Review: ‘Memory’ (2023), starring Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Brooke Timber, Elsie Fisher, Josh Charles and Jessica Harper

January 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment)

“Memory” (2023)

Directed by Michel Franco

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Memory” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A recovering alcoholic, who has traumatic memories from her past, forms an unexpected bond with a former high school classmate who has dementia.

Culture Audience: “Memory” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard; filmmaker Michel Franco; and movies that have realistic portrayals of emotionally damaged adults.

Jessica Chastain in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment)

“Memory” is a skillfully acted character study of how memories can be blocked out, preserved, or warped to shape personal self-identities or perceptions of others. This drama’s sluggish pacing drags down the movie, but it doesn’t ruin the film. And some of the film’s subject matter, such as taking care of someone with dementia or having dementia, might be triggering or upsetting for people who’ve been through those experiences. However, the movie has a powerful message about how human connections can thrive in unlikely circumstances.

Written and directed by Michel Franco, “Memory” (which was filmed on location in New York City) had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, where “Memory” co-star Peter Sarsgaard won the prize for Best Actor. The movie made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. Viewers who see the trailer for “Memory” before seeing the movie should know in advance that the trailer is somewhat misleading, because it makes “Memory” look more suspenseful than it really is.

“Memory” is told from the perspective of middle-aged Sylvia (played by Jessica Chastain), a social worker whose job is at an adult care facility for disabled and emotionally troubled people. Sylvia is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for the past 13 years. It’s revealed later in the movie that Sylvia was a very rebellious teen who began drinking when she was an adolescent.

The movie opens with a scene of Sylvia in an Alcoholics Anonymous support group meeting, where she is highly respected, and the feeling is mutual. Sylvia is a single mother to a 15-year-old daughter named Anna (played by Brooke Timber), who is an intuitive and obedient child. Sylvia and Anna live in a small apartment in New York City’s Queens borough. They aren’t poor, but they have some financial struggles. Anna notices that their refrigerator isn’t working again, and Sylvia seems bothered that it’s another expense that will put a strain on her finances.

Sylvia doesn’t have a social life and seems every emotionally closed off to many people. At her high school reunion, she sits by herself, looking bored, and she doesn’t really talk to anyone. A man named Saul Shapiro (played by Sarsgaard), one of her former classmates, sits down at the same table and tries to start a conversation with her.

Sylvia looks very annoyed. She gets up and walks out of the building. But then, she notices that Saul is following her. He follows Sylvia on the subway all the way back to her apartment building, but she is able to get to the building’s front door before he does, and she locks it behind her. And then, Saul does something even creepier: He stands outside her apartment building like a stalker, even when it begins to rain.

Sylvia has become alarmed but she doesn’t call the police. The next morning, she sees that Saul has spent the night outside the apartment. She can see that he’s not mentally well, so she asks him for his phone and calls a number of anyone who can identify him and pick him up. Sylvia gets Saul’s protective bother Isaac (played by Josh Charles) on the phone.

Isaac explains that Saul has dementia and that Saul has episodes where he wanders off and goes to places and has no memory of how he got there. Isaac picks up Saul, but that isn’t the last time that Sylvia sees him. She calls Isaac the next day to ask to see Saul and to find out if he’s doing any better. Isaac, who is a single father, lives with teenage daughter Sara (played by Elsie Fisher), who has an almost immediate rapport with Sylvia.

Through a series of circumstances, Sylvia reluctantly accepts Isaac’s offer to be Saul’s part-time caregiver during the day. The rest of “Memory” shows the up-and-down relationship that develops between Saul and Sylvia. She is haunted by traumatic memories of her past that have affected her self-esteem and her relationships with her soft-spoken, married older sister Olivia (played by Merritt Wever) and their widowed mother Samantha (played by Jessica Harper), who has been estranged from Sylvia for years.

“Memory” is not the type of movie where healing comes easily. There are moments of self-awareness and self-sabotage that happen throughout the story. Sylvia has a tendency to be a caretaker to others, but she also has to come to an understanding that she needs a lot of emotional self-care that she has neglected. “Memory” is a testament to how people can find solace in simple moments that can have a much larger impact than expected.

Ketchup Entertainment released “Memory” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on January 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Sometimes I Think About Dying’ (2024), starring Daisy Ridley, Dave Merheje, Parvesh Cheena and Marcia DeBonis

January 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Daisy Ridley in “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” (2024)

Directed by Rachel Lambert

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon, the dramatic film “Sometimes I Thing About Dying” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A very introverted woman with an almost non-existent social life has to decide how much she will open herself up to love when a co-worker begins courting her.

Culture Audience: “Sometimes I Think About Dying” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Daisy Ridley and low-key, independent films that have observations about loneliness and personality disorders.

Dave Merheje and Daisy Ridley in “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” is a unique portrait of social anxiety and depression. This quiet and slow-paced drama won’t appeal to everyone. However, viewers with the patience to watch the entire movie will see an interesting awakening in the painfully shy protagonist, who has to learn to get out of her head and experience more of life.

Directed by Rachel Lambert, “Sometimes I Think About Dying” is based on the 2019 short film of the same name. Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Kevin Armento and Katy Wright-Mead wrote the screenplays for both movies, but Horowitz directed the short film. The feature-length version of “Sometimes I Think About Dying” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The movie was filmed in Oregon and the city of Longview, Washington.

In the feature-length “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Oregon), the central character is Fran Larsen (played by Daisy Ridley), a depressed introvert whose life is a bland routine. Fran, who is in her late 20s, works at her office for a small business called CB Port Authority. Fran does administrative work (whatever she does in her job, she uses a lot of spreadsheets) in a non-descript cubicle. There are less than 15 people who work in this office. After her work shift, Fran usually just goes home to her modest house and doesn’t communicate with anyone.

Fran has a secret interior life where she thinks about scenarios in which she is dying or is already dead. The movie is punctuated with glimpses of these morbid fantasies. In one scenario, a snake is on the floor in the office, with Fran’s back to the snake, as if she’s unaware that the snake could pounce at any moment. In another scenario, Fran is a corpse on a beach. In another scenario, she’s dead in a wooded area.

Fran is very shy and keeps mostly to herself at work. In the beginning of the movie, a co-worker named Carol (played by Marcia DeBonis) is retiring, so the co-workers have gathered in the break room for Carol’s going-away party. Carol gives away some of her office supplies and says in a gloating voice, “I’m going on a cruise!” In a retirement greeting card signed by all the co-workers, Fran’s written message inside the card is a very basic “Happy retirement.”

Other people who work in the office are cheerful supervisor Isobel (played by Megan Stalter), nerdy Sean (played by Sean Tarjyoto), eccentric Doug (played by Jeb Berrier), self-assured Garrett (played by Parvesh Cheena) and eager intern Sophie (played by Brittany O’Grady). After Carol now longer works at the company, the dynamics in the office change with the arrival of Robert (played by Dave Merheje), who is Carol’s replacement.

Robert, who is in his late 30s or early 40s, seems to be almost immediately attracted to Fran, who is slow to pick up the social cues that Robert wants to start a conversation to get to know her better. In text messages, Robert asks Fran some questions about office supplies. He confesses that he’s never had a job before. Most people would be curious to know why, but Fran doesn’t ask.

Eventually, Robert establishes a little bit of rapport with Fran when they find out that they both like cottage cheese. Fran shows she can be nitpicky when she corrects Robert and says that cottage cheese is technically not cheese. “It’s a curd. I Googled it,” she states matter-of-factly.

Robert asks Fran out on a date. She says yes. Robert and Fran see a movie and then have dinner on this first date. Over dinner at a restaurant, Robert says he’s a big fan of movies, and he liked the film that they saw. Fran admits she didn’t like the film.

The waitress who serves them at the restaurant is named Amelia. She invites Robert and Fran to a small get-together that she has on Saturdays. It turns out to be a murder mystery game, which is somewhat ironic because Fran spends a lot of time thinking about herself dying in gruesome ways.

It’s very difficult for Fran to open up about herself to anyone. The most that she will tell Robert is that she grew up in Hawaii, she likes to cook, and she’s never been in love. Meanwhile, Robert tells her that he’s been divorced twice and that he hasn’t figured out marriage yet.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” doesn’t have a big, sweeping plot. There are several scenes in the movie that show how isolated Fran is when she’s at home. And even when she’s with people (such as in her office job), she still seems very alone because she’s lost in her thoughts and not sociable. She’s not rude, but she doesn’t seek out people’s company, and she rarely initiates conversations with other people.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” does not follow a predictable formula that’s usually in movies about lonely single people, so this film will simply be too boring for some viewers. However, Ridley gives a very good depiction of how people who feel invisible (by choice or by circumstance) often behave. This is not a typical story where someone is going to swoop in and “rescue” Fran from her social anxiety. Instead, the movie excels at showing in nuanced ways how human connections can be terrifying to people who are also afraid to confront their own insecurities.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Sometimes I Think About Dying” in select U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Miller’s Girl,’ starring Martin Freeman, Jenna Ortega, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bashir Salahuddin and Gideon Adlon

January 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Jenna Ortega in “Miller’s Girl” (Photo by Zac Popik/Lionsgate)

“Miller’s Girl”

Directed by Jade Halley Bartlett

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional Opal County, Tennessee, the dramatic film “Miller’s Girl” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, Latino and African American) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A wealthy and intellectual 18-year-old high school student sees how far she can go in trying to seduce her middle-aged and married literature teacher, who is attracted to her too.

Culture Audience: “Miller’s Girl” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman and shallow movies about inappropriate student/teacher relationships.

Martin Freeman in “Miller’s Girl” (Photo by Zac Popik/Lionsgate)

Too much of “Miller’s Girl” is phony: the pretentious dialogue, the fake accents, and the sexually curious teenagers who only flirt with teachers, not with other students. It’s a tacky drama trying to look artsy. The principal cast members seem to be doing their best to make things believable, but “Miller’s Girl” becomes undone by miscasting and other misguided directorial choices.

Written and directed by Jade Halley Bartlett, the overly verbose “Miller’s Girl” (which is Barlett’s feature-film debut) gives the impression that it was originally a novel adapted into a screenplay. Some viewers might be surprised to learn that “Miller’s Girl” is an original screenplay, even though the words in the movie sound like they were taken straight from a tawdry young-adult novel that’s trying to appear more intelligent than it really is. “Miller’s Girl” had its world premiere at the 2024 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The central character and narrator of “Miller’s Girl” is a smug 18-year-old brat, ridiculously named Cairo Sweet (played by Jenna Ortega), who lives in an unnamed city in the fictional Opal County, Tennessee. In the movie’s opening scene, Cairo (who is an only child) tells viewers in a voiceover narration that she’s been left to live by herself in her family mansion because her parents are attorneys who are too busy with work and are “permanently abroad.” She lives on an estate called Victorian Village, which is very well-known in the area.

In an example of how fake this movie looks, Cairo is supposed to be fabulously wealthy, yet there are no servants or other employees who are seen taking care of the mansion and the rest of the property. In fact, Cairo is the only person seen in this big house. It’s supposed to make Cairo look like “a poor little rich girl” who’s all alone, but it just looks like sloppy and badly conceived filmmaking. There’s more of this lack of realism throughout this entire movie that’s trying to look like a realistic and “shocking” exposé of the dark side of student/teacher flirtations.

Cairo wonders aloud in her voiceover what it means to be an adult, now that she is 18 years old. To deal with her loneliness, she finds solace in reading books and in writing. Her voiceover comments often sound like what someone would write in a private journal. Cairo has plans to attend Yale University, but it’s too early for her to know if she’s been accepted into Yale.

Throughout the movie, Cairo makes several comments about how she hates living in Tennessee (she thinks she lives in the middle of nowhere) and can’t wait to graduate from high school so she can move somewhere else, starting with Yale in Connecticut. The movie never explains how this wealthy teenager—who is now legally an adult with no supervision and who can afford to travel on weekends or holiday breaks—doesn’t go to places outside of Tennessee if she dislikes being in Tennessee so much. During the entire movie, Cairo is never seen anywhere but in whatever area where she’s supposedly “stuck” living. It’s just more phony-looking filmmaking on display.

Cairo is in her last year of high school, which is an unnamed co-ed public school. The movie starts at the beginning of the school year. She is an avid book reader and is very talented at writing. It should come as no surprise that Cairo excels in a literature class, where a teacher in his 50s named Jonathan Miller (played by Martin Freeman) almost immediately singles out Cairo as an exceptional student. It won’t be long before he finds out that there are pros and cons to Cairo’s exceptionalism.

When Cairo and Mr. Miller meet each other for the first time, she’s quick to tell him that she read all 12 books that were on his summer reading list. He’s very impressed. Jonathan used to teach in the school’s theater program before the school cut the program. He got to keep his job at the school by becoming a literature teacher. It’s one of a few indications shown early in the movie that Jonathan is grateful that he wasn’t laid off, and he has real stakes at keeping his job at the school.

When Cairo tells him that her parents are attorneys, he asks her if she wants to be an attorney too. Cairo replies sarcastically, “As much as I want to be a high school student.” She makes it clear that she wants to be Mr. Miller’s “teacher’s pet” and does things to show she’s attracted to him, such as bat her eyelashes at him coquettishly, or stare at him in lectures as if he’s a genius. Cairo also uses a lot of intellectual vocabulary to let him think that she’s more “mature” than the average student her age.

Jonathan is married to a woman named Beatrice June Harker (played by Dagmara Dominczyk), who is moody and frequently distracted by her work. Beatrice and Jonathan have no children. In scenes where it looks like Jonathan and Beatrice might become sexually intimate, something interrupts the moment, and it’s usually something that has to do with her work. Beatrice has some type of executive manager job, where she works remotely from home and is often heard complaining or ranting about her subordinates, many of whom she thinks are incompetent.

Beatrice can be fun to be around when she’s in a good mood. But when she’s in a bad mood, watch out: She lashes out with cutting verbal insults. She drinks a lot of alcohol, which might or might not be why Beatrice has such a mercurial personality. At one point, Jonathan tells her that she’s an alcoholic. It’s unknown how long she’s had this drinking problem.

Cairo is shown interacting with only one student at the school: a flaky wannabe nymphomaniac named Winnie (played by Gideon Adlon), who describes herself as an “equal opportunity” seductress, because she’s open to having sexual relationships with people of any gender. Winnie seems to have an unrequited attraction to Cairo, who does a little bit of flirting back with Winnie, but it’s all just a tease, because Cairo has no sexual or romantic interest in Winnie.

Winnie is obsessed with talking about sex and seducing people. She’s the one who brings up the idea that Cairo should have the experience of falling in love, or at least seducing someone, before Cairo goes to college. It’s later revealed that Winnie and Cairo are both virgins. Winnie is given absolutely no backstory in this movie. She’s a mostly one-note character whose only purpose in the movie is to be the “talkative and horny” friend. Adlon’s Tennessee accent for Winnie is over-exaggerated in this movie.

Winnie and Cairo are never shown interacting with the other students in a meaningful way. They are not shown attending any other classes. They have such little interaction with the other students, they might as well be homeschooled. But then, there would be no “Miller’s Girl” movie, which is all about teasing audiences into thinking they’re going to see a movie about a “forbidden” relationship between a teenage female student and an older male teacher.

Winnie is aware of how Cairo seems to have a growing attraction to Mr. Miller, even though Winnie and Cairo both know that he is married. Winnie suggests to Cairo that Cairo should try to seduce him and see how far it can go. Meanwhile, Winnie claims to be in lust with a faculty member in his 40s named Boris Fillmore (played by Bashir Salahuddin), who is a physics teacher and a coach of an unnamed team at the school. Boris has a jolly jokester personality, and he happens to be Jonathan’s best friend at the school. Winnie tells Cairo that she wants a real man to take her virginity, and she thinks Coach Fillmore is the ideal candidate.

Meanwhile, Cairo ramps up her seduction scheme when she finds out that years ago, Jonathan wrote an obscure collection of erotic short stories called “Apostrophes and Ampersands.” The book was a flop with critics and audiences, and he hasn’t authored another book since then. He seems to have completely given up on becoming a professional writer. Of course, Cairo finds the book and reads it.

Jonathan and Cairo meet after school in his classroom, where they continue to flirt by exchanging annoying and pompous banter, while Jonathan tries to pretend that there isn’t sexual tension between them. Jonathan can’t resist Cairo’s charms, so he gives special treatment to Cairo by telling her in advance about his mid-term assignment for the class, so that she can get an early start on it. The assignment is for each student to write an essay in the style of the student’s favorite author.

Cairo then quotes passages from “Apostrophes and Ampersands” to Jonathan, in order to flatter him. This manipulation works. He literally becomes teary-eyed with emotions when he finds out that Cairo not only has read his book but that she also seems to likes it so much that she memorized parts of the book.

Seeing him show this vulnerable side, Cairo continues her manipulation by asking Jonathan why he hasn’t written another book since then. “You’re uninspired,” she tells him. He says, “Are you judging me?” Cairo replies, “I’m challenging you.”

This appeal to his ego quickly prompts Jonathan to tell Cairo that she should go to a monthly poetry-reading event that he likes to attend. He doesn’t directly ask her on a date, but it’s a big hint that if she goes to this event, he will be there too. And sure enough, the two of them see each other at this event, where afterwards they flirtatiously share a cigarette.

“Miller’s Girl” takes on a double meaning when Cairo tells Jonathan Miller that she has chosen controversial erotic author Henry Miller to be the writer she wants to emulate in her mid-term essay. Jonathan Miller objects to this choice, because work from Henry Miller is not allowed in this public school system for children. Cairo doesn’t care and insists that Henry Miller is her choice. You know where all of this is going, of course.

Beatrice is aware that Jonathan has taken a special interest in one of his students (she has not met Cairo), but Beatrice doesn’t see it as a problem at first, because Jonathan describes it as an interest in Cairo’s talent. And even when Beatrice finds out that Cairo seems to be fixating on Jonathan, Beatrice laughs it off as a harmless and temporary teenage crush. Jonathan assures Beatrice that he is not romantically attracted to Cairo, but Cairo doesn’t see it that way at all. You can easily guess what happens next in this “teen temptress” movie.

“Miller’s Girl” is very off-kilter in how it presents Cairo. At first, she appears to be an intellectual loner who has no interest in dating anyone. She dresses like an innocent schoolgirl. But then, after just a few conversations with Winnie (whom Cairo doesn’t seem to like very much), she goes to school looking like a party girl who’s ready to go to a nightclub. Winnie offered to give her a makeover, but it’s never shown in the movie if Winnie actually gave her the makeover or if Cairo made these fashion choices on her own.

Cairo’s personality switch is much more jarring than her wardrobe switch. At first, she seems to be genuinely curious about falling in love and eager to have that experience. At one point, she seems to be so infatuated with Jonathan that she thinks he’s some kind of soul mate because she believes that they are both very similar to each other. But then, Cairo becomes a vindictive control freak determined to get her way, no matter who gets hurt. Because very little is told or shown about what Cairo was like before she met Jonathan, it’s not clear if she was this unpleasant all along, or if something about this relationship with this older, married teacher brought out the worst in her.

There’s more than a little misogyny in the way this story is told, because every female with a major speaking role in this movie is either portrayed as a “shrew,” a “seductress” or both. Jonathan is not quite an innocent victim, although the movie obviously wants viewers to have the most sympathy for him. As already revealed in the “Miller’s Girl” trailer, Cairo is supposed to be the villain of the story, even though Jonathan, as the teacher/authority figure in this situation, has more of the responsibility to stop whatever inappropriate flirting was going on between him and Cairo.

The worst thing about “Miller’s Girl” is not the cringeworthy dialogue, which gets worse as the movie starts to unravel in its pathetic attempts to be an erotic thriller. The worst thing about “Miller’s Girl” is not the questionable Tennessee accent that a miscast Ortega struggles to maintain during this lurid mess of a movie. The worst thing about “Miller’s Girl” is that by the end of the film, it becomes very obvious that “Miller’s Girl” is just as empty and soulless as the most of the characters in the movie.

Lionsgate released “Miller’s Girl” in U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Cult Killer,’ starring Alice Eve, Shelley Hennig, Paul Reid and Antonio Banderas

January 25, 2024

by Carla Hay

Alice Eve in “Cult Killer” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Cult Killer”

Directed by Jon Keeyes

Culture Representation: Taking place in Dublin, the crime drama film “Cult Killer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latin person and one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A librarian-turned-private-investigator is hired by the police to assist in investigating the death of a colleague and to find the serial killer who is murdering wealthy people in the area.

Culture Audience: “Cult Killer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Antonio Banderas and don’t mind watching murder mysteries that have plot holes and ridiculous scenarios.

Antonio Banderas and Alice Eve in “Cult Killer” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Cult Killer” took a potentially intriguing story idea about a vengeful serial killer and ruined it with a messy plot holes, too many flashbacks, and an idiotic showdown scene that sinks this movie into a pile of cinematic garbage. This is the type of movie where most of the acting isn’t terrible, but the film becomes undone by the way it’s written and directed. There are moments of suspense in finding out the motive for the killings, but once that motive is revealed, “Cult Killer” becomes a predictable and mindless mush.

Directed by Jon Keeyes and written by Charles Burnley, “Cult Killer” takes place in Dublin. The movie was filmed on location in Ireland. The locations are some of the few authentic-looking things about “Cult Killer.” The movie’s cinematography gives everything a dark blueish-green tint that makes “Cult Killer” look like an unnecessarily murky-looking film.

“Cult Killer” also relies too heavily on flashbacks, which might or might not confuse viewers. From these flashbacks, viewers can learn that a widower private investigator named Mikeal Tallini (played by Antonio Banderas) befriended and became a sponsor to an alcoholic librarian named Cassie Holt (played by Alice Eve), who was sexually abused by her stepgrandfather when she was 8 to about 18 years old. Cassie secretly recorded the abuse, which was used as evidence to put her abuser in prison for a number of years.

Now in her early 40s, Cassie (who is originally from England) eventually sobered up and began working with Mikeal (who is originally from Spain) as a private investigator. He mentored her by teaching her investigative skills and fight skills. Mikeal has a friendly relationship with a Dublin police sergeant named Rory McMahon (played by Paul Reid), who is investigating the death of a wealthy elderly man named John Abernathy. It soon becomes apparent that people in John’s social circle are being targeted for murder.

Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that something happens to Mikeal that puts Cassie on the case to find this killer. John’s social circle includes a wealthy married couple named Dottie Evans (played by Olwen Fouéré) and Edgar Evans (played by Nick Dunning); the Evans couple’s sleazy attorney Victor Harrison (played by Matthew Tompkins); and a fixer/investigator employed by Victor named Wallace (played by Kim DeLonghi), who is hired by Victor to clean up his clients’ scandalous messes.

There’s also a mysterious American in her 20s named Jamie Douglas (played by Shelley Hennig), who singles out Cassie to establish a rapport with her. Most of the investigation revolves around the Evans couple’s mansion where John was killed. After a while, it becomes obvious what the motive of the murders is, even before the motive is actually revealed in the movie.

Because the killer and motive are revealed about halfway through the movie, “Cult Killer” becomes a messy back-and-forth of showing the killer evading capture and showing flashbacks to the platonic working relationship between Cassie and Mikeal. Cassie is the movie’s protagonist, but Eve’s acting in the role is often stiff and dull. Banderas mumbles a lot in this film. Some of the flashbacks become very irritating after a while and don’t really add much meaning to the story. They are essentially “filler” scenes to distract from the flimsy plot that falls apart by the end of the movie.

There’s a pivotal scene toward the end of “Cult Killer” that makes no sense. Viewers who see this scene must ask themselves: “If these very wealthy people are being targeted for murder, what are they doing walking on a street with no security protection, when they have aggressive security people guarding their house?” It’s one of many questions that have no answers in “Cult Killer,” because a substandard crime drama like this one has too many plot holes to be believable.

Saban Films released “Cult Killer” in select U.S. cinemas on January 19, 2024.

Review: ‘Time Still Turns the Pages,’ starring Lo Chun Yip, Sean Wong, Curtis Ho, Ronald Cheng, Rosa Maria Velasco, Sabrina Ng and Henick Chou

January 24, 2024

by Carla Hay

Lo Chun Yip in “Time Still Turns the Pages” (Photo courtesy of Illume Films)

“Time Still Turns the Pages”

Directed by Nick Cheuk

Cantonese with subtitles

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

Culture Clash: A teacher at a high school finds out that one of his students has anonymous written a suicidal note, which prompts an investigation and triggers memories of his own unhappy childhood.

Culture Audience: “Time Still Turns the Pages” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching emotionally moving films about effects that depression and anxiety can have on people and the dangers of not properly treating these mental health issues.

Sean Wong and Curtis Ho in “Time Still Turns the Pages” (Photo courtesy of Illume Films)

“Time Still Turns the Pages” is a meaningful and well-acted drama about the effects of child abuse, as well as how loneliness, depression and anxiety are often mishandled or ignored. Without being too preachy, the movie has a message of being more aware and more compassionate of people who might be having these issues. Although the movie isn’t ultra-violent in showing the child abuse, some of these abuse scenes might be very disturbing to some viewers.

Written and directed by Nick Cheuk, “Time Still Turns the Pages” (which takes place in Hong Kong) begins by showing a 10-year-old boy jumping off of the roof of a high-rise building. Viewers later find out that the boy’s name is Eli Cheng (played by Sean Wong), and he is several flashback scenes that show what led him to get to this suicidal point. Did he survive or did he die? The movie answers that question.

Meanwhile, in the present day, at Lo Fuk Tong High School, a teacher named Mr. Cheng (played by Lo Chun Yip) is aware that some of his students are involved in bullying fights at the school. Near the beginning of the movie, a student named Vincent, nicknamed Van Gogh (played by Henick Chou), is shown getting reprimanded in the school principal’s office because he pushed another student down some stairs. Vincent has injuries on his face that indicate he was in a physical fight. Vincent is one of Mr. Cheng’s students.

The movie leaves it open to interpretation about who started the fight until a flashback scene later in the film reveals the full story. There are several examples of how “Time Still Turns the Pages” shows something that seems to be about one thing but reveals it’s actually about another thing. Writer/director Cheuk seamlessly weaves various timelines and story threads together in ways that are creative and poignant without being emotionally manipulative.

One day, Mr. Cheng finds out that a school janitor (played by Peter Lau) has discovered an unsigned suicidal note in Mr. Cheng’s classroom. The note was written by a student and says things such as “I am worth nothing to anyone” and “I could be easily forgotten.” Mr. Cheng is deeply affected by this note and wants to find out who wrote it.

During a meeting with other faculty and staff members about the note, there is some debate over how to find out who wrote the note. The general consensus is that it’s a delicate matter that should be handled with discretion. When the school’s social worker Halena (played by Luna Shaw) suggests that the note is a hoax that could be plagiarism from something off of the Internet, Mr. Cheng explodes with anger and says the note is not a hoax.

Eventually, it’s decided that the a trustworthy student will be enlisted by the school officials to help with the investigation. The chosen student is a class prefect named Bethany (played by Sabrina Ng), who is later revealed to have some past emotional issues of her own. The investigation weighs heavily on Mr. Cheng because he is afraid that one of his students could commit suicide before getting any professional help or counseling to prevent the suicide.

Mr. Cheng’s emotional outburst at the faculty meeting is because he has been triggered by his own memories of an unhappy childhood. The movie has various flashbacks to showing the Cheng family, which includes his abusive father Hung Cheng (played by Ronald Cheng), who is a successful attorney; Hung’s fearful wife Heidi Cheng (played by Rosa Maria Velasco), who is a homemaker; sensitive Eli Cheng; and his overachieving brother Alan Cheng (played by Curtis Ho), who is one or two years younger than Eli. These flashbacks show that Hung verbally, emotionally and physically abuses Eli and Heidi, while Alan is considered the “golden child” of the family.

Eli frequently gets punished for not getting the academic grades that his parents expect from him. And although his mother Heidi is also a victim of Hung’s abuse, she is occasionally abusive to Eli too. She sometimes says hateful insults to Eli or slaps him hard, so that she doesn’t get punished by Hung for being too “soft” on Eli. Heidi also inflicts this cruelty out of her own self-hatred and because she’s taking a lot of her anger out on Eli. Other times, she comforts Eli and is very loving to him. It’s a realistic portrayal of an abused parent who is trapped in a miserable marriage and is conflicted about how to handle it.

During Eli’s childhood, Alan seemed to keep an emotional distance from him, as if he didn’t want to be associated with his underachiever brother. Eli found comfort in reading comic books, an activity his father despised. Eli’s favorite comic book series was called “Pirate,” and he greatly admired. Eli eventually started a secret journal to write down his innermost thoughts. He also became emotionally attached to his piano teacher Miss Chan (played by Jessica Chan), a young woman who was the only adult who was consistently kind to Eli in his home.

Mr. Cheng’s flashbacks also show that he got married to a voice actress named Sherry (played by Hanna Chan), whom he met when they were teenagers. Sherry and Mr. Cheng dated other people but reconnected later in life, fell in love with each other, and got married. This marriage was negatively affected by Mr. Cheng’s unresolved issues from his childhood and his memories of his own parents’ bad marriage. Sherry and Mr. Cheng have moments that are happy and unhappy. A turning point in their marriage happens when it comes to a decision made about family planning in their relationship.

“Time Still Turns the Pages” will take viewers on a very emotional journey in finding out more about Mr. Cheng and what happened in his family, as well as how his childhood trauma affects him in his current life. The movie takes a necessary and empathetic look at how people who show signs of anxiety and depression are often misunderstood and punished, which makes their mental health issues worse. “Time Still Turns the Pages” will make a lasting impression on viewers to be more aware of warning signs in suicidal people and to reach out and help as much as possible.

Illume Films released “Time Still Turns the Pages” in select U.S. cinemas on January 19, 2024. The movie was released in Hong Kong on November 16, 2023.

Review: ‘I.S.S.,’ starring Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbæk

January 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ariana DeBose in “I.S.S.” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“I.S.S.”

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Some language in Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in outer space, the sci-fi drama film “I.S.S.” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one multiracial person) portraying astronauts from the United States and Russia.

Culture Clash: While on the International Space Station in outer space, three American astronauts and three Russian astronauts find out that an apocalyptic war is happening on Earth between the United States and Russia. 

Culture Audience: “I.S.S.” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ariana DeBose and sci-fi thrillers about astronauts dealing with a crisis in outer space.

Masha Mashkova, John Gallagher Jr. and Costa Ronin in “I.S.S.” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

With a low budget and a simple concept, “I.S.S.” has no aspirations to be a classic sci-fi thriller. After a slow start, “I.S.S.” gets more interesting when it’s about personal and national loyalty dilemmas among Russian and American astronauts stuck on a ship in outer space during an unexpected war between their respective nations. Because this is a science-fiction movie, some suspension of disbelief is required. There’s enough tension to keep viewers interested in seeing what will happen next, although the movie could have had a much stronger ending.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Nick Shafir, “I.S.S.” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. “I.S.S.” is the feature-film debut for screenwriter Shafir, whose approach to this subject matter is very easy to understand but might be too trite for some viewers. The movie’s entire story takes place in outer space but was actually filmed in North Carolina. The year that the story takes place is not mentioned.

The title “I.S.S.” is an acronym for International Space Station. As explained in captions during the movie’s introduction: “The International Space Station (ISS) served as a symbol of the United States and Russian collaboration after the Cold War. The ISS is primarily used as a research facility, where the crew makes advancements in medicine, technology and space exploration. Today, both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts are living on board the ISS.”

There are only six people in the movie’s entire cast of characters, who are evenly split among Americans and Russians. The Americans are commander Gordon Barrett (played by Chris Messina), emotionally reserved Kira Foster (played by Ariana DeBose) and talkative Christian Campbell (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who is a divorced father with two underage daughters. The Russians are efficient Alexey Pulov (played by Pilou Asbæk), his emotionally aloof brother Nicholai Pulov (played by Costa Ronin) and fun-loving Weronika Vetrov (played by Masha Mashkova), who sometimes goes by the nickname Nika.

Here’s where some suspension of disbelief is necessary for this movie: The first thing that some viewers might ask themselves is: “Why would Russia and the United States only have three astronauts each for such an important ISS mission?” The answer: “Because ‘I.S.S.’ is a low-budget movie.” The movie depicts all six of these space travelers as being confined to a certain part of the station, which is intended to make the movie’s interior settings look claustrophobic.

Kira is the story’s main protagonist. Kira and Alexey are both biological engineers working on a “top secret” project for their respective countries. They both share a workspace. Kira uses mice for her lab experiments. Observant viewers will notice how these mice are parallel symbols of what eventually happens to the humans in the story.

Near the beginning of the movie, Kira and Christian are by themselves, until the other four space travelers join them. Gordon introduces Alexey, Nicholai and Weronika to his colleagues. Everyone is friendly and in good spirits. The Russians begin playing the Scorpions’ 1990 hit song “Wind of Change” and begin singing along.

Alexey mentions how much an anthem the song is for Russians who were affected by the Cold War ending. However, all six of the space travelers agree that ISS is not the place where they want to talk about politics. All of this camaraderie and good cheer do not last when these ISS explorers find out something terrible: While looking down on Earth, they see large glowing spots, indicating that nuclear weapons have been detonated.

Soon after that, the ship loses all communication with Earth, except for some text messages that Gordon first sees on a computer screen in the station: “The ISS has been deemed a priority foothold. All U.S. citizens are to abort all order and experiments. You new objective is to take control of the ISS.” (This information was already revealed in the movie’s trailer.)

After some initial confusion, the Americans deduce that Russia must have attacked the United States, and an apocalyptic war is happening on Earth. Do the Russians on board the ship know this information? And will the Americans stay loyal to their Russian comrades on the ship, or will the Americans follow U.S. government orders and bring the apparent war inside the ship?

The answers to these questions are really what hold “I.S.S.” together, because most of the characters in the movie do not enough character development for viewers to feel like they really know these characters by the end of the movie. Very little is told the personal lives of these ISS travelers. The Russians in the movie have no backstories at all.

In a candid conversation with Gordon, Kira tells him the reason why she became a biological engineer. She says it’s because when she was a child, her terminally ill father died because he was on a waiting list for an organ transplant. Kira comments, “I made it my goal to find an easier way to manufacture what people needed.”

Kira also tells Gordon that she’s a lesbian or queer woman who wants to remain single and focused on work for now, because her ex-fiancée cheated on her and Kira is not ready to get in another love relationship. Later, it’s revealed that Gordon and Weronika have been having a flirtation or casual fling, which has no major bearing on the movie’s plot. As for Alexey and Nicholai, “I.S.S.” missed an opportunity to tell an interesting story about these two family members who are working together.

“I.S.S.” skimps on the details about what the personal stakes are for the people on the ISS to get back home safely to loved ones. However, the movie does reveal certain other information about why it’s very urgent for the ISS inhabitants to get back to Earth, against the odds and at great risk during the destruction that is happening on Earth. The question then becomes: “Who out of these six people will survive when they inevitably turn against each other?”

“I.S.S.” has competent acting for a story that occasionally stumbles with some of the science- fiction aspects that don’t always look convincing. The visual effects are solid, considering the movie’s low budget. There’s a predictability to some of the action scenes, but “I.S.S.” will keep viewers guessing (up until a certain point) about who on the ship is being honest and who is not. The movie’s ending won’t satisfy viewers who want clearly defined answers, but the ending is meant to show that there are no easy answers when it comes to human nature and being in outer space during an apocalyptic war on Earth.

Bleecker Street released “I.S.S.” in U.S. cinemas on January 19, 2024.

Review: ‘May December,’ starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore

January 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in “May December” (Photo by Francois Duhamel/Netflix)

“May December”

Directed by Todd Haynes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tybee Island, Georgia, in 2015, the dramatic film “May December” features a white and Asian cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A famous actress is starring in a movie about a disgraced and formerly imprisoned sex offender, who seduced an underage co-worker and later married him, and the actress goes to the couple’s home to do research for the role.

Culture Audience: “May December” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Todd Haynes, and movies that put a fictional spin on real-life scandals.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in “May December” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“May December” is a very glossy psychological portrait of manipulation and exploitation, inspired by a real-life sex scandal. Although the principal cast members give above-average performances, it’s a slow-moving film with a fragmented story. Some viewers might see “May December” as a very dark comedy. However, the movie’s few comedic moments are in short spurts and then quickly fade into the background when “May December” becomes more concerned about making viewers increasingly uncomfortable with certain awful characters pretending to be better people than they really are.

Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Samy Burch, “May December” gets its title from the term “May December relationship,” to describe romances that have a big age gap between the partners. The younger partner is supposed to be in the spring of youth (as exemplified by the spring month of May), while the older partner is supposed to be closer to the end of life (as indicated by end-of-the-year month of December). “May December” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

In “May December,” the story’s scandal is based on the real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. In 1996, the year they got sexually involved with each other, Letourneau was a 34-year-old married mother of four children, and she was Fulaau’s schoolteacher in Burien, Washington. He was 12 years old.

Letourneau eventually served time in jail (in 1997) and in prison (from 1998 to 2004) for statutory rape and for violating the terms of her 1997 plea agreement, which had required her to stay away from a then-underage Fualaau. Her first husband divorced her in 1999. She gave birth to two daughters fathered by Fualaau. The first daughter was born in 1997, while Letourneau was awaiting her sentencing. The second daughter was born in 1998, when Letourneau was in prison. Letourneau and Fualaau got married in 2005, but they separated in 2019. Letourneau died of colorectal cancer in 2020, at the age of 58.

All of this background information is helpful to better understand the nuances in “May December.” In the movie, the character based on Letourneau is named Gracie Atherton-Yoo (played by Julianne Moore), while the Fualaau-based character is Joe Yoo (played by Charles Melton), who are living a quiet suburban life together as married parents in Tybee Island, Georgia. Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman) is a 36-year-old famous actress who is starring as Gracie in a made-for-TV movie. “May December” (which takes place in 2015, which is about 23 years after the scandal) shows what happens over the course of several days when Elizabeth goes to Tybee Island to do research for the role by visiting Gracie and Joe, as well as interviewing their friends, family and other people who know this notorious couple.

“May December” begins with a scene of Elizabeth in a Georgia hotel room as she gets ready to go to the Yoo home to meet Gracie and Joe for the first time. Meanwhile, Gracie and Joe are at their home, where they are preparing to welcome Elizabeth to a family cookout in their backyard. Gracie is in the kitchen making deviled eggs and a cake with her friend/neighbor Rhonda (played by Andrea Frankle), who is Gracie’s staunchest defender and supporter. It’s later revealed that Gracie has a home-based business where she makes cakes. Joe works in a hospital as a medical assistant.

Before Elizabeth arrives, Gracie tells Rhonda what she expects from Elizabeth: “All I ask is that she’s polite and not just sitting there with her sunglasses on.” And when Elizabeth and Gracie meet in a polite but slightly guarded way, Gracie tells Elizabeth: “I want you to tell the story right.” Elizabeth, who speaks in calm, measured tones, replies: “I want you to feel seen and known.”

In real life, Letourneau and Fualaau had two daughters. In “May December,” Gracie and Joe have two daughters and a son. Eldest child Honor (played by Piper Curda) is an outspoken college student living away from home, but she will soon be visiting to attend the high-school graduation of her younger twin siblings: insecure Mary (played by Elizabeth Yu) and rebellious Charlie (played by Gabriel Chun). Another member of the Yoo family is Joe’s widower father Joe Yoo Sr. (played by Kelvin Han Yee), a Korean immigrant who—just like his son Joe—chain smokes when he’s feeling stressed-out.

Over time, viewers see that Gracie likes to appear composed and in control in public and when Elizabeth is there observing. But in private and when Elizabeth isn’t there, Gracie is high-strung, very demanding and overly critical of other people. When things don’t go her way, Gracie loves to play the victim.

Gracie also treats Joe as someone whose only purpose in life is to make her happy. When Gracie has a tearful meltdown because a customer canceled an order for a cake that Gracie already made, Gracie expects Joe to comfort her like someone who needs to be comforted over the death of a loved one. And there are signs that Gracie has an undiagnosed mental illness, such as when Gracie insists to Joe in private that he was the one who seduced her when he was a child.

Another scene that shows how Gracie is a master manipulator is when she and Mary (with Elizabeth invited to observe) go shopping for Mary’s graduation dress. At a store’s dressing room, Mary tries on dresses. Mary’s first choice is a sleeveless dress, but Gracie doesn’t want Mary to wear a dress that will expose Mary’s arms. Mary gets annoyed with Gracie and firmly says that she’s getting the dress. However, Mary changes her mind when Gracie comments that other girls in the graduating class probably won’t wear sleeveless dresses because sleeveless dresses will make their arms look fat.

Over time, an unspoken rivalry develops between Gracie and Elizabeth, who is very aware that image-conscious Gracie is bothered by Elizabeth, who is going to play a younger version of Gracie. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes about this power struggle is when Elizabeth and Gracie are standing in front of a bathroom mirror in Gracie’s home while Gracie is putting on makeup. Rather than have Elizabeth mimic her, Gracie insists on putting the makeup on Elizabeth herself.

Joe is quiet, humble and unassuming. And at first, he seems to be in the background of Elizabeth’s thoughts as she puts most of her initial focus on studying Gracie. It should come as no surprise that the more that Gracie gushes about Joe to make it sound like they have a beautiful love story, the more that Elizabeth seems to get curious about Joe and takes more of an interest in him. Elizabeth flatters Joe and drops hints that he deserves a better life than the one that he has with control-freak Gracie. But does Elizabeth really care about Joe as a person, or does Elizaebth care more about immersing herself so much into Gracie’s life that she wants to replicate aspects of Gracie’s life?

Some of the people whom Elizabeth interviews for her research are Gracie’s ex-husband Tom Atherton (played by D.W. Moffett), who is now married to another woman; Gracie’s adult son Georgie Atherton (played by Cory Michael Smith), from her first marriage, who bitterly tells Elizabeth that Gracie ruined Georgie’s life; and Colin Henderson (played by Charles Green), the owner of the pet store where Joe worked as a kid and where Gracie was Joe’s supervisor. Observant viewers will notice that for all the interviews that Elizabeth does, she’s not very forthcoming about herself, until a very revealing scene where she makes a speaking appearance in Mary’s drama class and answers prying questions from a few of the students.

No one from Elizabeth’s personal life is seen in the movie, which is the movie’s way of showing how Elizabeth skillfully compartmentalizes her life. Elizabeth is shown briefly talking in phone conversations at her hotel with her fiancé and with the director of the movie where she stars as Gracie. In these conversations, she reveals herself even more to be a very driven and ambitious actress.

Elizabeth is also seen in the hotel room looking at video auditions of teenage boys who will be playing the role of Joe. These boys are supposed to be in their early teens, but Elizabeth remarks that they don’t look “sexy” enough, based on what Elizabeth has seen of Joe. But it’s a sign of a reality disconnect for Elizabeth, because the Joe she’s getting to know is an adult, not the child who was manipulated into an illegal sexual relationship with an adult.

“May December” presents Elizabeth as the central character, but the movie doesn’t always do a great job of balancing the perspectives of Gracie and Joe. There is almost nothing told about how Joe’s side of the family reacted to the scandal, or how Joe’s experiences as a child of an immigrant affected his outlook on life. His father seems to have accepted the marriage of Joe and Gracie, but was this acceptance easy, difficult, or somewhere in between? The movie never says and doesn’t seem to care.

Joe is only given two or three really good scenes that show he’s more than just a loyal “boy toy” husband. Those scenes arrive when awareness starts to sink in with Joe about how much of his childhood was robbed when Gracie chose to cross the line and have a sexual relationship with him when he was a child. It hits him the hardest when he sees Mary and Charlie graduating from high school. This graduation ceremony scene is when Joe fully understands that his children’s coming of age and starting new chapters in their lives as young adults are very different from what he experienced.

What “May December” also does very well is show how Elizabeth’s presence is the catalyst for Gracie and Joe to re-evaluate how they want to be perceived by others and how they perceive themselves. Gracie’s reaction is to “double down” on the narrative that she and Joe have a “fairytale love story.” Joe starts to have doubts and wonders if this “fairytale love story” he’s believed in for all these years was one big lie.

Meanwhile, on another level, “May December” is also a story about what happens when two predators meet and become competitive with each other—not just in how to interpret Gracie’s life but also in trying to prove who’s living a more “fulfilled” life. In that regard, the scenes where Elizabeth and Gracie are in the same room are fascinating to watch. Observant viewers will notice that Elizabeth’s “research” has a more profound effect on her than Elizabeth expects. This is demonstrated effectively in the movie’s final scene.

Portman and Moore are compelling to watch in “May December,” but the movie loses a bit of steam when it can’t really decide how much importance Gracie’s children and in-laws should have in the story. It’s never explained why Elizabeth talked to only one of Gracie’s children from Gracie’s first marriage and not the other children from Gracie’s first marriage. And the character of Joe Sr. seems like a “token” character, because the movie doesn’t seem concerned about how showing or telling how Gracie’s scandalous actions with Joe affected members of Joe’s family.

If “May December” is supposed to be a dark comedy, then it doesn’t quite succeed as a dark comedy or satire like director Gus Van Sant’s 1995 movie “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix. “To Die For” succeeded in its comedic intentions as a movie version of a real-life scandal about an adult female teacher seducing an underage teenage student to commit a felony crime. As a psychological drama, “May December” excels in its intention to be an unsettling film about the human cost of treating people like pawns in a chess game.

Netflix released “May December” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Merry Christmas’ (2024), starring Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi

January 18, 2024

by Carla Hay

Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi in “Merry Christmas” (Photo courtesy of Pen Marudhar Entertainment)

“Merry Christmas” (2024)

Directed by Sriram Raghavan

Hindi, Tamil and Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1980s in Bombay, India, the dramatic film “Merry Christmas” (based on Frédéric Dard’s novel “Le Monte-charge (Bird in a Cage)” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, and middle-class.

Culture Clash: When a man meets lonely married woman on Christmas Eve, he accepts her invitation to come back to her place, but complications ensue when the dead body of her husband is found in the home.

Culture Audience: “Merry Christmas” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an intriguing mystery with twists and turns.

Pari Maheshwari Sharma (in second row), Katrina Kaif (in second row) and Vijay Sethupathi (in first row) in “Merry Christmas” (Photo courtesy of Pen Marudhar Entertainment)

“Merry Christmas” is the type of absorbing crime drama where things are not what they always first appear to be. It’s a well-acted whodunit mystery that has layers of psychological intrigue presented in stylish filmmaking. The movie is a worthy adaptation of Frédéric Dard’s 1961 novel “Le Monte-charge (Bird in a Cage).”

Sriram Raghavan directed “Merry Christmas” and co-wrote the screenplay with Arijit Biswas, Anukriti Pandey and Pooja Ladha Surti. The movie’s runtime is 144 minutes, but none of that screen time is wasted with boring scenes. Some of the story’s twists and turns are less predictable than other twists and turns in the story. “Merry Christmas” has a Hindi-language version and a Tamil-language version. The principal cast members are the same in both versions, but many of the supporting cast members are different in each version.

“Merry Christmas” takes place Bombay, India, sometime in the 1980s. Bombay is the childhood hometown of architect named Albert (played by Vijay Sethupathi), a never-married bachelor in his 40s, with no children. In the beginning of the movie, Albert has returned to his childhood home, where his widowed mother used to live. It’s the Christmas holiday season, and she has recently died. Albert hasn’t been back to this house in about seven years.

The landlord, who was a friend of the family, tells Albert that Albert’s mother suddenly died in her sleep. As a condolence gift, the landlord gives Albert a bottle of homemade wine that he has called Yadhoom. Tinnu Anand portrays the landlord/family friend in the Hindi-language version of “Merry Christmas,” and Rajesh Williams (also known as Rajesh) portrays the landlord/family friend in the Tamil-language version.

Feeling lonely, Albert goes to a restaurant by himself for dinner on Christmas Eve. At the restaurant, a stranger (played by Sahil Vaid), who’s about the same age as Albert, approaches him and tells him that he was there to meet a woman for a date at at the restaurant, but he has to suddenly leave. He points out the woman to Albert and asks Albert to tell his date that he won’t be able to join her dinner because of a work-related reason.

What the stranger doesn’t tell Albert is that he’s cancelled this date because the woman he was supposed to meet has a child (a girl about 3 or 4 years old) with her. He was expecting it to be a romantic date with no kids. Albert tells the jilted date about this cancellation. She seems disappointed but not too surprised. Albert finds out much later that the woman’s name is Maria (played by Katrina Kaif), who is in her 30s.

After leaving the restaurant, Albert goes to a movie theater by himself to see “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” And what a coincidence: The woman and the child are there too, in the row right behind him. The girl has a teddy bear with her.

Albert strikes up a polite conversation with the woman, who asks Albert to watch the teddy bear while she takes her daughter to the restroom. When they come back, Albert buys popcporn for the woman and the child, who both seem grateful for his generosity. Albert notices that the girl is mute.

After the movie ends, Albert joins the woman and her child outside and continues to talk to them. The woman doesn’t tell Albert until much later that her name is Maria, but she introduces the girl as her daughter Annie (played by Pari Maheshwari Sharma, also known as Pari Sharma), who is polite but getting very sleepy.

Maria invites Albert back to her home, which is an apartment above Jupiter Bakery, a business that Maria says is owned by her family. Maria and Albert seem attracted to each the more that they talk. Maria tells Albert up front that she is married, but she says it’s an unhappy marriage because her husband Jerome (played by Luke Kenny) is frequently away from home and is unfaithful to her. Maria says that Jerome is currently away in Vikram Colony and is probably cheating on her with a woman there.

Maria tells Albert she feels like a single mother and that her night out at the restaurant was supposed to be a “revenge date” to get back at Jerome for being an unfaithful husband. Maria later tells Albert that Jerome is a drug addict who’s been acting like a “psycho.” Maria believes that Jerome is the reason why Annie went from being an outgoing and talkative child to be being withdrawn and mute.

Albert opens up about his personal life to Maria. He tells her that he’s had his heart broken by a doomed loved affair with a woman named Rosie, who was his boss’ wife. Albert had planned to marry Rosie and bought an engagement ring for the proposal. The affair ended when Rosie decided to stay with her husband. Rosie died about seven years ago. Albert left the area around that same time.

Maria and Albert drink some wine and dance together. Annie is fast asleep in her room, so Maria locks up the home and walks around the city with Albert, where they talk some more about their lives. They eventually stop by his place. The attraction between them has become too strong to ignore, and they almost kiss each other.

However, Maria looks like she feels guilty and she walks away. She tells Albert that she should be getting home because she doesn’t want Annie to be by herself for too long. Albert says he’ll escort her back to her place.

But when they go back to the apartment, they see a shocking sight: The dead body of Jerome is sitting in a chair, with a gunshot wound on the left side his chest. He is also holding a gun in his right hand. Was it suicide or murder?

Albert doesn’t want to stick around to find out. Maria quickly checks to see where Annie is and finds that Annie is still sound asleep in her room. As Maria starts to call the police, Albert panics and tells her that he’s going leave before the police arrive, because his presence will make things look suspicious. Albert also uses a handkerchief to wipe his fingerprints off of anything he might have touched in the apartment.

The rest of “Merry Christmas” unpeels the layers of this story in very suspenseful ways. A married stranger named Ronnie Fernandes gets involved in this tangled web when he meets a distraught Maria. Sanjay Kapoor portrays Ronnie in the Hindi-language version of the film. Kavin Jay Babu portrays Ronnie in the Tamil-language version of the film.

“Merry Christmas” blurs the lines in what can be considered a “villain” in this story. There are situations that arise that are intended for viewers to wonder: “Is this a good person doing a bad thing, or is this a bad person doing a good thing?” Sethupathi and Kaith give very effective and believable performances that will keep viewers guessing. Along with the movie’s well-paced screenplay and skillful direction, “Merry Christmas” should satisfy fans of movie mysteries that deliver plenty of intrigue.

Pen Marudhar Entertainment released “Merry Christmas” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on January 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Shining for One Thing’ (2023), starring Qu Chu Xiao and Zhang Jianing

January 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Qu Chu Xiao and Zhang Jianing in “Shining for One Thing” (Photo courtesy of Golden Village Pictures)

“Shining for One Thing” (2023)

Directed by Chen Xiaoming and Zhang Pan

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in China, in 2010, the sci-fi drama film “Shining for One Thing” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage aspiring astronaut hopes to win over a teenage girl whom he has been pining over for years, but she acts aloof and unavailable.

Culture Audience: “Shining for One Thing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in romantic dramas wth sci-fi elements.

Zhang Jianing and Qu Chu Xiao in “Shining for One Thing” (Photo courtesy of Golden Village Pictures)

“Shining for One Thing” blends sci-fi and romance in this appealing drama about a teenage aspiring astronaut, who pines for a seemingly unattainable girl. Some of the movie’s plot developments are awkward, but it’s a sweet and interesting love story.

Directed by Chen Xiao Ming and Zhang Pan, “Shining for One Thing” is based on the TV series of the same name, which debuted in China in 2022. Duan Yu Le and Wang Chen wrote the movie’s screenplay, which is a stand-alone film. People who know about the “Shining for One Thing” series won’t be surprised by the movie’s plot twist, which won’t be revealed in this review, in case people who see the movie don’t know about the TV series.

“Shining for One Thing” opens with a scene of a male astronaut and a female astronaut on the moon. They are standing across from each other and looking at each other. How they got there is explained in the movie.

The movie then goes to an unnamed city in China on August 8, 2010. A high school student named Zhang Wansen (played by Qu Chu Xiao), who’s about 17 years old, goes to a ticket booth and asks for tickets for a concert, but the ticket seller (played by Wang Zhaoqing) says she just sold the last two tickets to a teenage girl, who is standing nearby. The ticket seller advises Wansen to ask the girl if she will sell him either or both of the tickets.

The teenager who bought the last two tickets is Lin Beixing (played by Zhang Jianing, also known as Karlina Zhang), who’s about the same age as Wansen. She refuses Wansen’s offer to buy the tickets. Wansen sees Beixing again on a school bus, and he’s bashful about approaching her. She mostly acts aloof and unapproachable during most of their interactions.

The concert that Wansen wants to go to is a Moon Shot concert, taking place at a stadium. It will be send-off for an astronaut mission to the moon. Ever since he was a child, Wansen has dreamed about going to the moon. He takes science classes with this aim in mind.

Wansen wants to be part of the Moon Shot concert any way that he can. He volunteers to be a worker helping with production set-up duties at the stadium. Wansen then finds out that Beixing is one of the many other young people who are also volunteers.

Wansen also finds out that Beixing works at a bookstore that’s owned by a kind, elderly man named Xie (played by Tian Zhuangzhuang), so Wansen starts hanging out at the bookstore too. Beixing is very aware that Wansen is attracted to her. Wansen and Beixing get to know each other better, but she still keeps an emotional distance from him.

What Beixing doesn’t seem to remember is that she and Wansen met years earlier, when when they were about 5 or 6 years old and lived near each other. Wansen was a lonely child, and Beixing was the only person who was nice to him. (In these childhood scenes, Eric Zhang portrays Wansen. Yu Qian Qian portrays Beixing.) Just as it seemed like Wansen and Beixing were becoming friends, she told him that she was moving away with her family.

“Shining for One Thing” then shows what happens to Wansen and Beixing as teenagers and as young adults. Other people in their orbit include Wansen’s friend Lin Mai Zi (played by Jiang Yun), who has a crush on an artsy student named Gao Ge (played by Fu Jing, also known as Jinna Fu), who doesn’t seem interested in Lin Mai Zi. There is also some drama involving a local thug named Wu Ren (played by Niu Chao), who’s the leader of a gang of other criminal troublemakers. This movie is competently acted and is best appreciated by viewers who like stories about the personal sacrifices that people make for unconditional love.

Golden Village Pictures released “Shining for One Thing” in China on December 30, 2023. The movie was released in select U.S. cinemas on January 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Rustin’ (2023), starring Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald

January 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan and Colman Domingo in “Rustin” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

“Rustin” (2023)

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, from 1960 to 1963, the dramatic film “Rustin” (based on real events) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Openly gay activist Bayard Rustin battles people inside and outside the civil rights movement in his plans for a large-scale peaceful protest in Washington, D.C., while his personal life has various entanglements.

Culture Audience: “Rustin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a compelling but somewhat formulaic biography about an influential civil rights activist who has historically been overshadowed by more famous people.

Aml Ameen in “Rustin” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

Colman Domingo gives a commanding and charismatic performance in “Rustin,” a briskly paced drama that tells the story of underrated civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who fought several public and private battles against racism and homophobia. It’s the type of movie that never lets you forget that you’re watching a drama, because the main characters often talk as if they’re giving speeches and lectures instead of having normal conversations. The movie delivers plenty of inspiration and heartfelt moments, but it zips around so much, some viewers will think that “Rustin” is a bit shallow and formulaic.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, “Rustin” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Dustin Lance Black (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2008’s “Milk”) and Julian Breece co-wrote the screenplay for “Rustin.” The “Rustin” screenplay isn’t Oscar-worthy, but it has many memorable moments because of the way that the cast members interpret the dialogue. For the purposes of this review, the real Bayard Rustin (who died in 1987, at the age of 75) will be referred to by his last name, while the movie character of Bayard Rustin will be referred to by his first name.

“Rustin” is not a comprehensive biopic, since the story takes place only during the years 1960 to 1963. However, the movie capably shows how Rustin is an often-overlooked influence in the U.S. civil rights movement and was a driving force in the historic 1963 March on Washington. Not all of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios are believable, such as the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Aml Ameen) becomes almost like a sidekick character whenever Bayard (played by Domingo) goes on rants about how Bayard wants things to be.

Although “Rustin” shows Bayard experiencing violent racism (shown mostly in quick flashbacks), the biggest conflicts he has in the movie is with other civil rights officials. “Rustin” takes a realistic look at how internal power struggles and feuds within the U.S. civil rights movement often caused damage to the movement and/or slowed down progress. And in case it isn’t obvious to viewers, Bayard points it out in a preachy comment after preachy comment that racism isn’t the only enemy to the civil rights movement.

Early on in the movie (which is told in chronological order), Adam Clayton Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) tries to ruin Bayard’s reputation by spreading stories that Bayard (an openly gay bachelor with no children) and Martin (a married father) are secret lovers. Bayard vehemently denies this accusation and puts in his resignation notice with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), because he thinks that Martin will back up Bayard and publicly urge him not to leave the NAACP.

However, Bayard (who was based in New York City during this time) doesn’t get Martin’s support, and the NAACP accepts Bayard’s resignation. It leads to a period of estrangement between Martin and Bayard, who becomes disillusioned with the NAACP and other aspects of the civil rights movement. Congressman Powell is portrayed as a power-hungry liar, but he isn’t the only person who becomes an enemy of Bayard.

Bayard’s main adversary in the movie is NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins (played by Chris Rock), who disagrees with Bayard on almost everything. When Bayard comes up with the idea of having a massive protest that would bus in at least 100,000 people from around the United States, Roy tells anyone who’ll listen that it’s a terrible idea because Roy thinks the event would be too expensive and too hard to manage. The 1963 March on Washington ended up getting a crowd of about 250,000 people.

Roy (who is portrayed as egotistical and stubborn) also puts up a lot of resistance to Bayard’s plan to make it a two-day event, because Roy thinks a one-day event is more realistic. Bayard’s most loyal ally in these conflicts is union organizer A. Philip Randolph (played by Glynn Turman), who is like a father figure to Bayard. Bayard’s biological family is not part of the story. (It can be assumed he’s estranged from his family members because they disapprove of his sexuality.)

Meanwhile, although Bayard is open about his sexuality to the people who are closest to him, he struggles with finding a life partner because he’s a workaholic who’s afraid of committing himself to one person. In real life, Rustin often blurred his personal and professional lives, by hiring his lovers as his assistants. He also frequently dated younger men, many who were white. In the movie, the character of Tom (played by Gus Halper), a white worker for the NAACP who becomes Bayard’s assistant, isn’t based on anyone specific but is a composite of these types of men who would be sexually involved with Bayard.

Tom’s on-again/off-again relationship with Bayard gets sidelined in the story when Bayard has a deeper emotional connection with a closeted Christian preacher named Elias Taylor (played by Johnny Ramey), whose wife Claudia Taylor (played by Adrienne Warren) expects Elias to be the heir to her pastor father’s church. “Rustin” gives glimpses into Bayard’s nightlife activities, such as Bayard going to gay bars or cruising for sex partners on the street, but these are very fleeting glimpses. During this time when it was illegal in the U.S. to be homosexual or queer, the movie has one scene showing law enforcement raiding a gay bar that Bayard frequented. Bayard luckily avoids getting arrested in this raid because he wasn’t in the bar at the time.

“Rustin” gives only a very short acknowledgement that although women were valuable members of the civil rights movement, women were often overlooked and underappreciated when it came to who got the most power and the most glory in the movement. Dr. Anna Hedgeman (played by CCH Pounder) is depicted as the character who is the most outspoken about this sexism. Bayard temporarily appeases her by having her be a mid-level manager in the activities that he plans.

Although Bayard shows empathy and support for the women closest to him—including civil rights activist Ella Baker (played by Audra McDonald)—in the end, he doesn’t place a high priority on elevating qualified women into the highest positions of power. The movie has numerous scenes of meetings with African American civil rights leaders, and there are no women in the room. Almost all of the people whom Bayard personally mentors are other men, including an eager young activist named Courtney (played by Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan), who has a platonic relationship with Bayard.

Meanwhile, most of the female actors in the movie are portraying characters who don’t have names and mostly do the work of assistants and secretaries. Martin’s wife Coretta Scott King (played by Carra Patterson), who doesn’t have much screen time in “Rustin,” is shown in the movie only as a housewife, which is what her husband wanted her to be. In real life, she had a college education and her own accomplishments outside of being a wife and mother. Da’Vine Joy Randolph makes a cameo as Mahalia Jackson performing at a rally led by Martin, but this scene-stealing appearance gives no further insight into Jackson’s involvement in the civil rights movement.

Because “Rustin” tends to make Bayard a forceful and dominating presence in every scene that he’s in, other important civil rights leaders are reduced to a handful of soundbites. They include John Lewis (played by Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), Medger Evers (played by Rashad Demond Edwards), Cleve Robinson (played by Michael Potts), Whitney Young (played by Kevin Mambo) and James “Jim” Farmer (played by Frank Harts). The obvious intention is to make Bayard look larger-than-life, but it’s often to the detriment of realism and development of other characters in the story that should have been depicted in a more meaningful way.

Some of the movie’s dialogue is a little hokey. For example, in a scene with Tom and Bayard in Bayard’s home, Tom is getting ready to smoke a marijuana joint. Bayard mildly scolds him by saying about smoking marijuana: “Last time I checked, that was illegal.” Tom replies, “Last time I checked, we were illegal.”

But the movie also delivers some memorable zingers, such as a scene where Bayard confronts Martin about homophobia among civil rights officials: “On the day I was born black, I was also born homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.”

“Rustin” has a very talented cast, but it’s less of an ensemble movie and more of a showcase for Colman, who admirably brings a lot of soul and vigor to the role. Ameen is very good in the role of Dr. King, but the movie makes the Dr. King character become secondary to Bayard’s outspoken presence whenever they’re in the same room together. It’s a little hard to believe that Dr. King, who had his own strong personality, would be this subdued around someone with less power and less authority in making decisions for the civil rights movement. The movie gives credit to Rustin for influencing Dr. King to follow the non-violent philosophies of Mahatma Ghandi.

“Rustin” wants to make a point of how the real Rustin didn’t get enough credit for things he did behind the scenes in the civil rights movement. But by making him such a big personality who put himself at the center of conflicts, “Rustin” somewhat contradicts this movie’s message that the real Rustin was easily overlooked because he wanted to “fly under the radar.” It’s not until near the end of the movie that the character of Bayard shows humility in not seeking the spotlight for himself in the civil rights movement. A few more of these humble moments would have made the character more interesting and the movie more convincing in its premise that Rustin didn’t really want the widespread public recognition that he deserved.

Netflix released “Rustin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 17, 2023.

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