Review: ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ starring Charlbi Dean, Harris Dickinson and Woody Harrelson

October 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson in “Triangle of Sadness” (Photo by Fredrik Wenzel/Neon)

“Triangle of Sadness”

Directed by Ruben Östlund

Some language in German and Russian with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly somewhere off the coast of Greece, the comedy/drama film “Triangle of Sadness” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person and one Filipina) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A dating couple, who are both young fashion models, must navigate conflicts over gender roles in their relationship, which is put to the test when they end up stranded on an island with other people from a luxury cruise yacht. 

Culture Audience: “Triangle of Sadness” will appeal primarily to people interested in a story that lampoons how youth, good looks, gender and wealth are used in social climbing and perceived power.

Arvin Kananian and Woody Harrelson in “Triangle of Sadness” (Photo by Fredrik Wenzel/Neon)

The darkly comedic “Triangle of Sadness” is an incisive satire of social class prejudices and gender-based power dynamics. The cast members’ skillful performances outweigh the movie’s flaws, such as a story that sometimes rambles and has a vague ending. “Triangle of Sadness” tells a memorable if uneven story about how constructs of power are frequently built around superficial qualities such as physical looks, youth and wealth, and how those constructs can radically change in life-or-death situations.

Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, “Triangle of Sadness” is a movie that is meant to make audiences laugh at uncomfortable truths and near-parodies of how people conduct themselves when they are in the presence of wealth and power—and what people are willing to do to have wealth and power. “Triangle of Sadness” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in France, where it won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize. The movie also made the rounds at other film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, Fantastic Fest and the New York Film Festival.

“Triangle of Sadness” is told in three separate parts. “Part One: Carl and Yaya,” “Part Two: The Yacht” and “Part Three: The Island.” The first two parts of the movie are really just introductions to the various people who end up stranded on an island off of the coast of Greece, after a yachting disaster. The last part of the movie is the most intriguing part, but it’s also the part of the movie that will be the most frustrating to viewers.

“Part One: Carl and Yaya” shows the relationship the London-based couple at the center of the story: Carl (played by Harris Dickinson) is British, in his mid-20s and is a former mechanic who now works as a fashion model. Yaya (played by Charlbi Dean) is originally from South Africa, in her early 30s, and is also a fashion model. Carl and Yaya have been dating each other for less than a year. (Tragically, Dean died on August 29, 2022, of septicemia, the medical term for blood poisoning, which came from an untreated lung infection. She was 32.)

Carl is first seen during a casting call audition for a runway show. He and other male models, who are all shirtless, are being interviewed by a flamboyant social media personality named Lewis (played by Tobias Thorwid), who openly flirts with the models. Lewis asks Carl and the other models to show the different facial expressions that they use for haute couture modeling (a serious face) and commercial mass merchant modeling (a smiling face).

When Lewis yells out “Balenciaga,” Carl and the other models put on their serious faces. When Lewis yells out “H&M,” Carl and the other models put on their smiling faces. Lewis keeps repeating “Balenciaga” and “H&M,” and the models keep changing their facial expressions, like they’re robots being ordered to do someone’s bidding. It’s the movie’s way of showing how models are often treated like robots.

When it’s Carl’s turn to go in front of the judging panel, a snooty male casting agent comments to Carl about the middle of Carl’s forehead: “Can you relax your triangle of sadness?” In the production notes for “Triangle of Sadness,” writer/director Östlund comments on why he chose this phrase as the title of the movie.

“It’s a term used in the beauty industry,” Östlund says. “A friend sat next to a plastic surgeon at a party and, after a quick look at her face, he said, ‘Oh, you have a quite deep triangle of sadness… but I can fix that with Botox in 15 minutes.’ He was referring to a wrinkle between her eyebrows. In Swedish, it’s called ‘trouble wrinkle,’ and it suggests you’ve had a lot of struggles in your life. I thought it said something about our era’s obsession with looks and that inner well-being is, in some respects, secondary.”

It’s no coincidence that the central couple in this movie are models in the fashion industry, which places a high value on youth and outer beauty. Modeling is one of the few jobs where women make more money than men. And because Yaya’s income is much higher than Carl’s income, this disparity has caused some problems in their relationship.

The problems become evident when Carl and Yaya have what is supposed to be a romantic dinner at a restaurant, but this date devolves into an argument over who is going to pay for the dinner. Carl has flown out to visit Yaya, who’s on a modeling assignment. And he’s been consistently paying for their meals during this trip.

But at this particular dinner, Yaya had offered to pay, and Carl accepted the offer. When the bill is placed on the table, Yaya pretends that she doesn’t see it and silently puts the responsibility on Carl to pay the bill. When he reminds her that she offered to pay for the dinner, it leads to a disagreement that isn’t really about the bill about it’s about power and control in the relationship.

Carl says that if women want equality, they should be willing to pay for dates on occasion if they offer to do so. Yaya agrees to pay for dinner. Carl concedes that he didn’t mean to raise his voice with Yaya and tells her, “Now, I feel bad.” However, Yaya gives a passive-aggresssive insult to Carl when she tells him, “It’s okay. I make more money than you.”

And then, it’s Yaya’s turn to be embarrassed. The credit card that she uses to pay for the dinner is declined. And so, Carl ends up paying for the dinner in cash. On the cab drive back to their hotel, Carl wants to talk about this money issue, but Yaya doesn’t. She tells Carl: “It’s not sexy to talk about money.”

Carl replies, “We shouldn’t slip into the same gender-based roles everyone else seems to be doing. I want us to be equal.” Carl won’t let the issue go, and he confronts Yaya about something that he saw her do at the restaurant: She took a €50 bill that was meant for the dinner payment, and she kept it for herself.

It leads to an even bigger verbal blow-up between the couple, who end up shouting at each other in the hotel elevator. Eventually, Carl and Yaya call a truce, but they both know that the argument isn’t about the money for that dinner. Yaya admits that she’s materialistic and says that one of the reasons why she became a model was to become “someone’s trophy wife.”

Yaya also confesses that she purposely ignored the restaurant bill when it was placed on the table because she really wanted Carl to offer to pay for dinner. Yaya tells Carl, “I need to know that if I fall pregnant that the person I’m with will take care of me.” All of these comments are Yaya’s obvious ways of telling Carl that if he eventually doesn’t make more money than she does, she’s going to lose interest in him.

In the “Triangle of Sadness” production notes, Östlund says that this argument over who would pay for dinner happened in real life with him and his fashion photographer wife, Sina, before they were married. Ruben and Sina Östlund might have had a happy ending after this argument, but things are much rockier for Carl and Yaya. The first part of the movie is focused on this argument as a foreshadowing of some turmoil to come.

In “Part Two: The Yacht,” Carl and Yaya have been invited by one of Yaya’s fashion connections to go on a luxury cruise on a yacht. Yaya is a social media influencer, who makes money by endorsing products and services on her social media accounts. During this trip, she fulfills these sponsor obligations by posing for photos on the yacht, with Carl as her photographer.

This part of the movie introduces several other people on the yacht and puts further emphasis on the social class divisions that separate the yacht’s subservient workers and the yacht’s privileged passengers. Carl and Yaya eventually meet several of these other passengers, some of whom are quirkier than others. Carl comes from a working-class background, and he often feels like he doesn’t quit fit in with these people who are accustomed to being rich.

Not long after their yacht trip begins, Carl and Yaya meet Dimitry (played by Zlatko Burić), a Russian agriculture mogul who made his fortune from selling fertilizer. Dimitry is on this yacht with his snobby and demanding wife Vera (played by Sunnyi Melles) and his mistress Ludmilla (played by Carolina Gynning), who is young enough to be his daughter. Dimitry and Vera seem to have an open marriage, because Vera and Ludmilla know about each other and hang out together with Dimitry on the yacht. Dimitry likes to brag to other people about how he became wealthy in a “rags to riches” story, but there’s a nouveau-riche crudeness in the way that Dimitry talks and acts.

An elderly British married couple named Winston (played by Oliver Ford Davies) and Clementine (played by Amanda Walker) are very polite and proper, but viewers might perceive these seemingly harmless senior citizens differently when it’s revealed why these spouses are rich. Another couple on the yacht are German spouses Uli (played by Ralph Schicha) and Therese (played by Iris Berben), who uses a wheelchair because she had a stroke. Uli is very attentive and devoted to Therese, who is mostly mute, except for when she utters the only words that she seems capable of saying: “in de wolken,” which is German for “in the clouds.”

Later in the movie, Yaya and Ludmilla meet a lonely, rich bachelor named Jarmo (played by Henrik Dorsin) at the yacht’s main bar. Jarmo invited a woman to be his companion on this trip, but she stood him up for this date. Jarmo wants to show this woman that he’s having a good time without her, so he asks Yaya to take a photo of him at the bar, because he wants to send the photo to the woman who snubbed him.

When Yaya and Ludmilla hear Jarmo’s story about the woman who rejected him, they both offer to take a selfie photo with Jarmo, so that Jarmo can send a picture looking like he’s having fun with two beautiful women on this yacht. Jarmo is so grateful, he immediately tells Yaya and Ludmilla, “I’m very rich,” and he offers to buy Rolex watches for Yaya and Ludmilla as thank you gifts. They both decline the offer, but it’s an example of Jarmo’s insecurity in thinking that he has to tell people that he’s rich, in order to impress people and buy friendships.

The yacht’s workers include a perky yet no-nonsense staff director named Paula (played by Vicki Berlin), who is a combination of a task master and a cheerleader for the employees. Paula is fanatical about the ship remaining tidy and orderly, and she tells the staffers to say yes to anything that the passengers ask them to do. Paula also leads the employees in pep talks and group chants to build team solidarity and loyalty.

Two other yacht staffers are a maid named Abigail (played by Dolly de Leon) and a repairman named Nelson (played by Jean-Christophe Folly), who are mostly in the background during “Part Two: The Yacht,” but their personalities emerge during “Part Three: The Island.” Abigail and Nelson are two of the few people of color who work on the ship, and they are both given jobs where they don’t interact much with the passengers. Observant viewers will notice that on this yacht, only white employees have the jobs that require the most interaction with the passengers.

The movie shows an example of how far Paula wants her employees to go to please the wealthy passengers on the yacht. A young and relatively new employee named Alicia (played by Alicia Ericksson) is asked by Vera to go for a dip in a jacuzzi with her, while Alicia is on duty. Alicia is reluctant to do so, but she also remembers that Paula ordered the staff to always say yes to a passenger’s request, no matter how unusual or difficult the request is.

Alicia doesn’t have a swimsuit with her at that moment, but Vera says that Alicia can strip down to her underwear. Vera can see that Alicia is uncomfortable, but Vera doesn’t seem to care. Eventually, Alicia obliges this request. But when Paula hears how reluctant Alicia was to say yes to this request, Paula overcompensates by ordering the entire staff to go on the water slides with the passengers.

The yacht’s leader is Captain Thomas Smith (played by Woody Harrelson), who is a drunken mess. In the “Triangle of Sadness” production notes, Östlund describes the captain as “an idealist, an alcoholic and a Marxist.” Paula and the ship’s first mate Darius (played by Arvin Kananian) spend considerable effort trying to get the intoxicated Captain Smith out of his room in time for the captain’s dinner with the yacht’s most influential and richest passengers.

It’s at this dinner when all hell breaks loose. Something causes the passengers to get sick and violently vomit. Things get worse when the yacht explodes and not everyone makes it out alive. It’s enough to say that the people who do survive end up stranded on a remote island. (This isn’t spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

Being stranded on this island strips away a lot of the social hierarchies and perceptions of power that existed on the yacht. This third and final part of the movie has some twists and turns that make “Triangle of Sadness” worth watching. However, because this major shift in the story comes so late in the movie, much of it feels crammed-in and rushed.

With a total running time 149 minutes, “Triangle of Sadness” could have used tighter film editing. The movie took a little too much time with “Part Two: The Yacht,” which is a bit repetitive in showing how these vacationers take their privilege and social status for granted. “Part Three: The Island” also has some scenes that wander, although the scenes in the last third of the movie have more of an overall purpose. Despite these imperfections in the movie’s film editing, the dialogue in “Triangle of Sadness” remains sharp and engaging.

Dickinson and de Leon give the movie’s standout performances as Carl and Abigail. On the surface, Carl and Abigail both seem to have very little in common. But beneath the surface, they both have something big in common: They feel like underappreciated outsiders in their own worlds. And they both show some rebellion and resentment as a result of feeling like they have been denied access to things that they think they deserve.

The very last image in “Triangle of Sadness” can be interpreted in many different ways—and that open-endedness at the movie’s conclusion will either frustrate some viewers, or it will invite viewers to come up with theories about what really happened at the end of this story. Despite this ambiguous ending, “Triangle of Sadness” has a lot of interesting commentary and observations about why society’s divisions between the “haves” and “have nots” can affect how people treat each other—and how these divisions are often based on shallow criteria that do not truly reflect someone’s inner character.

Neon released “Triangle of Sadness” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022.

Review: ‘See How They Run’ (2022), starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Harris Dickinson, Reece Shearsmith and David Oyelowo

September 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan in “See How They Run” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures)

“See How They Run” (2022)

Directed by John Patton Ford

Culture Representation: Taking place in London, mostly in 1953, the comedy/drama film “See How They Run” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asian people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A jaded police inspector and his rookie partner, who have opposite personalities and contrasting styles of working, investigate serial murders that appear to be linked to the planned-for movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play “The Mousetrap.” 

Culture Audience: “See How They Run” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that are inspired by Agatha Christie mystery novels.

Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, Sian Clifford, Pearl Chanda, Jacob Fortune Lloyd, David Oyelowo and Ania Marson in “See How They Run” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures)

“See How They Run” doesn’t quite reach the classic heights of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, which are this comedy/drama movie’s admitted inspirations. However, it’s worth watching for the entertaining performances and clever observations of showbiz. The last third of “See How They Run” stumbles a bit in how the mystery is revealed, but it doesn’t take away from the movie’s overall appeal to viewers who are interested in British movies that poke fun at the entertainment industry in a story about solving crimes.

“See How They Run” is the feature-film directorial debut of Tom George, who is known for directing in British television. His TV credits include his BAFTA-winning work directing the BBC comedy show “The Country,” as well as the BBC comedy “Defending the Guilty.” His keen sense of comedic timing serves “See How They Run” very well, since most Agatha Christie-styled movies definitely do not have the screwball comedy qualities that are in “See How They Run.” Mark Chappell wrote the “See How They Run” screenplay, which is better at crafting characters than it is as explaining some of the unanswered questions in this murder mystery.

Every movie inspired by Agatha Christie’s writing has a fairly large ensemble of characters who are considered suspects or persons of interests in the murder case until the real killer or killers can eventually be revealed. The body count in “See How They Run” is a lot lower than a typical story of this ilk, but that just makes it more intriguing to guess who’s behind the murders. Fortunately, the movie isn’t cluttered with too many chararacters, so it’s easy to keep track of who everyone is.

“See How They Run,” which is set primarily in 1953 London, also balances multiple layers, because it’s a story with several flashbacks, as well as a whodunit that’s directly tied to the real-life, long-running West End production of Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” Although most of the characters in “See How They Run” are fictional, some of the characters are based on real people, including Christie herself. The movie does a better job at handling the flashbacks than it does in trying to show parallels between “The Mousetrap” and the original screenplay for “See How They Run.”

“See How They Run” opens with a scene that is later referred to in flashbacks. In 1953, on London’s West End, several people have gathered for a nighttime party at the Dominion Theatre, to celebrate the 100th performance of “The Mousetrap.” Among the partiers are members of the cast and some people who are involved in making a feature film version of “The Mousetrap,” including American director Leo Köpernick (played by Adrien Brody), who has been blacklisted in Hollywood, due to the Red Scare targeting suspected Communists.

The night of this party will also be the last night of Leo’s life, since he will be murdered in a backstage costume shop by a mystery person wearing a trench coat, a mask and a fedora. The murderer definitely looks like a man, but with these mystery stories, the killer’s gender can’t always be presumed. At first, Leo is attacked by the murderer trying to strangle Leo with a wire. Leo breaks free, but is killed when the murderer beats him to with a fire extinguisher.

A now-dead Leo then provides intermittent narration for the rest of the movie. Not everyone who watches this movie will like this “voice from the dead” narration. However, it’s a director choice that’s quite unconventional and provides a perspective that doesn’t make things easy for viewers, because Leo is eventually exposed as a sleazy character who might be an unreliable narrator.

The two cops who end up being the primary investigators for Leo’s murder are two very opposite people: Inspector Stoppard (played by Inspector Sam Rockwell) is a world-weary alcoholic, who approaches the investigation with a skepticism where he doesn’t come to any conclusions until he sees indisputable evidence. Constable Stalker (played by Saiorse Ronan) is an eager-to-please rookie who’s an Irish immigrant with a tendency to jump to conclusions without hard evidence.

Predictably, Stoppard and Stalker often clash, with Stoppard embodying the cliché of an older cop who’s forced to work with a younger cop and is frequently annoyed by the younger cop in the process. It doesn’t help that Stoppard is very sexist and doesn’t believe that police detective work is a job that women can do as well as men. The supervisor for Stoppard and Stalker is a police commissioner named Harrold Scott (played by Tim Key), who is more concerned about his own public-relations image and career ambitions than he is about getting justice for the crimes investigated by his department.

It isn’t long before Stoppard and Stalker have a group of people to interview and investigate. They include:

  • Petula “Choo” Spencer (played by Ruth Wilson), the no-nonsense producer/chief investor of “The Mousetrap” play. It’s later revealed that she has a motive to prevent the movie version of “The Mousetrap” from getting made.
  • Mignon Saunders (played by Ania Marson), Petula’s eccentric mother. Mignon doesn’t say much, but does that mean she knows more than she’s telling?
  • John Woolf (played by Reece Shearsmith), the wealthy film producer of “The Mousetrap” movie. (This character is based on the real John Woolf.) John is the person who decided to hire Leo, because of Leo’s talent and track record of making award-winning films.
  • Ann Saville (played by Pippa Bennett Warner), John’s administrative assistant and his mistress. Ann is every much in love with John and expects him to eventually divorce his wife and marry Ann.
  • Edana Romney (played by Sian Clifford), John’s wife, who considers herself to be an amateur psychic. It’s revealed in the movie if she knows about John’s affair with Ann.
  • Mervyn “Merv” Cocker-Norris (played by David Oyelowo), the pompous screenwriter for “The Mousetrap” movie. Mervyn and Leo were feuding because Leo didn’t like Mervyn’s script, but Mervyn refused to do a rewrite. Not long before Leo was murdered, Leo and Mervyn had a very public argument where Mervyn threatened to kill Leo.
  • Giovanni “Gio” Bigotti (played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), Mervyn’s Italian lover, who is fairly quiet and very supportive of Mervyn. Giovanni and Mervyn are a gay couple in a “don’t ask, don’t tell way,” where they don’t make it obvious but they don’t try to hide the nature of their relationship either.
  • Dennis (played by Charlie Cooper), a Dominion Theatre usher who reported that he saw a “suspicious”-looking man lurking in the area where Leo’s murdered body was found.
  • Richard “Dickie” Attenborough (played by Harris Dickinson), the hotshot actor who’s the star of “The Mousetrap” play. Based on the real Attenborough, this character wants to do everything possible to keep the play going
  • Sheila Sim (played by Pearl Chanda), Dickie’s actress wife (based on the real Sheila Sim), whose career has become overshadowed by Dickie’s. Sheila and Dickie, who are co-stars in “The Mousetrap” play, have been experiencing some problems in their marriage, and their relationship has become somewhat strained.

World-renowned mystery writer Christie (played by Shirley Henderson) makes an appearance in the last third of the movie and does something awkward that isn’t handled very well or is made believable, considering that she is a crime aficionado. This tricky scene is played for laughs, but it could have been thought out in a much better way. Her devoted husband Max Mallowan (played by Lucian Msamati) and her prickly butler Fellowes (played by Paul Chahidi) also make appearances toward the end of the movie.

Constable Stalker is often a bundle of nervous energy when she’s with Inspector Stoddard. She talks quickly and is eager to share her knowledge of movies (she’s a big fan) and crime novels, but he shows disdain for this fiction entertainment influencing her thoughts as police investigator. Later, when Constable Stalker and Inspector Stoddard spend some time alone together, they open up to each other about their personal lives. She’s a widow with a son and a daughter. He’s divorced (his wife left him) with no children. Constable Stalker eventually finds out about Inspector Stoddard’s alcoholism and sees how vulnerable his alcoholism makes him.

Of course, every murder mystery reveals secrets about the people who are being investigated. Leo is not a sympathetic victim. The police find out that he has a long history of sexually harassing and possibly sexually assaulting women. Leo kept meticulous records of the women he encountered.

As an example of Leo being a sexual predator, he was staying at the luxury Savoy Hotel (in a suite paid for by John), where the maids eventually refused to go in Leo’s suite because of how badly he was sexually harassing them. On the night that Leo was murdered, he and Dickie got into a huge physical brawl in front of the party crowd. The fight happened because Leo sexually propositioned Sheila, by implying that Leo would cast her in “The Mousetrap” movie if she had sex with him.

“See How They Run” is filmed and performed much like how this movie would look if it really were filmed in 1953. This type of retro filmmaking won’t appeal to everyone, but the movie does a competent job of recreating the British culture, fashion and production design of that era. There are signs and not-so-subtle indications that Constable Stalker is an outsider not just because she’s a woman in a very male-dominated field but also because she’s an Irish immigrant living in the England.

Rockwell and Ronan, who are both talented in whatever they do, have a crackling chemistry as Stoppard and Stalker that intentionally starts off as uncomfortable to watch but becomes somewhat endearing as Stoppard and Stalker begin to trust each other in this “odd couple” police partnership. Oyelowo is also a standout because he looks like he’s having fun playing the pretentious and flamboyant Mervyn, who has some of the best lines in the movie.a

“See How They Run” falters with a few murky plot developments that raise questions that aren’t really answered. One of them involves the identity of Stoppard’s ex-wife. However, the movie does effectively lampoon a lot of the stereotypes of murder mystery movies, such as the use of flashbacks and using the most obvious suspects as red herrings. There are also many satirical moments about what showbiz people say and do in pursuit of fame, fortune and power.

Are there much better murder mystery movies in the world? Of course. “See How They Run” isn’t among the cream of the crop. However, for people who are inclined to like this genre and like watching talented cast members who give capable performances, this movie can offer some enjoyable escapism.

Searchlight Pictures will release “See How They Run” in U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on September 9, 2022.

 

Review: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ starring Daisy Edgar-Jones

July 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Harris Dickinson in “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Columbia Pictures)

“Where the Crawdads Sing”

Directed by Olivia Newman

Culture Representation: Taking place in North Carolina, from 1952 to the early 2020s, the dramatic film “Where the Crawdads Sing” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In 1970, a 24-year-old woman goes on trial for murdering her ex-boyfriend, and her past as a poor and abandoned child is used against her in the trial.

Culture Audience: “Where the Crawdads Sing” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based, as well as to people who are interested in stories about how people of different social classes are treated in society.

Taylor John Smith and Daisy Edgar-Jones in “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Columbia Pictures)

“Where the Crawdads Sing” has a lot of timeline jumping that will either annoy or intrigue viewers. The movie (which starts off very slow) gets better as it goes along and is elevated by a distinctive lead performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones. Fans of Delia Owens’ 2018 novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” should be satisfied with this cinematic adaptation, while other people who haven’t read the book might have more mixed reactions.

Directed by Olivia Newman and written by Lucy Alibar, the movie “Where the Crawdads Sing” takes on the challenge of telling a story that spans several decades. Just like in the book, the movie takes place in North Carolina. (The movie was actually filmed in New Orleans.) However, the timelines in the book and movie are slightly different. In the book, the timeline goes from 1952 to 2010, whereas the movie’s timeline goes from 1952 to the early 2020s.

The beginning of the film has some editing that might confuse some viewers. The opening scene takes place in the fictional coastal town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina, on the morning of October 30, 1969. Two boys riding their bicycles near a swamp have discovered the body of Chase Andrews (played by Harris Dickinson) underneath a fire tower. At the time of his death, Chase was in his mid-20s and a manager at a local auto dealership.

A medical examination shows that Chase banged his head from falling down the tower, and this head injury was fatal. However, police investigators have found no fingerprints nearby on the tower. And so, they’ve come the conclusion that Chase’s death was not an accident or suicide, and that whoever murdered him covered up the crime by wiping away fingerprints and getting rid of other evidence.

The movie then abruptly cuts to 23-year-old Kya Clark (played by Edgar-Jones) being chased down by law enforcement and put in jail. Inexplicably, a cat gets into her jail cell, and Kya cuddles with the cat for the night until the cat is taken away from her. Kya’s arrest for Chase’s murder is the talk of the town. Kya has a reputation for being a mysterious loner. And because she grew up poor, some people automatically think she’s trashy.

The evidence against Kya is very circumstantial. Kya does not have an alibi during the time frame (midnight to 2 a.m.) that investigators estimate was when Chase died on October 30, 1969. Not long before Chase died, he and Kya were seen having a fight outside that got violent. A witness saw Kya threaten to kill Chase if he ever came near her again. People close to Chase knew that he always wore a shell necklace that Kya had given to him, but the shell necklace was missing when his body was found.

On the night of Chase’s death, Kya was seen in her boat near the water tower. Kya denies it. She claims she was on a short business trip to see a book publisher in Greenville, North Carolina, and that she didn’t return to Barkley Cove until after Chase’s death. Witnesses say that they saw Kya leave and return from her trip by bus. However, she has no proof of where she was between midnight to 2 a.m. on October 30, 1969.

At a local bar, a retired attorney named Tom Milton (played by David Strathairn) is having a conversation with a few other locals about the case. Tom comments, “I’m retired. It’s not my business anymore.” But then, in another example of the movie’s not-so-great editing in the beginning of the film, Tom is then shown meeting with Kya and telling her that he wants to be her defense attorney.

The movie never bothers to explain how and why Tom changed his mind about coming out of retirement to represent Kya in this murder case. Very little is a told about Tom’s trial strategy for the case, or what kind of experience/background he has as a criminal defense attorney. If people are expecting scenes where Tom and Kya have meetings to discuss the case, forget it. Those scenes aren’t in the movie, except for a brief discussion where Kya tells Tom in no uncertain terms that she won’t take a plea bargain, which would have given her an approximate 10-year prison sentence.

What the movie does show are numerous flashbacks about what happened in Kya’s life before she went on trial for Chase’s murder, as well as riveting scenes from the trial that began in 1970. These flashbacks are not in chronological order, but the movie at least does show on screen the year in which a scene is supposed to take place. Viewers who are not paying full attention to “Where the Crawdads Sing” when watching the movie might miss some crucial details and might get confused.

Kya’s birth name is actually Catherine Danielle Clark. She is the youngest of five children. And she has lived in Barkley Cove her entire life, in an isolated house near the marsh. Her unnamed parents (played by Garret Dillahunt and Ahna O’Reilly) have a troubled marriage because Kya’s father is a violent alcoholic, who often beats his wife and kids.

When Kya was 6 years old (played by Jojo Regina), her mother suddenly abandoned the family and never came back. Kya actually saw her mother leave with a suitcase, so the trauma of this memory haunts Kya. One by one, Kya’s older siblings—sister Missy, brother Murphy (aka Murph), sister Mandy and brother Jodie—leave the household. Jodie is closest in age to Kya, so his departure hurts Kya the most.

In the movie, Will Bundon portrays a young Jodie, while Logan Macrae plays the teenage/adult Jodie. Toby Nichols portrays teenage/young adult Murph. Emma Willoughby (also known as Emma Kathryn Coleman) portrays teenage/young adult Missy. Adeleine Whittle portrays teenage/young adult Mandy. All of these siblings except for Jodie (who comes back to Barkley Cove years later) remain distant from Kya.

Kya is about 12 or 13 years old when she’s the only child left to live with her father. She still fears him, but she finds that he treats her better now that he doesn’t have to take care of so many kids. He’s also eased up on drinking alcohol.

However, he’s extremely bitter about his wife’s abandonment. When Kya’s mother sends a letter, Kya’s father angrily burns the letter in front of Kya. He’s also so enraged that he burns everything that reminds him of his wife.

Kya’s father has a knapsack of shells and feathers. After Kya’s mother left the family, Kya began using her mother’s watercolor paints to paint these shells and feathers. Kya’s talent for drawing art and her fascination with shells and feathers become major parts of the story.

As a child, Kya is often left alone for days when her father goes on gambling binges. And after one of these trips away, Kya’s father never comes back. She learns to fend for herself by catching and growing her own food. She also sells some of her food at the local general store, which is owned an operated by a friendly couple named Jumpin’ (played by Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (played by Michael Hyatt), who have mutual respect for Kya.

Jumpin’ and Mabel know that Kya has been abandoned by her entire family, but they don’t want to report her to child welfare authorities because she is self-sufficient and isn’t causing any trouble. Kya is able to dodge any social services workers by hiding in the marsh if any authorities go to the home to visit. She gets the unflattering nickname Marsh Girl from people who know about her.

For most of her childhood, Kya is illiterate. On the one day she goes to school, she is taunted and laughed at by classmates for spelling the word “dog” as “god.” Kya runs away from the school and never goes back.

As a child, Kya briefly meets a boy around her age named Tate (played by Luke David Blumm), who is a friend of Jodie’s. When Kya is in her late teens and living on her own, Tate (played by Taylor John Smith) comes back into Kya’s life when she finds out he’s been leaving little gifts for her, such as booklets and supplies. Tate offers to teach Kya how to read and write when she finds out that she’s illiterate.

Just like Kya, Tate also comes from a working-class background and has a family tragedy that haunts him. His father is a shrimper. Tate’s mother and sister were killed in a car accident in Asheville, North Carolina. Tate feels tremendous guilt about their deaths because he believes that his mother and sister were in Asheville to get him a bicycle as a birthday gift.

Eventually, Tate and Kya become romantically involved with each other. However, their romance comes to an abrupt end when Tate goes away to college to pursue his dream of becoming a biologist. Before going away, Tate promised to keep in touch with Kya, but he never does.

Feeling abandoned and vulnerable, Kya ends up dating Chase, who ardently pursues her. He showers her with compliments and eventually promises that he will take care of her. However, there are some red flags about Chase, such as he doesn’t want to introduce Kya to his family. He also seems a little jealous that Kya is thinking about making money by selling her art as book illustrations.

Kya does indeed end up having a volatile relationship with Chase, which is why she’s the only suspect in his murder. What “Where the Crawdads Sing” does well is show how people who are abuse survivors see life in a different way, because they are often “on guard” or in “survival” mode. Kya’s experiences as an abuse survivor have a lot to do with the decisions that she makes in her life.

Just as in the book, the movie shows the outcome of the trial and who is guilty of Chase’s murder. How much people like the movie will depend on how much they’re engaged in Edgar-Jones’ performance. All of the other cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, but Edgar-Jones is utterly convincing in her role as this tortured soul, who doesn’t want people to see her as a victim. “Where the Crawdads Sing” certainly covers a lot of issues that have to do with how different social classes are treated and perceived, but the movie is also about not judging people by where they came from but who they are now.

Columbia Pictures and 3000 Pictures will release “Where the Crawdads Sing” in U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘The King’s Man,’ starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Harris Dickinson and Djimon Hounsou

December 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Harris Dickinson and Ralph Fiennes in “The King’s Man” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The King’s Man”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom and Russia from 1902 to the late 1910s, the action film “The King’s Man” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: Orlando Oxford (a British former military man also known as the Duke of Oxford) and some allies, including his son Conrad, battle villains led by evil Russian monk Grigori Rasputin.

Culture Audience: “The King’s Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ralph Fiennes, the “Kingsman” movies and poorly written action flicks.

Ralph Fiennes, Djimon Hounsou, Harris Dickinson and Gemma Arterton in “The King’s Man” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The King’s Man” is a charmless prequel that’s messier than the unkempt beard and head of hair on Rasputin, the movie’s flashiest villain. Even with a talented cast, this origin story to the “Kingsman” movies gets bogged down in a jumbled plot and cringeworthy dialogue. And for an action movie, much of “The King’s Man” is downright dull.

“The King’s Man” is the precursor story of 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and 2017’s inferior sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” which are all about a secret spy agency led by Brits. Matthew Vaughn directed and co-wrote all three movies, which are all based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbon.

Audiences don’t have to see “Kingsman: The Secret Service” or “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” to understand “The King’s Man.” In fact, seeing “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” will just prove how “The King’s Man” is such a witless disappointment in comparison. If you only care about explosions and fight scenes that are too choreographed to be believable, then you might find “The King’s Man” entertaining. But if you care about having an interesting storyline and engaging characters along with thrilling action, then “The King’s Man” will leave you bored or annoyed.

Vaughn and Jane Goldman co-wrote “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” For “The King’s Man” screenplay, Vaughn teamed up with Karl Gajdusek, which might explain why the quality of “The King’s Man” is worse than the movies that Vaughn wrote with Goldman. Gajdusek’s other movie screenplay credits includes stinkers such as 2011’s “Trespass” and 2020’s “The Last Days of American Crime.” The screenplay for “The King’s Man” is definitely the worst part of the movie.

“The King’s Man” tries to disguise how weak the plot is by tangling it up with more subplots and by introducing useless characters. “The King’s Man” also tries to look smarter than it really is by throwing in real-life historical figures into the mix. But all of these gimmicks cannot hide the gross stupidity of so many aspects of “The King’s Man,” which is nothing but a bloated over-indulgence in period set pieces and big-budget stunts that are just smoke and mirrors for a lackluster story.

The basic story, which takes place from 1902 to the late 1910s, is that wealthy nobleman Orlando Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), also known as the Duke of Oxford, is a military-officer-turned-pacifist, who finds himself caught up in a lot of violence and political machinations leading up to World War I. To make matters worse for Orlando, his young adult son Conrad (played by Harris Dickinson) wants to enlist as a soldier to fight during the war, much to Orlando’s objections.

The movie opens during the Boer War in 1902, when Orlando (who’s representing the Red Cross) is visiting a concentration camp in South Africa with other military officials. Traveling with him in the car are Orlando’s wife Emily Oxford (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and Conrad at about 8 or 9 years old (played by Alexander Shaw), who wait in the car while Orlando goes to meet with the people in charge of the concentration camp.

The movie is so badly written, it never explains why Orlando brought his family into this dangerous situation. During the ride to this concentration camp, Emily tells Conrad about the legendary Knights of the Round Table. She also talks about how privileged people must share their power and that the knights’ round table equals equality.

When you visit a concentration camp and you bring your spouse and underage child with you, don’t expect good things to happen. And sure enough, there’s a shootout that results in Emily getting shot and killed in front of Orlando and Conrad. Orlando’s loyal bodyguard Shola (played by Djimon Hounsou) stabs and kills the shooter, but it’s too late to save Emily. Emily’s dying words to Orlando are: “Protect our son. Promise he’ll never see war again.”

Two other military men were also caught up in this tragic shootout: Lord Kitchener (played by Charles Dance) and his right-hand man Maximillian Morton (played by Matthew Goode), who is a trusted soldier. Lord Kitchener gets shot but not killed. Unlike Orlando, Lord Kitchener does not become a pacifist after this incident. (The Lord Kitchener character is based on the real-life Herbert Kitchener, the British Army officer who later became the U.K.’s secretary of state for war.)

The movie then fast-forwards about 12 years later. Orlando has left the military and is an over-protective father to Conrad, who has led a very sheltered life. As a young man, Conrad is getting restless. Conrad wants to experience life outside of the confines of his family’s lavish estate, but Orlando is reluctant to let Conad experience the real world, and Orlando constantly fears for Conrad’s safety. Conrad has gotten an invitation from his cousin Felix Yusupov (played by Aaron Vodovoz) to visit Felix in Russia, but Orlando won’t allow Conrad to go.

The United Kingdom is on the verge of getting involved in World War I, and Orlando is firm on being an outspoken pacificist. When he takes Conrad to the Kingsman Tailor Shop on London’s Savile Row to get fitted for a new suit, Orlando tells Conrad that he wants the both of them to lead very different lives from their ancestors. Orlando describes their forebears as “tough and ruthless” brutes, who conquered and pillaged their way to power.

Orlando and Conrad have a sassy housekeeper named Polly Watkins (played by Gemma Arterton), who says things to Orlando such as: “I’ll play by your rules, if you play by mine.” “The King’s Man” is yet another action movie where the people who get top billing are several men and one token woman. And the movie has the sexist trope that this token female character can’t be around these men unless she’s a love interest of one of the men.

Therefore, you know where this is going when “The King’s Man” makes it obvious that Polly’s snappy remarks to Orlando are just her way of flirting with him and testing how he’ll react to her. It takes a while for Orlando to catch on to Polly’s romantic interest in him. And there’s a formulaic soap opera subplot when this would-be romance hits a very big snag.

Of course, there would be no “King’s Man” movie if Orlando and Conrad led a peaceful and tranquil life. Orlando, Conrad, Shola and Polly get caught up in a series of events where they become a four-person combat team fighting off various villains, many of whom are real-life historical figures.

These rogues have meetings around a table in a dark, dungeon-type of room, where Russian monk Grigori Rasputin (played by Rhys Ifans) leads the discussions. But there’s a mysterious mastermind who’s seen in the shadows during these meetings. And this person is the one who’s really calling the shots. (The movie eventually reveals who this mastermind is.) Also part of this rogue’s gallery are Dutch spy Mata Hari (played by Valerie Pachner) and Austrian con artist Erik Jan Hanussen (played by Daniel Brühl).

One of the movie’s few highlights is in how it pokes fun at real-life rivalries of royal cousins King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. All three roles are played by Tom Hollander, who does a very good job at balancing comedy and drama in his performances. However, the movie’s attempts at having high-minded “history lessons” are just drowned in an avalanche of silly conversations and convoluted plot twists that aren’t very clever.

The movie also goes off on a weird and unnecessary tangent when it fixates on Rasputin’s reputation of being a hedonistic libertine. At first, Rasputin’s insults are mild. When he first meets Orlando and Conrad, he asks them, based on how Orlando and Conrad are dressed: “Are you waiters or Englishmen?”

Later, Rasputin ramps up the sex talk by saying, “I only make a decision when my belly is full and my balls are empty.” And then he says to Orlando, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think your son is trying to fuck me.” Orlando replies, “Knowing your reputation, I’d think you’re trying to fuck him.”

And the homoerotic innuendos continue. After Orlando gets a leg wound, Rasputin says to him, “Let me lick your wounds.” Rasputin then flicks his tongue on Orlando’s leg wound in a sexually suggestive manner. The filmmakers go overboard in making their point that Rasputin is supposed to be some kind of sexual predator.

But really, it’s all just a badly written and awkward-looking attempt at making audiences laugh at the idea that a straight guy like Orlando is supposed to be uncomfortable at male sexuality that isn’t heterosexual. And why is it that the only possibly queer character in this movie has to be a villain? It’s really just homophobic filmmaking that’s incredibly tone-deaf and outdated, much like many other aspects of his dumb film.

“The King’s Man” fails in much of its comedy, but the dramatic scenes aren’t much better. That leaves the action to possibly salvage the film, but the movie falls short in that area too. There are obvious stunt doubles and distracting CGI effects in too many of the action scenes.

The movie’s production design and costume design are actually two things that make “The King’s Man” enjoyable to look at on a superficial level. However, the movie’s tone veers from having slapstick-type goofy comedy to trying to be an intense and serious spy thriller. Ultimately, “The King’s Man” is a movie prequel that makes the “Kingsman” franchise look stuck in an unimaginative rut that’s in desperate need of fresh and new ideas.

20th Century Studios released “The King’s Man” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2021.

Review: ‘The Souvenir Part II,’ starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton and Richard Ayoade

November 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir Part II” (Photo by Josh Barrett/A24)

“The Souvenir Part II”

Directed by Joanna Hogg

Culture Representation: Taking place in the mid-1980s in England (primarily in London and briefly in Norfolk), the dramatic film “The Souvenir Part II” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this sequel to “The Souvenir,” a film student struggles with completing her first short film while trying to mend her broken heart after a relationship with a former boyfriend ended badly in “The Souvenir.”

Culture Audience: “The Souvenir Part II” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Joanna Hogg and arthouse British coming-of-age films that have keen observations and dry wit.

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton in “The Souvenir Part II” (Photo by Sandro Kopp/A24)

If filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical “The Souvenir” depicted a dark storm in her life, then “The Souvenir Part II” is like the sun peeking more optimistically through the clouds. It’s a rare sequel that’s better than the original movie. “The Souvenir” (released in 2019) was a dour and depressing story of a young film student caught up in a toxic relationship with a heroin-addicted older man. “The Souvenir Part II” shows with imaginative charm how the young protagonist picks up the pieces of her broken heart and finds her identity as a beginner filmmaker.

British filmmaker Hogg wrote and directed both movies with a combination of a sharply objective viewpoint and an intimate subjective perspective. That hard-to-achieve mix makes “The Souvenir Part II” a universally relatable tale for anyone who decides to pursue a passion, and yet it’s a deeply personal reminsicence of a specific era and place for Hogg. “The Souvenir Part II” picks up not long after “The Souvenir” ended. “The Souvenir” was about depression and degradation, while “The Souvenir” is about recovery from this type of damage and emerging stronger than before.

In “The Souvenir Part II,” it’s still the mid-1980s, and film student Julie Harte (played by Honor Swinton Byrne) is trying to recover from the destructive romance that she had with a heroin addict named Anthony (played by Tom Burke), a charismatic, intelligent but ultimately disturbed con artist/thief from a vaguely privileged background. The end of “The Souvenir” showed how Julie and Anthony’s relationship was destroyed to the point of no return. It was an exhausting relationship in which Anthony (who was about 10 years older than Julie) used her, emotionally manipulated her, betrayed her, and ultimately broke her heart.

But it was also the first time that Julie fell deeply in love. And she’s still trying to get over Anthony. In the meantime, Julie has been focusing on her school studies. She attends the fictional Raynham Film and Television School in London. As a requirement for her upcoming graduation, she has to complete a short film that she’s writing and directing. Julie is also getting “real world” experience as a part-time production assistant on a film set.

Julie comes from a well-to-do family. Her mother Rosalind Harte (played by Tilda Swinton, who is Swinton Byrne’s real life-mother) supports Julie in her quest to become a filmmaker. Julie’s father William Harte (played by James Spencer Ashworth) is much more skeptical of Julie’s filmmaker goals. Swinton and Ashworth were also in “The Souvenir” as Julie’s parents. In “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie still seeks their approval and needs their financial support, but she has become more independent and determined not to let naysayers distract her from her artistic vision and her ambition.

When Julie visits her parents at their home in Norfolk, England, she gripes to them about getting criticism from a film instructor, who thinks that Julie’s student film thesis is too unfocused. William gives this unsympathetic response: “Sounds typical for art school.” In the same conversation, William asks Julie if she would consider working on the family farm instead of pursuing what he thinks is a foolish dream of becoming a filmmaker. Based on these family dynamics, it should come as no surprise that Julie asks her mother, not her father, for the money that Julie needs to finish her student film.

Julie’s part-time production assistant job is essentially an internship. She’s doing PA work for a lavish period musical about young people in their 20s. The movie’s leading man is Jim (played by Charlie Heaton), a roguish actor who suggestively gives Julie the eye when they’re working on the film set. The movie’s director is egotistical and demanding Patrick (played by Richard Ayoade, in a hilarious, scene-stealing performance), who reprises his role as Julie’s friend from “The Souvenir.”

It’s Patrick who suggests to Julie that she make her student film a tribute to Anthony to help her through her grieving process. (Mild spoiler alert: Anthony died of a heroin overdose at the end of “The Souvenir.” Anthony’s death is mentioned in “The Souvenir Part II” trailer, so it’s not really spoiler information.) Julie takes Patrick’s advice and ends up doing a very artsy/avant-garde movie version of her relationship with Anthony. The title of Julie’s movie is revealed toward the end of “The Souvenir Part II.” (The title is exactly what you might think it is.)

In “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie has a group of peers (some film students, some not) whom she bounces ideas off of for her student film, even if they give her advice that she doesn’t think is compatible with what she has in mind. What they all have in common is a passion for movies. These supporting characters include Jaygann Ayeh as Marland; Alice McMillan as Elisa; Harris Dickinson as Pete (who plays the Anthony-inspired character in Julie’s film); and Joe Alwyn as the unnamed editor of Julie’s film.

It’s not much of a surprise when Jim shows up unannounced at Julie’s door one day. She lets him in, and they hook up. But in an effort to make this movie very much from a female perpsective, viewers find out more than maybe some people might want to know about Julie’s menstrual cycle. In an early scene in “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie announces that her menstrual period is late. When she and Jim have their sexual tryst, let’s just say that her time of the month arrives, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Jim is just a fling because Julie (even though she doesn’t really want to admit it to a lot of people) is still somewhat in love with Anthony. There’s a very realistic scene of her secretly meeting with someone from Anthony’s druggie past in order to try and get some answers on what kind of life he was leading when he would disappear on his drug binges. This “investigation” is a big sign that Julie is having a difficult time moving on from Anthony.

In the production notes for “The Souvenir Part II,” Hogg says that she wanted the movie to be about Julie’s expressions of the five stages of grief. (These five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.) In “The Souvenir,” Julia’s life, energy and spirit revolved around Anthony. In “The Souvenir Part II,” she experiences the five stages of grief. The end result is that her life, energy and spirit begin to blossom into who she is as an artist and as a person.

It’s not an easy journey, because there are pitfalls (some self-made, others created by other people) along the way. However, Julie’s emotional scars end up becoming her armor when things get tough for her. Swinton Byrne gives a thoroughly believable and captivating performance as Julie, while Hogg’s attention to 1980s-era details manages to feel both retro and timeless.

Truth be told, “The Souvenir” is a movie that’s a little too enamored with its own mopiness, just like a pouty teenager who thinks it’s uncool to smile. “The Souvenir Part II” is a triumphant “coming into adulthood” film that finds a more emotionally mature Julie finally understanding that happiness isn’t always guaranteed in life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find joy in discovering who you are and not be afraid to show it.

A24 released “The Souvenir Part II” in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021. Picturehouse will release “The Souvenir Part II” in U.K. cinemas on January 21, 2022.

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