Review: ‘Moving On’ (2023), starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Malcolm McDowell, Sarah Burns and Richard Roundtree

March 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in “Moving On” (Photo by Aaron Epstein/Roadside Attractions)

“Moving On” (2023)

Directed by Paul Weitz

Culture Representation: Taking place in California (and briefly in Ohio), the comedy/drama film “Moving On” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After their former best friend from college passes away, two women decided to get deadly revenge on the friend’s widower for a despicable act that he committed 46 years ago. 

Culture Audience: “Moving On” will appeal primarily to people who are fans the movie’s stars, American football and fairy-tale-like movies about acting on revenge fantasies.

Malcom McDowell in “Moving On” (Photo by Aaron Epstein/Roadside Attractions)

Neither terrible nor great, “Moving On” will mainly appeal to viewers who like seeing Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin work together on screen. This comedy/drama with a deadly revenge plot is really a harmless story about appreciating true friendships. It’s recommended only for people who want something to do to pass the time and aren’t expecting anything outstanding from a movie that has a talented cast and director who’ve made better films. “Moving On” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Paul Weitz, “Moving On” begins with a senior citizen named Claire (played by Fonda) leaving her home state of Ohio for a trip to California, to attend the funeral of a longtime friend named Joyce. Claire, Joyce and a woman named Evelyn (played by Tomlin) were the best of friends in college. Claire isn’t going to the funeral just to grieve. She wants to go to California to kill Joyce’s husband Howard (played by Malcolm McDowell), who has no idea that he’s the target of a murder plot.

Claire has been married and divorced twice. Her most recent divorce was 15 years ago. She has an adult daughter (from her second marriage) and two teenage grandchildren. Claire currently lives alone and has a beloved pet Corgi named Daschel. Evelyn is the only person (other than Claire) who knows why Claire would want to kill Howard.

Evelyn is a retired professional cellist who used to be part of a classical orchestra that traveled around the world. She has arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis, which obviously ended her career. Evelyn lives in a retirement building in California, not far from where Joyce and Howard live. Evelyn, who has been living openly as a lesbian for years, is also grieving over the death of her wife Annette, who was also a classical musician. Annette and Evelyn met in 2006, and they were married in 2009, shortly before Annette died.

At the funeral, Claire is warmly greeted by Joyce’s adult daughter Allie (played by Sarah Burns), who lives in Pennsylvania. Also with Allie are her two daughters Devin (played by Haley Wolff) and Joycie (played by Cosette Abinante), who are about 8 to 10 years old. Allie is very kind and patient with her father Howard, who can be rude and abrupt with people. At the funeral, Claire tells Howard that she’s going to kill him, but he thinks she’s joking.

Howard gives an effusive eulogy about Joyce at her wake, but Evelyn interrupts and makes a bombshell announcement: During and after college, Evelyn and Joyce were secret lovers and were very much in love with each other. Their relationship ended though, and Joyce went on to marry Howard. Allie and Howard are shocked, in denial, and insulted that Evelyn would make this announcement during the wake. Eventually, Evelyn is asked to leave, and Claire goes with her.

In the car, Claire tells Evelyn that she’s not surprised that Evelyn and Joyce were lovers because Claire always suspected it. Claire and Evelyn catch up with what’s been going on in their lives, because they haven’t seen each other in years. In this private conversation, Claire tells Evelyn that she’s going to murder Howard when she gets the chance to do so. Evelyn knows why Claire wants to kill Howard and thinks it’s bad idea, but then agrees to help Claire.

Claire hasn’t figured out how she’s going to murder Howard. And so, the movie has some frivolous and not-very-funny scenes of them trying to plan this murder. Claire and Evelyn go to a gun shop so that Claire can buy a gun. But then, they find out that Claire can’t legally buy a gun in California, because she’s not a resident of California. Claire and Evelynn also discuss other methods of murder, such as poisoning.

Someone who was at Joyce’s wake was Claire’s first ex-husband Ralph (played by Richard Roundtree), who lives in California, and who is happy to see Claire after years of not being in contact with her. Howard invited Ralph to the wake, because Ralph knew Joyce when Ralph was married to Claire. Ralph’s second wife Zora died four years ago.

And it isn’t long before Ralph makes it known that he’s interested in seeing Claire again, even though he knows that she lives in Ohio. Before you know it, Ralph has invited Claire over to his house for dinner. Also at the dinner are Ralph’s daughter Joie (played by Amber Chardae Robinson) and Joie’s two sons (played Jeremiah King and Isai Devine), who are about 9 to 11 years old.

“Moving On” sort of wanders and drags out the murder plot in ways that get a little tiresome. Claire and Evelyn fumble and bungle their attempts to decide how to murder Howard. And they find the weapon they are going to use from an unlikely source.

Evelyn has become acquainted with a boy of about 8 to 9 years old named James (played by Marcel Nahapetian), whose grandfather Walt (played by Vachik Mangassarian) is an ailing resident living in the same apartment building as Evelyn. James and his parents (played by Eddie Martinez and Santina Muha) visit Walt on a semi-regular basis. And one day, James mentions to Evelyn that his grandfather Walt has a gun.

James mentions it when he tells Evelyn that James’ father wants to teach James how to use a gun to go hunting. James would rather wear dresses and jewelry, and play “dress up” in mock fashion shows with Evelyn, who encourages James to be himself and pursue these passions. However, it’s obvious (without it being said out loud) that James’ parents wouldn’t approve of James’ fashion interests. Evelyn knows that she and James have to keep these types of activities a secret because of homophobia.

“Moving On” has these moments of kindness and compassion, but there are also some mean-spirited slapstick comedy moments that aren’t uproariously funny, but they’re capably acted by the cast members who are in these scenes. Viewers find out that what Howard did to Claire was so damaging, she kept it a secret from Ralph, and it ended up ruining Claire and Ralph’s marriage. Even before the secret is fully revealed, it’s easy to figure out what the secret is, because the clues are so obvious.

“Moving On” makes Howard into a caricature-like villain, which is kind of a mistake and the easiest way to depict this character. What would have been more interesting is to have Howard be very skilled at hiding his despicable side. It would also explain why he got away with what he did to Claire and why she kept it a secret: She was afraid that no one would believe her. She also didn’t want to hurt Joyce by telling Joyce the awful truth about Howard.

People should not expect “Moving On” to be a completely lighthearted film. There are some heavy and dark issues in the movie. And not all of them are handled in the best way. However, the movie keeps things interesting enough for viewers who want to find out what will happen next. There’s a fable-like quality to “Moving On” that isn’t preachy, but it shows that getting deadly revenge for a grudge can be more toxic than what caused the grudge.

Roadside Attractions released “Moving On” in U.S. cinemas on March 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Huesera: The Bone Woman,’ starring Natalia Solián, Alfonso Dosal, Mayra Batalla and Mercedes Hernández

March 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Natalia Solián in “Huesera: The Bone Woman” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

“Huesera: The Bone Woman”

Directed by Michelle Garza Cervera

Spanish with subtitles

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

Culture Clash: A woman’s pregnancy and her sanity are threatened when she keeps having nightmarish visions of her bones breaking and women who can contort their limbs and seem to be agents of death. 

Culture Audience: “Huesera: The Bone Woman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing bizarre horror movies with intriguing stories and striking visuals.

Natalia Solián in “Huesera: The Bone Woman” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

“Huesera: The Bone Woman” delivers plenty of creepy images and convincing acting performances. Just don’t expect a clear and complete explanation for all of the disturbing incidents in this effective horror movie. The movie’s sound effects are just as terrifying as the visuals.

“Huesera: The Bone Woman” is the feature-film debut of director Michelle Garza Cervera, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Abia Castillo. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, where Garza Cervera won the awards for Best New Narrative Director and the Nora Ephron Prize, an award given to emerging female filmmakers. Garza Cervera is certainly a talent to watch, since “Huesera: The Bone Woman” is the type of movie that will immediately hook viewers into the story and won’t let go.

The beginning of “Huesera: The Bone Woman” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Mexico) has a stunning visual of people gathered at the feet of La Virgen de Guadalupe (a giant gold statue of the Virgin Mary), somewhere in wooded area in Mexico. This statue (which is about 100 feet tall) doesn’t exist in real life, but it was created through visual effects for the movie. Religion and motherhood are major themes throughout “Huesera: The Bone Woman.”

The movie’s protagonist is a woman in her 30s named Valeria Hernandez (played by Natalia Solián), who has been married to her mild-mannered husband Raúl (played by Alfonso Dosal) for an untold number of years. Valeria (who makes furniture in her home shop) and Raúl (who works in advertising) seem to be happily married. But soon, viewers find out that the only strain in their marriage is that Valeria and Raúl have been trying unsuccessfully for a long time to have a child.

That disappointment is about to change when Valeria visits her gynecologist (played by Emilram Cossío) for a medical exam because she’s fairly certain that she’s pregnant. The doctor confirms that she’s three months pregnant. Valeria and Raúl are ecstatic about this happy news and start making plans for their first child. Valeria wants to make a crib for the baby, even though her doctor advises her to temporarily stop doing any furniture-making work while she’s pregnant.

Not everyone is thrilled about Valeria’s pregnancy. One day, Valeria and Raúl go to visit Valeria’s parents Luis (played by Enoc Leaño) and Maricarmen (played by Aida López), who are excited to hear that Valeria is going to become a parent. However, Valeria’s older sister Vero (played by Sonia Couoh), a single mother who lives in her parents’ household with Vero’s two kids, is skeptical that Valeria will be a good mother. Also in the household is Maricarmen’s sister Isabel (played by Mercedes Hernández), who has never been married and has no children.

Vero makes snide and sarcastic comments every time Valeria talks about the pregnancy, such as saying that she thought Valeria would never get pregnant because Valeria was getting to be “too old” to conceive a child. Vero also says that she wouldn’t trust Valeria to babysit or be alone with Vero’s two children: Jorge (played by Luciano Martí), who’s about 10 or 11 years old and Paola (played by Camila Leoneé), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Why is so Vero so uptight and hostile about Valeria being around children?

When the family is gathered for a meal at the dining room table, Vero tells Raúl why she thinks Valeria won’t have good parenting skills: When Valeria was younger (perhaps when she was an adolescent), she was asked to babysit an infant, but Valeria dropped the child on the ground. An embarrassed Valeria tells Raúl that the baby wasn’t injured, but viewers later find out that it’s a lie.

After this uncomfortable family gathering, Raúl and Valeria are driving back to their home when a woman stops the car to talk to them. Her name is Octavia (played by Mayra Batalla), who was close to Valeria when they were in high school together. Octavia and Valeria haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. They make small talk, as Valeria introduces Raúl to Valeria.

Octavia looks at Raúl suspiciously and immediately gives off “jealous ex-girlfriend” vibes. And sure enough, later in the movie, it’s revealed that Valeria and Octavia were lovers when they were teenagers. Raúl doesn’t know, and neither does Valeria’s family. It’s implied that Valeria has been keeping her queer identity a secret from most people in her life.

Flashbacks in the movie show that teenage Valeria (played by Gabriela Velarde) and teenage Octavia (played by Isabel Luna) were both in a rebelllious, hard-partying clique that included other queer people. Valeria and Octavia even made plans to move away together after they graduated from high school. However, Valeria changed her mind, and that’s what ended her relationship with Octavia, who seems to still be heartbroken and bitter over this breakup. Valeria later finds out that Octavia, who still has a hard-partying lifestyle, lives by herself and is not dating anyone special.

Because “Huesera: The Bone Woman” is a horror movie, it doesn’t take long for some frightening things to happen. Valeria begins to imagine that bones in parts of her body (such as a foot) suddenly break. She also sees faceless women who contort their bodies in grotesque ways and seem to be coming after Valeria to attack her or do something violent.

There’s a scene where Valeria is looking at the apartment building that’s directly across from the apartment building where Valeria and Raúl live. Valeria is horrified to see a faceless young woman contort her body, climb on the balcony, and jump to her death. Valeria even sees the bloodied and mangled corpse on the ground. But when Valeria rushes to tell Raúl about what she saw, and they both go to investigate, there’s nothing there.

“Huesera: The Bone Woman” can get a little repetitive with the over-used horror narrative of a woman seeing terrifying visions that no one else can see, and then people start to think that she’s mentally ill. However, many of the images in “Huesera: The Bone Woman” are truly unique, particularly in the movie’s last 15 minutes. Fire and water are both used effectively in some of the film’s best scenes, by tapping into fears of drowning or burning to death.

And get used to the sound of bones being contorted or fractured. Not only does Valeria have a habit of cracking her knuckles, the visions that haunt her almost always include the sounds of bones breaking. It might be too nauseating for some viewers, but the movie’s sound design and sound mixing are top-notch for achieving the intended horror. The cinematography by Nur Rubio Sherwell is also noteworthy for how it creates a foreboding atmosphere, amid what is supposed to be domestic bliss for a new mother.

“Huesera: The Bone Woman” blurs the lines between what is religion and what is pagan witchcraft. More than once, Valeria visits a spiritualist named Ursula (played by Martha Claudia Moreno) for guidance and some rituals. Valeria’s Aunt Isabel, who is treated like a weirdo in the family, because Isabel never got married and has no children, becomes more important to troubled Valeria, as Valeria starts to question her own life choices.

All of the cast members play their parts well, but “Huesera: The Bone Woman” would not be as memorable without the stellar lead performance of Solián. Even when the story gets a little muddled, and viewers will begin to wonder why it’s taking so long to explain why Valeria is experiencing all this terror, Solián maintains an authenticity to her character throughout the movie. Valeria is not a typical “damsel in nightmarish distress” from horror movies, which often care more about the murdered body count than the interior lives of the protagonists.

Is there a bone woman named Huesera in the movie? In real life, there is a fairly obscure Mexican folk tale about an elderly woman named Huesera, who collected bones and brought these bones back to life, but don’t expect that to be part of the movie’s story. “Huesera: The Bone Woman” could have done the most obvious thing and made the movie into a ghost story, with Huesera haunting Valeria. However, by the end of the film, viewers can understand the intended message: Sometimes, what can haunt people the most is when they try to hide from their true selves.

XYZ Films released “Huesera: The Bone Woman” in select U.S. cinemas on February 10, 2023. Shudder premiered the movie on February 16, 2023. “Huesera: The Bone Woman” was released on digital and VOD on February 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Swallowed’ (2023), starring Cooper Koch, Jena Malone, Jose Colon and Mark Patton

March 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Mark Patton and Cooper Koch in “Swallowed” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Swallowed” (2023)

Directed by Carter Smith

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. state and Canadian province near the U.S.-Canada border, the sci-fi horror film “Swallowed” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Before an aspiring porn actor moves to Los Angeles, he and his best friend are forced to go on a drug-smuggling run by swallowing the contraband, but the contraband ends up being dangerous insects that people use for intoxication. 

Culture Audience: “Swallowed” will appeal primarily to people who want to see gratitous body horror scenes with an uninteresting story that has a lot of plot holes.

Jose Colon and Cooper Koch in “Swallowed” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Swallowed” starts off as an intriguing but somewhat far-fetched horror film. However, when Mark Patton and his terrible acting show up, the movie turns into a campy, boring and repetitive mess. The movie’s ending is also very weak and unimaginative.

Written and directed by Carter Smith, “Swallowed” could have been a much better film if it had a consistent tone and if the last half of the movie had a better-constructed story. Instead, the latter half of the movie just has idiotic scene after idiotic scene that are meant to shock and nauseate viewers without bothering to answer questions that “Swallowed” brought up in the beginning of the movie.

“Swallowed” begins by showing two American best friends in their 20s named Benjamin (played by Cooper Koch) and Dom (played by Jose Colon), who are drinking at a bar on their last night together before Benjamin moves to Los Angeles. The movie takes place in an unnamed U.S. state and in a Canadian province near the U.S.-Canada border. “Swallowed” was actually filmed in Maine.

During this bittersweet get-together, Benjamin (who sometimes goes by the name Ben) says to Dom: “Tell me one good reason why I should stay here,” in a tone of voice suggesting that Benjamin would stay if Dom gave him a good reason. Dom doesn’t try to convince Benjamin to stay. Instead, he warns Benjamin that the people who are paying Benjamin’s living expenses while Benjamin is living in Los Angeles will probably expect Benjamin to pay them back, one way or another.

It turns out that Benjamin (who is openly gay) is moving to Los Angeles to become a porn actor. And the unidentified people who are telling Benjamin that he could be a porn star are the ones who have convinced him to move to Los Angeles, with the promise that they will cover his expenses. Dom identifies as heterosexual, but the movie repeatedly drops hints that Dom is bi-curious and has some sexual attraction to Benjamin. Dom tells Benjamin that he has a surprise: He wants to give Benjamin some money as a going-away present.

But there’s a catch that Benjamin doesn’t find out about until it’s too late: Dom is getting this money through a drug deal. Dom drives himself and Benjamin to a remote wooded area, where Dom goes to meet the drug connection. Dom is alarmed to see his cousin Dee (played by Hannah Perry) in the passenger seat of a car. Dee looks barely conscious and is obviously under the influence of an unknown substance.

Dee’s friend Alice (played by Jena Malone), who set up this drug deal, won’t tell Dom what Dee ingested. All that Alice will say is that Dee “isn’t feeling well” and that Alice will look after her. Dee was supposed to be part of this drug run, but since she’s unable to do it, Alice says that Dom will have to make the drug run without Dee.

And then, Alice tells Dom that he has to swallow the drugs, which are wrapped in condoms. Dom refuses and is about to leave with Benjamin, who tells Dom that he doesn’t need any money from Dom. But then, Alice pulls a gun on both of them, makes them swallow what appears to be a white substance in the condoms, and tells Dom and Benjamin that they both have to go on this drug-smuggling run, whether Dom and Benjamin want to or not.

Alice refuses to tell Dom and Benjamin what they swallowed. However, she gives specific instructions that when the drugs are delivered, the condoms have to be “clean,” because she assumes that the condoms will exit Dom’s and Benjamin’s body through defecation. Before Alice drives away, she tells Dom and Benjamin where to meet her after the drugs have been smuggled safely over the Canadian border.

During this tension-filled road trip, where Dom and Benjamin argue about what to do about this problem, the two pals go to a rest stop so that Dom use the restroom to try and defecate out condom-wrapped drugs that are in his intestinal system. It doesn’t work, and Benjamin goes in the restroom to check in on Dom. They have a conversation while Dom is on a toilet in a locked stall, and Benjamin is directly outside the stall.

Almost as soon as that happens, a stocky, homophobic bully (identified in the movie’s end credits as Randy Redneck, played by Michael Shawn Curtis) goes in the restroom. When Randy Redneck sees Benjamin in the rest room talking though the closed bathroom stall to Dom, this homophobe automatically assumes that Dom and Benjamin in the restroom for a sexual tryst. As already shown in the trailer for “Swallowed,” when Dom tells the Randy Redneck to back off and mind his own business, Randy Redneck punches Dom very hard in the stomach.

From then on, Dom is in excruciating pain, as it’s implied that Randy Redneck’s punch ruptured one of the condoms inside Dom’s body. One of the condoms eventually comes out of his body. The condom is intact, but it doesn’t have powdered drugs in it. The trailer for “Swallowed” already reveals that what’s inside those condoms are white caterpillar-like creatures that Dom and Benjamin have never seen before.

Dom is in so much pain, he can barely walk. He also says that he can’t feel his legs. During this long road trip, Dom tells Benjamin: “I can’t feel my legs, but my dick has been hard for an hour.” He then nuzzles up close to Benjamin in a sexually suggestive way, as if he wants Benjamin to do something about Dom’s erection. Benjamin just looks uncomfortable and scared.

As Dom’s intestinal pain gets worse, a terrified and panicked Benjamin decides that Dom has to be taken to a hospital—even if the drugs are found in their system, and they get in trouble for it. But just then, an angry Alice arrives back on the scene in her car and knows exactly where Dom and Benjamin are on this deserted road. Did she put a tracking device on Dom’s car? The movie never says how Alice found them so easily. There are lot of these types of plot holes in “Swallowed.”

Alice is impatient to get this drug deal done, but Benjamin insists on going to a hospital to get medical help for Dom and possibly himself. Alice says they says she’ll help Benjamin bring Dom to a hospital, on the condition that she does the driving in her Jeep. Anyone with common sense can see that Alice is lying. However, Alice still has a gun, which she uses as a threat, in order to force Benjamin to do what she wants.

Instead going to a hospital, Alice takes Dom and Benjamin to a remote wooded area, where she says her boss lives. They go to a small cabin, where Alice holds Dom and Benjamin hostage. She tells Dom and Benjamin that they won’t be going to any hospital until the drugs come out of their bodies first. Because she doesn’t want to do the dirty work herself, you can imagine what happens next.

Eventually, Alice’s boss—a lecherous creep named Rich (played by Patton)—arrives at the cabin. None of this is spoiler information, because the trailer for “Swallowed” gives away about 85% of the plot. The movie gives no explanation of the origin of these insect-like creatures that Alice eventually reveals are being sold as exotic and trendy ways for people to “get high” if they lick these animals.

“Swallowed” also never explains why it was so urgent for Dom and Benjamin to swallow the packets when there was little to no chance of their car being searched when they crossed the border, as long as they made sure not to call attention to themselves by acting suspicious. Drug mules who swallow contraband almost always do so because they have to go through airport security to get where they’re going. It’s pretty obvious that “Swallowed” writer/director Smith didn’t do enough research into the realities of drug trafficking before making this poorly conceived movie.

During all the scenes with Rich, “Swallowed” takes a steep nosedive into over-exaggerated acting, awkward pauses and fake-looking emoting during conversations. Rich, who is openly gay (he calls himself a “queen”), immediately shows that he’s lusting after Benjamin. At a certain point, the movie goes from body horror into something that looks like a predatory Grindr hookup gone bad.

Malone and Patton portray one-note villains in “Swallowed,” and their performances are not impressive at all. Colon spends most of his screen time playing a shallow character who’s doubled over in pain. Koch is the only cast member who is required to show emotional range, and his performance is adequate but overshadowed by how stagnant the movie gets in the last half of the story.

And don’t be fooled by the poster/key art for “Swallowed,” which has a misleading image that’s never in the movie. One of the worst things about “Swallowed,” besides Patton’s cringeworthy acting, is that the movie gets more and more ridiculous, thereby ruining the potential to be a truly scary horror film. Instead, it just turns into series of gross-out “proctology” scenes and the villains yelling a lot while they point a gun at their victims. It seems like this time-wasting, junkpile movie was made as a pathetic excuse to depict some twisted fantasies involving bugs and a human anus.

Momentum Pictures released “Swallowed” on digital and VOD on February 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music,’ starring Indigo Girls, Dylan Yellowlees, Vijay Iyer, Garnette Cadogan, Talib Kweli and Michael Ford

March 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Indigo Girls members Amy Ray and Emily Saliers in “Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music”

Directed by Kathleen Ermitage

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities, the documentary film Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music has a racially diverse group of people (white and black with a few of Asian heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy telling personal stories of how people are affected by music.

Culture Clash: Some of the fans who are in the documentary talk about sometimes being misunderstood about their passion for certain music or artists.

Culture Audience: “Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the documentary’s featured artists (Indigo Girls, Vijay Iyer and Talib Kweli) and movies about artists’ connections to their most devoted admirers.

Michael “Mike” Ford in “Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

Depending on your interest in the music genres of rock, jazz, classical and hip-hop, “Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music” will either keep you interested or not have much appeal at all. This occasionally uneven documentary mostly achieves what it intended in its title. The first third of the movie is upbeat but predictable. The second third is boring and forgettable. The last third is the most dynamic and informative section of the film.

Directed by Kathleen Ermitage, “Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music” (her feature-film directorial debut) starts off looking like a movie that’s about artists who’ve developed a friendship with a particularly devoted fan of theirs. That’s essentially what viewers see in the first section of the film (featuring folk/rock duo Indigo Girls) and the second section of the film (featuring jazz/classical music composer Vijay Iyer). It isn’t until the third and last section of the film (featuring hip-hop artist Talib Kweli) that this documentary transcends the repetitive scenes of artists and fans gushing over each other, and instead showcases what one fan is doing to incorporate hip-hop music into teaching children about architecture.

In the Indigo Girls section of the movie, a Denver-based superfan named Dylan Yellowlees talks a lot about how much her life revolves around Indigo Girls, whose members are singer/guitarist Amy Ray and singer/guitarist Emily Saliers. Ray and Saliers, who both hail from Georgia’s Atlanta and Decatur metropolitan areas, have known each other since elementary school, and they have been performing together since they were in high school. Indigo Girls’ first album, “Strange Fire,” was released in 1987. At the time this documentary was filmed, Yellowlees said she had seen Indigo Girls in concert more than 350 times. Yellowlees, who describes herself as being in the same Generation X age group as Indigo Girls, also discusses at length how Indigo Girls coming out as lesbians also helped Yellowlees in her own journey of coming out as a lesbian.

Yellowlees, just like many Indigo Girls fans, first discovered Indigo Girls because of the duo’s 1989 breakthrough hit song “Closer to Fine,” from Indigo Girls’ self-titled second album. Yellowlees describes how seeing the “Closer to Fine” video on VH1 made a big impact on her. Yellowlees says she was in college when she first heard “Closer to Fine,” around the same time of the civilian protests that turned deadly in China’s Tiananmen Square. The uplifting lyrics of “Closer to Fine” resonated with her on a deep level and helped give her a political awakening to stand up more for human rights, says Yellowlees. And if anyone cares, Yellowlees reveals that her favorite Indigo Girls song is “Go,” which Ray says in the documentary is a song inspired by feminist writer Meridel Le Sueur.

The documentary’s Indigo Girls section tends to be formulaic in showing Yellowlees attending Indigo Girls concerts and talking about how great she thinks Indigo Girls are. Yellowlees mentions that some people in her life haven’t understood why she spends so much time traveling to various cities to see Indigo Girls perform. Yellowlees comments, “I used to have a boss that was like, ‘I don’t understand why you go and see the same band all the time. Isn’t it the same?'”

Yellowlees continues, “And in his case, he was a fisherman, and he went fishing every weekend. So I was like, ‘You go stand in a river every weekend. Isn’t that the same?’ He’s like, ‘Hey, I understand. It’s the thing that brings me joy.'”

She further explains why Indigo Girls mean so much to her: “Being of the same generation as Indigo Girls, and probably having some shared experiences, it makes that music feel really important. It feels personal. It feels like a part of my life. It feels like it’s part of my story.” And before social media existed, Yellowlees says that going to Indigo Girls concerts was a great way for her to meet other lesbians and queer-friendly people. “Back then, it really was a way to find your people,” Yellowlees comments.

And what do Indigo Girls think of Yellowlees? Ray says that Yellowlees “has become a friend … and is not weird about it. It’s an honest appreciation of what we’re doing.” Saliers (who says she got to know Yellowlees better when Saliers did a solo tour) comments that she’s still amazed that Yellowlees shows the same enthusiasm for Indigo Girls concerts as she has over the several decades that they have been performing. “I feel like it’s an honor that she’s the fan in the way that she is,” Saliers mentions. “She’s smart and interesting.”

Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t dig much deeper into why Yellowlees is such a special Indigo Girls fan, other than the number of times that she has seen Indigo Girls in concert. A lot of Indigo Girls fans can claim that Indio Girls changed their lives. Ermitage and the other “Mixtape Trilogy” filmmakers needed to show or tell examples of why Indigo Girls consider Yellowlees to be a “friend.”

In a world where celebrities have hangers-on and people who follow them around, what exactly does it mean when Ray says that Yellowlees “has become a friend”? Does that mean a relationship that goes beyond an artist giving free concert tickets to a fan? Do Indigo Girls share private information with Yellowlees, or ask for her advice? The documentary never answers any of those questions and doesn’t give details further details about this friendship

In the documentary’s segment on Iyer, there’s no such ambiguity about the friendship that developed between Iyer and essayist/scholar Garnette Cadogan, who are both based in New York City. Iyer (who has been releasing albums since 1995) describes initially being skeptical and wary when Cadogan approached him for a series of interviews. Both men say in the documentary that these interviews turned into deeply personal conversations about their lives and led to a strong friendship between Iyer and Cadogan.

Iyer says these pivotal conversations, “He got me to a point that no one has ever gotten me, in terms of just being real, just being honest, and basically revealing things that I had never admitted to myself.” Cadogan explains why he became interested in Iyer as an artist and as a person: “He spent a lot of time thinking about, ‘What does this music mean,’ not just as sound but as identity.”

The documentary shows Cadogan spending more time than Iyer does talking about himself and his background. Cadogan calls himself a “man of the streets,” because of his passion for taking strolls on the streets where he lives and travels. Cadogan says he developed this passion when he was a child growing up in Jamaica, where he had an abusive stepfather and a loving mother and grandmother. He would spend a lot of time wandering around streets to avoid going home to the abuse that his stepfather inflicted on him.

Why this segment so dull? Ilyer and Cadogan say that they identify as activists, but the documentary doesn’t really show any of this activism. Instead, there’s just the expected footage of Ilyer performing with his band, and Cadogan sometimes watching as an admiring audience member. It’s all very lackluster and uninteresting.

As a self-described “man of the streets,” Cadogan isn’t shown in the documentary doing any real activism on the streets. Cadogan and Ilyer just seem more like academics who approach things in an intellectual manner but don’t really seem to be in touch with street culture activism. If they are, Cadogan and Ilyer give the impression in this documentary that they keep a safe distance from it.

The documentary’s segment on New York City-based Kweli (whose full name is Talib Kweli Greene) curiously doesn’t show any type of “we’ve become friends” interaction between him and his “superfan” Michael “Mike” Ford, who is an architect. It’s a very disjointed segment where part of it is Kweli talking about his life, while the other part is about Ford talking about his life.

Kweli (who has been releasing music since the late 1990s) is the least candid of the three featured artists in the documentary, because he doesn’t reveal anything that people can’t already find out about him by looking at his Wikipedia page or other information on the Internet. Ford is a fan of Kweli, but he isn’t as obsessive about Kweli as Yellowlees is about Indigo Girls. Ford and Kweli also don’t appear to know each other as friends, based on what’s in this documentary.

The most fascinating and best part of the documentary is how it shows Ford taking his love of hip-hop, doing an analysis of the lyrics, and using that analysis to turn it into architecture models. Ford mentions that when he was growing up in Detroit, he and his sisters discovered hip-hop because their family lived in an apartment above a nightclub that played hip-hop. Ford says that he was about 6 or 7 years old when he became a hip-hop fan.

Ford (who calls himself the Hip-Hop Architect) began a program called Hip-Hop Architecture Camp that he takes to various cities around the United States, in order to teach young people (ranging in ages from 4 years old to late teens) how to use hip-hop in creating architecture. This entertainment/educational program includes the students creating architectural models and their own original hip-hop songs at the end of each program. “Mixtape Trilogy” includes an impressive montage showing clips of music videos that were made of these original songs.

Most of the children who attend Hip-Hop Architecture Camp are underprivileged African Americans. Ford says he saw a need for this program as a way to bring more diversity to people who might become architects someday. “I have never seen something more unifying than hip-hop,” Ford comments in the documentary. Ford also gets candid in “Mixtape Trilogy” about the up-and-down journey that he and his wife, Gail Ford, have had in starting their own family.

“Mixtape Trilogy” has a very good concept that isn’t presented consistently in the documentary’s three segments. A few of the production elements are amateurish, such as in a scene where part of a boom microphone can be seen during an interview, or when the documentary’s sound mixing sounds a little rough. However, this movie does an admirable job of conveying the happiness that people get from the music that is the soundtrack of their lives, as well as showing how that joy and appreciation can be shared with other people.

1091 Pictures released “Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music” on digital and VOD on February 7, 2023.

Review: ‘Of an Age,’ starring Elias Anton and Thom Green

February 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hattie Hook, Thom Green and Elias Anton in “Of an Age” (Photo by Ben King/Focus Features)

“Of an Age”

Directed by Goran Stolevski

Some language in Serbian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Melbourne, Australia, in 1999 and 2010, the dramatic film “Of an Age” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few people of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: At 17 years old, a semi-closeted gay guy quickly falls for the older, openly gay brother of his female best friend, but this would-be romance is cut short because the brother is moving to South America the next day, and then the two men unexpectedly see each other again 11 years later.

Culture Audience: “Of an Age” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching LGBTQ love stories and movies about love, loss and possibly rekindled romances.

Elias Anton and Thom Green in “Of an Age” (Photo by Thuy Vy/Focus Features)

“Of an Age” is a compelling character study of love connections and the importance of timing in order for a relationship to grow. Elias Anton and Thom Green give memorable performances, but some viewers might not like how parts of the story remain untold. It’s a story that doesn’t fit a certain formula of what many people might expect in romantic dramas because of how the movie is structured. However, this unpredictability is the movie’s strength. By not following clichés, “Of an Age” offers something closer to real life than what most fictional movies about romance have to offer.

Written and directed by Goran Stolevski, “Of an Age” is a big departure from his previous film: the 2022 moody horror film “You Won’t Be Alone,” set in 19th century Macedonia, about a cursed woman who inhabits the bodies of various beings, while the witch who cursed her as a baby follows her to make sure that she does not experience love. In “Of an Age” (which takes place in 1999 and 2010 in Melbourne, Australia, where the movie was filmed), the protagonist is haunted by another type of curse: homophobia. This homophobia is the root cause of his shame about being gay, and it’s deprived him of having a love life up until he meets a man who gives him a liberating perspective. This perspective changes his attitude about his self-acceptance, his sexuality, and how honest he wants to be about himself to the people around him.

“Of an Age” begins on New Year’s Day 2010, when a gloomy-looking Nikola “Kol” Denić (played by Anton) makes a phone call to someone Ebony, who isn’t home, but the phone is answered by a woman who sounds like she lives with Ebony. Kol (whose nickname is pronounced “Cole”) is hesitant about this phone call. He tells the woman who answers the phone: “I was just thinking about her … I wasn’t thinking about her. Sorry.” He hangs up and takes a swig from a liquor bottle. Viewers later find out that January 1 is Kol’s birthday.

“Of An Age,” which is told in two parts, then flashes back to Part One of the story, which takes place over the course of 24 hours in December 1999. Part Two of the story takes place over a few days in 2010, about five months after Kol has made that mournful phone call. The movie has a non-traditional structure because Part One gets the majority (about 70%) of the movie’s screen time, whereas most two-part movies would be structured so that each of the two parts would get about the same amount of screen time.

In Part One of “Of an Age,” Kol is a 17-year-old aspiring dancer who is getting ready for the most important dance competition of his life so far: The Year 12 Ballroom Finals for an unnamed national Australian dance contest. His dance partner is his best friend Ebony Donegal (played by Hattie Hook), who has recently graduated from the same high school class as Kol. Ebony and Kol live in a working-class part of North Melbourne. Ebony is outgoing and rebellious. Kol is introverted and likes to play by the rules.

Ebony is also flaky and very temperamental. The movie shows that she has woken up on a beach, after a night of drug-induced partying with a male stranger she met the night before. Ebony has no idea where she is, and she barely remembers what happened the previous nught, but she knows that the dance competition starts in a few hours at the City Center in Melbourne. She desperately needs a way to get there in time.

After making some frantic phone calls and inquiries about where she is, Ebony has a meltdown when she calls Kol. She begs, cries and screams for him to come pick her up. Ebony—an aspiring actress who wants to go to the National Institute of Dramatic Arts—has a love/hate relationship with her single mother Fay (played by Verity Higgins), and refuses to call her mother for help. Ebony is often rude and demanding to the people close to her, but Kol puts up with it because Ebony is his only friend.

The problem with Ebony wanting Kol to give her car ride back home is that Kol doesn’t have access to a car. And he finds out that Ebony is too far away for him to pick her up and drive them to the dance contest in time. Ebony still needs a ride back home, so Kol enlists the help of Ebony’s visiting older brother Adam Donegal (played by Green), who has a car and meets Kol for the first time during this trip to pick up Ebony, who is disheveled, an emotional wreck, and quite the shrieking drama queen.

Even though there’s little to no chance that Ebony and Kol will make it in time to the competition, Ebony asks Kol to get her ballroom dance dress at the house that she shares with a friend named Jaya (played by Senuri Chandrani), who immediately picks up on the fact that Kol is gay, even though he’s not ready to admit it to anyone yet. When Jaya calls him “gay,” Kol acts slightly offended, but he’s really just embarrassed that Jaya has figured out his secret.

During the car drive to pick up Ebony in the rural area where she is, Adam and Kol have a sarcasm-fueled conversation that will change their lives. Adam is in his mid-20s and highly educated. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with a master’s degree in linguistics. As an undergrad, he majored in Spanish. And he’s about to get his Ph. D. degree.

Kol wants to impress this older man, so he tries to make Adam think that Kol is sophisticated. Even though the production notes for “Of an Age” say that Kol is 17, in the movie, Kol tells Adam that he is 18 and will turn 19 in a few weeks. Adam mentions early on in the conversation that he really likes South America. Adam is playing music from an Argentinian movie soundtrack in the car, so Kol pretends that he likes Argentinian movies too. When the subject turns to literature, Kol tells Adam that he has been reading the work of Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian short story writer.

However, Kol shows that he’s not very sophisticated at all when he mispronounces the name of supermodel Gisele Bündchen. Kol mispronounces her first name as “Jizzelly.” Bündchen’s name comes up when Adam says he chose Spanish as a major because he likes “South Americans—they’re just hotter.” Kol agrees and responds by saying (and mispronouncing) that South Americans are hot “like Gisele.” (Bündchen is from Brazil, where the national language is Portuguese, not Spanish.) At this point, Kol might be testing Adam’s reaction to see if Adam believes that Kol is sexually attracted to women. Adam doesn’t look entirely convinced.

Adam rolls and smokes a marijuana cigarette while driving. He offers a puff to Kol, who politely declines and says that he doesn’t smoke. Adam says of the dismal economic prospects of their working-class community: “You’re a good boy. Good boys make it out.” Later, when Adam asks Kol what his favorite book is, Kol says it’s Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” while Adam says his favorite book is Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.” Their choices in books say a lot about their personalities.

During this conversation that becomes increasingly filled with sexual tension and romantic attraction, Kol opens up about his family. He tells Adam that he and his family are originally from Serbia. They moved to Australia in 1991, “because of the war,” and Kol’s father died in 1994. Kol lives with Kol’s widowed mother, Kol’s aunt (played by Donna Dimovski Kantarovski) and Kol’s uncle (played by Slobodan Andonoski). Kol says of his home life: “I’m waiting for my uncle to die. He’s a psycho.” Later in the movie, Kol says he rarely sees his mother (played by Milijana Čančar), because she’s busy working at three different jobs.

At one point in the conversation in the car, Adam mentions having an “ex,” but he doesn’t say what gender the ex is. Not long after that, Adam says that a box of music cassette tapes and some other stuff in the back of the car belong to this ex-lover. When Kol accidentally knocks over the box of cassettes, Kol says, “Your ex is going to kill me.” Adam casually says, “He won’t.” It’s at that moment that Kol finds out that Adam is gay.

This revelation and the majority of the movie’s plot is shown in the trailer for “Of an Age.” It’s later revealed that Adam is the first openly gay man whom Kol has ever met. It scares Kol but also excites him because he and Adam have a mutual attraction that they cannot ignore. And then (as revealed in the movie’s trailer), Adam tells Kol that this is his last day in Australia, because he’s moving to South American to get his Ph.D. degree.

Over the next 24 hours, Kol and Adam act on their connection before saying a bittersweet and tearful goodbye. The connection between them is so strong, that they both instinctively know that they could have had a soul-mate romance if circumstances had not prevented them from being together. The “what ifs” about their would-be relationship will affect them for years to come.

The trailer for “Of an Age” already shows that after not seeing each other for years, Kol and Adam happen to end up in the same airport baggage claim area. This is in Part Two of the movie, which takes place in 2010. The movie trailer also shows that they have both arrived in Melbourne because of Ebony’s wedding. And it’s obvious that Kol and Adam are still very much attracted to each other.

What isn’t revealed in the trailer is what Kol and Adam will do about this attraction. Adam and Kol catch up on each other’s lives, as they tell each other what they’ve been doing in the 11 years since they saw each other. However, one of them has a big secret that will have an effect on any possible reunion. Because the trailer of “Of an Age” gives so much of the plot away, the only real question that viewers who’ve seen the trailer will have is: “Will Adam and Kol rekindle what they started 11 years ago?”

“Of An Age” would not be as emotionally touching if not for the stellar performances of Anton and Green, who both authentically portray the heartbreaking reality that sometimes true love can be found quickly but lost just as quickly. Adam is Kol’s first experience with romantic love as Kol’s true self. And so, it’s been harder for Kol to recover from this separation. That doesn’t mean Adam doesn’t care, but Adam had more dating experience than Kol at the time they met and shared this intense connection.

The movie gives vivid portrayals of the personalities of Adam and Kol. However, some viewers might be bothered by the 11-year gap in time that isn’t fully explained except in brief conversations between Adam and Kol when they see each other again in 2010. It’s also a little hard to believe that talkative loudmouth Ebony wouldn’t have told Adam ahead of time that Kol was going to the wedding. When Kol and Adam see each other at the airport, they are very surprised. It’s a small detail that doesn’t ring true in this movie.

“Of an Age” might bring up a lot of questions that the movie doesn’t answer. But there’s no doubt that the passion between Adam and Kol is real for both of them. Viewers will be intrigued by finding out how much Adam and Kol have changed in 11 years—or how much Adam and Kol might have stayed the same. And are they still right for each other 11 years after they have met? It’s a question that’s open to many different interpretations, which can be exactly what “Of an Age” intends for viewers.

Focus Features released “Of an Age” in select U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Hannah Ha Ha,’ starring Hannah Lee Thompson, Roger Mancusi and Avram Tetewsky

February 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hannah Lee Thompson in “Hannah Ha Ha” (Photo courtesy of Cinedigm)

“Hannah Ha Ha”

Directed by Joshua Pikovsky and Jordan Tetewsky

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sharon, Massachusetts, the dramatic film “Hannah Ha Ha” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman in her mid-20s, who has low-paying, part-time jobs and lives with her father, is constantly pressured by her visiting older brother to make career choices that can give her a higher income and health insurance benefits. 

Culture Audience: “Hannah Ha Ha” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in realistic “slice of life” dramas from the perspective of working-class young people.

Avram Tetewsky, Paul Mancusi and Hannah Lee Thompson in “Hannah Ha Ha” (Photo courtesy of Cinedigm)

“Hannah Ha Ha” is a well-acted drama that shows how a working-class young woman’s view of her life is very different from how her ambitious older brother sees it. The low-key style of this film won’t appeal to the masses, but it works for this movie. The movie invites viewers to think about their personal definitions of “success” and “contentment,” and how those different opinions might affect relationships.

Written, directed, and edited by Joshua Pikovsky and Jordan Tetewsky, “Hannah Ha Ha” won the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival grand jury prize for best narrative feature. It’s a no-frills movie filmed in the style of a cinéma vérité documentary. Don’t expect much of a structured plot, because the movie is meant to be a snapshot of a few weeks in the life of a quiet semi-loner named Hannah (played by Hannah Lee Thompson), who turns 26 years old during the course of the story.

Hannah doesn’t really have any big plans for her life. The movie’s tone continually asks, “And what’s so wrong about that?” She lives with her mild-mannered and ailing father Avram Tetewsky (played by Jordan Tetewsky’s real-life father) on a farm-like property in Sharon, Massachusetts, where the movie was filmed on location. (Sharon is about 17 miles southwest of Boston.) Hannah’s mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie. It’s implied that Hannah has lived in this small town her entire life.

Hannah makes money from low-paying, part-time jobs, most of which aren’t meant to be long-term. She gives guitar lessons. She works in customer service at retail stores, or as a food preparer at fast-food restuarants. And she occassionally takes odd jobs, such as cleaning or doing other manual labor for neighbors and acquaintances. Hannah can’t afford a car, so she gets around by riding a bike or taking a bus.

Hannah is fairly content with her simple life, although she’s aware that if she had more ambition, she would probably be making more money in a stable job with growth potential. Hannah will be constantly reminded of her underemployment when her older brother Paul (played by Roger Mancusi) arrives to visit from “the city” (presumably Boston), where he has an unnamed corporate job. Paul is very opinionated, pretentious and materialistic. And throughout his visit, he constantly tells Hannah to get a sensible full-time job that can give her health insurance and other benefits.

Over time, it’s obvious that Paul’s nagging isn’t because he cares about how Hannah wants to live her life. It’s because he doesn’t want to have a sister that he feels ashamed of, because Paul thinks Hannah is wasting her life. Instead of making Hannah feel good about her upcoming 26th birthday, Paul tries to make Hannah feel like a loser who hasn’t accomplished much and is wasting her potential. Hannah has never wanted to go to college and still doesn’t want to go to college. As she explains to someone in the movie about why she chose not to get a college education: “It didn’t make sense to go into debt for a fucking lit[erature] degree.”

To give you an idea of how money-oriented Paul’s priorities are, he spends more time asking Hannah about what types of jobs she’s applied for than asking about the health of their father. (Avram stays out of the siblings’ conflicts and tension.) At one point, Hannah tells Paul that their father is going through a clinical trial (the movie never says what Avram’s health issue is), but Paul barely asks Avram how he is doing before Paul goes right back to interrogating Hannah about her job prospects.

Paul’s equally pompous live-in girlfriend Caitie (played by Betsey Brown) has accompanied Paul for this visit. When she spends time with the family, Caitie (who’s a bit of a complainer) seems more concerned about talking about herself and anything that makes her look like an upwardly mobile “hipster.” Caitie and Paul love to name drop and have a very condescending attitude about the type of lives that Hannah and Avram are leading. However, Caitie and Paul never seem to be satisfied with how their lives are going. This superficial couple seems to have an unquenchable desire to have more money and get more things, in order to feel superior to people who have less.

During a family meal at Avram’s place, Caitie and Paul mention a trendy technology guru named Simon (played by Alex Robertson), who’s in in his 20s and has gotten some media attention for being a start-up business whiz. Paul and Caitie say that they can arrange for Hannah to get a job interview with Simon. Hannah reluctantly agreees. During the interview, Simon asks Hannah what is her Myers-Briggs personality type, and she has no idea what he’s talking about. Needless to say, this awkward interview does not go well.

“Hannah Ha Ha” has other vignettes showing Hannah in her day-to-day life. She has a small circle of friends, who celebrate her 26th birthday with her at a bonfire party. It’s briefly mentioned that Hannah has an ex-girlfriend or ex-love interest named Christina (played by Healy Knight), but Hannah’s love life or her sexuality is not the focus of this movie. In fact, Hannah doesn’t show an interest in dating anyone during this period of her life. Because of Paul’s prompting, she’s mostly focused on finding a job that pays more than the retail job she wants to quit.

Hannah starts asking people she knows if they have any job openings where they work. She asks her friend Robbie, also known as Dawson Rob (played by Charlie Chaspooley Robinson), who works at the Dedham Community Theatre, but there are no openings there. Hannah’s iconoclastic uncle Jay (played by Peter Cole), who is Avram’s younger brother, is a radio DJ who plays classic rock. Even though Hannah doesn’t care for that type of music, she asks Jay if the radio station has any openings. The answer is also a no.

When Paul once again asks her how her job search is going, Hannah says she’s been applying mostly at fast-food places and retail jobs. “There’s no shame in that,” Paul says, even though his tone of voice indicates that he feels the opposite of what he’s saying. Hannah can sense his snobbery.

And so, when Paul asks Hannah if she has been following up on these job applications, Hannah replies sarcastically that she’s been following up with gifts such as “artisanal gift baskets, wine and cheese spreads.” Paul is so full of himself, he doesn’t seem to understand how much Hannah is mocking him with this answer.

As an example of how materialistic Paul is, he mentions to Hannah that one way that he judges his co-workers is by seeing what cars they drive, so he can have an idea of how well-off they are financially. Hannah doesn’t say anything to this comment, but her disgust and discomfort are written all over her face and body language. “Hannah Ha Ha” is an interesting portrait of how two siblings who grew up in the same household could turn out to be very different from each other.

Paul is the type of person who grew up in a small town and probably couldn’t wait to move out so that he could pursue his goal of making as much money as possible. At one point, he scolds Hannah for her small-town life in this farming community, as an “ignorance is bliss, kumbaya, hippie-dippie lifestyle.” Paul also says insults farming as a profession because he says that “old farmers have back problems.”

Fortunately, “Hannah Ha Ha” isn’t just about insufferable Paul and his tense relationship with Hannah. There are several scenes that show Hannah spending time by herself. She might not talk much, and she might not have a fancy job, but she’s got an interior life that means something to her, no matter what other people might say or think about her. Whether she’s riding her bike, going on a cigarette break at work, or playing her acoustic guitar by herself in her room, Hannah seems to be very aware of her small-town existence but not troubled by it.

Hannah also shows she has compassion. One night, when Hannah is very tired, her lonely father asks her to join him in watching a “Twilight Zone” marathon on TV. At first, she says no. But when Hannah sees the look of disappointment on Avram’s face, she changes her mind. Hannah ends up falling asleep during the marathon, and her father isn’t bothered by it at all. Her simple act of kindness is an indication that she has the emotional intelligence to know that his request wasn’t about her staying up to watch the marathon, but to let him know that she cares enough about him to spend time with him.

It’s something that Paul can’t fathom because he thinks the life that Hannah has with their father is boring and unproductive. At one point, Paul invites Hannah to live with him and Caitie in the city. “It’s better than spending tme with Dad,” he comments. You can easily guess what Hannah thinks about this offer to live with her overly judgmental and shallow brother in a big city.

“Hannah Ha Ha” is not the type of drama that has epic profound moments, tearjerking scenes or shocking revelations. Thanks to the authentic-looking acting from the cast members and the straightforward writing and directing, “Hannah Ha Ha” will give viewers a glimpse into the life of a small-town young woman who isn’t the movie cliché of being anxious to get out of the small town to a pursue a dream in a bigger city. “Hannah Ha Ha” has a simple statement that success and contentment can mean different things to different people—and trying to get people to change when they don’t want to change can be a lesson in failure and frustration.

Cinedigm released “Hannah Ha Ha” in select U.S. cinemas on February 10, 2023. Fandor will premiere the movie on March 21, 2023.

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

February 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

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

“The Persian Version”

Directed by Maryam Keshavars

Some language in Persian with subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Knock at the Cabin,’ starring Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint

February 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Jonathan Groff and Dave Bautista in “Knock at the Cabin” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Knock at the Cabin”

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in an unnamed city in Pennsylvania, the horror film “Knock at the Cabin” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, Asian and African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two husbands and their 7-year-old adopted daughter are held hostage in a remote cabin by four strangers, who tell them that one of the family members must choose to kill another family member, or else there will be an apocalypse that will kill everyone on Earth except the three family members. 

Culture Audience: “Knock at the Cabin” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan and horror movies with apocalyptic themes.

Abby Quinn, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Dave Bautista and Rupert Grint in “Knock at the Cabin” (Photo by PhoByMo/Universal Pictures)

The apocalyptic horror film “Knock at the Cabin” has a more predictable story than the novel on which it is based, but the movie still delivers many tension-filled scenes and memorable characters. The cast members, particularly Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui, elevate the film with their credible performances. “Knock at the Cabin” is one of those movies where you can figure out from watching the trailers how everything is probably going to end. It’s one of the few movies from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan that does not have a shocking twist.

Shyamalan directed “Knock at the Cabin” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. The movie’s screenplay is adapted from Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” which has a very different turn of events than the movie version of this book. It’s easy to see why the filmmakers chose to make these changes, because there are many things in the book that would not be as “crowd-pleasing” to movie audiences.

Even though “Knock at the Cabin” plays it very safe in how the movie was adapted from the book, there’s still enough in the movie that brings a level of gripping suspense, thanks to skilled editing and capable acting performances. Except for flashbacks and scenes showing events on TV news, “Knock at the Cabin” takes place primarily in a remote area in an unnamed city in Pennsylvania. The filmmakers of “Knock at the Cabin” wisely chose not to clutter up the movie with extraneous characters and locations that are not in “The Cabin at the End of the World.”

“Knock at the Cabin” begins with showing a kind and intelligent 7-year-old girl named Wen (played by Cui) collecting grasshoppers in an open field and putting them in a bottle. Wen is an aspiring veterinarian—she says she wants to be “take care of animals” when she grows up. She is cataloguing the statistics of the grasshoppers that she has collected, and she has even named the grasshoppers. Wen (who is an only child) and her two gay fathers Andrew (played by Aldridge) and Eric (played by Jonathan Groff) are on a vacation trip in this isolated wooded area of Pennsylvania, where the family is staying at a cabin.

Suddenly, a hulking man named Leonard (played by Dave Bautista) emerges from the woods. He approaches Wen and makes small talk with her. At first Wen is wary of this stranger, but she starts to warm up to him when he shows an interest in her grasshopper collection by helping her get a grasshopper and asking her about the collection. Wen says she will turn 8 years old in six days. Leonard tells Wen that he wants to be her friend and he needs to go inside the home where her parents are.

Leonard is not alone. He has three companions with him, who all have the same intentions. Redmond (played by Rupert Grint) has an angry personality. Sabrina (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) has a calm personality. Adriane (played by Abby Quinn) has a cheerful personality. Leonard is their leader, and he has a “take charge” personality. All four of these strangers are armed and dangerous.

As already shown in the movie’s trailers, all four of these strangers break into the cabin and take Andrew, Eric and Wen hostage. Andrew and Eric put up a fight in self-defense. Eric gets into a losing brawl with Sabrina, and he gets a concussion from being knocked to the ground. Andrew and Eric are then tied to chairs, although (as the movie trailer already reveals) Wen is not tied up, and she briefly escapes.

Leonard tells this captured family that they have to make a choice: someone in the family has to voluntarily kill someone else in the family, or else there will be an apocalypse where everyone on Earth except this family of three will be killed. Every time someone in the family refuses to kill someone else in the family, a plague will descend on Earth until the world-ending apocalypse will happen.

Andrew (the more outspoken and more assertive husband) is immediately skeptical and thinks that these four strangers are mentally ill. Andrew mentions later in the movie that he’s a human rights attorney, which goes a long way in explaining why Andrew thinks he can argue his way out of this horrible situation. At first, Andrew and Eric also think that this home invasion is a hate crime because Andrew and Eric are a gay couple. But Leonard denies it and says that he and his three cohorts did not know in advance that the targeted family would have a same-sex couple.

Andrew and Eric refuse to kill anyone in their family. As already shown in the movie’s trailer, as a result, a plague happens that kills numerous people near the Pacific Ocean. (Shyamalan continues his tradition of appearing in small roles as an actor in the movies that he directs. In “Knock at the Cabin,” he briefly appears on the cabin’s TV set as a co-host of an infomercial that is interrupted by breaking news.) Leonard shows the family the TV news to prove that this plague happening.

Andrew is convinced that the four strangers knew in advance that this catastrophe was going to happen. Leonard insists that he, Sabrina, Leonard and Adriane were all strangers with the same visions who found each other through the Internet. Leonard also says that several families over time have had to make the same decision. And he emphatically states that he, Sabrina, Leonard and Adriane are “heartbroken” that they have to force Andrew and Eric to make this life-changing decision.

In order to make themselves relatable, Leonard and the rest of the home invaders tells the captured family more about themselves. Leonard says he’s from Chicago and has two jobs: He’s an elementary schoolteacher who runs an after-school program for second graders, and he’s a bartender.

Sabrina is a hospital nurse who works at an intensive-care unit in Southern California. She says she feel guilty about Eric getting injured in their fight, so she tends to Eric’s head wounds. Sabrina also says that the rules are that Eric must be thinking clearly when making his decision with Andrew. But who exactly is making these “rules”?

Adriane says she’s a line cook at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C. “I love to feed people,” she adds. Later in the movie, Adriane says she has a pre-teen son named Charlie, and she begs the hostage family to not let the apocalypse happen, or else her son is going to die.

Redmond is an ex-con who works at a gas company in Medford, Massachusetts. He mentions coming from an abusive family where “my father used to beat the shit out of me.” Later, Andrew is convinced that he knows Redmond from a traumatic event that happened in Andrew’s past.

As the tension builds over what decision will be made, “Knock at the Cabin” shows flashbacks of Andrew and Eric’s life together before this home invasion. Viewers will find out that Andrew’s parents (played by McKenna Kerrigan and Ian Merrill Peakes) disapprove of him being gay, while Eric’s mother (who is never seen in the movie) is accepting of Eric’s sexuality. Andrew and Eric also went to China to adopt Wen when she was a baby, but Andrew had to pretend to be the brother of Eric’s non-existent wife, in order to avoid any homophobic restrictions that would prevent them from adopting Wen.

There are also flashbacks to happy family times with Andrew, Eric and Wen, such as when they’re driving in their car while K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s 1975 hit song “Boogie Shoes” is playing. Andrew, Eric and Wen love this song so much, they sing loudly and joyfully move to the beat of the song. “Boogie Shoes” will be used again later in the movie in an emotionally powerful scene.

Because “Knock at the Cabin” is a horror movie, not everyone will make it out alive. At a certain point, it becomes very obvious which of the husbands will be more open to the idea of killing someone in the family, in order to save the world. But will that husband be able to convince his spouse?

There are no real surprises in “Knock at the Cabin,” except for how much the movie removed some of the risk-taking plot developments from “The Cabin at the End of the World.” With a total running time of 100 minutes, “Knock at the Cabin” is a taut thriller that doesn’t drag on for longer than the story needed, although some parts of the movie get a little repetitive. Knock at the Cabin” is a very Hollywood movie version of the book, but it’s ultimately satisfactory entertainment for horror fans who don’t want to see anything too disturbing on screen.

Universal Pictures will release “Knock at the Cabin” in U.S. cinemas on February 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Fancy Dance’ (2023), starring Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson

January 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Fancy Dance”

Directed by Erica Tremblay

Some language in Cayuga with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma, the dramatic film “Fancy Dance” features a cast of Native American and white characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with a troubled background comes up against obstacles in finding her missing sister, whose 13-year-old daughter could end up in the custody of the sisters’ estranged father. 

Culture Audience: “Fancy Dance” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally riveting movies about families coping with a missing loved one, and how issues of race and social class affect Native Americans in the United States.

“Fancy Dance” is a well-acted story of Native American culture and law enforcement’s treatment of cases involving missing Native American women, who are rarely the focus of narrative feature films. The relationships in the movie are depicted authentically. At a certain point in “Fancy Dance,” the movie’s last five minutes are easily predictable, but this last scene is handled with a mixture of sentiment and realism. Viewers who think the movie’s ending is too vague aren’t really paying attention, because there’s a certain inevitability to what will happen to the main characters. It’s just not explicitly shown in the movie.

Directed by Eric Tremblay (who co-wrote the “Fancy Dance” screenplay with Miciana Alise), “Fancy Dance” takes place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma (where the movie was filmed on location), and centers mostly on working-class members of the Seneca Nation tribe of Native Americans. The movie has several examples of how ancient traditions in the Seneca Nation have survived but sometimes clash or are misunderstood by a modern American culture dominated by white people. “Fancy Dance” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

At the beginning of “Fancy Dance,” viewers see Jax Goodiron (played by Lily Gladstone) working in tandem with her 13-year-old niece Roki Goodiron (played by Isabel Deroy-Olson) to steal some items from a middle-aged man who’s fishing by himself in a local creek. Jax, who is in her 30s, distracts the man by pretending to cool off with some water in the creek. She takes her top off to reveal her bra, because she knows that the man will be distracted by looking at her.

While the fisherman is ogling Jax in a voyeuristic manner, Roki sneaks up from behind and rifles through his belongings that are in a duffel bag in a nearby grassy area. Roki steals the man’s wallet, his car keys and some other items. After Jax finishes her contrived “bath,” she and Roki steal the man’s car to go to a grungy convenience store, which is an unofficial pawn shop. The store is operated by a scruffy dealer named Boo (played by Blayne Allen), who also sells illegal drugs out of the shop. After some bargaining, Jax and Roki sell a gold wedding band to Boo for $350.

At this convenience store, Roki sadly glances at a posted flyer for a missing woman named Wadatwai “Tawi” Goodiron, who is Roki’s single mother. (Roki’s father, who is briefly mentioned with contempt in the movie, abandoned the family and is not involved in raising her.) Viewers soon find out that Jax, Tawi and Roki all live together in a modest house on a Seneca Nation reservation.

Jax has a sullen, jaded attitude, but she has a soft spot for Roki, whom she treats as if Roki were her own daughter. Roki is inquisitive and has an upbeat personality. However, Roki is not so innocent, because she’s a willing accomplice in the thefts that Jax instigates, and Roki does some shoplifting on her own.

Tawi disappeared two weeks ago without any clues of where she went. Roki and Tawi are scheduled to appear at an upcoming powwow, where they are the reigning champs of a traditional mother/daughter dance. Jax has been keeping Roki’s hopes up that Tawi, who has never missed this powwow with Roki, will come home soon. But is this expectation realistic or false hope?

Tawi works as a dancer at a strip club called Tail Feathers, so it’s possible that she could have run into some sleazy people through her job and met with foul play. Jax is romantically involved with a dancer at the strip club named Sapphire (played by Crystle Lightning), who is also worried about where Tawi is, but Sapphire doesn’t know what happened to Tawi. Jax and Tawi have an older brother named JJ (played by Ryan Begay), a local police officer who hangs out at the strip club in his spare time.

Later, viewers soon find out that Jax is no stranger to felonious criminal activities. She spent time in prison for drug trafficking, although the movie doesn’t say how long her prison sentence was or how long ago it happened. Based on the crimes that Jax commits in the movie’s opening scene and later in “Fancy Dance,” she’s having a hard time “going straight” as a law-abiding citizen.

The disappearance of Tawi is the catalyst for almost everything that happens in the story. Law enforcement officials don’t take the disappearance very seriously, so Jax decides to investigate on her own. It’s implied that because Tawi is Native American and a stripper, authorities don’t really care about investigating her disappearance.

Tawi is a resident of a Native American reservation on federal land, so her disappearance falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI, which has sent an agent with the last name Morris (played by Jason Alan Smith) to investigate. Agent Morris makes it obvious to the family that this missing person case is a low priority. Jax asks some of the shady characters who might know what happened to Tawi, but Jax also gets a hostile or indifferent reaction.

Things get more complicated when the Goodiron siblings’ estranged father Frank Harris (played by Shea Whigham) shows up unannounced with his wife Nancy (played by Audrey Wasilewski), to check in on how Roki is doing. Frank is also a local police officer, who uses his law-enforcement connections later in the movie for other reasons. This fractured family has a lot of resentment and hard feelings that go back several years.

Frank was married to the mother of JJ, Jax and Tawi. After the mother died, Frank “ran off” with Nancy, according to what Jax says in a bitter argument with Frank. JJ seems to have forgiven Frank, but Jax and Tawi have not been as understanding. In fact, Tawi was no longer on speaking terms with Frank at the time that Tawi disappeared. Frank and Nancy are both white, so there are racial implications to how Frank and Nancy lead separate lives from the Native American side of Frank’s family.

Nancy is verbally pleasant but socially awkward with her stepfamily. In a scene demonstrating the racial tensions and cultural divide, Nancy makes ignorant remarks about the upcoming powwow. She calls the powwow regalia a “costume” and thinks of the powwow as some kind of “theater” event where people dress up like actors, instead of trying to understand that a powwow is a tradition that honors a tribe’s culture. It’s also an event where people are encouraged to be themselves. In other words, it’s not like a Halloween party where people dress up in costumed disguises.

When Nancy hears that Roki and Tawi are supposed to participate in a mother/dance at the powwow, Nancy gives a pair of Nancy’s old ballet slippers as a gift to Tawi to wear at the powwow dance. “Fancy Dance” isn’t subtle at all in showing that Nancy is somewhat dismissive of this Native American tradition and would rather impose the white, Eurocentric cultural ways that Nancy is used to living. Roki politely thanks Nancy for the gift, Roki but says that she has no interest in ballet. This misguided gift also shows Nancy’s ignorance or denial that ballet lessons cost the type of money that Roki and her mother obviously don’t have.

“Fancy Dance” has other examples of how Native Americans are treated differently by people in a culture that enables and encourages white supremacist racism. However, the movie doesn’t let Jax and Roki off the hook for some of the risky and illegal things that they do that cause more trouble for themselves. It’s enough to say that the search for Tawi gets more dangerous and complicated.

Jax’s competence as a temporary guardian for Roki also gets questioned because of Jax’s criminal record. Officials from child protective services get involved. Child custody arrangements could result in Frank and Nancy getting permanent custody of Roki if Tawi remains missing. Jax doesn’t want Frank and Nancy to raise Roki, because the spouses barely know Roki, and Roki will be forced to live away from her Native American culture on the reservation. Jax also doesn’t trust Frank, and she thinks that Frank and Nancy won’t be able to properly teach Roki about Native American culture.

What makes “Fancy Dance” such a compelling story is how the principal cast members are able to embody these characters in ways that look entirely natural—not staged, over-rehearsed or forced. The scenes and conversations flow with fluctuating energy that effectively convey what each character might be thinking or feeling, instead of putting too much emphasis on just the perspective of Jax, the lead character.

Still, Gladstone’s complex performance Jax is the heart and soul of the movie. Jax is caught between the seedy world of her criminal activities and the straight-laced life that she has to live if she wants to prove that she’s fit to be Roki’s legal guardian, in case Tawi remains missing. Jax has a combination of cockiness and self-loathing that sometimes makes Jax her own worst enemy.

However, there’s a seething, underlying anger to what Jax does, because she’s so frequently misjudged because of her race and social class. Her attitude seems to be, “People already think I’m a criminal. I might as well be who they think I am.” Even when Jax isn’t doing anything wrong, she is still treated as “inferior” or “suspicious” by certain people.

Roki is keenly observant of what goes on around her, and Deroy-Olson portrays Roki with a skillful blend of child-like optimism and adult cynicism. Viewers of “Fancy Dance” will feel some emotional investment or concern about how Roki is growing up, and who she might be when she’s an adult, considering her chaotic life so far. Is Roki better off living with Jax or with Frank and Nancy? The movie doesn’t offer easy answers—just like the lives of the main characters and people in real life who exist in the margins of degradation and turmoil, and they have a hard time getting out.

Review: ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything,’ starring Little Richard

January 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything”

Directed by Lisa Cortés

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” a group of African Americans and white people discuss the impact of rock and roll pioneer Little Richard, who died in 2020, at the age of 87.

Culture Clash: Little Richard experienced homophobia, racism, cultural appropriation, drug addiction and showbiz ripoffs during his many ups and downs. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Little Richard, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about music legends who influenced countless entertainers.

Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” vibrantly captures the spirit of rock music pioneer Little Richard and doesn’t shy away from exploring his many contradictions. The documentary stumbles by adding sparkly visual effects to make him look “magical,” but these corny embellishments don’t ruin the movie. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” can at least be applauded for not sticking to an entirely predictable format, since the movie does a few other things in its effort to not be a typical biographical documentary.

Directed by Lisa Cortés, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary unfolds in chronological order and has an expected mixture of archival footage of Little Richard (who died in 2020, at the age of 87) and exclusive documentary interviews with family members, associates, celebrity admirers and various culture experts. People don’t have to be fans of rock music to know that Little Richard was one of the originators of the genre. However, may people who are unfamiliar with him as an artist might be surprised by how his life went from one extreme to the other, often by his own doing.

People knowledgeable about rock history will also know already that Little Richard—just like other African American artists who were pioneers in rock music—was frequently ripped off creatively and financially. He was never fully appreciated by the industry when he was in the prime of his career. It was only after he loudly complained for years about not getting the recognition he deserved that he started to receive many industry accolades.

For example, Little Richard never won a Grammy Award in a competitive category (the Grammys Awards were launched in 1960, after Little Richard’s hitmaking career peaked), but he did receive a non-competitive Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993, long after he stopped making hit records. He was in the first group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in January 1986, but he couldn’t attend the ceremony because he had the bad luck of being seriously injured in a car accident in October 1985. (He fell asleep behind the wheel of the car.)

Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman (Little Richard’s birth name) knew from an early age that he wanted to be a flamboyant entertainer, starting from when he used to dress up in his mother’s clothes when he was a child. Little Richard, who grew up in a strict Christian household, was the third-youngest of 12 children. His mother Leva Mae Penniman accepted him for who he was, but his father Charles “Bud” Penniman would brutally abuse Richard for being effeminate.

Bud Penniman was also a study in contradictions: He was church deacon and a brick mason, but he was also a bootlegger who owned a small nightclub and a house where he sold alcoholic drinks, which were illegal at the time. Ralph Harper, a former neighbor of the Penniman family, has this memory of Little Richard: “He was always banging on the piano, anytime you see him.”

Muriel Jackson, head of the Middle Georgia Archives, comments on Macon’s culture: “Macon is known for its churches. It’s a conservative, religious town.” Therefore, Little Richard wasn’t just bullied at home for being who he was. He also got a lot of abuse from other people in the community.

Specialty Records historian Billy Vera says, “They called him a sissy, a punk” and much worse. Emmy-winning and Tony-winning entertainer Billy Porter (who is openly gay) adds, “I can only imagine. I’ve lived a version of that. It’s debilitating. It’s soul-crushing. And it can be deadly.”

Little Richard spent the early years of his entertainment career in that vortex of contradictions: He would play the piano or sing in the choir in the stern atmosphere of conservative church gatherings, but he would also perform in the much-less restrictive (and taboo at the time) gay-friendly nightclubs in Macon and later Atlanta. He would often appear in drag at these shows under the stage name Princess LaVonne. In those days, it was illegal for men to dress in drag in public, unless they it was part of an entertainment act.

One of his frequent hangouts was Ann’s Tic Toc in Macon. And as a teenager, Little Richard worked at the Macon City Auditorium, where it made a huge impact on him to see many artists up close and backstage. The documentary mentions that when Little Richard saw his idol Sister Rosetta Tharpe (a guitar-playing vanguard in rock music) do a concert at the Macon City Auditorium in 1945, it changed his life. His piano-playing style was influenced by how Ike Turner played piano on Jackie Brenston’s 1957 song “Rocket 88.”

Little Richard was influential to countless artists, but there were people who influenced him on his artistic image/persona. In addition to Tharpe, another performer who helped shape Little Richard’s entertainment style was an openly gay drag performer named Billy Wright, who met Little Richard at the Gold Peacock nightclub in Atlanta in 1950, and they eventually became close friends. Wright had a pompadour hairstyle, wore heavy makeup, and had a thin moustache, which all eventually became signature looks for Little Richard. Did Little Richard copy Wright? Not really, as scholar Zandria Robinson explains: “They were kind of like mirrors that come into your life and show you who you really are.

In the early 1950s, black artists were limited to performing R&B, blues, jazz and gospel. The documentary mentions that when Little Richard was looking for a record deal, he didn’t quite fit in with any of these music genres, even though he was repeatedly told that he should perform blues, according to his longtime drummer Charles Connor. Instead, Little Richard was part of a small but growing number of black artists pioneering a new form of music that combined blues and R&B and made it more energetic, raucous and sexually frank. At first, this new form of music was called “race music” (to indicate that it was performed by black artists) but eventually became known as rock and roll.

Little Richard signed a deal with Signature Records. And his music as a rock artist eventually became hits not just on the R&B charts, but made their way as crossover hits on the pop charts. It’s mentioned that cars being made with radios had a big impact on people (especially the young people who tended to be rock fans) being able to listen to rock music away from home. It was during the 1950s that Little Richard had his biggest and most famous hits, including “Tutti Frutti” (a song that he later admitted was about anal sex, but he changed the lyrics before recording it), “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Lucille.”

His stage act became known for his “let it all hang out” style of banging on the piano (often with a leg propped up on the piano) with passionate sexual energy that wasn’t often seen in piano players at the time. Little Richard was sexually ambiguous at a time when it was very dangerous for performers, especially male performers, to be sexually ambiguous. It’s noted in the documentary that Little Richard’s father eventually came to accept him after Richard became a local star in the Georgia music scene. Tragically, Bud Penniman was shot to death in 1952, outside his Tip In Inn nightclub. No suspect was ever charged with this murder, but Little Richard said for years that the culprit was Frank Tanner, who was Little Richard’s best friend at the time.

By 1956, Little Richard had moved to Los Angeles and brought many of his siblings with him. Several people in the documentary talk about how generous he was with family, friends and associates. Throughout it all, Little Richard’s mother was one of his biggest fans. Little Richard’s longtime drag-queen friend Sir Lady Java (an activist/entrepreneur) says in the documentary about Leva Mae Penniman: “She was such a beautiful person. She knew who he was and what he was. And she loved him in spite of it.”

Tom Jones says in the documentary that out of the five artists who are considered the first megastars of rock and roll—Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis—”Little Richard was the strongest.” By the early 1960s, Little Richard was usually named as one of the biggest influences of a slew of British artists who were making their mark in rock and roll. The Beatles (who hung out with Little Richard in the band’s pre-fame nightclub stint in Liverpool, England, and in Hamburg, Germany) and the Rolling Stones jumped at the chance to perform on the same bill with Little Richard.

Robinson says that Little Richard’s upbringing in the South both tormented him and was inherent to who he was: “The South is the home of all things queer, of the different, of the non-normative, of the other side of gothic, of the grotesque. Note that queerness is not just about sexuality but about a presence and a space that is different from what we require or expect.” In other words, it doesn’t mean that queerness is more likely to be found in the South but that during Little Richard’s youth, the issues of race, social class and sexuality were more dangerous for people in certain parts of the South, such as his hometown of Macon, than in other parts of the United States.

After he became famous, Richard would change the descriptions of his sexual identity many times. Sometimes, he identified as gay. Sometimes, he identified as straight, during the periods of time when he became a born-again Christian who renounced any sexual identity that wasn’t heterosexual. Sometimes, he identified as bisexual or queer. Regardless of what his sexual identity was or was perceived to be, Little Richard could not be reasonably confused with any other entertainer because he had such a strong and distinct persona.

Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, who says Little Richard was one of his biggest influences, comments on Little Richard’s persona: “It was almost like having a split personality.” The Rolling Stones were the opening act for Little Richard at the beginning of the British band’s career in the early 1960s. Jagger said he used that opportunity to study Little Richard’s onstage persona: “I would be at the side of the stage to watch him. Richard would work that audience.” Jagger, who started his career with a performing style of standing still a lot on stage, changed that style and took on some of the same techniques that Little Richard used, and which Jagger still uses today.

Tony Newman, drummer of the British band Sounds Incorporated, has fond memories of working as a backup musician for Little Richard, whom he met in London in 1962. “Nearly every night,” Newman says, “it escalated into a full-blown riot in the theater. I remember coming off of that and thinking, ‘Now this is rock and roll!”

A great deal of the documentary repeats information that music historians already know but other people might not know about how much white artists and music companies owned by white people benefited and often ripped off the work of innovative black artists such as Little Richard. Elvis Presley and Pat Boone were two of the white artists who’ve famously done cover versions of Little Richard songs. The documentary points out that while Presley often acknowledged Little Richard for being an influence that was crucial to Presley’s success (Presley publicly called Little Richard the “real king of rock and roll”), Boone was not as gracious in admitting how much Boone was profiting off of music originally made by black artists such as Little Richard. In most cases, white artists got more money and recognition for performing songs originally performed by black artists than the black artists who were the originators of these songs.

This documentary didn’t have to do any real investigating to reveal any big secrets about Little Richard when it came to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, because Little Richard told secrets about himself years ago in numerous interviews. The documentary includes clips of TV and radio interviews where he openly talks about indulging in sex orgies and experiencing drug addiction in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He also participated in Charles White’s 1984 non-fiction tell-all book “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” which had a lot of details of Little Richard’s decadent lifestyle. The only viewers of this documentary who might be surprised by all this information are people who don’t know much about Little Richard.

As hedonistic as he admittedly was, there were periods of time in his life in the 1950s and the 1970s, when he denounced his “sinful” lifestyle and became a religious fanatic who gave up rock music to perform gospel music. In the late 1950s, he attended Oakwood University, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama. These born-again Christian phases in his life often included Little Richard claiming that he was drug-free and no longer condoning of non-heterosexuality. This self-shame about his sexuality seemed to come and go in Little Richard’s life, which made him someone who was unpredictable and difficult for many people to figure out.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” includes interviews with Lee Angel, who famously told the world decades ago that Little Richard seduced her in 1955, when she was 16 years old, and he asked her to marry him, but she said no. In the documentary, Angel says she’s not convinced that Little Richard was ever 100% gay. “He slept with me, and I’m all woman,” she declares proudly, although she admits she was initially surprised that he was sexually attracted to her because she thought he was more sexually interested in men. (Angel passed away in 2022.) The documentary does not have interviews with any of Little Richard’s male ex-lovers.

During one of his born-again Christian phases, Little Richard married Ernestine Harvin (also known as Ernestine Campbell) in 1959. They divorced in 1964. Harvin is interviewed in the documentary (audio only, not on camera) and says of her marriage to Little Richard: “Richard was the kind of husband most women would want: always positive, loving and caring.” Was Little Richard sexually confused? As scholar Jason King sees it: “He was very good at liberating other people through example. He was not good at liberating himself.”

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” also includes some mention of Little Richard’s battles and complaints about being cheated out of royalties, due to signing recording contracts and publishing deals where he received little to no money. Music attorney John Branca says that a lot of these legal issues had to do with Little Richard breaching his contracts during the periods of time when he refused to perform rock music and only wanted to do gospel. However, it’s a common story that many famous music artists, regardless of their race, regret signing deals that they later said were ripoffs where the artists didn’t get paid and sometimes ended up owing money.

Regardless of how much money or how little money Little Richard made from record sales or songwriting royalties, he still managed to be a popular live act and would tour regularly until the later stages in his life. Little Richard also dabbled in acting, usually making guest appearances and cameos in movies and TV shows. His more memorable film roles were in the 1986 comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and the 1993 action film “Last Action Hero.” The documentary does not mention the 2000 NBC TV-movie biopic “Little Richard,” starring Leon, who is not interviewed in the documentary.

One of the ways that “Little Richard: I Am Everything” tries to be different from the usual music documentary is by having artists who aren’t very famous do performances of songs that helped influence or define Little Richard. Valerie June performs Tharpe’s “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day” in the segment that talks about Tharpe. Cory henry recreates Little Richard’s performance of “Tutti Frutti” at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. John P. Kee performs “Standing in the Need” during the segment talking about one of Little Richard’s gospel music phases.

During these performances and in some footage of Little Richard, the documentary has visual effects of glowing dust that floats through the air, as if it’s some kind of magical aura from Little Richard that’s being passed though the ether. It’s not as cringeworthy as sparkling vampires in the “Twilight” movies, but it looks very over-the-top and quite unnecessary. Little Richard did not lead a fairytale life. There’s no need to conjure up images that he spread some kind of mystical dust, as if he’s some kind of character from a Disney animated movie. The fascinating stories told about Little Richard by himself and other people are more than enough to be intriguing.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include his cousins Newt Collier and Stanley Stewart; Little Richard’s former manager Ramon Hervey; filmmaker John Waters; ethnomusicologist Gredara Hadley; entertainment agent Libby Anthony; singer Nona Hendryx; historian Tavia Nyong’o; former Oakwood University classmate Dewitt Williams; former Little Richard road manager Keith Winslow, whose other was a teacher at Oakwood University; bass player Charles Glenn, who was in Little Richard’s band; booking agent Morris Roberts; and producer/songwriter Nile Rodgers, who says that David Bowie wanted Bowie’s 1983’s smash hit “Let’s Dance” album (which Rodgers produced) to be heavily influenced by Little Richard. The documentary could have used more interviews with female musicians other than Hendryx, but it’s an overall diverse mix of people.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” keeps the storytelling lively, thanks to some great editing by Nyneve Laura Minnear and Jake Hostetter. There’s a particularly powerful montage near the end of the film that juxtaposes archival footage of Little Richard and all the artists who have been directly or indirectly influenced by him over the years, including Elton John, Bowie, Jagger, Prince, Lady Gaga, Lizzo, former “Pose” star Porter and Harry Styles. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” is a perfect title for this movie, because it shows how Little Richard was at times (often to a fault) all things to many people. However conflicted he might have been in his personal life and career, this documentary eloquently demonstrates how Little Richard represents the glory and pain of expressing yourself freely, no matter what the consequences.

Magnolia Films will release “Little Richard: I Am Everything” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on April 21, 2023. CNN and HBO Max will premiere the movie on dates to be announced.

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