Review: ‘How to Have Sex,’ starring Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, Samuel Bottomley, Shaun Thomas, Enva Lewis and Laura Ambler

February 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas in “How to Have Sex” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“How to Have Sex”

Directed by Molly Manning Walker

Culture Representation: Taking place in Greece, the dramatic film “How to Have Sex” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three British female friends, who are in their late teens, go on vacation together in Greece, where they party a lot, and one of the women gets sexually assaulted by a young British man who became one of their party acquaintances. 

Culture Audience: “How to Have Sex” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about “date rape” and its psychological effects.

Lara Peake, Enva Lewis and Mia McKenna-Bruce in “How to Have Sex” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“How to Have Sex” is a realistic drama about sexual awakening and sexual assault during a vacation revolving around carefree intoxication. It’s not a preachy movie, but it’s a candid observation of confusion, regret and peer pressure in sexual experiences. “How to Have Sex” is told from the perspectives of people in their late teens and early 20s, but the themes in the film can apply to anyone.

Written and directed by Molly Manning Walker, “How to Have Sex” is her skillfully made feature-film debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize. “How to Have Sex” also screened at several other film festivals in 2023, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. “How to Have Sex” also won three prizes at the 2023 British Independent Film Awards: Best Lead Performance (for Mia McKenna-Bruce); Best Supporting Performance (for Shaun Thomas); and Best Casting (for Isabella Odoffin).

In “How to Have Sex” (which takes place in an unnamed part of Greece), three British female best friends, have recently graduated from high school and are on a summer vacation. The three pals are vacationing together at a resort that’s popular with other young people who want to do a lot of partying. The three besties are charismatic Tara (played by McKenna-Bruce), bossy Skye (played by Lara Peake), and friendly Em (played by Enva Lewis), who all consider themselves to be fun-loving free spirits. However, in the beginning of the story, Tara is a virgin and is somewhat embarrassed about it, because she doesn’t want anyone else outside of this trio of friends to know that she is a virgin.

Tara, Skye and Em all share the same room together at the resort hotel. The first third of the movie consists of scenes of the three women having a lot of drunken antics and hangovers. Their personalities, which become more apparent in their interactions with people, affect how they react to certain situations.

Skye thinks of herself as the leader of this trio. She constantly wants to know what other people are doing in their sex lives and gives unsolicited advice. Skye is very manipulative, since she says and does things to either bring people together in hookups that she wants to happen, or steer people away from hookups that she doesn’t want to happen. During a drinking game of “Never Have I Ever,” Skye seems to be the most sexually experienced of the three friends.

Tara, who is nicknamed Taz, is the talkative and somewhat goofy charmer of the group. Early on in the movie, there’s a scene where Em unsuccessfully asks the hotel’s front-desk receptionist (played by Eleni Sachini) if the three friends could switch to a room that overlooks the hotel’s swimming pool. The receptionist insists that there is no such room available. But then, Tara immediately comes along, introduces herself to the receptionist with a smile, and talks the receptionist into giving them this room by saying that Skye has been learning to swim, and having a room with the view of the swimming pool will give Skye more confidence.

Em is the quietest one of the trio, which doesn’t mean that she’s not talkative. Em just doesn’t call attention to herself as much as Tara and Skye do. There are hints that Em comes from an affluent family, because she says at one point, “I miss my BMW.” Em is also queer, since her main hookup during this vacation is a butch-looking young British woman named Paige (played by Laura Ambler), who is staying with some British friends at the hotel room next door.

Paige is sharing the room with two guys who are about the same age (late teens or early 20s) and who are also doing a lot of partying. Best friends Badger (played by Thomas) and Paddy (played by Samuel Bottomley) are enthusiastic participants in all the drunken debauchery taking place during this vacation. Not much is revealed about the backgrounds of Badger and Paddy, which is the movie’s way of showing how encounters in this type of environment are often superficial and aren’t about getting to know people better outside of partying and meaningless flings.

Badger, with his tattoos and messy bleach-blonde hair, looks and acts like a stereotypical stoner/drunkard who over-indulges in marijuana and alcohol. The only things he reveals about himself and his life outside of the bubble of this vacation is that his job is “driving vans” (he doesn’t give further details) and that his mother and Paddy’s mother are also best friends. Paddy is more clean-cut and less of a loudmouth than Badger. Paddy often acts like he’s Badger’s “wing man,” since Badger is more likely to take the lead in approaching women.

Badger first sees Tara the morning after a night of heavy partying. They both happen to be on their balconies of their respective rooms at the same time. Badger immediately flirts with Tara, but she doesn’t seem that interested in him, but she accepts his invitation for Tara and her friends to meet up with Badger and his friends at a party. It’s at this party where Tara meets Paddy, and she’s instantly attracted to him, but he doesn’t seem very interested in Tara.

Meanwhile, Skye notices that Badger has been heavily flirting with Tara, who is slowly warming up to Badger’s attention. When Tara and Badger get drunk together, she likes to make him laugh with silly jokes. However, observant viewers will notice that Skye is attracted to Badger, even though Skye doesn’t say so out loud. When Skye finds out that Tara prefers Paddy, Skye encourages Tara to flirt more with Paddy.

At first, “How to Have Sex” shows a lot of intoxicated reveling at places like nightclubs, hotel rooms or swimming pools. It looks repetitive, but it’s the movie way of showing how people in these situations can be lulled into thinking that life is one big party and the worst thing that can happen to them is maybe getting lost or having a hangover. It’s not the movie giving criticism of partying, but it shows how intoxicated partying can impair people’s judgments to the point where they will do things differently or get themselves in situations that they wouldn’t be in if they were clear-minded and sober.

Even in scenes showing a lot of young people partying as if they don’t have a care in the world, there is an underlying sense that sexual antics could go too far and cross the line into sexual assault. At nightclubs and gatherings at swimming pools, party hosts have games requiring participants to take off items of their clothing or do sexually suggestive things, such as place a beer bottle in a crotch area (while clothed) and serve the beer into the open mouth of another participant. No one is shown being forced to participate in these games, but the women who participate are more at risk than men of being perceived as “promiscuous” for playing these games.

During one of these games in a swimming pool, Badger volunteers to be licked and kissed by several women volunteers (who are strangers to him) at the same time in the pool. One of the women ends up giving him oral sex in front of everyone who can see it, although the graphic details are not shown in the movie. Tara sees all of this going on, and she looks uncomfortable. It’s not like she thinks Badger is her boyfriend, but it’s an eye-opening incident for her to find out that this is the kind of thing he’ll do when he’s drunk. The next day, Badger says he has no memory of what happened in the swimming pool.

The prevailing attitude about sexual hookups during all of this partying is: “If it feels good, and it’s consensual, why not?” But what if someone is too intoxicated to consent? That’s where problems can occur, especially if people can’t agree on what it means to be “too intoxicated” in the context of the situation. There’s also peer pressure, since this is the type of vacation where the partiers don’t want to be perceived as being uptight and prudish. Skye and Tara almost have a big argument when Skye drops hints to people that Tara is a virgin.

It’s enough to say that the possible love triangle between Badger, Tara and Paddy turns into something that is definitely not love. Tara loses her virginity to one of them in a consensual encounter. She then regrets it when he acts like the encounter didn’t mean much to him, so she becomes quiet and withdrawn. He then wants to have another sexual encounter with her, but she says no. However, when she’s half-asleep one morning, he crawls into bed with her and starts to have sex with Tara, without her consent, under the covers. He stops only because Skye walks in and unknowingly interrupts this assault.

The rape of Tara happens so quickly, she’s in shock. The tone of “How to Have Sex” then changes from being upbeat to sobering to borderline depressing. The movie does an excellent job of showing the psychological effects this rape has on Tara, as the shock wears off, and she begins to understand that what happened to her wasn’t a drunken mistake: She was deliberately raped.

Does Tara report this rape? It’s a dilemma that many rape victims often face: How do you report a rape when the rapist is someone who can claim it was consensual sex, because the victim had previously had consensual sex with the rapist on another occasion? It’s also a “he said/she said” situation, because no one except Tara and her rapist saw what happened.

Skye is too self-absorbed to notice the personality change in Tara, but Em notices and is a compassionate friend who takes the time to listen to a friend in need. Because Tara is the main character in “How to Have Sex,” the heart and soul of the movie is in the performance of McKenna-Bruce, who does an admirable job of conveying all the emotions of someone who goes from being a bubbly party girl to a vulnerable rape survivor. Whether or not the rapist is punished for the crime is not the point of this movie. The main intent of “How to Have Sex” is to show how easily a sexual-assault crime can happen and how the crime victim chose to cope with it.

MUBI released “How to Have Sex” in select U.S. cinemas on February 2, 2024. The movie was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in 2023.

Review: ‘Perfect Days’ (2023), starring Kôji Yakusho

February 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kôji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” (2023)

Directed by Wim Wenders

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tokyo, the dramatic film “Perfect Days” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly sanitation worker, who is a quiet loner, spends his days and nights trying to live a harmonious existence when he’s with other people, but he sometimes battles loneliness and being misunderstood. 

Culture Audience: “Perfect Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a “slice of life” movie that focuses on a specific individual.

Arisa Nakano and Kôji Yakusho in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” is a “slice of life” movie about an elderly sanitation worker who is a quiet loner. Viewer appreciation will rest entirely on whether or not this person is worth watching. For most people, the answer is “yes.” However, because “Perfect Days” is a slow-paced movie, it won’t have much appeal to viewers with short attention spans or those who have no interest in seeing this insularly focused movie about this type of person.

Directed by Wim Wenders (who co-wrote the “Perfect Days” screenplay with Takuma Takasaki), “Perfect Days” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where star Kôji Yakusho won the prize for Best Actor. The movie then made the rounds at numerous film festivals in 2023, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “Perfect Days” was nominated for Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards.

Yakusho, who stars as “Perfect Days” protagonist Hirayama, gives the type of performance where he has to do a lot of acting with his facial expressions and body language, since Hirayama doesn’t talk at all for a great deal of the film. When he does talk, he does so sparingly, without saying his inner feelings out loud. It’s the type of performance that will make viewers want to know more about Hirayama—not in a way where the movie feels incomplete, but in a way that indicates there’s a lot more to Hirayama than he shows to the people he sees on a regular basis.

“Perfect Days” shows what amounts to about two weeks of Hirayama’s life. He works for a company called The Tokyo Toilet, and his job is to clean outdoor public toilets in Tokyo, where he lives. He is very responsible, prompt and thorough in his work. It doesn’t take long for viewers to see that Hirayama likes to keep his life uncomplicated and is happy with finding comfort in life’s simple pleasures.

Very little is known about Hirayama before this story takes place. What were his hopes and dreams when he was younger? Has he been married? Does he have children? What types of jobs did he have before his current job? Don’t expect answers to these questions, although because Hirayama lives alone and doesn’t mention having any children, it can be assumed that he’s a bachelor with no children.

A few things become apparent about Hirayama from his interactions with people. He’s kind, he’s generous, and he likes his daily routines. He has a pattern that he sticks to of going to his job, a local park for lunch, his favorite cafe and bar when he’s not working, and then going home. He likes listening to classic rock, reading, and taking outdoor photos. He keeps his photos neatly filed in boxes labeled according to the months that the photos were taken.

Hirayama shows his generosity by lending a co-worker in his 20s named Takashi (played by Tokio Emoto) some money so that Takashi can court a girlfriend named Aya (played by Aoi Yamada), whom Takashi wants desperately to impress. Takashi gets the money by whining to Hirayama that the Tokyo Toilet job doesn’t pay Takashi enough money to take Aya out on the dates that he thinks Aya deserves. At first, Takashi tried to persuade Hirayama to sell off a large part of Hirayama’s music collection (he has mostly cassettes and vinyl albums) to get the money, but Hirayama decides to just give Takashi the wanted cash instead. Takashi shows up late for work sometimes. When Hirayama has to pick up the slack for Takashi’s flakiness, Hirayama does so without complaining.

Music is a big part of “Perfect Days,” since Hirayama listens to classic rock from the 1960s and 1970s for enjoyment, and it becomes a way that he bonds with certain people in the movie. Patti Smith’s breakthrough 1975 album “Horses” is prominently featured as part of the story. Other music heard in the movie’s soundtrack (which is the soundtrack to Hirayama’s life) are songs such as Lou Reed’s plaintive 1972 ballad “Perfect Day,” Van Morrison’s classic 1967 love song “Brown Eyed Girl” and the Kinks’ 1966 jaunty hit “Sunny Afternoon.”

A turning point in the story comes with the unexpected visit of Hirayama’s teenage niece Niko (played by Arisa Nakano), who shows up at Hirayama’s home because she’s having problems with her mother, who is Hirayama’s younger sister. This visit is a catalyst for Hirayama to look at his life from Niko’s perspective, and it opens up some old emotional wounds and certain feelings in Hirayama. “Perfect Days” is not a perfect movie, but it’s a wonderful example of a contemplative movie about someone who usually isn’t the main character of a movie and is the type of person who is often overlooked or forgotten in real life.

Neon released “Perfect Days” in New York City on November 10, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024. The movie was released in Japan and other countries in 2023.

Review: ‘Scrambled’ (2024), starring Leah McKendrick, Ego Nwodim, Andrew Santino, Adam Rodriguez, Laura Cerón and Clancy Brown

February 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Leah McKendrick in “Scrambled” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Scrambled” (2024)

Directed by Leah McKendrick

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the comedy/drama film “Scrambled” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latin people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 34-year-old free-spirited bachelorette, who has no idea if she will ever find a life partner or if she’ll ever be ready to be a parent, decides to freeze her eggs anyway while she still looks for love. 

Culture Audience: “Scrambled” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in comedies about dating and fertility issues.

Leah McKendrick in “Scrambled” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Even though “Scrambled” occasionally stumbles into a cliché sitcom tone about a bachelorette in her 30s who’s unhappy in her love life, this adult-oriented comedy has entertaining performances in this story about a single woman who wants to freeze her eggs. “Scrambled” was very obviously influenced by HBO’s 1998 to 2004 comedy series “Sex and the City” (with frank talk and explicit scenes about sex), but “Scrambled” is more of a tribute than a ripoff. Just like in “Sex and the City,” the narrator is a single, liberated woman in her 30s with a messy life of failed romances with ex-boyfriends, financial instability, and the nagging feeling that she should have her life figured out by now.

“Sex and the City” and “Scrambled” also drew inspiration from real-life people. Carrie Bradshaw, the main protagonist of “Sex and the City,” lives in New York City and is a sex columnist. The Carrie Bradshaw character is based on real-life writer Candace Bushnell. Leah McKendrick is the writer, director and star of “Scrambled,” where she portrays main protagonist Nellie Robinson, a Los Angeles-based jewelry designer who works from home and who experiences fertility issues that McKendrick experienced in real life. McKendrick makes an impressive feature-film directorial debut with “Scrambled,” which had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

“Scrambled” begins with a somewhat stereotypical setting for a movie about a lovelorn bachelorette: a wedding where she is a bridesmaid. Nellie, who is 34, is at the wedding of her best friend Sheila (played by Ego Nwodim) and wants to make a grand entrance with her date Conor (played by Henry Zebrowski), because she tells Conor it’s a tradition that’s expected of her, as someone who ends up being a bridesmaid at many weddings. In the movie’s opening scene, which takes place before the wedding ceremony begins, Nellie is shown debating with Conor about what type of dance they should start with at the wedding reception. She nixes the idea of doing the Running Man, but Nellie says that recreating iconic dance scenes from “Grease” or “Dirty Dancing” could still be in the realm of possibility.

Nellie goes to check on Sheila in a dressing room and sees that Sheila is a nervous wreck. Sheila babbles to Nellie about Sheila’s groom-to-be Ron (played by Max Adler), by asking this hypothetical question: “Would you fuck Ron for the rest of your life?” It’s Sheila’s way of asking if Nellie thinks Sheila is making the right decision to marry Ron and stay faithful to him. Like a good friend, Nellie says, “Yes.”

Sheila then rambles on to Nellie about how she and Nellie always thought that they weren’t the marrying type, and now here they are on Sheila’s wedding day. Sheila then asks Nellie if Nellie has some cocaine because Sheila wants to do some cocaine before the ceremony. Sheila nearly has a meltdown when Nellie says she doesn’t have any drugs. But then, Nellie remembers she might have some molly. Nellie and Sheila take the molly together—until Sheila abruptly announces that she’s pregnant, and then Nellie orders her to spit out the pill.

This scene sets the tone for the rest of “Scrambled,” which is revels in its raunchiness and crudeness in ways to make viewers laugh. At the wedding, Nellie is very stoned on the molly, but during the reception she gets a sobering lecture from an older friend named Monroe (played by June Diane Raphael), whose time in the movie is brief (less than 10 minutes) but it’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Monroe and Nellie are sitting at the same table when Nellie gushes to Monroe about how Nellie considers Monroe to be her “idol,” because Monroe seems to “have it all” as a wife, mother, and the owner of a successful business.

Monroe has brought her only child—a daughter named Zofia (played by Everly Taylor)—to the wedding. Zofia, who’s an energetic child and about 5 or 6 years old, was born when Monroe was in her early 40s, after Monroe went through in vitro fertilization treatments to get pregnant. Monroe then gives a raw and candid confession that although she loves being parent, the process of conceiving and giving birth was hellish for her. (She says it in a way that’s a lot cruder than that.) Monroe spent $50,000 on IVF treatments and says if she had to do it all over again, she would’ve frozen her eggs when she was younger and would’ve had a surrogate for the pregnancy.

Monroe also asks Nellie how her love life is, and Nellie responds that she’s single and actively dating: “It’s a smorgasbord. I’m seeing everyone.” Monroe then looks at Nellie sympathetically and says, “I know you because I was you. And so, the next time you’ve just boned some hot bartender with an app idea, and you’re sitting in his bathroom, staring at his shower encrusted with pubes and that fucking “Fight Club”/”Reservoir Dogs”/”Scarface” poster, I want you to remember my face.”

Monroe adds when she comments on men not having an age limit for conceiving children: “They can be in never never land, never growing up, never aging. But these eggs, those huevos rancheros? They are [aging], those eggs are!” When Monroe asks Nellie how old she is, and Nellie tells her 34, Monroe slaps Nellie on the face, and tells her not to admit that she’s older than 33. Monroe then sternly warns Nellie: “Freeze those eggs!”

After Monroe leaves the table, Nellie makes eye contact with a “hot bartender”(played by Matt Pascua) at the wedding reception and gets a drink from him. She and the bartender end up going back to his place, where they have sex. And sure enough, this bartender is working on app idea that he thinks will make him rich. He’s also got a messy bathroom with a “Scarface” poster hanging up on the wall.

It’s enough to be a wake-up call for Nellie that she’s should be focusing on finding Mr. Right instead of Mr. Right Now. (Something else happens at the bartender’s place, which won’t be revealed in this review, because it’s a sexual encounter mishap that’s supposed to be a sexually explicit comedic moment in the movie.) Nellie knows that there’s no guarantee that she will end up with a life partner/soul mate, and she doesn’t know if or when she’ll be ready to be a parent, but she decides to take Monroe’s advice and freeze her eggs anyway.

Weddings and baby showers are predictable scenarios in comedies that show how never-married women with no children are made to feel inadequate or uncomfortable by certain people who think women aren’t complete people unless they are mothers. “Scrambled” is no different. At a baby shower, Nellie is apparently the only woman there who isn’t a mother or in a committed relationship. When she announces that she’s freezing her eggs, the other women’s overall reaction is to congratulate her but they think she should save her excitement for when she becomes a “real parent.”

The reaction of Nellie’s sexist and narrow-minded father Richard Robinson (played by Clancy Brown) is even more negative. When Nellie tells her parents and brother during a family dinner that she’s freezing her eggs, Richard thinks it’s “voodoo science,” and women should conceive children the “natural” way. Richard is the type of parent who asks Nellie things such as “Where are my grandkids?,” but he doesn’t make those demands of his bachelor son Jesse Robinson (played by Andrew Santino), who’s at least five years older than Nellie.

Jesse is a pompous attorney who lets it be known to Nellie that he thinks she’s a pathetic mess when it comes to her life. Nellie, whose specialty is making butterfly earrings that she sells online, barely makes enough money to pay her bills. Meanwhile, Jesse is the type of cretin who makes misogynistic remarks (just like his father) and brags about being rich.

“Scrambled” has several “family dinner” scenes where Nellie argues with Richard and/or Jesse. Richard’s mild-mannered wife Sonja (played by Laura Cerón), an immigrant who speaks Spanish and English, tries to keep the peace when Richard and their son Jesse have conflicts with Nellie. Things get even more awkward between Nellie and Jesse when she reluctantly asks him to lend her the $8,000 she needs for her egg-harvesting procedures, which are not covered by her health insurance.

Early on in the movie, Nellie makes a remark that women are like avocados when it comes to women’s fertility: There’s a limited tme when they’re considered “ripe,” and then they are considered shriveled-up and useless. This avocado comparison becomes a running joke in the movie, as Nellie keeps checking the insides of avocados to see if they are still ripe and useful.

There’s also a very “Sex and the City”-type long stretch of the movie, when lonely Nellie reaches out to some ex-lovers in a desperate attempt to see if any romantic sparks can be rekindled with any of them. You can easily predict how these “reunions” turn out to be. “Magic Mike” alum Adam Rodriguez, who is one of the headliners of “Scrambled,” portrays Sterling Morales, one of Nellie’s ex-lovers, but Rodriguez’s screen time in “Scrambled” is less than five minutes. Nellie’s most recent serious relationship was with a slightly older man named Shawn (played by Harry Shum Jr.), who is mentioned frequently in the movie. “Scrambled” reveals the reason why Shawn and Nellie broke up and whether or not they get back together.

“Scrambled” works as well as it does because of the engaging screenplay and the very good comedic timing of the cast members. McKendrick has also crafted memorable characters who have mostly realistic flaws and foibles, although her tactless OB/GYN doctor (played by Feodor Chin) is meant to be a hilarious caricature of how doctors can sometimes be unprofessional. There’s a very poignant moment in the movie involving Nellie and her elderly neighbor Parveen (played by Vee Kumari), whom Nellie thinks is uptight and silently judgmental about Nellie’s sex life. Nellie might not be relatable to every woman, but “Scrambled” succeeds in showing that Nellie goes through universally relatable experiences that all reasonably responsible adults go through in making major life decisions that will affect people’s futures.

Lionsgate released “Scrambled” in U.S. cinemas on February 2, 2024.

Review: ‘The Taste of Things,’ starring Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel

February 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel in “The Taste of Things” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Taste of Things”

Directed by Trân Anh Hùng

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in France, in 1889, the dramatic film “The Taste of Things” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A renowned chef and his longtime live-in cook are lovers, but she resists his attempts for them to have a more committed relationship.

Culture Audience: “The Taste of Things” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel and movies about people who love to cook.

Juliette Binoche Benoît Magimel and Galatéa Bellugi in “The Taste of Things” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The slow-paced drama “The Taste of Things” isn’t for everyone, but it’s a mature story of what can happen when a famous chef tries to get his longtime personal cook to marry him. There’s plenty to like in this movie for romance fans and cuisine enthusiasts. The movie spends almost much as much time detailing the preparation of food as it does on showing how these two people live and love together.

Written and directed by Trân Anh Hùng, “The Taste of Things” is based on Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel “La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet,” which is French for “The Life and the Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet.” “The Taste of Things” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where Trân won the prize for Best Director. “The Tatse of Things” then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest. “The Taste of Things” was France’s official selection for the category of Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards, but the movie didn’t get any Oscar nominations.

In “The Taste of Things” (which takes place in 1889, in France), Dodin Bouffant (played by Benoît Magimel) is a renowned chef and a middle-aged, never-married bachelor with no children. He has been in a sexual relationship with his live-in cook Eugénie Chatagne (played by Juliette Binoche), who is also middle-aged, never-married, and has no children. Eugénie has been Dodin’s live-in cook at his manor for the past 20 years.

Dodin and Eugénie love each other, but she doesn’t want to commit to marrying him. She tells Dodin that she’s happy with the way their relationship is. Eugénie has turned down Dodin’s marriage proposals multiple times.

Will persistent Dodin get Eugénie to change her mind? That’s the question that lingers for most of “The Taste of Things,” as the movie fills up its time with scenes of preparations and servings of elaborate multi-course meals. Dodin decides he’s going to cook for Eugénie as a way to show his love.

Dodin is also seen with a group of five affluent male friends in many social situations, including when he and these friends get invited to dine with the prince of Eurasia (played by Mhamed Arezki), who originally invited just Dodin, but Dodin insisted that his friends get invited too. Dodin’s five closest friends are Grimaud (played by Patrick d’Assumçao), Magot (played by Jan Hammenecker), Beaubois (played by Frédéric Fisbach), Augustin (played by Jean-Marc Roulot) and Rabaz (played by Emmanuel Salinger). Rabaz is the one who stands out the most because he is a compassionate and very busy doctor.

Eugénie has an assistant cook named Violette (played by Galatéa Bellugi), who’s in her 20s and is a very loyal employee. Near the beginning of the movie, Violette’s niece Pauline (played by Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who’s about 11 or 12 years old, is at Dodin’s manor to visit and is introduced to Eugénie and Dodin. It isn’t long before Eugénie notices that Pauline is a prodigy in culinary arts, with extraordinary senses of taste and smell. Eugénie wants to formally teach Pauline how to be a chef but first must get permission from her parents.

“The Taste of Things” is not a movie that makes any grand or provocative statements about life. The story also holds very little surprises. A few scenes of Eugénie fainting and clutching her abdomen in pain are foreshadowings of what happens to her in the last third of the movie, which won’t be a shock to anyone who’s read “La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet.”

The reliably engaging performances by Binoche and Magimel are worth watching in how they portray this bittersweet romance. Binoche and Magimel have easy chemistry with each other, since they were partners from 1998 to 2003 and have a daughter together named Hana, who was born in 1999. Magimel and Binoche also co-starred in the 1999 drama “Children of the Century.” The tone of “The Taste of Things” is quietly sensual, which is best appreciated by viewers who know that not all movies about romance have to be about messy breakups and predictable makeups.

IFC Films released “The Taste of Things” in select U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2024. The movie was released in France under the title “La Passion de Dodin Bouffant” on November 8, 2023.

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

January 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“Memory” (2023)

Directed by Michel Franco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” (2024)

Directed by Rachel Lambert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“Miller’s Girl”

Directed by Jade Halley Bartlett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“I.S.S.”

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Some language in Russian with subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“May December”

Directed by Todd Haynes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“Rustin” (2023)

Directed by George C. Wolfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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