Review: ‘Sing Sing’ (2024), starring Colman Domingo, Clarence Maclin, Sean San José and Paul Raci

July 12, 2024

by Carla Hay

Colman Domingo and Clarence Maclin in “Sing Sing” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Sing Sing” (2024)

Directed by Greg Kwedar

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2005, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, the dramatic film “Sing Sing” (inspired by true events) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with a few Latin people and white people) people who are in some way connected to Sing Sing.

Culture Clash: Several residents of Sing Sing become involved in doing a stage production of the original play “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code,” as they battle their own personal obstacles and insecurities. 

Culture Audience: “Sing Sing” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Colman Domingo and unique dramas about the art of acting, where the actors happen to be in prison.

Paul Raci, Sean San José, Colman Domingo, Sean “Dino” Johnson and Mosi Eagle in “Sing Sing” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Sing Sing” is a wonderfully acted story about a group of people finding joy, vulnerability, and personal challenges in being stage actors. They happen to be residents of a prison, which affects them but doesn’t define who they are and their abilities. Colman Domingo gives another standout performance in a long list of first-rate performances that he has done on stage and on screen.

Directed by Greg Kwedar, “Sing Sing” is inspired by real people and true events. Kwedar co-wrote the “Sing Sing” screenplay with Clint Bentley. The screenplay is based on John H. Richardson’s 2005 non-fiction Esquire article “The Sing Sing Follies” and Brent Buell’s original play “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code.” “Sing Sing” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

“Sing Sing” tells the story of a group of residents at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, which is considered one of the toughest prisons in New York state. (Parts of the movie were filmed in the real Sing Sing.) The Sing Sing residents featured in the movie who participate in a nationwide program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), which gives people who live in prisons opportunities to become artists, such as being actors in stage productions that take place in the prisons.

Many of the actors in the “Sing Sing” cast are real-life RTA graduates. The RTA program has gotten media attention for having a positive effect on those who are incarcerated. According to RTA, about 60% of formerly incarcerated people in the U.S. return to prison, while only 5% of RTA graduates return to prison. RTA’s rehabilitation rate is impressive by any standard.

“Sing Sing” (which takes place in 2005) uses the real names of the real people who went through many of the experiences depicted in the film. Domingo has the starring role as John “Divine G” Whitfield, who was wrongfully convicted in 1988 of second-degree murder and illegal weapons possession. In the movie, Divine G (who was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder charge) has been trying to prove his innocence ever since. He has an upcoming clemency board hearing that is an emotional cornerstone for this movie.

Divine G is mild-mannered when it comes to most things, except for his passion for the arts. He is the unofficial leader of the plays that he and his fellow RTA colleagues act in at Sing Sing. Divine G is also playwright and a book author. His book “Money Grip,” an action-adventure story in an urban setting, is well-known in prison populations. There’s a scene in the movie where Divine G is asked by another Sing Sing resident (played by the real Whitfield) if Divine G can autograph this book, and a flattered Divine G willingly obliges. Before Divine G was incarcerated, he worked as a party/nightclub DJ.

The movie’s opening scene shows Divine G as the lead actor in the RTA production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The production gets praise, and the cast members are happy with their performance. However, Sing Sing’s RTA members are eager to do an original play, possibly a comedy. Some of the RTA members ask Divine G if they can act in his next play, but Divine G modestly says that the new play he’s been working on isn’t quite ready. This fictional play is called “A Fine Friend.” It’s about a music producer named Zahar Turner, who is betrayed by a friend who cons Zahar out of Zahar’s recording studio.

It just so happens that Sing Sing’s RTA director Brent Buell (played by Paul Raci), an outside worker who does not live at the prison, has written an original play called “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code.” It’s a convoluted story about an Egyptian prince trying to find a mummy. The story has time traveling and the cast members portraying a mix of historical figures and characters created just for the play. The Shakespearean character Hamlet is one of the lead roles in “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code.” Most of “Sing Sing” is about the production of “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code,” starring Sing Sing’s RTA members. The real Buell has a cameo role in “Sing Sing.”

“Sing Sing” features several people, but only three Sing Sing residents get the majority of the screen time and backstories explaining who they are. Divine G; his thoughtful cellmate Miguel “Mike Mike” Gascon (played by Sean San José); and a fairly new (and initially very hostile) Sing Sing resident named Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin. In real life, Maclin is formerly incarcerated non-professional actor who is portraying a version of himself in “Sing Sing.” Real-life RTA graduates who depict versions of themselves in the movie include David “Dap” Giraudy, Patrick “Preme” Griffin, Mosi Eagle, James “Big E” Williams, Sean “Dino” Johnson, Cornell “Nate” Alston and Camillo “Carmine” LoVacco.

Brent is the acting teacher and director for “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code,” but Divine G is more of a mentor who can speak in terms that his fellow RTA members can better understand. This difference in leadership styles can be seen in a skillfully acted scene where Brent tries to give instructions to Divine Eye on how Brent wants a scene to be played, but he does it in intellectual ways using psychology and formal acting terms that Divine Eye doesn’t really understand. Divine G asks to step in, and he explains the instructions in street vernacular, which clicks better with Divine Eye.

Are there any women in this very male-dominated movie? Yes, but only briefly. On a panel that that will decide whether or not the RTA members can stage ths production of “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code” at Sing Sing, there are a few unnamed women, played by Joanna Chan
Cecily Lyn and real-life RTA founder Katherine Vockins. There’s one unidentified woman who works with Brent who is one of the cast members, but her story is never told in the movie. The only woman with a significant speaking role in “Sing Sing” is the unnamed clemency board member (played by Sharon Washington) who asks Divine G the most questions during his clemency hearing.

Although “Sing Sing” has fantastic performances, the movie unrealistically avoids many of the racial issues that would definitely be part of the conversations in these prisons. If you were to believe everything in “Sing Sing,” a prison like Sing Sing doesn’t have gangs based on racial identities and no one talks about race. It’s a very oversimplified and unrealistic erasure of how race plays a huge role in alliances and enemies that exist in prisons.

Another example of the movie’s glossy and somewhat tone-deaf depiction of race relations in prison: Brent (who is white) never has his race mentioned in the movie. “Sing Sing” is yet another prison movie that shows a white person who has a leadership position over a group of prison residents who are mostly not white. Brent doesn’t really act like a condescending “white savior,” but he does have to win over the trust of some of this mostly African American group of RTA members who don’t know Brent very well.

The racial identities of people in this group absolutely have an effect on the relationships and dynamics in this group, but the “Sing Sing” movie is too timid to actually say this out loud when it would definitely be said out loud in a real-life prison. Instead, the movie has the Sing Sing residents speak in vague terms, such as “The system doesn’t care about us.”

There’s only one instance where there’s an overt display of racial tension: In an early scene in the movie, Divine Eye is in a prison yard when accosts an unnamed younger white man (played by Johnny Simmons) who lives at Sing Sing. Divine Eye accuses the man of giving him crushed aspirin instead of the unnamed narcotics that Divine Eye bought from this man. Divine Eye gets rough with the man (who denies knowing that the powder wasn’t a narcotic) and demands that this man return the $500 that Divine Eye gave this man for the drug deal.

In real life, word would get out in the prison about this incident, and the white supremacist gangs in the prison would have something to say and do about it. This reality is based on many books, documentaries and interviews that real Sing Sing residents have given that reveal what life in Sing Sing (and other similar prisons) are really like for people who live there. Instead, Divine Eye (who is not affiliated with any prison gang who would give him “protection”) faces no consequences.

The man who was accosted by Divine Eye is not seen again until later in the movie when he’s sitting by himself in a cafeteria, and Divine Eye glances over at the man with a hard stare. It makes you wonder why this scene of Divine Eye getting rough with this man even exists. It’s also seems like the “Sing Sing” filmmakers deliberately chose to have Divine Eye’s opponent be a white man in the only scene where Divine Eye bullies a stranger in prison, but then “Sing Sing” refused include any of the realistic racial talk that happens in prisons. Divine Eye loses his temper at other people (such as some of the RTA members), but he knows them, unlike this stranger who happens to be white.

Likewise, in its intention to present these Sing Sing residents as actors, the movie goes out of its way to erase any violence that takes place in a tough prison such as Sing Sing. And this has to be one of the most unrealistically quietest and cleanest “bad reputation” prisons you’ll ever see in a movie. There’s a scene where the camera pans slowly away at closed prison cell doors in Sing Sing, and there is complete silence, while the cell doors look as pristine as dorms rooms at an elite university. You don’t ever have to have been in Sing Sing or any similar prison to know how ridiculously peaceful this prison is depicted in the movie.

The RTA play rehearsals depicted in the movie are a combination of acting lessons and therapy sessions. Brent and some of the other RTA men keep repeating “Trust the process” as their mantra. And it should come as no surprise that the RTA members learn to break down emotional barriers in order to become closer and more honest with each other. It’s very easy to predict which RTA character will go through the biggest transformation as a person.

“Sing Sing” takes some abrupt and unexpected turns in the story that are meant to be absolute tearjerking moments. There are some heart-wrenching monlogues that give deep insight into the personal pain and struggles of these RTA members who are haunted by their pasts and either fear or have lost hope for what their future holds. The movie is filled with sensitive and poignant portrayals of how humanity and compassion can survive in prison.

All of the cast members give realistic and admirable performances, even though the “Sing Sing” movie has a much glossier depiction of Sing Sing prison life than what exists in reality. Perhaps this watered-down version of Sing Sing prison (where no one talks about racism/race relations, and violence in this prison is portrayed as almost non-existent) is meant to show that the RTA program was a “safe haven” for these Sing Sing residents. But a “safe haven” doesn’t have to be a “bubble” where filmmakers are afraid to have uncomfortable but realistic depictions of many harsh realities of prison life.

A24 released “Sing Sing” in select U.S. cinemas, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on August 2, 2024.

Review: ‘Reverse the Curse,’ starring Logan Marshall-Green, David Duchovny, Stephanie Beatriz, Jason Beghe, Evan Handler, Santo Fazio, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Pamela Adlon

July 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: David Duchovny, Stephanie Beatriz and Logan Marshall-Green in “Reverse the Curse” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Reverse the Curse”

Directed by David Duchovny

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey, mostly in 1978 (and briefly in 1956 and 2004), the comedy/drama film “Reverse the Curse” (based on the novel “Bucky F*cking Dent”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring writer and his terminally ill father try to mend their rocky relationship during the 1978 Major Leage Baseball season that had a World Series competition between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. 

Culture Audience: “Reverse the Curse” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director/star David Duchovny and movies about father-son relationships that alternate between being cynical and sentimental.

Logan Marshall-Green and David Duchovny in “Reverse the Curse” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Reverse the Curse” awkwardly fumbles its attempts to balance sarcasm and sappiness. This comedy/drama has too much phony-sounding and lackluster dialogue in portraying a volatile father-son relationship affected by the 1978 World Series. Perhaps because of the maudlin and frequently dull screenplay, the principal cast members look like they’re trying too hard to be convincing as their often-unhappy characters. And that desperation just ends up being a distraction.

Written and directed by David Duchovny, “Reverse the Curse” is based on his 2017 novel “Bucky F*cking Dent,” which was the original title of the movie. After the movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, Vertical acquired the film and changed the movie’s title to “Reverse the Curse.” The “Reverse the Curse” title refers to the theory that the Boston Red Sox baseball team was cursed from winning the World Series after trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919.

“Reverse the Curse” begins by explaining this theory in a scene taking place in New Jersey in 1956. In a household living room, 11-year-old Theodore “Ted” Fullaker (played by Liam Garten) is watching a TV news report about how the Boston Red Sox hasn’t won a World Series because of this supposed curse. The movie then abruptly shifts to 1978, to show 33-year-old Ted is now working as a peanut vendor at Yankee Stadium.

Ted is divorced, has no children, and still lives in New Jersey. (“Reverse the Curse” was filmed on location in New Jersey.) What Ted really wants to do for a job is be a novelist, but he hasn’t had luck getting any of his manuscripts published. It doesn’t help that Ted would rather get stoned (he has a fondness for marijuana) instead of working on his craft. It’s mentioned several times that he doesn’t do much except smoke marijuana and watch TV when he’s at home.

One of the problems with “Reverse the Curse” is that it never really shows if Ted is a good writer or not and therefore doesn’t give viewers anything to root for when it comes to Ted wanting to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional writer. His writing aspirations are sidelined and overshadowed by the repetitive bickering that Ted has with his father and other people. It all becomes tiresome and annoying to watch after a while.

An early scene in the movie shows Ted in a meeting with a book publisher or a book agent named Blauner (played by Pamela Adlon), who tells Ted: “You’re a real writer. You’re a goddamn writer. But you’ve got nothing to write about. You write as if you haven’t lived … You haven’t suffered—and it shows.” She then advises that Ted commit a crime so that he can go to prison and get raped in prison. If you think this type of conversation is hilarious, then “Reverse the Curse” is the movie for you.

Ted’s cranky father is Marty Fullaker (played by Duchovny), a widower who 60 years old and has heart disease and terminal lung cancer. Marty has declined any further medical care and just wants to die at home. During his stay in a hospital, he was assigned a nurse named Mariana Blades (played by Stephanie Beatriz), who calls herself a “death specialist”—someone who gives counseling to patients to prepare them for death.

Ted meets Mariana for the first time at the hospital where Marty will soon be discharged. Mariana tells Ted that Marty been working on a “biographical novel.” Mariana tells Ted that Marty wants Ted to help him finish the book. Mariana has this to say about Marty: “He’s been a villain. He’s been a scapegoat. Now, he just wants to die a hero.”

Marty is a longtime Red Sox fan who believes that he will live to see the Red Sox “reverse the curse” and win the World Series. In 1978, the Red Sox get closer and closer to making it to the World Series. Ted is a Yankees fan. One of his favorite players is Bucky Dent, who was a short stop for the Yankees at the time.

“Reverse the Curse” makes Marty an Archie Bunker-type character who is curmudgeonly and openly racist but is supposed to be “loveable” anyway. When Marty introduces Mariana to Ted, Marty calls her a racial slur for Hispanics. Mariana shrugs it off and says to Ted: “Your father and I are friends. Epithets can sometimes be endearments. It’s all in how you tell the story.” She then adds by saying to Marty: “Right, honky?”

In order to help Marty finish his book, Ted reluctantly spends more time with Marty. And what a coincidence: Every time Ted is visiting Marty, Mariana just happens to come over to visit too, even though Marty is technically no longer her patient. It’s the movie’s predictable set-up for a romance to start between Ted and Mariana, who have the type of attraction to each other that they try to hide but it’s very obvious.

Ted (who’s not very smart and is self-defeating) and Mariana (who is quick-witted and ambitious) have the type of “opposites attract” banter that a would-be couple can have in movies where they spend quite a bit of time clashing before admitting that they want a romantic relationship with each other. It’s all so predictable but made very boring because Ted and Mariana don’t really have great chemistry with each other. While Ted opens up to Mariana about his past, she’s very emotionally guarded and doesn’t want to talk to Ted about her personal life.

There are the inevitable father-son arguments that are extensions of long-simmering resentments from the son’s childhood. (Benny Mora plays a young adult Marty in flashback scenes.) It should come as no surprise that Marty wasn’t a great husband and father and now has some regrets. Marty has a habit of treating Ted as kind of a loser who didn’t live up to Ted’s potential. Will Ted and Marty heal their grudges against each other before it’s too late? Hint: Did the Red Sox ever “reverse the curse”?

It would be enough for “Reverse the Curse” to have subplots about the writing of Marty’s novel; Marty’s battle with a terminal illness; the possible romance between Ted and Mariana; and Marty’s obsessions with the Red Sox reversing the curse. But no. The movie throws in yet another subplot about Marty pining over a long-lost mistress he fell in love with when he was married to Ted’s mother.

The name of this long-lost love is Eva Maria Gonzalez (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is portrayed by Kathiamarice Lopez in flashback scenes. It leads to a meandering part of the story where Ted enlists Mariana’s help to look for Eva in neighborhoods where people mostly speak Spanish. The movie shows if Eva and Marty reunite or not.

“Reverse the Curse” also has some time-wasting nonsense about Marty’s friends at a barbershop who plot ways for Marty to not find out if the Red Sox lost a game this season. These barbershop friends are yammering meddlers named Benny (played by Evan Handler), Shticker (played by Santo Fazio) and Tango Sam (played by Jason Beghe), who tell Ted a bizarre story about how Marty thinking that the Red Sox is a winning team has direct links to Marty’s health.

Years ago, when Ted was too young to remember, Marty was sick and had to use a wheelchair. Benny said that he fabricated a newspaper story about the Red Sox winning a game (when in fact, the Red Sox lost the game) and gave the fake newspaper article to Marty. Benny says that after seeing the newspaper article, Marty “miraculously” stopped needing to use a wheelchair.

Marty’s barbershop pals think the same tactic can work on Marty again to improve his health. And so, there are entire segments of the movie where Marty’s barbershop friends and Ted go to great lengths to keep any news from Marty that the Red Sox lost a game, including the old trick of fabricating newspaper articles. Marty doesn’t watch TV, which makes it easier for him to not find out the truth. “Reverse the Curse” fails to be believable in this subplot of “hiding the real Red Sox game scores from Marty” because the movie doesn’t want viewers to think that avid Red Sox fan Marty, who has a lot of time on his hands, could easily and realistically find a way to get Red Sox game scores on the radio.

All of these subplots and shenanigans are rarely amusing to watch in this very uneven movie. It seems as if writer/director Duchovny was too enamored with the “Bucky F*cking Dent” book to leave out the parts of the book that didn’t need to be in the movie. Ted is such a mopey sad sack, and Marty is such arrogant bore, it’s hard to care that they’ve made their own lives miserable.

For most of the film, Marshall-Green wears a fake-looking hippie wig that’s very distracting because it looks so artificial. In “Reverse the Curse,” Marshall-Green also looks too old to be 33-year-old Ted. In fact, Marshall-Green was in his mid-40s when he filmed the movie. Because of this noticeable age miscasting, Duchovny (who is only 16 years older than Marshall-Green) and Marshall-Green do not look convincing as father and son.

But that’s not the only problem with this movie. There’s so much cringeworthy dialogue, it diminishes the intended emotional impact of the story. “Reverse the Curse” lurches around from one subplot the next, like the rambling novel that Marty’s book seems to be. “Reverse the Curse” crams in some heavy-handed schmaltz in the last 20 minutes, but by then, it’s too late to save this well-intentioned but mishandled movie.

Vertical released “Reverse the Curse” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 14, 2024.

Review: ‘The Devil’s Bath,’ starring Anja Plaschg, Maria Hofstätter and David Scheid

July 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anja Plaschg and David Scheid in “The Devil’s Bath” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

“The Devil’s Bath”

Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Austria, in 1750, the horror film “The Devil’s Bath” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young newlywed becomes mentally ill in a conservative and judgmental religious community.  

Culture Audience: “The Devil’s Bath” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s directors and horror films with religious themes.

Anja Plaschg in “The Devil’s Bath” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

“The Devil’s Bath” is not easy to watch for people who expect horror movies to have quick pacing and obvious jump scares. This “slow burn” film, set in 1750 Austria, shows the terror of untreated mental illness in a strict religious community. It’s worth watching until the very end to understand the true impact of the story.

Written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, “The Devil’s Bath” is based on historical research by Kathy Stuart. The movie had its world premiere at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival and its U.S. premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. “The Devil’s Bath” swept the 2024 Austrian Film Awards, winning seven prizes: Best Feature Film; Best Actress (for Anja Plaschg); Best Supporting Actress (for Maria Hofstätter); Best Film Editing; Best Production Design; Best Score; and Best Makeup.

The movie (which takes place in an unnamed Austrian village in 1750) begins with a terrifying scene of a woman named Ewa Schikin (played by Natalya Baranova) is walking through a wooded area with a baby (played by Frieda Seidl) until she reaches a cliff with a waterfall. Ewa then throws the baby over the waterfall. After committing this murder, she makes the sign of the cross on herself, calmly walks to a house, knocks on the door, and says to the unseen person opening the door: “I committed a crime.” Was is then shown beheaded, with her head on the ground. An unseen person cuts off one of her fingers.

And why did she commit this murder? That question is answered toward the end of the movie. In the meantime, a young couple named Agnes (played by Plaschg) and Wolf (played by David Scheid) are shown getting married. At the wedding reception, the guests play a game to behead a chicken while blindfolded.

Agnes and Wolf are living in a small shack-like house, near the house of Wolf’s mother Gänglin (played by Hofstätter), who has a close relationship with Wolf. Before Wolf and Agnes got married, the couple lived with Gänglin. Agnes liked living there and expresses disappointment to Wolf that the couple will now be living in this much smaller house. Wolf tells Agnes that he will soon inherit his mother’s farm, which is another way of saying he doesn’t expect Gänglin to live much longer.

This village community is very religious. Every time a clock chimes in the village, several of the residents make the sign of the cross. Women are expected to be wives and mothers. Young and healthy women are expected to out with any physical work that the men do.

Many of the villagers make their living by fishing for catfish. However, later in the movie, it’s shown that the village is experiencing a food shortage. Loaves and bread are rationed. This rationing leads to some tense moments where people have disputes about how much bread they deserve to get.

One day, Agnes is walking through the woods and looking for Wolf when she sees a drawing on a tree. The drawing depicts Ewa throwing a baby over a waterfall and later being beheaded while she was in prison. She also sees that Ewa’s beheaded body on display with Ewa’s head nearby in a small cage. It’s later revealed that Agnes now has the finger of Ewa that was taken from Ewa’s body.

Another death soon happens in the village: A young man named Lenz (played by Lorenz Tröbinger) has committed suicide by hanging. At Lenz’s funeral, a priest gives a sermon has this to say about Lenz’s suicide: “What he did is worse than murder.”

Agnes wants to become a mother but gets frustrated that she hasn’t gotten pregnant. She falls into a deep depression where she refuses to get out of bed. Agnes also overhears her mother-in-law Gänglin tells Wolf: “You should’ve married a local girl … someone who’s a better worker and can get pregnant.”

The movie’s title refers to 18th century Austrian vernacular that described depression as being trapped in “the devil’s bath.” Because psychology wasn’t developed as a science until the late 1870s, religion in Agnes’ 1750s community is used as an explanation for mental illness. In many of today’s communities, religion instead of science is still used as a “cure” or treatment for mental illness and other psychological issues.

“The Devil’s Bath” shows Agnes’ further mental deterioration as she continues to isolate herself. Some extreme things happen that are meant to be shocking but also demonstrate what can happen when desperate people do certain things when they feel trapped and take what they think is the best option. Religious oppression is inescapable in this story.

There are some haunting images scattered throughout the movie. For example, there’s a scene showing decapitated human arms floating in a barrel filled with water and catfish. Another is a scene where moths come out of Agnes’ mouth.

Some of the most squirm-worthy imagex are how the “treatments” that Agnes gets from Wolf in attempts to “cure” her of her depression. Leeches are put on Agnes to “let the melancholy out.” Wolf also uses a needle to thread a dangling string horizontally across the back of her neck, where Agnes tugs the string back and forth. It seems like a very crude and misguided way of treating nerve pinpoints, like a warped version of acupuncture.

“The Devil’s Bath” succeeds in its intention to depict a dark and claustrophobic experience of someone’s mental illness gradually getting worse and being stuck in a community that equates mental illness with demon possession. Religion is used with rigid harshness to punish those who are mentally ill.

As the troubled Agnes, Plaschg gives a complex performance that is both harrowing and heartbreaking. “The Devil’s Bath” deliberately takes its time to reveal certain deadly motives. The truth has nothing to do with devil possession and everything to do real-life religious fears that human beings place on each other.

Shudder released “The Devil’s Bath” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024. Shudder premiered the movie on June 28, 2024.

Review: ‘Thelma’ (2024), starring June Squibb, Fred Hechinger, Richard Roundtree, Clark Gregg, Parker Posey and Malcolm McDowell

July 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

June Squibb and Fred Hechinger in “Thelma” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Thelma” (2024)

Directed by Josh Margolin

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the comedy film “Thelma” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 93-year-old grandmother attempts to track down the con artists who scammed her out of $10,000.  

Culture Audience: “Thelma” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in comedies that make pointed observations about aging and how elderly people are often perceived.

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in “Thelma” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The vigilante comedy “Thelma” achieves a rare balance of being hilarious, harrowing and heartwarming, even with some plot holes. June Squibb is a delight in this unique movie about a 93-year-old grandmother seeking revenge on con artists who scammed her. It’s the type of comedy that also has a lot to say (without being preachy) about how elderly people are often treated by society.

“Thelma,” which is the feature-film debut of writer/director Josh Margolin, had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that 93-year-old widow Thelma Post (played by Squibb) is very resourceful in her quest, despite being disabled, ignorant about most computer technology, and not having a driver’s license or a car. All of these factors affect her vigilante mission after she is scammed out of $10,000. Although the movie is fiction, a mid-credits scene shows how Margolin’s real-life grandmother Thelma influenced the movie.

“Thelma” (which takes place in the Los Angeles area) begins by showing Thelma getting help from her 24-year-old grandson Daniel Markowitz (played by Fred Hechinger), who is patiently showing her how to find a certain message in her email. Thelma is looking for an emailed recording of her deceased husband Ted singing “One Enchanted Evening.” Thelma, who lives by herself, has been a widow for almost two years.

Daniel, who is Thelma’s only grandchild, has a close relationship with Thelma and adores her immensely. Daniel’s neurotic mother Gail (played by Parker Posey) is Thelma’s daughter. Gail and her uptight husband Alan (played by Clark Gregg), who is Daniel’s father, are both busy working professionals. Daniel is unemployed, so he’s been asked to look after Thelma as much as he can. Daniel asks Thelma to wear a wrist band for emergency alerts. She reluctantly agrees to wear it.

It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that Daniel has a lot of insecurities because he feels like he is a disappointment to his parents. Not only is he unemployed, but he also hasn’t figured out what to do with his life. His aimlessness is one of the reasons why he thinks his estranged girlfriend Allie (played by Coral Peña) has asked that they take a break from each other. Daniel has this to say to Thelma about his separation from Allie: “We’re in different places. She thinks I’m ‘stuck.'”

One day, Thelma is at home by herself when she gets a frantic phone call from a young man who identifies himself as her grandson because he calls her “Grandma.” The voice on the phone sounds a lot like Daniel. The person the phone tells her that he’s in jail because he got into a car accident where his car hit a pregnant woman.

Another man then gets on the phone and identifies himself as the defense attorney for the grandson. This so-called attorney says it’s urgent that his client get bailed out as soon as possible, but he needs $10,000 in cash immediately for that to happen. He instructs Thelma to send the cash through the mail to his office address.

It’s a scam, of course, but Thelma doesn’t know it yet. She doesn’t hesitate to follow the instructions. And so, Thelma withdraws $10,000 from her bank account and mails the cash to the name and address she was given. She put the cash in a stamped envelope and just dropped the envelope in a mailbox at a post office, without getting a tracking number for the envelope. She later finds out it’s a fake name, and the address is a place that provides a street address for private mail boxes.

When Thelma finds out that Daniel really isn’t in jail and that she was scammed, she’s deeply embarrassed. Daniel, Gail and Alan tell her that the most important thing is that Thelma wasn’t physically hurt. They report the theft to police. But unfortunately, Thelma can’t remember the name and address where she mailed the money in an envelope that can’t be tracked.

The police officer taking the report tells Thelma and her family that it’s unlikely they can catch the culprits and get the money back since they don’t have any helpful information to track down the con artists. Daniel feels guilty because he wasn’t there with Thelma to prevent this scam from happening.

Meanwhile, Gail and Alan start to revisit the idea that Thelma is better off in a senior living facility. It’s a sore subject with Thelma, who thinks she’s perfectly capable of living by herself. Thelma’s embarrassment about being scammed turns to anger. And she decides she’s gong to track down the con artists, whether her family likes it or not.

Thelma knows her family wouldn’t approve of her vigilante plan, so she doesn’t tell them what she wants to do. She asks Daniel for a car ride to the Belwood Village Senior Living Facility, where she visits her longtime friend Ben Halpern (played by Richard Roundtree), who’s been a widower for the past five years. Thelma tells Ben about her plan and asks to borrow his scooter, but he says no.

The rest of “Thelma” is a madcap and sometimes poignant roller coaster ride of a story as Thelma (with a lot of help from Ben) plays detective and goes on the hunt for the scammers. Thelma’s anxious family members report her missing from the Belwood Village Senior Living Facility. It’s in this part of the movie that it’s revealed Thelma has several health issues: She’s a breast cancer survivor, had a hip replacement, and she wears hearing aids. She also has arrhythmia, a brain tumor, sepsis, edema and transient global amnesia.

There are some amusing scenes with Belwood Village employees Rochelle (played by Nicole Byer) and Colin (played by Quinn Beswick), who go back and forth with Thelma’s family over whether or not Thelma’s disappearance need to be reported to police, since it’s not uncommon for elderly people to wander off at this facility. There’s a Belwood Village resident named Starey Gary (played by David Giuliani), who got this nickname because he’s non-verbal and just stares. Starey Gary’s disabilities are not mocked in a cruel way, but his spaced-out persona is used for some of the comedic moments.

“Thelma” makes physical aging and elderly disabilities the focus of lot of jokes in ways that are not intended as insult but to make viewers are that senior citizens should not be underestimated because they might have physical characteristics that some people might perceive as liabilities. Thelma is a feisty free spirit who doesn’t let her disabilities hold her back from what she wants to do.

Thelma’s relationship with Daniel and her relationship with Ben are the heart and soul of the movie. Hechinger’s performance is convincing as a scruffily adorable Daniel, while Roundtree’s appealing performance as practical Ben provides some down-to-earth balance to Thelma’s impulsive tendencies. (“Thelma” is the last movie from Roundtree, who died in 2023 at the age of 81.) An “in memoriam” tribute caption for Roundtree is in the film’s end credits. Malcolm McDowell plays a character named Harvey, who shows up in the last third of the film.

“Thelma” has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments because the casting and comedic timing for this movie are pretty much close to perfect. However, viewers have to suspend a lot of disbelief in a climactic part of the film which has some unrealistic elements with a few contradictions and unanswered questions. Overall, the movie’s heartfelt moments are effective without being sappy. “Thelma” stands out not just because it’s rare to see someone in their 90s headline a movie but also because it’s a genuinely funny movie that defies all the usual stigmas that people usually have about getting old.

Magnolia Pictures released “Thelma” in U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024.

Review: ‘Janet Planet,’ starring Julianne Nicholson, Zoe Ziegler, Elias Koteas, Will Patton and Sophie Okonedo

July 2, 2024

by Carla Hay

Zoe Ziegler and Julianne Nicholson in “Janet Planet” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Janet Planet”

Directed by Annie Baker

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1991, in western Massachusetts, the dramatic film “Janet Planet” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 11-year-old girl and her single mother have various uncomfortable adjustments as the girl learns to be more independent and not as tolerant of the people who come in and out of her mother’s life.

Culture Audience: “Janet Planet” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Julianne Nicholson and don’t mind watching a slow-paced but well-acted movie about mother-daughter relationships.

Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler in “Janet Planet” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Thoughtful and with nuanced performances, “Janet Planet” can be recommended to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced “slice of life” movies. This realistic drama shows the gradual shift in a mother-daughter relationship. Usually movies with this sort of topic has a lot of melodrama or plot developments that are often seen in soap operas. “Janet Planet” isn’t that type of movie. Rather, it shows how relationships can change during when life is mundane and uneventful.

“Janet Planet” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Annie Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and screened at other festivals, including the 2023 New York Film Festival and the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival. “Janet Planet” takes place during the summer of 1991, in rural western Massachusetts.

The movie’s opening scene shows 11-year-old Lacy (played by Zoe Ziegler) calling her single mother on a pay phone while Lacy is at summer camp. Lacy wants to go home and makes an alarming statement when she tells her mother: “I’m going to kill myself if you don’t get me.” By the time that Lucy’s mother Janet (played by Julianne Nicholson) arrives to pick up Lacy, Lacy has changed her mind and wants to stay at the camp.

However, Janet has another reason for Lacy to come home: Janet’s live-in boyfriend Wayne (played by Will Patton), who’s about 15 to 20 years older than Janet, has had a motorcycle accident and is recovering at home. Lacy actually doesn’t need to be at home, but because Janet insists that Lacy come home, it’s an indication that Janet wants Lacy there for emotional support. Lacy’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.

Lacy doesn’t want to introduce Janet to the other people at camp, which is the first sign that things are somewhat tense between Lacy and Janet. Lacy tells Janet that she wants to stay at camp. But Janet says, “I already convinced them to give me part of the deposit back.”

Lacy, by her own admission, is an introverted loner who has a hard time making friends with people. She likes to read and draw in her spare time. Lacy also takes piano lessons from a an elderly woman named Davina (played by Mary Shultz), who is kind and patient. Lacy is not rude but she doesn’t have a “cute and cuddly” personality either. “Janet Planet” is about how Lacy stops blindly worshipping her mother and sees Janet for the flawed human being that she is.

Janet is a self-employed licensed acupuncturist who has a home office. The name of her business is Janet Planet. Unlike Lacy, who has a very independent personality, Janet constantly craves approval and companionship. It’s one of the reasons why Janet lets people into her life who might not be good for her. At one point in the movie, Janet makes a comment that she’s not beautiful but she can get people to fall in love with her.

Janet and Lacy have the type of household where when they have meals at the same table as other people, there is little or no conversation. When Janet and Lacy (who often sleep in the same bed together) have any heart-to-heart talks, Janet gets uncomfortable if Lacy says things that Janet doesn’t want to hear. Janet gives the impression that she’d rather not hear about any angst that Lacy might be feeling.

Here’s an example of one of their conversations: Lacy tells Janet, “You know what’s funny? Every moment in my life is hell.” Janet replies, “I don’t like it when you say things like that. You seem pretty happy.” Lacy says, “It’s hell. I don’t think it will last though.” Janet admits, “I’m actually pretty unhappy too.”

“Janet Planet” is divided into three chapters, with each chapter focusing on how a different person enters the lives of Janet and Lacy and how each person’s presence affects Janet and Lacy. The first chapter is about Wayne’s effect on this small family. The second chapter is about Janet reconnecting with a long-lost friend named Regina (played by Sophie Okonedo), an actress in a puppet theater collective that has a hippie lifestyle. The third chapter is about Janet spending time with Avi (played by Elias Koteas), the cult-like leader of the puppet theater collective.

Wayne is sullen and keeps mostly to himself, but he has a nasty temper that affects his relationship with Janet. Wayne also seems to have mental health issues because he is seen wandering around aimlessly on the front lawn at night. Regina is friendly and quirky and doesn’t talk down Lacy. Regina needs a place to stay, so Janet lets Regina temporarily live in the household. Avi, who is Regina’s ex-lover, thinks of himself as an intellectual philosopher, but everything about him seems like he’s a con artist. It isn’t long before Avi makes it known to Janet that he’s interested in getting romantically involved with her.

“Janet Planet” doesn’t always have clear resolutions for the dilemmas and conflicts presented in the story because people tend to drift in and out of Janet’s life without necessarily having closure. Lacy is not shown bonding with anyone her age except for a day when Wayne’s daughter Sequoia (played by Edie Moon Kearns) spends time with Wayne, Janet and Lacy at a shopping mall. Wayne has a visitation rights arrangement with Sequoia’s mother, who is briefly heard but not seen in the movie when Sequoia leaves for this visit and her mother says some words of greeting in a friendly tone. Lacy and Sequoia get along with each other almost immediately and have some fun inventing their own language.

After this get-together, Lacy asks Wayne why Sequoia doesn’t live part-time with him. Wayne refuses to answer the question and gets upset, which obviously means that it’s a sore subject for him. Very little is mentioned about Wayne’s family history except that Wayne has grandchildren and he has a 20-year-old son named Eric, who “lives in California and Iraq,” according to Wayne. Wayne’s grandchildren and Eric are not seen in the movie. It can be presumed by Wayne’s statement that Eric is in the military and is stationed in Iraq.

One of the best things about “Janet Planet” is the talented performance by Ziegler, who makes her feature-film debut in “Janet Planet.” This movie is named after Janet, but it’s through Lacy’s perspective that the story has its heart and soul. Ziegler’s performance is very natural and never once looks like she’s trying too hard to be a good actress. “Janet Planet” doesn’t have any grand, sweeping statements about life but it does offer some pointed observations about the time in everyone’s life when a child begins to see parenthood in less idealistic ways.

A24 released “Janet Planet” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on June 28, 2024.

Review: ‘Searching for Amani,’ starring Simon Ali

July 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Simon Ali in “Searching for Amani” (Photo courtesy of Backroads Pictures and RandomGood Films)

“Searching for Amani”

Directed by Debra Aroko and Nicole Gormley

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Searching for Amani” features a predominantly black African group of people (with a few white people) discussing the 2019 unsolved murder of Kenyan nature conservancy employee Steven Ali Apetet while he was working on the job and the conflicts over land occupation that seemingly led to his murder.

Culture Clash: Steven’s middle child Simon Ali, who is an aspiring journalist, investigates his father’s murder but experiences many obstacles.

Culture Audience: “Searching for Amani” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about true crime and rural African culture.

Levis Ali and Simon Ali in “Searching for Amani” (Photo courtesy of Backroads Pictures and RandomGood Films)

“Searching for Amani” is an emotionally impactful documentary about a teenage journalist’s quest for the truth about his father’s unsolved murder in Kenya. The movie also examines conflicts between native Kenyans and wealthy white land owners. On another level, the documentary is an observation of how climate change and a severe drought in Kenya turned land occupation into a deadly crisis.

Directed by Debra Aroko and Nicole Gormley, “Searching for Amani” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival, where Aroko and Gormley won the Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. The word “amani” means “peace” in Swahili. It’s reportedly the last word that Steven Ali Apetet said when he was shot to death on October 15, 2019. He was 41 years old. At the time he was murdered, Apetet was working at his job as a tour at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy.

No suspects or persons of interest have been named in this murder case. There were witnesses (including three tourists who were with Apetet) but they have not been able to identify the killer or killers. The most popular theory is that the killer or killers belonged to a group of pastoral herders who were in conflicts with the Laikipia Nature Conservancy owners about using the conservancy’s land to herd and feed animals.

“Searching for Amani” was filmed with Apetet’s middle son Simon Ali, an aspiring journalist, was 13 years old. The other people in Simon’s tight-knit and loving family include his widower mother Lucy and his siblings (listed in order from eldest to youngest) sister Faith, brother Ken, brother Levis and sister Charlene. Simon is the middle child and is the voiceover narrator for the documentary. At one point, Levis is tasked with doing some of the interviewing in the investigation because he’s older than Simon and is allowed to travel to certain places while Simon has to stay in school.

Apetet is described as kind, hard-working “peacemaker,” who took this job at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy (which is about 100,000 acres of land) so he could afford to send his children to good schools. Apetet has been an employee at the conservancy for about 20 years and was shot in the morning, near the beginning of his works shift that day. In voiceover narration, Simon says that people tell him that out of all of his siblings, his personality is the most like his father’s personality.

Simon comments, “Everyone in my family wants justice. Why did they want to kill him?” Simon’s investigation includes interviews with several people, including some of his father’s former co-workers and Laikipia Nature Conservancy owner Sveva Makena Gallmann, whose mother Kuki Gallmann bought the conservancy. The former co-workers interviewed include mechanic Enock Nodkia, security officer Isaac Kateiya, lodge staffer Frederick Gikandi Kamuri and botanist Thomas Olekaichu. One of the most compelling parts of the documentary is when one of the tourist witnesses is tracked down and interviewed.

Simon (who comes from a farming family) gets support from his best friend/schoolmate Haron Lenges, who comes from a pastoral herding family. During the filming of the documentary, Simon sees Lenges’ family go through hardships because of the drought. It helps Simon have a more personal understanding of pastoral herders feeling desperate to use land to keep their herds alive. Simon’s father had many responsibilities in his job. One of them was to remove trespassers.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that the journalist Simon whom admires the most is Kenyan TV journalist/talk show host Jeff Koinange, who hosts the talk show “Jeff Koinange Live” on Citizen TV. Koinange is known for his investigative work in social and political issues, especially those pertaining to Africa. A montage epilogue in “Searching for Amani” show what happens in Simon’s quest to eventually meet Koinange.

“Searching for Amani” has cinematography by Simon Ali, Campbell Brewer and co-director Gormley. Simon, who is intelligent and inquisitive, clearly had a passion for journalism and has a bright future ahead in this profession. The family’s heartbreak over not knowing the full story of what happened in this tragic murder might never go away. However, “Searching for Amani” is a testament that Simon and the rest of his family are admirably carrying out the wonderful legacy of their departed family member who was taken way too soon from them.

Review: ‘Tuesday’ (2024), starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lola Petticrew, Leah Harvey and Arinzé Kene

June 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

Lola Petticrew and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Tuesday” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24) (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

“Tuesday” (2024)

Directed by Daina O. Pusić

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the dramatic film “Tuesday” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 15-year-old girl (who has an unnamed terminal illness) and her worried mother have interactions with death, which manifests itself as a talking macaw that can willingly change the size of its body. 

Culture Audience: “Tuesday” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Julia Louis-Dreyfus and offbeat movies about confronting mortality.

Lola Petticrew and Death (voiced by Arinzé Kene) in “Tuesday” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

The morbid drama “Tuesday” is best appreciated by viewers who can tolerate surrealistic movies about death. It’s a unique story about a mother and daughter interacting with death, which is embodied as a talking macaw. The concept is creative but alienating. The people who will dislike this movie will really hate it, while others will either like or love this movie. It’s a flawed but interesting film. The cast members’ performances might keep viewer interest if people still want to watch the movie after seeing how death is portrayed in the story.

“Tuesday” is the feature-film directorial debut of writer/director Daina O. Pusić, also known as Daina Oniunas-Pusić. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and then made the rounds at other film festivals, such as the 2023 BFI London Film Festival and the 2024 Miami Film Festival. Before writing and directing “Tuesday,” Pusić wrote and directed short films.

The opening sequence in “Tuesday” shows Death (an orange macaw) taking the lives of several people in various locations. “Tuesday” takes place in an unnamed city in England, where the movie was filmed on location.) Death can change its size by choice. In the movie, Death’s sizes range from being as small as a thimble to as large as a tall building. The character of Death is a combination of computer-generated imagery and visual effects for a live actor performance. In the scenes where Death is human-sized or larger, Death is portrayed by actor Arinzé Kene.

Death has a deep, gravelly voice that can be off-putting to some viewers. When Death is ready to take someone’s life, Death gives that someone a very tight embrace. Some of the dying people welcome death, while others don’t want death anywhere near them. Some are shocked and frightened by seeing Death, while others are not surprised and are much more accepting.

These contrasting attitudes toward Death can be seen in the mother and daughter who are the people at the center of the story. Zora (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is an American single mother, who lives with her 15-year-old daughter Tuesday (played by Lola Petticrew), who has an unnamed terminal illness. Tuesday’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie. It’s also never explained why Zora is living in England, but it can be presumed she’s lived in England for several years because Tuesday has an English accent.

Tuesday uses an oxygen tank and a wheelchair. She also has a compassionate home care nurse named Billie (played by Leah Harvey), who visits the household on a regular basis. An early scene in the movie takes place in a taxidermy shop, where Zora is selling some unusual taxidermy figures: rats dressed as Catholic bishops. Zora says these items are her daughter’s but Zora is selling them without her daughter’s knowledge. It’s later revealed that Zora has been secretly selling things in the household because she lost her job and doesn’t want to tell Tuesday.

Tuesday is the first person in the household to see Death. Instead of being alarmed, Tuesday tells Death a story. Death laughs and shrinks to the size of a thimble. It’s the beginning of a unusual acquaintance that develops between Tuesday and Death. Tuesday is lonely (at one point, she mentions later that her friends abandoned her because of her illness), so she enjoys talking to Death.

When it comes to Tuesday’s terminal illness, Zora is much less accepting of it than Tuesday. Whereas Tuesday seems to be quietly peparing to die, Zora is angrily defiant and doesn’t want to consider that Tuesday is running out of time to be alive. The movie does not mention how long Tuesday has had this terminal illness or the medical diagnosis for Tuesday’s life expectancy. Zora believes that she and Tuesday can successfully fight this disease together.

Needless to say, Zora’s first encounters with Death are very hostile. It leads to some disturbing scenes where Zora tries to get rid of Death. (Sensitive viewers, be warned: These scenes show some animal cruelty.) And then, Zora does something truly bizarre that will either further alienate viewers of this movie or will make viewers curious to see what will result from Zora’s extreme actions.

“Tuesday” might have been better as a short film, since much of the movie gets repetitive, with pacing that drags. The movie’s marketing is somewhat misleading because Zora is not in the film as much as the movie’s trailer and poster suggests. There’s a huge chunk of the movie where Zora is not seen at all. Most of the conversations that Death has are with Tuesday.

Billie is an underdeveloped character. Don’t expect to learn much about her or anyone else in the movie who isn’t Zora, Tuesday or Death. Billie is the supporting character who gets the most screen time. All the other supporting characters pass through the story in cameo roles.

“Tuesday” has flashes of droll comedy, but the movie’s overall tone is gloomy and weird. Tuesday is an intelligent teenager who’s a little eccentric. Her personality is at the heart of the film. There are times that Tuesday wants to die, which is very unsettling to Zora, who says out loud that it’s unnatural for a parent to outlive a child.

“Tuesday” takes a bold risk of not following the usual movie stereotype of making Zora a saintly mother of an ailing child. Zora is often impatient and rude. As the story goes on, it becomes clearer that Zora’s bad attitude has a lot to do with being under financial pressure to take care of Tuesday while Zora is unemployed and dreading a future without Tuesday.

What saves “Tuesday” from being too abstract and too enamored with its fantastical elements is the fact that the film’s story is grounded in an authentic depiction of a mother-daughter relationship. The movie is an unusual portrayal of stages of grief when it comes to death. “Tuesday” is memorable for its talking bird, but what will stay with viewers the most is what the movie has to say about humanity.

A24 released “Tuesday” in select U.S. cinemas on June 7, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on July 14, 2024.

Review: ‘The Wasp’ (2024), starring Naomie Harris and Natalie Dormer

June 25, 2024

by Carla Hay

Natalie Dormer and Naomie Harris in “The Wasp” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

“The Wasp”

Directed by Guillem Morales

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in the United Kingdom, the dramatic film “The Wasp” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An upper-middle-class homemaker asks a working-class former schoolmate to do a deadly deed, and it leads to various conflicts and complications. 

Culture Audience: “The Wasp” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and twist-filled psychological thrillers.

“The Wasp” is an apt title for this psychological thriller because it leaves such a stinging impression. Naomie Harris and Natalie Dormer give intense performances filled with suspenseful twists and turns in a murder-for-hire scheme. It’s the type of movie that has enough unpredictability and compelling acting, many viewers will want to see this film more than once.

Directed by Guillem Morales, “The Wasp” is adapted from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play of the same name. Malcolm also wrote “The Wasp” screenplay. “The Wasp” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. The movie was filmed on location in the United Kingdom. The story takes place in an unnamed city in England.

“The Wasp” begins by showing a close-up of an unhappily married homemaker named Heather Foxfield (played by Harris), who is crying outdoors by herself. Heather hasn’t been happy with her demanding and domineering husband Simon (played by Dominic Allburn) for quite some time. One of the reasons for their troubled marriage is that Heather hasn’t been able to conceive a child.

At the moment, soft-spoken and eager-to-please Heather has two other preoccupations. First, there seems to be a wasp infestation in their home, but Heather doesn’t know where the wasps have been living on the property. The other preoccupation that she has is Simon’s command for her to prepare the perfect dinner party for business colleagues who have been invited to Simon and Heather’s upper-middle-class home. Simon expects Heather to have a fabulous multi-course meal for this event, which he tells her is crucial for his career.

Without going into too many details in this review, the dinner party is a disaster. Simon blames Heather and storms out of the house. This conflict seems to be the last straw for Heather, who puts a plan into motion. As already revealed in the trailer for “The Wasp,” Heather contacts a prickly former schoolmate named Carla (played by Dormer) to hire her to kill Simon. Heather and Carla have not seen each other for about 30 years, when they were about 11 or 12 years old.

Carla is living in her own type of misery. She is having lot of financial problems that her supermarket cashier job can’t cover. And so, Carla is secretly a sex worker to make extra money. Carla is married to an unemployed gambling addict named Jim (played by Rupert Holliday Evans), who’s about 20 years older than Carla. She’s also financially supporting four underage children, who have different fathers. At the time this story takes place, Carla is about seven or eight months pregnant.

The rest of “The Wasp” shows how Heather convinces an initially reluctant Carla to be a part of this murder-for-hire scheme. There is a lot of symbolism in “The Wasp,” particularly in the fact that Simon keeps a framed collection of insects hanging in the house. One of the insects that is singled out as a favorite is the tarantula hawk, a certain wasp that has special meaning in the story. What the tarantula hawk is known for has greater meaning when the movie’s stunning ending is revealed.

Shout! Studios will release “The Wasp” in select U.S. cinemas on August 30, 2024.

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

June 24, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“Griffin in Summer”

Directed by Nicholas Colia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘How I Faked My Life With AI,’ starring Kyle Vorbach

June 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kyle Vorbach in “How I Faked My Life With AI”

“How I Faked My Life With AI”

Directed by Kyle Vorbach

Culture Representation: The documentary film “How I Faked My Life With AI” features a predominantly white group of people (with a one black person and one Asian person) who are connected in some way to filmmaker Kyle Vorbach or expertise on artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology.

Culture Clash: Kyle Vorbach makes a documentary film about fooling his friends and other people with various online fabrications about his life, with the fabrications made through A.I. technology.

Culture Audience: “How I Faked My Life With AI” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about how A.I. can be used in elaborate con schemes or documentaries about online pranks or social experiments that are taken to extreme levels.

Kyle Vorbach in “How I Faked My Life With AI”

“How I Faked My Life With AI” blurs the line between being a vanity project and an informative chronicle about elaborate fakery using artificial intelligence. Kyle Vorbach is the director and star of this provocative but repetitive documentary. There are many times in the film where it seems like Vorbach just wants to show off his computer skills in creating complex hoaxes, rather than adequately explaining a meaningful purpose for these hoaxes. However, the documentary is saved because Vorbach includes perspectives of people who aren’t his friends and who can talk about the benefits and pitfalls of A.I. technology.

Vorbach is not only the star and director of “How I Faked My Life With AI,” but he is also the movie’s screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and one of the movie’s producers. “How I Faked My Life With AI” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. In the beginning of the documentary, Vorbach explains in a voiceover narration that ever since he was a kid, he liked to live in his own world. He thought he wanted to be either a rock star or a magician. (He dabbled in doing both jobs as an adult.)

However, when he got the idea to do this documentary (which Vorbach says was filmed over one year), it was at a low point in his life when he was an aspiring filmmaker based in Los Angeles but was temporarily living with his parents in Rochester, New York. He was trying to figure out what he really wanted to do with his life because his film career wasn’t going the way he expected. (Translation: He was unemployed and bored.)

It started as an online prank and grew into various schemes where he fooled his closest friends and many other people. The documentary includes the friends’ reactions when Vorbach told them the truth. It should come as no surprise when about midway through the documentary, Vorbach reveals to viewers that the narration for the documentary is not really his voice but is an A.I.-generated voice.

Vorbach says in the movie’s opening scenes that he felt isolated and lonely during this period of time in his life when he was living with his parents. His girlfriend Caitlin Vetere (who is seen in the documentary) was in another state, and she became one of the unwitting victims in his elaborate A.I. hoaxes. Vorbach said it started with him playing around with A.I. programs that take texted words and turned them into images. He tested these programs using the images of his dog and other dogs.

It wasn’t long before Vorbach began doing the same thing to photos of himself and combining them with photos of celebrities whom people said Vorbach resembles, such as Ryan Gosling and Macauley Culkin. The resulting images looked like slightly different versions of the real Vorbach. Vorbach says in a voiceover what he thought at the time: “If I’m already generating my pictures, why not generate a brand new life?”

Vorbach then created an avatar that he secretly called Ryan Gosling Person that he used for these schemes. Using this avatar and A.I. technology, Vorbach posted images on his social media accounts that made it look like Vorbach had taken exciting trips to New York City and Los Angeles, when in fact he had been staying the entire time at his parents’ home in Rochester. All of his friends were fooled.

Vorbach comments that he took his hoaxes a step further by fabricating other people by using A.I. technology. He says he was inspired by the true story of Donald Trump pretending to be his own publicist when communicating in writing or by phone with journalists and editors. (The documentary includes an archival clip audio recording of Trump doing this publicist impersonation.) Vorbach says, “If I could fake my own success, maybe I could feel that way all the time or at least a little bit longer.”

It led to Vorbach using an A.I.-generated photo of himself to create a publicist character representing Vorbach. Vorbach also created a fake website and a fake business for his fake publicist, who began pitching Vorbach to the media as an “A.I. expert” who authored a book called “Pandora’s Code.” (The book was secretly written entirely by A.I.) And sure enough, Vorbach began getting requests for interviews about his “A.I. expertise.” He even gave a TED talk under this new fake profession.

As seen in the documentary, the schemes got even more elaborate. They included Vorbach fabricating a news outlet called WHNY, which had the slogan “News From the Heart of New York.” Vorbach, using his own photos to make himself look like a middle-aged man, fabricated an A.I.-generated persona as a WHNY reporter named Chris Washington, who did videoconference interviews with Vorbach’s unwitting friends about Vorbach. Vorbach used A.I. to disguise his face and voice when doing these interviews as the fabricated journalist Chris Washington.

In another of his A.I. hoaxes, Vorbach posed as a successful DJ/dance music artist named Berkly Havoc, with help from real DJ/music producer David Block. Using the name Berkly Havoc, Vorbach created and released music using A.I. and was booked for a party, where he played music that was made entirely from A.I. technology. At the party, he pretended to be mixing songs live, when he was actually faking it. Some of the party attendees (who are not named in the movie) are seen reacting to finding out that the DJ was not really operating the equipment and was playing only A.I.-generated music. None of the people interviewed seemed to care because they said they liked the music and weren’t really paying attention to the DJ.

Vorbach did another art-related A.I. stunt by using A.I. to generate fake art paintings to look like hand-made paintings, with Vorbach credited as the artist. Each of the paintings had an image of Vorbach in some type of heroic or fantasy scenario. Vorbach went as far as renting art gallery space to have an exhibit for this artwork. At first no one showed up, but Vorbach figured out a way to get people to go to the gallery. The documentary doesn’t disclose what he did to get people to attend, but considering Vorbach already showed marketing skills online for his other schemes, it’s not surprising that he got unsuspecting people to look at this fake artwork in a real art gallery space.

The documentary includes real reactions from unsuspecting gallery attendees (who are also unnamed in the documentary) before and after they find out that the artwork was made entirely by A.I. technology. Most were surprised but not upset. One woman who expressed some displeasure said that artists have an ethical obligation to divulge if any of their art was A.I.-generated. Before she found out the truth, the woman commented that the artist seemed like a “playful nerd.” Another attendee said the artist looks like a narcissist.

When Vorbach’s friends (who are only identified by their first names) find out the truth about how they were fooled by Vorbach, there are varying reactions. Some are amused. Some are embarrassed. And one of the friends comes right out and says he is hurt and offended, especially by Vorbach posing as fake WHNY journalist Chris Washington. To Vorbach’s credit, he does make apologies and he includes some of the scathing criticism he received for these deceptive stunts. Almost all of the friends say they can no longer completely trust what Vorbach puts online about himself.

The general consensus from the friends is that they weren’t too shocked about Vorbach faking photos of trips that he never took. But they were surprised by the lengths he went to in creating people that don’t exist in real life. The movie has astute observations that anyone who spends so much time creating these complex con games is missing out on enjoying real life. It’s a commentary that Vorbach seems to understand and admit to but doesn’t really take to heart because he (by his own admission) became too caught up in making this documentary.

A few of his friends reveal later in the documentary that Vorbach has had some health-related traumas in life that probably caused him to develop obsessions with creating these A.I.-generated fantasies about himself. One of the traumas was that he experienced a horrific accident that derailed his music career and required long-term physical therapy. At the time of the accident, Vorbach was in a rock band that had been scheduled to be on the Warped Tour. And at the time that Vorbach had been living with his parents when he came up with ideas for his A.I. hoaxes, his mother had been battling cancer, and he was there to be a caregiver for her.

These stories seem to be in the movie to make Vorbach look more sympathetic. But it just raises questions that the documentary doesn’t bother to answer. If Vorbach was a caregiver for his terminally ill mother, what does that say about his caregiver priorities at the same time he was spending untold numbers of obsessive hours working on these elaborate A.I. hoaxes? Once this information is revealed in the documentary, it actually makes Vorbach look less sympathetic, considering he said multiple times in the documentary that he sequestered himself away from everyone in his life to make this movie. What type of caregiver does that?

Vorbach doesn’t really do any self-analysis about what his friends have observed about him. He does seem remorseful about any hurt or mistrust that he caused, but he also seems to shrug it off as collateral damage for the documentary he wanted to make. Overall, Vorbach comes across as someone who craves a lot of public attention, and this film is one way to get it.

After a while, the documentary becomes a repetitive string of scenarios of Vorbach showing ways in which he tricked people using A.I. and then dealing with the consequences later. Nothing he did was illegal, per se, but questions can certainly arise about the ethics of many things that he did. What really separates Vorbach from the untold numbers of people who also create false identities for themselves on the Internet is that he made a documentary about it that premiered at a major film festival.

“How I Faked My Life With AI” greatly benefits from perspectives of people who offer their takes on the larger implications of what Vorbach and other people do with A.I. technology and how it can affect society as a whole. A.I. professor De Kai (also known as Dekai Wu) and actress Taylor Misiak warn of the dangers of what “deep fake” images and videos can do to real people if used for nefarious reasons. “We need to question everything,” Kai says about what can be seen online.

A.I. artist/strategist Taryn Southern has a more optimistically cautious view of A.I. technology. She mentions the benefits that A.I. technology can have in medical care. However, she also raises alarming concerns about how A.I. is used for “deep fake” visuals, especially when it comes to creating fake pornography. “We have to combat that really quickly,” Southern says of illegal “deep fake” usage.

Voice actor Ian Cardoni says that it’s paranoid to think that A.I. technology is going to take over the world. He comments on actors’ fears that they will be completely replaced by A.I. technology: “I reject that notion entirely.” Meanwhile, filmmaker Paul Trillo thinks that A.I. will continue to grow but “life experiences are irreplaceable.” Other people interviewed in the documentary are author/journalist Molly Crabapple, conspiracy theorist researcher/debunker Jake Rockatansky, filmmaker Jim Cummings and artist/entrepreneur Olive Allen.

“How I Faked My Life With AI” is worth watching as a cautionary tale to make people more aware to not automatically believe everything that they see at surface-level. It’s also a fascinating portrait of filmmaker narcissism, although Vorbach’s antics get a little tiresome to watch. “How I Faked My Life With AI” is not the type of documentary that will become so beloved, it will inspire repeats viewings for most people. It’s one of those “one and done” movies that you can watch once out of curiousity, and you won’t be surprised if you don’t want to see the entire movie again.

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