Review: ‘Rare Objects’ (2023), starring Julia Mayorga, Katie Holmes, Derek Luke and Alan Cumming

September 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Derek Luke and Julia Mayorga in “Rare Objects” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Rare Objects” (2023)

Directed by Katie Holmes

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Rare Objects” (based on the 2016 novel of the same name) has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A working-class college student, who is recovering from trauma in her personal life, gets a job at a high-end antiques store, where she meets some eccentric people who have backgrounds that are very different from hers.

Culture Audience: “Rare Objects” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star/director Katie Holmes and slow-moving movies that don’t have much that’s interesting to say.

Katie Holmes in “Rare Objects” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Rare Objects” is a boring slog of a film with a flimsy plot and main characters who sound very phony. Katie Holmes has directed yet another cinematic misfire in which she’s cast herself as the star. Her awkward over-acting in “Rare Objects” does not help.

Holmes co-wrote the turgid “Rare Objects” screenplay with Phaedon A. Papadopoulos. They adapted the screenplay from Kathleen Tesaro’s 2016 novel of the same name. “Rare Objects” does something that most movies that take place in New York City don’t do: It actually makes vibrant, “love it or hate it” New York City look dull. The story in “Rare Objects” is fairly unfocused and doesn’t seem to have much of an idea about what do with the main characters, who sort of meander along in life and have very shallow conversations.

“Rare Objects” begins by showing protagonist Benita Parla (played by Julia Mayorga) in a major life slump. Benita is a student at the City University of New York, but she’s taking a break from school because she had an abortion after getting pregnant from rape. She also temporarily checked herself into a psychiatric facility for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Benita has flashbacks about the rape throughout most of the movie. Her rapist was on a dinner date with her on the night that he raped her. During this dinner date, he told her that he was new to the area and worked in finance. These flashbacks are put into the movie without further exploration about what these memories are doing to Benita.

Adding to Benita’s woes, she’s not completely over her ex-boyfriend Anthony (played by Giancarlo Vidrio), whom she hasn’t seen in a while. Benita decides to suddenly visit Anthony unannounced. He’s surprised to see her and tells Benita something that she doesn’t want to hear: He’s getting married. Any hope that Benita might have had that she and Anthony would get back together is now gone.

Benita has kept the rape and abortion a secret from most people who are close to her, including her best friend Angie (played by Olivia Gilliatt), who is a single mother to a baby. And so, when Benita tells her immigrant single mother Aymee Parla (played by Saundra Santiago), who works as a seamstress, that she’s taking a break from school and wants to move back in with Aymee, Aymee’s reaction is one of judgmental disappointment. Aymee thinks that Benita is just being a lazy flake, but ultimately she supports Benita’s decision and lets Benita move back in with her.

Benita is stressed-out about her student loans. Aymee tells Benita to be grateful for the opportunities that Benita has and to “just pray.” However, “just praying” doesn’t pay Benita’s bills, so she starts looking for a job. She sees an ad for a job as a sales assistant at the Colony Club, an upscale antiques store. Benita doesn’t know anything about antiques, so she goes into the interview with a “fake it ’til you make it” mindset.

Colony Club owner Peter Kessler (played by Alan Cumming) interviews Benita. Peter has high standards and is very fussy. He’s an elitist, but he’s not a mean-spirited person. Peter can sense that Benita doesn’t know much about antiques, but he hires her anyway because she seems pleasant and very eager to learn. He tells Benita that her job requires greeting and assisting clients and to be “attentive but un-presuming.”

A great deal of “Rare Objects” shows Benita working in the store and meeting a range of people who are usually wealthy. Two of those people are Diana Van der Laar (played by Holmes) and her brother James Van Der Laar (played by David Alexander Flinn), who have a slightly weird, overly co-dependent relationship. Diana takes a liking to Benita, and it isn’t long before Benita is hanging out with Diana when Benita isn’t working.

Diana has a lot of issues. She uses illegal drugs, and she’s spent time in a psychiatric facility through involuntary admission. Diana blames her haughty socialite mother Linda Van der Laar (played by Candy Buckley) for most of the emotional damage that Diana has. There’s a lot of cringeworthy dialogue in “Rare Objects,” and most of it comes from Diana.

When Benita tells Diana that she was raped, Diana’s response is: “When you think about it, it was a bad dream, like it never happened.” When the conversation turns to whether or not Diana and Benita have ever fallen in love with someone, Diana says to Benita: “Our mothers teach us how to be desired, but not how to be loved. I think you’re a goddess, made more perfect by experience.”

The movie is about two-thirds over when another character awkwardly shows up: His name is Ben Winshaw (played by Derek Luke), who is a married father working for the Colony Club, but he was away when Benita was hired. Benita is surprised to meet him because Peter never told her about Ben. In this role, Luke (who is American in real life) has a very fake-sounding Caribbean accent that we do not need to hear. “Rare Objects” starts to set up a subplot about a rivalry between Benita and Ben, but this subplot ultimately goes nowhere.

The character of Ben (and the phony accent that Luke gives this character) can best be described as “unnecessary” to this movie. One might assume that Luke is in “Rare Objects” because he was in Holmes’ 2022 flop “Alone Together,” which she wrote and directed. This Ben character looks like a role that was given to a friend so the friend could have a job, even though the role is not essential to the story. There’s nothing about “Rare Objects” that’s essential viewing, unless you want to see a lot of mediocre-to-bad acting in a lackluster movie that most people will forget soon after seeing it.

IFC Films released “Rare Objects” in U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on April 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Alone Together’ (2022), starring Katie Holmes, Jim Sturgess and Derek Luke

January 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jim Sturgess and Katie Holmes in “Alone Together” (Photo by Jesse Korman/Vertical Entertainment)

“Alone Together” (2022)

Directed by Katie Holmes

Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and New York City, from March to April 2020, the comedy/drama film “Alone Together” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, a food critic/journalist with an attorney boyfriend finds herself quarantining unexpectedly with a bachelor repairman when they are both double-booked at the same Airbnb rental house, and the awkwardness between these temporary housemates turns into a romantic attraction.

Culture Audience: “Alone Together” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star/writer/director Katie Holmes and don’t mind watching a clumsily made and extremely predictable romantic dramedy.

Katie Holmes and Derek Luke in “Alone Together” (Photo by Jesse Korman/Vertical Entertainment)

“Alone Together” is a trite and misguided dramedy about a would-be couple stuck quarantining in the same house during the COVID-19 pandemic. The only social distancing needed is for viewers to avoid this boring flop that fails to have any romantic sizzle. Katie Holmes is the writer, director and star of this formulaic dud, so she bears the responsibility for not being able to write and direct a great role for herself. The cast members’ performances aren’t terrible, but the movie’s storytelling is so unimaginative and substandard, it’s disappointing that the potential to make a witty and memorable film is completely wasted.

“Alone Together” takes place during a one-month period (March to April 2020), during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Keep that in mind when the “Alone Together” characters make big decisions about their lives in such a short period of time. The problem is that some of these life decisions don’t look completely believable and look too rushed, considering the personalities of some of the characters involved.

“Alone Together” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Holmes’ feature-film directorial debut “All We Had” (written by Josh Boone and Jill Killington) had its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. In both movies, Holmes as a director shows a knack for choosing talented cast members, but she needs a lot of improvement in how a director shapes the narrative of a film.

“Alone Together” is not as muddled as “All We Had” (a drama about a single mother who becomes homeless), but “Alone Together” has almost the opposite problem: It presents complicated life decisions in such an overly simplistic way, the end result is that “Alone Together” looks like an unrelatable, half-baked fairy tale. “Alone Together” earnestly wants to be a meaningful love story set during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lack of believable chemistry between the two lead characters automatically makes this romantic dramedy a non-starter.

“Alone Together” begins on March 15, 2020, in New York City, at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns. A food critic/journalist named June (played by Holmes) is going on a getaway trip to an Airbnb rental house in Connecticut. Her boyfriend John (played by Derek Luke), who is a corporate attorney, booked this rental the week before, as a romantic vacation. But now, with the world under quarantine from a deadly disease, this trip has taken on a new meaning.

From the beginning, “Alone Together” has a series of contrivances to make June get in a bad mood at the start of the trip. When she goes to the subway station, a homeless panhandler (played by Mike Iveson) verbally abuses her when she ignores his begging for money: “The world is ending, bitch,” the panhandler snarls. “I shouldn’t have to ask you twice.”

The subways are delayed, so June decides to take an above-ground train. But when she gets to the train station, she finds out that the train she needs to take has cancelled all service for the day. June ends up using a Lyft car service to get to her destination, so traveling to the rental home costs a lot more than June expected.

While June uses hand sanitizer in the car (and she continues to use hand sanitizer throughout the movie, to show she’s conscientious about germs), the nosy Lyft driver (played by Neal Benari) inappropriately asks June if she’s married. June says no, but she says she eventually wants to get married and start a family. It’s later mentioned in the movie that June and John have been dating each other for a year.

When she’s in the car on the way to the Airbnb rental, June gets a text from John telling her that he won’t be able to join her at the Airbnb rental, because he’s staying in the city to look after his elderly parents during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The rental house has already been paid for, and June is almost there, so she doesn’t see the point of going all the way back to New York City.

The irritations for June continue: When she arrives at the house, she can’t find the key to the front door. And then, her phone battery dies. She also finds out the house is already occupied by someone who says he booked the same house the day before. You know where this is going, of course.

The house’s other rental occupant is Charlie (played by Jim Sturgess), a bachelor who has his own business repairing vintage items. His especially loves to fix up old motorcycles. And what a coincidence: Charlie lives in New York City too, and he’s rented the house to be by himself during the pandemic lockdowns during the same period time that June and John had the booked the place. June and Charlie predictably have a mild squabble over who has the right to be at the house, until they both agree to share the house for the duration that they have it booked.

“Alone Together” then goes through the tedious and snoozeworthy motions of June and Charlie bickering and being uncomfortable with each other, until they discover they actually like each other and have some romantic attraction to each other. Meanwhile, June is already annoyed with John for wanting to spend time with his parents instead of with her. And then, June gets jealous when she sees a social media photo of John looking cozy with one of John’s female co-workers named Carol.

June tells Charlie about John but almost makes John sound like an inattentive boyfriend instead of a loving and caring son. Charlie has some issues about falling in love because his most recent ex-girlfriend cheated on him and dumped him to be with another man. Even after Charlie tells June this information, she seems to have very little qualms about cheating on unsuspecting John with Charlie. Charlie also doesn’t seem to want to think too much about the consequences if Charlie and June hook up: Charlie is going to be involved with another woman who’s a cheater, and he’s going to be involved in emotionally hurting John.

In other words: “Alone Together” doesn’t give any good reasons for viewers to root for June and Charlie to be a couple. To make things worse, the dialogue in “Alone Together” is so bland and forgettable, it’s hard to believe that June and Charlie are connecting on a level other than physical attraction. It’s supposed to be an “opposites attract” situation where uptight, white-collar June and laid-back, blue-collar Charlie are supposed to find love with each other, despite their different lifestyles. It all looks so phony.

“Alone Together” also has some weird inconsistencies that are examples of the movie’s substandard writing and directing. When June first meets Charlie, she asks him, “Are you from Wisconsin?,” even though he has an obvious East Coast accent. Charlie later tells June that he grew up New York City’s Lower East Side, even though Sturgess (who is British in real life) has an American accent that sounds more like Charlie grew up in New Jersey.

The two-story house where June and Charlie are staying is big enough to have more than one bathroom, but there are multiple, fake-looking scenes where Charlie and June have discomfort from using the same bathroom. June is supposed to be such a germaphobe during the pandemic (before a COVID vaccine is available), she’s paranoid about using towels in someone else’s house. But then, there are multiple scenes of her not social distancing or not using any face protections when she’s around a stranger like Charlie during the pandemic. Charlie eventually makes face masks for himself and June, because it’s supposed to be a cutesy romantic gesture.

Charlie and June eventually open up to each other about their family lives. June’s only living relative is her widowed, unnamed grandfather (played by Ed Dixon), who is the father of June’s mother. There’s a scene where June sings “Blue Moon” to her grandfather when they chat on the phone during the quarantine. (During the movie’s opening credits, Holmes’ real-life daughter Suri Cruise sings a pitch-perfect and delightful version of “Blue Moon,” in one of the few highlights of this dud of a movie.) Charlie is close to his widowed mother Deborah (played by Melissa Leo), and she calls him during the quarantine too.

June’s best friend is named Margaret (played by Zosia Mamet), who tries to assure a worried and insecure June that John wouldn’t cheat on June with his co-worker Carol, because John is a good guy. Meanwhile, hypocritical June gets closer and closer to cheating on John with Charlie. June fails to see this double standard. The characters of June’s grandfather, Charlie’s mother Deborah and June’s friend Margaret are just sounding boards and are ultimately of no consequence to the story.

Even if the trailer for “Alone Together” didn’t already reveal that John (who is a very generic character) would show up unexpectedly at the house, it’s too easy to predict that this is how John will find out about Charlie. The movie then hems and haws with pseudo-suspense, as June has to decide if she will choose John or Charlie in this monotonous love triangle. And remember: June is making this decision after knowing Charlie for less than a month. “Alone Together” is trying desperately to be a smart independent film, but there’s no intelligence to be found from copying the same old tired clichés that can be found in a Hallmark Channel movie or a cheap romance novel.

Vertical Entertainment released “Alone Together” in select U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on July 29, 2022.

Review: ‘The Secret: Dare to Dream,’ starring Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas

August 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas in “The Secret: Dare to Dream” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

“The Secret: Dare to Dream” 

Directed by Andy Tennant

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New Orleans area and partially in Nashville, the dramatic film “The Secret: Dare to Dream” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) presenting the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash:  A widowed mother who is financially struggling meets a stranger with a secret who upends her life in ways that she does not expect.

Culture Audience: “The Secret: Dare to Dream” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted but formulaic movies that promote the power of positive thinking.

Katie Homes, Aidan Pierce Brennan, Sarah Hoffmeister and Chloe Lee in “The Secret: Dare to Dream” (Photo by Alfonso Pompo Bresciani/Lionsgate)

“The Secret: Dare to Dream” is the type of movie where it’s very easy to predict how it’s going to end, even if people don’t know that this scripted drama is inspired by Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling self-help book “The Secret.” Yes, the movie is utterly formulaic and a little preachy, but it’s elevated by the very good performances of stars Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas, who have utterly believable chemistry together as two people who change each other’s lives for the better. The rest of the cast members also do a fine job of bringing this heart-warming story to life.

Directed by Andy Tennant (who also worked with Lucas on the 2002 romantic comedy “Sweet Home Alabama”), “The Secret: Dare to Dream” hits a lot of the same beats as movies that might end up on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel. But what separates “The Secret: Dare to Dream” from movies that are usually made for television is how terrific the casting is in “The Secret: Dare to Dream.” Viewers of this movie can recognize parts of themselves or people they know as the story unfolds.

The movie’s screenplay by Bekah Brunstetter, Tennant and Rick Parks could have been ruined if the wrong actors had been cast. But everyone brings an authenticity to their roles in a way that it looks they’re portraying people who really are like these characters in the real world. The cast members don’t come across as just actors saying their lines in a contrived and fake environment. (It also helps that the movie, which primarily takes place in Louisiana, was shot on location.)

“The Secret: Dare to Dream” begins with the arrival of a tropical storm called Hazel that’s ready to batter the New Orleans area. Miranda Wells (played by Holmes), a widowed mother of three, is at her job on the day that the storm is supposed to hit that night. Miranda (whose husband died more than five years ago) is the manager of a restaurant called Middendorf’s, a casual mid-sized eatery that’s owned by Tucker Middendorf (played by Jerry O’Connell), who comes from a wealthy family in the area.

Miranda has made a good deal that day to buy some late-season soft-shell seafood, and she’s praised for it by Tucker, who happens to be her boyfriend of about three years. Miranda has an early-afternoon dentist appointment, where she gets some disappointing news: She has to have a root canal, but since she opted out of dental coverage for her health insurance, she’s going to have to pay the out-of-pocket expenses, which she can’t really afford right now.

How bad are Miranda’s financial problems? Before she went to the dentist’s office, she’s seen calling her bank to tell them to reverse the charges on a bounced check, which is a check that she probably didn’t think would be presented to the bank as quickly as it was. The receptionist at the dentist office notices that the cost of the root canal is distressing to Miranda, so she asks Miranda if Tucker might be willing to cover the expenses. Miranda quickly dismisses that idea, “because tings are complicated because he’s my boss.”

Meanwhile, a handsome stranger from Nashville is seen checking into a nearby boutique hotel. His name is Bray Johnson (played by Lucas), who is a mechanical engineering professor at Vanderbilt University. Bray, who has an easygoing and friendly manner, tells the hotel’s front-desk employee Sloane (played by Sydney Tennant) that it’s his first time in New Orleans.

What Bray doesn’t tell her is why he’s traveled to New Orleans: He needs to deliver a legal-sized envelope to Miranda. (What’s in the envelope isn’t revealed in the movie until much later in the story.) Bray notices that Sloane is reading LSAT tutorial books to prepare for law school applications. Bray and Sloane talk about her goal to become an attorney, and he wishes her good luck.

Bray is carrying the envelope with him when he stops by Miranda’s house unannounced in the afternoon. She isn’t home, but her son Greg (played by Aidan Pierce Brennan), Miranda’s middle child who’s about 11 or 12 years old, is there because he’s taken a sick day home from school. Greg is out by a backyard creek when Bray first sees him, and they have a pleasant conversation where Greg mentions that his late father was an inventor.

Greg also seems to be interested in mechanics and science, so mechanical engineering professor Bray and Greg form an instant bond. Greg tells Bray that Miranda will be home after 4 p.m., so he can come back then to deliver the envelope. Greg also asks Bray not to tell Miranda that they spoke because Greg isn’t allowed to talk to strangers. Bray promises to keep their conversation a secret.

Meanwhile, Miranda’s mother-in-law Bobby Wells (played by Celia Weston), calls Miranda to express how worried she is about the leaky roof in Miranda’s house because of the impending storm. Miranda’s declines Bobby’s offer for Miranda and Miranda’s kids to stay at Bobby’s house during the storm. It’s pretty clear early on in the film that Miranda has a pattern of being too proud to ask for help, even when her life is falling apart.

Miranda picks her other two children up from school: teenage Missy (played Sarah Hoffmeister) and Bess, also known as Bessie (played by Chloe Lee, in her film debut), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Missy is cranky and on edge because her upcoming 16th birthday party is going to be held on the same day as a party thrown by fellow classmate who can afford to have food trucks at her party. Missy thinks her own party will be a flop because her schoolmates will prefer to go to the fancier party.

Missy resents that Miranda doesn’t make enough money for them to be financially secure. Missy has wanted to get a computer for quite some time, but Miranda can’t afford it. By contrast, Bess is a sweet-natured kid who doesn’t cause much of a fuss.

While Miranda is driving home with her two daughters, Missy and Miranda get into an argument, which causes Miranda to be distracted from the road. Miranda ends up having a minor fender-bender accident with the car in front of her. The accident causes the front bumper on Miranda’s car to fall off. And who’s the driver of the other car? It’s Bray, who’s not as upset by the car accident as most people would be.

Miranda makes profuse apologies to Brady and mentions that she has car insurance, but her policy has a $5,000 deductible that she can’t afford. Bray sees how upset she is and kindly offers to fix the front bumper for free. Miranda can’t believe her good luck, so she says that Bray can follow her back to her house and work on the car there.

When Bray follows Miranda to the house, he’s surprised to see it’s the same house that he was at earlier in the day, and he realizes that the woman who hit his car is Miranda. Bray decides to wait to give the envelope to Miranda, since she obviously has other things on her mind. Bray sees Greg again, but they both pretend that they’re meeting for the first time.

When Bray introducers himself, he tells Miranda and the kids a little bit more about himself, but he doesn’t mention the envelope. While Bray (with Greg watching) works on the car outside, Missy looks up information about Bray online, and sees that his story about being a Vanderbilt University professor is true. She shows the proof to Miranda, and they both feel a little better knowing that Bray seems to be honest about who he is.

When it starts to get dark and the storm begins, Miranda invites Bray to stay for dinner. Bray’s almost Zen-like demeanor prompts Missy to ask Bray if he’s a Buddhist. He says no, but he does spout some platitudes that indicate that he’s a deep thinker who believes that thoughts can be turned into reality.

For example, Bray tells Bess: “We have to be careful because we get what we expect.” And in the kitchen, when he shows the kids how magnets have unseen forces, he says that people’s thoughts are like magnets: “The more you think about something, the more you draw it to you.”

The kids all want to have pizza for dinner, but Miranda says no. But just as Bray is telling them that thoughts will manifest themselves into reality, he asks the kids to imagine what kind of pizza they want. They give vivid descriptions. And then, like clockwork, during the rainstorm, a pizza delivery guy is at their door with some pizza.

It’s not magic. It turns out that Tucker had ordered the pizza as a thoughtful surprise. Miranda thinks it’s a lucky coincidence. Bray has a look on his face as if he thinks it’s not a coincidence. (And he utters this line later in the movie; “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”) Bray and Miranda also look at each other in a way that maybe something else is happening between them that’s more than politeness between two strangers.

Through a series of events, Bray ends up staying in New Orleans longer than expected. He also opens up to Miranda about his relationship status. Bray, who has no children, went through a painful divorce more than 10 years ago because his ex-wife cheated on him. He also hints that he went through another devastating event, which is shown in a flashback.

Meanwhile, Tucker notices that Miranda and Bray are getting closer as platonic friends, so he makes moves to assert his romantic relationship with Miranda, who doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get married again. Bobby approves of Tucker being Miranda’s boyfriend because Tuck is nice to Miranda and the kids and because Tuck is rich. Bobby wants her grandchildren to have a more financially stable life, so she tells Miranda not to doing anything that would ruin Miranda’s relationship with Tucker.

And what exactly is in that envelope? Although the relationships are easy to predict in this movie, what’s in the envelope isn’t that easy to predict. But when it’s revealed, it will permanently alter the lives of all the main characters in this story. The mystery of what’s in the envelope is another reason why “The Secret: Dare to Dream” will keep viewers hooked into finding out what will happen.

The movie is capably directed and the scenic cinematography is good, but the movie’s main appeal is with the human relationships and how personalities are realistically portrayed. When Bray starts sharing his life philosophies and gets some of the people in the story to begin thinking about their lives differently, he doesn’t come across as “holier than thou” or a “too good to be true” preacher type. His emotional pain is just beneath the surface of his calm demeanor, and Lucas does a great job in making Bray a very believable human being who’s learned a lot from his life experiences.

Holmes gives a richly nuanced performance as a single mother who wants to be a “superwoman” to the outside world, whereas on the inside she’s also in emotional pain, as well as vulnerable and fearful of how she’s going to get through life. Miranda doesn’t pretend to be perfect, but she learns some lessons about how asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. Part of the movie’s obvious message is not about what problems people have but how they deal with those problems.

A movie doesn’t have to be Oscar-worthy to be enjoyable. Many times, it’s about how convincing the movie is in drawing viewers into its world and how a movie makes you feel after you’ve seen it. “The Secret: Dare to Dream” sticks to a certain formula that people can expect, especially in how the story ends, but the movie’s positive message makes it an uplifting ride along the way.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “The Secret: Dare to Dream” on digital and VOD on July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Brahms: The Boy II,’ starring Katie Holmes, Owain Yeoman and Christopher Convery

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Katie Holmes in “Brahms: The Boy II” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Brahms: The Boy II” 

Directed by William Brent Bell

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the horror sequel “Brahms: The Boy II” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A family with a troubled past moves to a new home and finds a doll that seems to be wreaking havoc on their lives.

Culture Audience: “Brahms: The Boy II” will appeal mostly to horror fans who like stories that aren’t too gory and follow a predictable formula.

Owain Yeoman, Katie Holmes and Christopher Convery star in “Brahms: The Boy II” (Photo courtesy of STX)

Around the time that Warner Bros. Pictures’ 2013 horror blockbuster “The Conjuring” became a hit that spawned sequels and the “Annabelle” spinoffs, independent film company STX decided it wanted to have its own horror franchise about an evil doll. Instead of a female doll, it would be a male doll. The result was 2016’s “The Boy,” a laughable stinker that made $64 million worldwide on a $10 million production budget, according to Box Office Mojo. Apparently, the profit margin was good enough that STX went ahead with this slightly better but still terrible sequel “Brahms: The Boy II,” which is one of many disappointing horror films that have been released in 2020.

You don’t have to see “The Boy” to know what’s going on in “Brahms: The Boy II,” which were both directed by William Brent Bell and written by Stacey Menear. In “The Boy,” American nanny Greta Evans (played by Lauren Cohan), who’s living in England, is hired by wealthy elderly couple Mr. and Mrs. Wheelshire (played by Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) to take care of their underage son Brahms, only to find out that the boy is really a doll. The doll is named after the couple’s real-life son Brahms, who is said to have died under mysterious circumstances several years before. Greta thinks the job is weird, but she stays because she needs the money.

Slowly but surely, she finds out that not only can the doll move on its own, but strange things also start happening around the house, which is an isolated mansion in the woods. (Of course it is.) Even when she finds out that the doll is probably possessed by an evil spirit, she stays and starts to feel oddly protective of the doll. Family secrets are revealed, and there’s a plot twist/showdown that ranks as one of the most ludicrous in horror movies of the 2010s.

What happened in “The Boy” is referenced in “Brahms: The Boy II” with an update on something involving the plot twist at the end of the first movie. What makes “Brahms: The Boy II” a slight improvement over its predecessor is that the people’s reactions to the sinister doll are much more realistic. However, the movie’s screenplay is utterly predictable, using many of the same tropes and plot devices as dozens of other horror flicks about “fill in the blank” being possessed by an evil spirit.

In “Brahms: The Boy II,” housewife Liza (played by Katie Holmes) is an American living in London with her British businessman husband Sean (played by Owain Yeoman) and their son Jude (played by Christopher Convery), who has an American accent. (The movie doesn’t say how long this family has been living in England.) Sean’s work requires him to often be away from home, where Liza homeschools Jude.

One night, while Sean is away on business, two masked and armed intruders break into the home and attack Liza, while Jude witnesses the whole thing and can only stand by helplessly. The crime has been so traumatizing that Liza becomes depressed and distant from Sean, and Jude becomes mute. Jude’s therapist Dr. Lawrence (played by Anjali Jay) says that it’s unknown if Jude will speak again, but his chances of speaking again will increase if his parents create a positive environment and keep encouraging him to speak.

In an effort to start a new life, Liza agrees to Sean’s idea that the family move to the country. They choose a guest house on a vast property in the woods. On their first day in their new home, the family is walking in the woods when Jude finds a boy doll buried under a pile of leaves. The doll is buried with a list of 10 typewritten rules that include instructions that the doll cannot be left alone.

When Jude shows Liza and Sean the doll, they don’t say too much about it, because during the family’s walk in the woods, they’ve discovered the main house, which is a deserted mansion. Sean and Liza marvel at the mansion from the outside (even though it’s obviously in a state of neglect) and say they wish they could live there instead of the guest house.

Back at the guest house, Liza cleans up the doll and notices that it’s been broken before and put back together. Jude has immediately latched on to the doll and carries it with him wherever he goes. When Sean asks Jude what the doll’s name is, mute Jude (who communicates in writing) says the doll’s name is Brahms. How did Jude come up with that name? Jude says that doll told him that his name is Brahms. Although Sean privately admits to Liza that the doll is creepy, he and Liza both think that Jude could use it as a therapy doll that could help Jude to talk again.

Shortly after the family’s arrival, they meet the groundskeeper Joseph, nicknamed Joe (played by Ralph Ineson), and his German Shepherd named Oz. The dog immediately begins growling at the sight of the doll. Of course, the family doesn’t think anything of it and assumes that it’s the animal’s natural reaction to a strange-looking toy.

Meanwhile, when Jude is alone, he goes back out in the woods and finds a wardrobe with more of the doll’s clothes buried in the same area where he found the doll. Why did Jude go back in the woods to find this wardrobe? Brahms told him to do it.

Jude’s insistence in treating the doll like a real person who talks to him reaches a point where Brahms gets his own seat and meals at the dining table when the family eats together. Under other circumstances, the parents would look crazy for making these accommodations, but the story at least made it believable that these parents are so desperate for their son to talk again that they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen, even if it means pretending that the doll is their son’s imaginary friend. Because the stakes are higher for the family in the movie (compared to a nanny who can just quit the job), it’s easier to see why the parents want take a chance by keeping the doll, if they think that it will help their son.

After Jude discovers a creepy doll mask (which is part of “The Boy” movie) and puts it on, he begins talking again, much to the delight of his parents. But his attachment to Brahms becomes even more disturbing when he tells his parents that they can never leave Brahms alone.

Meanwhile, strange things start happening. Joe’s dog Oz has disappeared. Liza notices that when she’s alone with the doll, it appears to move from one place to another when she’s not looking. It’s déjà vu to what the nanny experienced with the same doll in “The Boy.”

Feeling isolated and increasingly fearful, Liza invites a female British relative and her husband and their underage children for a visit. The relative’s kids are a bullying son and a pleasant younger daughter. When the bully begins taunting Jude over his attachment to Brahms and starts calling Jude crazy, let’s just say that things don’t go well for anyone who tries to hurt Brahms.

The cast of actors do a satisfactory job with the script that they’ve been given. The angelic-looking Convery is well-cast as Jude, since he’s able to portray the horror of an innocent soul being overtaken by evil. However, the way he looks is so similar to the Damien Thorn character in 1976’s “The Omen” that it’s bound to get comparisons.

The biggest problem with “Brahms: The Boy II” is that there is almost nothing in the movie that is fresh or original. It’s easy to know how the movie is going to end once secrets are revealed. The scares in the movie aren’t too gory, because the terror is more psychological and about what you don’t see instead of what you do see.

The ending has a few grotesque images that just look kind of freaky instead of truly terrifying. Although the screenplay and acting of “Brahms: The Boy II” are superior to “The Boy,” the movie still lazily wallows in overused clichés. And, like most horror flicks, it leaves open the possibility for a sequel. You’ve been warned.

STX released “Brahms: The Boy II” in U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

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