Review: ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,’ starring Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista

November 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kate Hudson, Jessica Henwick, Daniel Craig and Leslie Odom Jr. in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”

Directed by Rian Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2020, mostly on an unnamed island in Greece and briefly in the United States, the comedy/drama film “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African American and Asians) portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc is invited to the private Greek island of a technology billionaire, who is hosting a murder mystery party, where at least one person gets murdered for real.

Culture Audience: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of 2019’s “Knives Out,” star Daniel Craig, and murder mysteries that are also incisive social satires.

Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe and Daniel Craig in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Simply put: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is a sequel that’s better than the original movie. This comedy/drama is a fantastic follow-up to 2019’s “Knives Out,” another comedically dark murder mystery with its central location being the home of a wealthy person. Both movies, which are self-contained stories written and directed by Rian Johnson, deliciously skewer arrogant, rich elitists and other people with bad attitudes, while American Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) solves the murder mystery. “Glass Onion” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Johnson has said in many interviews that his greatest inspirations for his “Knives Out” movie series are Agatha Christie mystery novels and movie adaptations of these novels. In that respect, Benoit is like an American version of Christie’s “world’s greatest detective” Hercule Poirot from Belgium—someone who can deduce and reveal complex details and secrets about other people’s lives, but his own personal life remains a self-guarded mystery. (Craig is British in real life, but you can tell he has fun with doing a leisurely American Southern accent when he’s in the role of Benoit.)

Because the “Knives Out” movies are self-contained, it’s not necessary to see the first “Knives Out” movie to understand “Glass Onion.” However, seeing “Knives Out” can give viewers a better appreciation of how “Glass Onion” is an improvement from the first “Knives Out” movie, which is enjoyable but more predictable than “Glass Onion.” (“Knives Out” received several accolades that comedic murder mystery movies rarely receive, including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.)

In “Glass Onion,” several people from different parts of the U.S. have each received in the mail a mysterious box from American technology billionaire Miles Bron (played by Edward Norton), a pretentious blowhard who loves to name drop and show off his wealth. Miles, a bachelor who lives alone, has made his fortune from co-founding a company called Alpha Industries. The box that he has sent contains an elaborate puzzle that reveals an invitation to go to Miles’ private island home in Greece for a murder mystery party. In the invitation, Miles says that he will play the murder victim.

Benoit is one of the people who receives this box as a mail delivery. Later, when he gets to the party, he finds out in an awkward way that Miles didn’t actually invite Benoit. But now that Benoit is at the party, Miles doesn’t want Benoit to leave, because Benoit is just another celebrity whom Miles can brag about attending one of Miles’ parties. Who sent Benoit that box? That answer is revealed in the movie.

“Glass Onion” begins on May 13, 2020—the day that the boxes are delivered. It’s just a few short months into the COVID-19 pandemic, before a vaccine was available, and when mask-wearing and social distancing were becoming a way of life for people who cared to take those precautions. Some of the party guests are more concerned about the pandemic than others.

Before going to the party, Benoit is seen having a relaxing bath at his home. He’s on a videoconference call with an eclectic group of famous friends, such as Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (who died in 2021), classical musician Yo-Yo Ma, actress Angela Lansbury (who died in 2022), retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and actress Natasha Lyonne, who all make these quick cameos as themselves in the movie. It’s in this scene that viewers see that Benoit likes to play quiz games with his friends during the pandemic.

The only other peek into Benoit’s personal life is when he’s on a videoconference call with a man named Philip (played by Hugh Grant), who seems to know a lot abut Benoit and his personal life. In this scene, viewers can speculate how close Benoit and Philip are to each other and what kind of relationship they might have. Ethan Hawke makes a brief appearance in the role of an unnamed Miles Bron employee, who sprays a COVID-19 medical screener inside each guest’s mouth when they arrive at Miles’ Greek island home. The implication is that this screener can make any possible COVID-19 symptoms disappear, and Miles is so rich, he can afford this medical treatment before it’s legally sold to the public.

Miles’ party guests have been transported by a private boat to the island, whose biggest building is a high-tech mansion that Miles has named Glass Onion. The property’s centerpiece is a giant glass structure shaped like an onion and located inside a glass atrium. (The onion can also be seen as a symbol of the story’s layers that get peeled to reveal the truth. The Beatles song “Glass Onion” is played during the movie’s closing credits.) Inside this nouveau-riche home are dozens of glass sculptures and gaudy indications that Miles is a narcissist, such as a giant portrait painting of a shirtless Miles that makes his physique look more athletic than it really is.

In addition to Benoit, the other people at this party are:

  • Claire Debella (played by Kathryn Hahn), a progressive Democratic politician who is very image-conscious and currently running for re-election as governor of Connecticut.
  • Lionel Toussaint (played by Leslie Odom Jr.), an experimental scientist who has recently been testing a mystery product called Klear that Miles wants to sell, but Lionel has been warning Miles not to send this “volatile substance” on a manned airplane flight.
  • Birdie Jay (played by Kate Hudson), a controversial former supermodel who is now a fashion entrepreneur, who says and does racially offensive things on social media, and who is currently embroiled in a scandal about her fashion company using an exploitative sweatshop in Bangladesh.
  • Peg (played by Jessica Henwick), Birdie’s always-worried assistant who constantly has to clean up Birdie’s messes and prevent Birdie from doing more damage to Birdie’s reputation and career.
  • Duke Cody (played by Dave Bautista), a very sexist and gun-toting loudmouth who has become a famous social media influencer and “men’s rights” activist promoting the belief that men are superior to women.
  • Whiskey (played by Madelyn Cline), Duke’s airheaded girlfriend/social media sidekick who doesn’t seem to be doing anything with her life but being a hanger-on/gold digger/social climber.
  • Andi Brand (played by Janelle Monáe), Miles’ former business partner, who lost a bitter lawsuit against him, in which she claimed that she came up with most of the ideas for Alpha Industries, and she accused Miles of stealing her share of the company from her.

It’s eventually revealed in the story that Miles, Andi, Claire, Lionel, Birdie and Duke all knew each other from 10 years ago, when they were struggling to “make it” in their chosen professions. Andi was the one who introduced Miles (who was unlikable even back then) to the rest of the group. They all used to hang out at a bar called Glass Onion.

Miles is a big talker who is very good at making people believe that he’s smarter than he really is. For example, he makes up words that don’t exist. His incessant namedropping becomes an ongoing lampoon in the movie. He mentions how he got famous composer Philip Glass to write original music for him. Miles also brags about his other connections to celebrities, such as getting a personal gift from actor/musician Jared Leto and getting invited to a recent birthday party for CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

As the story goes on, cracks begin to show in many of the party guests’ façades. Birdie wants people to think that she’s confident, but she’s actually very insecure about being perceived as unattractive and a has-been. Peg, who appears to cool-headed and logical, is actually on edge and desperate, because she has spent most of her career with loose cannon Birdie, so anything that destroys Birdie’s career will probably destroy Peg’s career too. Lionel is uncomfortable with being paid by Miles to approve this mystery product Klear that Lionel says is too dangerous to approve.

Claire, who prides herself on being a “take charge” control freak, is worried about how wild this party might get and how it could affect her reputation in this crucial election year. Duke becomes uneasy when he sees that Whiskey is openly flirting with Miles, who does nothing to stop this flirtation and seems to be enjoying it. Andi, who is the most mysterious guest, keeps her distance from the group for a great deal of the movie, and she seems to be tough-minded and occasionally rude, but her emotional vulnerabilities are eventually exposed. When Andi arrives at the island, Miles tells her that he’s surprised that she accepted the invitation.

Of course, Andi appears to be the one who has the biggest grudge against Miles. She is also different from the other guests because she was the only one who didn’t bother to figure out the box puzzle but just smashed the box instead and found the invitation. In a group of characters with larger-than-life personalities, Monáe delivers a complex performance that is one of the highlights of “Glass Onion.”

It would be revealing too much to say who actually gets murderded in “Glass Onion,” but it’s enough to say that the movie has more twists and turns and than “Knives Out.” The comedy in “Glass Onion” has much sharper edges that result in some intentionally hilarious moments. The dialogue and scenarios portray in stinging accuracy what can happen when people try to impress each other too much and wallow in self-centered pretension.

Peg and Benoit are the only people at the party who don’t show any completely obnoxious qualities, for different reasons. Peg, who seems like a decent person overall, is at the party in the capacity of being a subservient employee who’s afraid of losing her job. Benoit, as always, is a keen observer of people and doesn’t really jump into action until there’s a murder to be solved. Craig, who seems born to play the role of this sly and sarcastic private detective, has no doubt found his next big movie franchise after retiring from the role of James Bond.

Also turning in very good performances are Norton as billionaire jerk Miles and Hudson as spoiled celebrity Birdie. These two characters have some of the best lines in “Glass Onion,” which makes them the type of characters whom viewers will love to hate. However, if we’re being honest, Norton and Hudson have played these types of unlikable characters in other movies before, so people might not be as surprised by these performances. Monáe shows a range in “Glass Onion” that she hasn’t had a chance to show in her previous movies. The rest of the principal cast members in “Glass Onion” have characters that are a bit shallow and underdeveloped.

The production design of “Glass Onion” (which was filmed on location in Greece) is quite striking and has more originality than the “old money” mansion setting of “Knives Out.” Johnson’s screenplay and direction for “Glass Onion” are sharp, witty and thoroughly engaging, even when the characters are saying and doing awful things. “Glass Onion” also benefits from having less characters than “Knives Out” had, thereby making the “Glass Onion” story less cluttered than “Knives Out.” Most of all, “Glass Onion” admirably avoids one of the biggest mistakes that most movie sequels make: It doesn’t try to copy its predecessor. To put it in baseball terms: It swings big in its ambitions and hits a home run.

Netflix released “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” for a limited one-week engagement in U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 23, 2022.

Review: ‘The Black Phone,’ starring Ethan Hawke

June 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke and Mason Thames in “The Black Phone” (Photo by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures)

“The Black Phone”

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Denver in 1978, the horror film “The Black Phone” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-boy, who gets kidnapped by a serial killer, is kept in the killer’s basement, where the boy gets phone calls from the ghosts of the other teenage boys who were murdered by the killer. 

Culture Audience: “The Black Phone” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ethan Hawke and anyone looking for a tension-filled horror movie that isn’t a remake or a sequel.

Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw in “The Black Phone” (Photo by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures)

Creepy and suspenseful, the horror movie “The Black Phone” has the ghosts of murdered children as story catalysts, but the movie’s equally harrowing moments are in depicting realistic child abuse that can come from a stranger, a family member or a schoolmate. “The Black Phone” does everything a horror flick is supposed to do: keep audiences on edge, have well-acted memorable characters, and deliver plenty of moments that are genuinely terrifying.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, “The Black Phone” reunites Derrickson with several key players involved in the making of Derrickson’s 2012 sleeper hit horror film “Sinister,” including co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, producer Jason Blum and actors Ethan Hawke and James Ransone. Just like in “Sinister,” Hawke has the starring role, while Ransone has a pivotal supporting role in “The Black Phone.” Both movies are from Blumhouse Productions, the company owned by Blum, whose specialty is mainly horror. Both movies are effective horror films, but “Sinister” was a haunted house story based entirely on supernatural occurrences, while “The Black Phone” taps into the real-life horror of child kidnapping and murders with some supernatural elements as part of the story.

“Sinister” had an original screenplay by Derrickson and Cargill. The screenwriting duo adapted “The Black Phone” from a short story of the same title in author Joe Hill’s 2005 collection “20th Century Ghosts.” (Hill is the son of horror master Stephen King.) In the production notes for “The Black Phone,” Derrickson says many aspects of the movie (including the scenes of the movie’s protagonist being bullied at school) were directly inspired by his childhood growing up in Denver in the 1970s. “The Black Phone” takes place in Denver in 1978.

The movie opens with a seemingly idyllic scene of teenage boys playing a casual game of baseball. Two of the players in the game are 13-year-old Finney Blake (played by Mason Thames) and Bruce Yamada (played by Tristan Pravong), who are both classmates in the same school. (Some movie descriptions list Finney’s last name as Shaw, but his surname in the movie is definitely Blake.) After the game, Bruce is kidnapped by someone driving a mysterious black van.

Bruce’s abduction is the latest in a series of incidents in the northern Denver area, where other teenage boys have gone missing and are widely believed to be kidnapped. Bruce is the fourth boy to have disappeared. The other three missing kids are Griffin Stagg (played by Banks Repeta, also known as Michael Banks Repeta), the neighborhood paper boy Billy Showalter (played by Jacob Moran) and an angry troublemaker named Vance Hopper (played by Brady Hepner). The police who are investigating have very little information to go on, since most of the disappearances had no known witnesses. All of the boys are believed to be have been kidnapped while they were outside on the streets.

While people in the area are feeling that children are unsafe on the streets, Finney (who sometimes goes by the name Finn) and his 11-year-old sister Gwendolyn “Gwen” Blake (played by Madeleine McGraw) fear for their safety inside their own home. That’s because their widower father Terrence Blake (played by Jeremy Davies) is a violent alcoholic. Terrence is especially brutal to Gwen, because she has psychic abilities that he wants her to deny. Gwen’s psychic visions usually come to her in dreams.

Based on conversations in the movie, viewers find out that Gwen inherited these psychic abilities from her mother, who committed suicide. Terrence blames the suicide on these psychic abilities because the kids’ mother (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) claimed that she heard voices. Terrence says that these voices eventually told her to kill herself. The movie doesn’t go into details about when Terrence became an alcoholic, but it’s implied he’s been on a downward spiral since his wife’s suicide.

After Bruce disappears, somehow the police find out that Gwen told people about a dream she had that Bruce was abducted by a man driving a black van and carrying black balloons. Because two black balloons were found at the place where Bruce was last seen alive (the police did not make the black balloon information available to the public), investigators from the Denver Police Department—Detective Wright (played by E. Roger Mitchell) and Detective Wright (played by Troy Rudeseal)—interview Gwen at school and at her home. She is defiant and defensive over the cops’ suspicions that she knows more than she telling.

Gwen starts cursing at the cops and swears she has nothing to do with the disappearances of Brandon and the other missing boys. When asked to explain how she knew about the black balloons, all Gwen will say is, “Sometimes my dreams are right.” Terrence is present during this interview. He’s nervous and apprehensive that the cops are in his home. He’s also angry that Gwen is being disrespectful to the cops.

After the police detectives leave, it leads to a heart-wrenching scene where a drunk Terrence viciously beats Gwen with a belt and demands that she repeat, “My dreams are just dreams.” Sensitive viewers, be warned: This is a hard scene to watch, and it might be triggering for people who’ve experienced this type of violence. During this beating, Finney just stands by helplessly and watches, but later in the movie, he expresses guilt and remorse about not stopping his father from assaulting Gwen. As abused children, Finney and Gwen often rely on each other for emotional support.

Finney is introverted and doesn’t have any close friends at school. However, things start looking up for him a little bit in his biology class when the students have to do dissections of frogs and are required to have a lab partner. No one wants to be Finney’s lab partner except a girl named Donna (played by Rebecca Clarke), who is a fairly new student. Donna indicates that she likes Finney and probably has been noticing him for a while. His bashful reaction shows that the attraction is mutual.

Finney experiences physical violence at school, where he is targeted by three bullies. One day, in the men’s restroom at school, these three bullies corner Finney and are about to assault him. However, a tough teenager named Robin Arreland (played by Miguel Cazarez Mora), who’s also a student at the school, intervenes and scares off the bullies because Robin is known to be a brutal fighter. Robin advises Finney to be better at standing up for himself.

Eventually, Robin and Finney get to know each other too. They don’t become best friends, but they become friendly acquaintances. This budding friendship is interrupted when Robin disappears, not long after Bruce has gone missing. The cops visit the Blake home again, but Gwen has nothing further to add, mainly because she terrified about divulging to the cops what she has dreamed.

It isn’t long before Finney is kidnapped too. This isn’t spoiler information, since it’s shown in the trailers for “The Black Phone.” His kidnapper is nicknamed The Grabber (played by Hawke), and he approaches Finney on a late afternoon when Finney is walking down a residential street by himself. The Grabber (who has long hair and is wearing white clown makeup, sunglasses and a top hat) is driving a black van with the logo of a company named Abracadabra Entertainment and Supplies.

When The Grabber sees Finney, he pretends to stumble out of the van and spill a bag of groceries. Finney offers to help him pick up the groceries. The Grabber tells the teen that he’s a part-time magician and asks Finney if he wants to see a magic trick.

Finney agrees somewhat apprehensively, and his nervousness grows when he notices that there are black balloons in the van. When Finney asks this stranger if he has black balloons in the van, the stranger kidnaps him. Finney has now become the sixth teenage boy to disappear in the same neighborhood.

Finney is kept in a dark and dingy house basement that has a mattress and a toilet. On the wall is a black phone that The Grabber says is disconnected. “It hasn’t worked since I was a kid,” The Grabber tells a terrified Finney.

The Grabber (who usually wears grinning clown masks that look similar to DC Comics’ The Joker character) tells Finney not to bother yelling for help, because the entire basement is soundproof. There’s only one door to and from the basement. It goes without saying that the door is locked from the outside. The Grabber also has a black pit bull as a guard dog.

There are several scenes in “The Black Phone” that show how The Grabber is a completely twisted creep. There’s a scene where Finney wakes up to find the masked Grabber staring at Finney because The Grabber says he just wanted to spend time looking at Finney. When Finney says he’s hungry and asks for food, The Grabber won’t feed him right away. There are other scenes where The Grabber uses intimidation and mind games to keep Finney under his control.

Even though The Grabber says that the black phone in the basement doesn’t work, shortly after Finney becomes imprisoned in the basement, the phone rings. The first time that Finney picks up the phone, he doesn’t hear anything. The next time the phone rings, he hears static and a voice of a boy who sounds far away. It’s the first indication that Finney has psychic abilities too.

It was already revealed in the trailers for “The Black Phone” that much of the movie is about Finney getting calls from the ghosts of the boys who were murdered by The Grabber. The only real spoiler information for “The Black Phone” would be the answers to these questions: “Does Finney escape? If so, how?” “Does Gwen use her psychic abilities to help find Finney?” “What will ultimately happen to The Grabber?”

Another character who is part of the story is a man in his early 40s named Max (played by Ransone), who gets on the radar of police because Max has become obsessed with the cases of the missing boys. Max is a cocaine-snorting loner who thinks of himself as an amateur detective. His home is filled with newspaper clippings and other items related to the investigations about the missing boys.

Even though a lot of information about the “The Black Phone” plot is already revealed in the movie’s trailers, there’s still much about the movie that’s worth seeing. (Audiences also got a early showings of “The Black Phone” when it screened at film festivals, including the 2021 edition of Fantastic Fest, where “The Black Phone” had its world premiere.) The scenes where Finney communicates with the dead boys are absolutely haunting and often mournful. These scenes include some flashbacks to the boys’ lives before they were kidnapped.

Vance’s flashback scene is artfully filmed as a 1970s hazy memory, as are many of the flashback scenes. Sweet’s 1974 hit “Fox on the Run” is used to great effect in this scene, which takes place in a Shop-N-Go convenience store where Vance is playing pinball. Gwen’s dream sequences were filmed using Super 8 film, which was the standard film type for home movies in the 1970s.

The production design, costume design, hairstyling, makeup and cinematography in “The Black Phone” all give the movie an authentic-looking recreation of the 1970s. The movie’s soundtrack includes some well-chosen songs, including the Edgar Winter Group’s 1972 hit “Free Ride,” which is played in the movie’s happy-go-lucky baseball game scene that opens the movie. (Coincidentally, “Free Ride” and “Fox on the Run” were also prominently featured in writer/director Richard Linklater’s 1993 classic comedy “Dazed and Confused,” which is an ode to 1970s teens.)

“The Black Phone” also has pop culture mentions to movies of the era. Finney and Robin talk about the 1974 horror movie “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which Finney says his strict father would never allow him to see because he’s underage. Robin says he has an uncle who takes Robin to movie theaters to watch rated R movies. They also enthusiastically discuss the 1973 Bruce Lee action film “Enter the Dragon,” which is “The Black Phone” filmmakers’ nod to how popular Lee was with teenage boys in that era. Later, Finney is seen watching the 1959 horror movie “The Tingler” on TV one night, which is a scene inspired by director Derrickson doing the same thing when he was a child.

“The Black Phone” also accurately depicts the limited resources that people had if children went missing in 1978, long before the Internet and smartphones existed. It was also before missing kids’ photos were put on milk cartons, inspired by the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz, who was kidnapped while walking by himself to school in New York City. It was also before the 1981 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was taken from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida. As a result of this tragedy, Adam’s father John Walsh later founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The 1970s decade was also a prolific time for notorious serial killers, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Hillside Stranglers and the Son of Sam. According to the production notes for “The Black Phone,” The Grabber character was at least partially based on Gacy, who did part-time work as a party clown. Most of Gacy’s victims were teenage boys and young men whom he lured into his home by hiring them to do temporary housecare jobs. Gacy’s crimes had a sexual component that’s not included in “The Black Phone,” although there are hints that The Grabber could also be a child molester when it’s mentioned that The Grabber likes to play a game called Naughty Boy.

In his portrayal of The Grabber, Hawke gives a viscerally disturbing performance that will linger with viewers long after the movie ends. Thames makes an impressive feature-film debut as Finney, who goes through a wide range of emotions in the movie. McGraw is also a standout in her portrayal of feisty and sometimes foul-mouthed Gwen. “The Black Phone” has some comic relief in how Gwen is ambivalent about the Christianity that she has been taught. And although Robin’s screen time is brief, Mora is quite good in this portrayal of a character who makes an impact on Finney’s life.

Despite some predictable plot developments, “The Black Phone” is a better-than-average horror movie because it doesn’t forget that the story and characters should be more important than showing a lot of violence and gore. The movie does have violence and gore, but it’s not gratuitous. “The Black Phone” also makes a point of showing that abuse crimes don’t always come from strangers, but that abuse is often hiding in plain sight in schools and in families, where the abuse is committed by people who seem to be “upstanding citizens.” It’s this message that should resonate as a warning that a lot of horror in this movie continues to happen in real life.

Universal Pictures will release “The Black Phone” in U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022.

Review: ‘The Northman,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe

April 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

“The Northman”

Directed by Robert Eggers

Culture Representation: Taking place in Northern and Eastern Europe, from the years 894 to approximately 919, the fantasy action film “The Northman” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: In this Viking version of “Hamlet,” an exiled prince seeks to avenge the murder of his father, who was killed by the father’s brother.

Culture Audience: “The Northman” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s all-star cast, filmmaker Robert Eggers and Viking stories that are gory but realistically violent.

Oscar Novak, Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

Brutally violent but artistically stunning, “The Northman” brings harsh realism and dreamy mythology to this Viking story that inspired William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It cannot be said enough times as a warning: “The Northman” is not for viewers who are easily offended by on-screen depictions of bloody gore and sadistic violence. There are scenes in this movie that can best be described as downright filthy—and not just because these scenes have people covered in dirt, blood and other grime. There’s a filth of the mind that plagues many of the characters in “The Northman,” where murder, rape, torture and other assaults are a way of life to conquer and subjugate others.

American filmmaker Robert Eggers has made a career out of exploring the dark side of humanity in the movies that he writes and directs. His feature films—beginning with 2015’s “The Witch” and 2019’s “The Lighthouse”—have a rare combination of taking place in an otherworldly atmosphere while depicting people and events as if they are historically accurate. “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are defined by elements of horror, while “The Northman” (Eggers’ third feature film, which he co-wrote with Sjón) can be defined by elements of tragedy. “The Northman” is also a movie about Vikings, vengeance and violence.

Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” play was itself based on the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth, the story of a prince who vows to get deadly revenge for the murder of his father, who was betrayed and killed by the father’s brother. “The Northman” weaves into the story aspects of Scandinavian folklore, the occult and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. The end result is an immersive cinematic experience that is both menacing and magical.

“The Northman” begins in the year 894, on the fictitious Scottish island kingdom of Hrafnsey, which is close to Orkney Island and Shetland Island. Hrafnsey is ruled by King Aurvandil War-Raven (played by Ethan Hawke), a confident leader who has just returned to the land after about three months away from home. King Aurvandil has a happy family life with his wife Queen Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman) and their son Amleth (played by Oscar Novak), who’s about 10 or 11 years old when the story begins.

“The Lighthouse” co-star Willem Dafoe has a small role in “The Northman” as a court jester named Heimir the Fool. King Aurvandil is amused by Heimir’s talents, while the king’s jealous younger brother Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang) is dismissive and condescending to Heimir. The scene with the brothers’ two very different reactions to Heimir are meant to show their contrasting personalities and how they interact with people.

King Aurvandil is fixated on the idea that Amleth should be ready to lead Hrafnsey, because the king has a premonition that he will die soon. Aurvandil does not know when he will die, but he is certain of how he will die: “I must die by the sword. I will die in honor,” he says. Gudrún doesn’t like to hear Aurvandil talk this way, and she insists that Amleth is too young to learn about royal adult responsibilities. Nevertheless, Aurvandil and Amleth do a male-bonding ritual around a campfire together, where a shaman leads the father and son to enact various wolf mannerisms while proving that they’re still human.

Although the king is beloved by many of his subjects, there is a cabal of people waiting to betray him. Leading this traitorous group is Fjölnir, who is cruel, power-mad and ruthless. One day, when King Aurvandil and Amleth are spending some father-son time in a forest, Fjölnir and about a dozen of his cronies ambush the king and viciously murder him, while Amleth witnesses everything.

Amleth manages to hide and escape, but not before using a knife to cut off the nose of a brute named Finnr (played by Eldar Skar), who later lies to everyone by saying that he killed Amleth. For the rest of the movie, Finnr is known as Finnr the Nose-Stub. Amleth runs back home, only to find out that Fjölnir and his gang are plundering the land, invading homes, and letting everyone know that the king is dead and Fjölnir is now in charge. One of the last things that a terrified Amleth sees before he runs away from Hrafnsey is his mother being kidnapped by Fjölnir’s cronies.

The movie then fast-forwards about 20 years later. Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is now a strapping, angry man, who has joined a group of marauding killers hired to help conquer villages in Eastern Europe. Those who are not killed in these villages are held captive as slaves. “The Northman” has several of these invasion scenes that are not for the faint of heart. Amleth has become extremely jaded and callous in all the violence and murders he commits as a berserker warrior.

However, Amleth soon has a vision of a mystic named Seeress (played by Björk), who reminds Amleth that his immediate purpose in life is to avenge his father’s death. This sets Amleth on a path to disguise himself as a slave and go on a slave ship heading to Iceland. It’s on this ship that he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the breakout star of “The Witch”), an enslaved Slavic devotee of the mystic arts. In other words, Olga is a witch. Amleth and Olga have a mutual attraction to each other that goes exactly where you think it’s going to go.

Amleth is going to Iceland, because it’s where Fjölnir has now settled with Amleth’s mother Gudrún, who is now Fjölnir’s wife. Fjölnir and Gudrún have two sons together: brash young adult Thórir the Proud (played by Gustav Lindh) and obedient pre-teen Gunnar (played by Elliot Rose), who have been brought up in a life of royal privilege. For all of his flaws and evil deeds, Fjölnir loves his sons immensely and will do anything to protect them. Considering how Gudrún ended up with Fjölnir, she is treated just like a trophy wife.

“The Northman” often has simplistic and cliché dialogue, but the cast members’ performances are mostly convincing. Skarsgård and Bang have a great deal of physicality in their roles as Amleth and Fjölnir, which play out in the expected “protagonist versus antagonist” ways. What they both bring to these characters is an added level of emotional depth that becomes more compelling when this nephew and uncle, who are sworn enemies, actually have something in common: their love of family as their biggest emotional vulnerability.

Kidman struggles with sticking to the same accent (sometimes she sounds Scottish, Nordic, Icelandic or various combinations of all three), but her overall performance as Gudrún is riveting, because Gudrún is the most complicated character in the story. Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast as the cunning and (literally) bewitching Olga. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles.

Aside from the disturbing violence, “The Northman” will leave an impact on viewers because of how it creates a world caught in between medieval truths and timeless mythology. There are haunting and compelling scenes involving pagan rituals, ascending into heavenly spaces, and transforming someone’s interior body into some kind of mystical realm, with entrails snaking around like winding tree branches. “The Northman” also has more than a few nods to psychedelia, including Olga’s psychedelic mushrooms that are used as a weapon in this family feud.

“The Northman” greatly benefits from the almost-hypnotic cinematography of Jarin Blaschke, a longtime collaborator of Eggers. Whether or not people enjoy Eggers’ movies (which sometimes drag with slow pacing), there’s no denying that these films have top-notch cinematography. Viewers who can withstand the relentless onslaught of violence in “The Northman” can also appreciate that even amid the murder and mayhem, there are still glimmers of hope for humanity.

Focus Features will release “The Northman” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022.

Review: ‘The Guilty’ (2021), starring Jake Gyllenhaal

March 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jake Gyllenhaal in “The Guilty” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Guilty” (2021)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “The Guilty” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A police officer, who has been demoted to 911 operator duties, gets a harrowing phone call from a woman who says she’s in a vehicle and she’s been kidnapped, and the police officer breaks protocol to try to help her. 

Culture Audience: “The Guilty” will appeal primarily to people interested in thrillers that have many twists and turns, with some plot developments more believable than others.

Jake Gyllenhaal in “The Guilty” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Netflix)

Gripping and tension-filled, “The Guilty” succeeds in creating a suspenseful story with good acting, even though some parts of the movie are hard to believe and seem too contrived. Unfolding in “real time,” it’s a story about an intense two-hour period in the life of a police officer while he’s on 911 emergency call operator duties. During the course of the story, he frantically tries to save an adult female caller who claims that her ex-husband has kidnapped her in a vehicle. “The Guilty” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Nic Pizzolatto, “The Guilty” is a remake of the 2018 Danish film “The Guilty” (“Den Skyldige”), which was co-written and directed by Gustav Möller as Möller’s feature-film debut. By most accounts and critics’ reviews, the original Danish movie is better than the American version. However, the American version of “The Guilty” is still a satisfying thriller for anyone who can tolerate a movie where most of it is centered on a not-very-likable protagonist working as an emergency phone operator in a call center.

The American version of “The Guilty” adheres very close to the original story in the Danish version on “The Guilty.” There are some questionable things in the American version that might be more acceptable or overlooked in Denmark because of different laws and policies when it comes to emergency call operators and what cops can and cannot do while on duty. The American movie was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic before a COVID-19 vaccine existed. Because almost the entire setting of the movie is a call center and consists of phone conversations, it turns out those were ideal conditions to film during a pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic.

In the American version of “The Guilty,” Joe Baylor (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a Los Angeles police officer who’s under a great deal of stress. Joe has been assigned 911 call operator duties because he’s been temporarily demoted. And he’s not happy about it. The reason for Joe’s demotion is revealed toward the end of the film. Joe has asthma and uses an inhaler. Not surprisingly, his asthmatic condition is aggravated by all the stress he goes through during the course of the story.

Even without this demotion, it’s obvious from the beginning of the film that Joe is someone with a short temper. When he gets a call from a bicycle rider who injured himself in an accident and has called 911 to request an ambulance, Joe scolds the injured person and tells him not to ride a bike when he’s drunk. And then Joe hangs up. Joe has no proof that the caller is intoxicated. His lack of empathy and the way he jumps to conclusions with anger are indications that he’s a “loose cannon.”

Adding to the stress level at the call center, a wildfire is raging in Los Angeles County, so there’s a shortage of emergency workers who can respond to calls that aren’t related to the fire. The 911 call center has TV monitors tuned into the local news to keep track of the wildfire situation. This wildfire is a plot development that was added to the American version of “The Guilty.”

Joe gets some other calls in the beginning of the movie that show how he’s ill-tempered and impatient with callers. When Joe talks to a male caller who’s having a panic attack, and the caller admits that he’s high on meth, Joe says he’ll send an ambulance as well as police to arrest him. The caller quickly hangs up.

Joe takes another call about a computer stolen from a rental car. He quickly determines that the caller whose computer was stolen was involved in a sex worker transaction that went wrong. Joe concludes that the sex worker probably stole the computer, so Joe is unsympathetic to the theft victim. Throughout the movie, viewers see that Joe cannot be an impartial phone operator and he acts like an investigative cop who reaches his own conclusions when he might not know all the facts.

The first big clue that Joe is involved in a high-profile matter is the movie’s opening scene, when he gets a call on his cell phone from a female Los Angeles Times reporter, who wants to interview him. Joe abruptly tells her that he has no comment, and he hangs up. People who work at call centers generally aren’t allowed to use their cell phones while they’re on duty in the call center, so it’s also the first sign that Joe thinks that the call center’s policies don’t really apply to him.

Joe’s sense of entitlement becomes even more apparent later in the story when Joe goes beyond what a 911 call operator is allowed to do, and he acts like a cop who wants to solve a case and be a hero rescuer. For example, emergency call centers, such as the one depicted in “The Guilty,” usually have a policy of using only the authorized, monitored phones to help a caller. But there’s a scene in the movie when Joe breaks this policy by sneaking off to an empty office room to make secret phone calls that can’t be recorded.

Joe is also standoffish or rude to any of the other 911 operators he interacts with, including a friendly co-worker named Manny (played by Adrian Martinez) and a supervisor named Riva (played by Becky Wu), who seems to just let Joe do what he wants because he’s a cop. The only time that Joe is shown being somewhat nice to his colleagues is when he wants a favor from someone. But even then, it’s only after he finds out that getting angry at them won’t help him get what he wants.

Even though he has a mostly dismissive attitude toward his work colleagues, there is one colleague whom Joe seems to care about: his cop partner Rick (voiced by Eli Goree), whom Joe later describes as his best friend. While Joe is at the call center, he calls his police supervisor Sgt. Bill Miller (voiced by Ethan Hawke) to ask how Rick is doing. What’s wrong with Rick that has gotten Joe so concerned about Rick’s well-being? That answer is also revealed toward the end of the movie.

It’s eventually shown that things aren’t going so well for Joe in his personal life. He’s been separated from his wife Jess (voiced by Gillian Zinser) for the past six months, and he doesn’t get to see their young daughter as often as he would like. Joe seems to want to get back together with Jess, but she’s very reluctant and seems to be fed up with him. During a phone call, Jess tells Joe that she won’t be there for his upcoming court appearance that’s happening the next morning.

Joe’s personal problems temporarily take a back seat when he becomes consumed with the kidnapping call. The female caller identifies herself as Emily Lighton (voiced by Riley Keough), and she says she’s been abducted by her ex-husband, who’s driving the two of them in a white van. Through some quick detective work of looking up the cell phone number that Emily is using, Joe finds out that the ex-husband is named Henry Fisher (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), and Henry has a criminal record.

There’s an additional urgency to this phone call because Emily and Henry have two underage children who are home alone: a 6-year-old daughter named Abby (voiced by Christiana Montoya) and an infant son named Oliver. The biggest problem in locating Emily is that she doesn’t know the license plate number of the van, and she doesn’t know exactly where she is on the road because she says she can’t look out of any of the van’s windows. The rest of the movie is about Joe’s race-against-time in his efforts to save Emily. There are some twists and turns (some more shocking than others) that happen along the way.

“The Guilty” requires some suspension of disbelief when showing Joe as the only person who seems to care the most about finding this alleged kidnapping victim. However, the movie’s plot addition of the wildfire happening at the same time does make it plausible that emergency responders have to give priority to the fire at that time. There are some parts of the movie where Joe steps way over the line of police ethics when he plays judge and jury in his reactions. But when more details about Joe’s personal problems are revealed, it’s actually consistent with his personality and past actions that he acts this way.

Gyllenhaal is the only actor seen on screen for most of the film, so his compelling performance is effective in depicting this anxiety-ridden situation. The voice actors in the cast also perform capably in their roles. The last 15 minutes of the movie cram in a lot of melodrama that might have some viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief. However, stranger things and more melodramatic things have happened in real life, so the movie isn’t completely far-fetched.

After it’s revealed why Joe is going to court, a few questions remain unanswered at the end of the movie, such as: “How or why was Joe allowed to work in law enforcement in this capacity, considering what he’s being accused of in court? And what kind of attorney (it’s presumed that Joe has an attorney) would allow a client to work in this high-stress environment the day before an important court appearance?”

There are some believable explanations, of course. Maybe the police department didn’t want to suspend Joe, for whatever reason, and demoted him instead. And maybe Joe is the type of stubborn person who wouldn’t take an attorney’s advice and thinks he could handle working in a stressful job the day before his court appearance.

As for how realistically “The Guilty” depicts 911 call centers and 911 phone operators, the podcast Real Crime Profile interviewed two real-life former 911 phone operators to get their perspectives of the American version of “The Guilty.” (Spoiler alert: This podcast episode discusses everything that happens in the movie.) These former 911 operators say that “The Guilty” is mostly accurate.

Fuqua (whose directorial credits include “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” movies) and Pizzolatto (the Emmy-nominated creator of HBO’s “True Detective” series) are very familiar with telling stories about law enforcement officers who operate outside the law to solve a case or to get what the cops want. “The Guilty” tells an intriguing story, but some viewers might be bored that most of the movie takes place in one location, and the on-camera action mostly centers on a series of phone calls. People who can appreciate “The Guilty” the most are those who use their imagination, because a lot of the terror is what’s not seen on screen.

Netflix released “The Guilty” in select U.S. cinemas on September 24, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Zeros and Ones,’ starring Ethan Hawke

December 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke in “Zeros and Ones” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Zeros and Ones”

Directed by Abel Ferrara

Culture Representation: Taking place in Rome in 2020, the dramatic film “Zeros and Ones” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged American soldier goes looking for his missing identical twin brother, who is suspected of being linked to terrorists planning to blow up the Vatican.

Culture Audience: “Zeros and Ones” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of writer/director Abel Ferrara and shallow, sloppily made movies that try to come across as deep and artsy.

Ethan Hawke in “Zeros and Ones” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The dull and incoherent drama “Zeros and Ones” is an example of how writer/director Abel Ferrara continues to bury himself so self-indulgently in his garbage films that he dumps out, he no longer seems capable of detecting his own cinematic stink. It’s yet another odious entry in Ferrara’s overrated filmography, which is littered with too many half-baked ideas that he’s fooled people into financing, just because he made some provocative films in the 1980s and 1990s. And yet, just like a cult following, there are certain people who think Ferrara can do no wrong. They praise everything he does, even though they would trash his movies if he were an unknown filmmaker.

It’s that same brainwashed mindset that seems to have lured Ethan Hawke into wanting to star in “Zeros and Ones,” which has two separate pre-recorded messages from Hawke: One message is at the beginning of the movie, while the other is at the end. In the introductory message, Hawke says he always wanted to do a movie with Ferrara, but he admits that even he couldn’t tell what “Zeros and Ones” was about when Ferrara sent the movie’s outline to Hawke.

Hawke also says that he didn’t even get a real screenplay, thereby hinting that much of this movie had no real story structure while filming, and people just “winged it” as they went along. It certainly looks that way, because all you’ll see in the time-wasting 86 minutes of total running time for “Zeros and Ones” are a bunch of randomly strewn, mostly darkly lit, shaky-cam scenes that don’t add up to much. You’d be hard-pressed to remember one major plot development in this sloppy and horrendous film.

In the movie’s end-credits message, Hawke almost looks a little embarrassed that he was somehow convinced to do a shill campaign video message to try to explain why this crappy movie even exists. It’s bad enough that Hawke is starring in this forgettable mess. It looks like Ferrara or someone on the filmmaking team coaxed Hawke to also be a movie publicist in these messages, where he somewhat pathetically pleads viewers to try to understand what the film is about. In the end-credits message, Hawke doesn’t even really want to talk about “Zeros and Ones,” but instead gives a rambling monologue about how life can be looked at optimistically or pessimistically. Maybe that’s his way of making himself feel better that he got caught in another stinker bomb from Ferrara.

“Zeros and Ones” is supposed to be about an American soldier named J.J. Jericho (played by Hawke), who goes to Rome to find his identical twin brother Justin Jericho (also played by Hawke), who has gone missing. At various points in the movie, people tell J.J. that Justin is imprisoned or is dead. It’s easy to tell these twin characters apart. Justin is the one who looks like he was rejected for an audition to play Charles Manson.

Why is Justin in trouble? He’s a suspected terrorist. And the word is that he knows about plans to blow up the Vatican. This movie takes place in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantines, so there are several references to the pandemic during the movie. It looks like many of the outdoor scenes were filmed in a rushed and jittery manner, as if maybe the filmmakers didn’t have a permit and wanted to get the filming done before they could get caught.

“Zeros and Ones” is such a pointless movie, Ferrara has problems explaining what the movie is about in his incoherent director’s statement that was supplied to the media. He comments in the statement: “‘Zeros and Ones’ is a film of lockdown and war, danger and espionage, American soldiers, Chinese middlemen, Middle Eastern holy men, provocateurs, diplomats, rogue elements of the KGB, and the Mossad, informants, killers and rebels. Male or female interchangeable, allegiance and history fluid, where data and information last known, is the most valuable and only commodity.”

The rambling statement continues: “A casbahesque landscape of noir streets, the feeling of Paris at the end of the occupation—but set in today’s post-modern, ancient and unchangeable Rome—the nights deserted except for the shadowy military and their operatives, paranoia and fear both masked and dangerous—all awaiting imminent attack. Piazza Vittorio, ground zero for our film. J. Jericho its hero. An American soldier armed with a video camera, service revolver and a surgical mask, he is of rank and privilege and deep within the inner circle of elite fellow officers who are the law among the lawless, their contacts and their informers.”

More ramblings in the statement: “The central event is the destruction of the Vatican which will be blown into the night sky—the truth of this—and the fake news surrounding exactly who is responsible and why—is only part of the story. More important is JJ’s own brother—the radical, the wanted revolutionary, the martyr, savior and public enemy accused of pushing our world towards a final confrontation, one that will force all the players to finally choose a side then take a stand.”

That last sentence in the statement actually doesn’t happen to the movie. Instead, what you see are random scenes haphazardly edited together, if you can actually see what’s happening because almost everything in this movie is so murky and ugly-looking. There’s J.J. being driven around in a Jeep, where he’s dropped off at various locations and takes a video camera with him. J.J. eventually encounters a shady character named Luciano (played by Valerio Mastandrea), who does a lot of standing around and scowling.

And there’s J.J. going to the home of a woman named Valeria (played by Valeria Correale), who kisses J.J. on the mouth while they’re both wearing their pandemic masks. She asks him, “Have you figured out what you’re doing in my country?” J.J. replies, “I’m working on it,” which is the sort of confusion that Hawke must’ve felt as he asked himself while filming: “Have I figured out what I’m doing in this train-wreck movie?”

There’s J.J. buying cocaine from a mysterious woman named Jiao (played by Korlan Madi), in what might be a massage parlor. J.J. has bought the cocaine so that he can use it to later bribe someone for information. Jiao appears to be not only a drug dealer but also some kind of madam, because there are two scantily clad women nearby who are making out with each other. The women are identified in the film’s end credits as Jiao’s Girl #1 (played by Barbara Andres) and Jiao’s Girl #2 (played by Sun Jiaying), who normally would be forgotten background extras, except that they show up later in the film because Ferrara can’t seem to make a movie without showing exploitative misogyny.

That’s because Jiao and her two “girls” are later seen in a lingering close-up scene as bloody, mutilated corpses in “Zeros and Ones,” with no explanation. It’s seems that Ferrara can’t get enough of showing women as targets of bloody violence in his most recent films. It’s a disgusting fixation that his gullible “fans” want to ignore, or maybe they condone it. It’s all just lazy filmmaking that shows Ferrara is so creatively bankrupt that he repeatedly puts in his movies the misogynistic trope of women being killed in excessively violent ways.

Ferrara has also been putting his much-younger wife Cristina Chiriac in his most recent movies, because apparently that’s the only way she can get work as an actress, based on her filmography. (As of this writing, the only acting credits that Chiriac has are in movies that have been directed by Ferrara.) In “Zeros and Ones,” Chiriac plays one of two unnamed female Russian agents (Chiriac is brunette, the other actress is blonde), who are first seen randomly having a dinner with some men where they all ramble on about Norman Mailer. This dinner conversation has nothing to do with the movie’s so-called plot.

Later, the blonde female Russian agent (played by Dounia Sichov), who is sullen and tries to look tough, holds up a gun to J.J., and forces him into a bedroom where a man identified as a doctor (played by Simone Gandolfo) also has a gun and is standing near a video camera that is recording what’s about to happen. The female Russian agent played by Chiriac is on the bed wearing lingerie and trying to look seductive.

The blonde Russian agent then barks to J.J.: “Here’s the deal. You knock her up, and you walk out of here.” The armed agent also tells J.J. that the doctor is standing by with the necessary medical equipment to find out if the sex has resulted in a pregnancy. And so, J.J. is held hostage at gunpoint to have sex with the brunette female Russian agent, who is depicted by the real-life wife of the director.

Why is J.J. being forced to impregnate her? Don’t expect an explanation. This sex scene isn’t explicit, but the fact that Ferrara put what is essentially a sexual-assault scene (any non-consensual sex is sexual assault) in the movie tells people more than we need to know about why he wanted his wife to do this type of twisted sex scene.

As for J.J.’s suspected terrorist twin Justin, he’s being held captive somewhere in a grungy-looking torture room. Justin is dirty-looking, disheveled and unhinged. He doesn’t look capable of remembering his name, let alone masterminding a plot to blow up the Vatican. Justin’s captors are men with Middle Eastern accents (more lazy stereotyping), and he’s injected with an unnamed drug.

Before whatever Justin was injected with starts to take effect, he shouts: “It takes more than guns to kill a man! You can’t kill me! I’ll be back after the sound and fury is finished!” Later, Justin yells repeatedly, “How come no one is lighting themselves on fire anymore?”

In another part of the movie, an unidentified man goes through water torture. Watching “Zeros and Ones” is a different type of torture. Don’t expect the movie’s title to be explained. But here’s what the title of the movie should be about: The “zeros” are the loser characters in this movie, and the “ones” are the unlucky individuals who got suckered into funding this trash dump passing itself off as a movie.

Lionsgate released “Zeros and Ones” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on November 14, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is January 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Cut Throat City,’ starring Shameik Moore, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Kat Graham, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Eiza Gonzalez and Ethan Hawke

September 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Demetrius Shipp Jr., Keean Johnson, Shameik Moore and Denzel Whitaker in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Cut Throat City”

Directed by The RZA

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans in 2005 and 2006, the crime drama “Cut Throat City” has a predominantly African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Four young men turn to a life of crime when they have problems finding jobs after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Culture Audience: “Cut Throat City” will appeal mostly to people who like typical “gangster” movies that have a lot of violence and a mediocre plot.

T.I. in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

How’s this for an unoriginal and tired idea for a movie? Poor people (who are usually people of color) become criminals because they’re desperate for money. And there’s a crime lord that they have to answer to who might or might not turn against them. “Cut Throat City,” despite its talented cast and an effort to be a somewhat stylish-looking film, still serves up this recycled and uninspired concept in a movie that doesn’t really do anything for the genre of gangster films. In fact, “Cut Throat City” (at 132 minutes long) gets a little too bloated and the plot a little too ridiculous for it to be considered a movie that will reach cult status as an undiscovered gem.

“Cut Throat City” (directed by The RZA, who’s best known as a founding member of the rap group Wu Tang Clan) could have used better editing to cut out the parts of the movie that drag before the movie’s big climactic scene. However, the screenplay by Paul “P.G.” Cuschieri is largely to blame for the most cringeworthy aspects of “Cut Throat City,” including the dumb dialogue and some of the most unrealistic aspects of the movie’s depiction of police investigations in a big American city.

New Orleans is the city where the movie takes place, in 2005 and 2006, with Hurricane Katrina as the catalyst for a lot of the angst and criminal activity in the story. “Cut Throat City” begins before Hurricane Katrina happened, when four working-class friends in their early 20s are getting ready for the wedding of one of the guys in the group. All four of them live in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which is considered one of the most financially deprived and roughest parts of the city.

The groom is James (played by Shameik Moore), who prefers to go by the nickname Blink, who is an aspiring writer/illustrator of graphic novels. Blink’s three closest friends are Miracle (played by Demetrius Shipp Jr.), who’s an impulsive hothead; Junior (played by Keean Johnson), who often gets teased because he’s a white guy who tries to be more like his African American friends; and mild-mannered and quiet Andre (played by Denzel Whitaker), who’s Blink’s best man and an aspiring jazz musician. (He plays the trumpet.)

Blink is getting married to his girlfriend Demyra (played by Kat Graham), who is the mother of their son, who’s about 3 or 4 years old. At the wedding, Demyra’s mother (played by Stacie Davis) gives Demyra some marriage advice: “It’s not about happiness. It’s about meaning. Find the meaning and happiness will come later.” That’s this movie’s idea of a “pep talk,” which is supposed to indicate to viewers that many of the people in this movie have a pessimistic view on life.

Demyra and Blink are actually happy together, and the wedding goes smoothly. The honeymoon is another story, because Hurricane Katrina hits within a few days after the wedding. Even before the hurricane, the main problem in Blink and Demyra’s relationship is that Blink is having a hard time finding work as a graphic novelist. And now that he’s a married man, he’s really expected to contribute income to help pay the bills. Even though Blink has an associate’s degree from college and he attended Tulane University, his college education won’t help him get his dream job as a graphic novelist.

Blink has been working on a concept for a graphic novel called “Cut Throat City.” He gets a meeting with a condescending publishing executive named Peter Felton (played by Joel David Moore), who starts off by looking at Blink’s work and calling it mostly “derivative.” Peter does see one illustration that he likes, so he asks Blink who his influences are. Blink replies by listing Charles Schulz, Gary Larson and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Peter then says in an exasperated tone that by “influences” he meant who are the influences in Blink’s life.

Peter also asks Blink what kind of audience he wants for “Cut Throat City.” Blink says he “never really thought about it.” Peter responds, “The first thing you think about is your audience.” Blink then says, “If we only focus on our markets, then a cartoon wouldn’t be anything more than a cheap, dim commodity that will never change.”

When Peter says he doesn’t know where Blink could’ve gotten that idea, Blink responds that it was Peter who actually said it at an anime expo in 1990. “I got a transcript from the library,” Blink adds. “Fair enough,” replies Peter, who’s obviously done with Blink at point. He then coldly dismisses Blink from his office and tells an assistant to bring in the next person.

It’s one of many rejections that Blink gets as an aspiring graphic novelist. Andre tries to make money as a street musician, but it’s barely enough to be considered pocket change. Miracle and Junior are also unemployed. For whatever reason, the movie doesn’t show them looking for any jobs they can get. Hurricane Katrina has devastated New Orleans, so the job market has dried up in many ways, but these four friends just seem like they’ve given up trying to find work.

To make matters worse, Blink is too proud to accept financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As several weeks go by and things get more financially desperate for Blink and Demyra, she’s had enough of Blink refusing money from FEMA, and she tells Blink that they have to apply for FEMA aid. When they get to the FEMA office, their application is denied since they don’t need housing, and they’re told that homeless people are getting priority for the financial aid. And to add insult to injury, Blink and Demyra also aren’t eligible because they live in the Ninth Ward.

This FEMA rejection is a reason for Blink to feel angry at “the system,” which is why he eventually goes along with Miracle’s idea to start working for Blink’s relative Lorenzo “Cousin” Bass (played by Tip “T.I.” Harris), who’s a local gangster. (T.I., who’s also known as a hitmaking rapper in real life, is wearing makeup in the movie that makes Cousin look like he has a skin condition like vitiligo.) Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre start dealing drugs for Cousin. But since they’re new to drug dealing, they mess things up and end up owing money to Cousin.

To show how vicious and unforgiving he is, Cousin makes the four guys watch as an unlucky man who has angered Cousin is tortured by having a wild raccoon attack the guy’s genitals. It’s not explicitly shown in the film, but it’s implied that this happened. The man is shown in the aftermath almost doubled over in pain with blood on the crotch area of his pants when he’s thrown out by Cousin and his henchmen.

Cousin and his group of thugs also force wild raccoons to fight each other in cages. And one of the main characters has a beloved dog, which predictably gets shot and killed by a vengeful Cousin during a fight scene. For anyone who hates seeing animal cruelty depicted on screen, it might be best to avoid this movie or close your eyes during these scenes.

Knowing that Cousin could also make their lives hell if they don’t come up with the money they owe him, the four friends decide to rob a local casino. And then one casino robbery turns into more, as they blow their money on strip clubs and gambling. All of these robbery scenes are completely ludicrous because the guys walk into the casino together wearing matching dark hoodies (automatically calling attention themselves) and they make little effort to disguise their faces, unless you consider wearing see-through nylon stockings on your face a “disguise.”

The casinos are also very crowded and there are surveillance cameras everywhere. And yet, the movie wants viewers to believe that these wannabe gangsters are clever enough not to get caught. After one robbery, which resulted in a big shootout with police and the theives’ getaway van being riddled with bullet holes, the four guys just trade in the van for a Dodge car in good condition. What used car dealer in their right mind would trade a car that’s in good shape for a bullet-damaged piece of junk?

“Cut Throat City” also makes the same stupid mistake that’s in a lot of badly written crime movies that take place in a big city: Only one cop is investigating the case. For a series of casino robberies in a city as big as New Orleans, it’s completely unrealistic to have only one investigator. And this cop also happens to look like a model/actress. Her name is Lucinda Valencia (played by Eiza Gonzalez), who has the thankless job of going into dangerous and sketchy areas by herself numerous times during the investigation, with no sign of a cop partner or backup anywhere.

There are also some other supporting players in this muddled and messy saga: Recently elected city councilman Jackson Sims (played by Ethan Hawke), who’s a former police officer and a very corrupt politician; Courtney (played by Rob Morgan), a sleazy barber who’s a confidential informant; and The Saint (played by Terrence Howard), a smooth-talking, bow-tie-wearing gangster who has criminal authority over Cousin.

Also part of the story, in a small role, is Rev. Sinclair Stewart (played by Isaiah Washington), who takes bribes to conduct funeral services for people who died under suspicious circumstances and don’t have a medical exam or death certificate. The bribes he takes include payment for forged death certificates. And somewhere in this jumbled story, Blink reunites with his estranged father Lawrence (played by Wesley Snipes), who abandoned Blink when Blink was a child.

“Cut Throat City” also has some bizarre references to “The Wizard of Oz.” When Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre first go to meet with Cousin about working for him, Cousin says that his headquarters is like Oz. He compares Junior to the Tin Man, Andre to the Cowardly Lion, Miracle to the Scarecrow and Blink to Dorothy. Later in the movie, The Saint covers the young robbers’ heads in ski masks and tells them, “There’s no place like home.”

Speaking of the lines in this movie, people will be rolling their eyes at how corny some of the dialogue is. In one scene, Courtney tells Lucinda that local thugs “will shoot you in a crack cocaine heartbeat.” In another scene, Cousin says about the man who is left sobbing after the raccoon torture: “Two things I can’t stand: a lying-ass woman and a crying-ass man.” If this is Gangster Poetry 101, no thank you.

And in another scene, Cousin and The Saint have a meeting, where Cousin says to him in a semi-monologue that sounds like it was written by someone who thinks this is how black gangsters are supposed to talk: “We’re too much alike: greedy-ass motherfuckers. That’s why they can take all the opportunity away from us. They can flood us, jail us, try to kill us, but they can never kill our greed. That’s why we’ll pimp, rap, sling dope, cheat or steal, even it’s from each other.”

“Cut Throat City” has a twist at the end that’s meant to make the movie look like more artistic than it really is. There’s an end-credits scene that doesn’t really add much to the conclusion of this very predictable and substandard story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technical aspects of how the movie was filmed, and the movie is well-cast with good actors, but the director needed to make better choices in editing. Ultimately, it’s the weak and trite screenplay that makes “Cut Throat City” a movie a disappointment that doesn’t offer anything exciting or innovative.

Well Go USA released “Cut Throat City” in select U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.

Review: ‘Tesla,’ starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan and Hannah Gross

August 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Tesla”

Directed by Michael Almereyda

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S. Northeast and in Colorado, primarily from 1884 to 1901, the dramatic film “Tesla” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant in the United States who later became a U.S. citizen, is a brilliant inventor, but he struggles to get investors and he experiences bad business deals.

Culture Audience: “Tesla” will appeal mostly to people who are open to experimental biopics, since the movie has some unconventional elements that viewers will either like or dislike.

Ethan Hawke and Eve Hewson in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

If you think a movie called “Tesla,” about pioneering Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla, who died in 1943 at the age of 86, is a stuffy affair with the usual biopic tropes, think again. “Tesla” writer/director Michael Almereyda’s very unconventional depiction of Tesla’s life has some out-of-left-field scenes that will either intrigue or annoy viewers. The movie should be commended for taking some bold risks, although the pacing in some parts of “Tesla” drags to the point where people might get bored.

That’s because “Tesla” is more of an introspective and murky think piece instead of a rousing story about one of science’s pioneers who was underrated and often overlooked during his time. (Tesla’s name was the inspiration for the tech company founded by Elon Musk, as well as the California-based rock band Tesla, which had hits in the 1980s and early 1990s.) The movie “Tesla” might hold the interest of people who don’t want to see a typical biopic, but everyone else should stay clear of this movie if they want something that sticks to a briskly paced “feel good” formula. And this movie (which mostly takes place from 1884 to 1901) isn’t really told from Tesla’s perspective.

One of the unpredictable aspects of “Tesla” is that Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke) is almost like a supporting character in this story that’s supposed to be about Tesla’s life. The movie is narrated by heiress/philanthropist Anne Morgan (played by Eve Hewson), who befriends Tesla in the movie and offers observations of him, as if she’s commenting in the present day. (In real life, she died in 1952, at the age of 78.) For example, there are multiple scenes with Anne using an Apple laptop computer and mentioning that if people do Google searches on inventors Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Tesla, there are millions more search results for Edison and Westinghouse than there are for Tesla.

The point is clear: Tesla, who worked with Edison and Westinghouse during various parts of his career, is still frequently overshadowed by them in the present day, just as he was when he was alive. Does the movie “Tesla” present him as a misunderstood genius? Yes and no.

On the one hand, the movie shows how Tesla (who immigrated to the U.S. in 1884) could excel as a scientist/inventor. His inventions included designing one of the first alternate current [AC] hydroelectric power plants in the United States in 1895. On the other hand, Tesla wasn’t so smart when it came to business. The movie depicts some well-documented situations when he was notoriously cheated in business deals and made other bad financial decisions that left him destitute by the time he died.

The “Tesla” movie makes it clear, through Anne’s constant narration, that Tesla was so introverted that the few people he allowed to get close to him often did not know what he was thinking. Anne explains that one of the biggest frustrations she had with Tesla was that he “lives inside his head” too much.

The movie shows that, in addition to Anne, there was one person Tesla was close to in his prime years as an inventor: his assistant Anthony Szigeti (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a Hungarian engineer whom Tesla met when they were students at Prague University. There’s a scene where Tesla shows that he’s still haunted by the death of his brother Dane, who died in a horsing accident at the age of 12, when Tesla was 7. Tesla confides to Anthony about his beloved brother Dane: “He was the brilliant one. I could never measure up.”

And the movie also depicts that although Tesla certainly excelled in his intellectual pursuits, due to his pioneering work with electricity, he placed his work over his personal life. Tesla never married, did not have children, and he died alone. Anne mentions in voiceover narration that Tesla was very close to his mother in his childhood. Anne says aloud at one point in the movie: “I came to wonder: Could any woman touch or reach Tesla the way his mother had?”

In the movie, Anne is just a platonic friend to Tesla, although it’s hinted that at some point that she had a romantic attraction to him, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Anne cared a great deal about what Tesla thought of her, as evidenced in a scene where Anne and Tesla are rollerskating together in a courtyard. Tesla falls down and cuts short the activity. “I’m fine,” he tells Anne. “Sometimes I have an unfavorable reaction to pearls.” Anne then hastily takes off the pearl necklace she is wearing.

French superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt (played by Rebecca Dayan) has a brief flirtation with Tesla, but it never goes anywhere, since they only encounter each other occasionally at social events. During one of those encounters, Sarah emerges in a scene set to electronic dance music. It’s one of many scenes where the movie infuses modern elements of things that weren’t invented yet during the time period depicted in the movie.

Other real-life people depicted in the movie include banker Alfred Brown (played by Ian Lithgow) and attorney Charles Peck (played by Michael Mastro), two investors who formed the Tesla Electric Company with Tesla and helped Tesla set up his own lab in 1887. Also portrayed in the movie are writer/editor Robert Underwood Johnson (played by Josh Hamilton), who was best known for his work with The Century Magazine, and his wife Katharine Johnson (played by Lucy Walters), who both befriended Tesla in the 1890s.

Hawke, who starred in director Almereyda’s 2000 movie adaptation of “Hamlet,” certainly wasn’t cast in the role of Tesla because of his physical resemblance. In real life, Tesla was about 6’2″ and had a rail-thin figure. Hawke is 5’10” and has an average build. And Hawke’s accent in the movie isn’t that great. It’s supposed to be a Serbian accent, but it comes out sounding quasi-European.

However, what Hawke does capture well (and it looks like this was the intention of the filmmakers) is Tesla’s introverted nature, his reluctance to deal with confrontation and his almost blind trust that other inventors would have the same type of integrity that he seemed to have. There are several scenes in the movie that show how Tesla could be in a room with other people and be overshadowed by people with bigger personalities and more financial clout.

Anne, a daughter of wealthy banker J.P. Morgan (played by Donnie Keshawarz), is one of those people, as depicted in this movie. Even though she’s much younger than Tesla, she has the power to get him major investment money via her father. And being the narrator of this movie, Anne’s confident personality shines through much more than Tesla’s.

Anne would become an outspoken feminist later in her life, and the movie shows signs of her being a free thinker who wasn’t afraid to go against tradition. She likes to challenge Tesla with questions having to do with science or philosophy. In one scene, Anne says to Tesla: “Idealism cannot work together with capitalism. True or false?”

Another personality that outshines Tesla’s is that of Thomas Edison (played by Kyle MacLachlan), the flashy inventor who took big risks and was often accused of taking credit for other people’s work. Tesla was sometime caught between the bitter rivalry of Edison and the more low-key George Westinghouse (played by Jim Gaffigan), but the end result was that Tesla was helped and hurt by his business deals with both of these titan inventors. Westinghouse was not as much of an attention-seeker as Edison was, but the movie shows that Westinghouse (just like Edison) was also capable of making ruthless business decisions, at the expense of alienating colleagues and in order to make himself wealthy.

Of the three inventors, Edison is one who’s depicted in the least flattering way in the movie. In a scene taking place in New York City in 1884, and portraying recent immigrant Tesla joining his new employer Edison for dinner with some other men, Edison shows some xenophobia by trying to embarrass Tesla with these questions: “Is it true that you’re from Transylvania? Have you ever eaten human flesh?” Edison then tries to laugh off these insults by saying, “We like to give the new men a hard time.”

Edison is essentially portrayed as a pompous blowhard who could be short-sighted if he couldn’t see immediate ways to make money. In one scene, Edison tells a group of businessmen: “Alternating current is a waste of time. There’s no future in it.” And in another scene, Tesla comments on Edison: “He talks to everyone but is incapable of listening.”

The movie has some whimsical fantasy sequences that Anne admits in narration never happened. One is a scene depicting Edison and Tesla getting into an argument, and they take ice cream cones that they’re holding and smash each cone on the other person. Another fabricated scene is one where Edison meets Tesla in a saloon and makes an apology to Tesla, who worked briefly for Edison from 1884 to 1885. And who really knows if Tesla and Anne ever rollerskated together in a courtyard? However, it’s depicted more than once in the movie.

The movie also portrays milestone achievements in science and technology, such as the invention of the phonograph, indoor electrical wiring and the first experiments in human electrocution. In all of these depictions, Edison or Westinghouse get all the glory, while Tesla’s contributions are trivialized to the media and to the public. The movie also shows Tesla in various times and places, such as New York City in 1881; Pittsburgh in 1888; Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899; and New York state’s Long Island in 1901.

Anne narrates what goes on in the personal lives of Edison and Westinghouse, including Edison’s marriage to second wife Mina Miller Edison (played by Hannah Gross), who had a big influence on her husband’s business decisions. The movie even goes as far to show some of Edison’s courtship with Mina, when she was engaged to marry a preacher’s son. It’s another example of how much of Tesla’s life takes a back seat to larger personalities in the movie.

The Tesla scene in the movie that most people will talk about or remember is one of those “bizarre time warp” moments, because it shows Tesla, alone with a microphone, belting out Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” It’s not performed in an upbeat karaoke way, but in a world-weary way that reflects Tesla’s state of mind of being worn down by his life’s disappointments. This scene is so kooky and unexpected that viewers will either love it or hate it.

Is this “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” scene meant to be funny or edgy? That’s up to viewers decide. The scene comes near the end of the movie, and it’s a welcome jolt from some of the tedium that happens during various parts of this unevenly paced film.

Because indoor electrical wiring was still a luxury for most of the time period in which the movie takes place, many of the interior scenes are darkly lit and present many of the characters in dour and shadowy tones. And the movie doesn’t offer a lot of scenes of Tesla actually doing any inventing, probably because the filmmakers thought that these types of scenes would bore viewers who aren’t science-minded.

Tesla isn’t always center stage in this story, and that might be off-putting to viewers who are expecting an in-depth portrayal of his personality. But it’s obvious that Tesla was an enigma to many people who knew him. Would it have been better for a movie about Tesla to invent aspects of his personality that might not have existed, just to be a more crowd-pleasing movie? It’s obvious that the filmmakers decided to keep Tesla an enigma and throw in some modern and unexpected twists in telling this story.

For a more conventional portrayal of Tesla, people can see director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2019 dramatic film “The Current War: The Director’s Cut,” which is about the competition between Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon), with Nicholas Hoult in the supporting role of Tesla. Just like with the “Tesla” movie, “The Current War: The Director’s Cut” has cast members whose acting talent elevates the flawed screenplay. “Tesla” offers enough original unpredictability that makes this movie worth watching for anyone who’s curious to see an artsy, non-traditional version of Tesla’s life.

IFC Films released “Tesla” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on August 21, 2020.

Review: ‘The Truth,’ starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alain Libolt, Juliette Binoche, Christian Crahay, Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Clémentine Grenier in “The Truth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Truth”

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “The Truth” features a nearly all-white cast (with some Asians briefly shown as extras) representing the upper-class/wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A screenwriter has a troubled relationship with her famous actress mother and confronts some of these issues while visiting her mother in Paris.

Culture Audience: “The Truth” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally realistic arthouse cinema.

Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in “The Truth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

When filmmakers do a story about a vain and spoiled famous actress who has a difficult love/hate relationship with a daughter living in her shadow, the results are usually comedy (such as 1990’s “Postcards From the Edge) or camp (such as 1981’s “Mommie Dearest”). “The Truth” is neither. Instead, this well-acted, well-written movie is a drama that authentically shows the dynamics and tensions of a family affected by fame, career ambitions and public image.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters”) wrote and directed “The Truth,” which is his first movie filmed outside of Japan. The story is essentially an emotional tug of war between legendary actress Fabienne Dangeville (played by Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter daughter Lumir (played by Juliette Binoche), as they come to terms with their relationship and how it was affected by Fabienne’s actress rival Sarah Mondavan, who died 40 years earlier.

Lumir lives in New York City with her American actor husband Hank (played by Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. All three of them go to Paris to visit with Fabienne, who has recently released her memoir, which is called “The Truth.” In addition to promoting the book, Fabienne is busy filming a new movie.

Lumir has ostensibly come to Paris to celebrate the release of the book, which is a bestseller in France, but it’s clear that Lumir is also there to possibly finished some unsettled business with her mother. One of the first things that Lumir does when she sees her mother again is confront Fabienne about not sending her the book’s manuscript before it was published.

Lumir reminds Fabienne that Fabienne had promised that Lumir would be the first person to read the manuscript. However, Fabienne insists that she did sent the manuscript to Lumir, and Fabienne claims to have no idea why Lumir never received it.

And it seems as if Fabienne has a version of the truth that contrasts with her daughter’s. In the memoir, Fabienne talks about picking up Lumir from school when Lumir was a child. However, Lumir says her mother never did any such thing because Fabienne was always too busy. “My memories, my book,” Fabienne responds dismissively.

During the course of the movie, it becomes clear that a lot of this mother-daughter tension has to do with unresolved issues that both women have over Sarah, who is never seen in this movie. At one time, Sarah’s and Fabienne’s acting careers were thriving and were approximately on the same level. But Fabienne ended up getting major fame and accolades that eclipsed Sarah, who died in a drowning that was officially ruled an accident.

Lumir has a lot of resentment toward her mother over Sarah’s death because while Fabienne was caught up in her career, she often neglected Lumir as a child, while Sarah was a devoted mother figure to Lumir. Meanwhile, Fabienne and Sarah had been competing for the same role in a movie, and the role was presumed to be going to Sarah.

However, Fabienne (by her own admission) slept with the director and got the role instead. Fabienne won a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for the role, and her relationship with Sarah was never the same again. It’s implied, but not stated outright, that Sarah’s death might have been a suicide, not an accident, because she was devastated by Fabienne’s betrayal. Lumir is also upset with Fabienne because Fabienne never even mentioned Sarah in Fabienne’s memoir.

The movie that Fabienne is working on during Lumir’s visit is a sci-fi drama called “Memories of My Mother.” In the film, a terminally ill woman goes to outer space to try and extend her life, and she leaves her teenage daughter behind on Earth.  When the woman comes back to Earth after seven years of being away, she has barely aged, while she finds out that her teenage daughter is now an old woman. Fabienne plays the old woman, while an up-and-coming actress named Manon (played by Manon Clavel) has the role of the mother who’s barely aged.

Fabienne’s long-suffering personal assistant/butler Luc (Alain Libolt) tells Lumir that the main reason why Fabienne wanted to do the movie is because Manon has the starring role and because the media and public have been constantly comparing Manon to Sarah. Not only has Manon been dubbed the “second coming of Sarah Mondavan,” but her speaking voice sounds remarkably like Sarah’s.

Luc invites Lumir and her family to Epinay Studios, where the movie is being filmed. Lumir can’t help but be intrigued, so she readily accepts the invitation. The “movie within a movie” concept is masterfully delivered here to show how life can imitate art and art can imitate life. (Fabienne’s fear of aging and Fabienne being distant for years from her daughter are obvious parallels to the story in “Memories of My Mother.”) While watching her mother on this film set, Lumir observes firsthand how much Fabienne is still set in her ways and is using the movie to work out some issues that Fabienne had with Sarah.

Fabienne is every inch the self-centered diva, but she also has a very charming side that draws people to her and keeps people fascinated by her. It’s one of the reasons why Luc has been working for her for more than 40 years, but even his steadfast loyalty is tested during the course of the movie. Luc knows the history of how Fabienne and Lumir’s relationship was affected by their respective relationships with Sarah.

Although the supporting actors in “The Truth” do a very good job with their roles, this movie is really a showcase for Deneuve and Binoche. Deneuve has the more complicated, less transparent role, and she plays it to the hilt without being melodramatic. Binoche gives a quivery-mouth, teary-eyed vulnerability to Lumir, but she also shows that Lumir is no pushover when she expresses how she feels and stands up to her mother’s attempted manipulations.

Charlotte is a typical adorable kid, while Hank is mainly there as a supportive husband. He respects his wife’s wishes to stay out of the conflict between Fabienne and Lumir. In the beginning of the story, Fabienne (who has not seen Frank since his and Lumir’s wedding) seems to show that she doesn’t have much respect for Frank, but she eventually warms up to him when she sees that he’s not going to criticize her in the way that Lumir is intent on doing.

When Frank, Lumir and Charlotte first arrive at Fabienne’s home, she has just finished being interviewed by a print journalist. When the journalist observes that she has visitors at her door, Fabienne says, “It’s nothing. It’s my daughter and her little family.” And when she talks about Frank, she says calling him an “actor” is “saying a lot.”

It turns out that Frank really is a working actor in movies, but he’s not an actor who’s had a leading role yet. He’s taken a vow not to drink alcohol until he gets a leading role, but that vow is quickly broken during the visit with Fabienne. It’s not too much of a surprise, since a lot of people would want to get drunk too if they had to be around a difficult mother-in-law like Fabienne.

Much like celebrities in real life who expect the world to revolve around them, the world of “The Truth” also revolves around Fabienne. Viewers of the movie don’t find out much about Lumir and Frank, other than that one of the reasons why Lumir moved to New York was to get away from her mother. But viewers find out a lot of Fabienne.

Fabienne has an enormous fear of being perceived as a has-been. She’s very competitive with other actresses. (And there’s a somewhat meta moment with Deneuve when Bridget Bardot’s name is mentioned in one scene.) She loves dogs and hates cats. She has an old turtle in her backyard garden that she’s named Pierre, after her ex-husband (Lumir), whom she kicked out of her life when she got tired of him.

Fabienne also lied in her memoir by saying that Pierre is dead. Pierre (played by Roger Van Hool) doesn’t find out that Fabienne has literally written him off as dead until he shows up for a surprise visit while Lumir and her family are at Fabienne’s house. Pierre is a laid-back, scruffy type who never really had big career ambitions (he used to work in the film business as an assistant), and he’s obviously faded into reclusive obscurity. And it doesn’t seem to bother him that Fabienne has told the world that he’s dead.

Although he’s of retirement age, Pierre has been vague about how he’s able to make money. And in one of the more amusing scenes in the film, when Pierre first meets Hank, he mistakenly assumes that Hank is a much-younger lover of Fabienne’s. Fabienne does have a lover, but he’s close to her age. His name is Jacques (played by Christian Crahay), and he happens to be Fabienne’s live-in chef, who’s more than happy to be subservient to her in every way.

Fabienne is clearly someone who is accustomed to using men to get what she wants. In one scene in the movie, she even tells Lumir that she’s never apologized to a man. And it’s also obvious that Fabienne is used to treating other women as rivals, since Fabienne wants to be the queen bee at all times. But that selfishness has come at a price.

A recurring symbolism in the movie is of females brushing each other’s hair. Fabienne lets her granddaughter Charlotte brush her hair, and she comments somewhat sadly that Lumir would never let Fabienne brush Lumir’s hair. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Sarah would often brush Lumir’s hair. The brushing of hair is obviously a metaphor for mutual trust and admiration.

The ending of “The Truth” is a little formulaic, but the head games and verbal sparring between mother and daughter are perfectly matched to this movie. It’s not a movie that’s going to change the world, but it’s one that will make people think about the emotional toll that comes from holding grudges against family members and whether or not refusing to forgive is worth the cost.

IFC Films released “The Truth” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on July 3, 2020. The movie was already released in France and in Japan in 2019.

 

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