Review: ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era,’ starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Hugh Dancy, Dominic West and Robert James-Collier

May 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (Photo by Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

“Downton Abbey: A New Era”

Directed by Simon Curtis

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1928, in the United Kingdom and in France, the dramatic film “Downton Abbey: A New Era” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In order to pay for extensive mansion renovations, the wealthy Downton Abbey clan of England reluctantly allows a movie to be filmed at Downton Abbey, while matriarch Violet Crawley finds herself embroiled in a battle over inherited property, health issues, and questions over who really fathered her son Robert Crawley.

Culture Audience: Aside from appealing to “Downton Abbey” fans, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of movies about 20th century upper-crust British people and their servants.

Hugh Dancy (second from left), Kevin Doyle (third from left), Alex Macqueen (second from right) and Michelle Dockery (far right) in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (Photo by Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is more comedic and bolder than its predecessor movie. It takes a less insular view of the world, from the central family’s perspective, thanks to encounters with the 1920s movie industry and a trip to the south of France. The wealthy British clan is impacted when a movie is made on the Downton Abbey estate (located in Yorkshire, England), while members of the Downton Abbey family go to the south of France and learn more about their ancestral history, which might be intertwined with a French aristocratic family.

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is a sequel to 2019’s “Downton Abbey” movie (directed by Michael Engler), which was in turn a continuation of the British “Downton Abbey” TV series, which was on the air from 2010 to 2015. (In the United States, the award-winning “Downton Abbey” series began airing in 2011.) “Downton Abbey” creator/showrunner/writer Julian Fellowes, who is also the writer of the “Downton Abbey” movies, makes each part of the franchise seamless without making it confusing to viewers who are new to the franchise.

In other words: It’s not necessary to see the “Downton Abbey” TV series (which takes place from 1912 to 1926) and 2019’s “Downton Abbey” movie (which takes place in 1927) before seeing “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (which takes place in 1928), although it is very helpful to see all things “Downton Abbey” before watching this movie sequel. As a bonus, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” has an introduction by Kevin Doyle, who plays valet Joseph Molesley, better known as Mr. Molesley. In this introduction, he catches viewers up to speed by providing a summary of what happened in the 2019 “Downton Abbey” movie. A “Downtown Abbey” TV series recap, although not part of “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” is available online and narrated by cast members Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan, who portray Downton Abbey servants Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes.

Directed by Simon Curtis, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” continues with the central family’s preoccupations with class status, royal titles, property ownership and who is (or who should be) the rightful heirs of various inheritances. The “Downton Abbey” franchise, just like much of Fellowes’ work, explores the “upstairs/downstairs” cultures, with the “upstairs” people being the wealthy employers and the “downstairs” people being the employers’ servants. What makes “Downton Abbey: A New Era” stand out from previous “Downton Abbey” storylines is that the “upstairs” and “downstairs” people of Downton Abbey, who usually only deal with British aristocrats, interact with two very different types of cultures: showbiz people and French aristocrats.

Because there are so many characters in the “Downton Abbey” franchise, here’s a handy guide of who’s who in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” and how their relationships affect each other:

The “Upstairs” People

  • Violet Crawley (played by Maggie Smith), also known as Violet Grantham (her maiden name) or Dowager Countess of Grantham. Violet is the widowed family matriarch. She is feisty, sarcastic and strong-willed when it comes to deciding the family’s power structure. Violet is the mother of two living children: son Robert and daughter Rosamund. Sir Marmaduke Painswick, one of Violet’s three children, is deceased and was never seen in the series.
  • Robert Crawley (played by Hugh Bonneville), 7th Earl of Grantham. Robert is Violet’s only living son. He is generally friendly but also very opinionated on how family matters should be handled.
  • Lady Rosamund Painswick (played by Samantha Bond), Violet’s other living child. Lady Rosamund usually defers to her mother and her brother, when it comes to major decisions for the family.
  • Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern), the Countess of Grantham. She is Robert’s kind, patient and dutiful wife. Robert and Cora are the parents of three daughters, one of whom is deceased.
  • Lady Mary Josephine Talbot (played by Michelle Dockery), previously known as Mary Crawley. Fair-minded and even-tempered, she is the eldest of Robert and Cora’s three daughters. In the “Downton Abbey” movie, Violet put Mary in charge of all Downton Abbey management decisions, but Mary struggles with having confidence in deciding what is best for Downton Abbey and the family. Mary experienced tragedy with the 1921 death of her first husband Matthew Crawley (played by Dan Stevens), who was a distant cousin. Matthew died in a car accident shortly after Mary gave birth to their son George Crawley (played by twins Oliver Barker and Zac Barker), born in 1921. In 1925, Mary wed her second husband Henry Talbot (played by Matthew Goode), who is not seen in “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” Henry is dashing and charming but often inattentive to his family because he frequently travels to attend car racing matches around the world. Mary says of Henry: “He’s in love with cars, speed and adventure.” Mary and Henry have a daughter together named Caroline Talbot (played by twins Bibi Burr and Olive Burr), who was born in 1926.
  • Lady Edith Pelham (played by Laura Carmichael), previously known as Edith Crawley), Marchioness of Hexham. She is the middle daughter of Robert and Cora. Edith is happily married and has been mainly preoccupied with raising children, after previous issues with conceiving. She is a journalist who still wants to continue her dream of owning and managing her own magazine. In late 1922 or early 1923, Edith gave birth to her daughter Marigold (played by twins Eva Samms and Karina Samms), whose biological father was The Sketch magazine editor Michael Gregson (played by Charles Edwards), whom Edith met when she wrote for the magazine. Edith and Michael were never married because he could not divorce his mentally ill wife. Michael died in 1923, during the Beer Hall Putch in Germany.
  • Herbert “Bertie” Pelham (played by Harry Hadden-Paton), 7th Marquess of Hexham, an amiable real-estate agent/military man. He is Edith’s second husband and the stepfather of Marigold. Bertie and Edith, who were wed on New Year’s Eve 1925, have a biological son together named Peter, who was born in 1927 or 1928.
  • Tom Branson (played by Allen Leech), an Irishman who used to be the Downton Abbey chauffeur, but he became part of the family when he married Sybil Crawley (played by Jessica Brown Findlay), Robert and Cora’s youngest daughter, who died from childbirth complications in 1920. Tom and Sybil’s daughter, born in 1920, is named Sybil “Sybbie” Branson (played by Fifi Hart).
  • Lucy Branson (played by Tuppence Middleton), Tom’s second wife, whom he began courting in the first “Downton Abbey” movie. Lucy is a former maid and formerly secret illegitimate daughter of Maud Bagshaw, who is a wealthy distant relative of the Crawleys. Maud has made Lucy the heir to Maud’s entire fortune. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” opens with the wedding of Tom and Lucy.
  • Maud Bagshaw (played by Imelda Staunton) is a steely socialite who has had a longstanding feud with Violet, because Violet thinks Maud should have made Violet son’s Robert the heir to Maud’s fortune, since Maud has no sons of her own. This feud reached a temporary halt when Lucy and Tom got married, since this marriage puts the Crawleys in close proximity to Lucy’s inheritance, because Robert’s granddaughter Sybbie is now Lucy’s stepdaughter.
  • Isobel Merton (played by Penelope Wilton), the droll-talking mother of the late Matthew Crawley. Isobel frequently trades sardonic barbs with Violet.
  • Lord Merton (played by Douglas Reith), Isobel’s laid-back second husband. He is usually a bystander in the family drama.

The “Downstairs” People

  • Thomas Barrow (played by Robert James-Collier), the Downton Abbey butler. He is somewhat rigid and uptight but not afraid to stand up for himself if he feels that he is being disrespected. Thomas is also a semi-closeted gay man. Only a few trusted people at Downton Abbey know about his true sexuality.
  • Daisy Parker (played by Sophie McShera), a Downton Abbey kitchen maid. She has a fun-loving and energetic personality. Daisy suffered a tragedy when her first husband William Mason (Thomas Howes), a second footman for the Downton Abbey family, died from World War I combat wounds.
  • Andy Parker (played by Michael Fox), the Downton Abbey second footman. Daisy and Andy fell in love and got married circa 1928. Andy is prone to get jealous and insecure, but Daisy likes that Andy is willing to go to extremes for their love.
  • Mr. Carson (played by Jim Carter), the on-again/off-again Downton Abbey butler. As the most experienced butler at Downton, he often sees himself as the unofficial leader of the staff, whether they want his advice or not.
  • Mrs. Hughes (played by Phyllis Logan), the Downtown Abbey head housekeeper, who is prim, proper, and frequently involved in keeping secrets to prevent Downton Abbey from being embroiled in scandals.
  • Mrs. Patmore (played by Lesley Nicol), the Downton Abbey chief cook. She has a no-nonsense attitude that keeps the other kitchen staff in check.
  • Mr. Bates (played by Brendan Coyle), the Downton Abbey valet. His arrogance sometimes alienates other members of the staff.
  • Anna Bates (played by Joanne Froggatt), wife of Mr. Bates and the maid to Lady Mary. She is generally well-liked but sometimes gets caught up in the Downton Abbey gossip.
  • Mr. Molesley, the aforementioned Downton Abbey valet who has a tendency to bumble and be socially awkward.
  • Phyllis Baxter (played by Raquel Cassidy), the lady’s maid for the Countess of Grantham. Phyllis and Mr. Molesley become each other’s love interest. “Downton Abbey: The Next Era” shows how far this romance goes.

The Newcomers

  • Jack Barber (played by Hugh Dancy), the director and producer of “The Gambler,” a drama film, set in 1875, about a seductive gambler who’s a con man and a heartbreaker.
  • Guy Dexter (played by Dominic West), the male titular star of “The Gambler.” Guy is charismatic, flirtatious, and might be secretly attracted to Barrow, the Downton Abbey butler.
  • Myrna Dalgleish (played by Laura Haddock), the female star of “The Gambler.” Myrna comes from a working-class background and has a thick Cockney accent. She is very conceited and rude to almost everyone.
  • Mr. Stubbins (played by Alex Macqueen), the sound engineer for “The Gambler.”
  • Montmirail (played by Jonathan Zaccaï), a French marquis from a wealthy family.
  • Madame de Montmirail (played by Nathalie Baye), Montmirail’s mistrusting mother.

It’s a lot of characters to take in for one movie, which is why viewers who know at least some basic “Downton Abbey” background will enjoy “Downton Abbey: A New Era” the most. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” also has two main storylines:

(1) British Lion Film Corp. Ltd. asks to film “The Gambler” at Downton Abbey for one month. Some members of the family think it would be crass and tacky to allow a movie to be made at their home, but Mary ultimately decides that the family could use the money to do extensive renovations at Downton Abbey, including the roof that has been leaking for years. After all, why use the family money for this refurbishing when it can be paid for by a movie studio?

“The Gambler” was originally going to be a silent film. However, the movie studio shuts down production of “The Gambler” because talking pictures are becoming popular. Mary comes up with the idea to make “The Gambler” a talking picture by dubbing in the audio with a separate recording.

However, Myrna’s speaking voice is considered too “low-class” and unacceptable for the role, and she says her lines of dialogue in a stiff and unnatural manner. A reluctant Mary is then recruited to be the speaking voice for Myrna’s character in “The Gambler.” Myrna predictably gets jealous. Most of the comedic scenes in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” revolve around the making of “The Gambler.”

(2) Violet finds out that she inherited a villa in the south of France from Montmirail’s marquis father, whom Violet spent just a few days with when she traveled to France as a young woman. This Montmirail widow is contesting this will and is threatening to take legal action against Violet. Robert, Cora, Edith, Bertie, Tom and Lucy all travel to France to meet the Montmirail widow and her son, to settle this matter, and to see the villa. Meanwhile, speculation abounds over why Violet got the inheritance. Was it because she and the marquis were secret lovers? Meanwhile, Violet is dealing with health issues that were mentioned in the first “Downton Abbey” movie.

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” keeps much of the snappy dialogue that’s characteristic of the “Downton Abbey” franchise, while the movie’s screenplay still maintains an air of intrigue and mystery of how the story is going to go. (Needless to say, the movie’s cinematography and production design are gorgeous.) And all of the cast members play their roles with considerable aplomb.

Violet, as usual, gets the best zingers. She’s one of the Crawley family members who is appalled that showbiz people have populated Downton Abbey to film “The Gambler.” Violet is particularly unimpressed with Myrna. Violet quips about Myrna: “She has all the charm of a verruca.” Violet also finds movies to be an uncultured form of entertainment. “I’d rather eat pebbles,” she says about watching movies.

If watching a film about stuffy British people and their servants isn’t something that you don’t want to spend two hours of your time doing, then anything to do with “Downton Abbey” is not for you. But if you want to see an intriguing and multilayered story about the dynamics between a complicated family, then “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is worth your time, especially if you know about who these characters are before watching the movie.

Focus Features will release “Downton Abbey: A New Era” in U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘The Duke’ (2021), starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren

May 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent in “The Duke” (Photo courtesy of Pathé UK/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Duke” (2021)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom cities of Newcastle and London, in 1961 and briefly in 1965, the dramatic film “The Duke” features a cast of nearly all-white characters (with one person of Pakistani heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An anti-establishment senior citizen, who is grieving over the years-ago death of his teenage daughter, pleads not guilty in his trial for stealing Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.

Culture Audience: “The Duke” will appeal primarily to people interested in old-fashioned but well-acted period dramas about feisty and opinionated British people that explore issues of rebelling against society and dealing with personal grief.

Fionn Whitehead and Jack Bandeira in “The Duke” (Photo by Nick Wall/Pathé UK/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Duke” is more than just a traditionally made movie about a man who goes on trial for stealing a valuable painting from London’s National Gallery. It’s also a witty and emotional drama about a family coping with grief. Based on a true story, “The Duke” is not as predictable as it might seem. The cast members greatly elevate the material, which might have become too lackluster or misguided with the wrong people cast in the roles.

Directed by Roger Michell (who passed away in 2021, at the age of 65), “The Duke” (which takes place in England, mostly in 1961) is really three stories in one, in telling what happened in the year of the life of 60-year-old Kempton Bunton (played Jim Broadbent) before, during and after he was put on trial for a famous art theft. The movie (written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman) focuses mostly on the “before” part of the story, which is somewhat a detriment to the flow of the narrative, which needed to give more screen time to the trial.

Kempton, who lives in Newcastle, is a spunky nonconformist with a keen sense of questioning government authority and wanting to be a champion for underdogs and underprivileged people. He is a taxi driver by trade, but early on in the story, he gets fired from his taxi job. On the day that Kempton gets fired, his no-nonsense supervisor Freda (played by Val McLane, in a scene-stealing cameo) starts off by telling Kempton that she’s been getting customer complaints that he talks too much. More importantly to the boss, Kempton has also been falling short of handing over the company’s commission for his taxi cash earnings. He’s not exactly accused of stealing, but Kempton’s excuses aren’t good explanations for the missing commission money.

Kempton mumbles something about how he took pity on a cab rider who couldn’t afford to pay the fare. Freda tells Kempton, “I might have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I’ve got the testicles of Henry VIII … I am running a taxi firm, not a charity!” When Freda decides to fire Kempton without paying him the salary that he’s owed, he disagrees with her, and she barks at him: “Sue me then. But fuck off first!”

Kempton’s loyal but frustrated wife Dorothy Bunton (played by Helen Mirren) has gotten fed up with Kempton’s erratic employment. Dorothy is essentially the main breadwinner for the household. She works as a housekeeper for a wealthy middle-aged couple, whose husband is a prominent doctor in the area. Kempton and Dorothy have two sons, both in their 20s.

Younger son Jackie (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is kind and obedient, works as a boat repairer/builder at a shipyard, and he lives with Kempton and Dorothy. Jackie has a crush on a young woman who’s close to his age named Irene Boslover (played by Aimée Kelly), and they have a sweet romance that starts off a little hesitantly, because Jackie is shy when it comes to dating. Jackie greatly admires his eccentric father Kempton, but Dorothy worries that Jackie will be influenced too much by Kempton’s disruptor ways.

Older son Kenny (played by Jack Bandeira), who is rebellious and outspoken, no longer lives with his parents. Kenny is involved in shady and illegal activities that he won’t discuss with his family. And much to Dorothy’s disapproval, Kenny plans to start living with his lover Pamela (played by Charlotte Spencer), nicknamed Pammy, who is legally married but separated from her husband. When Kenny and Pamela visit his parents, it leads to arguments and hard feelings between Kenny and his mother Dorothy.

Kempton and Dorothy are parents to a third child—a daughter named Marian—who died in 1948, at the age 18. She was killed in a car accident while riding a bicycle that Kempton gave her as a gift. Kempton feels tremendous guilt over Marian’s death and visits her grave on a regular basis. Kempton also likes to talk about Marian and reminisce about happy memories that he has of her.

By contrast, Dorothy refuses to discuss Marian and her death. She treats Marian’s death as if it’s a closed door that she doesn’t ever want to open again. She won’t even visit Marian’s grave. Because Kempton and Dorothy have handled Marian’s death in extremely different ways, it’s caused a strain in their marriage.

Kempton has written a drama manuscript, inspired by Marian, called “The Girl on a Bicycle” that he hopes will be produced for television. Later in the movie, Dorothy is horrified when she finds out about this manuscript. “Grief is private!” Dorothy gruffly tells Kempton.

One day, Kempton watches the TV news and sees a report announcing that the National Gallery in London has purchased a Francisco Goya portrait painting of the Duke of Wellington, also known as former U.K. prime minister Arthur Wellesley. The painting is worth £140,000 in 1961 money. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about £267 million in early 2020s money. Kempton scoffs at the extravagant purchase, because he thinks the U.K. government could have put the money to better use.

Kempton is more than a little irritated about it. In a typical Kempton Bunton comment, he remarks to Dorothy about the National Gallery’s purchase of this painting: “You know what’s going on here. Toffs looking after their own. Spending our hard-earned money on a half-baked board rate, by some Spanish drunk, of a duke who was a bastard to his men and was against universal suffrage.” The irony of this comment is that Kempton has not paid his taxes in years.

Later, Kempton goes to London, in an attempt to get media and government attention for his quest to make TV in the United Kingdom free for old age pensioners (OAPs), who are usually on a fixed and limited income. While in London, he sees a newspaper article about the painting where the National Gallery has issued this invitation to visitors who want to see the Duke of Wellington painting: “Line up to meet the Duke!”

And not long after that, the painting is stolen and hidden in the Bunton household. It’s the first time that any art has been stolen from the National Gallery. (And to this day, it remains the only major theft that the National Gallery has experienced.) An anonymous ransom note written and mailed by Kempton announces that the painting is being held “hostage” until the U.K. government agrees to give £140,000 (the price paid for the painting) to worthy causes supporting the elderly and military veterans.

Police commissioner Sir Joseph Simpson (played by Charles Edwards) leads the investigation, but “The Duke” predictably has two bumbling police detectives—DI (Detective Inspector) Macpherson (played by Dorian Lough) and DI Brompton (played by Sam Swansbury)—who do a lot of the grunt work. Commissioner Simpson has a public relations role of giving updates to the media about the investigation. He seems to want all the publicity and glory for solving the case.

The police make the mistake of dismissing the correct suspect profile that a handwriting expert named Dr. Unsworth (played by Sian Clifford) deduced from studying the ransom note and figuring out what type of person wrote it. These detectives are convinced by their own theory that the painting was stolen by an unknown sophisticated gang from another nation, probably from Italy. The detectives also say amongst themselves that a woman who’s a handwriting expert could not possibly know more than these experienced cops.

Through a series of events that won’t be revealed in this review, the painting is discovered in the Bunton house. It’s enough to say that Kempton decides to turn himself in and admit that he “borrowed” the painting, to point out wasteful government spending and to demand that the U.K. government invest in better care for the elderly and military veterans. He pleads not guilty to the theft. None of this is spoiler information, because the movie’s trailer already reveals that Kempton goes on trial for stealing the painting.

Kempton’s trial doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Kempton’s defense attorney Jeremy Hutchinson (played by Matthew Goode) sometimes clashes with Kempton behind the scenes, but they both want to win the case. And so, Kempton and Jeremy find some common ground of agreement. The story has a real-life plot twist revealed in the movie’s last 15 minutes, which show how far Kempton is willing to go to stand by his beliefs, even if it’s at great personal risk to himself.

With a working-class man in his 60s as the protagonist, “The Duke” is the type of British drama movie that doesn’t get made very much anymore. Dorothy is a formidable and strong-willed person in this story (and Mirren performs well in the role, as expected), but she’s really a supporting character who reacts to whatever chaos Kempton has created. Broadbent brings roguish charm to this role, and his performance (which is both amusing and heartbreaking) is the main reason to see this film.

“The Duke” is not perfect by any means. The movie takes a little too long to get to the trial, which is somewhat crammed in toward the end of the film. There are several scenes that over-explain how Kempton has trouble keeping a job because of his tendency to question authority. And there’s a repeated cycle of Dorothy getting upset by Kempton’s mischief, and Kempton promising that he won’t cause any more problems and won’t keep secrets from her. And then, he inevitably breaks his promise.

As an example of Kempton’s unstable employment, there’s a section of the movie showing Kempton in a job as an assembly line worker at a bread factory. He befriends a Pakistani co-worker named Javid Akram (played by Ashley Kumar), who is the only employee in that department who isn’t white. Kempton eventually gets fired for standing up to his racist boss Mr. Walker (played by Craig Conway), who bullies Javid by calling him a racial slur and singling him out for unfair treatment.

“The Duke” also tends to be a little too repetitive with Kempton’s bootlegging of the ITV network (which, unlike the BBC, requires payment to receive) on the TV set in his household’s living room. He tries to dodge the authorities he encounters who attempt to fine him for non-payment, but he eventually spends 13 jays in jail when he gets into a scuffle over it. During his ongoing dispute over this issue, Kempton stages protests on the street with “Free TV for OAP” signs, with Jackie recruited as Kempton’s protest companion. Most people who pass Kempton and Jackie on the street just don’t care—and neither will viewers after a while, since the stolen painting is the more interesting part of the movie.

When Kempton’s legal entanglements make the news, Dorothy is embarrassed, makes profuse apologies to her employer Dolly Gowling (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and promises that she’s not as “unstable” has her husband. Mrs. Gowling, who is married to a difficult and domineering man, has empathy for Kempton. Because she is a supporter of Kempton’s anti-establishment ways, Mrs. Gowling attends his trial as an eager spectator.

Any supporting characters outside of Dorothy and Jackie tend to be drawn in broad strokes that are a little stereotypical. They include the “law and order” characters, such as the aforementioned main detectives; Judge Aarvold (played by James Wilby); prosecutor Edward Cussen (played by John Heffernan); and junior counsel Eric Crowther (played by Joshua McGuire), who works with Jeremy on Kempton’s defense team. Despite some of these narrative flaws, “The Duke” has enough amusing banter, heartfelt moments and well-played scenes to hold the interest of people who are open to watching movies set in 1960s England and that have a retro filmmaking style that matches this era.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Duke” in select U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie was released in Canada and Australia in 2021, and in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Cow’ (2022), starring Luma

May 1, 2022

by Carla Hay

Luma in “Cow” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Cow” (2022)

Directed by Andrea Arnold

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the documentary film “Cow” features a cast of white people who are farm employees (and secondary characters) in this non-fiction film about a cow named Luma, who lives on a farm.

Culture Clash: The ups and downs of Luma’s life are documented, as she gives birth to two female calves that are taken away from her soon after she gives birth to them. 

Culture Audience: “Cow” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing what life is like for a cow on a farm, no matter how uncomfortable it might be to watch.

Luma in “Cow” (Photo by Kate Kirkwood/IFC Films)

“Cow” is not always an easy documentary to watch, because it shows the often-harsh realities of being a cow on a farm. The starkness of this reality is fascinating because it can be heartwarming in some ways and disturbing in other ways. Directed in an unfussy style by Andrea Arnold, “Cow” was filmed at a place in England called Park Farm, and the movie focuses on a black-and-white cow named Luma. The documentary does not have an obvious agenda for people to become vegans or vegetarians. Instead, the movie’s intent is to reveal what a typical cow goes through on a farm, and for viewers think about it when it comes to choices in the food that we eat.

“Cow,” which had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, might get some comparisons to “Gunda,” another cinéma vérité-styled documentary about farm animals in Europe. “Gunda” (which was filmed in Norway) focused on a pig named Gunda, along with her piglets and some of the farm’s cows and chickens. The ending of “Cow” is a lot more impactful than the ending of “Gunda.”

Realistically, the consumption of meat is big business that won’t be going away anytime soon. “Cow” also doesn’t try to present Luma in a cutesy way to make her look as human as possible. When the camera shows Luma bleating when she has a newborn calf taken away from her soon after giving birth the calf, viewers can certainly think that she’s crying out in distress. There are also moments when Luma’s eyes can be interpreted as showing emotions that humans have, such as fear, sadness, joy or contentment.

“Cow” does not pass judgment on what Luma might or might not be thinking. It’s a true cinéma vérité documentary that chronicles what happens in an observational style, without adding any narration, interviews or other commentary. The only dialogue heard in the film is background talk from the farm employees, who are not identified by name in the movie. The farm employees shown in the documentary are a mixture of middle-aged men, young men and young women.

It’s during one of these snippets of conversation toward the end of the film that viewers find out that Luma is a not a young cow. One of the farm employees can be heard saying that Luma is getting old, and that the older Luma has gotten, the more protective she’s been of her children. Nothing else about Luma’s background, including her age, is revealed in the movie. Based on the farm routine, these children are taken away from her almost as soon as she gives birth to them. The farm employees feed the calves with bottles containing Luma’s milk until the calves are old enough to be weaned away from the milk.

Luma is shown given birth twice in the movie. The birthing is done with the assistance of farm employees. Both of her calves are female. The first one is mostly white. The other is nearly all black. Luma barely has time to bond with them before the calves are taken away to a separate fenced-in area where Luma cannot see them. Sensitive viewers should be warned that there are scenes where Luma appears to be in distress because she’s calling out for her children. It’s all open to interpretation, but that’s what it looks like.

“Cow” also has footage of the mundane routine of Luma and other cows being milked in a dark, warehouse-styled part of the farm, where milking tubes are attached to the cows’ udders, as the cows stand in cramped stalls. It’s literally a dirty job, because this milking facility has floors usually covered with mud. None of this footage should be surprising to people who know that most of the milk consumed by humans is cow milk.

Sometimes when they work, the farm employees also like to listen to pop music, which can be heard in the background. Songs in the documentary include Billie Eilish’s “Lovely,” Soak’s “Everybody Lives You,” Mabel’s “Mad Love” and the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” Some of the pop music that’s upbeat is in marked contrast to the dismal scenes of cows and steers being penned up in dark and dirty rooms and/or they are confined in areas where they barely have space to walk around. The cows and steers on this farm aren’t treated like this all the time, but there’s enough shown where it’s obvious they spend many hours of each day in these living conditions.

Luma shows flashes of her personality in how she greets some of the other cows. Her social and friendly nature is most evident in the happiest parts of the movie, when the cows are allowed to roam free in a field, under the supervision of the farm employees. Many of cows, including Luma, gleefully run and frolic in the field. There are also scenes of them lounging in the fields, much like how people lounge on a beach. Luma occasionally stops to nudge and rub against her fellow cattle and let out the occasional “moo,” as if she’s saying hello to them.

One of the funniest parts of the movie is a “courtship” scene where a big black steer is put in a fenced-in area at night to be alone with Luma. The two of them are alone because the farm employees want the steer to impregnant Luma. It just so happens that fireworks are going off in the sky at that time.

The steer approaches Luma by gently licking her on her back (you can call it “cattle foreplay”) and then mounting her, as the fireworks crackle in the distant sky. It’s unclear if that encounter is the one that led to Luma getting pregnant. But by the time the movie shows her giving birth to the second calf, it’s implied that the black steer is the father.

People watching “Cow” will have varying degrees of emotions, depending on how viewers might feel about eating meat and how people feel about farms where most animals are raised for the sole purpose of being killed for their meat. Fortunately, the documentary does not have any scenes of animals being beaten or mass slayings of animals. And the farm employees, especially the women, talk in friendly tones to Luma and the other cattle when they have to herd them or get the animals to do certain things.

However, the cramped and dirty conditions in which these animals live for most of their existence will upset some viewers who don’t want to see images of this depressing reality. The ending of “Cow” is intended to be a massive jolt to viewers. It serves as an uncomfortable reminder that livestock animals on farms are treated as business products, not pets.

IFC Films released “Cow” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 8, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Barbarians’ (2022), starring Iwan Rheon and Catalina Sandino Moreno

April 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Iwan Rheon and Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Barbarians” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Barbarians” (2022)

Directed by Charles Dorfman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Surrey, England, the horror film film “Barbarians” features a cast of nearly all-white characters (with one Latina) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four people who are gathered for a dinner party have their party interrupted by home invaders. 

Culture Audience: “Barbarians” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching an unimaginative and dull horror movie that has too many boring conversations and not enough scares.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Tom Cullen, Iwan Rheon, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Inès Spiridonov in “Barbarians” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Barbarians” is being marketed as a horror movie about a home invasion. It’s actually a tedious 90-minute movie about an annoying dinner party, with the formulaic home invasion happening only in the last 30 minutes. There’s no good excuse for why the movie drags on and on in showing nothing but the dinner party hosts and their relationship issues before and during this dreadfully boring dinner party. It all just comes down to a horror movie being lazy and unimaginative.

Written and directed by Charles Dorfman, “Barbarians” (which takes place during a 24-hour period in Surrey, England) wastes a lot of time showing the movie’s central couple’s relationship conflicts and some background about the home that they have recently purchased. Adam Davies (played by Iwan Rheon) is a movie director who’s frustrated because his career has stalled. His partner Eva Velasquez (played by Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a world-renowned artist whose specialty is making large sculptures. Adam and Eva, who are both in their late 30s to early 40s, are not married and have been together for an untold number of years.

Adam and Eva have recently moved into a housing property development called The Gateway, which has been designed to be a progressive community of homes for like-minded creative people and other “hipsters.” A massive stone sculpture made by Eva is at the center of the property. It’s an avant-garde eyesore that’s being touted as “bespoke sculpture.”

Real-estate developer Lucas Hunt (played by Tom Cullen) has sold Adam and Eva a house in The Gateway. Lucas hopes to sell more housing units, so he has made a promotional video that he has posted on the Internet. The opening scene of “Barbarians” is a clip from this slick promotional video, where Lucas has the tone of an infomercial hack.

In this video, Lucas talks about how The Gateway got its name from a famous stone on the land called Gaeta (which is Gaelic for “gateway”), which has “attracted people far and wide with its mystery, its magic, its power. They come to celebrate the solstice as a way of marking the transition from one season to another.” Eva’s sculpture adorning the property is meant to resemble the Gaeta stone. Lucas mentions that the land where The Gateway is located had been owned for generations by a family with the last name Wickes.

Lucas says in the video that he worked out a deal with the Wickes family to sell the property to him, by assuring the family that for this land “steeped in history,” he would be “respecting its past to create something truly special.” As if to prove that he had the Wickes family’s blessing, the video includes Lucas posing for a photo with family patriarch Alan Wickes (played by Kevin Ryan) and Alan’s three sons: John (played by Will Kemp), Dan (played by Connor Swindells) and Neil (played by Tommy McDonnell). Everyone is smiling and seeming to be on good terms with other.

There’s a pointless part of the movie about a wounded fox that Adam finds outside on the property, because the fox got caught in some fence wire. When Adam approaches the fox to try to help it, the fox snarls and snaps at him, so Adam backs off. Later, the fox mysteriously shows up on the kitchen floor in Adam and Eva’s house.

Dan Wickes just happens to be there, and he covers the wounded fox with a jacket and kills it with no hesitation. The killing of this fox really has no bearing on the story, except to show that Dan can get violent (even in a “mercy killing” of an animal), and Adam feels emasculated in his own home because Dan acted in a “macho” way to kill the fox. Adam also thinks that Dan flirts inappropriately with Eva, but she denies it.

Adam’s birthday happens around the same time that he and Eva have moved into their new home, so Adam and Eva are throwing a small dinner party to celebrate. Their only guests at this party are Lucas and his actress girlfriend Chloe (played by Inès Spiridonov), who has been in a relationship with Lucas for an unnamed period of time. “Barbarians” (which is writer/director Dorfman’s feature-film directorial debut) is a poorly made movie that skips over a lot of character development. All four of these characters come across very shallow and often self-absorbed, with unremarkable acting from all of the movie’s cast members.

The main thing that viewers will learn about Adam and Eva before this dinner party happens is that Eva wants to start a family with Adam, who is more reluctant about the idea of being a parent at this point in his life. Adam seems to want to wait until he has a more stable income. Eva is frustrated by his hesitation, so she tells Adam that if he’s not ready to have a family with her, he needs to be up front and tell her. Adam says he’s sorry and tells Eva that he’s committed to her and will go with what she wants.

The dinner party is just more irksome relationship drama, with Adam and Lucas acting like immature rivals. Adam feels like an insecure “beta male” because he thinks “alpha male” Lucas is trying to make flirtatious moves on Eva. That seems to be a pattern of jealousy that Adam has when another man is interacting with Eva. Lucas thinks Adam is kind of a wimp. Lucas tells Adam to hit Lucas. Adam doesn’t punch Lucas but slaps him instead, so Lucas calls Adam a “pussy.”

And it should come as no surprise that some secrets, lies and betrayals are revealed during this dinner party. The identities of the home invaders (who war animal skull masks) and the reason for the home invasion are so obvious, this movie has no real suspense or mystery. By the time the horribly staged home invasion happens during the dinner party, viewers will feel like “Barbarians” invited people to a horror movie, but instead offered a time-wasting void of monotonous and forgettable drivel.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Barbarians” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Mothering Sunday,’ starring Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Glenda Jackson, Olivia Colman and Colin Firth

April 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Odessa Young and Josh O’Connor in “Mothering Sunday” (Photo by Jamie D. Ramsay/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Mothering Sunday”

Directed by Eva Husson

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of England from 1918 through the 1980s, the dramatic film “Mothering Sunday” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A woman’s journey as a maid and as a successful author are shown at various points in her life, which includes impactful love affairs that she had with two very different men.

Culture Audience: “Mothering Sunday” will appeal primarily to people interested in artsy British movies that have very good acting but with slow pacing that might frustrate some viewers.

Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Odessa Young in “Mothering Sunday” (Photo by Robert Viglasky/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Mothering Sunday” can be too pretentious for its own good, but the cast members’ thoughtful performances enrich the quality of this slow-paced film. Viewers must also be willing to tolerate the movie’s non-chronological storytelling of love, tragedy and hope. Because the movie’s story spans several decades (from 1918 to the 1980s) and has a timeline that jumps all over the place, “Mothering Sunday” requires a viewer’s full attention to keep track of which period of time is happening for the film’s protagonist in her youth.

Directed by Eva Husson, “Mothering Sunday” (which takes place in unnamed parts of England) touches on issues of upward mobility, inner turmoil, and how social class affects the decisions people make in love and marriage. Alice Birch adapted the “Mothering Sunday” screenplay from Graham Swift’s 2016 novel of the same name. “Mothering Sunday” made the rounds at several major festivals in 2021, including the Cannes Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the Toronto International Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival. Cinematically, the movie is sumptuous to look at, but following the story will test the patience of people with short attention spans or those who have no interest in British period dramas.

“Mothering Sunday” depicts parts of the adult life of Jane Fairchild, who goes from being a maid to becoming an award-winning, famous author whose specialty is fiction writing. That transformation isn’t shown right away, as Jane’s life is revealed in scenes that can best be compared to a patchwork quilt. Most of the movie shows Jane in her 20s (played by Odessa Young) in the 1920s, while there are a few, very brief scenes of Jane in her 80s (played by Glenda Jackson) in the 1980s. Jackson’s scenes as Jane get only about five minutes of screen time in the movie. “Mothering Sunday” only shows Jane in these two decades.

The story is told in a non-linear way in the movie, but there are visual clues (such as Jane’s hairstyles) to show what period of time in her life is being depicted in each scene of her youth. It’s eventually revealed that Jane is an orphan who has no known relatives. She was abandoned by her single mother at an orphanage when she was a baby or a toddler. Jane’s childhood is never really shown or explained in great detail, but she’s grown up to be an introverted loner.

Somehow, when Jane was in her late teens in 1918, she ended up working as a house maid for a wealthy married couple named Godfrey Niven (played by Colin Firth) and Clarrie Niven (played by Olivia Colman), who live on an estate called Beachwood House. Much of the movie takes place in 1924, when Jane has been employed by the Nivens for six years. At this point in her life, Jane doesn’t see herself as being anything but part of society’s working class, until she has a forbidden love affair that changes her life.

This romance is the catalyst for much of what happens in the story and why Jane decides to transform herself into becoming a writer. The man whom she falls in love with is Paul Sheringham (played by Tom O’Connor), the son of wealthy spouses Mr. and Mrs. Sheringham (played by Craig Crosbie and Emily Woof), who don’t have first names in the movie. In 1924, Paul is in law school but he’s not particularly passionate about becoming an attorney. He’s chosen this profession because it’s expected of him.

Paul’s two older brothers Dick and Freddy no longer live in the family mansion. “Mothering Sunday” opens with a voiceover narration that essentially tells that the Niven family and Sheringham family have both experienced the tragic deaths of their young adult sons. World War I is one reason, but there are other reasons for these untimely deaths. Jane can be heard saying, “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed,” as a horse is shown running in an open field.

Paul can then be heard telling Jane that his family used to own a thoroughbred racing horse named Fandango. Paul says there was a family joke about the horse where “Ma and Pa owned the head and the body. Dick, Freddy and I had a leg each.” Jane then asks, “What about the fourth leg?” Paul replies, “Ah, the fourth leg. That was always the question, Jane.” Toward the end of the movie, this fourth leg is mentioned again in a way that will either make viewers roll their eyes in ridicule or possibly bring viewers to tears.

The title of “Mothering Sunday” comes from a pivotal Mothering Sunday (the British version of Mother’s Day) in 1924. Godfrey (who is kind, respectful and optimistic) generously decides to give Jane the day off from work, even though she doesn’t have a mother in her life, and Jane isn’t a mother. Jane’s closest female friend is the Niven family cook: Milly (played by Patsy Ferran), who has a bubbly personality but is a little shy when it comes to dating and romance. Milly and Jane spend part of this day off together.

It just so happens that on this day, Paul will have the mansion all to himself. And so, he calls the Niven home, knowing that Jane will answer the phone, to tell her to come over so they can have a sexual tryst. Jane pretends it’s a wrong number when Clarrie asks who called. The movie never details how long Paul and Jane have been having these secret hookups, but there’s a flashback scene that shows the day that Paul and Jane met, which was in 1918, shortly after she began working for the Niven family.

Paul and Jane tell each other that they are each other’s best friend. They’re keeping their romance a secret not just because they come from different social classes but also because Paul is expected to marry someone in his social circle: a spoiled heiress named Emma Hobday (played by Emma D’Arcy), whose parents—Giles Hobday (played by Simon Shepherd) and Sylvia Hobday (played by Caroline Harker)—are good friends of the Sheringham spouses and the Niven spouses. Paul doesn’t love Emma, but he feels obligated to marry her to please both sets of parents and to produce heirs from this marriage.

The Niven spouses have a tension-filled marriage because Clarrie is in a deep depression over the death of her son James, who was nearly engaged to Emma before James was tragically killed in combat during World War I. James and Paul were close friends, so Paul opens up a little bit to Jane about how James’ death affected him. Emma’s thoughts about James’ death are never shown in the movie, which portrays Emma as one-dimensional and someone who pouts a lot.

Clarrie’s grief sometimes comes out in angry spurts. She often acts irritable with her husband Godfrey and insults him in public. When she’s not acting cranky and annoyed with the world, Clarrie is withdrawn and quiet. Clarrie also acts resentful if she sees other people being what she thinks is being too happy for her comfort level. However, there’s a pivotal moment between Clarrie and Jane later in the movie that shows Clarrie’s hostile exterior is really just a mask for being heartbroken. This moment between Clarrie and Jane is one of the best scenes in “Mothering Sunday.”

Fans of Oscar-winning Colman and Firth might be disappointed to know that Colman and Firth don’t have as much screen time in “Mothering Sunday” as their top billing would suggest. Firth and Colman are each in the movie for about 15 minutes. However, they make the most of their screen time in portraying these contrasting and conflicted spouses.

Jane and Paul’s secret love affair is about more than just sex. They connect on an intellectual level. Jane loves to read and often sneaks into the Niven family library to read their books. Paul and Jane also bond on an emotional level, because they both feel like misfits in their environment, where they are expected to live a certain way because of society’s stereotypes for people of certain social classes.

Although there are full-frontal nude scenes (male and female) in “Mothering Sunday,” they are more about natural intimacy than eroticism. The sex scenes are actually very tame, but the full-frontal nudity is the adult-oriented content that will make parents of underage children decide if they think if it’s appropriate for their children to watch this movie. It’s implied throughout “Mothering Sunday” that Paul is Jane’s first true love.

Viewers can speculate that the movie has more male nudity than female nudity because “Mother Sunday” has a “female gaze” from a woman director. However, it can just as easily be interpreted that because these trysts happen in the Sheringham home, Paul simply feels more comfortable walking around fully naked in family house. In comparison, Jane is a little more guarded because she would suffer worse consequences than Paul if she and Paul got caught.

On the Mothering Sunday that changes Jane’s life, Paul has decided to have a tryst with Jane while Emma, his parents and Emma’s parents are waiting for him to arrive at a luncheon that all six of them are supposed to have together. Paul is going to the luncheon, but he knows he’s going to be late. What happens that day is revealed slowly revealed in flashbacks.

“Mothering Sunday” doesn’t handle the transition very well in showing Jane’s life after she decides to become a professional writer. The introduction to this part of her life is non-chronological and it’s rushed into the movie in an abrupt manner. It’s in this part of Jane’s life that she is involved in another meaningful love affair.

His name is Donald (played by Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), and he is also a published author. When Donald and Jane first met (which is shown in a flashback scene), she hadn’t yet become a professional writer. She was working in a bookstore, he was a customer, and they had an instant rapport. Jane and Donald are both loyal and supportive partners to each other. In contrast to Jane’s secretive relationship with Paul, the relationship between Donald and Jane is out in the open. However, the movie never addresses the fact that Jane and Donald are in an interracial relationship in the 1920s.

This lack of acknowledgement of this couple’s racial differences implies that they are living in a part of England where interracial relationships were more accepted than in other parts of England. Still, it does come across as very phony and willfully ignorant that the movie never shows Donald and Jane experiencing or talking about any prejudice from other people because of the couple’s interracial relationship. Even in the most open-minded and progressive areas of England, a black man and a white woman in a romantic relationship would still cause problems for this type of interracial couple in the 1920s.

There are other large gaps in Jane’s life that aren’t adequately explained. Viewers never get to see if Jane went through any struggles as a writer before she had her first book published. Donald and Jane’s courtship is also a big mystery. The movie jumps from Donald and Jane being close to getting married, to a flashback scene to how they met, to Donald proposing marriage and Jane’s response.

Throughout this movie’s very messy and haphazard timeline, Young gives a consistently transfixing performance as Jane, who is an interesting contrast of being verbally articulate yet hard-to-read with her inner emotions. O’Connor also handles his role with aplomb to show that Paul is not just another spoiled rich kid, although Paul sometimes acts that way. Dìrísù doesn’t have much to do in the movie, because Donald is a very underdeveloped character.

Viewers might be bored with a lot of characters in “Mothering Sunday,” but Jane remains an interesting enigma whose life journey can inspire a lot of curiosity. Jane has been taught for most of her life to repress her emotions, so when she discovers that she is an artist who wants to express her emotions through her writing, it’s a metamorphosis that is thrilling to behold. And most audiences will be rooting for an orphan who grew up not knowing any parental love and is trying to find true love and a family of her own.

Unfortunately, because the movie frequently interrupts itself with flashbacks, viewers of “Mothering Sunday” never get a full picture of Jane blossoming as an artist. She’s certainly someone who has a lot of things that happen to her, but there should have been more in the movie that showed Jane being more of an active doer in her life, instead of someone passively reacting to whatever life threw her way. Someone like Jane doesn’t become a famous and highly respected author just by “luck.”

“Mothering Sunday” has a lot of scenes of people smoking cigarettes as they look out windows or stare off into space, looking pensive or worried. It’s not a movie that presents the story in a particularly exciting or straightforward way. But for people who like emotional nuance and characters that are like puzzles to be solved, there’s plenty to appreciate about “Mothering Sunday.” Just make sure you watch the movie when there’s very little chance that you’ll fall asleep, because a lot of how this story is presented can be snoozeworthy.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Mothering Sunday” in select U.S. cinemas on March 25, 2022. The movie’s release expanded in the U.S. on April 8, 2022. “Mothering Sunday” was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe in 2021.

Review: ‘All My Friends Hate Me,’ starring Tom Stourton, Charly Clive, Georgina Campbell, Antonia Clarke, Joshua McGuire, Graham Dickson and Christopher Fairbank

April 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Georgina Campbell, Graham Dickson, Tom Stourton, Antonia Clarke and Joshua McGuire in “All My Friends Hate Me” (Photo by Ben Moulden/Super LTD)

“All My Friends Hate Me”

Directed by Andrew Gaynord

Culture Representation: Taking place in Devon, England, the comedy/drama “All My Friends Hate Me” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: For his 32nd birthday, a man reunites with some of his former college friends at a remote estate in the country, and he is plagued with a nagging suspicion that they are conspiring to make him miserable.

Culture Audience: “All My Friends Hate Me” will appeal primarily to people interested in dark comedies/drama that are intended to keep viewers on edge and feeling uncomfortable.

Tom Stourton in “All My Friends Hate Me” (Photo by Ben Moulden/Super LTD)

Deliberately unnerving, “All My Friends Hate Me” taps into people’s insecurities and paranoia that friends can become enemies. Just like the movie’s protagonist, this dark comedy/drama is both fascinating and annoying. The story goes off the rails into incoherence more than a few times, but viewers might remain interested out of curiosity to see how the movie ends.

Directed by Andrew Gaynord, “All My Friends Hate Me” was filmed on location in Devon, England. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. There’s a very British sensibility to this movie that benefits the story, since British comedy is often about cutting down people who think too highly of themselves.

“All My Friends Hate Me” is told from the perspective of a neurotic man named Pete (played by Tom Stourton), who has a very tension-filled reunion with some of his former college friends for his 32nd birthday. Stourton and Tom Palmer co-wrote the screenplay for “All My Friends Hate Me.” The reunion takes place over a few days, mostly at a place called Cleve Hill Manor, which is in a remote part of the country. The real-life mansion location is actually called Sidbury Manor.

Pete and his university friends come from very privileged backgrounds. For an unnamed period of time, Pete has been working in a refugee camp in an unnamed country. Throughout the movie Pete and his friends show varying levels of elitism, as well as attempts to identify with or interact with less privileged people.

Within these social constructs, Pete feels his own level of discomfort that his friends secretly look down on him because he doesn’t have a high income and spends a lot of time with underprivileged people. However, in the beginning of the movie, Pete is in good spirits, as he travels by himself in his car to the mansion, where his pals have gathered to celebrate his birthday. Pete hasn’t seen these friends in years, but he expects that they will pick up right where they left off, with a lot of good will and positive camaraderie. Pete is about to find out that this assumption is very wrong.

The people who are in this party and who stay overnight at the mansion are:

  • George (played by Joshua McGuire), whose father owns the mansion, but George is the one in the family who spends the most time there, and he oversees the manor’s upkeep. It was George’s idea to throw this birthday party for Pete at the mansion. It’s unclear if George has a profession, but it’s implied that he’s living off of his family’s wealth.
  • Fig (played by Georgina Campbell), George’s wife, who is as status-conscious and self-assured as George is. Fig and George began dating each other when they were in college, and they appear to be happily married.
  • Archie (played by Graham Dickson), a goofy 31-year-old bachelor who is an aspiring entrepreneur. Archie can be socially awkward and has a habit of sometimes saying and doing inappropriate things.
  • Claire (played by Antonia Clarke), an introverted painter artist, who had a fling with Pete when they were in college. Claire was reportedly heartbroken when their would-be romance ended, but she’s decided to stay on friendly terms with Pete.
  • Harry (played by Dustin Demri-Burns), a scruffy and crude 40-year-old country local whom George met at a pub shortly before Pete arrived. George impulsively invited Harry to be a guest at the party after seeing Harry challenging local farmers to rap battles in the pub.
  • Sonia (played by Charly Clive), Pete’s girlfriend, who arrives separately and much later than everyone else at the party. It’s briefly mentioned that Sonia didn’t travel with Pete because of her job commitments.

On his way to the manor, Pete gets lost and asks an elderly man on the road for directions. The man isn’t very friendly and doesn’t seem impressed when Pete says that he’s going to the mansion for his birthday party. Pete is starting to feel anxious because he’s running late.

When Pete arrives at the mansion, he is warmly greeted by friends. When he tells his friends about the strange and unfriendly old man he encountered on the road, Pete is embarrassed to see that the man is standing behind him. His name is Norman (played by Christopher Fairbank), and he’s one of the mansion’s servants. Norman isn’t in the movie much, but his employee role is mostly being a butler.

Not long after Pete arrives for this party, Archie tells Pete that George’s birthday party invitation was a joke. Pete believes Archie, until Archie laughs and confesses that the real joke is that Archie was telling a lie about the party invitation being a prank. It’s the start of Pete feeling unnerved by not knowing what might be sarcastic jokes from the people at this gathering, or what might be genuine attempts to humiliate him.

When Pete and Claire see each other, they catch up on what’s been going on in each other’s lives. In a self-deprecating manner, Claire says that she’s just a “stupid posh girl painting portraits of other posh people.” Pete seems very pleased with himself that he’s do-gooder for charity in his refugee work, but no one else in this group really wants to hear the details of what Pete does in his job.

Claire isn’t Pete’s only past romantic entanglement from his university days. In a private conversation between Pete and Fig, he reminds Fig that they had had a kissing makeout session once when they were college students. Fig says that she doesn’t remember it. This scene is one of many instances in the movie where viewers are supposed to wonder if Pete’s perspective and memories are entirely reliable.

In a separate private conversation between Pete and George, Pete tells George that he plans to propose marriage to Sonia during an upcoming trip to Paris. George seems happy for Pete, but he warns Pete not to tell Claire, because Claire is “still a bit in love with you.” Pete and Sonia met and started dating each other long after his fling with Claire ended. However, during the course of the movie, Pete worries about if or when he should tell Sonia about his past fling with Claire.

Meanwhile, Pete becomes more and more annoyed that Harry has been invited to this party, as Pete begins to suspect that Harry is up to no good and is targeting Pete in particular. The tension between Pete and Harry begins when Pete finds out that he and Harry have adjoining rooms, and Harry has a tendency to invade Pete’s personal space. For example, when Pete is taking a bath, Harry has no qualms about walking into the bathroom, taking off all of his clothes, and walking around naked in front of Pete.

During a group dinner, Harry makes Pete even more uncomfortable with his weird and offbeat jokes. Archie babbles on about an app he’s developing to connect wealthy travelers who want to do things such as jet skiing while chasing whales. When Pete comments that that the app sounds super-elitist, Archie then states what he thinks is the purpose of the app being exclusive to wealthy people: “At least you’re not having your holiday ruined by some random peaz [short for peasant].”

Pete somewhat lectures Archie to be “more aware” of who’s in the room when Archie talks like a classist snob. Without saying Harry’s name out loud, Pete is implying that Harry is presumably working-class and might be offended by Archie’s derogatory attitude about people who aren’t rich and privileged. However, Pete’s assumption is somewhat classist in and of itself.

Even though Harry doesn’t dress in designer clothes, and he was hanging out at a local pub with working-class people, that doesn’t automatically mean anyone should assume what his status is, when to comes to his finances or social class. In fact, Harry reveals very little about himself during his time spent with these strangers. He sticks to being a jokester. And that makes Pete even more anxious, because he thinks Harry is making Pete the butt of Harry’s jokes.

Things start to get weirder for Pete when he notices that Harry has been staring at Pete and writing in a notebook, as if Harry is observing Pete and spying on him. And there’s an incident where Harry takes some of Pete’s aspirin without Pete’s permission. Pete confides in Archie that he thinks Harry is “fucking with me, or he doesn’t like me.” Archie thinks Pete is being too paranoid. Pete’s paranoia isn’t helped when he later snorts some cocaine in a party scene.

Not all of the movie’s scenes take place in the mansion. There’s an unevenly written scene where the men go out in the woods for a hunting excursion. There’s also a scene that takes place in a pub that was rented out for part of Pete’s birthday celebration.

During the course of the movie, Pete begins to see signs that his life might be in danger. He’s certain that he saw a bloody body in a car that’s parked outside the manor. And there comes a point in the story where Pete is genuinely convinced that Harry is going to kill him.

“All My Friends Hate Me” plays guessing games with viewers over what is real and what might be Pete’s hallucinations. After a while, the movie turns into an expected showdown/confrontation between Pete and Harry. And that comes as a disservice to the movie’s other characters, who seem hollow and underdeveloped in comparison. The cast members in those supporting roles are therefore forced to be limited in their acting range. Demri-Burns gives a compelling performance as the mysterious Harry, but even that character has its limitations.

Stourton carries the movie quite well in the central role of Pete, who is both sympathetic and irritating. Viewers will feel empathy for Pete when he starts to believe that he’s an outsider at his own birthday party/reunion with his friends. But at some point, Pete (who tells people he’s in therapy) is frustratingly immature in how he handles whatever problems he seems to be having. Pete starts to feel some disdain toward his friends because he thinks that they are shallow and haven’t emotionally matured since their university days.

However, Pete has a lot of flaws too, which become more apparent as the story goes on in frequently repetitive ways. There are only so many times that viewers need to see varying degrees of “Pete versus Harry” before it starts to drag down the story. “All My Friends Hate Me” does have a knockout scene in the last third of the film, where secrets are revealed. But one of the characters is let off the hook too easily in the movie’s final scene, which might turn off some viewers from this film entirely.

Although “All My Friends Hate Me” has been described as a “horror film,” it’s best to know going into this movie that it’s more of a psychological drama with a lot of comedic satire. “All My Friends Hate Me” will make viewers feel unsettled or tense, but it’s definitely not as terrifying as a horror movie is supposed to be. There’s nothing incompetent about this movie’s filmmaking or acting, but “All My Friends Hate” is clearly not meant to have mass appeal. The movie is at its best when it takes an incisive look at social anxieties and the pressure that people put on themselves to impress others.

Super LTD released “All My Friends Hate Me” in select U.S. cinemas on March 11, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on March 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Silent Night ‘ (2021), starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis and Lily-Rose Depp

December 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lily-Rose Depp, Sopé Dìrísù, Rufus Jones, Davida McKenzie, Annabelle Wallis, Roman Griffin Davis, Keira Knightley, Hardy Griffin Davis, Matthew Goode, Gilby Griffin Davis, Lucy Punch and Kirby Howell-Baptiste in “Silent Night” (Photo by Robert Viglasky/AMC+)

“Silent Night” (2021)

Directed by Camille Griffin

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the dark comedy film “Silent Night” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with two black people) representing the working-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: Before an impending apocalypse, a family gathers for one last Christmas dinner, where secrets are revealed, and there are emotionally painful debates over suicide.

Culture Audience: “Silent Night” will appeal primarily to people that are interested in watching very dark satires of how people deal with certain death.

Clockwise from bottom left: Lucy Punch, Hardy Griffin Davis, Roman Griffin Davis, Gilby Griffin Davis, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Annabelle Wallis, Davida McKenzie, Rufus Jones, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Sopé Dìrísù in “Silent Night” (Photo by Robert Viglasky/AMC+)

“Silent Night” takes heartwarming movie clichés about Christmas holiday gatherings, and burns those stereotypes to a crisp. It’s not a horror film but a very dark comedy about how an apocalypse brings out the best and worst in people. Some viewers who have no problem watching apocalypse movies might have a problem with how the impending doom in “Silent Night” involves children and is set during the Christmas holiday season. Therefore, this movie is not for people who are very religious, or sensitive people who are extremely offended by debates about committing suicide versus waiting to be killed by an apocalypse.

“Silent Night” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Camille Smith, who took a bold risk to make her first feature film focused on such an uncomfortable topic and making it a satire. It’s a dialogue-heavy film about an upper-middle-class British family gathered for one last Christmas dinner on the eve of an apocalypse. There are secrets and lies that are revealed during this dinner, but this is not a typical apocalyptic movie where all the characters want to stay alive.

What makes “Silent Night” so different from other apocalyptic movies is that people in the movie have the option to take an Exit pill, which will kill them almost immediately, in order to avoid suffering during the apocalypse. It’s this suicide angle that’s the most likely to make “Silent Night” offensive or controversial to some viewers. However, the movie does point out the uncomfortable truth that tragedies such as suicide don’t stop just because of an impending apocalypse.

The movie is a disquieting roller coaster ride about how people’s minds can be messed with when dealing with the destructive end of the world as they know it. Some people want to plan ahead and be as prepared as possible. Some people want to deny it all and act like everything’s fine until the last possible moment. Some people don’t want to stick around for the apolocaypse to happen and want to take control of how and when they will die. Other people want to hold out hope that maybe they and their loved ones can survive the apocalypse.

This varied range of emotions and attitudes are all on display with the family gathered for this meal. Although there are many characters in the story, they have distinct personalities, so it’s easy to tell them apart. These family members are:

  • Nell (played by Keira Knightley), a high-strung socialite who is determined to keep the annual holiday tradition of having a fabulous Christmas dinner at her home.
  • Simon (played by Matthew Goode), Nell’s patient and loving husband, who is more willing to discuss the impending apocalypse than Nell is.
  • Art (played by Roman Griffin Davis), Nell and Simon’s outspoken and foul-mouthed youngest child, who’s about 12 or 13 years old.
  • Hardy (played by Hardy Griffin Davis) and Thomas (played by Gilby Griffin Davis), the identical twin sons of Nell and Simon. The twins, who are about 14 or 15 years old, are almost as bratty as their younger brother Art.
  • Sandra (played by Annabelle Wallis), Nell’s materialistic and judgmental older sister.
  • Tony (played by Rufus Jones), Sandra’s laid-back and often-henpecked husband.
  • Kitty (played by Davida McKenzie), Sandra and Tony’s prim and proper daughter, who’s about 12 or 13 years old.
  • Bella (played by Lucy Punch), Nell and Sandra’s irresponsible queer older sister, who is a single mother, but her child is not with her at this dinner.
  • Alex (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Bella’s girlfriend, who works as a bodyguard and is more sensible than Bella.
  • James (as Sopé Dìrísù), Alex’s younger brother, who is an oncologist in his early 30s.
  • Sophie (played by Lily-Rose Deep), James’ American girlfriend, who’s about 10 years younger than James is.

At first, the gathering seems festive and full of cheer, as everyone avoids talking about the apocalypse in depth. However, not everyone wants to be at this party. An early scene in the movie shows that while Sophie and James were driving to Nell and Simon’s house, Sophie expresses her reluctance to go to the party this year. There’s definitely disagreeable tension between this couple. Eventually, the bickering and discord begin among other people at this gathering.

Sandra and Bella have a little argument because someone named Lizzie wasn’t invited to this dinner party. Sandra was supposed to invite Lizzie, whom Bella doesn’t like. But Sandra thought that Bella would invite Lizzie. The two sisters can’t agree on whose responsibility it was to give the invitation, so they reach a stalemate.

Meanwhile, brothers Art, Hardy and Thomas are little terrors when teasing Kitty, who is a serious and often-mopey child. Kitty is offended by the brothers’ cursing. She snootily says that coarse language is for “common” people. Kitty is also upset because she wants sticky toffee pudding, which Kitty has every year at this dinner, but Nell forget to buy the pudding this year, and Nell tries to hide this fact.

Later, when the family members open their gifts around the Christmas tree, Kitty is unhappy with her gift (a talking doll), and refuses to give a “thank you” hug to her mother Sandra. Why? As Kitty pouts to Sandra, “You’re wearing my education on your feet.” In other words, Sandra spent the money for Kitty’s future school tuition on high-priced shoes. After all, what good is that money going to be in the future if the world is going to end and there’s very little chance of survival?

Before dinner, the three sisters gather in the kitchen to exchange gossip and catty remarks. They wonder out loud if Sophie is anorexic because she’s very thin. Nell and Bella mention that before they became mothers, they used to do cocaine to keep their weight down. All three sisters think that Sophie is too young for James.

Meanwhile, the men gather in the greenhouse on the property, where James reveals a big secret that he doesn’t want Nell, Sandra, Bella, Alex and the children to know about. The secret involves a major decision that has to be made before the apocalypse happens. The problem is that certain people involved in the decision don’t agree on what should be done.

By the first 15 minutes of “Silent Night,” it becomes obvious that this family is not the warm and fuzzy type, with or without an apocalypse. Nell has her big annual Christmas dinner mainly so she can show off to other members of the family. But this year, it’s different. There’s enough food and drinks to go around, but the meal isn’t as lavish as it was in the past. For example, instead of having a fancy potato dish that would be normal for this dinner, Nell says that the entire group can only have one potato per person.

It’s the first sign of rationing that implies a food shortage has been going on for quite some time. Over this scaled-back dinner, Sophie gets confrontational with Kitty about the Queen of England’s recent televised Christmas speech. Sophie is offended because she thinks that the queen looked like she was giving the speech inside of a bunker. Sophie thinks that the British royal family secretly has access to apocalypse-proof safe houses. Kitty says that it doesn’t matter because the queen is “old” and “the Russians want us all dead.”

And then, people at this fateful dinner start talking about the apocalypse, which is described as an “environmental disaster.” It’s implied that scientists predicted the exact day that the apocalypse would arrive, much like hurricanes can be predicted with precision. On television, Art sees a commercial for the Exit pill. His curiosity about the pill leads him to ask questions that the adults find difficult to answer.

The movie makes a little bit of a sociopolitical commentary when it soon becomes clear that the Exit pill is only for people who can afford it. Simon tells Art that some people in society, such as homeless people and illegal immigrants, haven’t been given the Exit pill. Simon explains to Art that the Exit pill has been withheld from certain groups of people because the government doesn’t think they legally exist.

“Silent Night” doesn’t get bogged down in political preaching. Instead, the big ethical debate in the movie is whether or not parents have the right to decide if their underage children should take the Exit pill or not. Art has an opinion that is very different from his parents. Other people at this family gathering have conflicting opinions if they or other people should take the Exit pill.

Because “Silent Night” takes place entirely on the estate property of Nell and Simon, the movie is meant to be somewhat claustrophobic in its contained setting. (Trudie Styler, who is one of the movie’s producers, has a cameo as a family friend named Nicole, who says her last goodbyes via a video conference call.) The number of people in the cast is relatively small, but the movie is realistic in showing that most people in an impending disaster would want to stick close to home with family members.

“Silent Night” has its share of flaws (there’s some contrived soap opera melodrama), and the movie will disappoint viewers who are expecting more action or more likable characters. However, all of the cast members give capable performances, and writer/director Griffin maintains an effective level of suspense over what’s going to happen in this story. Ultimately, “Silent Night” succeeds in its intention to pose disturbing questions about how an apocalypse should be handled when power and privilege play more of a role than some people would like to admit.

RLJE Films released “Silent Night” in select U.S. cinemas, and AMC+ premiered the movie on December 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Spencer,’ starring Kristen Stewart

November 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Spencer”

Directed by Pablo Larraín

Culture Representation: Taking place during a few days in December 1991, primarily in Sandringham, England, the dramatic film “Spencer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy royalty.

Culture Clash: Feeling trapped in a crumbling marriage, Princess Diana of Wales spends a restless few days at a Christmas holiday family gathering, where she tries to assert her independence in a family that wants to control her.

Culture Audience: “Spencer” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about Princess Diana and/or people who are fans of Kristen Stewart, who gives a riveting performance.

Kristen Stewart, Freddie Spry and Jack Nielen in “Spencer” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Spencer” is more of a fever-dream drama than a precise biographical portrait of the late Princess Diana of Wales, formerly known as Diana Spencer. In the title role, Kristen Stewart portrays Diana at a low point in the troubled princess’ life, but Stewart’s performance is the high point of this frequently repetitive and sometimes far-fetched film. Directed by Pablo Larraín and written by Steven Knight, “Spencer” is intent on portraying Diana as a tortured and wounded soul instead of making her a well-rounded, complicated person with other interests besides her children and her bad marriage. (The movie basically ignores Diana’s work as a humanitarian/philanthropist.) This fixation on Diana’s misery serves Stewart’s performance well, but it does somewhat of a disservice to the real Diana.

The first sign that “Spencer” veers into fantasy (which it does more often than some viewers might care for) is in the prologue, which labels the movie as “A Fable From a True Tragedy.” The movie’s fictional aspect continues in the opening scene, where Diana is seen driving by herself in her Porsche in the English countryside. It’s close to Christmas in 1991, and she’s on her way to a family gathering at Sandringham Estate, which is owned by her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II. This scene is extremely unrealistic because Diana has no bodyguards or other security personnel nearby. And she’s not being followed by paparazzi, which would surely happen in real life, since it would be nearly impossible in those days for Diana to drive somewhere by herself undisguised without the media finding out.

The movie has an additional contrivance of Diana getting lost on the way to the estate. She tries to find her way by reading a map. “Where the fuck am I?” she mutters while looking in a confused manner at the map. This scene in the movie tries to make Diana look like she’s just a regular upper-class woman on her way to her family’s country estate for the Christmas holidays. Except Diana was no ordinary upper-class woman. At the time, she was royalty and probably the most famous woman in the world.

While she has gotten lost on the way to Sandringham Estate, Diana casually walks into a diner and asks “Where am I?,” as shocked customers gawk at her in silence. In reality, people would be approaching her and would quickly surround her, because she was so beloved by people around the world. Because Diana has presumably been to this estate many times before, it makes her look very unobservant (at best) or not very intelligent (at worst) that she could get lost on the way to a place she’s been to several times in her life.

Sandringham Estate is near where Diana grew up, so the movie makes a point of showing Diana pensive and wistful about her childhood. By all accounts, she had an unhappy childhood, due to her parents’ bitter divorce, although that family history is glossed-over/ignored in “Spencer.” The movie’s childhood flashbacks of Diana are brief and don’t have much bearing on the overall story. Kimia Schmidt portrays Diana at 9 years old, Greta Bücker portrays Diana as a teenager, and Henry Castello portrays Diana’s younger brother Charles Spencer when he was 9 years old.

While Diana gets lost driving, she comes across an open garden field that’s nearly deserted except for a scarecrow that she remembers being there, ever since she was a child. She walks through the field in her dress suit and high heels, and she takes the red jacket that the scarecrow is wearing. It’s at this point that you just know it won’t be the last time that Diana is seen with this scarecrow in the movie.

Diana sees royal head chef Darren McGrady (played by Sean Harris), who’s in this field too in that odd/contrived way in which movie characters show up in a scene without any explanation. He’s conveniently there to give Diana directions when she tells Darren that she’s lost. Darren asks Diana how on earth she was able to travel there by herself, without any security personnel, as required by royal protocol. Diana’s glib response is that she just walked out of the room where she was at, and she impulsively drove to the estate without telling anyone and without anyone else finding out.

Diana claims that she was able to make this getaway without her bodyguards noticing. We all know that wouldn’t really happen at this point in her life. Considering that she died in a 1997 car crash while being chased by paparazzi, it requires a a huge suspension of disbelief that Diana could just slip away unnoticed, by driving alone in a car somewhere while undisguised.

With this opening scene, “Spencer” tries a little too hard to push the improbable narrative that Diana could easily slip in and out of anonymity, undisguised, whenever she wanted. It’s the “whenever she wanted” part that’s the most incredulous because people with enough knowledge of the British Royal Family know how carefully the family’s public appearances are planned. It’s been well-documented how someone on Diana’s level of royal fame had to get strict approval and clearances to go out in public.

“Spencer” has other unrealistic scenes showing Diana casually going out in public, whenever she felt like it, without any security personnel. (For example, there’s a scene where she takes her sons to Kentucky Fried Chicken, where they order a meal at a drive-through window.) The concept that Diana could shed her fame and be anonymous when she wanted is a direct contradiction to the other narrative pushed by the movie: Diana lived her life like a hunted animal who was always under scrutiny by the media and controlled by the British Royal Family. It’s this more “tortured” narrative where Stewart gets to showcase her acting talent the most as Diana.

One of the more visually striking scenes in “Diana” is early in the movie, which shows a military-like procession of trucks and vans driving to the Sandringham Estate. Items in crates are being transported and guarded in these trucks and vans with the importance of top-secret weapons. What could possibly be in these crates? It turns out that the cargo consists of lobster and other seafood for the estate’s kitchen that will be preparing the royal family’s Christmas holiday meals.

The point that’s made is as subtle as a 21-gun salute. Viewers are supposed to notice the contrast between the arrival of Diana (alone and with no bodyguards) with the arrival of the seafood (which has more security escorts than most celebrities have), to show that the British Royal Family seems to care more about their food being protected than about Diana being protected on the way to the estate. Overseeing the kitchen is Chef McGrady, who leads his crew like a no-nonsense military commander.

Diana arrives late to this family gathering. The first person to greet her at the estate is Major Alistar Gregory (played by Timothy Spall), a longtime friend of the royal family, and he mentions it’s the first time he’s on royal duty at this gathering. The first thing that Diana has to do when she arrives is weigh herself on a large weighing scale placed in the foyer, and her weight is announced aloud. This weighing ritual has been a longtime royal tradition for people who arrive at the estate. When Diana gripes about it, Major Gregory replies sternly, “No one is above tradition.”

This forced weighing serves as a symbol of Diana’s insecurities over her weight. At the time, her bulima was a secret from the public. She later revealed this secret in Andrew Morton’s tell-all bombshell 1992 book “Diana: Her True Story In Her Own Words.” In “Spencer,” Diana’s bulima becomes a subplot, as there are multiple scenes of her vomiting in toilets and sneaking into the royal pantry for binge eating.

Chef McGrady knows about Diana’s eating disorder and discreetly avoids talking about it with her. Diana’s husband Prince Charles (played by Jack Farthing) isn’t as delicate about Diana’s feelings. Through clenched teeth and a condescending, whispered voice over the dinner table, Charles scolds Diana about her habit of getting up during a meal to vomit. Charles tells Diana that the kitchen staff went through a great deal of trouble to prepare the meal and the least she could do is show some respect and “not regurgitate the cooks’ hard work before the church bells ring.”

The world now knows that at this pont in Diana’s life in 1991, her marriage to Charles was close to a permanent collapse. (Charles and Diana announced their separation in December 1992, and they officially divorced in 1996.) However, Charles and Diana were still putting up a united front to the public in 1991. It was a façade that was taking a toll on Diana’s self-esteem and mental health.

Charles’ ongoing extramarital affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (played by Emma Darwall-Smith), a woman he dated before he met Diana, is depicted in the movie as some furtive and catty glances that Diana and Camilla exchange when Camilla is nearby at royal events. (Charles would later marry Camilla in 2005. “Spencer” stays focused primarily on a few days in Diana’s life in 1991.) Diana’s infidelities, which she later publicly admitted, are briefly mentioned but not shown in this movie, because it’s intent on making Charles the villain and Diana the victim.

The movie also makes a big to-do about Diana being upset over discovering that Charles gave identical pearl necklaces to Diana and Camilla. There’s a melodramatic scene where Diana literally rips the necklace off of her neck and does something with the pearls (which won’t be revealed here) that is supposed to be shocking to viewers. Therefore, not only does “Spencer” have a royal woman literally clutching her pearls in distress, but there’s also an added horror element that the movie throws in too.

And speaking of horror-inspired elements, get used to seeing a ghost in this movie: Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife, who was beheaded in 1536 for treason and other charges. Anne Boleyn (played by Amy Manson) appears as a vision to Diana several times and speaks out loud. Diana, who is a distant relative of Anne Boleyn, says that she can relate to her because of being unhappily married to a British royal. The beginning of the film shows Diana reading the book “Anne Boleyn: Life and Death of a Martyr,” which seems to fuel Diana’s hallucinations of seeing Anne.

The only joy depicted in Diana’s life comes from her two sons: William (played by Jack Nielen) and Harry (played by Freddie Spry), who were 9 and 7 years old, respectively, at the time this story takes place. Some of the best scenes in the movie are showing Diana spending time alone with William and Harry. It’s in these scenes that she shows her playful, protective and loving side to her personality.

But in between, the movie wallows in more angst and unhappiness. Diana is an “outsider” in the British Royal Family. And this pariah status is depicted in various ways.

For example, when she first arrives at the estate, Diana complains that the indoor temperature is too cold. She’s annoyed that the royal family, instead of allowing her request to turn on the indoor heating, expects people to just wear heavier jackets and use more blankets inside. It’s an indication of how Diana has so little control/respect/power in the family that she can’t convince them to turn on the heat in their own home.

Diana is also late for the family’s Christmas portrait. This tardiness could be her subconscious way of rebelling or her way of showing that she wanted to delay spending time with certain members of the family as much as possible. In “Spencer,” Charles is Diana’s main antagonist.

The other members of the British Royal Family are depicted as emotionally distant from Diana, and they don’t have much to say to her. Stella Gonet is Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Sammel is Prince Philip, Lore Stefanek is the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Berrington is Princess Anne, Niklas Kohrt is Prince Andrew, and Olga Hellsing is Sarah Ferguson. In real life, Diana and Sarah were close friends when they were married to brothers Prince Charles and Prince Andrew. However, this friendship between Diana and Sarah is completely ignored in “Spencer,” to serve the movie’s agenda of making it look like Diana was completely friendless and isolated.

Later in the movie, the contrast is shown between how Charles (who spent his entire life in the public eye) and Diana (who became famous at age 19 in 1981, when she and Charles got engaged and married within a seven-month period) are handling the media scrunity. Charles is resigned and jaded when he explains to her how he deals with it all: “There are two of you and two of me: The real one and the one they take pictures of.”

Because the rest of the adult royals have an aloof attitude toward Diana, the movie shows her confiding more with the royal servants than with members of the royal family. The staffer whom Diana bonds with the most is royal dresser Maggie (played by Sally Hawkins), an amiable worker who has immense admiration of Diana. As an example of how acutely aware Diana is of being in a royal building that goes back several generations, she tells Maggie, “The dust in this house suddenly contains everyone who’s ever stayed in it.”

But since the movie makes it look like the royal family didn’t want Diana to get close to any of “the help,” Maggie is abruptly sent away and transferred to work somewhere else. Diana is disappointed and upset, because Maggie was her closest confidante at the estate, and because the decision to send Maggie away was made without Diana’s knowledge or input. Diana’s efforts to get Maggie re-instated at Sandringham Estate just lead to more examples of Diana feeling ignored and disrespected by the royal powers that be. Maggie and Diana later see each other again in a brief reunion, where Maggie makes a personal confession to Diana.

Maggie is replaced by a dresser named Angela (played by Laura Benson), who isn’t as warm and friendly as Maggie. Angela tactfully reminds Diana not to get undressed with the room curtains open, because someone could take photos and sell them to the tabloids. Apparently, Diana got undressed with the curtains open during her visit at the estate, the royal family found out about it, and passed the word down to Angela to tell Diana not to do it again. The movie uses it as an example of why Diana felt paranoid that the other members of the royal family were spying on her.

Even though Stewart gives one of the best portrayals of Princess Diana that’s been on screen, Stewart’s performance is very self-conscious and very self-aware. You never forget the entire time that she’s acting, compared to a performance where an actor truly disappears into the role of a real-life person and you feel like you’re watching a documentary instead of a scripted drama. It’s a performance where you can tell Stewart was thinking while filming this movie: “I hope I get an Academy Award and other awards for this performance.”

Despite this type of very self-conscious acting, Stewart portrays the real Diana’s mannerisms and speech patterns with uncanny accuracy. It’s especially true in the way that she walks in public when many cameras are present. She slightly hunches over with her head slightly bowed, while looking up with a smile but with sad eyes that convey her true feelings. Her body language shows that she’s not completely relaxed. Stewart went through her own paparazzi/tabloid hell during the height of her “Twilight” movie fame from 2008 to 2012 (although it wasn’t nearly as intense as what Diana went through), so it’s easy to see how Stewart could draw from her own personal experiences in this exceptional portrayal of Diana.

In real life, Stewart is 5’5″, while Diana was 5’10″—Diana’s tall female height was one of her more striking physical characteristics. In “Spencer,” thanks to the artistic cinematography of Claire Mathon, this height discrepancy is cleverly disguised by filming Stewart with many closeups, upward angles (to make her look taller), and in cutaway shots when she has a scene with an actor who would have been close to the real Diana’s height.

In addition to the above-average cinematography and noteworthy acting from Stewart, “Spencer” has outstanding costume design from Jacqueline Durran and a haunting but effective musical score from Jonny Greenwood. And any movies about the British Royal Family usually have to meet high standards for production design. Fortunately, “Spencer” production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and the rest of the team met those high standards.

“Spencer” takes risks, but not all of them pay off in the way that the filmmakers perhaps intended. It can certainly be appreciated that the filmmakers didn’t want to do a standard Princess Diana biopic, which has already been done multiple times, usually with middling results. And her personal problems should not be ignored when telling any aspect of Diana’s adult life and her doomed marriage to Prince Charles.

However, leaning into a story arc that involves Diana hallucinating about the ghost of Anne Boleyn, among other things, somewhat backfires because it reinforces a stereotype that Diana had a severe mental illness. In real life, Diana said the stigma of mental illness was a negative stereotype that was used against her. One of Diana’s public complaints about the British Royal Family was they tried to make her look “crazy” to the point where she might be considered “unfit” to carry out royal duties.

Yes, Diana admitted to being suicidal at one point in her life, but it seems a bit irresponsible for filmmakers to make a gigantic leap from Diana being depressed to being so delusional that she’s seeing a ghost. This filmmaking choice is a bit off-putting because it seems like it was done for melodrama’s sake, not with a great deal of compassion. If not for Stewart portraying Diana with humanity and as a person trying to stay dignified in degrading situations, “Spencer” would be a hollow exercise in filmmakers using Diana’s fame to do an exploitative movie about her private pain.

Neon will release “Spencer” in U.S. cinemas on November 5, 2021.

Review: ‘The Souvenir Part II,’ starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton and Richard Ayoade

November 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir Part II” (Photo by Josh Barrett/A24)

“The Souvenir Part II”

Directed by Joanna Hogg

Culture Representation: Taking place in the mid-1980s in England (primarily in London and briefly in Norfolk), the dramatic film “The Souvenir Part II” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this sequel to “The Souvenir,” a film student struggles with completing her first short film while trying to mend her broken heart after a relationship with a former boyfriend ended badly in “The Souvenir.”

Culture Audience: “The Souvenir Part II” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Joanna Hogg and arthouse British coming-of-age films that have keen observations and dry wit.

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton in “The Souvenir Part II” (Photo by Sandro Kopp/A24)

If filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical “The Souvenir” depicted a dark storm in her life, then “The Souvenir Part II” is like the sun peeking more optimistically through the clouds. It’s a rare sequel that’s better than the original movie. “The Souvenir” (released in 2019) was a dour and depressing story of a young film student caught up in a toxic relationship with a heroin-addicted older man. “The Souvenir Part II” shows with imaginative charm how the young protagonist picks up the pieces of her broken heart and finds her identity as a beginner filmmaker.

British filmmaker Hogg wrote and directed both movies with a combination of a sharply objective viewpoint and an intimate subjective perspective. That hard-to-achieve mix makes “The Souvenir Part II” a universally relatable tale for anyone who decides to pursue a passion, and yet it’s a deeply personal reminsicence of a specific era and place for Hogg. “The Souvenir Part II” picks up not long after “The Souvenir” ended. “The Souvenir” was about depression and degradation, while “The Souvenir” is about recovery from this type of damage and emerging stronger than before.

In “The Souvenir Part II,” it’s still the mid-1980s, and film student Julie Harte (played by Honor Swinton Byrne) is trying to recover from the destructive romance that she had with a heroin addict named Anthony (played by Tom Burke), a charismatic, intelligent but ultimately disturbed con artist/thief from a vaguely privileged background. The end of “The Souvenir” showed how Julie and Anthony’s relationship was destroyed to the point of no return. It was an exhausting relationship in which Anthony (who was about 10 years older than Julie) used her, emotionally manipulated her, betrayed her, and ultimately broke her heart.

But it was also the first time that Julie fell deeply in love. And she’s still trying to get over Anthony. In the meantime, Julie has been focusing on her school studies. She attends the fictional Raynham Film and Television School in London. As a requirement for her upcoming graduation, she has to complete a short film that she’s writing and directing. Julie is also getting “real world” experience as a part-time production assistant on a film set.

Julie comes from a well-to-do family. Her mother Rosalind Harte (played by Tilda Swinton, who is Swinton Byrne’s real life-mother) supports Julie in her quest to become a filmmaker. Julie’s father William Harte (played by James Spencer Ashworth) is much more skeptical of Julie’s filmmaker goals. Swinton and Ashworth were also in “The Souvenir” as Julie’s parents. In “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie still seeks their approval and needs their financial support, but she has become more independent and determined not to let naysayers distract her from her artistic vision and her ambition.

When Julie visits her parents at their home in Norfolk, England, she gripes to them about getting criticism from a film instructor, who thinks that Julie’s student film thesis is too unfocused. William gives this unsympathetic response: “Sounds typical for art school.” In the same conversation, William asks Julie if she would consider working on the family farm instead of pursuing what he thinks is a foolish dream of becoming a filmmaker. Based on these family dynamics, it should come as no surprise that Julie asks her mother, not her father, for the money that Julie needs to finish her student film.

Julie’s part-time production assistant job is essentially an internship. She’s doing PA work for a lavish period musical about young people in their 20s. The movie’s leading man is Jim (played by Charlie Heaton), a roguish actor who suggestively gives Julie the eye when they’re working on the film set. The movie’s director is egotistical and demanding Patrick (played by Richard Ayoade, in a hilarious, scene-stealing performance), who reprises his role as Julie’s friend from “The Souvenir.”

It’s Patrick who suggests to Julie that she make her student film a tribute to Anthony to help her through her grieving process. (Mild spoiler alert: Anthony died of a heroin overdose at the end of “The Souvenir.” Anthony’s death is mentioned in “The Souvenir Part II” trailer, so it’s not really spoiler information.) Julie takes Patrick’s advice and ends up doing a very artsy/avant-garde movie version of her relationship with Anthony. The title of Julie’s movie is revealed toward the end of “The Souvenir Part II.” (The title is exactly what you might think it is.)

In “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie has a group of peers (some film students, some not) whom she bounces ideas off of for her student film, even if they give her advice that she doesn’t think is compatible with what she has in mind. What they all have in common is a passion for movies. These supporting characters include Jaygann Ayeh as Marland; Alice McMillan as Elisa; Harris Dickinson as Pete (who plays the Anthony-inspired character in Julie’s film); and Joe Alwyn as the unnamed editor of Julie’s film.

It’s not much of a surprise when Jim shows up unannounced at Julie’s door one day. She lets him in, and they hook up. But in an effort to make this movie very much from a female perpsective, viewers find out more than maybe some people might want to know about Julie’s menstrual cycle. In an early scene in “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie announces that her menstrual period is late. When she and Jim have their sexual tryst, let’s just say that her time of the month arrives, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Jim is just a fling because Julie (even though she doesn’t really want to admit it to a lot of people) is still somewhat in love with Anthony. There’s a very realistic scene of her secretly meeting with someone from Anthony’s druggie past in order to try and get some answers on what kind of life he was leading when he would disappear on his drug binges. This “investigation” is a big sign that Julie is having a difficult time moving on from Anthony.

In the production notes for “The Souvenir Part II,” Hogg says that she wanted the movie to be about Julie’s expressions of the five stages of grief. (These five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.) In “The Souvenir,” Julia’s life, energy and spirit revolved around Anthony. In “The Souvenir Part II,” she experiences the five stages of grief. The end result is that her life, energy and spirit begin to blossom into who she is as an artist and as a person.

It’s not an easy journey, because there are pitfalls (some self-made, others created by other people) along the way. However, Julie’s emotional scars end up becoming her armor when things get tough for her. Swinton Byrne gives a thoroughly believable and captivating performance as Julie, while Hogg’s attention to 1980s-era details manages to feel both retro and timeless.

Truth be told, “The Souvenir” is a movie that’s a little too enamored with its own mopiness, just like a pouty teenager who thinks it’s uncool to smile. “The Souvenir Part II” is a triumphant “coming into adulthood” film that finds a more emotionally mature Julie finally understanding that happiness isn’t always guaranteed in life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find joy in discovering who you are and not be afraid to show it.

A24 released “The Souvenir Part II” in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021. Picturehouse will release “The Souvenir Part II” in U.K. cinemas on January 21, 2022.

Review: ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ starring Ron Mael and Russell Mael

July 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Anna Webber / Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.

Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.

Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Jake Polonsky/Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.

“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.

For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.

It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.

Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.

Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.

Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.

Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.

Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,

“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.

Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.

Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.

Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.

There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.

There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.

A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.

With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.

And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”

Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.

If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.

“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.

Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.

Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.

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