Review: ‘You Hurt My Feelings’ (2023), starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague and Jeannie Berlin

May 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tobias Menzies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “You Hurt My Feelings” (Photo by Jeong Park/A24)

“You Hurt My Feelings” (2023)

Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy film “You Hurt My Feelings” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An insecure book author gets deeply upset when she finds out that her psychotherapist husband has been pretendng to like her first novel, and this revelation leads her to question his honesty in the marriage.

Culture Audience: “You Hurt My Feelings” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, filmmaker Nicole Holofcener and satire-tinged comedies where people make a big deal out of problems that are very trivial in the real world.

Arian Moayed and Michaela Watkins in “You Hurt My Feelings” (Photo by Jeong Park/A24)

If you’re a fan of comedies that poke gentle fun at somewhat spoiled protagonists, then “You Hurt My Feelings” (written and directed by Nicole Holofcener) is the type of movie that perfectly fits this description. It’s a low-key and realistic comedy about people who live in the bubble of being privileged and neurotic New Yorkers. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is an actress queen for this type of character. This movie isn’t for everyone, but the performances are entertaining. “You Hurt My Feelings” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

In “You Hurt My Feelings” (which takes place in New York City), Louis-Dreyfus portrays Beth Mitchell, an insecure book author who is constantly seeking validation from people around her. The person whose opinions and respect that Beth values the most is her husband Don Mitchell (played by Tobias Menzies), who is an easygoing psychotherapist. Don is very laid-back and tolerant, while Beth is uptight and judgmental. Even though Beth and Don have opposite personalities, they’ve had a very long and happy marriage.

At least that’s what Beth thinks, until she finds out something that shakes her to the core: Don has been pretending to like the book that Beth is currently working on: her first novel, which is also her second book. Don is one of the few people whom Beth has let read the manuscript for this book. She’s already feeling insecure because her first book (a memoir detailing the verbal abuse she got from her now-deceased father) was not the bestseller that Beth hoped it would be. The memoir wasn’t a total flop, but it had sales that were lukewarm.

Adding to Beth’s unease about her first novel is the less-than-enthusiastic response from her book agent. Not long before Beth found out that Don doesn’t like the manuscript, her agent Sylvia (played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson) told Beth during a lunch meeting that Sylvia doesn’t really like the manuscript either and thinks it’s not as interesting as Beth’s memoir. Sylvia commented to Beth in this meeting that there’s a lot of competition in the book publishing industry, which is always looking for “new voices.” Beth interprets this comment as Sylvia telling Beth that she’s old.

Why is Beth so insecure? It’s mentioned about midway through the movie that her father did a lot of emotional damage to her with his verbal abuse. He often called her “shit for brains” when Beth was a child. It’s a phrase that Beth says out loud to herself when she’s having moments of very low self-esteem.

Beth’s world is fairly insular, since most of the people interacts with are family members and work colleagues. She teaches a creative writing class to people who are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Beth encourages her students to take risks in their work. It’s advice that Beth doesn’t always follow for herself. The movie later shows how Beth can be hypocritical in other ways.

Beth has a younger sister named Sarah (played Michaela Watkins), an interior designer who’s battling her own insecurities about her career. Sarah is married to a frequently unemployed actor named Mark (played by Arian Moayed), who’s frustrated that he hasn’t been able to land starring roles and get work more often. Mark also happens to be Don’s best friend. (People from Don’s side of the family are never mentioned in the movie.) Beth and Sarah have a cranky and forgetful mother named Georgia (played by Jeannie Berlin), who might be showing signs of early onset dementia.

Don and Beth’s only child is a 23-year-old son named Eliot (played by Owen Teague), who works at a marijuana dispensary. Even though Beth occasionally smokes marijuana, she tells Eliot that she’s uncomfortable with his job, because she thinks there’s potential for danger on the job, and she thinks that college graduate Eliot (who is an aspiring playwright) isn’t living up to his potential. Beth thinks it’s also why Eliot’s girlfriend Alison (who’s never seen in the movie), an aspiring lawyer, seems to be drifting away from Eliot.

“You Hurt My Feelings” is made like a compilation of scenarios that show different personal angles of Beth and her loved ones. Beth finds out about Don’s true feelings for her manuscript when she and Sarah spontaneously eavesdrop on Don and Mark in a sporting goods store. The way that Beth reacts is as if Don betrayed her in the most hurtful manner possible. Beth begins to wonder if she even she even knows Don at all.

The movie goes back and forth between showing Beth’s interactions with people, as well as the therapy sessions that Don (a doctor with his own practice) has with some of his clients. These therapy sessions seem to be in the movie to show how Don approaches problem-solving in his clients’ personal relationships, compared to problem-solving in his own personal relationships.

The movie’s opening scene shows Don in a therapy session with a bickering married couple named Jonathan (played by David Cross) and Carolyn (played by Amber Tamblyn), who say hateful things to each other. (Cross and Tamblyn are spouses in real life.) Don passively sits and listens, even though Jonathan and Carolyn clearly want the type of therapist who will give them advice on what to do about their marriage. And as time goes on, viewers see that Don’s non-confrontational style can be a detriment in his own marriage.

An early scene in the “You Hate My Feelings” shows a wedding anniversary dinner that Beth and Don are having together at a restaurant. Don gives Beth a pair of gold leaf earrings as his anniversary gift. Beth gives Don a black V-necked shirt. They both smile and seem happy with these gifts during this romantic dinner. Later in the movie, it’s shown that these gifts are symbols of much deeper issues in Beth and Don’s relationship.

Louis-Dreyfus is the obvious standout in a movie where her Beth character is the main focus of the story. However, Watkins and Berlin also give terrific performances that skillfully balance realism with talented comedic timing. Menzies plays his part well as a somewhat bland but loyal husband, while the other cast members are part of the overall believability in their roles, which could easily have been played as caricatures.

Of course, many viewers won’t feel too sorry for Beth, because she has the type of comfortable life that many people would like to have: She’s healthy. She’s surrounded by people who love her. And she doesn’t have worry about basic needs, such as food or shelter.

But truth be told, a lot of privileged people who have charmed existences in real life can’t see beyond their own trivial problems because they really have no reason or motivation to do so. The closest that Beth wants to acknowledge any type of “real world” suffering is volunteering with Sarah at a charity that gives away free clothes to underprivileged people. If Beth’s worst problem is finding out that her husband doesn’t like her latest book, then that’s a pretty good life to have.

The movie admits it at one point when Don comments to Beth about how she’s reacting to him not liking her novel: “The whole world is falling apart, and this is what consumes you?” Beth replies, “I know the whole world is falling apart … but this is my small, narcissistic world, and I’m hurt.” For all the neuroses and self-absorption on display, a movie like “You Hurt My Feelings” serves as a reminder that people who seem to “have it all” can still find reasons to be miserable if they’re not completely happy with themselves.

A24 released “You Hurt My Feelings” in select U.S. cinemas on May 26, 2023.

Review: ’32 Sounds,’ starring Annea Lockwood, Edgar Choueiri, Joanna Fang, Cheryl Tipp, Fred Moten, Christine Sun Kim and Mazen Kerbaj

May 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sam Green in “32 Sounds” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“32 Sounds”

Directed by Sam Green

Culture Representation: The documentary film “32 Sounds” features a predominantly white group of audio enthusiasts (with a few Asians and African Americans and one Latino) talking about how sounds and other aural experiences affect people.

Culture Clash: People have varying degrees of how much they value or pay attention to sounds. 

Culture Audience: “32 Sounds” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of ASMR videos or who want to experience a movie that takes an up-close examination of sounds at various volumes.

Edgar Choueiri in “32 Sounds” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary film “32 Sounds” has a title that’s somewhat misleading because this movie is actually an abundance of more than 32 sounds. It’s more like a feature-length ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response] video than anything that is extraordinary or groundbreaking. The movie is inconsistent in how it labels the 32 sounds that inspired the documentary’s title. Most of the anecdotes and sounds can keep viewers interested.

Directed by Sam Green, “32 Sounds” has a meandering quality in how it features interviews with various audio enthusiasts and then usually showing them reacting to or talking about whatever sounds they’ve created, recorded or are listening to in their current location. “32 Sounds” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Ironically, for a movie that keeps repeating that it should be seen in a theater, “32 Sounds” did not have its Sundance premiere in a theater, since the Sundance Film Festival abruptly cancelled its in-person events in 2022, due to COVID-19 concerns, and the festival was held virtually instead.

In an intro to the movie, “32 Sounds” director Green and “32 Sounds” composer JD Sampson are shown thanking people for seeing the film in a theater. Green provides voiceover narration throughout the documentary. He speaks in slow, measured tones that are similar to someone who’s leading a meditation session. Green’s narration for “32 Sounds” includes several comments that assume viewers are watching the movie in a theater.

Other times, the narration can fit to wherever viewers are watching the documentary. For example, multiple times in “32 Sounds,” Green suggests that viewers close their eyes during certain segments, in order to be more immersed in the aural experience without visual distractions. People who keep their eyes open during these segments will just see a blank screen while the sound is playing.

The movie’s frequent assumptions that people are watching “32 Sounds” in a movie theater make the documentary look a little bit out of touch, since movies like “32 Sounds” typically have a very limited release in theaters in low number of cities. The movie was available to the media for review as a digital screener, as well as in-person screenings in select cities. (I saw the movie on a digital screener and used headphones to get the maximum effect for the sounds.)

More people are likely to see low-budget independent films such as “32 Sounds” when they’re released for viewing in formats that are not in a movie theater. In addition, technology has advanced to the point where it’s possible to get a theater-like sound and visual quality in home viewing, with the right equipment. It might not be as big as an IMAX screen, most most advanced home theater systems come very close to replicating what movie theater screens and speakers have to offer.

Green brings a personal touch to the documentary by talking about how he’s kept old cassette tapes of voice mail recordings. Some of these recordings are by people who are now deceased. Green states the obvious: recordings like these are more than just recordings. They are collections of memories.

This is an example of the type of narration that Green has in the film, as he comments about these voice mail recordings: “I wondered if sound is somehow a way to understand time and time passing and loss and the ephemeral beats of the present moment.” If that type of narration makes your eyes glaze over in disinterest, then “32 Sounds” might not be the documentary for you.

The documentary includes some mentions of seminal moments in aural history. Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph is noted as the most revolutionary thing to happen to sound. Also included is what is believed to be the first recording of a human fetus in a womb, with the recording made by midwife Aggie Murch, the wife of famed film editor Walter Murch. (“Womb Tone” was Walter Murch’s famous essay about this recording.) Charles Babbage, the inventor of the computer, is cited as someone who believed that there are untold numbers of sounds that can’t be heard by human ears.

Famous experimental sound artist Annea Lockwood (whose specialty was composing songs from objects that aren’t musical instruments) is the person is prominently featured in “32 Sounds.” The documentary includes archival footage of Lockwood from the late 1960s, as well as exclusive footage of Lockwood filmed for “32 Sounds” when Lockwood was 81 years old.

The movie spends a little too much time being a mini-biography about Lockwood’s career, personal life and what she does in her spare time. One of the scenes in the movie includes Lockwood recording insects and other creatures at Constitution Marsh at the Hudson River in New York state. The sound mixing is played with and tweaked throughout “32 Sounds,” so that anyone can notice how the same sounds can be heard differently from various perspectives.

Cheryl Tipp, a curator of natural sounds at the British Library Sound Archive (which has more than 7 million sound items) is shown playing back the sound of the last known Moho braccatus, an extinct, small-sized bird. The recording features a male Moho braccatus giving mating calls, while rain can be heard in the background. The male Moho braccatus does not know that the last female Moho braccatus was killed during a hurricane. Tipp talks about how this recording is emotionally moving to her.

One of the more fascinating parts of the documentary are scenes with foley artist Joanna Fang, who demonstrates how sound effects are fabricated for movies. These effects are often not done with computers but by the traditional way of using hands and feet to create an illusion of something happening in the movie, whether it’s a dog walking or someone getting stabbed. Fang comments that the “cheat” sound “often sound better than the real thing.”

Edgar Choueiri, director of Princeton University’s electric propulsion and plasma dynamics laboratory, offers a scientific perspective of sounds, as he demonstrates some sounds with his lab equipment. Later in the film, Choueiri listens to a recording that he made for his future self when he was 11 years old. At the time he made the recording, Choueiri says that he vowed not to listen to the recording until after the year 2000. Choueiri is visibly nostalgic and says he went through a range of emotions when hearing his 11-year-old self making a recording to his future self.

The movie’s segments on music are rather eclectic. Green includes archival footage that he took in 2006 of left-wing activist Nehanda Abiodun (an American exiled in Cuba) grooving to a recording of McFadden and Whitehead’s 1979 hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” She says the song reminds her of the time when she and other Human Right Coalition activists were planning a protest in front of the United Nations to accuse the U.S. of human genocide. Abiodun (who died in 2019) also says in the archival footage that the song triggers memories of her efforts to free her activist friend Assata Shakur from jail.

Green also interviews Don Garcia, who is notorious in his New York City neighborhood for driving on the streets late at night and blasting Phil Collins’ 1981 hit “The Air Tonight” at full volume. Garcia gives no real explanation for why he does it on a regular basis, but he seems to enjoy the attention he gets, even if it means that some people complain about the noise. The documentary doesn’t interview anyone who has complained about Garcia’s late-night music blasting. It’s a missed opportunity for “32 Sounds” to contrast how someone’s listening pleasure could be someone else’s listening annoyance.

There’s also a segment where “32 Sounds” composer Sampson is shown (in two invisible split-screen images) playing an original instrumental song on electric guitar and on electric bass. It seems like a promotional music video segment at best. And there’s a random segment where Donna Summer’s 1976 hit “I Feel Love” is in the movie, for no other purpose but for Green to say in a voiceover that viewers can get up and dance to the song if they want to, because no one will care in a darkened theater.

All of these segments on musical sounds are cobbled together with no real theme or central concept in the documentary. The footage of Abiodun just seems to be in the movie so that Green can say that she was his “friend,” as if he has some ties to Black Power activism. Curiously, “32 Sounds” leaves out any mention of tinnitus, a hearing disorder that causes constant buzzing or ringing in the ears. Tinnitus is an occupational hazard of people (such as musicians) who have long-term exposure to loud sounds without wearing earplugs.

The documentary includes an interview with sound artist Christine Sun Kim, who happens to be deaf. She says that deaf people know a lot about the etiquette of sound. Poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten is interviewed in another segment of the movie to talk about the cultural impact of sounds. And experimental musician Mazen Kerbai shares some sound recordings he made of bombs going off in his native country of Lebanon.

Because “32 Sounds” tends to be a rambling film, it might not appeal to viewers who are expecting a documentary that’s more structured. The movie starts off saying that it’s going to showcase 32 sounds, but the numbers identifying each sound are not always shown on screen. The film is ultimately a hodgepodge tribute to diverse sounds and aural experiences, with the movie’s sound mixing intended to cause some spine-tingling or goosebumps for viewers. The “32 Sounds” documentary is like taking an aimless road trip with views that please the senses but not much will be learned from the experience.

Abramorama released “32 Sounds” in select U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Sisu’ (2023), starring Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Mimosa Willamo and Onni Tommila

May 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jorma Tommila in “Sisu” (Photo by Antti Rastivo/Lionsgate)

“Sisu” (2023)

Directed by Jalmari Helander

Finnish, German and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1944 in Finland, the action film “Sisu” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class during World War II.

Culture Clash: A Finnish former military commander, who has become a gold miner and a rogue vigilante, fights Nazi soldiers during World War II. 

Culture Audience: “Sisu” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in war movies with “hero vigilantes” and exaggerated action that’s meant to be partially amusing.

Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan and Onni Tommila in “Sisu” (Photo by Antti Rastivo/Lionsgate)

“Sisu” knows what it is and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything else: an adrenaline-packed, violent action film served up with plenty of self-aware campiness. Jorma Tommila’s portrayal of Aatami Korpi, the hero who fights Nazis, is a crowd-pleasing blitz. “Sisu” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, “Sisu” (which takes place in 1944 in Finland) has a very simple plot: a loner vigilante/gold miner named Aatami Korpi (played by Jorma Tommila) gets deadly revenge on Nazis who want to steal his gold. The Nazis underestimate Aatami because he’s much older than their usual opponents. Atami is a lot tougher and more ruthless than he looks.

It’s explained in the very beginning of the movie that the word “sisu” doesn’t have a specific meaning in Finnish, but it roughly translates to a white-knuckled form of courage in desperate moments. There are many of those moments in “Sisu,” which has a lot of over-the-top violence showing one man pitted against an army of several people. Because he’s outnumbered, Aatami has to figure out ways to outsmart his enemies.

At one point in the movie, it’s revealed that Aatami used to be a commander in the Finnish Army, but he went rogue after Nazis killed his entire family during the war. After the massacre of his family, Aatmi became a vengeful person whom no one could control. Even with Aatami having military training, there are are still deliberately cartoonish depictions of how Aatami is able to defeat many of the soldiers he comes up against.

Aatami’s violent exploits have given him a somewhat mystical legendary reputation, because he has been able to avoid death in situations that could easily kill most people. Some people who know about Aatami say that Aatami might be immortal. Whether or not his immortality is true, Aatami still needs to sustain himself with money and food.

The beginning of “Sisu” shows Aatami searching for gold in a remote area. Aatami’s only companions are his Bedlington Terrier and his horse. Aatami finds a huge slab of gold and can’t believe his luck. He takes his ice pick and chops the gold into large chunks. And he plans to bring the gold to the nearest financial bank, which is 563 miles away.

While he’s making the long trek to the bank, Aatami is stopped and harassed by Nazi soldiers, who soon find out how much gold Aatami has and plan to steal it from him. Aatami makes it clear that he’s not going to let the Nazis do what they want without a gifht from him. The rest of the movie is a fierce battle of wits and brutality between Aatami and the Nazis.

There isn’t much dialogue in “Sisu,” but when there is, it is delivered with a winking tone of loud and violent action movies that don’t take themselves too seriously. Most of the Nazi villains are generic, but the standouts are the troop leader Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf (played by Aksel Hennie); his main sidekick Wolf (played by Jack Doolan), who loyally follows commands; and a soldier named Schütze (played by Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommilla’s real-life son), who easily gets into precarious situations.

The Nazis have captured five women as prisoners of war. As already shown in the trailer for “Sisu,” these women end up escaping and become allies to Aatami. The most defiant woman in the group is Aino (played by Mimosa Willamo), who does most of the talking.

The trailer for “Sisu” reveals a lot of the movie’s most memorable action scenes, lines of dialogue and plot developments. What you see in the trailer is really what you get in the movie. If you’re intrigued by what’s in the “Sisu” trailer, and you’re in the mood for a semi-comedic World War II action movie that’s pure escapism and not meant to be realistic, then “Sisu” delivers exactly what you might expect.

Lionsgate and Stage 6 Films released “Sisu” in U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on May 16, 2023. “Sisu” was released in Finland on January 27, 2023.

Review: ‘The Starling Girl,’ starring Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams and Jimmi Simpson

May 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Eliza Scanlen and Lewis Pullman in “The Starling Girl” (Photo by Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street)

“The Starling Girl”

Directed by Laurel Parmet

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky in the mid-2000s, the dramatic film “The Starling Girl” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old girl in a strict, religious community has a taboo affair with her married, 28-year-old youth pastor, while her troubled father struggles with his own personal issues.

Culture Audience: “The Starling” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that realistically explore issues of religion, teenage sexual awakenings, self-identity and moral hypocrisy.

Jimmi Simpson and Wrenn Schmidt in “The Starling Girl” (Photo by Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street)

“The Starling Girl” is a memorable coming-of-age story that artfully juxtaposes depictions of repression and rebellion without falling into the usual plot clichés. Eliza Scanlen gives a riveting performance as a 17-year-old experiencing self-discovery. It’s a movie that doesn’t offer easy answers to the main characters’ problems, but it’s made clear to viewers that these problems are made worse in a culture of denial and hypocrisy.

“The Starling Girl” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is an impressive feature-film debut from writer/director Laurel Parmet. The movie takes place in Kentucky in the mid-2000s, but “The Starling Girl” has a timeless quality to that transcends locations and generations, in the way that it depicts the relatable, restless energy of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. The teenager wants the freedom of an adult, but legally the teenager has to be treated like a child. Depending on the teenager’s environment and individual personality, this transitional phase can either help or hurt a teenager’s emotional growth.

In “The Starling Girl,” the title character is 17-year-old Jemima “Jem” Starling (played by Scanlen), who is navigating her way to adulthood in a conservative Christian community. It’s a community where people of the female gender are expected to be subservient to people of the male gender. Women and girls in this community are monitored and judged for what they say, do and wear around men and boys. Something as simple as wearing an outfit that shows the outline of a bra underneath can be reason enough for a girl to get scolded or lectured to by an adult.

It’s what happens to Jem after a chaste dance performance that she does with some other local teenage girls at their community church. The girls all wear matching long white dresses. Dancing is a passion for Jem, who also likes to do choreography for the group. After their performance, which gets polite applause from the congregation, Jem is in a very good mood.

But her upbeat mood soon turns to despair when, after the church service, the church pastor’s wife Anne Taylor (played by K.J. Baker) says sternly to Jem in front of Jem’s family and some other people in the congregation: “Mrs. Stone has noticed that the bra is visible from your dress.” Jem’s homemaker mother Heidi Starling (played by Wrenn Schmidt) says apologetically, “We try to be very conscious, but sometimes things slip.”

Within the first 15 minutes of “The Starling Girl,” it becomes obvious that Jem’s parents, especially her mother, want to impress church leader Pastor Taylor (played by Kyle Secor) and his family. Pastor Taylor has two children: 28-year-old Owen Taylor (played by Lewis Pullman) and 17-year-old Ben Taylor (played by Austin Abrams), who is expected to be the one to date Jem and possibly be her future husband. Heidi in particular is enthusiastic about the possibility of Ben and Jem getting married, because the marriage would elevate the status of the Starling family in the community. Even though Ben seems to be attracted to Jem, she is not at all attracted to Ben, who is socially awkward and a little weird.

After being reprimanded about her bra being visible through her dress, Jem goes outside the church to a semi-secluded area of the lawn and cries in shame. Jem think she’s alone, but doesn’t see until it’s too late that Owen is nearby and has been watching her. He tries to start a conversation with her, but she abruptly leaves in embarrassment. It’s soon revealed that Jem has had a crush on Owen for a very long time.

Owen has recently come back to his hometown after spending some time as a missionary in Puerto Rico. Owen is married to a pious and perky woman named Misty Taylor (played by Jessamine Burgum), who is a big believer in sticking to religious traditions. By contrast, Owen is open to non-traditional methods of religious worship. And even though Owen has been appointed as the youth pastor of the church, what he really wants to do with his life is be a farmer.

Jem is also someone who is struggling with what is expected of her and what she really wants to do with her life. For now, Jem is expected to marry and start a family not long after she graduates from high school, but Jem thinks she doesn’t want to be a wife and mother until she’s much older and more emotionally mature. Her mother Heidi has already decided that Ben would be a good match for Jem, but when Jem expresses reluctance to date Ben, her mother dismisses any of Jem’s concerns. Jem’s more lenient father Paul Starling (played by Jimmi Simpson) tells Jem that she doesn’t have to make up her mind right away about whether or not to date Ben.

At home, Heidi is a prudish taskmaster who expects the family to closely follow all of their religious teachings. Jem is the oldest of five kids. Her siblings are Noah Starling (played by Chris Dinner), who’s about 15 or 16; Rebecca “Becca” Starling (played by Claire Elizabeth Green), who’s about 13 or 14; Sarah Starling (played by Ellie May), who’s about 6 or 7; and a toddler named Jeremy Starling (played by Kieran Sitawi). Out of all of Jem’s siblings, Rebecca is the one who has the closest emotional bond to Jem.

During another religious service at the local church, a teenager named Edmond Tike (played by Ike Harrell), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, gets up in front of the congregation to ask for their forgiveness for sins that he says he committed but he does not detail. Edmond looks humiliated and ashamed when he tells the congregation that he’s now a “cleansed man.” He gets a lukewarm response from the audience. Pastor Taylor’s attitude toward Edmond is that Edmond is like an unruly puppy that needs patience and needs to be trained.

In the youth group meeting after the church service, some of the assembled teenagers gossip about Edmond, by saying he had just come back from a severe religious camp, which is notorious as a scary place where kids in the community are sent for punishment. According to the gossip, Edmond was sent there because he was caught looking at porn on a computer. Jem says self-righteously, “That’s why you have to be so careful with technology. It’s the easiest way for Satan to get to you.”

But it won’t be long before Jem gets caught up in something that would be an even bigger sexual scandal than looking at porn. At the youth group meeting that Owen is leading for the first time, he makes the group members lie down on their backs and meditate. Most of the group thinks it’s bizarre, but Jem is intrigued and can see that Owen isn’t a traditional youth pastor.

Jem’s attraction to Owen deepens when the dance group’s adult leader Mrs. Baker quits, and Owen is the one who gets to decide what to do about it. Jem confidently pitches herself to be the group leader until an adult can be found to replace Mrs. Baker. Owen agrees to this idea because he likes Jem and thinks she’s a talented dancer.

Owen also knows that this decision will also make Jem like him even more and be more loyal to him. Owen feels that most of the teens in the youth group don’t really like him because they think Owen is “different” and maybe too liberal. Jem also feel a little bit like an “outsider” in this community. Just like Owen, Jem thinks there are certain traditions in the community that she doesn’t necessarily want to follow.

Jem and Owen start to spend some more time alone together, and the attraction becomes mutual. Eventually, Owen and Jem open up to each other about their personal lives. Owen tells Jem that he’s miserable in his marriage to Misty, who wants to start a family with Owen, but Owen tells Jem that he doesn’t want to have kids with Misty. Owen says his dream would be to go back to Puerto Rico and start a farm. Jem has vague plans to possibly become a dance teacher after she graduates from high school.

Just as things are looking up for Jem as leader of the dance group and finding a new “friend” in Owen, her life at home starts to experience some turmoil. The day that Jem finds out that she’s going to lead the dance group, she comes home and accidentally walks in on her father sitting naked on his bed and snorting an unknown powder that was on his hand. Horrified and in shock, Jem quickly leaves the room and doesn’t say anything to anyone about what she saw.

It’s eventually revealed that before Paul got married and had a family, he used to have a wild life as a substance-abusing musician in a country/rock band named The Deadbeats, which didn’t make it past the level of playing bars and nightclubs. Paul recently found out that one of his former band mates committed suicide. And this news sends Paul on a downward spiral and relapse into secretive drinking and drugging. Heidi knows about Paul’s past, and it’s implied that she was the one who convinced him to become a sober, born-again Christian.

The rest of “The Starling Girl” shows the drama that happens in Jem’s family life, her new leadership role for the dance group, and the growing attraction between Jem and Owen. In Kentucky, 16 years old is the minimum age of consent for people to have sexual relations. What happens between Jem and Owen is no surprise. But the last third of “The Starling Girl” does have a few surprises that look authentic and not overly contrived for a movie.

Scanlen is absolutely fantastic in how she depicts a teenager feeling trapped while transitioning into adulthood. Jem goes through a sexual awakening that both fascinates and frightens her. Jem uses some of her feminine charms to get her way, but she also experiences the harsh realities of living in a sexist community that treats women and girls as inferior to men and boys. It’s a community that is quick to shame and blame women and teenage girls for the same things that men and teenage boys can often do without punishment.

One of the best things about “The Starling Girl” is how the cast members (especially Scanlen) express emotions without saying a word. It’s an essential reason why so much of this movie looks realistic in showing people who are living lives of quietly desperate repression. So much is left unsaid or denied by these characters, but their facial expressions and body language tell the real story.

“The Starling Girl” writer/director Parmet has accomplished a tricky feat of crafting a story that is specific yet universal. This gem of a movie is more than just about a teenage girl who wants to break free of her strict, religious environment. It’s about summoning the courage to be yourself, even if it means going through painful experiences of finding out who you really are. The ending of “The Starling Girl” won’t satisfy some viewers who want more answers, but the movie has a clear message that finding some kind of happiness in life is what you make of it.

Bleecker Street released “The Starling Girl” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.

Review: ‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,’ starring Michael J. Fox

May 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Michael J. Fox in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”

Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of retired actor Michael J. Fox.

Culture Clash: Fox has dealt with major health issues in his life, including Parkinson’s disease and alcoholism. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious fan base of Michael J. Fox fans, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in celebrity documentaries and documentaries about health issues.

An archival photo of Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Inspiring and with superb film editing, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is a must-see documentary for anyone who wants to get a personal look at how Michael J. Fox refused to make his Parkinson’s disease into a tragedy but instead turned it into a triumph. The movie could have easily been a complete nostalgia trip, but the movie’s narrative cuts back and forth from the past to when the documentary was filmed, mostly in 2021 and 2022. It’s a visually striking contrast of Fox’s life when he was an award-winning, working actor to his current life of being a retired actor who continues to be an activist for Parkinson’s disease awareness and research. What hasn’t changed is that Fox still has a charming mix of confidence and self-deprecating wit.

Directed by Davis Guggenheim and narrated by Fox, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Story” doesn’t play coy about Fox living with Parkinson’s disease. The movie (which has several re-enactments) begins in Florida 1990, with a recreation of Fox waking up in a hotel room “with a ferocious hangover” and seeing the first signs that he had this disease: He saw one of his pinky fingers trembling uncontrollably. His bodyguard also had to prop him up when Fox tried to walk to the elevator. (Danny Irizarry, whose face is not shown in the movie, portrays Fox in the documentary’s re-enactments.)

At first, Fox assumed that his loss of muscle control was due to the heavy partying he had done the night before with actor Woody Harrelson. But as the world now knows, Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, but he didn’t go public about it until 1998. One of the most emotionally moving parts of the documentary is how Fox describes hiding this disease was in many ways just as damaging to his psyche as the disease was damaging to his body.

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. There isn’t really anything new in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” that he hasn’t already revealed in his memoirs (2002’s “Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox” and 2020’s “No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality”) or in interviews that he’s given before this documentary was made. But there never before has been a documentary like this made about Fox with Fox’s participation. Instead of just being a boring compilaton of archival clips and interviews, the documentary vividly brings Fox’s story to cinematic life with the way the movie uses clips from his on-screen roles to cleverly match the emotions and situations that Fox describes in his narration.

By now, most people who know why Fox is famous are already aware of his career highlights. Born in 1961 in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta, he rose to fame in the 1980s, with starring roles in the 1982 to 1989 comedy TV series “Family Ties” (for which he won three Primetime Emmy Awards) and his breakthrough movie role in the 1985 sci-fi time-traveling comedy blockbuster “Back to the Future.” Many people also know about several of Fox’s other movies (such as 1985’s “Teen Wolf,” 1987’s “The Secret to My Success” and the “Stuart Little” movies), as well and his TV sitcom comeback in “Spin City,” which he starred in from 1996 to 2000. Fox won his fourth Primetime Emmy Award for “Spin City.” He won his fifth Primetime Emmy Award in 2009 for being a guest actor on the drama series “Rescue Me.”

Many of Fox’s fans already know the story of how he started acting while he was a child growing up in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. As someone who was always shorter than most of his peers, Fox learned at an early age to use comedy as a way to make people like him—or at least back off a little from bullying or insulting him. In the documentary, Fox describes his teenage years as being an academically dismal student and a “serial fender bender.” He also had a rocky relationship with his retired military father, whom Fox describes as a pragmatist with a quick temper.

Fox decided to drop out of high school at age 17 to pursue an acting career full-time in the Los Angeles area. In the documentary, Fox says that he was surprised that his strict father didn’t put up much of fuss over this decision. Fox remembers his father telling him this analogy: “If you’re going to be a lumberjack, you better go to the goddamn forest.”

Like many struggling actors in the Los Angeles area, Fox was living in near-poverty and was able to book some jobs, but they weren’t enough to pay the bills. His big break as conservative teen Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties” came about because actor Matthew Broderick wasn’t available for the role, and Fox was able to win over a skeptical David Gordon Green, the showrunner of “Family Ties.” In the documentary, Fox describes the first time he made people laugh in his “Family Ties” audition was a high that was like no other: “No drink, no drug, not woman could touch that moment.”

Fox’s starring role as time-traveling teen Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” also came about because he wasn’t the first choice: Eric Stoltz was originally cast in the role and had started filming the movie when “Back to the Future” director Robert Zemeckis fired Stoltz for not being a good fit for the movie’s comedy. Just as Fox described in many other interviews and in his memoirs, for about three months, Fox kept a grueling schedule where he worked on “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future” at the same time. “Back to the Future” made him a household name worldwide.

Also duly noted in the documentary is the love story between Fox and Tracy Pollan, a theater-trained actress who played Alex P. Keaton’s girlfriend on “Family Ties.” Life imitated art. Fox and Pollan fell in love, and they got married in 1988. In the documentary, Fox says one of the reasons why he fell in love with Pollan was because she wasn’t impressed by his stardom and was honest with him, even if it might hurt his feelings.

Fox and Pollan have four children: son Sam (born in 1989); twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler (born in 1995); and daughter Esmé (born November 3, 2001). All four of the kids and Pollan are in the documentary with Fox. They are shown joking around with each other and being a loving family.

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” doesn’t clutter up the movie with “experts” or “talking heads” discussing Fox. Occasionally, director Guggenheim can be heard talking to Fox off-camera. One of the questions that Guggenheim asks Fox is: “Before [you had] Parkinson’s, what did it mean to be still?” Fox replies, “I don’t know. I don’t remember being still.”

The documentary frequently juxtaposes Fox’s career highs with current footage that shows the contrast of what his life is like now: He has difficulty walking and is in constant physical therapy. Falling down and hurting himself is a fact of life for him. One of the early scenes in the movie shows him taking a hard tumble on a sidewalk. In another scene, he has to have makeup applied to his fractured left cheekbone because of another fall that isn’t shown in the movie. There’s a montage of clips showing the tricks he used to do on camera to hide his shaking hands when his Parkinson’s disease was a secret from the public.

Fox also gets candid about becoming an alcoholic after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but he says he got sober in 1992. His father’s sudden death of a heart attack in 1990 also shook him to the core. Fox says it was like crossing another painful threshold in adulthood. He also admits there was a period of time from the late 1980s to the early 1990s when he became a workaholic in movies because he was under the delusion that keeping busy with work would make his Parkinson’s disease go away. His workaholic lifestyle and making movies far away from his home were taking a toll on his family life, which is why he decided to go back to doing a TV series with “Spin City.”

The Michael J. Fox Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to Parkinson’s disease resources and research, is mentioned as one of the most significant accomplishments of Fox’s life. The foundation has raised more than $2 billion, according to the documentary. Fox has also been an outspoken activist who has testified in front of congressional committees and campaigned for more government funding for Parkinson’s disease.

Despite all the information in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” that has already been revealed in other media, there’s no denying that seeing Fox open up in a movie about his life is illumninating in ways that can’t be done in a book, news article or a short interview. What emerges in the documentary is a portrait of someone who is not afraid to reflect on his life (including his past mistakes and failings) but doesn’t want to be stuck in the past. And most importantly, the movie is a positive example of how someone with a disease that weakens the body can gain emotional strength and help others.

Apple Studios released “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on May 12, 2023.

Review: ‘Tetris’ (2023), starring Taron Egerton

May 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in “Tetris” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Tetris” (2023)

Directed by Jon S. Baird

Some language in Japanese and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1988, in the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and Japan, the dramatic film “Tetris” (inspired by a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers gets caught up in a web of ruthless business deals and political intrigue in multiple countries, as he tries to obtain worldwide licensing rights to the game Tetris. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious traget audience of Tetris fans, “Tetris” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Taron Egerton, video games that were launched in the 1980s, and movies about real-life business underdogs.

Togo Igawa, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton in “Tetris” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Combining 1980s entertainment nostalgia and 1980s Cold War history lessons, the dramatic film “Tetris” also mixes facts with fiction. In this lively retelling of the Tetris game origin story, the “race against time” plot developments are obviously exaggerated for the movie. However, the double dealings and business backstabbings ring true, in addition to navigating cultural differences. “Tetris” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Noah Pink, “Tetris” can get a little too over-the-top in how it depicts the story of one man versus corporate giants and the Russian government in the fierce competition to get worldwide rights to the video game Tetris. However, the cast members’ performances elevate the movie, which has some comedic elements that easily could have looked out-of-place with the wrong cast members. “Tetris” has a winking tone to it let viewers know that the filmmakers didn’t intend to make this movie entirely factual or entirely serious.

“Tetris” (a globetrotting story that takes place in 1988) also has a visual motif used to great effect: Many of the scenes have flashes of the live-action visuals presented as if they were in the format of a Tetris game or a video game from the late 1980s. The beginning of the movie also identifies the main characters as “players,” a word that can take on multiple meanings in the context of the story. The word “player” is also more than ironic because much of what happens in all these frantic business deals for Tetris is anything but fun and games.

“Tetris” begins by showing Henk Rogers, co-founder of the small, independent company Bullet-Proof Software at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Henk is of Indonesian-Dutch heritage but he was raised primarily in the United States and lives in Japan during the period of time that this story takes place. His multicultural background comes in handy in some ways, but in other ways it becomes a hindrance when people question his cultural loyalties.

Henk is trying and failing to make his new video game a hit at CES, which is a crucial event for Bullet-Proof Software. Henk has already taken out a bank loan to launch this video game, which he now knows is going to be a flop. But as fate would have it, Henk tries a new video game at the convention: It’s called Tetris, invented by a Russian computer expert named Alexey Pajitnov (played by Nikita Yefremov), who has a humble and unassuming personality.

Alexey does not own the rights to the game. Why? Because in the Communist country that was then known as the U.S.S.R. or Soviet Union, Alexey works for the government entity ELORG, which has monopoly control of the importing and exporting of Russian-made computer products. Anyone who wants the worldwide licensing rights to sell Tetris has to go through the Soviet government first.

In the simplest of terms, Tetris is a game where players try to make buildings out of falling building blocks. Henk is immediately hooked on Tetris and thinks it could be a massive worldwide hit. And he’s willing to bet his life savings and his home on what he wants to do next: partner with a major video game company to get the worldwide licensing rights to Tetris.

An early scene in “Tetris” shows Henk trying to convince a skeptical bank manager named Eddie (played by Rick Yune) to give Henk another bank loan, this time for this Tetris endeavor. After explaining what Tetris is about, Henk tells Eddie why Henk thinks Tetris is so special: “It stays with you. It’s the perfect game.” Henk also mentions that Tetris has become an underground hit in the Soviet Union/Russia, where people have been sharing bootleg copies of Tetris on floppy disks. Eddie reluctantly agrees to the loan, on the conditions that the loan will have a high interest rate and that Henk has to put up his home as collateral.

Henk ends up sneaking into Nintendo headquarters in Japan and meeting with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi (played by Togo Igawa) and Hiroshi’s assistant (played by Nino Furuhata) to broker for Nintendo the worldwide licensing rights to make Tetris for Nintendo cartridges and arcade machines. Henk turns down Nintendo’s initial offer of $500,000. Henk wants $2 million for the cartridges deal and $1 million for the arcade deal.

While still negotiating with Nintendo, Henk goes to Nintendo of America headquarters in Seattle, where he meets Nintendo of America CEO Minoru Arakawa (played by Ken Yamamura) and Nintendo of America senior vice president/general counsel Howard Lincoln (played by Ben Miles). Minoru and Howard show Henk a sneak peek of a product that has not gone on the market yet: Nintendo’s hand-held Game Boy system. Nintendo is planning to install the game Super Mario Land on all Game Boys, but Henk convinces Minoru and Howard that Tetris has broader appeal and should be the game installed on all Game Boys.

Henk has to contend with three British video game moguls, who at various times are his allies and enemies: duplicitous Robert Stein (played by Toby Jones), the founder/CEO of Andromeda Software; corrupt Robert Maxwell (played by Roger Allam), chairman of Mirrorsoft, a video game publisher; and arrogant Kevin Maxwell (played by Anthony Boyle), who is Robert’s son and the CEO of Mirrorsoft. Henk has been told that Robert Stein has gotten worldwide licensing rights for Tetris and has already made a deal with Mirrorsoft. Henk’s plan, with backing from Nintendo, is to buy out the rights from these British businessmen.

The rest of the movie shows Henk wheeling and dealing, while often getting undercut and betrayed by some people he thought were trustworthy business colleagues. Video game companies Sega and Atari, which were Nintendo’s main rivals at the time, also get in the mix because they also want Tetris. Meanwhile, Henk has to spend a lot of time in Russia (where he eventually meets Alexey) and finds out the hard way that doing a capitalist business deal in a Communist country is a lot more dangerous than he ever thought it could be.

Henk’s family life also suffers because of his obsession to close this deal. His patient wife Akemi Rogers (played by Ayane Nagabuchi), who co-founded Bullet-Proof Software with Henk, handles the managerial administration of the company’s small staff of employees while Henk is in charge of all the sales and marketing. Henk and Akemi have three children: 10-year-old Maya Rogers (played by Kanon Narumi), 8-year-old Julie Rogers (played by Karin Nurumi), and 6-year-old Kevin Rogers. Maya has an important dance performance that she doesn’t want Henk to miss. You can easily predict what will happen.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Henk is assigned a translator named Sasha (played by Sofia Lebedeva), who also educates Henk on Russian and Communist cultures. Henk soon finds out that he is being spied on by the Soviet government. Two of the ELORG officials who have been monitoring Henk are Valentin Trifonov (played by Igor Grabuzov) and Nikolai Belikov (played by Oleg Shtefanko). One of these ELORG officials is much worse than the other.

Egerton portrays Henk as an optimistic charmer who thinks he can talk his way in and out of situations but finds out that he sometimes gets in way over his head. He adeptly handles movie’s drama and comedy. Lebedeva is another standout as translator Sasha, who develops a friendly rapport with Henk and possibly becomes romantically attracted to him. Allam and Boyle provide some sardonic comic relief in portraying the love/hate relationship between Robert Maxwell and Kevin Maxwell. A running joke in the movie is Robert Maxwell’s bragging about being a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev (played by Matthew Marsh), who was the Soviet Union’s president at the time.

Even though “Tetris” couldn’t possibly include portrayals of all the people involved in these complex deals, there are still many characters to keep track of in the story. Luckily, “Tetris” is written well enough to juggle all of these moving pieces in a briskly paced manner, much like how skilled Tetris players navigate the game. The movie’s adrenaline-pumping climax is pure fabrication, but it’s the most memorable aspect of this thriller. “Tetris” strikes the right balance of being escapism and a reality check for how landmark business deals often happen under circumstances that can be stranger than fiction.

Apple Studios released “Tetris” in select U.S. cinemas on March 24, 2023. Apple TV+ premiered the movie on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘The End of Sex,’ starring Emily Hampshire, Jonas Chernick, Gray Powell, Lily Gao, Eden Cupid, Colin Mochrie and Melanie Scrofano

May 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Emily Hampshire and Jonas Chernick in “The End of Sex” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“The End of Sex”

Directed by Sean Garrity

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city, the comedy film “The End of Sex” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple decide to spice up their sex life while their two pre-teen daughters are away at camp for a week. 

Culture Audience: “The End of Sex” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a sporadically amusing and repetitive sex comedy that’s not as clever as the filmmakers think it is.

Melanie Scrofano and Emily Hampshire in “The End of Sex” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“The End of Sex” is a weak comedy that tries very hard to be edgy and cute at the same time. It’s mostly predictable tedium that’s not as open-minded as it tries to look. The women who are queer or sexually liberated in the movie get “punished” the most. Many of the sexual situations presented in the movie could have been a lot funnier and cleverly satirical if the filmmakers didn’t take the lazy approach of making everything look like a second-rate sitcom, albeit a sitcom that is definitely geared to adults. “The End of Sex” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Sean Garrity and written by Jonas Chernick (who is one of the stars of the movie), “The End of Sex” (which takes place during one week in an unnamed Canadian city) would like viewers to believe that a married couple can solve their sexual boredom problems in just one week. That’s the period of time that Josh Michaels (played by Chernick) and his wife Emma Michaels (played by Emily Hampshire) have their home to themselves while their two underage daughters are away at a summer camp. The couple’s daughters are Grace (played by Maya Misaljevic) and Dawn (played by Emily Watt), who are about 7 to 9 years old. Dawn and Grace are in the movie for less than 10 minutes.

“The End of Sex” gets its title because Josh and Emma (who are both in their 40s) believe that their sex life was ruined because they became parents. Of course, it’s very easy to make children the scapegoats when the adults won’t take responsibility for their own actions. It soon becomes obvious as the story goes on that the kids aren’t the real reason why the passion has all but disappeared in Josh and Emma’s sex life. These two whiny and insecure spouses have problems being honest with each other.

As soon as the kids are out of the house for the trip away at camp, Josh and Emma decide to have sex. Emma tells Josh triumphantly, “We can be as loud as we want. I’m going to be loud.” But in fact, Emma isn’t loud during this encounter, as she and Josh have quiet and awkward sex, like people who don’t know each other very well and don’t want anyone to hear them.

“The End of Sex” frequently uses a gimmick that shows sex-related captions above people’s heads. During the scene where Emma and Josh are having sex after their children are out of the house, Emma is giving Josh oral sex, and a caption appears on screen that says, “Definitely too much teeth.” (The cast members do not have full frontal nudity in this movie.) Also during this scene, when Emma and Josh each fake an orgasm without telling the other spouse, the captions read, “Faked” and “Definitely faked.”

Eventually, Emma and Josh confess to each other about the faked orgasms. They are both offended, but Emma is especially insulted because she tells Josh that it’s more pathetic (and much more difficult) for a man to fake an orgasm. In actuality, Emma is just probably angry at herself that she was fooled by Josh.

However, this confession is a turning point in Josh and Emma’s marriage. They decide that in order to improve their marriage, they need to spice up their sex life by trying new things and experimenting. Although this entire movie’s story takes place in one week, there are so many things packed into this week, it looks completely phony that this couple can think they can turn their troubled marriage around in such a short period of time.

Of course, there will be people outside the marriage who will be involved in some of the shenanigans. Josh works as a packaging editor for an ad agency, where he and a much-younger co-worker named Kelly (played by Lily Gao) privately confide in each other about their love lives. Kelly doesn’t believe that monogamy and marriage are right for her. She thinks marriage is an outdated institution and monogamy is a construct of a patriarchal society.

Because Kelly has an image of being a sexually liberated free spirit, Josh asks Kelly for advice on what he should do to be a better lover. The Josh/Kelly relationship is inappropriate in a corporate workplace setting, since the movie shows Josh and Kelly talking almost exclusively about sex while they’re alone together in private conversations in the office. It doesn’t seem like a real friendship at all.

And because this movie comes across as a male filmmaker fantasy, you can easily predict what will happen when nerdy, average-looking, middle-aged Josh decides he’s going to do more than talk about sex with Kelly, a younger co-worker who’s pretty enough to be a model. Viewers are supposed to believe that Josh is charismatic enough (he’s not) to be sexually attractive to Kelly, who exists in this movie only to be someone who has raunchy conversations and to be Josh’s “temptation” to have sex outside of his marriage.

As for Emma, her “temptation” is a former classmate from her high school. His name is Marlon (played by Gray Powell), a bachelor who owns an art gallery. Marlon, who has had a crush on Emma since they were in high school together, is the first to admit that he’s overly talkative and has no tact. In other words, he’s a creep. After years of Marlon and Emma not seeing each other, Emma and Marlon get reacquainted when she and her best friend Wendy (played by Melanie Scrofano) go to an art exhibit at Marlon’s gallery. The art exhibit consists of photo close-ups of men’s testicles.

Emma and Wendy teach art to at-risk youth at a local recreation center. The movie goes off on a boring and unnecessary tangent about one of the teens named Aisha (played Eden Cupid) being the most talented student in the class. Emma thinks Aisha (who’s a painter and illustrator) is an art prodigy. Emma tells Marlon about Aisha and says that Marlon should stop by the recreation center to look at Aisha’s art. Marlon’s response is he will stop by the recreation center only because he wants to see Emma.

“The End of Sex” does one of the most cliché things that a sex comedy does when it’s about a couple wanting to try other things in their sex life: a subplot about the couple having a threesome. After some more awkward conversations, Emma and Josh decide that Wendy will be their threesome partner. On the surface, Wendy (who is in her own troubled marriage) seems meek and prudish, but she’s really had a secret crush on Emma, and eagerly accepts the offer of having this threesome.

As you might expect under these circumstances, this “threesome” idea is a disaster, since Wendy wants nothing to do with Josh and only wants to focus on Emma in this encounter. Josh feels rejected and excluded, while Emma is alarmed to find out that Wendy has had romantic feelings for Emma for a long time. None of this is spoiler information, since the trailer for “The End of Sex” gives away about 85% of the movie’s plot.

Also revealed in the trailer is a scene that’s supposed to be one of the funniest in the movie: Josh and Emma join a swingers’ club, where they find out that Emma’s parents—Arthur (played by Colin Mochrie) and Marge (played by Frances Townend)—have been longtime swingers. Arthur is dressed in bondage gear and is surprised to see Josh and Emma there, but Arthur almost instantly accepts that Josh and Emma are trying out the swinger lifestyle. By contrast, Emma is mortified and is disturbed that her parents were living a lie to her.

This uncomfortable revelation could have been mined for better laughs and more comedy in the movie, but “The End of Sex” then falls back into typical (and dull) stereotypes of the spouses trying to make each other jealous when they decide they’re going to try an “open marriage.” For a movie that’s supposed to be an adult-oriented sex comedy, “The End of Sex” spends too much time having the central couple act like immature teenagers. Toward the end of the movie, it just becomes an irritating back-and-forth of Emma and Josh using Marlon and Kelly to deceive the other spouse into thinking that a hot and heavy affair is going on with each “temptation” person.

Not all of “The End of Sex” is completely horrible. Chernick and Hampshire have good comedic timing in some of their scenes together. But when their characters Josh and Emma spend time with other people, the comedic chemistry looks very forced and inauthentic. Powell has moments when he is a scene stealer, but his odious and one-note Marlon character becomes less amusing as things drag on in the movie.

Mostly, “The End of Sex” is such a “male gaze” and borderline misogynistic film, because of all the ways that it subtly and not-so-subtly makes the women of the movie the ones to shame the most when it comes to these sexual hijinks, while the men in the movie get excused for awfulness in a “boys will be boys” attitude. Emma’s father Arthur isn’t all that concerned about Emma experiencing the trauma of finding out that he’s a swinger and all the years he lied to about it. Meanwhile, Emma’s mother Marge doesn’t really get to say anything about it at all.

Emma and Josh both kiss their “temptations” (as shown in the movie’s trailer), but one of these spouses ends up doing more than kissing someone outside the marriage and doesn’t get much flack for it by the other spouse. It’s easy to guess which spouse’s extramarital sexual encounter was quickly forgiven. In fact, it’s forgiven and brushed aside so quickly, it makes all of the other spouse’s previous jealousy look very contrived. And predictably, Josh is quick to blame Emma for their threesome fiasco, although he eventually backtracks when he admits that it wasn’t Emma’s fault that she didn’t know that Wendy would be so infatuated with Emma.

There’s also a huge disparity between Emma’s “temptation” and Josh’s “temptation.” Marlon is a physically average jerk with an unattractive personality, and he would want a committed love affair with Emma. Kelly is a pretty intellectual with an adventurous personality, and she would not want be in a committed relationship with Josh. As far as choosing a would-be extramarital lover for a “no strings attached” fling, Josh definitely has the better option.

“The End of Sex” is a sex comedy that pretends to be risky and daring but ultimately plays into old-fashioned gender stereotypes of what’s acceptable for men and women, when it comes to marriage and sex. It would be interesting to see what a female writer and a female director would have done with the same concept that “The End of Sex” filmmakers ultimately bungled with tired tropes and not-very-funny jokes. A comedy with this subject matter deserves better than to have it dumbed down into trite material that isn’t very sexy or amusing at all.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “The End of Sex” in select U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Corsage,’ starring Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister, Katharina Lorenz, Jeanne Werner, Alma Hasun, Manuel Rubey and Finnegan Oldfield

May 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Vicky Krieps in “Corsage” (Photo by Felix Vratny/IFC Films)


Directed by Marie Kreutzer

Culture Representation: Taking place in Austria, Hungary, England and Germany, in 1877 and 1878, the dramatic film “Corsage” (based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria) features an all-white group of people representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: As she nears her 40th birthday, Empress Elisabeth feels neglected by a philandering husband and tries to rebel against a repressive environment that dictates her physical appearance, what she wears, and how she raises her children. 

Culture Audience: “Corsage” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of history-based biopics but viewers should be prepared to see a story that is more downbeat than uplifting.

Vicky Krieps in “Corsage” (Photo by Robert M. Brandstaetter/IFC Films)

“Corsage” is gorgeously filmed and woefully depressing with glimmers of playful sarcasm about royal culture. Vicky Krieps gives a memorable performance as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, but this drama won’t appeal to anyone looking for a fun-filled story. “Corsage” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where Krieps won a Best Performance award in the festival’s Un Certain Regard competition. “Corsage” also screened at other film festivals in 2022, including the New York Film Festival.

Written and directed by Marie Kreutzer, “Corsage” takes place in 1877 and 1878, mostly in the Austrian city of Vienna and the Hungarian city of Budapest. Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sissi, was also queen of Hungary. The movie, which changes some real-life facts, gives an up-close and sometimes disturbing personal look at the life Elisabeth, who seems to be living a charmed life in the public eye. In private, things are quite different for the empress, who is fretting about soon turning 40, her physical appearance, and her crumbling marriage.

Elisabeth says in a voiceover: “From the age of 40, a person begins to disperse and fade.” (Keep in mind, this is during an era when the average life expectancy was much lower than it is today.) From the first 10 minutes of the movie, it’s made clear that Elisabeth is deeply troubled and has self-esteem issues.

One of the things that she does on a regular basis (as shown in an early scene in the movie) is hold her breath underwater in a bathtub for as long as possible. The first time the movie shows her engaging in this dangerous stunt, she’s held her breath underwater for 40 seconds. She’s clearly not doing this for daredevil fun. It’s an obvious cry for help, because her life is making her miserable.

Elisabeth’s husband Franz Joseph I of Austria (played by Florian Teichtmeister) is inattentive and cold toward her. He seems bored with their marriage. Franz Joseph (who wears a fake beard and a hairpiece) won’t even let Elisabeth eat dinner with him. And when Elisabeth tries to be sexually intimate with Franz Joseph, he’s not interested. Later, Elisabeth sees Franz Joseph being affectionate with another woman. It just confirms what she probably knew already: Franz Joseph has been unfaithful to her.

Elisabeth and Franz Joseph have a daughter together named Valerie (played by Rosa Hajjaj), who’s about 7 or 8 years old, and a son named Rudolph (played by Aaron Friesz), who is in his early 20s. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth had another daughter named Sophie, who died years ago and would have been 22 years old in 1847. As a couple, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph do not talk about Sophie, but it’s implied that Sophie’s death has taken a toll on their marriage. In real life, Sophie died in a fire in 1897, which was 20 years after the story in this movie takes place.

Elisabeth feels so neglected, when she’s in public, she pretends to faint, just so she can get the type of attention that a royal woman would get when she faints. She does this phony fainting after getting out of a carriage during a visit to King Ludwig II of Bavaria (played by Manuel Rubey). Later, she tells King Ludwig II in a private conversation that her fainting spell was all an act. And she shows him how she does it.

One of Elisabeth’s concerns is how she is covered by the tabloid media. There have been reports that she’s been trying to lose weight. These reports are true. “Corsage” has several scenes where Elisabeth’s weight and diet are obsessively monitored by Elisabeth and many of the people around her. Observant viewers will notice that not much has changed with today’s tabloid media outlets, which give obsessive coverage to the physical appearance (including any weight loss or weight gain) of young and famous royal women.

In her spare time, Elisabeth does fencing and horse-riding activities. The movie shows how Elisabeth impulsively orders Valerie to ride horses with her in the early-morning hours. As a result, Valerie gets sick. Franz Joseph blames Elisabeth for Valerie’s illness, and it causes further strain in their marriage. Franz Joseph wants to make Elisabeth feel like she’s an unfit mother.

Elisabeth’s closest confidante is Ida Ferenczy (played by Jeanne Werner), a Hungarian lady-in-waiting for Elisabeth. Elisabeth is also close with another lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics (played by Katharina Lorenz), who keeps meticulous diaries of what her royal employer does. Also in Elisabeth’s inner circle is her hair stylist Fanny Feifalik (played by Alma Hasun), who is in for a shock after Elisabeth cuts off her own long hair during an emotional fit. It says a lot about Elisabeth and that her closest friends were also her servants.

Elisabeth also has some male friends, one of whom becomes her love interest. She and a younger man named Bay Middleton (played by Colin Morgan) have a mutual attraction. Elisabeth’s son Rudolph expresses concern to her that people are gossiping about how much time she spends alone with Bay. Elisabeth also strikes up a friendship with French cinematographer Louis Le Prince (played by Finnegan Oldfield), who makes short films with her. (In real life, Le Prince is considered the “godfather” of cinematography.)

“Corsage” has a very revisionist take on the real Elisabeth’s life, including how she died. The movie portrays her as possibly manic depressive but with a mischievous streak. She likes to flip her middle finger or stick her tongue out at people when she’s displeased about something. And in an era where it was considered not very ladylike to smoke cigarettes, Elisabeth was a chronic smoker.

Under the astute direction of Kreutzer, “Corsage” delivers everything that viewers might expect of a drama about European royalty: sumptuous costumes, luxurious production design, and elite characters talking as if they’re always breathing rarefied air. However, this admittedly stuffy movie can just as easily be a turnoff to viewers who won’t feel any emotional connection to these characters at all. Krieps gives a compelling performance, but Elisabeth’s self-destructive tendencies becomes a bit draining to watch.

One of the movie’s highlights is the musical score by Camille. It’s haunting and enchanting in all the right ways. “Corsage” is a cautionary tale told in an “all that glitters is not gold” manner. It’s a story that is about a specific royal woman, but it can apply to anyone who is living a restrictive and unhappy existence, even if that life might look privileged and wonderful on the outside.

IFC Films released “Corsage” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on February 7, 2023.

Review: ‘Smoking Causes Coughing,’ starring Gilles Lellouche, Vincent Lacoste, Anaïs Demoustier, Jean-Pascal Zadi and Oulaya Amamra

May 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Smoking Causes Coughing” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Smoking Causes Coughing”

Directed by Quentin Dupieux

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in France, the sci-fi comedy film “Smoking Causes Coughing” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Five superheroes called the Tobacco Force, whose mission is to combat people who cause pollution from smoking, are sent on a team-building retreat while a lizard villain threatens to take over the world.

Culture Audience: “Smoking Causes Coughing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching quirky European movies that blend societal observations with bizarre comedy.

Oulaya Amamra, Vincent Lacoste, Anaïs Demoustier and Jean-Pascal Zadi in “Smoking Causes Coughing” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Smoking Causes Coughing” has some amusing satirical things to say about pollution and the concept of utopias. It’s not writer/director Quentin Dupieux’s best movie, and the ending is underwhelming, but most of the movie is entertaining to watch. Unlike his other films that have a overall cohesive narrative, “Smoking Causes Coughing” is more like a series of sketches compiled for a movie. “Smoking Causes Coughing” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and later played at other film festivals in 2022, including Fantastic Fest and AFI Fest.

“Smoking Causes Coughing” (which takes place in an unspecified future in unnamed cities in France) begins by showing a road trip being taken by an unnamed mother (played by Julia Faure), an unnamed father (played by David Marsais) and their teenage son Stéphane (played by Tanguy Mercier), who are passing by a remote desert-shrub area in their car. Stéphane wants to stop the car because he has spotted five “celebrities” he wants to meet: a group of “superheroes” named the Tobacco Force, who all dress in outfits that are similar to Power Rangers outfits, but in blue, white and gold.

When Stéphane and his parents stop the car, Stéphane runs closer to see the five members in this desert-shrub area. The members of the Tobacco Force have surrounded a giant mutant turtle called Tortusse (played by Olivier Afonso), who moves like a human, and are fighting this creature. Laser-like gas comes out of the Tobacco Forces’ fists until Tortusse explodes, with the body splatter flying in all directions, including on Stéphane and his parents. (Part of this scene is already shown in the trailer for “Smoking Causes Coughing.”)

This star-struck family is unfazed by being covered in gunky remains of an animal. They want to take photos with the Tobacco Force. All of the members willingly oblige and happily pose for pictures with these strangers who have gunk on their faces and clothes. And then this family gets back in the car and is not seen again for the rest of the movie.

The Tobacco Force’s five members, whose ages range from 20s to 40s, have a mission to save the world from pollution, specifically pollution from people smoking. They are also told there is a constant threat of villains trying to destroy the world. The villian who is their biggest threat is named Lizardin (played by Benoite Chivot), who is said to be much more dangerous than Tortusse. The Tobacco Force has a small robot sidekick named Norbert 500 (voiced by Ferdinand Canaud), who does all of the cleaning up after the Tobacco Force’s inevitable messes.

All of the members of the Tobacco Force are named after ingredients found in cigarettes. The oldest member of the Tobacco Force is Benzene (played by Gilles Lellouche), who acts as if he’s the leader of the group. Nicotine (played by Anaïs Demoustier) is flirtatious and bubbly. Ammonia (played by Oulaya Amamra) is sassy and assertive. Mercury (played by Jean-Pascal Zadi) is cautious and a married father of two underage children. Methanol (played by Vincent Lacoste) is the group’s quietest and youngest member. Benzene says that Methanol reminds Benzene of how Benzene used to be when he was Methanol’s age.

The Tobacco Force has to report to a boss named Chief Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat), who is usually just called Chief. This cranky boss looks like a human-sized rat and constantly has green ooze drooling from his mouth. The costumes in “Smoking Causes Coughing” are deliberately made to look like they’re from a tacky, low-budge sci-fi B-movie. For example, Tortusse’s costume looks like it’s ready to fall apart at any moment. Chief is obviously just a cheap-looking puppet.

A running joke in the movie is that Chief (who has a personality as slimy as the green ooze the drips from his mouth) is a ladies’ man who has no shortage of women in his bed. (He is seen with a different lover in every scene.) It’s the movie’s way of commenting on how power can be an aphrodisiac and can make someone look more attractive.

And not even Nicotine and Ammonia are immune to this attraction. Another running joke in the movie is that Nicotine and Ammonia both want to be the “favorite” employee of Chief and probably date him, but Nicotine and Ammonia don’t want to admit it to each other. Still, Nicotine and Ammonia sneakily try to find out what Chief says and does when he’s alone with the other woman. Nicotine and Ammonia also pretend not to be jealous when they see Chief with any of his girlfriends.

The Tobacco Force has been having some in-fighting recently, so Chief orders this quintet to go on a team-building retreat, which is also in a desert-shrub area. The best way to describe their living situation at this retreat is it looks like a high-tech camp. The group members are supposed to be by themselves at this retreat, but it should come as no surprise that they get some unexpected visitors.

A large part of “Smoking Causes Coughing” is about people sitting around a campfire and telling their scariest or most unusual stories. Benzene tells a story about two married couples—spouses Bruno (played by Jérôme Niel) and Agathe (played by Doria Tillier) and spouses Christophe (played by Grégoire Ludig) and Céline (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) going on a camping trip together. Someone in this group of spouses gets alienated from the other three people, and choas ensues.

“Smoking Causes Coughing” has a total running time of about 80 minutes, which is a good-enough length, because this movie doesn’t have much of a plot. The performances of the cast members are mildly engaging but not particularly outstanding, People should not be fooled into thinking that the “superhero” costumes are indication that “Smoking Causes Coughing” is an adrenaline-packed action movie. This is a film that is for viewers who like seeing movies with unusual characters, eccentric comedy and the appeal of some very unexpected things happening.

Magnet Releasing released “Smoking Causes Coughing” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on March 31, 2023. The movie was released in France on November 30, 2022.

Review: ‘The Five Devils,’ starring Adèle Exarchopoulos

May 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sally Dramé, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Moustapha Mbengue in “The Five Devils” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“The Five Devils”

Directed by Léa Mysius

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Grenoble, France, the sci-fi drama film “The Five Devils” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A swimming instructor, who used to be a gymnast, has her life upended when her 8-year-old daughter finds out family secrets after a troubled relative comes to visit.

Culture Audience: “The Five Devils” will appeal primarily to people who like watching artsy and offbeat European films that have elements of science fiction.

Swala Emati and Adèle Exarchopoulos in “The Five Devils” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“The Five Devils” is a science-fiction mindbender that presents its story as pieces of a puzzle that eventually emerge to reveal the whole picture of a family that has been plagued by secrets and scandals that they don’t want to discuss. This time-travel drama is intriguing but a little repetitive and predictable. The cast members give interesting performances that strengthen the uneven script. Some viewers will be offended by how the movie glorifies a selfish and unfaithful character. However, there’s enough in the story to hold the interest of viewers who are curious to see what is revealed next.

Directed by Léa Mysius (who co-wrote “The Five Devils” screenplay with Paul Guilhaume), “The Five Devils” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is set in Grenoble, France. Like a lot of time-traveling movies, “The Five Devils” has a plot that makes people think about how life experiences could be shaped by choices versus fate.

“The Devils” begins by showing a group of horrified women in their 20s, who are dressed in sparkly leotards and standing in front of a burning building. The women are screaming in fear and horror. Most of the women have their backs to the camera, but one of these young women can clearly be seen. And she looks like she’s in complete shock.

Her name is Joanne (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos), and viewers find out that this fire happened about 10 years before, when she was part of a group of gymnastic dancers called the Five Devils. The movie circles back to this scene later in “The Five Devils,” in order to explain the circumstances under which this fire happened. Without giving away spoiler information, it’s enough to say that this fire had a profound impact on many people’s lives.

In the approximately 10 years since that fire happened, Joanne has gotten married to (ironically) a firefighter named Jimmy Soler (played by Moustapha Mbengue), who is an immigrant from Senegal. Joanne, who quit being a gymnast ever since the fire, now works as a swimming exercise instructor at a community center, where most of her students are middle-aged and elderly women.

Jimmy and Joanne have one child together: a precocious 8-year-old daughter named Vicky (played by Sally Dramé, making an impressive feature-film debut), who sometimes helps Joanne do breath-holding practices at a nearby lake. In these practice sessions, Vicky is supposed to time Joanne on how long Joanne can stay underwater. Vicky is very perceptive and has more than above-average intelligence. Vicky also has the ability to travel in the past.

Vicky doesn’t find out that she has this time-traveling ability until after her family gets a surprise visit from Jimmy’s younger sister Julia (played by Swala Emati), who works in nano-biotechnology. Julia’s presence seems to immediately disturb Joanne. Jimmy is happy to see Julia, but Joanne is standoffish and abrupt to Julia. Privately, Joanne comments to Jimmy about Julia:” I want her to leave. I can’t stand it.”

Julia meets Vicky for the first time during this visit. Vicky has an acute sense of smell, and she tells Julia that Julia smells like peat whiskey. There are other signs that Julia abuses alcohol. When Julia arrives for the visit, her left eye is bruised. Julia says she got the bruise because she accidentally fell down while drunk. It later emerges that Julia has other issues that have to do with her mental health. She has spent a certain number of years in a certain facility. The details are eventually revealed in the movie.

Vicky is a loner who likes to collect insects. Joanne knows that Vicky has an unusually strong sense of smell, but Joanne doesn’t want to tell Jimmy about it because she thinks Jimmy will want to put Vicky in therapy. Joanne doesn’t think that Vicky needs therapy. Joanne wants to be a mother who can handle everything herself.

At school, some of the students bully Vicky for having big, natural hair. These school bullies (there are about five to seven of them) taunt and attack Vicky. Because of the way Vicky’s hair looks, the school bullies call her Toilet Brush or Butt Brush. If Vicky fights back in self-defense, the bullies try to put the blame on her.

During a disturbing incident at school, the bullies surround Vicky and force soap into her mouth. But then something bizarre happens during the attack: All the kids pass out at the same time, including Vicky. School officials and parents find out, and people try to blame Vicky. However, Joanne adamantly defends Vicky and says that the kids who were bullying Vicky are to blame and should be the one to make an apology. That apology never happens, and people never find out why all of the children lost consciousness at the same time.

Meanwhile, Vicky has other episodes of passing out randomly. And every time she passes out, she goes back in the past and sees parts of Joanne’s life. In the present day, Vicky has made a liquid concoction in a jar that includes some of her own urine. (Yes, this movie is weird like that.) Vicky puts the concoction underneath the bed where Julia is sleeping.

Vicky finds out that every time she inhales this concoction, she can control when she goes into her mother Joanne’s past. Vicky is invisible to people she sees in the past, except for one person who apparently has the same psychic abilities as Vicky does. The rest of “The Five Devils” shows how Vicky finds out some family secrets that the adults in her family don’t want her to know.

The secrets involve betrayals, infidelity and lies to cover up people’s true identities. One character in particular is the catalyst for most of the chaos because this person does the most deceiving and hurting of other people. However, the movie goes out of its way to try to make this character look sympathetic, when that sympathy is not deserved in most cases. This narcissistic person, who likes to play the victim when causing problems, doesn’t like to take much responsibility for causing so much emotional damage.

Some of the movie’s supporting characters have varying degrees of knowledge or ignorance about these family secrets. Joanne’s widowed father (played Patrick Bouchitey), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, suspects one of these secrets, but he doesn’t want to really know the truth. Jimmy has a co-worker friend name Jeff (played by Hugo Dillon), who warns Jimmy that Julia’s presence is upsetting to some people in the community. Joanne has a co-worker friend named Nadine (played by Daphne Patakia), who used to be in the same gymnastics group and whose face was disfigured in the fire. Nadine has a secret that is related to the Soler family’s big secrets.

All of the cast members play their parts well, but the movie would not be as fascinating without the riveting performance of Dramé as Vicky. It is through Vicky’s eyes that viewers discover all the family secrets. Dramé is able to convey with great skill the myriad of emotions that Vicky feels, including the hurt and confusion when she finds out that a big part of the family’s life turned out to be a lie that was actively covered up by the adult in the family who causes the most emotional chaos. Vicky also finds out something that makes her question if she would have been born in the first place if certain people had made different decisions.

Vicky’s loss of childhood innocence has more emotional weight than the soap opera-ish melodrama caused by the adults in the story. “The Five Devils” loses its way a little when it leans too heavily into an over-the-top “life or death” situation toward the end of the film. And the person who was hurt by infidelity doesn’t give the type of reaction that some viewers might expect. “The Five Devils” tries to show how life can be messy, but the ending of the movie succumbs to a conventional formula that tries to ignore the big mess caused by the most toxic person in the family.

MUBI released “The Five Devils” on March 24 in New York City, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.

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