Review: ‘The Box’ (2022), starring Hatzín Navarrete and Hernán Mendoza

March 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hatzín Navarrete and Hernán Mendoza in “The Box” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“The Box” (2022)

Directed by Lorenzo Vigas

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico, the dramatic film “The Box” features a Latino cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a 13-year-old boy travels from Mexico City to get the cremated remains of his long-lost father, he meets a factory worker who looks like the boy’s father, but with a different name, and they form an uneasy father-son type of relationship. 

Culture Audience: “The Box” will appeal primarily to people who want to see compelling stories about family identities and worker exploitation.

Hatzín Navarrete in “The Box” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“The Box” is a “slow burn” movie that starts off a little sluggishly, but the story gets more compelling toward the last half of the film. It’s a solid and well-acted drama that can hold viewers’ interest, even when the movie drags on for a little too long, and a family secret is too easy to predict before it’s revealed. “The Box” has familiar themes in coming-of-age stories about the loss of innocence while trying to define one’s own self-identity.

Directed by Lorenzo Vigas, “The Box” had its world premiere at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival. Vigas co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Paula Markovitch and Laura Santullo. “The Box” was Venezuela’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards for the category of Best International Feature Film. (The movie didn’t an an Oscar nomination.) Even though “The Box” takes place in Mexico, it’s considered a Venezuelan movie for awards eligibility, because Vigas is Venezuelan, and the movie was financed by Venezuelan production companies.

In the beginning of “The Box,” a 13-year-old boy named Hatzín (played by Hatzín Navarrete) travels alone by bus from his hometown of Mexico City to an unnamed city in Mexico. The purpose of this trip is so he can claim the cremated remains of a person he is told is his long-lost father, who was found in a mass grave. Mass graves of murdered people (many of whom remain unidentified and unclaimed) have become a big social problem in Mexico, which “The Box” acknowledges in ways that serves as a menacing backdrop for the story.

Hatzín’s father, whose name is Esteban Espinosa Leyva, disappeared from the family when Hatzín was too young to remember. Hatzín (who is an only child) is being raised by Hatzín’s maternal grandmother, who has diabetes and is unable to travel. Hatzín’s mother is deceased.

Hatzín is a quiet and introverted child who has mixed feelings about this trip. On the one hand, he is sad that there’s no chance that his father will reunite with the family. On the other hand, he’s relieved to be out of his household, since he isn’t very happy there. His grandmother isn’t neglectful or abusive, but the movie repeatedly drops hints that Hatzín is lonely and doesn’t feel complete without having a father figure in his life.

Hatzín has a letter of authorization from his grandmother to have the cremated remains released to Hatzín. When he arrives at the center where unclaimed bodies are being kept, Hatzín gets the cremated remains in a metal box (which looks like a pet-sized coffin), as well as his father’s photo ID, which he is told was found with his father’s body. Because Hatzín doesn’t really remember what his father looks like, he assumes that everything on the ID is correct.

Hatzín is about take a bus to go back home when, by sheer coincidence, he sees a man walking on a street who looks exactly like the man on the photo ID of his father. Hatzín approaches the man and asks him if his name is Esteban Espinosa Leyva. The stranger (played by Hernán Mendoza) is friendly and says that his name is Mario Enderle. Mario tells Hatzín that this is a case of mistaken identity.

Hatzín insists that there is no mistake, while Mario says there is. Mario looks amused and then slightly uncomfortable when Hatzín follows Mario into a shop. Hatzín tells Mario there is no mistake, because he remembers interacting with Mario when Hatzín was younger. Mario tells Hatzín to go away. But Hatzín can’t let go of the feeling that something isn’t quite right about what he’s been told about his father being dead.

Hatzín then decides to act like a private detective. He secretly follows Mario to a factory where Mario works, and then he follows Mario to a few other places. After asking some questions to factory employees and doing some more snooping around, Hatzín finds out that Mario spends a lot of his time recruiting people to work in the factory.

Hatzín confronts Mario again. And this time, he’s brought the photo ID as proof. Mario says it must be a fake ID using a stolen photograph. Hatzín explains that if his father is still alive, he wants to find him, but Mario in unmoved by this sob story. Mario is so annoyed by Hatzín, he drives Hatzín to the nearest bus station and tells Hatzín to go home.

But Hatzín won’t go home. The next day, Mario finds Hatzín asleep in Mario’s truck. “Didn’t I tell you to leave?” Mario yells at Hatzín. In response, Hatzín says that he doesn’t want to go home. Mario says to Hatzín: “You crazy fucker.” And so, these two strangers begin a tension-filled rapport that starts to turn into a father-son type of relationship.

It isn’t long before Mario makes Hatzín his apprentice. Hatzín is eager and willing to impress Mario, who says his dream is to have his own factory. Mario says that if he ever gets his own factory, he will hire Hatzín to work there. Hatzín likes this idea, because he has no intention of going back to Mexico City. Hatzín occasionally calls his worried grandmother, but he tells her that he’s found a job, and he’s not coming back home.

Hatzín is a dutiful and loyal protégé to Mario, but Hatzín is curious to find out more about Mario, who does not have an identifiable Mexican accent. Hatzín asks a factory worker if Mario is really from Mexico. The worker says yes, while also mentioning that Mario is from the city of Chihuahua. Hatzín also hears the workers talk about Mario’s generosity. For example, one of the workers says that Mario helped the worker’s mother (who has intestinal problems) go to a hospital.

Mario started off trying to get rid of Hatzín when they first met, but Mario soon comes to rely on Hatzín for many things that go beyond what a kid should be doing. For example, there’s a scene where Mario is shortchanged on his commission, and he orders an obedient Hatzín to go back to the office and get the money that Mario is owed. It’s a salary dispute that Mario should have handled himself, and not put the burden on Hatzín.

Viewers with enough life experience can see the movie’s several indications that Mario isn’t all that he first appears to be. The way that Mario handled the commission dispute, by ordering Hatzín to get the money, is really Mario’s way of testing Hatzín to see how loyal Hatzín will be to Mario. Because “The Box” is told from Hatzín’s perspective (which is a very naïve perspective at first), it takes quite a while before Hatzín starts to see who the real Mario is.

It should come as no surprise that Hatzín finds out that the recruitment of factory workers isn’t as straightforward as it seems to be. One of the things that Hatzín discovers is that many of these workers are deliberately exploited by not getting the payment that is owed to them. There are other shady things about the factory that are eventually revealed in the movie, which has some obvious foreshadowing of these revelations.

“The Box” has several cast members, but the movie’s only real character development is for Hatzín and Mario. “The Box” shows Hatzín’s almost desperate willingness to find his identity in whatever father figure pays enough attention to him. The cremation box is a symbol of not only the past that Hatzín wants to leave behind but also a past that he wants more answers to in his motivations to find out more about his father.

Navarrete makes his feature-film debut as Hatzín, a character he portrays with a lot of naturalism and credibility. Mendoza also gives an impressive performance as Mario, a character with many layers to his personality. Mario easily displays some of those layers to the world, while keeping other layers well-hidden. “The Box” is ultimately a cautionary tale about giving other people or things too much power in defining who you are, when that definition should really come from within yourself.

MUBI released “The Box” in New York City on November 4, 2022. The movie premiered on MUBI on November 11, 2022.

Review: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (2022), starring Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Edin Hasanovic, Daniel Brühl and Devid Striesow

March 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Felix Kammermer in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Photo by Reiner Bajo/Netflix)

“All Quiet on the Western Front” (2022)

Directed by Edward Berger

German and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Germany and France, from 1917 to 1918, the World War I dramatic film “All Quiet on the Western Front” (based on the novel of the same name) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A teenager loses his innocence after he becomes a soldier in the German Army during World War I, while a ruthless general and a liberal politician have different ideas about how Germany should handle the war. 

Culture Audience: “All Quiet on the Western Front” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of realistic war movies and Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel of the same name.

Daniel Brühl (pictured at far right) in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Photo by Reiner Bajo/Netflix)

Told from a German perspective, this version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is the most brutal and harrowing in showing the horrors of World War I. The movie has well-crafted technical assets, but the personalities of the characters are underdeveloped. The main protagonist is a teenage German soldier. The actor portraying this character has less than 15 minutes of dialogue in this 147-minute movie.

Directed by Edward Berger, the 2022 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel of the same name. Berger co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell. It’s the third movie version of the novel, following the 1930 version (directed by Lewis Milestone) and the 1979 TV-movie version (directed by by Delbert Mann).

The first two movie adaptations of “All Quiet on the Western Front” were American-made and starred American actors portraying Europeans. The 2022 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (which was filmed in the Czech Republic) is a German production and has German actors in the majority of the starring roles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

In the 2022 version “All Quiet at the Western Front” (which takes place in Germany and France from 1917 to 1918), viewers see the transformation of teenage German soldier Paul Bäumer (played by Felix Kammerer) from being a naïve recruit who’s eager to participate in the war to an emotionally devastated war veteran who has been worn down by all the death and destruction around him. Meanwhile, the movie shows how two very different government officials have contrasting views on Germany’s actions during this war. One is a liberal politician who wants to negotiate to end the war, while the other is a ruthless general who wants Germany to win the war at any cost.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” begins in early 1917, by showing a young German soldier named Heinrich Gerber (played by Jakob Schmidt) fighting on a battlefield. The movie does a freeze-frame, right when he’s about to attack a French soldier. What happened?

Viewers then see that Heinrich has died, because his body is dumped in a truck that is transporting the corpses of other German military men. The movie then shows that Henrich’s former military uniform has been sent for repairs to a factory in Germany. His name tag is still on the uniform.

In the spring of 1917, quiet and amiable 17-year-old Paul is joyously celebrating his graduation from an all-boys high school at a ceremony attended by by fellow classmates. The school’s headmaster gives the graduates a patriotic pep talk about Germany’s involvement in World War I. Whether or not Paul was thinking about joining the German Army before this pep talk, Paul enlists in the army soon after his graduation.

When he gets his military uniform, Paul notices right away that it has the name tag Heinrich Gerber. He tells the person who gave the uniform to Paul that there must be a mistake, because he was given someone else’s uniform. The uniform is taken away, and Paul is given another uniform. Paul is given an explanation that the uniform that Paul was given by mistake was probably discarded by the previous owner because the uniform was too small.

Of course, viewers (but not Paul) know that the Henrich is dead. And the fact that the German Army is recycling a dead man’s uniform is a symbol of how impersonal and “assembly line” a war can be, in terms of how thousands or millions of soldiers on the front line are treated. Paul is about to find out the hard way that he’s just another number in this vicious war. The movie also shows this “assembly line” symbolism when Paul is assigned the task of collecting military identification tags from dead bodies on battlefields.

Paul and his troop are eventually sent to France, which is occupied by Germany at this time. The expected horrific battle scenes ensue, with graphic depictions of killings and other deaths during combat. But amid the madness and mayhem, Paul bonds with some of his fellow soldiers. The movie’s brightest and most endearing moments come from scenes showing these friendships.

One of Paul’s army buddies is Albert Kropp (played by Aaron Hilmer), who is about the same age as Paul and who becomes Paul’s best friend in this war. Albert, who sees himself as somewhat of a charming ladies’ man, often talks about how he can’t wait for the war to end so he can go back to being around women. As a new recruit, Albert is terrified and very nervous, compared to Paul, who starts off being very enthusiastic and confident about serving his country in this war. But that confidence is then destroyed by several traumatic experiences.

Four other men from Paul’s troop become part of a tight-knit circle of close acquaintances, including Paul. Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (played by Albrecht Schuch), who is in his 30s, likes to portray himself as a cocky “alpha male” type. However, there’s a very poignant scene where Kat (who cannot read) asks Paul to read a letter from Kat’s wife. The letter reveals that Kat’s somewhat arrogant demeanor actually masks a lot of personal pain.

Two of Paul’s classmates from high school are also part of the troop: Franz Müller (played by Moritz Klaus) and Ludwig Behm (played by Adrian Grünewald). Ludwig doesn’t hesitate to show how afraid he is about being in combat. While hiding out with other troop members in a bunker, Ludwig cries out for his mother. He gets some insults from a few of the soldiers, who think Ludwig is being wimpy, but Paul can understand this fear because he feels it too.

Tjaden Stackfleet (played by Edin Hasanovic), who is in his late 20s or early 30s, is a military police officer who dreams of being promoted to the position of corporal. Kat scoffs at Tjaden by saying, “You’ll never be a corporal.” Tjaden (who is deeply insecure) takes this comment as a personal insult but attempts to brush it off, so as not to let it show how much this comment hurt his feelings.

Through it all, Paul tries to hold on to his humanity when the harsh realities of war fighting force Paul and other people in combat to do some very inhumane things. Just like almost every movie that has a lot of war combat scenes, the soldiers face moral dilemmas and have to make split-second decisions that could mean life or death. And for all-male troops, there are machismo issues about who can look the toughest and the bravest.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is not subtle at all in contrasting the filthy and dangerous living conditions of the soldiers on the front lines of combat and comparing all of it to the pampered and safe living conditions of the leaders who cause these wars. The movie cuts back and forth betwen these contrasts in several scenes. It’s a way to put an emphasis on who really benefits financially from war, which can be a profitable business for some people.

Libeal politician Matthias Erzberger (played by Daniel Brühl) wants to end the war by having Germany peacefully negotiate with France. He meets with France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch (played by Thibault de Montalembert), who offers a deal that is non-negotiable, with Germany given a deadline of 72 hours to respond to the deal. Erzberger is put in a tough situation: He doesn’t want to give in to these demands too easily, because he knows he might be branded as a traitor to Germany. France’s Generalmajor Maxime Weygand (played by Gabriel Dufay) also plays a role in these tense German-French war discussions.

Being open to negotiating a truce is in direct contrast to what’s desired by General Friedrich (played by Devid Striesow), who is usually shown dining in mansions that are far removed from the war. General Friedrich wants to use the war for his own personal gain, so that he can achieve military glory and all the financial rewards and fame that come with it. Needless to say, General Friedrich is fanatical about Germany winning the war, no matter what the human cost of Germans who die.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” has top-notch production design, cinematography, original score music and sound editing/sound mixing. Where the movie isn’t as stellar is in some of the film editing (which makes the story look a little choppy and abrupt in some scene transitions) and in the screenplay, which has dialogue that tends to be over-simplistic. The screenplay makes many of the movie’s principal characters a little too vague or stereotypical.

Most of the perspective of “All Quiet on the Western Front” comes from Paul, but viewers don’t really get to know a lot of basic things about him during this lengthy film. For example, the movie never shows or tells who Paul’s family is, or what Paul wants to do with his life after the war. And because he doesn’t talk much in this movie, the Paul character could have easily been no more complex than a character in a video game.

However, thanks to the admirable talent of Kammerer in the role of Paul, this character becomes more than just a generic soldier. Kammerer (who has a background in theater/stage acting) makes his feature-film debut in “All Quiet on the Western Front.” He is very effective at showing Paul’s feelings through his eyes, facial expressions and body language.

Paul is the heart and soul of the movie, but it’s a heart and soul that the filmmakers have shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Even with some things about Paul remaining enigmatic, there’s no mystery over how emotionally shattered Paul becomes during the course of this story. By the end of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” viewers will be emotionally affected too, no matter what people think about war.

Netflix released “All Quiet on the Western Front” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘The Pod Generation,’ starring Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor

February 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosalie Craig and Emilia Clarke in “The Pod Generation” (Photo by Andrij Parekh)

“The Pod Generation”

Directed by Sophie Barthes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, in an unspecified future, the sci-fi/comedy/drama film “The Pod Generation” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After some initial disagreements, a married couple decides to have a baby through a technological invention where an unborn child grows in a portable, egg-shaped pod until the child is born. 

Culture Audience: “The Pod Generation” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, sci-fi movies that lampoon technology, and stories about expectant parents, but viewers should not expect anything particularly clever in this movie.

“The Pod Generation” is a futuristic satire about family planning that starts off very promising, but then the movie drags with repetition and fizzles out with an underwhelming ending. The talents of the cast members are squandered in this shallow film. “The Pod Generation” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) also raises many questions that the movie never bothers to answer.

Written and directed by Sophie Barthes, “The Pod Generation” takes place in an unspecified future in New York City. This future has some technology that already exists in the early 2020s, but this future has other technology that did not exist at the time this movie was made. For example, in this future shown in “The Pod Generation,” people use artificial intelligence (A.I.) programs similar to Alexa (from Amazon) and Siri (from Apple Inc.) for a variety of functions and tasks.

In “The Pod Generation,” the protagonists use a talking A.I. program called Elena for various information and duties that are similar to what a personal assistant would perform. Another talking A.I. program in the movie is called Eliza, which acts as a psychiatric therapist and counselor. Both of these A.I. programs are shown in the form of creepy-looking eyes.

Elena is a single white orb (about the size of a grapefruit) with a black pupil; the orb is attached to a small stand. Elena can also rotate while on this stand. Eliza is a two-dimensional eye that looks like a wall art that is large enough to take up an entire wall space. Eliza has a more psychedelic appearance than Elena, since Eliza’s iris/pupil area is surrounded by a pulsating kaleidoscope design.

As compelling as these A.I. programs are to look at in “The Pod Generation,” they still can’t make up for the weak narrative throughout the movie. The story centers on married couple Rachel Novy (played by Emilia Clarke) and Alvy Novy (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who are having disagreements about how to conceive their first child together. Rachel works as some kind of office employee at a corporate company called Folio. She has a higher income than Alvy, who is a botanist and a teacher of hologram plant design. Alvy wants them to conceive a child naturally, while Rachel is more open to using the latest technology to have a child.

The movie implies that in vitro fertilization treatments are not out of the question for this couple, but Alvy is adamant that he wants Rachel to carry the unborn child in her own womb, instead of using a surrogate. “The Pod Generation” doesn’t go into details about how long Alvy and Rachel have been trying to have a child together, or even how long they’ve been married. However, the implication is that it’s long enough where it’s reached a point that Rachel (who is in her mid-30s) is growing desperate, because she feels that time is running out for her to conceive and carry a child naturally.

Alvy is about 10 years older than Rachel, although they do not discuss their age difference in the movie. “The Pod Generation” has subtle and not-so-subtle ways of showing how a male perspective and a female perspective can be different from each other, when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. Because of menopause, women have a “biological clock” where time runs out on when they can conceive and carry a child naturally. Men have no such time pressure and can be involved in natural conception as long as they have the right sperm count for it.

“The Pod Generation” clumsily addresses these gender issues in ways that grow increasingly frustrating, not just for the couple at the center of the story but also for viewers of this movie. “The Pod Generation” does not adequately explain the legal issues involved in the new technology that Rachel and Alvy (after many arguments) decide to use to conceive and carry a child to term. The general feeling that viewers will get is that “The Pod Generation” was a screenplay written with a lot of repetitive dialogue and a “make things up as you go along” approach in crafting this futuristic world.

In the first third of the movie, Rachel and Alvy do a lot of bickering and debating about how they want to conceive a child. A company called Pegazus offers an alternative for people who can’t or don’t want to have an unborn baby growing inside a human body. Instead, Pegazus offers a portable, plastic pod in the shape of a large egg to do all the “in utero” work. It’s technology that’s available to those who can afford it—and it doesn’t come cheap, which is one of the reasons why Alvy is dead-set against this option. He doesn’t want any of his or Rachel’s money to be spent on it.

But what a coincidence: Rachel has recently found out that Folio has added this Pegazus pod program to Folio’s health insurance plan for employees. Rachel is told this information when she has a meeting with a Folio human resources executive (played by Aslin Farrell), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. This HR executive makes a lot of cringeworthy and illegal comments to Rachel during a one-and-one meeting in the HR executive’s office. This nosy HR person says a lot of inappropriate things that she probably wouldn’t say to a man. It’s obvious that “The Pod Generation” filmmakers want viewers to notice this sexism.

Rachel is told that she is being considered for a job promotion at Folio. And then the HR executive asks her what Rachel’s husband does for a living. When Rachel tells her, the unprofessional HR executive then snootily says, “So, you’re the primary source of income.” Instead of Rachel balking at this line of illegal questioning, Rachel meekly says, “Yes.”

The questions and comments get worse. The HR executive asks Rachel: “Any plans on extending the family?” Someone with more common sense and self-respect would put a stop to these illegal questions, or at least point out to this odious HR person that Rachel’s family planning is not the company’s business, and it’s illegal to ask these questions when being considered for a job, raise, or promotion.

But apparently, Rachel is too ignorant or she just doesn’t have the courage to stand up for herself and point out these facts. Instead, she stammers this answer: “I’m sure we will at one point. Not in the near, near future, but not immediately.” The HR executive then makes another heinous comment disguised as a semi-compliment: “You’re having a great, great year. It’d be a pity to lose that momentum.” (In other words, what she’s really saying is: “Forget about the promotion if you’re going on maternity leave.”)

And that’s when the HR director mentions that Folio will now cover Pegazus costs in the Folio health insurance plan: “Should you go down that route, we can even help you with the down payment. It’s our hottest perk. We just want to make sure we maintain the best and brightest women.” (In other words, what she’s really saying is: “We don’t want to be reminded that women who get pregnant and give birth have the right to maternity leave, because we think women who take maternity leave are less productive than women who don’t take maternity leave.”)

It’s not spoiler information to say that Rachel eventually convinces Alvy to use the Pegazus way of pregnancy. Alvy and Rachel have the popular option to choose the gender of the child in advance, but they choose not to take that option. Rachel and Alvy also decide not to find out the child’s gender until the child is born. Their unborn baby gestates in a pod that provides all of the fetus’ needs in the same way as if the baby were growing inside a human womb. Just like a human womb, the pod can be part of ultrasound screenings, while the fetus inside can hear any sounds that are nearby. The pod is not supposed to be opened until the time of childbirth.

All of the computer technology connected to each pod is at the Pegazus womb center, which is essentially a pod control center. The pod can be left at the womb center, or the parent(s) of the unborn child can take the pod to pre-approved locations. It’s mentioned that a pod can be autonomous from the womb center for a maximum of 48 hours, in case the person with the pod needs to travel.

Rachel and Alvy attend orientation and counseling sessions with other couples and mothers who are using Pegazus pregnancy pods, but the movie doesn’t present the other people in these sessions as anything but anonymous extras. It’s a huge missed opportunity for more character development. In fact, almost everyone in contact with Rachel and Alvy are anonymous and generic, with a few exceptions.

Rachel has a talkative co-worker friend named Alice (played by Vinette Robinson), who had a Pegazus pod pregnancy with her husband Josh (played by Benedict Landsbert-Noon), who is the passive one in their marriage. Alice had the most influence on Rachel wanting to have a Pegazus pod pregnancy, because Alice is constantly raving about the experience. The Pegazus pre-natal orientation and counseling sessions are led by the Pegazus womb center director Linda Wozcheck (played by Rosalie Craig), who is a perky control freak.

The founder of Pegazus (played by Jean-Marc Barr) is one of many characters in “The Pod Generation” without a name in the movie. He is shown doing a TV or video interview, where he gives off a vibe of being like a combination of a cult leader and a smarmy salesperson. He’s a smooth talker who looks like he’s accustomed to convincing a lot of people to do what he wants them to do.

He says to the interviewer (played by Troy Scully) about Pegazus’ intentions: “At Pegazus, we want fulfilled mothers. We want them to pursue their careers and dreams. Let us do the heavy lifting while you enjoy your babies. We are highly scientific. We use intuition and heart where needed.”

Of course, anyone who’s seen enough of these sci-fi cautionary tale movies will notice that this mysterious Pegazus founder used the phrase “where needed” when talking about intuition and heart. Who gets to make that decision? Rachel and Alvy are supposedly educated professionals, but they never ask a lot of basic questions that people with any common sense would ask before they signed away the pre-natal caregiving rights for their unborn child to Pegazus. And that’s why watching “The Pod Generation” becomes increasingly irritating as it goes along.

This disappointing movie goes into superficial soap opera territory when Rachel doesn’t bond with the fetus in the pod as much as she thought she would, while Alvy bonds with the fetus in the pod more than he thought he would. Rachel starts to get the feeling that the unborn child likes Alvy more than the child likes Rachel. And she’s jealous about it, which leads to more arguments between Rachel and Alvy, as well as more relationship therapy sessions with A.I. program Eliza. (Alvy never completely trusts Eliza, because she is not a human being.)

Meanwhile, Rachel sometimes attaches the pod to her stomach to make it look like a real pregnancy underneath her clothes. It leads to brief moments of her feeling connected to this pregnancy. But then, Rachel gets a harsh lesson in pregnancy body shaming when she brings the pod to her office job. She gets weird looks from co-workers during a conference room meeting when she proudly brings the pod to the meeting.

After the meeting, Alice discreetly advises Rachel (when they’re alone together in an office room) to leave the pod in the employee break room where other expectant parents are keeping their pods. Alice also suggests that from now on, Rachel should leave the pod at the Pegazus womb center until the baby is born. Rachel hates the idea because she wants to spend as much time as possible with the pod. “You don’t want to be labeled ‘the distracted mom,'” Alice warns Rachel about how their co-workers might think of Rachel.

For a movie that has a lot to say about sexism against women (especially when it comes to pregnancy and family planning), none of the characters in “The Pod Generation” gives any pushback or stands up to this sexism. This lack of resistance to sexism from anyone in “The Pod Generation” looks as fake and hollow as one of the movie’s empty pods. Perhaps writer/director Barthes wanted to make some commentary about how this supposedly “progressive” tech-oriented society of “The Pod Generation” is actually socially backwards when it comes to treatment of women and complacent in how technology has taken over their lives.

However, it isn’t the technology that is sexist. The human beings are the ones being sexist, with their cutting remarks and attitudes that aren’t controlled by technology. If “The Pod Generation” is supposed to be a commentary about women losing control of their pregnancies to technology, the movie doesn’t really prove that point either, because Rachel is given access to the pod for most of the movie. “The Pod Generation” never shows the pregnancy journey of any other women except Rachel.

The middle of “The Pod Generation” is a boring rehash of Rachel and Alvy’s marital problems. You don’t need to be a couple’s therapist to see that this pregnancy is not going to solve these problems. And “The Pod Generation” fails to convince viewers why Rachel and Alvy (who aren’t very compatible) fell in love in the first place. Clarke and Ejiofor are perfectly fine in delivering their lines of dialogue, but they don’t have believable chemistry with each other as people who are supposed to be spouses.

Perhaps the biggest letdown of “The Pod Generation” is that it’s a “bait and switch” movie. The movie keeps dropping hints—the sexism, the increasingly controlling ways of Pegazus, the intrusive assumptions of the A.I. technology—that it’s all leading to something very big and very sinister. There is a suspenseful sequence toward the end of the film, but it’s misleading, if you take into consideration how the movie ends. And for a movie that the filmmakers have labeled a “comedy,” there isn’t really anything amusing (not even in a darkly comedic way) about “The Pod Generation.” The movie comes across as technically competent, but soulless—much like the A.I. technology that “The Pod Generation” is aiming to spoof.

Review: ‘Emily’ (2022), starring Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling, Adrian Dunbar, Amelia Gething and Gemma Jones

February 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Emma Mackey in “Emily” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Emily” (2022)

Directed by Frances O’Connor

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in England (and briefly in Belgium), from 1841 to 1848, the dramatic film “Emily” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Aspiring writer Emily Brontë, who is perceived as a reclusive weirdo in her community, experiences love and loss before writing her first and only novel, “Wuthering Heights.”

Culture Audience: “Emily” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Emily Brontë, British films that take place in the 1800s, and well-acted movies that have gothic tones and themes.

Fionn Whitehead and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in “Emily” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

Gorgeously filmed like an Emily Brontë novel come to life, “Emily” overcomes its occasionally dull moments with very good acting, led by a vibrant performance from Emma Mackey. This gothic drama perfectly captures the moody and eccentric personality of its author protagonist without turning her into a parody or caricature. It’s not a completely accurate biopic in the purist sense of the word, because much of the story is about a romance that was fabricated for the movie.

“Emily” is the first feature film from writer/director Frances O’Connor (also known for being an actress), who shows talent in casting choices, visual style and character development. However, “Emily” needed some improvement in the narrative structure: Some scenes look unnecessary because they don’t really go anywhere. Better choices could also have been made in the film editing for “Emily,” because the movie’s pacing sometimes drags. These are minor flaws that shouldn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the movie.

“Emily” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. For the 2023 British Independent Film Awards, the movie was nominated for four prizes: Best Lead Performance (for Mackey); Best Supporting Performance (for Fionn Whitehead); the Douglas Hickox Award, a prize given to a debut director (for O’Connor); and Best Ensemble. At the 2023 British Academy Film Awards, Mackey won the Rising Star Award.

“Emily” takes place mostly in England’s Yorkshire county, from 1841 to 1848. In 1841, Emily Brontë (played by Mackey) is a 23-year-old bachelorette who is shy, eccentric and reclusive. She has a vivid imagination and often seems to live in a fantasy world, but this personality trait also caused her to have a reputation in the community for being weird and an extreme daydreamer. Emily often talks out loud to the characters that she has created in her head.

She is also a poet who has been able to get her poems published under the alias Ellis Bell. It was very common for women writers at the time to send their work to publishers by using a man’s name as an alias, because they knew this gender switch would increase their chances of getting published. Unlike many women in her age group, Emily is not preoccupied with finding a husband, especially a man who has more money than her family does.

Emily lives in a rural parsonage in Haworth, England, with her widowed father Reverend Patrick Brontë (played by Adrian Dunbar), her younger sister Anne Brontë (played by Amelia Gething), her older brother Branwell Brontë (played by Whitehead) and her aunt Elizabeth Branwell (played by Gemma Jones), who is the sister of Emily’s deceased mother Maria. Emily has an older sister named Charlotte Brontë (played by Alexandra Dowling), who doesn’t live at home for most of the movie because Charlotte is away at college and then gets a teaching position at the school after she graduates.

All four of the Brontë siblings are aspiring writers, but the movie depicts Emily as the sibling who is the most consistently prolific. When Charlotte comes home for a visit from school, Charlotte mentions to Emily that she’s been too busy to write because of all of her schoolwork. Throughout the movie, there’s an unspoken rivalry between Emily and Charlotte—not just when it comes to any of their professional aspirations but also when it comes to their love lives. As the oldest of the four siblings, overachieving Charlotte expects to be the first of her siblings to accomplish great things and to be the sibling to get married first.

The Brontë family is grieving over the death of matriarch Maria, who died of cancer in 1821, when Emily was 3 years old. Maria’s absence has left a void that the siblings don’t really like to talk about with each other. What “Emily” doesn’t mention is that in real life, the family’s two eldest siblings (Maria and Elizabeth) died in 1824 from typhoid epidemic that plagued their school. Charlotte then became the eldest living sibling, which partially explains why she acts like both a sister and a mother to her younger siblings.

Emily is close to all of her living siblings, but she has a special bond with Branwell, who is only a year older than Emily. Branwell is fun-loving, rebellious and can usually make Emily laugh when she’s feeling depressed, which is apparently quite often. Unlike Charlotte, who is often judgmental of Emily and scolds Emily for being vulgar, Branwell accepts Emily for exactly who she is. He also has great admiration for her as a writer. And so does Anne, who is the kindest and friendliest of the four siblings.

Emily frequently joins Branwell for some of his mischief making, such as when they peek though neighbors’ windows unbeknownst to the neighbors, or when they indulge in taking drugs. Emily and Branwell secretly smoke marijuana together and take liquid opium stolen from their father, who keeps am opium stash for emergency medicinal purposes. This opium taking becomes a serious addiction for one of these siblings.

Whatever social life that Emily has is usually because of her more outgoing siblings. They sometimes frolic together in the nearby fields like giddy children. Things are much more serious at the church where their father is the chief clergyman.

However, the arrival of a curate named William Weightman (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), bachelor in his 30s, indicates that this church is about to undergo a transformation. William’s first sermon isn’t a typical stuffy lecture but is instead a personal tale with a rain theme. He talks about much he enjoys walking in the rain, and how rain is similar to a spiritual cleansing.

After the sermon, sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne are gathered in the kitchen, where they are helping prepare meals for the visiting congregation. Charlotte and Anne are immensely charmed by handsome newcomer William, while Emily is not as impressed. And it’s at that moment that you know what Emily is going to fall in love with William.

Anne gushes, “He speaks with such poetry.” Emily replies, “Any man can speak, but what can he actually do?” Emily then says sarcastically, “I do wonder though: How does God squeeze Himself into all that rain. Does he get wet?”

At that moment, William walks in the kitchen to formally introduce himself. He knows that the sisters were talking about him, and there’s some awkwardness that he quickly diffuses with self-deprecating charisma. Emily doesn’t say much to William in this conversation, but her staring eyes show that she’s intrigued by him but doesn’t want to admit it to anyone just yet.

Over time, Charlotte and Anne openly express that they have a crush on William, as they giggle in his presence and seem awed by everything he says and does. For Valentine’s Day, William gives all three sisters friendly Valentine’s Day notes, but Emily is the only one of the sisters who reacts with seeming indifference. However, through a series of circumstances, (including William becoming Emily’s French tutor), Emily and William get to know each other better. And an attraction grows between them.

Up until this point, Branwell is the man who is closest to Emily. Branwell is aware of a growing attraction between Emily and William. Branwell seems jealous or threatened that another person could mean more to Emily than Branwell. And so, Branwell tells Emily that he doesn’t think William is the right person for her. William is cautious about having a love affair with Emily because it’s ethically questionable and because he doesn’t want to lose the trust of Emily’s father, who is William’s mentor.

Like any compelling gothic movie that mixes horror and romance, “Emily” has a few scenes that are literally haunting. One evening, the Brontë family is hosting a dinner, with William and a family friend in her 20s named Ellen Nussey (played by Sacha Parkinson) as the guests. Patrick brings out a white theater mask that he says was a wedding gift to him and Maria, but this gift was not accompanied by a card, so they never found out who gave them this mask. Patrick explains that his children would play with the mask when they were growing up, by someone putting on the mask and playing a character, while other people would have to guess the identity of the character.

After dinner, Emily, Charlotte, Anne, Branwell, William and Ellen gather in a room to play this game from the Brontë siblings’ childhood. At first, the game is lighthearted. But then, Emily puts on the mask and starts talking. To her siblings’ horror, they figure out that Emily is impersonating their dead mother. Suddenly, strong wind gusts whip through the room, as if an unseen ghostly spirit has appeared. People in the room have various reactions, but it unnerves most of the people who witnessed this spectacle.

“Emily” doesn’t turn into a ghost story, but the mask is a symbol for how much of the past the siblings want to hold on to, when it comes to their childhoods and how the death of their mother has affected them. At one point, one of the siblings buries the mask in the backyard, as if the mask also represents painful memories. The mask is later dug up and retrieved, as if to reclaim those memories to being positive and something that shouldn’t be feared.

The romance between Emily and William plays out exactly like it usually does in movies like “Emily,” with Mackey and Jackson-Cohen showing the typical combination of repressed lust and unleashed passion, depending on the scene. Mackey does a lot of terrific acting with her expressive eyes, so that observant viewers can deduce what Emily is thinking, even when Emily isn’t saying a word. The movie shows that, far from being bashful about expressing love, Emily is the one who initiates many of the overtures in this romance.

Whitehead also stands out in his role of complicated Branwell, who seems to be carefree on the outside, but Branwell is actually deeply insecure and troubled about himself and his place in the family. Whereas Emily has Charlotte as Emily’s biggest critic, Branwell has his father Patrick has Branwell’s biggest critic. Branwell can’t seem to change Patrick’s perception that Branwell is a “disappointment” to the family.

Because very little is known about the real Emily Brontë’s love life, the romance in the movie was created to spice up the story. Although the character of William is a composite of real people, according to the production notes for “Emily,” there is no evidence that Emily fell in love with someone who worked for her father. However, the movie correctly depicts that Emily briefly gave up writing when she decided to become a teacher.

The sibling rivalry between Emily and Charlotte is much more plausible. In real life, Charlotte Brontë also became a famous author because of her novel “Jane Eyre,” which was published in 1847, the same year that Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” was published. Both novels are centered on romance, but each book has a very different tone. “Wuthering Heights” has a darker tone that was considered more risqué at the time.

Because “Emily” is told from Emily’s perspective, very little is shown about Charlotte’s writing process. “Emily” speculates what could have motivated Emily to write her greatest and best-known work (“Wuthering Heights”) in her short life. The movie is both a fitting tribute and an imaginative portait of an enigmatic author whose work has stood the test of time.

Bleecker Street released “Emily” in select U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 24, 2023. The movie was released in the United Kindgom on October 14, 2022.

Review: ‘When You Finish Saving the World,’ starring Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard

February 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in “When You Finish Saving the World” (Photo by Karen Kuehn/A24)

“When You Finish Saving the World”

Directed by Jesse Eisenberg

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy/drama film “When You Finish Saving the World” (based on the Audible podcast of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married mother, who works at a domestic violence shelter, tries to emotionally connect with her self-absorbed teenage son, who is an aspiring rock star, while mother and son try to make an impression on separate people whom they both admire. 

Culture Audience: “When You Finish Saving the World” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard; writer/director Jesse Eisenberg; the Audible podcast on which the movie is based; and rambling movies about people who think their trivial personal problems are bigger than these problems really are.

Finn Wolfhard and Alisha Boe in “When You Finish Saving the World” (Photo by Karen Kuehn/A24)

How much viewers might like “When You Finish Saving the World” will depend how much they want to watch repetitive and emotionally hollow scenes of a mother and her teenage son who are desperate to impress people who live outside their home while ignoring the problems inside their home. This mother and son feel unsatisfied with their home lives because they really don’t want to pay much attention to each other. It’s a very staged-looking and dull dramedy about privileged and entitled people trying to make themselves look socially conscious. The movie’s tone starts off as cynical and ends in a sentimental way that looks phony and unearned.

“When You Finish Saving the World” is the first feature film written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg, who is known to most movie audiences as an actor who usually plays neurotic characters. (Eisenberg was nominated for a Oscar for his starring role as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s “The Social Network.”) “When You Finish Saving the World” is based on Eisenberg’s Audible podcast of the same name. It’s also the first movie from Fruit Tree, a production company co-founded by spouses Emma Stone and Dave McCary with their producing partner Ali Herting. (Stone and Eisenberg co-starred in 2009’s “Zombieland” and 2019’s “Zombieland: Double Tap.”) “When You Finish Saving the World” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Even though the movie has respected and talented creatives who used their clout to get this project made, “When You Finish Saving the World” still looks and feels lightweight and inconsequential. It’s a film that could have had a lot more to say and a better way to say it. What viewers will get are many scenes where the two central characters snipe at each other and whine a lot (especially when they’re at home), but they put their best selves forward when they become fixated on someone whom they want to impress. They try to come across as enlightened and virtuous to those people.

In “When You Finish Saving the World” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city but was filmed in New Mexico), the two main characters are Evelyn Katz (played by Julianne Moore) and her teenage son Ziggy Katz (played by Finn Wolfhard), who are frequently at odds with each other. Evelyn is a politically liberal, longtime activist who currently works as a manager at a domestic violence shelter called Spruce Haven. Ziggy, who’s about 16 or 17 years old, is a wannabe rock star, who plays (according to his description) “classic folk rock with alternative influences.”

Ziggy is the old child of Evelyn and her mild-mannered husband Roger Katz (played by Jay O. Sanders), who stays out of the squabbles that frequently happen between Evelyn and Ziggy. When this family of three have meals together, Roger often has to listen to Ziggy and Evelyn complain about whatever little things that are bothering Ziggy and Evelyn at the moment. When Roger tells Ziggy it’s “cultural appropriation” for white people to play blues music, Ziggy (rude as ever) yells at Roger, “Dad, just shut the fuck up!”

The Roger character had a much bigger role in the podcast, where Roger was a central character. Eisenberg explains why he made Roger a small supporting role this movie version: “Now he is almost a forgotten presence who can’t get anyone to pay attention to him.” Roger’s role in the movie is so small, it has almost no impact on the story. His most memorable line in the movie is when he truthfully says about his household: “Everyone around me is a narcissist.”

Evelyn is disappointed that Ziggy has turned into a self-centered brat who only seems to care about how many more followers he can get on social media. Ziggy currently has 20,000 followers on HiHat, a social media platform that was fabricated for this movie but is obviously supposed to be a lot like YouTube. The irony of Ziggy’s growing popularity on HiHat (where he can reach people virtually around the world) is that Ziggy is a social outcast at his high school where people can interact with him in person. Ziggy is upbeat and cheerful to his followers online, but in real life, he’s often moody and unfriendly.

Evelyn has a personality that can best be described as a combination of being bland and uptight. She had hoped that her only child would want to follow in her footsteps of pursuing a career that involves helping underprivileged and disadvantaged people. She’s asked Ziggy to volunteer at the shelter, but he refuses. Instead, Ziggy does things such as berate Evelyn when she goes in his room and inadvertently interrupts one of his livestream performances, where many of his followers pay to see Ziggy perform his original songs and cover tunes. Ziggy also does video chats directly with his followers.

As an example of how clueless Evelyn is about the Internet and how disconnected she is from Ziggy’s interests, she has no idea what a livestream is. To prevent any more interruptions during his livestreams, Ziggy angrily installs a red studio light outside the top of his bedroom door. He tells his parents that if the light is on, that means he’s doing a livestream—and under no circumstances can anyone go inside the room when the red light is on.

Evelyn thinks Ziggy’s music is a hobby. When Ziggy says that he’s going to be a professional musician, Evelyn asks him: “Have you thought about your end game?” This is Ziggy’s insolent response: “I’m going to be rich, and you’re going to be poor.”

Considering all the real problems in the world, this type of bickering in “When You Finish Saving the World” looks very petty and very much like “privileged people’s problems.” But this is the type of “family turmoil” that the movie is trying to pass off as heavy, when it’s just so trivial. Evelyn should consider herself lucky that she doesn’t have to listen to Ziggy’s off-key singing and tone-deaf guitar playing. (Emile Mosseri composed the music for the movie, including the two forgettable original songs that Wolfhard co-wrote under the alias Ziggy Katz.)

Evelyn and Ziggy clearly aren’t very happy in their lives or with each other. They will each meet someone who becomes a reason for Evelyn and Ziggy to try to project a more socially conscious and caring image in public. Observant viewers will notice that it’s just Evelyn’s and Ziggy’s way of distracting themselves from their problems at home. Evelyn and Ziggy are a lot more similar to each other than they would like to admit.

Evelyn’s “distraction” is a 17-year-old named Kyle (played by Billy Bryk), who arrives at the shelter with his feisty mother Angie (played by Eleonore Hendricks), after leaving their home because Angie’s husband/Kyle’s father has battered Angie. (This abusive man is never seen in the movie.) Kyle is in his last year of high school. Evelyn can’t help but notice that Kyle is everything that she wishes Ziggy could be: kind, respectful to his mother, and compassionate about other people’s problems.

Meanwhile, Ziggy develops a big crush on a classmate named Lila (played by Alisha Boe), who is a full-on stereotype of a progressive social justice warrior who is constantly preaching to other people about the politically correct way to live. The movie downplays the reality that Ziggy is most likely attracted to Lila because of her physical looks, not because he’s attracted to her emotionally or intellectually. At any rate, Ziggy suddenly wants to transform into being willfully ignorant about sociopolitical issues to being the type of sociopolitical activist that he thinks will impress Lila, who correctly suspects that Ziggy isn’t being genuine.

Evelyn’s interest in Kyle becomes an obsession that borders on being very creepy. She wants to treat him almost like a down-and-out family member, even though she barely knows him. One night, Evelyn goes to the shelter, just to give Kyle some leftovers from her family dinner. It’s a thoughtful gesture but also very condescending. Kyle looks uncomfortable with this offer, and he politely tells Evelyn that he’s already eaten dinner.

Evelyn also becomes determined to convince Kyle to go to Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Oberlin, Ohio. She even goes as far as saying that she will recommend Kyle to someone she knows who is an Oberlin College admissions officer. But does Kyle really want to go to college?

The situation is complicated by the fact that Kyle worked in the auto body shop of his abusive father, who is apologetic about the domestic violence attack on Angie, and he wants Kyle to come back to work for him at the auto body shop. Angie, like many domestic violence victims, is conflicted about whether or not she should go back to her attacker. Evelyn thinks it’s a bad idea for Angie and Kyle to go back to live with their abuser.

However, the shelter only has limited time and space for those it helps. Evelyn isn’t exactly coming up with any real solutions for the issue of where Angie and Kyle can live after their time at the shelter expires. It’s a common problem for temporary residents of domestic violence shelters, but “When You Finish Saving the World” essentially ignores this problem.

One of the biggest issues that viewers will have with the way the movie portrays Evelyn is how she treats very serious and complicated issues with surface-level platitudes. The movie goes overboard in making Evelyn look out-of-touch and borderline incompetent in her job where she’s supposed to help victims and survivors of domestic violence. Sending Kyle to a college that Evelyn wants him to go to doesn’t directly address problems this teenager might have from being emotionally scarred or influenced by the domestic violence experienced in the home. Evelyn is the type of “activist” who is more about “talking” than “doing,” when it comes to real solutions for the people she wants to help.

The biggest problem with “When You Finish Saving the World” is that most viewers just won’t care much about any of the characters in this monotonous film. There’s nothing wrong with the acting in the movie, but all of the principal cast members have been better in other films. “When You Finish Saving the World” is the equivalent of forcing people to watch car wheels spin in the same place until the car starts moving too late. This 88-minute movie only starts to pick up steam in the last 15 minutes. But by then, viewer interest might have waned or disappeared altogether.

A24 released “When You Finish Saving the World” in select U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Next Exit,’ starring Katie Parker, Rahul Kohli, Rose McIver, Tongayi Chirisa, Tim Griffin, Diva Zappa, Nico Evers-Swindell and Karen Gillan

February 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Rahul Kohli and Katie Parker in “Next Exit” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Next Exit”

Directed by Mali Elfman

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the comedy/drama film “Next Exit” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman and a man in their 30s, who want to become euthanasia volunteers for a controversial scientist, end up sharing a car for a road trip from New York City to San Francisco, and they bicker and develop a romantic attraction to each other along the way. 

Culture Audience: “Next Exit” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of road trip movies that have an “opposites attract” premise for the travelers in a story that can be flawed but entertaining.

Rahul Kohli and Katie Parker in “Next Exit” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Next Exit” is a road trip movie that can be as erratic and irritating as the would-be couple at the center of the story. The movie would’ve been better with a less predictable ending, but there are enough compelling moments to make this dramedy watchable. Much of the credit can go to how the cast members gamely handle the dialogue and scenarios, which can occasionally be boring and cringeworthy.

Written and directed by Mali Elfman, “Next Exit” is the type of independent film that wants to be adorable and edgy at the same time. It’s a tricky combination to pull off, and “Next Exit” doesn’t always succeed at it. But unless a viewer is completely disconnected from the movie’s characters, “Next Exit” maintains enough interest where viewers will probably be curious to see how the movie is going to end. “Next Exit” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“Next Exit” begins by showing a video recording of what a controversial scientist named Dr. Stevensen (played by Karen Gillan) has declared is genuine paranormal activity: A boy named Reo Nakada (played by Gavin Powers), who’s about 7 or 8 years old, is shown playing cards with his father Niko Nakada (played by Joe Powers) in Niko’s bedroom. What’s unusual about this video? Reo is dead. And, according to Dr. Stevensen, this recording is of Neo’s ghost playing cards with his father.

Dr. Stevensen insists that this video is proof that ghosts are real. However, much of the general public and the overall scientific community think the video is a hoax. Dr. Stevensen owns and operates the Life Beyond Institute, based in San Francisco, where she wants to test her theories about life after death by having people volunteer to undergo euthanasia.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. government shuts down all funding for this research. In response to this shutdown, Dr. Stevensen is shown on TV in a pre-recorded statement defending her Life Beyond Institute: “It is a critical, not a criminal, enterprise.”

Despite the controversy, two strangers in their 30s who want to be euthanasia volunteers at the Life Beyond Institute will soon find themselves unexpectedly taking a road trip together from New York City to San Francisco. These two people have different personalities, but they have similar reasons for wanthing to make this drastic decision: They both don’t like their current lives and feel they’ve got nothing left to lose.

Viewers first see Rose (played by Katie Parker) in her New York City apartment committing fraud when she sells her TV to a stranger named Chad (played by Ty Molbak), who has come over to her place to get the TV. After taking Chad’s cash, she throws the TV over the stairwell, where it is immediately destroyed. She then goes back in the apartment, and locks the door behind her, while an irate Chad demands to get his money back. Rose makes an escape out of an apartment window and never looks back.

Rose has no personal attachments and has already made up her mind to go on this road trip by renting a car. But when she gets to the car rental place, Rose finds out that she can’t rent a car because she doesn’t have a credit card. Her offer to pay by cash is strictly denied. Her pleas are ignored.

Just by coincidence, a British immigrant is standing next to her and overhears Rose’s plight. His name is Teddy (played by Rahul Kohli), and he can’t rent a car for a different reason: His driver’s license expires in two weeks, and he wants to rent a car for longer than two weeks. When Rose and Teddy find out that they both plan to drive to San Francisco, they quickly decide that the best solution to their car rental problem is to share a ride. Rose (who has a valid driver’s license) will rent the car in her name, Teddy will pay for the car rental with Teddy’s credit card, and Rose will pay him her half of the car rental expenses.

Of course, in every road trip movie, things don’t go as smoothly as expected. From the beginning, Rose and Teddy have a clash of personalities. They are both very sarcastic, but Rose is a sour pessimist and much more emotionally guarded than Teddy is. In the beginning of the movie, Teddy is shown quitting his job working for a congressman named Milton Lucas (played Michael May), who thinks Teddy is making a big mistake. Teddy has told his former boss that he quit because Teddy wants to be a Life Beyond Institute euthanasia volunteer.

Soon after meeting each other, Teddy opens up to Rose that he used to own his own company, but he’s vague on other details about this company. Teddy, who says he doesn’t have any family members in the United States, also reveals that he doesn’t like his life because he’s been in the U.S. for 10 years, and he hasn’t achieved his goals of finding a wife and making enough money to travel around the world. Rose, who is also unmarried with no children, tells Teddy very little about herself at first, but gradually more details emerge about her personal life.

A long stretch of “Next Exit” consists of Teddy and Rose bickering. An example of their banter happens when they check into a motel for the first time together. And what a coincidence: This motel only has one room available. Rose hates the idea of sharing a room with Teddy and lets him and the front-desk clerk know it in a very crabby way.

Teddy’s response is to try to laugh it off with a joke. He tells the front-desk clerk: “If you find me dead in the morning, she did it. Be sure to thank her for me.” He then says to Rose, “You don’t have to be an asshole the whole time.” Rose shouts back, “We’re not buddies! I don’t want to be your friend!” There’s more tension between Rose and Teddy. And some of it is sexual tension.

“Next Exit” predictably has Rose and Teddy encountering quirky and occasionally alarming characters during this road trip. And the most cliché thing that can happen in a road trip movie happens: The travelers have car trouble. In this case, it’s a flat tire. Rose and Teddy get car tire help from a Catholic priest named Father Jack (played by Tongayi Chirisa), who gets quite an earful when Rose unloads on him with a rant about her issues with the Catholic Church.

In a bar, Rose and Teddy meet a border patrol officer named John (played by Tim Griffin), who makes a drunken confession that is very disturbing. On another occasion, Teddy and Rose pick up a weird hitchhiker named Karma (played by Diva Zappa), who says she’s on the way to meet her psychic aunt in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Arizona, Rose and Teddy end up visiting Rose’s sister Heather (played by Rose McIver), Heather’s husband Nick (played by Nico Evers-Swindell) and their adolescent daughter Steph (played by Sloane Weber), who all seem to be living a happy suburban life. But things are not at all what they seem, and the movie takes a somewhat dark turn, as some family secrets are revealed.

“Next Exit” missed some opportunities to have better character development for Teddy and Rose. Instead, there are distractions of putting Teddy and Rose in contrived and occasionally outlandish scenarios, for the purposes of getting more comedy or more drama out of the story. However, the movie obviously wants viewers to root for Teddy and Rose to fall in love with each other. Those intentions are sincere, but they don’t always feel earned. If Teddy and Rose fall in love, then what does that mean for their euthanasia plans?

Although “Next Exit” has several supporting characters, their time in the movie is fleeting and presented like characters appearing in sketch segments. The vast majority of screen time is about Rose and Teddy, a would-be couple who aren’t so much Mr. and Ms. Right but are more like Mr. and Ms. Right Now. Cast members Parker and Kohli give solid performances as these two conflicting characters. “Next Exit” tends to have a rambling narrative, but it’s ultimately very easy to see where this story is going and how it’s going to end.

Magnet Releasing released “Next Exit” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Scrapper’ (2023), starring Lola Campbell and Harris Dickinson

February 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Harris Dickinson and Lola Campbell in “Scrapper” (Photo by Chris Harris)

“Scrapper” (2023)

Directed by Charlotte Regan

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the comedy/drama film “Scrapper” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After her single mother dies of a terminal illness, a 12-year-old girl secretly lives by herself and finds her life upended again when her absentee father unexpectedly shows up to take care of her.

Culture Audience: “Scrapper” will primarily appeal to people interested in well-acted movies about estranged family members who must learn to live with each other.

Lola Campbell in “Scrapper” (Photo by Chris Harris)

There’s not much of a plot, and it’s easy to predict how the story is going to end, but “Scrapper” is charming because of the central performances by Lola Campbell and Harris Dickinson as a feisty 12-year-old girl and her wayward father. It’s one of those movies where the main characters are a mixture of tough and tender. Ultimately, the movie’s message is about making the most of whatever family that you have.

Written and directed by Charlotte Regan, “Scrapper” has its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize for U.S. World Dramatic. The movie pokes fun at institutions—such as government-run schools and social welfare programs—as frequently inept in addressing the real needs of children. Mostly, “Scrapper” shows the main characters going on a personal and often uncomfortable journey to define what “family” means to them and having resiliency during difficult times.

In the beginning of “Scrapper” (which takes place in an unnamed city in England), these words are seen on screen: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The words are then crossed out and these words are written underneath: “I can raise myself, thanks.” The latter statement is the attitude of 12-year-old Georgie (played by Campbell), who has been secretly living by herself in a council flat, ever since her single mother Vicky (played by Olivia Brady, shown in flashbacks) died of a terminal illness. Georgie’s father has not been involved in raising her, and he can’t be located. The movie doesn’t specify how long Georgie has been living by herself, but it looks like it’s been a few months.

Georgie still goes to school, but she’s been able to deceive school officials and child welfare services by pretending to live with an uncle (who doesn’t exist) named Winston Churchill after her mother’s death. It’s a knock at adult authorities that they don’t think it’s unusual for Georgie to have an uncle named after a former U.K. prime minister. How has Georgie been able to fool all of these adults?

Georgie is acquainted with a young man named Josh (played by Joshua Frater-Loughlin), who is a cashier at a local convenience store. She asks Josh to record different statements on her phone that could be answers in response to questions asked by any adults who call to check in on Georgie. The statements include “Georgie is doing great at school, thanks” and “We are doing fine, thank you.” Georgie pretends that Josh’s voice is the voice of her non-existent Uncle Winston, and she plays these recorded statements whenever any of these adults call. So far, this scheme has worked.

The adult authorities in “Scrapper” are depicted as soulless bureaucrats who don’t really care about the children they are supposed to be looking after in a responsible way. At Georgie’s school, a teacher named Mr. Barrowclough (played by Cary Crankson) tells Georgie how he thinks she should cope with her mother’s death, by saying that Georgie should only take a morning off from school, not an entire day. The two child welfare officials—Sian (played by Jessica Fostekew) and Youseff (played by Asheq Akhtar)—who are in charge of checking in on Georgie only do so by phone and don’t care about visiting Georgie in her home.

Georgie, who is tomboyish and sassy, likes to think of herself as being strong and independent. She makes money by stealing bikes and selling them to a young woman named Zeph (played by Ambreen Razia), whose “bike shop” is really the back of Zeph’s truck. In the beginning of the movie, the only person who knows Georgie’s secret is her best friend Ali (played by Alin Uzun), who is about the same age as Georgie. He is skeptical about how long Georgie can keep up her charade, but he keeps her secret.

Throughout the movie, various local kids who are around Georgie’s age are shown making comments to the camera to give their thoughts on Georgie. These children do not have a good opinion of Georgie, whom they think of as weird and a troublemaker. A group of “mean girls,” led by a brat named Layla (played by Freya Bell), say derogatory things about Georgie. Triplet brothers Kunle (played by Ayokunle Oyesanwo), Bami (played by Ayobami Oyesabwo) and Luwa (played by Ayooluwa Oyesanwo) are mostly in the movie as comic relief, since they often bicker and disagree with each other.

One day, Georgie is at home and is startled to see a young man with bleach blonde hair climbing over the fence in the backyard. His name is Jason (played by Dickinson), and he’s no ordinary intruder. Jason, as he tells a shocked Georgie, is Georgie’s father. It’s the first time that Jason and Georgie have met. Jason, who is also English, explains that he had been living in Spain with some male friends, but he came back to England after he heard that Vicky died.

Georgie is hostile and rude to Jason, whom she sees as an interloper who has no business being in her life. Georgie grew up thinking that Jason had abandoned her and Vicky. Jason tells his side of the story, which is very different from the story that Vicky told Georgie. “Your mum never wanted me around,” Jason tells Georgie.

With nowhere else to live, Jason tells Georgie that he will be living with her at this flat, whether she likes it or not. He says if she doesn’t let him live there, he will report her to the child welfare authorities. And so begins the uneasy and sometimes volatile way that Georgie and Jason get to know each other.

One of the first things that Georgie does when she meets Jason is scold him for not sending any child support money. “We’re not exactly rolling in it,” Georgie says. Jason replies that he’s not exactly “rolling in it” either. Georgie tries to get rid of Jason in various ways, but these tactics don’t work. During one of their frequent arguments, Jason tells Georgie: “Remember, I can tell the socials [social workers] whenever I want, so drop the attitude.”

Over time, Georgie finds out that she and Jason are a lot more alike than she would care to admit. They are both stubborn and rebellious. Georgie also gets a different perspective of why Jason was not in her life up until this point. It’s her first experience in understanding how complicated adult relationships can be. She also has to rethink her lifelong perception of Jason as being the “deadbeat dad” who didn’t care about her.

“Scrapper” would not work as well as it does if it weren’t for the stellar performances of Campbell and Dickinson, who make this father-daughter duo entirely believable. “Scrapper” has a tone of being sarcastic and sweet, which is a combination that would have made this movie look very uneven, but Regan’s sharp writing and direction keep this combination on a steady track that never feels overly contrived or forced. “Scrapper” is by no means a profound or groundbreaking film, but it entertains in all of the intended ways and is a movie that most viewers won’t forget.

Picturehouse Entertainment will release “Scrapper” in the United Kingdom and Ireland on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘The Persian Version,’ starring Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Chiara Stella, Bijan Daneshmand and Shervin Alenabi

February 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row: Layla Mohammadi and Niousha Noor in “The Persian Version” (Photo by Andre Jaeger/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Persian Version”

Directed by Maryam Keshavars

Some language in Persian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and in Iran, from the 1960s to the 2000s, the comedy/drama film “The Persian Version” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A free-spirited queer woman, who feels like a misfit in her mostly male family that’s headed by conservative Iranian-immigrant parents, comes to terms with her identity and how her parents’ past had an effect on the family.

Culture Audience: “The Persian Version” will primarily appeal to people interested in movies about immigrant experiences and intergenerational relationships of family members.

Most of “The Persian Version” is a sharp and witty tale of an Iranian American woman navigating two ethnicities and her family issues. The movie’s last 20 minutes resemble a formulaic TV sitcom. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it lowers the movie’s quality. Even with its flaws, “The Persian Version” is a unique and vibrant story that shows perspectives that are rarely seen in American-made feature films.

Written and directed by Maryam Keshavars, “The Persian Version” is a comedy/drama inspired by Keshavars’ real-life experiences as the lesbian child of Iranian parents who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. “The Persian Version” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won two prizes: the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The movie features frequent voiceover narration from the movie’s fast-talking and sarcastic protagonist named Leila Jamshidpour (played by Layla Mohammadi), who is in her 30s when the movie begins in New York City in the 2000s.

“The Persian Version” also has several flashbacks throughout the story, going all the way back to the early 1960s, when Leila’s parents were living in Iran. The family moved to the United States in 1967, three years before the Iranian Revolution (also known as Islamic Revolution) ended the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. It ushered in a new era of Iran being a republic but also increased Iran’s political tensions with the U.S., especially when 52 Americans were held as hostages for two months, beginning in November 1979.

The opening scene of “The Persian Version” takes place shortly after Leila has won the prize for Best Costume at a Halloween party, for wearing a burka-bikini combination costume dressed as a fictional character named Miss Burkatini. While still in costume, Leila is hooking up on in a bedroom with a British man dressed as transgender female singer Hedwig from the award-winning musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The name of Leila’s sex partner is Maximillian Balthazar (played by Tom Byrne), who identifies as a cisgender heterosexual male, is dressed in this costume because he’s an actor, and this is the costume he wears as the star of the Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Viewers soon learn that Leila identifies as a queer woman who is mainly attracted to other cisgender women. What is she doing hooking up with Maximillian? She says that men who look like drag queens “turn her on.” She’s also very drunk and horny at the moment. Leila expects that this sexual encounter with Maximilian will be a one-night stand and that they probably won’t see each other again. She’ll find out later that she was wrong about this assumption.

During this hookup, Leila looks up and speaks directly to the camera, as she frequently does throughout the movie. She then gives a monologue which is a quick summary of her life so far, accompanied by a montage of flashbacks. This intriguing monologue will hook viewers right away to find out more about Leila.

In this opening monologue, Leila says: “Obviously, I have some issues with culture. But can you blame me? I come from two countries [Iran and the United States] that used to be madly in love with each other. And like every great romance, it ended in a bitter divorce.”

Leila continues, “Like a child of divorce, I was right in the middle, being pulled at it from both sides. Being a girl, I couldn’t be drafted into the Iranian military. So, I was the only child in my family who could travel between the two countries—these two parents who wanted each other dead: Iran and America.”

Leila adds, “I never fit in anywhere. Unresolved childhood trauma: Clearly this neurosis led me to become a writer. Free therapy. Writers and neurosis: What’s more New York than that?” It’s mentioned shortly thereafter that Leila is also an independent filmmaker.

The movie then shows Leila describing her immediate family members. Her retired obstetrician/gynecologist father Ali Reza (played by Bijan Daneshmand) and her mother Shirin (played by Niousha Noor), who is a powerhouse real-estate agent, are strict Muslims who have conservative views of how people should conduct their personal lives. Leila has a particularly rocky relationship with Shirin, who seems to think that Leila is a wayward child who always manages to cause problems for herself.

Leila, who calls herself the “outsider of the family,” has eight brothers. She describes each of them in a few words. Shivaz (played by Samuel Tehrani), the eldest child, is the “disco king.” Vahid (played by Parsa Kaffash) is the “troublemaker.” Majid (played by Arty Froushan), who is a medical doctor, is like “JFK Jr., minus the plane crash.” Hamid (played by Reza Diako) is the “brainiac.” Eman Zaman (played by Andrew Malik) is the “Goth.” Rostam (played by Kamyab Falahati) is the “hippie.” Zal (played by Mahdi Tahmasebi) is the “greaser.” Abbas (played by Jerry Habibi) is the “metrosexual.”

Leila is one of the people in her family who has dual citizenship with Iran and the United States and was educated in both countries as a child in the 1980s. (Chiara Stella portrays Leila at about 10 or 11 years old.) “In America, I learned to put my faith in science. In Iran, I learned to put my faith in politics,” says the child Leila. As an adult, Leila is shown saying, “The only way to survive was to not put my faith in any of the rules—not science, not politics.”

The child Leila then says, “The only thing I could put my faith in was art,” as she holds a Cyndi Lauper cassette tape. Leila then explains that because Western music was banned in Iran, she would smuggle in music by artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Prince. Leila, previously an outcast at her Iranian school, became popular with her classmates when she let them listen to the smuggled music. Lauper’s 1983 breakthrough hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is used in pivotal parts of the movie.

When the Jamshidpour family first moved to the United States, they lived in Brooklyn, New York. Ali Reza and Shirin currently live in New Jersey, while all of their children still live in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. Shirin’s kind and patient mother Mamanjoon (played by Bella Warda) lives with Ali Reza and Shirin. Although this tight-knit clan has had its ups and downs, Leila says she always felt she was treated differently because she is her parents’ only daughter.

Leila’s sexuality has also led to feelings of alienation from her parents (especially her mother), who do not approve of Leila being gay. Leila is still recovering from a divorce from her ex-wife Elena (played by Mia Foo), who happens to be in a Brooklyn drugstore at the same time as Leila, several months after their divorce. Elena and Leila exchange awkward hellos.

Leila has been holding on to a glimmer of hope that she and Elena will get back together. However, those hopes are crushed when Elena tactfully tells Leila to pick up the belongings that she left behind at the home they used to share. Elena also asks Leila to stop calling her and to move on with her life. The reason for their divorce is explained later in the story, (Leila frequently put her work above the marriage), but the details are still left purposely vague about other aspects of this relationship.

In addition to feeling heartbroken, Leila will also be dealing with a health crisis in the family. Her father Ali Reza needs a heart transplant, and he doesn’t have enough health insurance to cover all the costs. Because he isn’t a U.S. citizen, Ali Reza is not eligible for full Medicare benefits. (And remember, this is in the 2000s, before the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare existed.) Ali Reza’s most recent hospital bill is $200,000. Shirin is feeling a lot of stress and pressure over how to pay this bill. She’s too proud to ask her children for any financial help.

In the midst of all this family turmoil, Leila is feeling like a failure and a lost soul. Leila always felt closer to her father than to her mother. And the possibility of losing him is overwhelming to her. But then, one day, Leila has a conversation with her beloved grandmother Mamanjoon that will change Leila’s perspectives of her parents, herself and their family history.

“The Persian Version” gets its title from the fact that the Jamshidpour family has two versions of their family history: the American version and the Persian version. The movie skillfully and often candidly shows how immigrant families often have to present two different versions of themselves, in order to survive and assimilate in a new country. Most immigrants move to a new country for a chance at a new life, which often means reinvention. But that doesn’t mean that the past can be completely forgotten, because the past often shapes who people are and how they look at life.

What starts off looking like a movie about a sassy but admittedly flaky divorced filmmaker trying to get her life back on track turns into an emotionally moving story about developing a deeper understanding of family members and what they might have gone through in the past that affects how they interact with family members in the present. Mamanjoon tells stories that are shown in flashbacks, back to the early years of Ali Reza and Shirin’s marriage. Shervin Alenabi has the role of young Ali Reza. Kamand Shafieisabet has the role of young Shirin. Sachli Gholamalizad portrays young Mamanjoon.

A big change unexpectedly happens in Leila’s life, but the movie somewhat mishandles this big change by bringing some wacky sitcom elements to the story that don’t quite fit with the more realistic aspects of the movie. Fortunately, “The Persian Version” has very good acting from all of the cast members, with Mohammadi and Noor as the obvious standouts in portraying Leila and Shirin, who have a tension-filled love/hate relationship.

“The Persian Version” also beautifully shows how three generations of women in a family can connect despite their differences. Leila is on mostly good terms with her brothers (she is especially close to “metrosexual” Abbas), but viewers of this movie will most remember the relationships that Leila has with Shirin and Mamanjoon. “The Persian Version” is the type of charming movie that not only celebrates the multicultural heritages of immigrant families but also has universal relatability that can resonate with people of many different backgrounds and generations.

Sony Pictures Classics will release “The Persian Version” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘She Is Love,’ starring Haley Bennett and Sam Riley

February 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sam Riley and Haley Bennett in “She Is Love” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“She Is Love”

Directed by Jamie Adams

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in an unnamed city in England, the dramatic film “She Is Love” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two former spouses, who haven’t seen or spoken to each other in 10 years, have an awkward reunion when she checks into the inn where he lives with his current girlfriend, who owns the inn. 

Culture Audience: “She Is Love” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching aimless movies that have no real plot and mainly show people looking and acting uncomfortable with each other.

Marisa Abela in “She Is Love” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

Everything about the rambling drama “She Is Love” looks like an improvisational sketch that was dragged into an unnecessary and tedious movie. The cast members are talented, but the characters they play are empty and annoying. The movie’s fake-looking ending looks like a lazy cop-out that doesn’t ring true. It’s one of many misguided aspects of this dreadfully dull film.

Written and directed by Jamie Adams, “She Is Love” had its world premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. The movie takes place in an unnamed city in England, primarily at one location: a bed-and-breakfast inn. In the beginning of the movie, it’s a Friday, and a restless woman named Patricia (played by Haley Bennett), who also goes by the name Pat, has arrived at the inn because her boyfriend Taylor (voiced by Jay Jippet) has booked a room for her at the inn.

Patricia is a creator of TV shows, and she travels a lot for her job. It’s vaguely explained that she’s at the inn on some sort of vacation where she wants to spend some time alone. The movie’s story begins on a Friday and ends on a Sunday. By the end of this weekend, Patricia will not only have the opposite of a vacation of solitude, she’s also so “in your face” irritating, viewers of “She Is Love” will want to Patricia to go away.

The first thing that Patricia does when she checks into her room is complain. She mutters to herself, “This room is ugly.” It doesn’t take long before her so-called restful vacation gets interrupted by loud music coming from another room. Patricia goes to the source of the noise and sees a musician named Idris (played by Sam Riley) playing music on DJ equipment, as if he’s in a nightclub. Idris and Patricia look at each other in shock. She’s so in shock, she quickly walks out of the room.

Idris follows her and says, “I’m sorry about the noise. I didn’t know anyone was here.” Patricia says to him, “What are you doing here?” Idris replies, “I kind of live here. I can’t believe it. The last I heard, you were living in America.” It’s soon revealed how Patricia and Idris know each other: They used to be married to each other, they got divorced, and they haven’t seen or spoken to each other in about 10 years.

Patricia insists that she’s at this inn purely as a coincidence, because her boyfriend booked the room at the inn for her. More awkwardness ensues because the person who owns the inn and lives there too is Idris’ current girlfriend Louise (played by Marisa Abela), a perky aspiring actress who’s about 15 years younger than 39-year-old Idris. Quicker than you can say “formulaic sitcom idea,” Louise suddenly comes home to tell Idris the good news that she got a role that she really wanted. Idris nervously steers Louise outside and doesn’t want her to go inside until he tells her the news that his ex-wife unexpectedly showed up and is staying at the inn.

Idris tells Louise it’s a bizarre coincidence that Patricia is a guest at the inn, and he assures Louise that nothing is going to happen between him and Patricia. And what a coincidence: Louise has to go out of town for a few days because of this new acting job. The rest of the movie shows what happens when Patricia and Idris spend a lot of time alone together, get drunk, and act like people who have too much time on their hands but have nothing meaningful to say for most of that time. It’s all just so boring to watch.

Bennett and Riley seem to be attempting to make Patricia and Idris believable as an ex-couple with unresolved feelings for each other. The problem is that it never looks genuine that these two were ever in love. Anything that’s supposed to pass for “sexual tension” between Patricia and Idris just come across as forced. And to make matters worse, insufferable Patricia is so insulting to Idris, it’s even harder to believe that Idris could possibly be falling back in love with her.

In one of their early “reunion” conversations, Idris (who performs in a semi-famous rock band) tells Patricia that he’s still a musician. Patricia rudely says, “So, you’re doing the same thing. I’m a bit disappointed.” It’s quite the display of disrespectful and condescending judgment from someone who has no say in how Idris should lead his life and what should make him happy.

Later, when Idris and Patricia have a drunken argument, she says to him: “You can’t deal with anyone broken. That’s why you go for Louise.” Irdrs replies, “You break everything you touch!” And then, Patricia shows how cruel she can be when she says to Idris: “The only good thing about you is your dad. And he’s dead.”

“She Is Love” is a misnomer, because Patricia is not a very loving or lovable person. The movie becomes a slog of Patricia and Idris lurching from drunken activity to drunken activity, all while having witless conversations. They play tennis while intoxicated. They put on face powder, wear white clothes, and run around the inn, as they pretend that they are ghosts.

And (cliché alert), at one point, Idris brings out his acoustic guitar and plays a drippy love song about you-know-who. And through it all, Idris and Patricia continue to argue. It’s as if Patricia and Idris are trying to convince themselves that maybe they’re smart and interesting, but the results prove that they are just the opposite.

Another thing that looks phony about this movie is that for an inn of this size (it looks like there are at about six to eight bedrooms), no one seems to be taking care of this property except Louise and Idris. There are no signs of any maids, caretakers, maintenance workers or cooks. Even if business is slow, it’s hard to believe that Louise and Idris are doing all the physical upkeep of this property all by themselves.

Louise is preoccupied with auditions, while Idris just seems to lounge around the inn and play music when he’s in between gigs. The inn has one quasi-receptionist named Kate (played by Rosa Robson), who walks around with a clipboard and doesn’t seem to do much. Kate certainly isn’t scrubbing toilets, cleaning up the yard, or fixing broken equipment.

It’s an example of how the filmmakers of “She Is Love” couldn’t adequately make a cinematic experience from this very poorly conceived story that has a virtually non-existent plot. At best, “She Is Love” is a story that should have been a very short sketch. It’s too bad that the filmmakers decided to pad it with too much shallow filler and make it into a very disappointing 82-minute movie.

Brainstorm Media released “She Is Love” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Faraaz,’ starring Zahan Kapoor, Aditya Rawal and Juhi Babbar Soni

February 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Aditya Rawal and Zahan Kapoor in “Faraaz” (Photo courtesy of Reliance Entertainment)


Directed by Hansal Mehta

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016, primarily in Dhaka, Bangladesh (and briefly in Mumbai, India), the dramatic film “Faraaz” (based on true events) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Five young male terrorists commit a massacre and take hostages at a restaurant in Dhaka, and it’s soon revealed that one of the captives and one of the hostage takers used to know each other as schoolmates. 

Culture Audience: “Faraaz” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a dramatic and somewhat formulaic retelling of a tragedy from the perspective of someone who became an unexpected hero.

Aditya Rawal (standing), Zahan Kapoor, Pallak Lalwani and Reshham Sahaani in “Faraaz” (Photo courtesy of Reliance Entertainment)

Based on true events, “Faraaz” is an intense thriller that rises above some of its hostage-movie clichés with credible performances from most of the cast. People who already know the outcome of what happened in real life will not find any surprises in “Faraaz.” However, the story is different from most other hostage movies because it focuses on what happens when one of the hostage victims finds out that one of the hostage takers is a former schoolmate.

What types of psychological effects does this knowledge have on the victim? Will the victim feel more empowered or more vulnerable? And will this past connection help or hurt the victim and the other hostages? All of these questions are explored in subtle and obvious ways throughout “Faraaz,” which also shows how the hostage taker is affected by having a prior connection to a hostage victim. Ritesh Shah, Kashyap Kapoor and Raghav Kakkar wrote the “Faraaz” screenplay. “Faraaz” had its world premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival.

Directed by Hansal Mehta, “Faraaz” takes place in 2016, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the tragedy occurred in real life. The movie’s title character is 20-year-old Faraaz Hossain (played by Zahan Kapoor), who comes from an affluent family. Faraaz’s mother Simeen (played by Juhi Babbar Soni, also known as Juhi Babbar) is a high-ranking executive at Eskayef Bangladesh Limited, Transcom Consumer Products Limited, and Transcom Distribution Limited—all companies owned by Transcom Group, the corporation founded by Simeen’s father, Latifur Rahman.

Faraaz and his older brother Zaraif (played by Amir Shoeb) live with Simeen, who is a single parent. (Muhammad Waquer Bin Hossain, the real-life father of Faraaz and Zaraif, is not mentioned in the movie.) Simeen has the nickname Chhotu (or “little one”) for Faraaz. In the beginning of the movie, Simeen is annoyed with her sons because she had plans to go with them on a family vacation to Malaysia to celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, but those plans went awry because the sons wanted to stay in Bangladesh.

Simeen and Faraaz also argue because she wants Faraaz and Zaraif to enroll in Stanford University in the United States. However, Faraaz wants to continue to go to school in Bangladesh. (In real life, Faraaz was a student at Emory University in Atlanta, and he was in Bangladesh while on a summer break from Emory.) Faraaz gets so upset, he storms out of the house, but he eventually returns and tells his mother that he’s sorry about the argument. Simeen makes an apology too, and she says that she will no longer pressure Faraaz and Zaraif about which university she wants them to attend.

Meanwhile, five men in their late teens and 20s are gathered in a room and eating on the floor together like roommates. They could easily pass for university students who share living quarters, but these young men are not at a university and the instructions they’ve been getting aren’t for a university education. They’ve been getting instructions on how to be radical Islamic terrorists.

Their leader is a man in his 30s named Rajiv (played by Godaan Kumar), who has been indoctrinating these young men into thinking that anyone who isn’t a devout Muslim is their enemy. Rajiv has masterminded an extreme plan to get attention for their fanatical causes. It’s a plan that he’s discussed with this group before, in conversations not shown in the movie, but the members of the group have been reluctant to carry out this plan.

What is shown in the movie is that Rajiv is now demanding that the group show loyalty and that they must execute the plan, or else he will think that they are cowards. After Rajiv scolds them and shames them, all five agree to do what Rajiv wants. A pleased-looking Rajiv drives off with the five young men together in a van. Viewers will soon see the diabolical plan that Rajiv has now set in motion.

It’s July 1, 2016, during the day. Faraaz, his female friend Tarika (played by Pallak Lawani) and Tarika’s neighbor Ayesha (played by Reshham Sahaani) are dining together at Holey Artisan Bakery, a popular casual restaurant in Dhaka. Many of the restaurant’s customers are tourists. What starts out as normal day turns into a nightmare for the people inside the restaurant and their loved ones.

The five men from Rajiv’s terrorist group storm inside the restaurant with assault weapons, including shotguns and rifles that they shoot indiscriminately inside the restaurant. Many people are shot and killed instantly. Some are wounded. A warning to sensitive viewers: The violence in this movie is very graphic.

The killers then take hostage of everyone who is still alive who can be found inside the restaurant. The hostages are mixture of locals and tourists. A few employees working in the back of the restaurant manage to escape during this mass shooting, and they contact law enforcement immediately.

The five terrorists who’ve committed these heinous crimes are Nibras (played by Aditya Rawal), Rohan (played by Sachin lalwani), Mobashir (played by Jatin Sarin), Bikash (played by Harshal Pawar) and Kairul (played by Ninaad Sahaunak Bhatt), who show varying degrees of cruelty during this killing spree. Nibras is the “alpha male” of the five, since he is the one who gives the orders. Rohan is a sadistic hothead who seems to take a great deal of pleasure in killing people, sometimes with “overkill,” by shooting people who are already dead. The rest of the group members have generic personalities.

The terrorists try to weed out the people whom they think are worth saving by randomly demanding hostage victims to cite scripture from the Quran. If the hostages can’t do it, they are shot and killed. Faraaz and some other people are spared for this reason. During this interrogation, Faraaz notices that Nibras is a former schoolmate of his. Faraaz and Nibras also used to play on the same soccer team.

At one point, Faraaz asks Nibras: “How brainwashed are you?” Nibras shouts in response: “You’re the one who’s brainwashed!” Because these terrorists have ultra-conservative Muslim views, they show particular contempt for the female hostages who are are not wearing dresses and don’t have their hair covered with hijabs. Tarika is wearing jeans, and Ayesha is wearing denim shorts, and they both are wearing nothing on their heads, so you can imagine the verbal abuse and other harassment that they get from the terrorists.

Most of the movie is filmed as events take place in “real time,” which adds to the level of tension. Many things that happen inside this under-siege restaurant are what you might expect in a hostage movie. Other things are somewhat unexpected. For example, one of the terrorists shows glimmers of compassion, which is met with a lot of resistance from some of his cohorts. Will these conflicts in the group make a difference in saving lives?

Because the movie is told mainly from the perspective of Faraaz, there isn’t much that is told about the other hostages and murder victims inside the restaurant. A compassionate man named Dr. Salim Mujahid (played by Premji Jhangiani), one of the hostages who was able to quote from the Quran, treats a non-critical wound that Farah has behind his left ear. (This isn’t spoiler information, since the trailer for “Faraaz” shows that he gets wounded.)

A long-haired musician named Zaraif (played by Amir Shoeb), who has an acoustic guitar with him, is forced to play Muslim music for the terrorists. In another scene in the movie, the terrorists force Zaraif is to pose for a photo next to dead body, and they order Zaraif to smile for the camera during this sickening act. Because of his “hippie” appearance, Zaraif also becomes a target of scorn from the terrorists.

And where is Rajiv during all this madness and mayhem? He’s working in an office building, and he’s gleefully watching the events unfold through videos and photos that the terrorists have been sending to him on his phone during this rampage. Like the master manipulator that he is, Rajib has gotten his minions to do his dirty work, while he has ensured an alibi for himself during this crime spree. But he’s not very smart, because the videos and photos sent to him are evidence that can be used against him.

Meanwhile, Simeen, Zaraif and Tarika’s father Sudhir (played by Ahmir Ali) are outside the restaurant, frantically trying to get updates from the law enforcement officers who have surrounded the place in a tense standoff with the terrorists. The officers involved in this crisis include Commissioner Acchadujjaman (played by Danish Iqbal), RAB Officer Benazir (played by Kaushik Raj Chakraborty), Senior Inspector Farooq (played by Nitin Goyal), Deputy Commissioner Mushtaq (played by Aditya Mahajan) and SWAT officer Manirul (played by Rohan Roy). All of these law enforcement agents are portrayed in a standard manner in this movie.

A lot of chaos happens during this hostage crisis, but the movie skillfully keeps coming back to the way that the past acquaintance connection between Faraaz and Nibras will affect both of them in their thoughts and actions. In addition to solid acting from the principal cast members, “Faraaz” has very effective editing and cinematography that can immerse viewers into thing happening inside and outside the restaurant.

The movie’s introduction has a statement saying that “Faraaz” is dedicated to the heroes of this tragedy. But just like any movie about real people who were murdered, “Faraaz” is getting criticism for being exploitative. Most of this criticism is coming from people who haven’t seen the movie.

People who actually watch the entire film will probably find some of the violence disturbing, but “Faraaz” does not put any shame or exploitation on the victims, nor does it glamorize the terrorists. And although most of the characters in “Faraaz” get surface-level personalities, it’s because of the “real-time” pacing of the movie. There are no “flashbacks” to show the lives of the individual hostages.

Viewers are invited to think about why two men who went to the same school and share the same religion could end up in two very different places in how they think that religion should be a part of their lives and the lives of other people. There are no easy answers, and the “Faraaz” wisely chose not to spend any screen time showing how Rajiv persuaded his terrorist subordinates to do his bidding. The best takeaway from “Faraaz”—and the clear intention of the movie—is to show that even among atrocities and deep despair, there can also be courage and kindness that are stronger than any terrorist act.

Reliance Entertainment released “Faraaz” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on February 3, 2023.

Copyright 2017-2023 Culture Mix