Review: ‘Hold Your Fire,’ starring Harvey Schlossberg, Shu’aib Rahim and Jerry Riccio

July 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1973 photo of Shulab Abdur Raheem (now known as Shu’aib Rahim) in “Hold Your Fire” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Hold Your Fire”

Directed by Stefan Forbes

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hold Your Fire” features a group of African American and white people from the working-class and middle-class who were in some way connected to a kidnapping/hostage standoff that lasted from January 19 to January 21, 1973, in New York’s City’s Brooklyn borough.

Culture Clash: There was racial tension in this crisis because the hostage takers were four young African American men, almost all of the police officers were white, and there was disagreement among law enforcement on how to handle this crisis. 

Culture Audience: “Hold Your Fire” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching true crime documentaries that go deep in discussing racial issues and hostage negotiations tactics.

A 1973 photo of New York Police Department officers in “Hold Your Fire” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The compelling documentary “Hold Your Fire” has lessons that go beyond this chronicle of a notorious hostage crisis that happened in New York City in 1973. The movie shows how dangerous situations can be de-escalated with the correct communication. Directed by Stefan Forbes, “Hold Your Fire” takes the view that how this hostage crisis was handled was a turning point in getting the New York Police Department (NYPD) to rethink the “shoot first, ask questions later” automatic reaction to hostage takers. “Hold Your Fire” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and made the rounds at some other film festivals, including the 2021 edition of DOC NYC.

Almost everyone who’s interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” was directly affected in some way to this hostage-taking incident, which lasted from January 19 to January 21, 1973, in New York’s City’s Brooklyn borough. It all started when four African American men—ranging in ages from 22 to 26—went into a store called John and Al’s Sporting Goods, with the intention of robbing the store of firearms and ammunition. John and Al’s Sporting Goods was located in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, which in 1973 had a reputation for being a crime-ridden, low-income area. (Bushwick is still mostly working-class, but it has since been gentrified and “cleaned up” its “on the decline” image that it had in the 1970s.)

The four men who invaded the store were Sunni Muslims, who wanted the firearms and ammunition for what was later described as a “holy crusade” and for self-defense against recent attacks from Black Muslims. The robbers were Shulab Abdur Raheem (now known as Shu’aib Rahim), who was 24 years old at the time; Yusef Abdallah Almussadig (now known as Mussidiq), who was 23; Dawud A. Rahman, who was 22; and Salih Ali Abdullah, who was 26. Although all four men have been identified as being members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) when this crime happened, in “Hold Your Fire,” Rahim (who was the leader of the robbers) claims he was not a BLA member when this crime occurred.

Contrary to what perceptions might have been, these four men were not career criminals at the time of this robbery and hostage-taking crisis. Rahim was a transit toll-booth worker. Mussidiq was a carpenter. Rahman was a college student. Abdullah was a TV repairman. Rahim and Rahman are the only two of the four robbers interviewed in “Hold Your Fire.” The movie’s epilogue explains what happened to Mussidiq, Abdullah and a few other principal people involved in the hostage crisis.

During the robbery, things quickly spiraled out of control. The police were called to the crime scene; there were shootouts between the police and robbers; and the robbers initially refused to surrender. Instead, the robbers stayed in the store, where they took 11 people as hostages during the standoff. In “Hold Your Fire,” Rahman says he wanted to surrender immediately, but he was outvoted by his other three cohorts, who at first wanted to flee the scene, but then decided to take people hostage inside the store when they found out that many cops were surrounding the store.

Not everyone made it out of this crisis alive. NYPD officer Stephen R. Gilroy was killed during the shootouts. The NYPD, much of the media and the state of New York blamed the robbers for the death. All four men were convicted in New York Supreme Court of murdering Gilroy, kidnapping and armed robbery. But to this day, the bullet that killed Gilroy was never matched to any guns. Some people in the documentary speculate that Gilroy was killed by an accidental gunshot from someone in the NYPD and that the NYPD covered up the evidence.

Much of “Hold Your Fire” includes vivid memories of what happened inside the store and outside the store, from the people who were there during this hostage crisis. The people who were inside the store who are interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” include hostage takers Rahim and Rahman; hostage Rosemary Catalano, who was 16 years old in 1973; and Jerry Riccio, owner of John and Al’s Sporting Goods, who says the robbers’ first big mistake was trying to steal more firearms than the robbers could carry. The police officers who were outside of the store who are interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” (and who are all now retired) are Al Baker, former NYPD captain; Jack Cambria, former NYPD lieutenant/sergeant; Al Sheppard, former NYPD patrolman; and Brian Tuohy, former NYPD police officer, who was a 27-year-old rookie at the time.

In addition, “Hold Your Fire” has archival interviews with NYPD commissioner Ben Ward and NYPD Commissioner Patrick Murphy. A few academics and legal experts weigh in with their perspectives, such as criminal defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt and Dr. Antoinette “Toni” Collarini-Schlossberg, who is chair of the criminal justice division of St. John’s University in New York City. And there’s an interview with Alice Buckner, the daughter of the late Fonnie Bucker, who was one of the hostage victims. Alice says that as a result of the hostage trauma, Fonnie (who was pregnant at the time) had a nervous breakdown and a miscarriage shortly after she was released.

In interviews to promote “Hold Your Fire” and in the movie’s production notes, “Hold Your Fire” director Forbes says that the biggest hero of this crisis was Harvey Schlossberg, a NYPD officer who had a Ph.D. in psychology and who was the chief negotiator on behalf of the NYPD. Schlossberg is interviewed in “Hold Your Fire,” where he gives a step-by-step account of why he felt that the best tactic was for the NYPD to not storm into the store and shoot the robbers, which would have been standard procedure. Instead, the three-day standoff consisted of tense negotiations, which resulted in many of the hostages being released and no one else being killed before the robbers surrendered.

Schlossberg comments on his philosophy in resolving conflicts: “I believe in talking. Everything is resolvable by talking.” But as the documentary details, this tactic was very controversial in the heat of the moment. Schlossberg got a lot of pushback, complaints and threats from the NYPD, members of the media, loved ones of the hostage victims, and other people in the general public, who all thought that verbal negotiations would take too long to resolve the crisis. Many people thought that the robbers needed to be immediately killed by the police.

This standoff between the cops and the robbers happened just two years after the notorious Attica Correctional Facility crisis in Attica, New York. Attica’s male prisoners (mostly African American and Latino), who demanded more humane living conditions and better health care, took over the prison and held several prison employees hostage from September 9 to September 13, 1971. Negotiations fell apart, and then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state and local police (almost all who were white men) to employ war-like tactics to take back control of the prison. In the end, 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and employees were killed in the violent standoff.

“Hold Your Fire” doesn’t gloss over the racial context of the very divisive debate over how the hostage crisis should have been handled at John and Al’s Sporting Goods on those fateful three days in 1973. Rahim comments in the documentary: “New York City has always had a hard, ugly relationship between the police and the community of color. All my life, the police have been killing black people.”

Baker has this counter-remark: “I know for a fact that cops aren’t racist, yet there was this perception that cops were going to brutalize blacks. Police are seen as oppressors, corrupt, brutal.” Sheppard, who was one of the cops on the scene of this hostage crisis, says that the kidnappers/robbers were looking for a violent fight: “They want a physical confrontation.” As for kidnapping/robbery leader Rahim, Sheppard adds, “A guy like that needs his ass kicked.”

Rahim does not try to excuse his heinous actions that day, but he does say that he never intended for anyone to get killed during this robbery and kidnapping. In the documentary, Rahim also denies reports that he was heard saying about slain NYPD officer Gilroy: “I killed that pig.” In “Hold Your Fire,” Rahim comments on Gilroy’s death: “I don’t know what happened. But it don’t really matter at the end of the day, because none of that would’ve happened if we weren’t there.”

Store owner Riccio refutes the NYPD claim that the cops aimed high when shooting into the store. “The police department won’t admit to a lot of things they did,” Riccio comments. Mussidiq, whom Rahim describes as the “loose cannon” of the four robbers, ended up being shot during the standoff, but he survived his gunshot wounds.

As the leader of the robbers, Rahim gets the most scrutiny and is the only one of the four robbers whose background is talked about in-depth. Rahim describes his mother, Gloria Robinson, as his “mentor” but also as an “alcoholic.” During hostage negotiations, Robinson wanted to talk to her son, but Schlossberg advised against it. Schlossberg says in the documentary that it’s generally not a good idea to involve family members or other loved ones of hostage takers in the negotiation process. “If they had a healthy family, they wouldn’t be in here [taking people hostage],” Schlossberg explains.

Rahim gets the most emotional and remorseful in the documentary when talking about Fonnie Buckner, especially when thinking about how her hostage ordeal resulted in her pregnancy miscarriage. He says that Fonnie Buckner had a chance to be released with some other hostages during the standoff, but she refused. “She didn’t trust the police,” Rahim remembers. “She wanted to stay with us.”

In hindsight, Rahim says in the documentary that he has come to understand over the years that what he and his cohorts did during those three days caused lifelong damage: “People who are hurt, injured and suffer—even oppressed—can become blinded by their own hurt and destroy the lives of so many people who did you no harm. That’s the tragedy of it all: when the victim becomes that which they fear.”

It’s mentioned several times in “Hold Your Fire” that one of the barriers with the NYPD that Schlossberg had to face in this hostage negotiation was he did not fit the image of being a macho cop. Baker comments on Schlossberg: “He didn’t look like a cop. He didn’t act like a cop … He was seen as fruity. Not a back slapper, ‘Let’s go for a beer’ guy.”

Baker continues in describing Schlossberg as “socially incompetent, academic, quirky. He has the Jewish sense of humor. A consummate Jew. He was a genius oddball, psychobabble type of guy.” In an archival interview, then-NYPD commissioner Murphy says Schlossberg “was hated, a bookworm, not a warrior.” Another reason why Schlossberg didn’t have the respect of many NYPD officials: He was mainly a traffic cop, which is a position that’s considered the wimpiest and least-demanding position possible for a police officer.

Whatever negative opinions that many influential members of the NYPD had of Schlossberg at the time, he stayed the course in the negotiations. And many people believe that he helped save the lives of the people who didn’t die in this crisis. Sadly, Schlossberg passed away in 2021. He was 85.

In “Hold Your Fire,” Schlossberg says that law enforcement officers often have this mentality during a hostage crisis: “They all believe that if you give me the right gun with the right bullet, I can put everybody out. But I don’t think it works that easily. That’s a Hollywood thing.” There is no Hollywood fantasy in “Hold Your Fire,” which is a no-frills, raw and impactful documentary that effectively shows how the right negotiations can prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

IFC Films released “Hold Your Fire” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 20, 2022.

Review: ‘The Year Between,’ starring Alex Heller

July 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alex Heller in “The Year Between” (Photo by Jason Chiu)

“The Year Between”

Directed by Alex Heller

Culture Representation: Taking place in Illinois, the comedy/drama film “The Year Between” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In her second year of college, an angry, bipolar woman drops out of school after she has a mental breakdown; she moves back in with her parents and two younger siblings; and she tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life while she instigates conflicts with other people. 

Culture Audience: “The Year Between” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching movies where mental illness is irresponsibly used as an excuse for someone to be rude, selfish and emotionally damaging to other people.

The misguided comedy/drama “The Year Between” is an irritating slog that offensively uses bipolar disorder as an excuse for the central character to be cruel and toxic to everyone around her. She would be an awful person even without a mental illness. Written and directed by Alex Heller (who is also the star of the movie and is in almost every scene), “The Year Between” is loosely inspired by Heller’s real-life experiences with mental health struggles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Unfortunately, the tone of “The Year Between” misses the mark in both comedy and drama. Watching this dreadful mess is like being stuck for 94 minutes with a whiny, spoiled brat who acts like she can’t stand to be around other people because she thinks everyone else is annoying, but then she does everything in her power to get negative attention from the people she claims she wants to leave her alone. None of this obnoxiousness is depicted in a way that’s entertaining. In fact, it gets downright repetitive and boring.

In “The Year Between” (which takes place in Illinois), Heller portrays Clemence Miller, the hellish narcissist who spends lot of her time and energy trying to make everyone around her as miserable as she is. The movie only shows a one-year period of time in Clemence’s life, but viewers can easily figure out from conversations in the movie that Clemence has been a mean-spirited troublemaker for a lot longer than a year, probably her entire life. Heller delivers Clemence’s lines of dialogue in a deadpan manner, in this movie’s failed attempt to make “The Year Between” a witty dark comedy.

Clemence’s bipolar disorder is just the movie’s pathetic way of creating scenarios where Clemence expects people to accept or enable her cruelty because she’s mentally ill. The movie has no balance in showing that not all mentally ill people are atrocious to other human beings. That’s why “The Year Between” is very much a vanity project from Heller, who might have intended to make a meaningful comedy/drama about mental illness, but “The Year Between” is just a bungled mockery of mental illness with a dull and predictable story.

A good movie isn’t defined by how “likable” the main characters are. A good movie is defined by how interesting the characters are and how the story is told. And that’s why “The Year Between” is a disappointing clunker in most regards. The movie has some members of the cast who show talent in their performances, but their characters are limited and stuck saying words from Heller’s messy and rambling screenplay.

“The Year Between” is essentially about a woman in her early 20s behaving badly, with a tone that she’s supposed to be a misunderstood anti-hero just because she has bipolar disorder. In real life, bipolar disorder causes extreme highs and lows in emotions. Bipolar disorder can bring out the worst in people, but it does not make someone vile and nasty if that person already had a tendency to be vile and nasty.

From the movie’s opening scene, it’s clear that Clemence is an emotional terrorist who takes other people as emotional hostages, and then she goes on rants about how everyone else in the world is terrible and uncaring to her. In other words, Clemence loves to play the victim when she is in fact the abuser. If Clemence is Heller’s semi-autobiographical portrait of herself, then it’s a very off-putting way to introduce herself to people.

In the beginning of the movie, Clemence is a second-year student at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. She storms into her dorm room and accuses her roommate Eliza of wearing Clemence’s shortcake-flavored Chapstick. Clemence then yells at Eliza by saying that their dorm room is a “pig sty,” when the room is actually neat and orderly, compared to a lot of dorm rooms.

Viewers never see the rest of Clemence’s meltdown, but apparently it got worse, because Eliza made a formal complaint to the school that Eliza feared for her safety because of Clemence’s continual and angry outbursts. It was then decided that Clemence would voluntarily leave the school for an unspecified period of time. The movie never shows Eliza making the complaint or whatever meetings took place with university officials that led to this decision. The next thing viewers see is Clemence being driven away from the campus by Clemence’s concerned and loving mother Sherri (played by J. Smith-Cameron), who owns and manages a home goods store.

Playing the victim as usual, Clemence announces to her mother and anyone else who’ll listen that she has no intention of going back to Western Illinois University or enrolling in any other college/university, because she thinks college life is just too stifling for her. As far as Clemence is concerned, a college education is just a waste of time for her because she doesn’t want to live by any college rules. In other words, she doesn’t want anyone to stand up to her and tell her to act like a decent human being.

After dropping out of college, Clemence has to move back home to Oak Brook, Illinois, where her parents live with Clemence’s two younger teenage siblings. Clemence isn’t happy about being in this living situation, so expect to hear a lot of whining from her about being stuck back in her childhood home with family members who get on her nerves. It’s quite the display of entitlement from a college dropout who has the privilege of having a family who will take her back into the home after being such a screw-up and troublemaker.

As Sherri drives Clemence back to the neighborhood where the family home is, Clemence makes a typical snide Clemence remark as she looks around the neighborhood: “Someone should bomb the place.” Clemence gets even more agitated when she finds out that she has to live in the basement because her parents turned her former bedroom into a home office. And when Clemence doesn’t get her way, look out: People will be the target of her wrath.

Soon after Clemence moves back into the family home, Clemence and Sherri are seen in an appointment with a psychiatrist named Dr. Lismoen (played by Waltrudis Buck), who has diagnosed Clemence with having bipolar disorder. Clemence has exhibited bipolar symptoms of hoarding, stealing, paranoia and extreme insomnia. Dr. Lismoen is empathetic but firm in how Clemence should proceed with taking medication to treat the bipolar disorder.

The doctor says that it might take a lot of time to find the right medication “cocktail” that works best for Clemence. Dr. Lismoen also warns that some of the medication side effects will be uncomfortable. It’s news that Clemence doesn’t want to hear, so she thinks the doctor is incompetent. Dr. Lismoen also tells Clemence that Clemence should see a therapist, so Clemence isn’t happy about that either.

Here’s an example of what a horrible person Clemence is: In the waiting room of Dr. Lismoen’s office, Clemence and Sherri are sitting near an obviously agitated and upset woman (played by Sarah Schol), who is sobbing about something. Clemence and Sherri have no idea who this woman is or what this woman’s personal problems are. When Clemence and her mother are called into Dr. Lismoen’s office, Clemence passes by the distressed woman and snarls at her: “Basket case.” (It’s a derogatory slur for a mentally ill person.)

And later, when Clemence has her first session with her therapist Dr. Madzen (played by Jon Hudson Odom), she has this to say about Dr. Lismoen, who is a German immigrant: “I call her ‘the German woman,’ to take away her power.” Clemence adds, “I don’t take life advice from mentally ill burnouts.” None of this is funny, of course, but “The Year Between” filmmaker Heller desperately wants it to be.

At home, Clemence complains and gives constant criticism to her family members for not being more accommodating to her. Sherri and her mild-mannered husband Don (played by Steve Buscemi) are admittedly unsure of how to deal with Clemence’s bipolar disorder. Don’s reaction is just to let Clemence mouth off and not try to get into any arguments with her. Sherri’s way of coping is ordering Clemence to do yoga with her.

Clemence’s younger sister Carlin (played by Emily Robinson), who’s 17 or 18 years old, is an overachiever in her last year of high school. Carlin is preoccupied with finding out if she will get into her top-choice university. Meanwhile, a jealous Clemence tries to discourage Carlin from going to college. Carlin and Clemence are opposites in a lot of ways, so Carlin is the person in the family whom Clemence clashes with the most.

Clemence’s younger brother Neil (played by Wyatt Oleff), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, has an easygoing personality and tries to stay out of Clemence’s way. When Clemence unapologetically eats all of the bread in the house refrigerator, and someone in the family gripes about it, Clemence angrily reacts as if her rights are being violated. And so, when Neil later wants to make a meat sandwich, he just eats the meat by itself instead of trying to get into what would be an emotionally exhausting confrontation with Clemence.

Clemence also manipulates her family by making alarming suicidal comments. She mopes around the house and sleeps a lot, which are all valid signs of depression. But then she says to her father Don: “Dad, if the house burns down, I want to sleep through it.” How is a parent supposed to react when hearing this disturbing comment from a child? “The Year Between” reprehensibly treats it like a joke.

Believe it or not, Clemence is capable of being nice. There’s a brief scene early in the movie where she’s walking the family dog Chauncey outside on a street, and Clemence says a polite hello to a neighbor. But that display of friendliness is short-lived and rare for Clemence.

As an example of how she still has bipolar episodes, there’s a scene in the movie where Clemence walks the dog but doesn’t come back until several hours later when it’s night, without telling anyone in her family where she was and that she was taking the dog away for hours. When she comes back home, with no explanation for her long absence, Clemence is dismissive of her mother’s worried feelings. Clemence is legally an adult, so she shouldn’t have to be treated like a child, but she often acts like a petulant child.

What’s so horrific about “The Year Between” is that it constantly makes a point that people shouldn’t really confront Clemence about her cruelty and selfishness because she has bipolar disorder. Clemence wants people to respect her, but she’s not willing show basic respect for other people. And her disrespect is not something that can be blamed on Clemence’s bipolar disorder, but the movie wants to make it look like her bipolar disorder is largely to blame.

Not long after moving back in with her parents, Clemence commits what she thinks is an act of rebellion: She shaves off all of the hair on her head. And so, for the rest of the movie, Clemence has “chip on her shoulder” reactions if people look at her strangely because of her bald head. When some teenage boys pass her on a street, she doesn’t like the way they’re looking at her, so she blurts out to them, “I eat ass!” This is what’s supposed to be pass as “comedy” in “The Year Between.”

Clemence isn’t a complete freeloader at home because she attempts to find a job. She applies to be a sales clerk at a discount clothing/furniture store called Big Deals, even though her people skills are horrible, she has no retail sales experience, and she’s very abrasive in her job interview. But lo and behold, she easily gets the job. It’s just more of Clemence’s privilege on display.

The Big Deals employee who’s been assigned to train Clemence is a sassy and intelligent woman in her late teens named Beth (played by Kyanna Simone), who tells Clemence that she will be quitting this dead-end retail job in the near future because Beth has a lacrosse scholarship to attend Duke University. Clemence is already annoyed that she’s being trained by someone who’s younger than Clemence. And when Clemence hears that Beth has plans to go to college, Clemence gets envious of Beth.

Still, Clemence has no friends, so she tries to become Beth’s friend. It won’t make Clemence look any less loathsome, because Clemence’s idea of a “friend” is to have someone listen to her rant about how much other people ignore or misunderstand Clemence. However, the scenes with Clemence and Beth are among the movie’s few highlights.

What doesn’t work as well is the movie’s subplot about Clemence’s love life. In a convenience store parking lot, she sees a guy named Ashik (played by Rajeev Jacob), who was a classmate in high school. Ashik and Clemence haven’t seen each other since their high school days.

Clemence and Ashik make awkward small talk and catch up on what they’ve been doing with their lives. After they exchange phone numbers, they flirt online and take tentative steps toward dating. Ashik is also drifting in life and lives at home with his mother. Unfortunately, Ashik is a hollow character with not much to offer to this movie, so the would-be romance between Ashik and Clemence falls flat.

“The Year Between,” just like Clemence, is very irritable, monotonous and aimless. It seems like the movie was made to create sympathy for whatever real-life misdeeds that might have inspired the awfulness of Clemence. Viewers won’t be entirely sure how much of the real Heller is in Clemence, but what’s shown in the movie is someone with a very heinous personality.

As for her bipolar disorder, Clemence doesn’t seem concerned about getting better. She just wants to wallow in her misery. And when someone else in the family has a major health problem, Clemence reaches new lows of despicable narcissism. Any attempts to redeem Clemence look very fake. Viewers will be left wondering why “The Year Between” was even made, when there’s really no point to the movie, except to show someone being chronically self-centered and emotionally abusive to others, with no maturity or self-awareness.

Review: ‘Carol & Johnny,’ starring Carol Williams and Johnny Williams Jr.

July 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

An archival photo of Carol Williams and Johnny Williams Jr. in “Carol & Johnny”

“Carol & Johnny”

Directed by Colin Barnicle

Culture Representation: Filmed in 2021 in Washington state, Texas and Nevada, the documentary “Carol & Johnny” features an all-white group of working-class and middle-class people discussing estranged spouses Carolyn Marie “Carol” Wlliams and John Madison “Johnny” Williams Jr., who famously went on a bank robbery spree from 1986 to 1994 (in Texas, California and Washington state), were sent to prison, and were eventually released from prison.

Culture Clash: After being released from prison, Johnny has trouble adjusting to his new life in Seattle, and he wants to get back together with Carol, who is living in Texas and has to decide if she wants to reunite with Johnny.

Culture Audience: “Carol & Johnny” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about true crime and dysfunctional couples.

An archival photo of Carol Williams in “Carol & Johnny”

The absorbing true crime documentary “Carol & Johnny” keeps viewers guessing until the very end if two estranged spouses, who went on a bank robbery spree, will reunite after the husband gets out of prison. It’s a story that isn’t just about their crime spree, because the movie raises provocative questions about forgiveness and if ex-convicts can be redeemed after getting out of prison. Directed by Colin Barnicle, “Carol & Johnny” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The two people at the center of the movie are Carolyn Marie “Carol” Williams and John Madison “Johnny” Williams Jr., who robbed 56 banks in Texas, California and Washington state, from 1986 to 1994, the year that they were arrested. It’s believed that the stolen money from these robberies totaled $879,357. At the time of their arrest, Carol was 34, and Johnny was 43. They have been married since 1979, and they have no children together. Carol and Johnny were both convicted and sent to prison for 27 of the 56 robberies. The other robberies were past the statute of limitations to be prosecuted.

Carol (who was born in 1960) got a lighter prison sentence of 20 years, because she was just the getaway driver in these robberies. Carol was released from prison in 2011. Johnny (who was born in 1951) was the one in this bank-robbing duo who actually went into the banks for the armed robberies, so he was sentenced to 92 years in prison. However, he got an extremely lucky break and was released in 2021, because his health issues put him at a more likely risk of getting infected by COVID-19. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s probable that Johnny would have spent the rest of his life in prison.

The filmmakers of “Carol & Johnny” wisely chose to interview only a small number of people for the documentary: Carol, Johnny, Helen Williams (Johnny’s stepmother), Cindy Hawkins (Carol’s sister) and former FBI agent Don Glasser, who worked in the Seattle area during the period of time that Johnny and Carol went on their crime sprees. The reason why it was necessary for the documentary to avoid being overstuffed with too many talking heads is because too many other people being interviewed would have been distractions to the “he said/she said” way that the movie is structured. Glasser, Hawkins and Johnny’s stepmother Helen provide their own perspectives, but the two people who inspired the title of this documentary are the main focus and get most of the screen time.

The beginning of “Carol & Johnny” (which was filmed in 2021) shows Johnny living in Seattle, not long after he has been released from prison. His entire family has disowned him. His stepmother Helen doesn’t mince words when she talks about Johnny: “He’s spent his whole life with his hand out, wanting something.” She adds that “he’s not welcome” in her home.

The movie shows Johnny living in a halfway house for ex-convicts called Pioneer Fellowship House. Just like any halfway house for former prisoners, Pioneer Fellowship House has strict rules for the residents, such as curfews and not doing anything that would violate their paroles. During a documentary interview, Johnny gets a phone call from his parole officer (a woman named Jennifer) and he’s seen briefly talking with her on the phone.

In a documentary interview, Johnny comments on his life out of prison: “I’m trying to put my life together. I’ve been separated from society for so long.” Johnny is still learning how to use a cell phone. He also mentions that he wants to go to a vocational school for computer technology. Considering that he has a prison record for felonies, he has health problems, and he’s at an age when most people have retired, Johnny is going to have major obstacles if he plans to look for a job.

He knows it too, which is why his experience of life after prison is much more difficult than an ex-con who is still young enough to have a better chance of being employed. Someone like Johnny might be less motivated to find a job with all these odds stacked against him. But does that mean he’ll return to a life of crime? It’s a question that will linger in a lot of people’s minds when watching this movie. When “Carol & Johnny” director Barnicle (who’s not seen on camera) asks Johnny if he’ll ever rob a bank again, Johnny has this response: “Oh, fuck no!”

As for Carol, the beginning of the documentary shows her living in her Texas hometown of Dallas and being a live-in caretaker for her 93-year-old aunt, who has dementia. Carol is living rent-free in her aunt’s home, but Carol would rather have her own home. She also says that she doesn’t like living in Dallas. But just like Johnny, Carol is considered “unemployable” by a lot of people. It’s implied that Carol and her aunt are living off of government benefits, including disability income.

That’s because Carol, whose nickname was Mad Dog when she was in prison, got a brain injury as a prisoner. As she explains it, she was given too much water to drink in prison. Water intoxication (also known as hyponatremia) results in low sodium levels in the body. Carol says the prison treated this condition by giving her sodium, but the sodium levels were too high, which resulted in her brain injury.

Carol’s hesitant and stuttering speech patterns are indicative of someone with a brain injury, but she is still articulate enough to formulate her thoughts and communicate. She also has vivid memories of her time with Johnny, whom she hasn’t seen in person since 1995. What’s interesting is how Carol and Johnny clearly remember dates, places and times of milestones in their relationship.

When an estranged couple has spent decades living apart from each other, those memories usually tend to fade. But not for Johnny and Carol. Johnny remembers the last time he saw Carol in person was January 20, 1995, before they were sent to their respective prisons. “There wasn’t much to say,” Johnny remembers. “I just told her that I loved her and that I was sorry.”

For most of the documentary, Johnny and Carol act like a couple whose relationship was put on “pause” because of the time they spent in prison. They are still legally married. And the reason why they haven’t gotten divorced becomes obvious after seeing this movie: They say that they still love each other. Now that he’s out of prison, Johnny wants to get back together with Carol, but she isn’t sure if she wants the same thing.

In the beginning of the documentary, Carol says, “I love John. That will make some people angry, but I can’t help how they feel. I’m not responsible for anyone’s feelings but my own.” In other parts of the documentary, the filmmakers show Carol and Johnny photos of what Johnny and Carol currently look like. Carol’s reaction: “He looks much older, but so do I. Does he still cry a lot?” Johnny does cry a little in the documentary, but is he crying for himself or for Carol?

Carol says she wasn’t prepared for Johnny to ever be released from prison. She never visited him in the 10 years when she was out of prison and he was still incarcerated. She doesn’t want to visit him where he’s living in Washington state. She expects him to come visit her in Texas. Will Johnny do it? And why does Carol insist that Johnny go to her?

It’s not really said out loud, but viewers can see it has a lot to do with the dynamics of their relationship before they went to prison: Johnny was the pursuer, the one to take the lead, the one to come up with all the ideas and plans on how their lives would be. Carol wasn’t completely passive in their marriage. In the documentary, she says several times that she takes full responsibility for her own decisions and her own actions.

However, as Johnny and Carol tell their stories about their respective childhoods, and how they met, fell in love, and got married, it explains a lot about how they ended up in a relationship that turned out to be unhealthy and dangerous for both of them. It’s almost a cliché of a “good girl” who fell hard for a “bad boy.” But there’s more to it than that.

It has a lot to do with how childhood abuse can have long-lasting effects on someone’s self-esteem and the choices they can make in life. It also has to do with how people can meet each other, fall in love, and make completely different choices about the relationship, depending on what stage of life they’re in and what they want to get out of the relationship. All of these factors are part of Carol’s and Johnny’s life stories.

Johnny remembers the day that he met Carol was August 8, 1979. Carol says they met in Dallas, at the apartment that Carol’s sister shared with a boyfriend, who was a friend of Johnny’s. Johnny describes this fateful meeting with Carol: “I was 11 months out of prison, and she was 15 months out of high school. And it was like being turned loose in a candy story as a kid. It was fantastic.”

At 28 years old in 1979, Johnny was by, his own admission, a thief since childhood. When he met Carol, he was on parole for armed robbery of a convenience store. Carol knew all of that soon after meeting Johnny, and they quickly began dating each other. Her parents disapproved of the relationship.

Carol says of her relationship with Johnny at that time: “I was happy.” But there’s more to the story. Carol describes having a domineering mother who repeatedly told Carol that she “wouldn’t amount to anything.” Johnny says that when he and Carol eloped, it had a lot do with Carol wanting to get away from Dallas. The elopement was the first time that Carol really defied her mother.

Carol’s sister says of Carol’s decision to marry Johnny: “She could’ve done a hell of a lot better—trust me—but she had no self-confidence.” Carol says of her parents’ feelings about Johnny: “They learned to love him, until all that ‘other’ happened.” That “other” was the life of crime where Carol willingly followed Johnny.

Johnny’s childhood was much more chaotic than Carol’s childhood. Johnny was born in Waukegan, Illinois, and his mother gave him up to live in a Catholic group home when he was 5 months old. His maternal grandmother and her second husband then took custody of him in California and raised him in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Johnny barely knew his father, whom he describes as a deadbeat dad and a gambling addict.

“I was raised by old people,” says Johnny. “They believed in whippings and retribution.” His maternal grandmother’s second husband was named Claude Havens, who was an ex-deputy sheriff. “He was a salty cuss, and he wore me out with a razor strap,” Johnny remembers. “I always got whipped for stealing, but I kept on doing it.”

Johnny’s grandmother and her second husband got so fed up with raising Johnny, they sent him to live with the grandmother’s ex-husband. Things weren’t much better in this living situation. Carol has this to say about how Johnny’s abusive childhood had this effect on him: “He was numb to sensitivity to other people’s feelings.”

It sounds a lot like being a sociopath. And when you hear about the highly manipulative things that Johnny did to get Carol to do what he wanted, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to reach that conclusion. Carol says that during their marriage, before they got arrested, “I was completely under his spell.” She also says that Johnny frequently got his way with her because he threatened to hurt her family if she ever left him.

These threats made Carol feel a warped sense of loyalty to Johnny. She explains her mindset at the time: “Protect my husband. Protect my spouse. That was my man, so that was my mission.”

In 1981, Johnny and Carol were working as independent carpet cleaners. In 1983, Johnny fell asleep behind the wheel of his truck, crashed it, and fractured his skull. After this accident, the couple couldn’t pay the rent where they lived. And it wasn’t long before Johnny decided to go back to stealing to get money.

In October 1985, he went to a library to read books about bank robberies. On April 3, 1986, the bank robbery spree began in Plano, Texas, with a robbery haul of $10,000. But there was a dye pack in the cash. The duo’s next bank robbery also had a dye pack in the stolen haul. By the third bank robbery, Johnny shot a bank manager, who fortunately survived. Johnny says the shooting was an “accident.” In 1987, during a bank robbery in Solano, Beach, California, he shot near a bank manager intentionally when she wasn’t moving quickly enough for him.

Carol says of the partnership that she and Johnny had in their crimes: “He’s the star. I’m just the associate. I was a damn good getaway driver.” Johnny and Carol got away with these bank robberies so easily, it became addicting to them. Johnny and Carol could steal more cash in a few minutes than what most people could make in a few months of doing honest work. Carol and Johnny eventually left Texas and moved to California. They decided early on in their crime spree that they wouldn’t rob banks that were very close to where they lived.

In their documentary interviews, Johnny and Carol say that they believe that they got away with their bank robbery spree for so long because they didn’t leave fingerprints at the crime scenes, because they meticulously planned everything, and because of Johnny’s signature bank robbery move of shooting his gun in the air immediately when he was in the bank. By shooting the gun right away, frightened potential witnesses would be more likely to avoid looking at the bank robber during the robbery, out of fear of getting shot.

The detailed planning included choosing banks that weren’t in crowded areas, finding out what time of day was the least-busiest when the targeted bank was open, and calculating the exact time each possible scenario would take to rob the bank and get away. Carol says that they always preferred a bank where the getaway car could be parked in a place nearby that was as hidden as possible, to make it less likely that any witnesses could describe the car. In the documentary, Carol describes each bank robbery as a “job” that she and Johnny took as seriously as a real job.

Because of Johnny’s tactic of scaring potential witnesses and averting their eyes by shooting a gun in the air as soon as the robbery started, witness descriptions of him varied wildly in the first few years of the robbery sprees. There were some images of him captured on surveillance cameras during robberies, but these images were often blurry, and he always disguised himself. The media came up with different nicknames for him, including the Bang Bandit, the Shootist, the Bang Man and the Lincoln Bandit.

As outlaws, Carol and Johnny used the stolen money to travel a lot, gamble, and dine in upscale restaurants. Carol says that before becoming a bank robber, “I never traveled very much.” She comments on all the vacation trips that she took: “It was fun. It was a learning experience.” She later says of this life of leisure funded by stolen money: “I got spoiled.”

During one of their vacations, Carol and Johnny went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico. It’s against the law to steal any of the white sand in the park, but chronic thief Johnny wanted to steal some sand anyway. Carol says she remembers feeling very nervous about stealing the sand. “It was against the law!” she says with horror. Oh, the irony.

And during this period of time of being an outlaw, Johnny actually made money by entering bowling tournaments. He created a fake identity for his life as a competitive bowler: Robert James Hall. If people asked Carol and Johnny where they were getting the money for their lavish spending, they would say it was through the bowling tournaments. And sometimes, Johnny would say to certain people that he was a drug dealer. Johnny’s stepmother Helen says, “We knew he was up to something, but we never dreamed it was robbing banks.”

The good times for Carol and Johnny didn’t last forever. By 1994, Carol says she was ready to quit robbing banks, but Johnny didn’t want to stop. And he got careless with his double life as a bowler. Someone called in a tip to law enforcement about Johnny using a fake name for his bowling tournaments. And that’s what led to him getting on the radar of law enforcement and his eventual arrest.

It’s not mentioned in the “Carol & Johnny” documentary, but according to a New York Post interview, Johnny says that the informant was a former acquaintance named Bob. According to Johnny, Bob was in talks with Johnny to do a home invasion of a bank manager’s home. The idea was to force the bank manager to give up security information that Johnny could use while robbing the manager’s bank. The plan for the home invasion fell through. Johnny says that Bob then turned on Johnny by telling law enforcement about Johnny’s secret life as a bank robber.

As one of the FBI agents involved in the investigation, Glasser comments, “I felt like I was a lucky guy to have that case.” Johnny and Carol were put under surveillance. Glasser says that Johnny and Carol were arrested without incident at a motel in Bothell, Washington, where they were staying after a bank robbery in Kirkland, Washington. Carol and Johnny paid for the motel room with a credit card with Johnny’s real name, which is how law enforcement found them. Once in custody, “Johnny confessed immediately” to the bank robberies, says Glasser.

Johnny and Carol don’t talk too much in the documentary about what their lives were like in prison. Instead, the biggest question that the documentary asks and what viewers will want to know is: “Will Carol and Johnny get back together?” There are a few twists and revelations in the movie, but they’re not too surprising. What makes “Carol & Johnny” fascinating to watch is it will also make viewers ask another question: “Should Carol and Johnny get back together?”

Review: ‘Cherry’ (2022), starring Alex Trewhitt

June 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alex Trewhitt in “Cherry” (Photo by Damien Steck)

“Cherry” (2022)

Directed by Sophie Galibert

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angelesthe comedy/drama film “Cherry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 25-year-old woman, who is drifting in life and has problems keeping a job, finds out she’s 10 weeks pregnant, and she only has about one day to decide what to do about this unplanned pregnancy. 

Culture Audience: “Cherry” will appeal primarily to people interested in an intimate and well-acted portrait about a woman who has to come terms with her views on family planning and what she wants to do with her life.

Alex Trewhitt in “Cherry” (Photo by Damien Steck)

With a realistic mix of drama and some comedy, “Cherry” presents a memorable portrait of a 25-year-old woman who has just one day to decide what to do about an unplanned pregnancy. As the movie’s title character, Alex Trewhitt gives a captivating performance. “Cherry” tells Cherry’s story without judgment but with plenty of charm and emotional authenticity.

Sophie Galibert directed “Cherry” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Arthur Cohen. “Cherry” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Online Premieres, a category of movies that the festival only made available through the festival’s Tribeca at Home online programming. It’s more than a movie about an unplanned pregnancy. It’s also a movie about how this unplanned pregnancy has made Cherry rethink her personal relationships and what she wants to do with her life.

The beginning of the movie, which takes place in Los Angeles, shows Cherry roller skating around the city in a seemingly carefree way. At this point, Cherry doesn’t know yet how much her life will soon change within a few hours. Cherry isn’t roller skating just for fun. She’s financially broke and doesn’t have a car. Roller skating is the cheapest form of transportation that she currently has.

Early in the movie, Cherry is shown going to her job at a place called the Polka Dots Costume Shop, where she works part-time as a sales clerk. Some of her work at this costume shop also includes doing magic tricks for customers and occasionally handing out balloons. Her boss Roger (played by Joe Sachem), who owns and manages the store, is usually easygoing. But on this day when she arrives at work, he tells Cherry that’s he’s had enough of her chronic tardiness. “One more fuck-up, and you’re done,” Roger warns.

It’s the first sign in the movie that Cherry has a tendency to be flaky and irresponsible. Conversations that happen later in the story reveal that Cherry has a long history of drifting from job to job. She also does not have any life goals or plans. However, she has to think about what direction her life will take when she goes into the store’s restroom to take a pregnancy test. It’s how she finds out that she’s pregnant. Cherry doesn’t have much time to let this revelation sink in because she has to start her work shift.

Outside the store, Cherry is doing some store promotion for people passing by on the street. She does some magic tricks and balloon designs, in a way that that’s similar to what a hired clown would do at a children’s party. Two people who stop by are a preoccupied-looking woman (played by Samantha Barrios) and her son, who’s looks to be about 8 or 9 years old.

The woman asks Cherry to entertain her son while she quickly goes in the store. Cherry makes a balloon gift for the boy. Cherry says the balloon is supposed to be a make-believe sword, but it looks a lot like a penis. The boy notices it too and runs into the store with the balloon to tell his mother, who gets very upset. Roger fires Cherry immediately.

With no job and still reeling from the shock of finding out that she’s pregnant, Cherry (who does not have any health insurance) goes to a local health clinic to get another pregnancy test done. It’s a Saturday, which is a day when the clinic will see people by appointment only. Cherry shows up as the clinic is about to close, but through some persistence and begging, she’s able to see a doctor without an appointment.

The only doctor who’s on duty at the clinic is Dr. Amalia Garcia-Ortega (played by Sandy Duarte), who is, just by coincidence, about eight or nine months pregnant. After Cherry takes another pregnancy test, Dr. Garcia-Ortega (who is compassionate and patient) confirms that Cherry is pregnant. The doctor also tells Cherry that Cherry is 10 weeks into her pregnancy and will soon reach 11 weeks. How soon? In a few days.

In California, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. But because Cherry doesn’t have health insurance, her options on where to get an abortion are limited. She will most likely have to rely on a low-cost clinic, such as the one she’s at now. Dr. Garcia-Ortega does not tell Cherry what to do about the pregnancy.

Instead, the doctor gives Cherry all of the options and tells Cherry that it will be Cherry’s choice on what to do. If Cherry chooses to terminate the pregnancy, the clinic offers a lower price ($500) if the abortion is up to the 11th week of pregnancy. Any abortion between the 11th and 24th week of pregnancy will cost more money than Cherry can afford.

While Cherry is absorbing this information, she asks to have an ultrasound, so that she can see and hear what’s inside her uterus. This ultrasound seems to have an impact on Cherry, as if she’s shaken by the reality that she has a tremendous decision to make. The rest of “Cherry” is about her making this very important decision that could change her life. The clinic is closed on Sundays, and will re-open on Monday, which Dr. Garcia-Ortega says will be the last day before Cherry is technically 11 weeks pregnant.

The father of the child is Cherry’s live-in boyfriend Nick (played by Dan Schultz), who is a musician in a band and a part-time event DJ. Some of his DJ work is at a local roller skating rink where Cherry likes to hang out. It’s never stated exactly how long Cherry and Nick have been together, but some of the movie’s conversations hint that Cherry and Nick have been a couple for less than a year.

Cherry and Nick live in a three-bedroom apartment with “four guys who smoke a lot of pot,” according to a comment that Cherry makes. If Cherry chooses to have this child, she doesn’t want to raise a child in this environment. Nick’s father was an aspiring musician who gave up his music career to raise a family. It’s something that’s brought up in the conversation when Nick finds out that Cherry is pregnant.

The movie never shows Cherry in the place where she lives. Instead, she goes to several other places during the 24-hour period when she makes her decision. When she tells Nick that she’s pregnant, it’s while he’s at a roller skating rink during his shift as a DJ. His reaction might or might not influence Cherry’s decision.

Cherry also visits some other people who have had an impact on her life, including a group of about four or five women called the L.A. Roller Girls, who are hired for events and have big plans to tour. Cherry used to be a member of this group but stopped going to L.A. Roller Girls rehearsals. She hasn’t recently stayed in touch with the group’s members, so they assume that she lost interest in the L.A. Roller Girls.

Ironically, the Sunday that Cherry has to make her big decision is on Mother’s Day. An enlightening part of the movie is when Cherry has a Mother’s Day brunch with her older sister Anna (played by Hannah Alline) and their divorced mother Carla (played by Angela Nicholas), who is worried about Cherry having such an aimless life. This scene with the Mother’s Day brunch gives a lot of insight into the dynamics of Cherry’s family.

Anna, who is a trial attorney, is married and has been unsuccessfully trying with her husband Jeffrey (who’s not in the movie) to get pregnant. Carla and her ex-husband Bob (played by Charlie S. Jensen) have been divorced for years, but the pain of the divorce still lingers. It’s eventually revealed that although Bob was a good provider for the family, Cherry thinks that Bob wasn’t emotionally available as a family man, and it bothers Cherry that he doesn’t call her. It might or might not explain why Cherry seems unable to commit to anything, but it definitely shows she has some “daddy issues.”

To a lesser degree, Cherry is also insecure about Anna being considered the overachieving “golden child” of the family, while Cherry thinks she’s perceived as the unreliable screw-up of the family. Through bits and pieces of conversations during this Mother’s Day brunch, it’s revealed that Cherry has often gotten financial help from her mother Carla, who has gotten tired of Cherry being so indecisive about what Cherry wants to do with her life.

Later, in one of the movie’s best scenes, Cherry meets her father in the parking lot of an casual snack eatery. In the parking lot is a cherry red Volkswagen that’s owned by Cherry’s maternal grandmother, but Cherry sometimes borrows the car. The car has a dead battery, so Cherry has called Bob (who works as a security guard) to meet her in the parking lot while he’s on a lunch break, so that he can bring his car to give a battery jumpstart. Their conversation is realistically awkward, but it has an emotional resonance that is subtle yet impactful.

Throughout the movie, Trewhitt gives an immensely authentic portrayal of someone who suddenly has to make a momentous, life-changing decision. In movies where the protagonist has an unplanned pregnancy, there are usually a lot of melodramatic scenes or panicking, but Cherry is dealing with this decision in a way that doesn’t involve her breaking down in hysterics. She begins to understand she has the responsibility of making a decision that could affect her life in the long-term, when she has gotten accustomed to living her life “in the moment” and not thinking too much about her future.

“Cherry” also has incisive observations about how people often make parenting decisions based on how they were raised as children. A lot of Cherry’s fears and insecurities about being a “responsible” adult could be linked back to feeling like her life was shaken up because of her parents’ divorce. Children of divorce often have “abandonment” issues, especially if one of the divorced parents is more involved in raising a child than the other divorced parent.

What’s also effective about this movie is that it doesn’t present Cherry as a stereotypical plucky young heroine who’s supposed to be adored by everyone watching the movie. She has a friendly personality, but she’s the type of person who is unreliable and seems to want to avoid growing up. That doesn’t make her a bad person. It makes her a person who’s been indecisive and noncommittal about a lot things in her life. And she can’t be that way for this big decision about her pregnancy.

Through her conversations and interactions in the 24-hour period that she makes her big decision, Cherry starts to see how some of her own flaws and commitment-phobic ways have affected her relationships. Cherry has some resentment toward her father for not being the type of parent she wanted. However, she goes through some of her own self-analysis about how she might have let down people in her life too. Not everything is said out loud from the movie’s screenplay, which is why Trewhitt’s performance is stellar at conveying Cherry’s inner emotions and personal evaluation of her life.

A lot of movies about unplanned pregnancies want to make the subject matter sad and depressing, while other movies with the same subject matter want to turn the unplanned pregnancy into a comedic plot device. And other movies have an agenda to preach what decision should be made about an unplanned pregnancy. “Cherry” does none of that. Instead, this movie poignantly shows how in one 24-hour period, a woman’s decision about a pregnancy has made her re-evaluate her life and perhaps use that self-reflection to make changes for the better.

Review: ‘Music Pictures: New Orleans,’ starring Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr.

June 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Little Freddie King in “Music Pictures: New Orleans”

“Music Pictures: New Orleans”

Directed by Ben Chace

Culture Representation: The documentary “Music Pictures: New Orleans” (which was filmed in 2020 and 2021) features a racially diverse (African Americans and white people) group of music artists and people in the New Orleans music scene talking about Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr., who all participated in the documentary.

Culture Clash: Thomas, Jones, King and Marsalis were all in their 70s and 80s when this documentary was filmed, and they talk about the challenges they’ve faced in their personal and professional lives.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to fans of these artists, “Music Pictures: New Orleans” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of New Orleans music and documentaries that celebrate music artists who were influential to countless numbers of people.

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” is not a definitive or impactful documentary about the New Orleans music scene. However, it’s a pleasantly entertaining, early 2020s snapshot of four influential artists in blues and jazz. These four artists are Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr., who all participated in the documentary, which was filmed from January 2020 to April 2021. Marsalis died from COVID-19-related pneumonia on April 1, 2020. He was 85.

Directed by Ben Chace, “Music Picture: New Orleans” (which clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes for its total running time) has a straightforward format of giving each artist profile a separate chapter. “Part 1: The Soul Queen” spotlights blues singer Thomas. “Part 2: The Heartbeat of the Band” focuses on jazz musician Jones, the leader and snare drummer of the Treme Brass Band. “Part 3: Last King of the Blues” centers on blues singer/guitarist King. “Part 4: Modern Men” showcases jazz icon Marsalis. All of these artists have been vital to the New Orleans music scene and influential in their own ways to many people around the world.

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) has some archival photos and archival footage of these artists, but the vast majority of the screen time consists of just documenting these four artists’ lives as music performers during the time that the documentary was filmed. Expect to see footage of them in recording studios or on stage, but don’t expect a lot of insight into their personal lives that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere. The movie is an easy watch, but it’s not particularly revealing.

Thomas (born in 1941) is shown recording songs for an album that has not yet been released, as of this writing. This album will be her first album of new recordings since 2008’s “Simply Grand.” Her “Full Time Woman – The Lost Cotillion Album” (released in 2014) was an album that she originally recorded in the early 1970s.

One of the songs she sings in the recording studio is “Don’t Go to Strangers,” which was the title track to Etta James’ 1960 album. Conga player Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and pianist Kyle Roussel are two of the musicians in the recording studio with her. Thomas is confident and relaxed in the studio, but she does say out loud that she’s very aware that this will be the first album she’s making in several years.

Thomas talks a little but about how she got started in the music business. When she was a teenage waitress, she got fired for singing on the job. Her boss was also a racist because he told her that he didn’t like her singing music from black people, and he used the “n” word racial slur. Thomas went from being fired from that waitress job to becoming a professional singer. Her first single, “Don’t Mess With My Man,” released in 1959, was a hit on the R&B charts.

She opens up about a few low points in her career, including being ripped off by a manager, whom she parted ways with in the 1970s. Her next manager was Emile Jackson, who also became her third husband. The couple got married in 1976. She jokes about her partnership with Jackson: “I found it cheaper to keep him. And I don’t want to train another one.”

Jackson is briefly interviewed in the documentary. He remembers the first time he met Thomas: “I didn’t know who she was.” At the time, Thomas had split from her unscrupulous manager and wasn’t actively looking for another manager. However, she says in the documentary that she told Jackson: “You can be my manager. And what you don’t know, we can learn together. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.”

The documentary’s segment on Jones (who was born in 1943) is perhaps the least interesting of the four, mainly because he doesn’t give much insight into himself and his career. Jones’ part of the documentary mainly shows him performing with his band. While playing music in a small nightclub, Jones says generic things, such as: “When I see people dancing, and I see a smile on their face, that makes my work much easier.”

King (born in 1940) has the liveliest personality out of the four artists. He’s quite the raconteur, as he tells stories about his life. He talks about how he was shot by his wife Amy (before they were married) with a .357 Magnum that he kept hidden in his garden. Despite this shooting incident, he married her anyway.

King’s segment also shows him performing at a nightclub and in the recording studio. Songs he performs include “Bad News,” “Mean Little Woman” and “Pocketful of Money.” Some of King’s associates are also interviewed, such as drummer/manager “Wacko” Wade Wright and harmonica player Bobby Lewis. Not surprisingly, they praise King for his talented musicianship and his resilience during tough times.

Although he is originally from Mississippi, King considers New Orleans to be his true home. As far as King is concerned, he thinks the most authentic blues artists are those who’ve experienced real struggles. King comments in the documentary: “The young don’t know what the blues is, because they didn’t live the blues, and they didn’t go through hard tribulations and hard times.”

This comment is a little dismissive of the fact that people of any age can go through hardships. Maybe he meant that young people in America didn’t have to grow up in an era when racial segregation was legal and enforced. It’s why this documentary probably needed an interviewer asking more probing questions. Some of of King’s commentary tends to ramble, so the documentary needed better editing for this segment.

Knowing that he has passed away, viewers will probably be the most moved by the documentary’s segment on Ellis Marsalis Jr., who is shown recording music with his son Jason Marsalis. (Ellis is on piano, while Jason is on xylophone.) Some of these recording sessions ended up on Ellis’ final studio album, “Discipline Meets the Family,” which was released in 2021. Jason’s daughter Marley (who was 15 at the time), who played piano on the album, is also in the documentary during these studio sessions. She is not interviewed and doesn’t say much.

The documentary also has footage of Ellis as a guest performer during a show that Jason headlined at the Snug Harbor nightclub in New Orleans. In a voiceover, Jason says of the footage in the documentary, “What I didn’t know at the time was that was going to be his last session and one of the last times we would play together.” Jason adds that he’s grateful these moments were recorded and that he collaborated with his father for Ellis’ last album.

The Marsalis family is the most famous jazz family from New Orleans. Ellis’ musician children (who are all sons) are Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason, Ellis III and Mboya Kenyatta. In the documentary, Ellis Jr. makes this admission, which might surprise some people: “I never wanted a family band.” It’s one of the reasons why Ellis Jr. would perform with most of his sons on special occasions, such as Jazz Fest, but not do albums and tours with the entire family.

If Ellis Jr. did collaborate with any of his sons in the recording studio, it was with one or a few of the sons at a time. Ellis Jr. comments on Wynton, the most famous Marsalis family member: “For me, to be in Wynton’s band is to date it, because what I learned is much earlier, and Wynton is still in a state of evolution.” Ellis Jr. offers this observation of Jason: “From [his] very, very young years, there were very few things that he heard that he didn’t have an appreciation for.”

Watching three generations of the Marsalis family in the recording studio is an undoubtable highlight of “Music Pictures: New Orleans.” And the movie certainly does touch on some of the struggles that these musicians faced in their lives. What’s missing from this very male-dominated documentary is any acknowledgement or exploration of how sexism affected who got the most and the best opportunities in the music industry when these artists were in their heyday. The fact that Thomas is the only woman interviewed in the documentary is a clear example of how women are often overlooked and sidelined as important parts of the music industry.

As for how the New Orleans music scene has changed over the years, the documentary includes some commentary about it, but none of it is particuarly new or revealing. The artists who comment on changes in New Orleans mainly mention Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the New Orleans area in 2005. Thomas says Hurricane Katrina “changed everybody.”

Jones also comments on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans real estate market: “After Katrina, people with money were buying property” and charging rent that was “sky-high.” And so, many of the people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina who “want to come back can’t afford it, probably.”

According to Jones, the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans is still recovering from an exodus of artistic people who relocated because of Hurricane Katrina. He comments, “The music is back, but delivered in a different way, in a different neighborhood.”

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” keeps the focus solidly on these artists, but the documentary could have used some perspectives from other people besides a few of the artists’ family members or employee associates. “Music Pictures: New Orleans” will delight fans of these artists, but casual music fans might not think this movie is essential viewing. As far as documentaries about New Orleans music artists go, “Music Picture: New Orleans” is like a select buffet that’s satisfactory, but it’s not a full-course feast that people will be raving about for days.

Review: ‘Woman on the Roof,’ starring Dorota Pomykała

June 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dorota Pomykała (pictured at far right) in “Woman on the Roof” (Photo by Ita Zbroniec-Zajt)

“Woman on the Roof”

Directed by Anna Jadowska

Polish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2021, in an unnamed city in Poland, dramatic film “Woman on the Roof” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 60-year-old woman’s financial problems and depression lead her to commit a desperate crime that sends her life on a further downward spiral. 

Culture Audience: “Woman on the Roof” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching raw and realistic dramas that depict how mental health can affect how people cope with problems.

Dorota Pomykała and Bogdan Koca in “Woman on the Roof” (Photo by Ita Zbroniec-Zajt)

“Woman on the Roof” shows in stark and unflinching ways what can happen when people with mental health issues can suffer even more from neglect and denial. Dorota Pomykała gives a haunting portrayal of someone trapped in an emotional quicksand of desperation. This drama is an effective portrait of how depression can be stifling and often misunderstood. “Woman on the Roof” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where Pomykała won the prize for Best Performance in an International Narrative Feature.

Written and directed by Anna Jadowska, “Woman on the Roof” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Poland) shows right from the movie’s opening scene that 60-year-old Miosława “Mira” Napieralska (played by Pomykała) is very troubled. After doing some laundry, Mira is seen going up to the roof of her apartment building. She then goes to the edge of the roof, as the camera shows a close-up of her feet. It looks like she’s about to jump.

The movie then abruptly cuts away and begins showing what led up to this apparently suicidal moment. Most of “Woman on the Roof” consists of these flashback scenes to explain why Mira has felt so alone and desperate, she apparently wants to kill herself. The information is revealed in bits and pieces, like parts of a puzzle. Mira is very introverted and quiet, so many scenes in this movie have no dialogue when Mira is by herself. Whatever thoughts she’s having in these moments of solitude and isolation might only be indicated by her facial expressions or body language.

Mira’s living situation is an example of how someone can be with other people but still feel lonely. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband Julek Napieralska (played by Bogdan Koca), who calls her Mirka. Their adult son Mariusz Napieralska (played by Adam Bobik) lives with them. It’s never stated or shown what Mariusz does for a living or how long he’s been living with his parents. Mariusz is very mild-mannered and stays out of his parents’ marital problems.

Mira and Julek have a marriage where the passion has left the relationship long ago. It’s later mentioned that it was Mira’s idea for her and Julek to start sleeping in separate bedrooms for an untold number of years. Julek and Mira live like roommates who aren’t particularly interested in each other any more. Mira works as a midwife in a hospital maternity ward, but she doesn’t seem to have any passion for her work either. Mira is not close to any of her co-workers, and she has no friends.

On the afternoon of July 26, 2021, after buying some fish food at an aquarium store, Mira commits a crime that will take her down a very dark road of humiliation and shame. She walks into a small bank and nervously tells the bank teller Elwira Piatek (played by Dominika Biernat), who’s the only employee on duty, to give money to Mira because she’s robbing the bank. At first, Elwira thinks it’s a joke.

But when Mira pulls a kitchen knife out of her purse, Elwira says that she’s going to call the police. Elwira is so much in shock that this seemingly harmless-looking older woman is robbing the bank, she gives Mira multiple chances to change her mind before Elwira calls the police. Mira seems to be in a panic though and won’t put the knife away, so Elwira calls the police to report an armed robbery in progress.

When it starts to sink in to Mira that the police will be there at any moment, Mira quickly flees the scene of the crime and eventually gets on a crowded bus to hide. When she arrives at home, Mira acts as if nothing happened. She keeps this secret to herself. But it won’t be a secret for long, because a day or two later, two investigating cops show up unannounced at her apartment door when Mira, Julek and Mariusz are at home. About two-thirds of the movie is about the aftermath of this police visit.

Press materials for “Woman on the Roof” mention that the movie is partially inspired by a real-life story of an elderly woman who committed a bank robbery. The real-life woman’s name, where she committed the crime and when the bank robbery happened are not mentioned in the press materials. As time goes on in “Woman on the Roof,” it’s obvious that the crime that Mira committed is a sympton of her larger problem of being depressed.

However, people around Mira misunderstand that depression is Mira’s core issue, and they only want to focus on the crime that she committed as Mira’s biggest problem. It turns out that Mira is in debt for 100,000 złotsys, which is about $22,597 in early 2020s U.S. dollars. But even if Mira had the money to pay back the debt, it wouldn’t erase her struggles with depression.

One of the more interesting aspects of “Woman on the Roof” is that even though it’s a film about a very dark subject, the movie’s cinematography (by Ita Zbroniec-Zajt) is awash in bright light, even indoors. At times, the lighting gives the appearance that’s similar to film photography that looks close to being overexposed. In addition, most of the people in this movie wear very light-colored clothing. For example, Mira wears a lot of white and light blue outfits.

Viewers can interpret these filmmaker creative choices in many ways. However, it seems to be writer/director Jadowska’s way of showing how even during this bright and sunny summer and even when Mira wears light-colored clothes, Mira’s problems are like a dark cloud that she can’t escape when her life starts to fall apart. She’s so down and depressed, viewers will feel the weight of it, even on a sunlit and clear day that might lighten someone else’s mood, but won’t lift Mira out of her emotional rut.

In a compelling way, “Woman on the Roof” also points out then even when someone gets therapy for a mental illness, it might not be enough if it’s the wrong type of therapy, or if the therapy ends too soon. “Woman on the Roof” is definitely not the movie to watch if you’re looking for upbeat entertainment with a guaranteed happy ending. But if you want to see a well-acted movie that shows a richly layered interior life of a woman who’s teetering on the edge of suicidal thoughts, then “Woman on the Roof” might provide better understanding and some compassion for people who are going through similar struggles.

Review: ‘Beba,’ starring Rebeca Huntt

June 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rebeca Huntt in “Beba” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Beba”

Directed by Rebeca Huntt

Culture Representation: The documentary “Beba” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, Latino and white) in director Rebeca Huntt’s autobiographical account of her life experiences as a young person.

Culture Clash: Huntt, who identifies as an Afro-Latina, talks about the prejudices she’s experienced in white-dominated environments, violence in her family, and her own personal flaws that have led to negativity in her life. 

Culture Audience: “Beba” will appeal primarily to people interested in a very personal and introspective documentary that tackles issues of race relations, social classes, domestic violence and self-identity.

Rebeca Huntt in “Beba” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

What does it say about a filmmaker when the first feature film directed by the filmmaker is essentially a documentary where the filmmaker talks about herself and her life? This choice and the end results often depend on who’s telling the story and how it’s told. In the case of “Beba” (the feature-film debut of director Rebeca Huntt), this unconventional autobiographical documentary comes close to being self-indulgent, but Huntt’s ability to point out her troubling personal flaws makes it a candid and fascinating story.

“Beba” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, and made the rounds at several other film festivals, including the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival and the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. “Beba” is a non-traditional documentary because the format has Huntt’s voiceover narration, with the movie’s visuals consisting mostly of photos and archival video footage from her life, with only a few interviews done specifically for the documentary. The only people interviewed are a few of Huntt’s family members and one of her former professors at Bard College.

“Beba” gets its title because it’s one of the nicknames that Huntt has had since her childhood. She says her other nicknames are Beca and Bebe. In the documentary, Huntt says that she was born in New York City on May 9, 1990. New York City is where she grew up with her parents (Juan and Veronica) and her two older siblings (Juan Carlos and Raquel).

According to Rebeca, her working-class parents, who met each other in New York City in the 1970s, “sacrificed everything” so that the family could have the prestigious street address of Central Park West, where they lived in a small one-bedroom apartment that was rent-controlled. Rebeca says half-jokingly that she and her siblings were “the poorest kids on Central Park West.” Her parents had the choice to rent a larger apartment, but it was in a less-safe neighborhood where they didn’t want the family to live.

In one of the early scenes in “Beba,” she explains why she took a first-person narrative for this documentary: “You are now entering my universe. I am the lens, the subject, the authority. As the product of the new world, violence is in my DNA. I carry an ancient pain that I struggle to understand. I use it to hurt those closest to me.”

She continues, “Every one of us inherits the curses of our ancestors, but we may put an end to the cycle by constantly going to war with ourselves. I’m watching the curses of my family slowly kill us, so I’m going to war. And there will be casualties. This cannot be our legacy.”

Rebeca also describes herself as “brave, stubborn, narcissistic and chronically cruel. Existing is to hold space for all of this.” This narration takes place within the first five minutes of “Beba.” And at this point so early in the movie, viewers will either be turned off or intrigued to find out more about this filmmaker who’s doing an autobiography where she will reveal unflattering and messy things about her life.

Rebeca’s comment about “going to war” isn’t about political issues. It’s about personal issues and the conflicts she has with herself, her family and other people. She explains why her family history is intertwined with who she is.

Her father’s side of the family is black and has roots in the Dominican Republic. When her paternal grandfather told people he wanted move from the Dominican Republic to the United States, he was laughed at for this idea because he was “poor and black.” At this time, it was 1965, the year of the Dominican Civil War. Rebeca’s father Juan told her vivid memories of his experiences during this period of civil unrest. When people (especially men and boys) walked outside, they had to walk with their hands up, to show that they were unarmed.

Rebeca’s paternal grandfather wanted a better life for his family. And so, in 1966 or 1967, he brought his family of nine people to New York City, where they settled in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, which has a large percentage of residents who are African American or immigrants. Rebeca describes her paternal grandfather as “illiterate” who was just as likely to be seen carrying sugar cane as he would be likely to be seen carrying a belt to whip his kids to discipline them.

Later in the movie, she talks about how domestic violence seems be an inherited curse in her family. Rebeca comments on her father, “I know him better than anyone, yet I have no idea where my father’s mannerisms come from. When I’m angry, I remind him of his father.”

Her mother’s side of the family has roots in Venezuela. Rebeca says that her mother Veronica grew up in Venezuela and studied at Pace University in New York City to escape from Veronica’s “glamorous” mother who had schizophrenia. Veronica settled permanently in New York City after meeting and marrying Juan, and their children often spent summers in Venezuela.

Growing up with parents of two different races came with its share of identity issues. Rebeca says that when she was a child, she once got into a fight with a Jamaican boy who said that Rebeca was black, and Rebeca denied it, because her mother taught her to identify only as Latin. In a documentary interview, Rebeca’s mother Veronica admits, “I’m a Latin person, and I raised my kids as a Latin person, because I don’t know anything else. I don’t know about being an American, white or black.”

The documentary also hints that Veronica could have some mental illness, since it’s revealed that Veronica used to hit herself with a belt instead of disciplining her kids. Rebeca describes her father as the parent who would get violent with his kids when disciplining Rebeca and her siblings. Rebeca says multiple times in the documentary that this domestic violence is a family curse.

Rebeca also says that she and her siblings would sometimes get violent with each other and other members of the family. Rebeca describes how her older sister Raquel once took a machete from a closet and swung it at her parents. Raquel also “[handed] me my first [marijuana] joint at age 10, to apologize for choking me until I can’t breathe.” Later in the documentary, Rebeca describes an incident where Rebeca (as an adult) choked her own mother during a vicious argument.

And there are more family feuds and dysfunction detailed in the documentary. Rebeca says, “If I am Daddy’s girl, and Juan Carlos is Mama’s boy, my sister falls into a neglected dimension I don’t even try to understand.” Rebeca then goes on to describe that Raquel graduated from boarding school but skipped college to “hop trains with junkies.”

According to Rebeca, Raquel’s life experiences include “agoraphobia, disability checks, solitary confinement, destruction and pathological lies. Now, she has two daughters of her own who will inherit our curses.”

Rebeca’s older brother Juan Carlos is also described as troubled. She shares a story of how the family went to Disney World on her seventh birthday, and she got into an argument with Juan Carlos. It was the last time that their father spoke to Juan Carlos. For the documentary, Rebeca’s father Juan still refuses to talk about Juan Carlos.

Rebeca also says for a period of two years, she and Juan Carlos stopped talking to each other. And there were feuds that Rebeca had with her mother. She says that her mother called her a “snitch.” In response, Rebeca reveals what she did at the time: “I [made] sure to call her at work the next day to tell her that she’s garbage.”

These days, Rebeca says that she and Juan Carlos are on speaking terms. However, their conversations seem to be very superficial. Rebeca says, “Juan Carlos only talks to me when a new Jay-Z album is out.”

Toward the end of the documentary, Rebeca shares what she thinks she inherited from her family’s history. On her mother’s side, Rebeca thinks she inherited “passion, resilience and crippling delusion.” On her father’s side, Rebeca thinks she inherited “courage, ambition, abuse and rage.”

But at what point should people stop blaming their parents or ancestors and take responsibility for their own lives and their own actions? It’s an existential question that seems to be a major struggle for Rebeca. She seems to want to stop the cycle of domestic violence in her family. But in the documentary, she doesn’t really say what she’s doing about it. For example, she doesn’t mention if she’s chosen to seek help through therapy or other resources.

Rebeca describes her childhood summer vacations in Venezuela (where she stayed with her mother’s relatives) as being an oasis from all the chaos she experienced at home in America. These vacations inspired her to see more of the world when she was an adult. As she says in the documentary: “I backpacked the world in search of what Venezuela gave me: freedom, unconditional love and a room of my own.”

In another childhood story, Rebeca mentions a community garden in Manhattan where she and her sister Raquel would spend time as children, but the only other people she used to see there were white. When she was a child, she found crack vials in the garden and brought them to school for an art project. She didn’t know what the crack vials were, and she got in trouble for bringing this drug paraphernalia to school. It confused her at the time because she didn’t think she did anything wrong.

In another story about her childhood school experiences, Rebeca says that when she was in fifth grade, the students had a class assignment to come to school dressed as a hero. Rebeca chose Harriet Tubman and went to school in a Harriet Tubman costume, using makeup to “make fake whip marks and broccoli to recreate a plantation.” She also brought Ken dolls with her to represent slave masters, while she had Barbie dolls and Ken dolls depicted as enslaved people. Whatever “Beba” viewers make of this story, it seems to be Rebeca’s way of saying that she had a bit of an iconoclastic streak in her at an early age.

Throughout the movie, Rebeca discusses how her identity was shaped by growing up in a working-class family of color but spending most of her education and social life in environments with mostly white people from more privileged backgrounds. It goes without saying that people who have to navigate being in very different environments often have to present themselves in different ways in order to fit in whatever environment where they want acceptance. And it’s impossible to escape from racism, no matter where people go in life.

In high school, Rebeca says she began to discover herself and what she wanted to do with her life. She says that it was through Maya Angelou’s writings that she first found out that the Afro-Latin identity exists. Rebeca also remembers that in high school, “Shakespeare lights my brain on fire, and not even the bulletproof windows in my high school can contain it.”

The way that Rebeca talks about Shakespeare in that comment makes her sound pretentious, but at least she’s honest about her tendency to be pretentious. This truthful self-awareness will either make viewers want to keep watching “Beba” or want to stop watching it. For all of her admitted flaws, Rebeca seems willing to bare her life in ways where she will undoubtedly get criticism. Too often, directors who narrate documentaries about themselves aren’t willing to show the worst sides of themselves.

“Beba” also shows a perspective that isn’t seen too often in documentaries: What it’s like for an Afro-Latina from a working-class background to attend a mostly white university or college where many of the students come from affluent backgrounds. At Bard College, Rebeca was hanging out with children of millionaires.

The friends she met through Bard College included Rumer Willis (daughter of movie stars Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) and Lola Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke), who had very different childhoods from the childhood that Rebeca experienced. “Beba” includes some footage of Rebeca, Rumer Willis and Lola Kirke hanging out somewhere outdoors and doing an acoustic performance of a song called “Cocaine Blues.”

Later in the movie, there’s a staged recreation of Rebeca and some of her unidentified white friends have a heated discussion about race and white supremacist racism. The two white men in the room seem to be the most uncomfortable when Rebeca talks about white privilege. She also makes this comment: “There is nothing honorable about trying to assimilate into a system that is designed to destroy you.” Rebeca might want to sound like Malcolm X, but there’s nothing in the movie that shows she’s an activist for civil rights. Talking is one thing. Doing is another.

Rebeca doesn’t spend a lot of the documentary’s screen time on her college friends, but she does interview a Bard College professor who made an impact on her because she was one of the few African American professors who was part of the Bard College faculty. In the movie, this professor is only identified by her first name (Annie), and she says she remembers advising Rebeca on how to conduct herself as a Bard student. Annie says that she told Rebeca that college wasn’t a utopia but a reflection of how the real world is, so she suggested to Rebeca to stop wearing belly shirts to class and start showing up on time. Later, Rebeca says that she decided to study for a semester in Ghana, in part to get more in touch with her African ancestry.

Rebeca also reveals some details about her love life. She says she lost her virginity at age 17 to an “asshole” who is not named in the movie. Later, when she was in her 20s, she had a volatile love affair with a bipolar man named Michael, who was around the same age and grew up in New York City’s Bronx borough.

In “Beba,” Rebeca bravely exposes a lot of her personal failings, emotions and struggles. Her narration is admirable for being unapologetic and not trying to be crowd-pleasing or contrived to make as many people like her as possible. What’s missing in the documentary is any clear sense of why she wanted to become a filmmaker.

Who or what inspired her the most in the cinematic arts? What types of movies does she want to make? What types of movies does she like to watch? Does she think she’ll be in it for the long haul, or is filmmaking something she’s dabbling in until something else comes along that interests her? These are questions that are never really answered in this documentary, which gives the impression that Rebeca wanted to do a lot of venting about her family rather than present a completely well-rounded self-portrait.

Perhaps at the time she made this documentary, Rebeca was still figuring out what she wants to do with her life. If she decides to do another autobiographical documentary, it will be interesting to see how much time has passed and how much she might have changed. If “Beba” is any indication, she has many more compelling things to say as a filmmaker and as a person.

Neon released “Beba” in select U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on July 26, 2022.

Review: ‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,’ starring the voice of Jenny Slate

June 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) and Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” (Image courtesy of A24)

“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”

Directed by Dean Fleischer Camp

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the animated/live-action film “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young male seashell and his grandmother, who are living by themselves in an Airbnb rental house after their other family members have gone missing, have to adjust to a new life when a documentary filmmaker moves into the house.

Culture Audience: “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky films that blend animation with live action.

Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) and Dean Fleischer Camp in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” (Image courtesy of A24)

“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” could have been an excessively cute film about tiny sea shells with human-like characteristics, but this unique movie is an offbeat charmer with an appealing mix of comedy and sentimentality about life and love. The movie has an artistic blend of live action and stop-motion animation that looks organic, not forced. And although there are some parts of the film that get repetitive and not all of the jokes land well, the positive aspects of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” far outnumber any of the movie’s small flaws. “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” had its world premiere at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals, including South by Southwest (SXSW), the Seattle International Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The origin story of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is self-referenced throughout the movie, which has a plot that’s similar to how the movie’s title character first became an international sensation. In real life, filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp and actress Jenny Slate did a series of short comedy videos called “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” beginning in 2010. In these videos, Slate voiced the character of Marcel, a talkative one-inch sea shell with one eye, human feet and a wryly observant and inquisitive view of life. Based on the way that Marcel talks, he has the intelligence and emotional maturity of a human boy who’s about 9 or 10 years old.

These videos about Marcel became a worldwide hit on the Internet and inspired children’s books written by Slate and Flesicher Camp. And now, there’s an entire movie about Marcel. The feature film “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” directed by Fleischer Camp (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Slate and Nick Paley) takes viewers on Marcel’s often-emotional journey to find his missing family members. Marcel lives in a middle-class house somewhere in Los Angeles, where the unmarried human couple named Larissa (played by Rosa Salazar) and Mark (played by Thomas Mann), who previously occupied the house, had a bitter breakup. The house is now being used as an Airbnb rental.

Marcel’s wise and practical grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) is Marcel’s only family member who hasn’t gone missing. Among the those who have gone missing in Marcel’s family (they are all one-eyed small shells with feet) are Marcel’s parents Mario and Connie and Marcel’s brother Justin. What bothers Marcel and Connie the most is that they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, and they have no idea where the other family members went. Marcel and Connie have photos and illustrations of their family members as visual mementos.

Marcel and Connie have a very close relationship. She often teaches Marcel things about life, often in answer to Marcel’s seemingly endless stream of questions. Connie and Marcel also love to watch “60 Minutes” together and are big fans of “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl. Marcel describes Connie as very independent and resourceful. For example, Marcel says that Connie taught herself how to farm. Connie also loves to garden and spends a lot of her time in the home’s garden.

At times, Marcel has a childlike wonder and curiosity about the modern world. Other times, he has a simple clarity about how to react to difficulties or problems because he doesn’t have as much emotional baggage or insecurity as someone who is an adult. Throughout the movie, there are whimsical moments and more serious moments where Marcel’s personality and quirks get various reactions to those around him.

In the beginning of the movie, Marcel says that he and Connie are living by themselves in the house, along with their pet lint named Alan. Their solitude ends when an Airbnb renter moves into the house with his white terrier mix dog named Arthur. He’s a mild-mannered filmmaker named Dean Fleischer-Camp (playing a version of himself), who needs a new place to stay because he has recently separated from his wife. In a case of art imitating life, Slate and Fleischer Camp (who used to spell his surname as Fleischer-Camp) got married in 2012 and then got divorced in 2016.

As expected, Marcel is curious about the house’s new human resident, and the feeling is mutual. It takes Marcel much longer to get used to Arthur, Dean’s dog, since Marcel is sometimes annoyed by how the dog smells and keeps interrupting Marcel like a curious and playful dog would do. Marcel shows Dean around the house, including the potted plant where Marcel sleeps on a slice of bread. Marcel describes where he sleeps as his “breadroom.”

Marcel might seem like a precocious child, but he doesn’t know a lot about modern technology. Dean tells Marcel that he’s making an online documentary. Marcel’s response is “Online? You lost me.” Eventually, Dean shows Marcel how the Internet works when Dean begins posting videos of Marcel online. The videos become an international sensation, with Marcel developing a huge fan base. (Sound familiar?)

Marcel is overwhelmed and often flabbergasted by all this newfound attention. However, he thinks it can be put to good use when he asks Dean to help get the word out about Marcel’s missing family members. You can easily predict which TV news show might get involved. Someone who doesn’t really want to get too caught up in the fanfare is Connie, who is very skeptical of the Internet and all modern technology.

The first third of “Marcel the Shell With the Shoes On” seems like a series of skits weaved together, with a lot of wisecracking remarks from Marcel, as he and Dean start to get to know each other and eventually become friends. The other two-thirds of the movie begin to have more substance when the story focuses more on the search for Marcel’s family members. The movie has themes of love, heartbreak and grief that are handled with sensitivity without being mawkish.

For example, Marcel begins to notice after a while that Dean is very curious about Marcel, but Dean is very reluctant to talk about himself. And it’s not just because Dean wants to be an journalistic documentarian. Dean is having difficulty processing the breakup of his marriage. Dean’s preoccupation with Marcel’s problems are a way for him to cope with or avoid his own personal problems.

The movie doesn’t fully show Dean on camera until a pivotal part of the story when he’s essentially forced to talk about himself. It’s a clever way that the movie has Dean “coming out of the shadows” that reflect his own willingness to be open up more about himself and show more vulnerability. Fleischer Camp gives a solid performance, but the character of Dean seems to know that Marcel is the real star of the show.

“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” has terrific voice work from Slate and Rossellini, who make an endearing and believable duo as a grandparent and grandchild. Connie isn’t a new character, but this movie is the first time that Connie gets her own backstory and story arc. Not everything in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is comedic, since the movie has some tearjerking moments that might catch some viewers by surprise. In a cinematic era when animated/live-action hybrid films are so focused on dazzling viewers with big adventures that are visual spectacles, it’s nice to have a movie like “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” that focuses more on everyday emotional connections and appreciating loved ones during life’s ups and downs.

A24 will release “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” in select U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,’ starring Rosa Parks, LisaGay Hamilton, Carolyn Williamson Green, Lonnie McCauley, Jeanne Theoharis, Georgette Norman and Keisha Nicole Blain

June 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rosa Parks at the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March in “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Peacock)

“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks”

Directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” features a nearly all-African American group (with one white person) of historians, activists, family members and associates discussing the life and legacy of civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

Culture Clash: Even though she was world-famous, Parks refused to profit from her fame, as she was sometimes disrespected within the civil rights movement because of her gender and her age. 

Culture Audience: “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a comprehensive documentary about an important public figure in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks at the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington in “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Peacock)

“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” follows a conventional documentary format, but it’s still a well-made biography that should be informative for people who know very little about civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” is based on author Jeanne Theoharis’ 2013 biography of the same title. Thoharis is one of the people interviewed in the movie. In the documentary, portions of Parks’ letters and memoir are read as narration by actress LisaGay Hamilton. “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.”

Unless someone is a Rosa Parks expert, people who watch “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” will find out something new about Parks that they didn’t already know. Parks is most famous for an act that is widely credited with sparking the racial civil rights movement in the United States: On December 1, 1955, when she was 42 years old, Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white man on a bus in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, and she was arrested for it.

This arrest happened during a shameful time in U.S. history when white supremacist racial segregation was legal. If white people and non-white people were gathered in the same space, such as on a bus, a white person could legally demand to make the non-white person move. During this Jim Crow racial segregation era, anyone who wasn’t white had to sit in designated seats in the back of the bus and could sometimes sit in the middle section of a bus, as long as white people allowed them to sit there. Parks’ act of standing up for herself and refusing to give in to a racist law inspired the U.S. civil rights movement to grow and move forward.

“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” tells Parks’ life story in mostly chronological order. However, the movie (which announces a pivotal year in big and bold letters that take up the entire screen) occasionally jumps around the timeline when it goes more in-depth about a certain landmark event in the civil rights movement, to put an emphasis on how this event related to Parks’ life. (Parks died in 2005, at the age of 92.) “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” has the expected mix of archival footage and new interviews that were done exclusively for the documentary.

Parks had a soft-spoken and unassuming way about her that endeared her to a lot of people. However, one of the myths that this documentary aims to dispel is that Parks’ humble image should not be mistaken for Parks being a passive people-pleaser. “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” makes it clear that she was all about disrupting anything to do with white supremacist racism. And far from being a pacifist, she believed that people of color needed to physically defend themselves and fight back if necessary.

The movie also explains how Parks had to come to terms with and overcome her own racism. Because of violent bullying that she experienced by white people in her youth, she spent much of her youth fearing and hating white people. It wasn’t until she got involved in the civil rights movement, when she saw how many white allies were willing to fight for the same causes, that Parks changed her views and came to understand that not all white people were “the enemy.”

Parks was born as Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913. Her early views on race relations were influenced by racism she experienced and hearing about the horrible treatment that her biracial maternal grandfather received throughout his life, when he wasn’t completely accepted by white people or black people. Her maternal grandfather Sylvester, who could pass for white, was the son of a white plantation owner named John Edwards and an enslaved African American woman who worked in the plantation owner’s house.

Both of Sylvester’s parents died when he was very young, so he was sent to live with African American relatives. Carolyn Williamson Green, a cousin of Parks, comments in the documentary on Sylvester: “He looked white, but he wasn’t afraid of white people” Williamson Green adds that because Sylvester was often harassed for being biracial, he passed on to his family a strong sense of not putting up with bad treatment from anyone. He kept a gun with him at all times and taught his family how to defend themselves.

Sylvester married a woman named Rose, and they both helped raise their grandchildren Rosa (the future Rosa Parks) and Sylvester when the kids’ parents split up. The elder Sylvester was the father of the children’s mother Leona (a teacher), who was married to a carpenter named James McCauley. By all accounts, Rosa was very protective of her younger brother Sylvester, although their relationship at times became strained later when they were adults.

In an era when African American kids weren’t expected to complete an education past sixth grade, Rosa’s mother Leona insisted that Rosa continue her education at a private school called Ms. White’s, which was an all-girls school for African Americans. The documentary mentions that this school had a tremendous impact on Rosa, because it further taught her not think of herself as inferior or set limits for herself because of her race. She graduated from high school during a time when most African Americans could not.

Georgette Norman, former director of the Rosa Parks Museum, says that Rosa knew from an early age that the racist Jim Crow laws (which were especially prevalent in the South) could only be changed when the oppressed fought back: “Rosa got the idea [of] ‘I want to change that what makes me have to need to be protected.’ White supremacy was the threat.”

Rosa met her future husband Raymond in 1931. By all accounts, he was the first political activist she ever met. And she wasn’t very attracted to him at first because he was a light-skinned black man who could pass for white. Rosa thought that the man she would marry would have much darker skin.

However, Raymond won over Rosa with his intelligence, compassion and willingness to treat her like an equal. The couple married in 1932 and had no children. After she became world-famous, people in the documentary say that Raymond didn’t mind being overshadowed by Rosa whenever they would go out in public together. It was through Raymond that Rosa got involved with the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the earliest national groups to spur the U.S. civil rights movement.

Rosa became a secretary for the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter by accident, when the regular secretary didn’t show up for the chapter’s election day, so Rosa was voted into the position instead. The documentary mentions that this secretary position was a catalyst that inspired Rosa to become a more outspoken activist. Along with other members of the NAACP, including NAACP Montgomery chapter chairman E.D. Nixon (one of Rosa’s early civil rights mentors), she helped fight for justice in many cases where African Americans were unjustly treated.

These cases included the Scottsboro Boys case where nine African American teenagers and young men who were falsely accused of raping by two white women 1931); Recy Taylor, a sharecropper’s wife who was gang raped by white men in 1944 in Abbeville, Alabama; and the brutal murder a Emmett Till, a 15-year-old boy who was viciously tortured, lynched and slaughtered after being accused of whistling at a white woman in Drew, Mississippi. One of the NAACP’s victories was helping in the defense of Joan Little, who was found not guilty of murder in the 1974 death of a white prison guard whom Little said she killed in self-defense when he tried to rape her.

In the case of rape survivor Taylor, whom Rosa had to interview for NAACP evidence testimony, Rosa was personally invested, because Rosa was also a victim of a sex crime. In a letter that Rosa wrote and is read in the documentary, she describes how she was nearly raped by a white man, who only stopped after Rosa told him that he would have to kill her if he was going to rape her. In other words, she warned him that she was prepared to fight to her death if he was going to try to violate her.

As historian Robin D.G. Kelley tells it: “One of the biggest myths in the Black Freedom movement is that non-violence is a default position. That’s not true. It’s the other way around. And Rosa Parks grew up in a movement culture where armed self-defense was simply taken for granted.”

Rev. James Watson, a former Detroit city council member, adds this comment: “Mother Parks supported self-defense. She couldn’t have been a supporter of the Republic of New Afrika had she not been. To her, there was no conflict in supporting Imari Obadele [Republic of New Africa president], Robert F. Williams and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom she loved. She saw that as the same line of freedom fighting. She was holistic in her approach to the right of all people to be free.”

Rosa was also heavily involved in the movement getting more black citizens registered to vote and acting on their right to vote. It wasn’t easy, when voter suppression based on race was not only blatant but also legal. Many people believe that legal voter suppression that targets mostly people of color still exists today. Rosa also led several NAACP Youth Council groups. Doris Crenshaw, Elaine Huffman and Rosalyn O. King—three interviewees in the documentary who were part of these youth groups—have nothing but praise for Rosa.

What many people might not know is that Rosa was not the first person the NAACP considered backing after being arrested for not giving up a bus seat for a white person. As has been reported elsewhere and repeated in the documentary, a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin, who was a member of a Rosa Parks-led NAACP youth group, was arrested for not sitting at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 5, 1955.

At first, the NAACP seemed to be willing to give major public support in Colvin’s defense. Ultimately, the NAACP declined to put its clout behind Colvin’s case. African American historian Keisha Nicole Blaine explains in the documentary: “At the age of 15, they did not think she would make a good witness, that she would not be reliable. Some people described her as being a bit rebellious and feisty. And Claudette Colvin was a dark-skinned black girl. There was colorism.”

Rosa fit the profile of what the NAACP needed as a symbol for the civil rights movement: She was a middle-aged, married woman who was well-respected in her community and looked non-threatening. It made her arrest look even more like racist bullying. She was already well-informed about peaceful ways to protest and to be an activist. And she was also an insider at the NAACP. Williamson Green adds, “Her quietness was her strength.”

Rosa was arrested during other civil rights protests, but her 1955 arrest for not giving up her bus seat was what catapulted her into the international spotlight. The arrest inspired the widespread bus boycotts in Alabama and other parts of the U.S. where racial segregation was still legal and enforced. The NAACP helped with planning and scheduling carpools that African Americans could take instead of public transportation that had racist segregation.

The boycotts spread to other racially segregated businesses and were instrumental in the progress on legislation that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. These successful boycotts are an example of how oppressors often don’t change their ways until they get hurt financially. Rosa and Raymond eventually settled in the Detroit area in the mid-1960s.

The documentary rightfully points out that even with all of Rosa’s accomplishments in the civil rights movement, Rosa and other women experienced prejudice within the movement. At civil rights protests and rallies in the 1950s and 1960s, women were rarely allowed to give speeches. And if they did get to say anything resembling a speech, their speech time was very limited, while the men were allowed to give long speeches.

Over the years, Rosa received many accolades, awards and honorary university degrees for her civil rights activism. For example, the U.S. Congress named her as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement.” She became a close ally of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who were both murdered at 39 years old. (King died in 1968, while Malcolm X died in 1965.) However, the documentary mentions multiple times that Rosa (whose day jobs were mostly being a housecleaner or a secretary/administrative assistant) never tried to get rich from her fame. She turned down many lucrative offers and gifts.

In fact, Rosa and her husband Raymond sometimes lived in poverty. Theoharis says in the documentary that in 1959, the couple’s tax return reported a combined income of only $700. In addition, Rosa often lived for years in obscurity after becoming a civil rights activist. For example, after a “where are they now” type of article was published about Rosa and reported that she was living in poverty, donations poured in from around the world to help her and Raymond with their financial problems.

Rosa’s niece Rhea McCauley says that Rosa had the type of personality where Rosa wouldn’t complain about personal problems, and she would to be too proud to ask for financial help: “Auntie Rosa never discussed financial hardships. You would not know she was hungry, for instance. You wouldn’t know that she couldn’t pay this bill.”

Raymond was a barber as his main money-making profession. Vonzie Whitlow, who used to be Raymond’s barber apprentice, is one of the people interviewed in the documentary. It’s an example of how the documentary goes a little bit off-topic, but it takes up such a small amount of time that it’s not a major flaw.

As mentioned in the documentary, Rosa didn’t get her first paying full-time job in politics until 1965, when she became a secretary for John Conyers Jr., a U.S. Representative from Michigan. She held the job until 1988. Conyers died in 2019. The documentary has an archival TV news interview of Conyers that was conducted when Rosa and Conyers worked together. In the interview, Conyers says he was in awe of Rosa and looked up to her, even though he was her boss. And it wasn’t until 1992 that she published a memoir: “Rosa Parks: My Story,” which she wrote with Jim Haskins.

But even the great Rosa Parks was not immune to ageism. Years after Rosa and Raymond settled in the Detroit area, civil rights activist Joe Madison worked with Rosa in the NAACP’s Detroit chapter. He tells a story in the documentary about how he and Rosa wanted to be running mates for the chapter’s open leadership positions, but several members thought that Rosa was too old for the job. Madison and Rosa didn’t win in their campaign, but Madison says it was a huge honor for Rosa to be his running mate.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Rosa’s great-nephew Lonnie McCauley; activists Bree Newsome, Dan Aldridge, Ericka Huggins, Barbara Smith, Bryan Stevenson, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Dorothy Aldridge and Patrisse Cullors; historians Francis Gourrier and Mary Frances Berry; journalists Herb Boyd and Tiffany Cross; and Ed Vaughn, founder of Vaughn’s Bookstore, an African American-oriented bookstore in Detroit where Rosa and Raymond Parks were frequent customers.

Rosa had a life of triumphs and tragedies. The documentary mentions how cancer claimed the lives of her husband Raymond, her brother Sylvester and her mother Leona—all within a two-year period. Raymond died in August 1977, Sylvester passed away in November 1977, and Leona died in December 1979. Rosa also survived a brutal home invasion assault and robbery in 1994. The attacker was convicted of the crime.

An example of how Rosa had periods of obscurity is shown in the documentary’s opening scene, which features Rosa in a 1980 episode of “To Tell the Truth,” a game show where three people claim to be the same person, and celebrity contestants have to guess which one out of the three is telling the truth about their identity. In this episode, the contestants were entertainers Nipsey Russell, Tiiu Leek, Kitty Carlisle and Gordon Jump. Three women, including the real Rosa Parks, claimed to be Rosa Parks.

Leek and Carlisle incorrectly guessed someone else was Rosa, while Jump made the correct guess. Russell abstained from voting because he says he already knew who Rosa was since they were both involved in the civil rights movement. The fact that half of the contestants didn’t know who Rosa was is an example of how many people didn’t really recognize her.

Unfortunately, they’re not unusual, since there are probably millions of people in America who have never heard of Rosa Parks—or if they’ve heard of her, they’re not quite sure what her claim to fame is. Keep in mind that most people in America can’t even name the politicians who represent their state in the U.S. Senate. However ignorant or knowledgeable people are about the civil rights movement in the U.S., the documentary “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” is a worthy history lesson for anyone who wants to learn more about this impassioned activist who made a positive impact on the lives of countless people.

Peacock will premiere “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” in 2022, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘God’s Time,’ starring Ben Groh, Dion Costelloe and Liz Caribel Sierra

June 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ben Groh in “God’s Time” (Photo by Jeff Melanson)

“God’s Time”

Directed by Daniel Antebi

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy film “God’s Time” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white, Latino and African American) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two best friends, who met each other in an addiction recovery support group, try to stop a woman in their support group from murdering her ex-boyfriend. 

Culture Audience: “God’s Time” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching rambling “race against time” movies where the potential and talent of the cast members cannot overcome low-quality filmmaking.

The smug and idiotic comedy “God’s Time” is a waste of time in how it inexcusably bungles a simple but over-used slapstick concept of two friends on a wacky “life or death” mission. Sloppily written and directed by Daniel Antebi, the basic premise of “God’s Time” is about two male best friends who try to stop a woman from murdering her ex-boyfriend. There’s not as much action in “God’s Time” as the concept suggests, because too much of the film has repetitive and dull scenes of people in support group meetings for addiction recovery.

“God’s Time” doesn’t get going with any real action until the last third of the movie. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it’s to build up suspense, and if the action in the movie delivers in a way that’s unique and memorable. But the action that comes very late in the movie is poorly staged and written in such an amateurish way, any hope gets squashed that “God’s Time” will go out with a bang. The end of the movie can barely muster a whimper. “God’s Time,” which is Antebi’s feature-film directorial debut, had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The two best pals in “God’s Time” (which was filmed on location in New York City) are two men in their 20s named Dev (played by Ben Groh) and Luca (played by Dion Costelloe), who are both aspiring actors. You might as well just call them Dumb and Dumber, because that’s how Dev and Luca act in this movie. Dev is the story’s narrator, and he frequently talks directly to the camera to spew a lot of self-indulgent gibberish.

Dev explains early on in the movie that he and Luca met in a support group meeting for recovering drug addicts. They’ve been best friends ever since. They go on auditions together, they help each other rehearse for auditions, and they go to support group meetings.

Luca and Dev apparently have nothing else going on in their lives but going to support group meetings and going to auditions. That’s how boring these two shallow pals are in this movie. The movie never explains how these two unemployed and unsuccessful wannabe actors make money.

Dev thinks of himself as being more of a rebel than Luca. For example, the two friends have an upcoming audition where Dev is going up for the role of a firefighter named Rico from Staten Island. Luca thinks that Dev should cut Dev’s long-ish hair for the role, so Dev could look more like a firefighter. However, Dev refuses to cut his hair. Dev is also frequently annoyed that his Indian heritage is often mistaken for being Latino. The movie has some unfunny jokes about Dev’s ethnicity being misidentified.

The beginning of “God’s Time” actually starts off with a promising scene. Dev, Luca and some other people in their support group are gathered for a meeting. A very outspoken and opinionated member of the group is Regina (played by Liz Caribel Sierra), who is also in her 20s. Regina makes a point of bitterly mentioning in every meeting how she was betrayed by an ex-boyfriend named Russell about a year ago.

Regina, whose name is pronounced in the Spanish-language way (“re-hee-na”), angrily repeats in every meeting the details of what went wrong in this doomed relationship: Regina let Russell temporarily stay at her place while he was recovering from spleen surgery. Two months into this temporary stay, things went horribly wrong, but what they argued about remains unclear.

As Regina tells it: “The aforementioned dirtbag kicked me out of my own place and took my little dog Parranda.” Regina likes to show photos of the dog, which is a Boxer. Dev looks into the camera and says after Regina tells her sob story in yet another meeting: “Yo, it’s all true. I remember the day he kicked her out.”

The movie has a montage of Regina in different meetings telling similar versions of the same story. Even though Regina says some hateful things about Russell, such as wishing that she could kill him or that he should die some other way, she always ends her rant by saying that she is praying for Russell. “And I have faith he’ll die in God’s time,” she concludes.

Dev has his own confession, which he only tells to the camera: He’s secretly in love with Regina. As time goes on, it’s obvious that Regina knows that she’s very attractive and that Dev has feelings for her. Regina uses her good looks to manipulate the men who are attracted to her. She’s also a habitual liar.

During another support group meeting, Regina goes on her usual diatribe against Russell. And once again, she says she’s going to kill him. But this time, she doesn’t end her rant by saying that Russell will die “in God’s time.” This omission freaks out Dev, who’s convinced that Regina is going to murder Russell soon, especially when Dev find out that Regina plans to leave town the next day.

Unfortunately, the movie wastes a lot of time to get to that point. There are some dumb shenanigans with Dev and Luca canceling and rescheduling callbacks for an important audition because they get caught up in trying to find out what Regina is going to do. During one of the many scenes that show Dev and Luca in support group meetings, Luca announces that if he doesn’t get the job in his next audition, he’s probably going to quit acting. No one in the support group really cares, and neither will viewers of this garbage movie.

At one point, Dev and Luca end up stalking Regina. She has told people that she works as a “life coach,” and she meets with clients in their homes. However, Dev and Luca find out that in her “life coach” session with a client, she’s really doing cocaine with a middle-aged man (played by Harry Bouvy), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. He lives in an Upper West Side building that has a doorman. It’s implied that Regina is a sex worker because she and her client are shown snorting cocaine in their underwear.

It all just leads to a silly scene where Dev and Luca sneak into to the apartment where Regina’s coke-snorting client lives, so that Dev and Luca can find Regina when she’s there. The two bumbling buddies tell the building doorman Robert (played by John Pope) that they are Gentile assistants hired by their Jewish client named Mr. Goldstein, who doesn’t want to do anything on the Sabbath, due to strict Orthodox Jewish beliefs. The doorman uses a key to let them into the apartment, where Regina has already left, unbeknownst to Dev and Luca.

The man’s wife, whose name is Mrs. Levy (played by Emily Fleischer), comes home, sees Dev and Luca with her partially undressed husband, who has cocaine on his nose. She incorrectly assumes that Dev and Luca are gigolos who were hired by her husband. “How long have you been fucking my husband?” she screeches as she maces Dev. Luca and Dev then make a hasty exit. That’s what’s supposed to be one of the movie’s funny slapstick scenes.

What’s so stupid about this scene is that no doorman who wants to keep his job would let strangers into an apartment unit without verifying first that it was authorized by someone who lives there. When the enraged wife finds out how these two bozos got into the apartment, she screams at the doorman: “Do I look fucking Jewish?” This anti-Semitic reaction from a woman named Mrs. Levy reveals that Dev and Luca also used the wrong name to get into the apartment, which makes the doorman and this movie look even more idiotic.

It gets worse. The movie throws in a subplot about Dev thinking that he’s being stalked by someone who was in a road rage incident with Dev. While Dev and Luca are on a subway, Dev happens to see this man nearby (but he doesn’t see them), so an anxious Dev tells Luca about this incident.

A flashback shows that when Dev was riding his bicycle on a residential street, a truck driver cut him off. The two men started cursing at each other. Dev then threw a plastic bottle of his urine into the man’s truck and sped off. Dev is convinced that the man is now trying to find Dev and get revenge.

Regina lives with her single (possibly widowed) mother, who’s identified in the movie as Mrs. Reyes (played by Sol Miranda), who has the misfortune of encountering Dev and Luca, as these two imbeciles become more obnoxious as the movie continues. Regina isn’t home when Dev and Luca show up at her house. And you know what that means. Expect to see at least one very predictable break-in scene by these two moronic clowns, who race around New York City trying to find Regina and Russell.

By the time Russell (played by Jared Abrahamson) shows up in the inevitable confrontation with Regina, some secrets are revealed that are very underwhelming and unimaginative. The entire nonsensical execution of this concept relies heavily on the flimsy assumption that viewers are supposed to believe that Dev never tried to find out what Russell looks like before Dev and Luca go on a frantic “race against time” to prevent Russell from being killed. That’s why any surprises that come in the movie look too phony and hard to believe.

In addition to Dev’s tiresome comments when he talks to the camera, “God’s Time” over-uses irritating effects, such as slowing down and distorting people’s voices during the action scenes. Because the movie takes too long to get to the main concept, “God’s Time” looks like it could have been a short film, but with a lot of filler to stretch out the movie to its 83-minute run time. The movie’s outtake scenes that are shown during the end credits just prove that these scenes shouldn’t have been in this already dreadful movie.

The grating performances by Groh and Costelloe could have been more engaging if they had a better screenplay and better character development. Forget about learning more about who Dev and Luca are as people. This movie has no significant backstories for them or any indications of who else in their personal lives get quality time with them outside of the support group.

It’s briefly mentioned Dev’s mother is an Indian immigrant, and he used to live in Kentucky. Luca quickly mentions his own father, who lives in New York state and is never seen in the movie. That’s it. Dev and Luca are written as utter fools who don’t have much about them to like, and they aren’t even entertaining in their buffoonery.

Sierra’s performance as Regina has flashes of very good comedic timing. However, the Regina character is written in a way that’s almost misogynistic. Dev and Luca go out of their way to be her “rescuers” (Luca’s motivations are later explained in the movie), but Regina is really nothing more than a selfish, arrogant and dishonest brat. Other than Regina’s good looks, the movie never explains why Dev is so “in love” with Regina, since she doesn’t seem to care about anyone but herself and maybe her dog.

Dev and Luca know about Regina’s continued drug use, which is never adequately addressed, other than Regina giving a relapse confession (with insincere-looking tears) during one of the many support group meetings that keep disrupting what should have been a better flow for this unevenly paced movie. The people in these support group meetings are written in generic and forgettable ways, with adequate acting from the people in these roles. “God’s Time” is more concerned about staging self-congratulatory scenes with bad gags instead of crafting memorable characters.

“God’s Time” looks like it’s trying to be a dark comedy, but there’s too much goofy nonsense for this movie to have any edge. If anyone wants to see a well-acted and edgy dark comedy set in New York City, with a “race against time” plot and a similar title, then a much better option is 2017’s “Good Time,” directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie, and starring Robert Pattinson. “God’s Time” is an unfortunate misfire where the filmmakers forgot that in a movie whose concept is a chase comedy, audiences should care about at least one the main characters, the screenplay and direction should be solid, and it shouldn’t take too long to get to the chase scenes.

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