Marty and Derek are and their background stories. For the first third of “Vulcanizadora,” the movie just looks like two male friends wandering around a wooded area during a camping trip.

Derek (who is late 40s) is the more talkative of the duo. His motormouth rambling becomes very irritating after a while. Marty (who is in his late 20s) is brooding and doesn’t seem like he enjoys spending time with Derek. Even though Derek is older than Marty, Derek seems more emotionally immature than Marty.

Derek is the type of person who pretends to know more than he really does. For example, Derek doesn’t know some basic camping skills, and Marty often has to show him how to do things correctly. Derek is a music fan who often plays music loudly or sings songs. Based on his musical taste, Derek likes hard rock from the 1990s. Snippets of Godsmack’s “Voodoo” and Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” can be heard in the movie.

Why are Derek and Marty camping in the woods? Things become interesting in the middle of the film, when more information is revealed. Derek has brought small explosive devices. He and Marty are seen testing one of these explosive devices. Marty and Derek eventually go to a beach area, where their intentions become evident.

Conversations throughout the film also reveal that Marty is still involved in criminal activity. He has an upcoming court date where he has to enter a plea to charges of arson and . He’s accused of burning down a tire store. During an argument between Marty and Derek, it’s mentioned that Derek paid $700 to bail Marty out of jail.

Derek has his own personal problems: He is angry about not being able to his son Jeremy (played by Solo Potrykus), who is about 5 or 6 years old. Derek complains to Marty that Derek’s ex-wife Lynn (played by Melissa Blanchard) has turned Jeremy against Derek. Derek also believes that Jeremy cares more about Lynn’s current husband, who buys gifts for Jeremy that Derek wouldn’t be able to afford. “Everybody just fucking ripped me off,” Derek says bitterly.

Nothing can really prepare viewers for where “Vulcanizadora” ends up going in the story. What starts out looking like a harmless camping trip turns out to be something very different. The acting performances in “Vulcanizadora” are adequate, although Burge stands out for how he depicts Marty’s complexity. Burge received a Tribeca Festival special jury mention for his “Vulcanizadora” performance. Where “Vulcanizadora” excels the most is in the writing and direction, which build layers of suspense until the movie’s final knockout scenes.

Review: ‘Sacramento’ (2024), starring Michael Angarano, Michael Cera, Kristen Stewart and Maya Erskine

June 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

Maya Erskine, Michael Angarano, Michael Cera and Kristen Stewart in “Sacramento” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Sacramento” (2024)

Directed by Michael Angarano

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the comedy/drama film “Sacramento” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two estranged best friends have a tension-filled and sometimes wacky reunion when they go on a road trip together from Los Angeles to Sacramento. 

Culture Audience: “Sacramento” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and road trip “buddy” movies with good acting.

The comedy/drama “Sacramento” has an over-used formula of two people with opposite personalities who go on a trip together. However, the cast members’ believable performances capably balance the movie’s shifting tones of whimsical and weighty. “Sacramento” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Michael Angarano, “Sacramento” (which was filmed on location in California, mostly in the cities of Los Angeles and Sacramento) is about life’s growing pains and the crossroads of decisions about maturity and lifestyles that are often experienced by people in their 30s. Christopher Nicholas Smith and Angarano co-wrote the screenplay for “Sacramento,” which begins by showing protagonist Rickey (played by Angarano) by himself in a wooded area near a creek. Standing on the opposite side of the creek is a stranger named Tallie (played by Maya Erskine), who shouts out this sexual flirtation to Rickey: “Nice dick!”

Rickey (a never-married bachelor with no children) is intrigued by this stranger and is immediately attracted to Tallie. He suggests that they spontaneously get in the creek and swim to each other. She agrees. He strips down to his underwear, but Tallie suddenly changes her mind and doesn’t go in the water.

It sets the tone of what types of personalities they have: Rickey is very impulsive, and many people in his life think he’s irresponsible. Tallie is less likely to be a risk taker and is more of a realist. Rickey decides to swim to Tallie. Over the rest of the trip, they flirt with each other and eventually hook up sexually. What happens to their relationship is eventually revealed in the movie.

One year later, in Los Angeles, Rickey’s on-again/off-again best friend Glenn Mullen (played by Michael Cera) is assembling a crib for his soon-to-be-born first child. Glenn gets frustrated because he can’t put together the crib in the way he thinks it’s supposed to be. Glenn becomes so angry, he shakes off one side of the crib in frustration. It soon becomes obvious in other scenes that Glenn is a neurotic control freak with an obsessive-compulsive attitude about cleanliness and sticking to routines.

Glenn’s supportive wife Rosie (played by Kristen Stewart) is laid-back and very understanding about Glenn’s quirks. Adding to Glenn’s overall frustration, he has recently been laid off from an unnamed job. Rosie, who works from home in an unnamed job, has offered to be the household breadwinner until Glenn finds another job. She suggests that Glenn can be a stay-at-home father for a year while she financially supports the family. Glenn somewhat reluctantly agrees.

Based on conversations in the movie, Rickey and Glenn have known each other since they were children. But as adults, Rickey has been in and out of Glenn’s life. Even though they both live in the Los Angeles area, it’s not unusual for Rickey to cut off contact with Glenn for several months and then make contact and expect them to resume ther friendship right where it left off. This flakiness has made Glenn feel very estranged from Rickey.

But there would be no “Sacramento” movie if Rickey and Glenn didn’t have a reunion. Rickey, who is chronically unemployed, is seen trying to lead a grief support group that used to be led by his deceased father. Rickey’s style of counseling is considered too aggressively judgmental, so he’s asked to leave the group.

Feeling lonely, Rickey suddenly shows up unannounced at the home of Glenn and Rosie. Glenn isn’t happy to see Rickey, but he’s polite enough to make time to talk to Rickey. Through a series of events, Rickey convinces Glenn to go on a road trip to Sacramento (which is about 386 miles northeast of Los Angeles) because Rickey says his father recently died, and his father’s dying wish was to have his ashes spread in Sacramento. This “dying wish” is a lie. Early on in the trip, when Glenn isn’t looking, Rickey spontaneously fills a tennis ball container with dirt and pretends that the container has the ashes of his dead father.

The rest of “Sacramento” has some clichés from many other road trip movies of this ilk: The two travelers frequently bicker with each other. They meet unusual characters along the way. Something goes wrong with the vehicle being used for the trip, such as running out of gas, a mechanical malfunction, or the vehicle gets stolen or towed. And as defenses come down, the two quarrelling people on the road trip show vulnerability to each other and reveal personal secrets.

What saves “Sacramento” from watered-down mediocrity is the fact that the main characters are written in such a specific way, they can’t be described as shallow or generic. Angarano and Cera have genuine chemistry with each other that makes it easy for viewers to believe and feel invested in this volatile friendship, which is at the heart of the film. “Sacramento” doesn’t do anything that’s really inventive (and some of the scenarios are a bit too much like a sitcom), but it’s a solid option for people who want to see an entertaining film that will make viewers laugh, cringe and possibly feel some sentimentality.

Vertical will release “Sacramento” in select U.S. cinemas on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘The Knife’ (2024), starring Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Melissa Leo, Amari Price and Aiden Price

June 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Nnamdi Asomugha in “The Knife” (Photo courtesy of iAm21 Entertainment)

“The Knife” (2024)

Directed by Nnamdi Asomugha

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “The Knife” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and a few Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A black man, his wife and their two daughters are questioned by a white police detective after a white female intruder is found unconscious in the family’s home.  

Culture Audience: “The Knife” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in provocative dramas that explore racial issues and legal issues in police investigations.

“The Knife” is a cautionary tale of what not to do at a crime scene and during witness interviews. This uneven but well-acted and suspenseful drama raises challenging questions about legal rights and police procedures. If people know about the movie’s synopsis but haven’t seen the movie, then it might be easy for people to immediately assume that it’s a pro-Black Lives Matter film, where black victims do nothing wrong but become crime suspects, while racist people are the only ones to blame.

However, “The Knife” avoids a lot of stereotypes that scripted movies typically have about how race plays a role in how people are policed and investigated in the United States and elsewhere. In “The Knife” (which has an ending that is sure to be divisive or will at least spark conversational debates), the characters on both sides of a police interrogation are not completely innocent. Almost all of the adults in this situation do certain things wrong and make the situation worse.

“The Knife” is the feature-film directorial debut of former NFL player-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha, who not only stars in “The Knife” but he is also one of the movie’s producers. Asomugha co-wrote “The Knife” screenplay with Mark Duplass. “The Knife” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. The movie takes place in an unnamed U.S. city in the 2020s, but the issues brought forth in the film are perennial issues.

“The Knife” takes place during one night in the lives of a middle-class black American family who will be seriously affected by a series of choices. The movie begins with voiceover narration from the family patriarch Christian, nicknamed Chris (played by Asomugha) saying: “When I was a kid, my grandma use to say life is full of choices. And choices lead to consequences.” Chris then goes on to say that his grandmother also told him that people have to live with the consequences of their choices, whether they like it or not.

Chris (who is 38 years old) and his wife Alexandra, nicknamed Alex (played by Aja Naomi King), are examples of pursuing the American Dream. Chris is a construction worker. Alex is a teacher of second-grade students. Chris and Alex are happily married home owners who have recently moved into a house that Chris is in the process of renovating.

Early on in the movie, Alex mentions that she’s not very thrilled that the house is in a crime-ridden neighborhood, but she supports Chris’ goal to make home improvements, presumably so they can “flip” the house later and sell it at a profit. The family has moved into the house so recently, some moving boxes are still seen inside the house.

Chris and Alex have three daughters. Eldest child Kendra (played by Amari Price) is about 11 or 12 years old. Middle child Ryley (played by Aiden Price) is about 8 or 9 years old. Youngest child Ashley (played by Aranaya Frasier) is an infant. Kendra and Ryley are intelligent and obedient children.

Between the recent move and taking care of young children, Chris and Alex are exhausted. An early scene in the film shows Chris and Alex in bed, going back and forth in changing their minds on whether or not they want to have sex that night. Ultimately, they decide they’re just too tired.

At 1:38 a.m., Chris is woken up by the sound of someone inside the house. He gets up cautiously, looks around the house, and sees a disheveled-looking, gray-haired white woman in the kitchen. She is at the sink, and her back is turned toward Chris. Later, when police arrive, it’s revealed that this woman’s name is Mary Duvall Thompson (played by Lucinda Jenney), and she is 53 years old.

Chris is naturally startled by seeing this intruder in his home. Chris sternly tells her that she’s in the wrong house and she needs to leave. The intruder doesn’t say anything and doesn’t turn around. She seems to be in a dazed stupor.

Chris’ anger then turns to concern when he sees that this intruder is either mentally unwell or under the influence of an unknown substance. He asks her if she needs help getting home. She still says nothing, but she turns around to face Chris.

The next scene shows Alex being woken up by the sounds of a scuffle happening in the kitchen. When Alex goes to the kitchen, she’s shocked to see Chris standing over the intruder, who is unconscious on the floor. A small pocket knife is lying next to Mary, who is bleeding.

Chris tells Alex that this female stranger is an intruder. Chris says he confronted this intruder, but he can’t remember all the details of why she’s now bleeding on their kitchen floor. Alex asks if the knife belongs to the woman. Chris says no. Alex does a quick check of the woman’s pulse and sees that she’s still alive.

Chris seems to be in complete shock, but he calls 911 to frantically report that a female intruder has been hurt in his home, and he gives the address. He hangs up before giving more details. Alex still has her wits about her to remind Chris that he will automatically be a suspect, unless they both get their stories straight about what happened.

Meanwhile, Kendra and Ryley have heard the commotion and arrive in the kitchen. Chris and Alex tell Kendra and Ryley that the woman on the floor is a stranger who intruded into their home and who attacked Chris, but he acted in self-defense. Kendra and Ryley are confused and upset, but their parents assure them that Chris won’t get in trouble if the police believe that Chris was defending himself against the intruder.

Alex tells Chris that based on what it looks like, Chris acted in self-defense of an intruder who attacked Chris first, and the intruder got injured during the struggle when she fell down and hit her head on the floor. That’s the story they decide to tell the police. They also decide to tell the truth that Alex, Kendra and Ryley did not witness the break-in and attack and only saw the intruder for the first time when she was unconscious on the floor.

However, two major mistakes are made that have serious repercussions. First, Alex and Chris decide to lie to the police and say that the knife belongs to the intruder, who used the knife to lunge at Chris. Second, just as the police arrive and before the police go in the house, Alex seems to panic and spontaneously picks up the knife with her bare hands and places it under Mary’s right hand, to make it look like Mary had been holding the knife before losing consciousness.

Chris has seen Alex commit this crime of tampering with the evidence, and he’s understandably annoyed and worried about what Alex did. After the police arrive, Chris and Alex speak in hushed tones so they can’t be heard by anyone else. Chris asks Alex why she moved the knife to make it look like the intruder had been holding this weapon. Alex replies defiantly, “You’re a black man in America, Chris. I’m protecting you. That’s what I’m doing.”

Anyone with common sense who watches “The Knife” will be thinking during the entire movie: “Won’t the truth come out when the knife is tested for fingerprints?” In Alex’s rush to protect Chris from being blamed, Alex seems to have forgotten that the knife would be tested for fingerprints. Most of “The Knife” is about the investigation at the crime scene, so any issues about fingerprint proof on the knife cannot realistically be dealt with during the time period shown in the movie.

An ambulance has arrived around the same time as the police. And it’s not looking good for Mary. The medical first responders say that Mary has stopped breathing. What could have been an investigation into only a breaking-and-entering crime could possibly turn into a manslaughter investigation if Mary does not survive.

The lead investigator at the crime scene is a police detective named Frances Carlsen (played by Melissa Leo), who has a very no-nonsense, “by the book” style of working. The stereotyping and police biases are shown as soon as a cop named Officer Padilla (played by Manny Jacinto) tells Detective Carlsen that “something doesn’t feel right about this family” because the family is acting nervous. Detective Carlsen tells Officer Padilla not to jump to conclusions because anyone would be nervous under the circumstances.

Detective Carlsen has a lecturing tone in how she often tells people at the crime scene that she wants to get to the truth. However, there are obvious indications that Detective Carlsen also has a conscious or unconscious racial bias. She repeatedly refers to Mary as the “victim” without any proof that Mary is a victim. Eventually, Alex shows she’s offended when she tells Detective Carlsen that Mary should be described as an intruder, since Mary came into the home uninvited and refused to leave.

Detective Carlsen decides that Chris, Alex, Kendra and Ryley will be immediately be interviewed separately at the house, to see if all four family members tell the same or different versions of what happened. It leads to some serious legal issues regarding police interrogations of children; things that police can or cannot say or do to get witnesses to reveal the truth; and people’s civil rights in the United States when being questioned by police. The movie will make viewers think about what would’ve happened differently if the racial identities of the family and the intruder were switched.

“The Knife” also shows the reality that a lot of people are ignorant of the U.S. law that says people in the United States don’t have to answer questions from police without an attorney being there during the questioning. And if people do know that they have this right to an attorney in the United States, they often don’t exercise this right out of fear, or because they think their words won’t be used against them when questioned by law enforcement. As soon as anyone agrees to be questioned by police without an attorney present, that person can be vulnerable to improper or illegal police procedures by any police officer who doesn’t do things correctly.

Although some viewers of “The Knife” will be frustrated by the things that people do wrong in this investigation, the message that “The Knife” seems to be sending is that mistakes and bad choices can be made by police and witnesses. Too often, movies and TV shows depict investigations in a certain way that never leaves room for the reality that mistakes or bad choices can be made by everyone directly involved in the investigation. People’s emotions and biases can often cloud people’s judgments, which can lead to decisions that result in something that is definitely not justice.

Although “The Knife” succeeds overall in being an emotional and riveting drama, the movie’s screenplay could have been better, in terms of how certain evidence is handled in this investigation. A criminal defense attorney would absolutely rip apart some of the things that happen in this story. However, Asomugha gives solid direction to the movie, which uses brief flashbacks that will make viewers wonder: “Does Chris’ memory loss make him an unreliable narrator or unbelievable witness?” It’s eventually revealed in the story why Chris doesn’t remember everything that happened between him and Mary.

Asomugha, King and Leo give admirable performances in this tension-filled drama that occasionally stumbles with some cringeworthy decisions made by a few of the adult characters. “The Knife” is not a movie that will satisfy viewers who want definitive conclusions. However, the knife in this movie could be considered a symbol of how people should not make assumptions about innocence or guilt by looking at things only at face value.

Review: ‘Love Me If You Dare’ (2024), starring Ashish Reddy and Vaishnavi Chaitanya

June 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ashish Reddy and Vaishnavi Chaitanya in “Love Me If You Dare” (Photo courtesy of Dil Raju Productions)

“Love Me If You Dare”

Directed by Arun Bhimavarapu

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the dramatic film “Love Me If You Dare” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A YouTuber believes he has been talking to the ghost of a woman with a scandalous past, and he tries to solve the mystery with the help of two of his close friends.  

Culture Audience: “Love Me If You Dare” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching overly long, nonsensical movies about supernatural love stories.

Ashish Reddy in “Love Me If You Dare” (Photo courtesy of Dil Raju Productions)

The title of “Love Me If You Dare” should be “Watch This Garbage If You Dare to Kill Some of Your Brain Cells.” This is a bloated, incoherent drama about a man who falls in love with a ghost woman who hides behind a veil. The acting is also terrible. During the course of this 128-minute mess of a movie, he tries to find out more about who this ghost really is and documents his investigation on his YouTube channel. When the answer to the mystery is revealed, it’s an insult to viewers’ intelligence and still doesn’t explain all the story’s plot holes and unanswered questions.

Written and directed by Arun Bhimavarapu, “Love Me If You Dare” (which is also titled “Love Me” in some countries) takes place in an unnamed city in India. The movie begins with an unseen woman asking in a voiceover, “Have you ever heard of a man who fell in love with a ghost?” The narrator soon claims that she is the daughter of a woman named Divyavathi, who had a tragic death an unnamed number of years ago. People in the community still talk about this death years later amid stories that the ghost of Divyavathi could still be haunting the area.

Divyavathi (played by Samyuktha Menon) lived in a small unnamed village with her husband of six years and their daughter, who was about 4 or 5 years old when Divyavathi died. The strange thing about Divyavathi was that she was never seen outside of the house. And if she was ever seen by anyone who didn’t live in the house, Divyavathi would always hide her face by wearing a veil. Another bizarre thing about their household was that an alarm clock could be heard ringing in the house every night at 8 o’clock.

One night, the alarm didn’t ring, and Divyavathi walked out of the house. It was the first time she was seen outside the house in six years. But when Divyavathi walked out of the house that night, her entire body was engulfed in flames. She collapsed and died in the town square. What happened to Divyavathi’s daughter? That answer is eventually revealed in the movie, although at one point it becomes pretty obvious what the reveal is going to be.

Years later, a popular YouTuber named Arjun (played by Ashish Reddy), who has at least 1 million subscribers, tells his best friends Prathap (played by Ravi Krishna) and Priya (played by Vaishnavi Chaitanya) that he is starting to fall in love with a woman he has been talking to for an unspecified period of time. Prathap and Priya are dating each other and have been together for an unspecified period of time. Arjun only sees this woman in an abandoned building that’s near a graveyard.

Arjun confesses that he has never seen this woman’s face because she always wears a red veil during their meet-ups. She won’t let Arjun see her face when he asks her to lift the veil. Arjun starts to wonder if he’s talking to the ghost of Divyavathi, based on some things that this woman has said to him. No one in the story really questions how stupid Arjun looks for not even trying to get this woman’s name. Arjun becomes obsessed with this mystery woman and wants to spend as much of his free time with her as possible.

The rest of the movie (which has very choppy editing) is just a jumbled hodgepodge of Arjun investigating this mystery, making videos about it on his YouTube channel, and getting some help in the “investigation” from Prathap and Priya. Arjun also has visions that this ghost woman could be dangerous. There are multiple scenes of Arjun digging up graves and holding skulls from these graves to inspect the skulls.

A forensic artist later does face reconstructions of these skulls. Don’t expect the movie to explain why, except for some plot nonsense about four missing women: 19-year-old Pallavi, 22-year-old Noor, 24-year-old Charishma and 19-year-old Vennela. The unseen female narrator says that she’s one of these missing women.

As time goes on, Priya and Arjun spend more and more time together. Priya looks like she’s becoming very fond of Arjun, as Prathap starts to fade in and out of the story. Is this going to turn into a love triangle? “Love Me If You Dare” has a weird and clumsy mix of wanting to be like a soap opera romance but also a Gothic-inspired horror story. By the time this abysmal movie reveals the story’s “big secret” near the end, most viewers just won’t care anymore—assuming that they watched this junk until the very unsatisfying ending.

Dil Raju Productions released “Love Me If You Dare” in select U.S. cinemas on May 24, 2024. The movie was released in India on May 25, 2024.

Review: ‘Young Woman and the Sea,’ starring Daisy Ridley, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Stephen Graham, Kim Bodnia, Christopher Eccleston and Glenn Fleshler

May 31, 2024

by Carla Hay

Daisy Ridley in “Young Woman and the Sea” (Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Young Woman and the Sea”

Directed by Joachim Rønning

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and Europe from 1914 to 1926, the dramatic film “Young Woman and the Sea” (based on true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Champion swimmer Trudy Ederle, who becomes the first woman to swim across the English Channel, defies expectations and sexism in her quest for greatness. 

Culture Audience: “Young Woman and the Sea” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “against all odds” stories about underestimated athletes or women in patriarchal societies.

Ethan Rouse, Kim Bodnia, Jeanette Hain, Daisy Ridley and Tilda Cobham-Hervey in “Young Woman and the Sea” (Photo by Elena Nenkova/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Young Woman and the Sea” is a traditionally made sports drama that might seem old-fashioned to some viewers. However, this biopic about champion swimmer Trudy Ederle has solid acting and themes that don’t get outdated, such as triumphing over obstacles. People who like stories about iconic achievers who are determined but modest about their accomplishments will find plenty to like about how Ederle is portrayed in this inspirational film.

Directed by Joachim Rønning, “Young Woman and the Sea” is based on Glenn Stout’s 2009 non-fiction book “Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel.” The movie’s adapted screenplay was written by Jeff Nathanson. Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle (who was born in 1905 and died in 2003) is considered one of the best competitive female swimmers of all time, not just because of the records she broke but also because of the barriers she broke for other female swimmers. There’s nothing complicated about this movie, which is told in mostly chronological order. For the purposes of this review, the real Trudy Ederle will be called Ederle, while the Trudy Ederle character in the movie will be called Trudy.

“Young Woman and the Sea” begins in the mid-1920s, by showing Trudy in her early 20s (played by Daisy Ridley) about to dive into a large body of water to train for her historic swim across the English Channel. She is covered in an unnamed lubricant (it looks like Vaseline), which is what long-distance swimmers use to help deal with cold-water temperatures. Trudy is singing what the movie later reveals to be her favorite song: the 1920 foxtrot tune “Ain’t We Got Fun,” written by Richard A. Whiting, Raymond B. Egan and Gus Kahn.

The movie then shows an extensive flashback to Trudy’s childhood in 1914, when she was 9 years old. Trudy (played Olive Abercrombie) has made a near-miraculous recovery from measles that left her bedridden and her family worried that she might die. However, the measles would lead to Trudy having hearing loss that got worse when she was in her 30s and eventually became legally deaf.

Trudy lives in New York City with her German immigrant parents; her older sister Margaret “Meg” Ederle; and her younger brother Henry Ederle Jr. (“Young Woman and the Sea” was actually filmed in Bulgaria.) Meg is about two or three years older than Trudy. Henry is about five or six years younger than Trudy. Tilda Cobham-Hervey has the role of young-adult Meg. Lilly Aspell has the role of adolescent Meg. Raphael J. Bishop has the role of pre-teen Henry. Ethan Rouse has the role of teenage Henry.

Henry Ederle Sr. (played by Kim Bodnia) is a butcher who believes in a strict, patriarchal way of living, where men are supposed to be thought of and treated as superior to women. Gertrude Ederle (played by Jeanette Hain) is strong-willed and thinks that women and girls should not have restrictions placed on them because of gender. In other words, Gertrude is a feminist before the word “feminist” was invented.

Getrude’s belief in gender equality plays a crucial role in giving Trudy the motivation and opportunities to become a champion swimmer. Early on in the movie, when Ederle kids are all underage, Meg and Trudy can see from their home that ship has gone up in flames at a nearby port. Gertrude tells them the tragic news that many people (mostly women) on the ship drowned because they didn’t know how to swim, and they stayed on the burning boat rather than risk trying to swim to shore nearby.

Henry Sr. says that Henry Jr. will definitely learn how to swim, but Meg doesn’t need to learn. Gertrude strongly disagrees and says that Meg and Trudy have a right to learn how to swim, just like anyone else does. Gertrude believes that knowing how to swim is a life-saving skill that shouldn’t be deprived or bestowed upon people based on gender. Henry Sr. also believes that it isn’t ladylike for girls or women to be in swimming competitions.

In the meantime, Trudy is determined to learn how to swim, even though her father disapproves. Trudy’s doctor has also warned that Trudy shouldn’t get too much water in her ears, or it could cause more hearing loss for Trudy. After much persistence from Trudy, her father agrees to teach Trudy how to swim at Coney Island’s beach. Due to her recent illness, Trudy cannot use a public swimming pool.

Trudy is a natural talent and soon becomes obsessed with swimming. When Trudy and Meg are teenagers, Henry Sr. is still adamant that they can’t become competitive swimmers. So what does Getrude do? She enrolls Trudy and Meg in an all-female swimming team, led by a tough-but-caring coach named Charlotte “Eppy” Epstein (played by Sian Clifford), who gives the two sisters the training to become more disciplined swimmers.

It isn’t long before Trudy outshines Meg as a swimmer in competitons. Meg seems to have some envy about Trudy’s superior swimming skills, but Meg’s envy doesn’t fester into full-blown jealousy, mainly because Meg is not as passionate about swimming as Trudy is. Trudy puts swimming above everything else in her life. In the movie, Trudy is never shown having any friends or dating anyone. Meg is Trudy’s closest confidante.

Meg starts to rebel a little against her father. One night, Meg comes home late and smelling like liquor. Meg admits to her disapproving father that she’s been on a date with a guy named Chip Anderson (played by Hyoie O’Grady), who has been courting Meg and will soon ask Meg to marry him. Henry Sr. flies into a rage because he thinks his daughters should marry men of German heritage. (The movie takes a short detour into Meg’s love life, which doesn’t go according to what Meg really wants.)

Meanwhile, a montage shows that Trudy wins several swimming competitions on a local, state, and then national level, often breaking swimming records along the way. It’s inevitable that Trudy trains for the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. And then, in 1926, Trudy decides to take on her biggest challenge of all: swimming across the English Channel, which is a feat that had never been accomplished by a woman at the time.

“Young Woman and the Sea” has the expected scenes of men trying to block or discourage Trudy’s ambitions, simply because of her female gender. Trudy’s father is one of the chief culprits of this sexism. And for a long time, he refuses to celebrate Trudy’s accomplishments. Trudy’s mother Gertrude is always supportive of her, but Trudy wants her father’s approval too.

For her Olympic training, Trudy gets a wealthy sponsor named James Sullivan (played by Glenn Fleshler), a pompous blowhard who wants Trudy to be among the six American female swimmers whom he’s sponsoring for the Olympics. James insists that Trudy and the other women swimmers have a male coach. Jabez Wolffe (played by Christopher Eccleston), a Scottish has-been professional swimmer, becomes Trudy’s coach. It becomes obvious early on that Jabez is very jealous that Trudy is more talented than he could ever be.

Not all of the men in Trudy’s life are sexist and condescending. Trudy meets a rebellious sailor named Bill Burgess (played by Stephen Graham), who’s got a similar spirit of non-conformity as Trudy has. The first time that Trudy sees Bill, he’s at the Coney Island beach being arrested for swimming naked. Bill ends up becoming Trudy’s sailor navigator during her English Channel swimming marathon. Trudy also develops a friendly acquaintance with another swimmer named Benji Zammit (played by Alexander Karim), who also wants to swim across the English Channel.

Even if viewers have never heard of Trudy Ederle before seeing this movie, “Young Woman Sea” has no real surprises because it checks all the usual plot boxes and follows the same formula as many other sports movies. A noticeable flaw of the movie is that it doesn’t accurately depict the type of hearing loss that the real Ederle had during this time in her life. There’s a brief mention of her hearing loss but then Trudy’s hearing loss is never really mentioned or shown again.

The acting performances fit the tone of the movie very well. Ridley is quite good but not outstanding in “Young Woman and the Sea,” which unrealistically makes Trudy look like she has no personality flaws. The swimming scenes are thrilling though, with Oscar Faura’s cinematography making viewers feel immersed in the water along with Trudy, even in some of the scenes that are obviously not in a real ocean. Unlike the treacherous waters that Trudy swims in, “Young Woman and the Sea” offers nothing edgy or unpredictable. The movie is a perfectly fine option for anyone who wants to see a story that can appeal to many generations of people.

Walt Disney Pictures released “Young Woman and the Sea” in select U.S. cinemas on May 31, 2024.

Review: ‘I Love You, to the Moon, and Back’ (2024), starring Zhang Zifeng and Hu Xianxu

May 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

Hu Xianxu and Zhang Zifeng in “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” (Photo courtesy of Tiger Pictures Entertainment)

“I Love You, to the Moon, and Back”

Directed by Li Weiran

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, in 1996, the dramatic film “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” (based on the novel “Moonstruck”) features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two spouses in the early 20s navigate the challenges of having a long-distance marriage. 

Culture Audience: “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and uncomplicated romantic dramas.

Zhang Zifeng and Hu Xianxu in “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” (Photo courtesy of Tiger Pictures Entertainment)

Just like the saying that inspired the title of this movie, “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” is a little bit outdated and old-fashioned, but it’s got enough charm to keep most viewers interested. This sweet romantic drama about a couple in a long-distance marriage has good acting performances that carry the movie when it gets repetitive and a bit dull. It’s neither heavy nor lightweight. The supporting characters are underdeveloped.

“I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” was directed by Li Weiran, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Chi Zijan. The movie is based on Chi’s “Moonstruck” novel. Nothing controversial, daring or surprising happens in “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back,” which takes place in China in 1996. It’s the type of movie that will make some viewers bored and is best appreciated in a setting where viewers won’t have distractions.

The central characters in “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” are spouses Wang Rui (played by Hu Xianxu) and Xiushan (played by Zhang Zifeng), who are both in their early 20s. Both characters intermittently give voiceover narration in the movie. There are also some flashbacks, such as a scene that shows that Rui and Xiushan met when they both worked at the same construction site in a small town.

Rui and Xiushan have been married for about one year. Shortly after they got married, they both decided to move to bigger cities for better job opportunities. Rui chose to stay in the construction business and works for a company in Shenzhen. Xiushan works for a dumpling factory in Guangzhou, which is about 84 miles (or 135.6 kilometers) away from Shenzhen.

It’s explained early on in the movie that the couple made this compromise to have a long-distance marriage because they need to live wherever they could each find a job. Rui and Xiushan travel by train to meet up once a month at a place called the Happiness Inn. They have been trying to start a family.

Rui and Xiushan are both romantics who have different ways of expressing their love. Rui likes to bring flowers to Xiushan every time that they meet up. Xiushan likes to make their trysts at the Happiness Inn feel as much like being at home as possible, so she brings a bed blanket that reminds them of when they used to live together. Rui and Xiushan have a romantic ritual where they like to play harmonica for each other. This harmonica playing becomes a significant part of the story.

Most of “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” is about the trips back and forth that Rui and Xiushan take to see each other. Some of the movie is about the people they meet on their train trips. A drunk passenger strikes up a conversation with Rui, who tells this stranger about his long-distance marriage. The passenger tells him that long-distance relationships rarely last and that Rui’s wife is probably cheating on him.

Rui gets even more insecure about the relationship when he surprises Xiushan for an unannounced visit. She isn’t at her home, which she shares with two co-workers. The younger co-worker jokes that Xiushan is probably out on a date. But Rui thinks she isn’t joking and gets worried about what Xiushan is doing when they are apart.

Zhang and Hu give solid performances as this likeable newlywed couple during the ups and downs of the marriage. The movie’s biggest deficiency is that it doesn’t show much about who else is in this couple’s lives, such as friends or family members. Still, if viewers are looking for a harmless and somewhat sentimental romantic story, “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” is an adequate option.

Tiger Pictures Entertainment released “I Love You, to the Moon, and Back” in select U.S. cinemas on May 24, 2024. The movie was released in China on May 1, 2024.

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