Review: ‘Wojnarowicz,’ starring David Wojnarowicz

April 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

David Wojnarowicz in “Wojnarowicz” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber/Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W.) 


Directed by Chris McKim

Culture Representation: The documentary “Wojnarowicz” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American), mostly from the U.S. avant-garde/experimental art community, discussing the life and legacy of New York City-based artist/activist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 37.

Culture Clash: Wojnarowicz battled against homophobia, HIV/AIDS bigotry and right-wing conservatives who thought that his art was too obscene to be displayed in mainstream galleries

Culture Audience: “Wojnarowicz” will appeal primarily to people interested in the history of the New York City art scene from the 1980s to early 1990s, as well as stories about influential AIDS activists.

1984 artwork from David Wojnarowicz in “Wojnarowicz” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber/Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W.)

Some artists want to keep politics out of their work. But the late artist/activist David Wojnarowicz believed that every work of art is some kind of political statement. The illuminating documentary “Wojnarowicz” tells his life story in a way that would have gotten Wojnarowicz’s approval: by crafting the movie like a cinematic version of an art installation retrospective. Directed by Chris McKim, much of the foundation of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary comes from Wojnarowicz’s diary-like audio recordings, journals, photos and Super 8 films that he made from his early 20s until his tragic death from AIDS in 1992, at the age on 37. Many of Wojnarowicz’s loved ones, friends and associates provide commentary, but their interviews (with a few exceptions) are voiceovers only in the movie.

If people put together a list of 20th century visual artists from New York City’s avant-garde art scene who were controversial and unapologetically presented gay/queer erotica in their art, then Robert Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz would definitely be on the list. Wojnarowicz wasn’t as famous as Mapplethorpe, who preceded Wojnarowicz and broke barriers for LGBTQ-themed art in the 1970s. However, Wojnarowicz was more versatile (Mapplethorpe’s main art form was photography, while Wojnarowicz created art in many forms), and Wojnarowicz was a lot more outspoken about his political views than many of his contemporaries.

Because much of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary is told in Wojnarowicz’s voice from his personal recordings, it gives viewers an insightful look into his personality and his innermost thoughts. He had a lot of anger and cynicism, but he could also be very sensitive and empathetic. The documentary includes some audio from media interviews that he did, but they aren’t as interesting as the private recordings that he made to document his life.

The movie also reveals a treasure trove of mementos and previously unreleased footage that undoubtedly make this documentary the definitive visual biography of Wojnarowicz. It’s an impressive historical perspective of the New York avant-garde art scene in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Based on who’s interviewed in “Wojnarowicz,” director McKim wanted to include, with few exceptions, people who knew Wojnarowicz personally to give their comments for the movie. You won’t find Wojnarowicz’s critics or talking heads who never met Wojnarowicz taking up too much of the documentary’s time with any of their opinions.

Those interviewed in the documentary include retired social worker Tom Rauffenbart (who was Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend from the late 1980s until Wojnarowicz’s death) and Wojnarowicz older brother Steven. Also interviewed are Cynthia Carr, author of “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” and art critic Carlo McCormick. Other commentators include David Kiehl, curator emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Stephen Koch, author/director of the Peter Hujar Archive; gallery owner/curator Barry Blinderman; Anita Vitale, formerly of the New York City AIDS Case Management Unit; and Dr. Bob Friedman, who was Wojnarowicz’s physician when Wojnarowicz was living with AIDS.

But the people who have the most to say in the documentary are those who were Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries in New York City’s avant-garde and bohemian artists scene. They include writer Fran Lebowitz; filmmaker Richard Kern; Civilian Warfare gallery co-founder Alan Barrows; artist/collaborator Kiki Smith; filmmaker/photographer Marion Scemama; photographer Dirk Rowntree; curator Nan Goldin; artist Judy Glantzman; Gracie Mansion Gallery founder Gracie Mansion; former Gracie Mansion employee Sur Rodney Sur; P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington; and former 3 Teens Kill 4 bandmates Jesse Hutberg, Doug Bressler, Julie Hair and Brian Butterick.

Wojnarowicz’s critics are not interviewed in the documentary, but their perspectives are shown through archival news footage. Wojnarowicz’s controversies are not glossed over in the movie, and he exposed a lot of unflattering information about himself. For example, Wojnarowicz spent much of his teens and early 20s as a sex worker. He also freely admitted that he was psychologically damaged from growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father.

Perhaps the most conventional thing about “Wojnarowicz” is that it’s told in chronological order, which helps give the movie a coherent narrative. In his own words, through his personal audio diaries and media interviews, Wojnarowicz talks about his unhappy childhood, which led him to be a frequent runaway, beginning at the age of 11. Born on September 14, 1954, Red Bank, New Jersey, Wojnarowicz grew up with two older siblings: brother Steven (who was two years older) and their sister Pat. Wojnarowicz’s New York Times obituary lists two other siblings named Linda and Peter, but they’re not mentioned in the documentary.

When he was 11, Wojnarowicz’s mother Dolores separated from her violent, alcoholic husband and moved with her children to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Moving to New York City would have a profound effect on David as an artist, since much of his identity would come from being a New York artist, specifically from Manhattan’s Lower East Side/East Village. However, at one point in his childhood, perhaps because he was a frequent runaway, he ended up as a ward of the court in an orphanage, where he says his father temporarily kidnapped him.

David’s brother Steven says that David didn’t show any real interest in art when they were children: “We were too consumed with trying to survive.” However, Wojnarowicz biographer Carr says that Wojnarowicz developed his artistic tendencies as a teenager, when he discovered the work of French writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Carr explains why Wojnarowicz felt a kinship with Rimbaud and Genet: “They are outlaws and rebels. And he always identified with outsiders his whole life, and these were the outsider writers.”

Wojnarowicz was no child prodigy, because it took a while for him to find his identity as an artist. By his own admission, he spent most of his teen years and early 20s living on the streets and being a hustler. It’s made pretty clear that Wojnarowicz knew from an early age that he was gay. What isn’t detailed in the documentary is Wojnarowicz’s coming out story or how his parents reacted when he began living openly as a gay person. Based on what’s said about Wojnarowicz’s abusive father, one can assume that the father’s reaction wasn’t a good one.

At the age of 21, Wojnarowicz took a hitchhiking road trip across several U.S. states with his friend John Hall. This 1976 road trip inspired the first-known audio diaries that Wojnarowicz kept. The documentary includes a clip from one of his audio diary entries, where he describes in vivid detail a visit they made in Jamestown, North Dakota.

In September 1978, at age 23, Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat moved to Paris. He submitted a written collection of monologues called “Sounds of Distance,” but it was rejected by all the publishers he sent it to in Paris. According to Wojnarowicz, one publisher told him “the people in the monologues were wasted lives and a waste of time to write about them.” He took this criticism as a badge of honor for this collection: “Everything she said just reinforced my belief that it’s important.”

In June 1979, Wojnarowicz moved back to New York City because he says he missed the city’s unique energy. He describes Paris as a city that gives people a sense of security, and he preferred the edginess of New York City. Upon his return to New York, Wojnarowicz really began to find his identity as an artist. And ironically, it somewhat started with him paying tribute to one of his idols.

He made a face mask of Rimbaud and would wear it around the city. The documentary includes photos of him wearing the Rimbaud mask while on the street, in a diner or on the subway. This mask would later become one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous art pieces. But in a city with a lot of eccentric artists, Wojnarowicz needed more than just a Rimbaud mask to stand out.

Wojnarowicz began experimenting with different art forms, such as painting, stenciling, silk screening, sculpting and photography. He was also lead vocalist of an alternative rock band that wasn’t so much punk as it was spoken word anarchy set to music. That band was 3 Teens Kill 4, which got some recognition in the local music scene, but Wojnarowicz quit the band in 1982 over creative differences.

It was while he was a struggling artist that Wojnarowicz met the most influential person in his life: photographer Peter Hujar, who was well-known in the New York artist scene but always remained on the fringes of the upper echelon of portrait photographers in New York. Wojnarowicz and Hujar (who was 20 years older than Wojnarowicz) started out as lovers and then eventually settled into being best friends, with Hujar also being a mentor to Wojnarowicz.

Lebowitz said that even though she knew that Wojnarowicz and Hujar were once romantically involved with each other, they always gave her the impression of having a father/son relationship. Koch of the Peter Hujar Archive describes the Wojnarowicz/Hujar relationship as “more interesting than Van Gogh and Gaugin—very special and unique.” Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend Rauffenbart says when his own romance with Wojnarowicz began to get serious, he had to find a way to adjust to the close friendship that Wojnarowicz had with Lujar, because Wojnarowicz made it clear to everyone that Lujar would always be his best friend.

Wojnarowicz met some influential people in the art scene through Lujar. And when he was in 3 Teens Kill 4, Wojnarowicz also started to get some recognition, but not all of it was for the music. In the early 1980s, the band would often hang out at a nightclub called Danceteria (also hangout for artist Keith Haring and Madonna), which got raided for violation of a liquor license.

A small riot broke out and Wojnarowicz threw a molotov cocktail at a police car. He and some other band members were arrested, and they later threw a benefit show to raise funds for their legal defense. Butterick says that they didn’t really need to do the benefit concert because “the mob paid for the lawyers to get our cases dismissed.”

It was during this time of youthful rebellion that Wojnarowicz decided he wanted to stand out as not just unusual but also controversial, with art that some people might find disgusting. In an audio clip, he describes going to the city’s meatpacking district, finding discarded cow parts, and using those parts to create sculptures. He says that he also poured cow blood on stairs as part of his art.

At this particular time in the 1980s, there was no “hip” art gallery scene on the Lower East Side. As Sur describes it: “There were no resources like now, where you can go to the Lower East Side, where there are a dozen galleries you’ve never heard of showing stuff. There was nothing! There was SoHo, there was uptown and there were these established galleries. We didn’t feel we had entree into there, so we created space so we could show our work and have fun!”

This burgeoning alternative art scene was different from the type of scene that Andy Warhol led in the 1960s. Warhol and like-minded artists always maintained a level of glamour and more than a bit of fascination with celebrities. The art scene that Wojnarowicz came from wanted to shun the establishment for as long as they could, with art that was intentionally designed to be rudely provocative.

A lot of their work was literally created from garbage and other filthy throwaway items. The erotica in their art was unapologetically raw and could easily be described as pornographic. And because Wojnarowicz was known for putting a lot of male homosexuality in his art, it was automatically deemed not acceptable for certain galleries and other venues that showcase art.

Civilian Warfare, Gracie Mansion Gallery and P.P.W.O. Gallery were some of the places that launched to showcase art that other galleries would reject. Wojnarowicz found a home for a lot of his art at these galleries, before and after his art became accepted by more mainstream New York City art venues, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Civilian Warfare co-founder Barrows says: “We were really drawn to David’s militaristic imagery.”

The year 1982 was a pivotal one for Wojnarowicz. He left 3 Teens Kill 4 that year. His monologue collection “Sounds of Distance,” which had been rejected by publishers in Paris, was published. And 1982 was the year that Wojnarowicz and artist Mike Bidlo began making art in abandoned piers along the Manhattan side of the Hudson River.

Wojnarowicz’s frequent collaborator Smith (who took a well-known photo of Wojnarowicz posed as a bloodied assault victim) says in the documentary that the abandoned piers, which were the sizes of warehouses, had piles of discarded files from Bellevue Hospital. Bellevue had thrown away a lot of illustrations made by the patients in the hospital’s psychiatric facilities. Wojnarowicz used a lot of those illustrations in his art that he created at the piers. The piers were eventually demolished after city officials found out that the property was being illegally used by artists as creative spaces.

In 1983, Wojnarowicz’s first solo exhibition at Civilian Warfare led to another turning point in Wojnarowicz’s career. New York Times arts journalist Grace Glueck did a feature article about East Village artists, and the article prominently featured Wojnarowicz. After that New York Times article was published, Wojnarowicz became a darling of trendy art collectors. As described in the documentary, people began showing up in limousines to buy Wojnarowicz’s art.

Blinderman, who was the owner of New York City’s Semaphore Gallery at the time, remembers paying $3,000 for what would turn out to be one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous and controversial art pieces. The art piece’s title includes a homophobic slur that won’t be repeated in this review. But Wojnarowicz chose the title and the content of the art (which has homoerotic images) as an “in your face” response to homophobia.

In 1985, Wojnarowicz reached another milestone: He was chosen to be part of the Whitney Biennial. And he was commissioned to do an installation for the Mnunchin Gallery. (The gallery was founded Robert Mnuchin, the father of future Donald Trump political ally Steve Mnuchin, who served in the Trump administration as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.)

In an audio clip Wojnarowicz says that because he “despises rich people,” he purposely made the installation as disgusting as possible, with a lot of insect-infested garbage. Robert Mnuchin’s wife Adriana was reportedly repulsed by the bugs crawling around in the pristine gallery. However, Wojnarowicz was a hot brand name at the time, so he got away with doing what he wanted for the installation.

Wojnarowicz also dabbled in filmmaking, including collaborating with Kern on a short independent film called “You Killed Me First.” Wojnarowicz’s role in the film was as an abusive father. In a disturbing re-enactment of what his father did when Wojnarowicz was a child, there’s a scene in the movie of him sadistically killing a rabbit in front of his children, who are portrayed in the movie by adult actors. The rabbit wasn’t killed for food but out of pure cruelty.

Considering Wojnarowicz’s abusive childhood, his history of being a sex worker, and being a part of an art scene awash with illegal drugs, it’s not surprising that Wojnarowicz was a drug abuser. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that Wojnarowicz became addicted to heroin (he used needles), but Hujar got Wojnarowicz to quit heroin by issuing an ultimatum: If Wojnarowicz didn’t stop using heroin, then Hujar would cut Wojnarowicz out of his life. The documentary doesn’t mention if Wojnarowicz ever received any therapy for his problems with drugs or mental health. You get the feeling that he never did.

Rauffenbart, who says in the documentary that he met Wojnarowicz at a gay porn theater called the Bijou Theater, describes himself as someone whose life was transformed by Wojnarowicz. Before he met Wojnarowicz, he was used to hanging around very conventional people. Rauffenbart gives credit to Wojnarowicz for opening up his world to more variety and more fascinating people.

However, Wojnarowicz’s world was about to be rocked by a tragedy: At the age of 53, Hujar died of AIDS in 1987, just 11 months after he was diagnosed. It was also the year that Wojnarowicz and Rauffenbart found out that they were also HIV-positive. These diagnoses and the discrimination experienced by AIDS patients motivated Wojnarowicz to become an AIDS activist.

As for his career, Wojnarowicz learned the hard way how fickle the art world could be when his “Four Elements” show, which was dedicated to Hujar, flopped with audiences. The show had art with the themes of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind and included photos of Huhar on his deathbed. Toward the end of the documentary, there’s a poignant scene of Rauffenbart, accompanied by friend Vitale and P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Olsoff and Pilkington, attending a preview of the Whitney Museum’s 2018 Wojnarowicz retrospective.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that although Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat remained fairly close, his relationship with brother Steven was a lot more strained. They were estranged from the mid-1970s until they reunited in 1985. However, after Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, he and Steven had a major falling out over what Wojnarowicz perceived to be Steve’s homophobia, and they never saw or spoke to each other again. Wojnarowicz audio recorded their final argument, part of which is included in the documentary.

As an AIDS activist, Wojnarowicz participated in many protests about how the U.S. government and the health industry were mishandling the AIDS crisis. At a protest outside of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters, Wojnarowicz wore a hand-made jacket that read on the back “If I Die of AIDS—Forget Burial—Just Drop My Body on the Steps of the FDA.” That jacket became a symbol for AIDS activism.

Wojnarowicz’s “Tongues of Flame” exhibit would turn out to be his most controversial. Blinderman was now the director of University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and he got a $15,000 government grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to commission the exhibit. It would lead to a lawsuit and divisive opinions on both sides. Around this time, Wojnarowicz had angered political and religious conservatives with an AIDS activist essay titled “Postcards From America: X-Rays From Hell,” which was published in the 1988 “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” catalogue for Artists Space.

In the essay, Wojnarowicz used insulting language about U.S. Congressmen Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer and Cardinal John O’Connor (New York’s Archbishop at the time) who were all openly opposed to LGBTQ rights. The essay was accompanied by a photo of a Wojnarowicz art piece with an illustration of Jesus Christ injecting a needle in his lower arm, with a tube tied around his upper arm, like a junkie. Wojnarowicz said the art depicted Jesus taking on the burdens of society, including drug addiction.

It wasn’t long before Donald Wildmon of the conservative American Family Association and other anti-Wojnarowicz people got involved in a campaign to get Wojnarowicz banned from major art venues. These Wojnarowicz critics distributed photos of Wojnarowicz’s most controversial art and called Wojnarowicz a threat to decency. Under political pressure, the NEA then withdrew its grant money from the “Tongues of Flame” exhibit.

Wojnarowicz filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Wildmon and the American Family Association for distributing photos of his art without permission and for trying to damage his reputation. Wojnarowicz won the lawsuit, but was granted an award of just $1. University Galleries of Illinois State University ended up launching the “Tongues in Flame” exhibit in 1990 to enthusiastic crowds. In an audio clip, Wojnarowicz says he was expecting picketing and protestors outside the gallery, but no such pushback happened.

Toward the end of his life, Wojnarowicz began experiencing AIDS-related dementia, which is described in heartbreaking detail by Scemama. She remembers taking a road trip with Wojnarowicz to California’s Death Valley in May 1991. During the trip, it was the first time that she saw Wojnarowicz seem to forget who he was in a brief moment of memory loss. Seeing him in that condition stuck with her because it was then she knew how much he had deteriorated.

During this trip, Scemama took some visually striking photos of Wojnarowicz buried in the dirt, with his face partially peeking out from the ground. It was eerily symbolic of knowing that he would end up in an early grave by dying so young. It was also Wojnarowicz’s last photo shoot. Scemama says that every time she collaborated with Wojnarowicz, he came up with the ideas.

You don’t have to be a fan of Wojnarowicz’s work to appreciate his impact on the art world or on AIDS activism. You don’t have to agree with his political beliefs. What the “Wojnarowicz” documentary does so effectively is show that he overcame a lot of personal struggles in his life to express his truth, even if that truth made a lot of people uncomfortable. And that raw and open honesty is a legacy worth noting.

Kino Lorber released “Wojnarowicz” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Falling’ (2021), starring Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen and Laura Linney

April 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lance Henriksen and Viggo Mortensen in “Falling” (Photo courtesy of Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution)


Directed by Viggo Mortensen

Culture Representation: Taking place in Southern California and an unnamed state on the East Coast of the U.S., the dramatic film “Falling” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An openly gay, middle-aged man has conflicts with his bigoted father, who has early signs of dementia. 

Culture Audience: “Falling” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about dysfunctional families and dealing with dementia, but the movie’s constant vitriol from one of the characters might be a turnoff to some viewers.

Terry Chen, Gabby Velis and Lance Henriksen in “Falling” (Photo courtesy of Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution)

If not for the commendable acting from the stars of the movie, “Falling” would be a very unpleasant chore to watch. This dramatic movie is the feature-film directorial debut of Viggo Mortensen, who also wrote the film’s screenplay and musical score. Mortensen is also one of the stars and producers of the “Falling,” which tells the story of how a hate-filled old man and his middle-aged children (especially his son) deal with the old man’s dementia and his search for a place to retire.

The direction of the movie veers between fluid and uneven. There are parts of the story that become too repetitive with bigotry and other bad behavior. However, there’s enough authenticity in the cast members’ performances in “Falling” that makes the movie worth watching to see how this emotionally damaged family is going to cope with family problems. In interviews, Mortensen has said that “Falling” is not biographical, but some parts of the film were inspired by what he’s experienced in real life.

There’s no other way to describe Willis Peterson (played by Lance Henriksen), the family’s patriarch: He’s a racist, homophobic, sexist, self-centered, foul-mouthed bully. Willis tests the patience of his family members (and people watching this movie) with his increasingly erratic and unhinged actions. Willis, who is in his 70s, is looking for a place to retire, possibly in California, and he’s being helped by his openly gay son John (played by Mortensen), who lives in Southern California.

Willis has another child named Sarah (played by Laura Linney), John’s younger sister, who isn’t in the movie for very long. But her presence in “Falling” brings a valuable perspective on how this family became such a mess of emotional terrorism by Willis. There’s a lot of unspoken resentment from the family members who put up with his disgusting nonsense. Sarah’s involvement is brief but impactful. “Falling” is really a father/son story, told from the perspective of Willis and John and their memories.

There are several non-chronological flashbacks in the movie that viewers have to put together like pieces in a puzzle to explain how and why this family ended up this way. The flashbacks go as far back as the early 1960s, when a young Willis (played by Sverrir Gudnason) and his wife Gwen (played by Hannah Gross) are parents to John when he was a baby. Willis says half-jokingly to baby John (played by twins Liam and Luca Cresctielli): “I’m sorry I brought you into this world so that you can die.” The family lives on an isolated farm in an unnamed state on the East Coast.

The movie’s flashbacks never show Sarah as a baby, but she’s about five years younger than John. The movie’s flashbacks show Sarah at approximately 4 to 6 years old (played by Carina Battrick) and at 11 years old (played by Ava Kozelj), while John is shown at 4 years old (played by Grady McKenzie), approximately 9 to 11 years old (played by (Etienne Kelliciand), and at age 16 (played by William Healy). It becomes apparent that Willis was a selfish person as a husband and a father. He’s the main cause for the family’s unhappiness.

Narcissistic people who become parents often have resentment when their children don’t pay as much attention to the narcissist as the kids did when they were younger. Based on what’s shown in the flashbacks, that’s exactly what happened with Willis. Gwen and Willis’ marriage began to crumble as their kids grew up and started to develop their own personalities and opinions. It’s a lot easier to boss around a 4-year-old than it is to boss around a 16-year-old.

There’s a flashback scene in the movie of Willis teaching 4-year-old John how to duck hunt. It’s one of the few scenes in the movie that show Willis and John seeming to be happy spending time together. After shooting a duck, John takes the dead duck home with him and refuses to give it to his mother to cook. Instead, John insists on treating the duck like a toy, even to the point of bringing the duck with him to bed. (Mortensen says that this happened to him in real life when he was a child.) Gwen eventually convinces John to give her the duck so that she can cook it.

But as John and Sarah got older, Willis’ nasty side came out even more. There’s a scene of John, at approximately 9 to 11 years old, having a birthday party in the family home. Gwen, Sarah, several children and their mothers are also at the party, which is a happy celebration until Willis tries to ruin it. Willis lurks nearby with a jealous look on his face, as if he can’t stand that he’s not the center of attention in his home. And sure enough, Willis blurts out something demeaning to humiliate John, while an embarrassed Gwen tries to ignore what happened and pretend that everything is okay.

But everything is not okay. In flashbacks, it’s shown that Willis cheated on Gwen with a younger woman named Jill (played by Bracken Burns), who was either a friend of Gwen’s or someone whom Gwen trusted enough to let Jill be a babysitter before the adultery betrayal. Willis and Jill moved in together around the time that John was 9 to 11 years old. Gwen and Willis got divorced. Gwen got full custody of the kids, with Willis getting visitation rights.

But when Gwen started dating another man, jealous Willis decided to not return John and Sarah from one of his visitations. The details are sketchy in the flashbacks, but it seems as if Willis and Jill took John and Sarah on an extended road trip without permission, which was a violation of the custody agreement. Willis freely admits to Jill that he didn’t want to return the kids to their mother, just to spite Gwen. It’s unclear if Willis went to jail over it, but he and Jill had the kids long enough where there’s a scene of Willis and Jill with the kids in a diner, the children look miserable, and the kids ask when they can go home.

By the time John became a teenager, John and Willis’ relationship had deteriorated to the point of them getting into physical fights. There’s a scene of Willis and a 16-year-old John getting into an argument and brawling while they were horseback riding together. Willis is the aggressor, and viewers can easily speculate that it’s not the first time that Willis has been physically abusive to John. It’s shown throughout the story that horses are a big deal to Willis, who seems to like horses more than he likes people.

Gwen eventually got remarried to someone named Danny, an artist whom Willis despised. Jill never married Willis but lived with him for a few years, and she eventually left Willis for a man she married named Michael White. Willis hated Michael too. Jill and Gwen are now both deceased. Willis never got remarried, which is no surprise because no one in their right mind would think that Willis would be a good husband.

Willis’ dementia causes him to sometimes confuse Gwen and Jill when he’s talking about them. And sometimes, he thinks Gwen and Jill are still alive. At one point, he calls Gwen a “whore” in one of his rants. In another scene, he calls Jill a “fucking saint.”

All of these details are not revealed in a smooth and straightforward manner in the movie. There’s a lot of timeline jumps that don’t always flow well with the story. People watching this movie also have to pay attention to conversations to pick up details about the Peterson family.

The main actors in “Falling” also communicate non-verbally (with facial expressions and body language) to express how their characters are feeling inside. Linney, who is always terrific in her performances, excels in this actor technique. In other words, “Falling” is a movie that is best appreciated if viewers are not distracted by anything else while watching it.

In a present-day scene, John (who used to be in the U.S. Air Force) mentions during one point in the movie that he didn’t accept that he was gay until he was in the military and he came out as gay around the same time. It’s unclear how long John was in the military, but there’s mention of him working as a pilot after he got out of the Air Force. John and Sarah, who live in Southern California, are now both happily married with children.

John’s husband Eric (played by Terry Chen) is a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital. John and Eric have an adorable adopted daughter named Mónica (played by Gabby Velis), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Sarah and her husband (who is never seen in the movie) live in Ventura and have two teenagers: Paula (played by Ella Jonas Farlinger), who’s about 18 years old, and Will (played by Piers Bijvoet), who’s about 15 or 16. Willis shows some grandfatherly affection for Mónica, probably because she’s at an age where she’s easier to control than a teenager, and she might be too naïve to see what an awful person Willis is.

In one of the early scenes of “Falling,” John and Willis are on a plane because Willis is traveling from wherever he lives to visit John and Sarah in California. The other purpose of the trip is so that Willis can look for a possible retirement place in California, but it soon becomes clear that California is not exactly his first choice. Willis’ dementia has reached a point where it’s not safe for him to travel alone. He often gets confused about where is and what year it is.

This confusion becomes immediately apparent, when Willis causes a ruckus on the plane during mid-flight because he thinks he’s at home with Gwen instead of on a plane with John. John tries to calm Willis down, but Willis gets even more belligerent, as he gets up and yells for Gwen. John ends up having to physically restrain Willis. And when they disembark from the plane, Willis wanders away from the baggage claim area when John steps away for a few minutes.

It’s too bad that Wills’ vile temper can’t be restrained. The movie is filled with Willis’ unbridled rants where he makes it clear to anyone who listens that he’s a politically conservative bigot. Willis expresses disgust that John voted for Barack Obama, whom Willis calls a “Negro,” which might have been an acceptable term for black people before the 1970s, but not these days.

Willis also uses a homophobic slur for gay men several times through the movie. At one point, Willis asks John if John is sure that he’s gay. Willis’ tone of voice makes it clear that he wishes that John were straight. As for Willis’ thoughts on possibly moving to California, he shouts: “California is for cocksuckers and flag burners!”

Willis barely tolerates John’s husband Eric, whom Willis keeps misidentifying as Japanese, when Eric is actually Chinese and Hawaiian. Based on Eric’s reaction (he politely corrects Willis), this racial insensitivity is something that Eric has gotten used to from Willis, and it can’t be blamed on dementia. It’s made pretty clear from the flashbacks that Willis has been a jerk for a very long time.

And so, this obnoxiousness goes on and on for the entire movie. During a meal at John and Eric’s house, Willis lights up a cigarette, but John politely reminds him that they don’t allow smoking inside the house. What does Willis do? He puts out his cigarette in the food he was served. In another scene later in the movie, Willis throws raw eggs at John when John suggests that Willis have a healthier diet.

A family meal at Sarah’s home with John, Eric, Sarah and their kids cant go without Willis making derogatory comments. Sarah’s son Will has recently dyed his hair blue. Willis comments on his grandson’s hair by saying, “Do you want to be a homo?” He makes other homophobic comments until a distressed Will gets up and leaves the table, but not before telling Willis that he’s ashamed to be named after him.

As insufferable as Willis is, there are miserable haters like this who exist in the world, and they want everyone else to be as miserable as they are. Willis might be difficult to watch, but “Falling” seems to be making an often-heavy-handed point that this is what happens when toxic people go unchecked. Pity anyone who has to live with someone like Willis in real life.

Willis’ filthy mouth isn’t just about spewing hate speech. This movie has a lot of talk of bodily functions (urinating, defecating and farting), and most of these cringeworthy comments are from Willis. In one scene in the movie, Willis tells his granddaughter Mónica  that when John was a child, John used to be so frightened of an imaginary monster named Mortimer, that John used to “shit the bed.”

In another scene, Willis has a prostate exam to determine if he needs surgery for prostate cancer. In the examination room, with John in the room, Willis tells the physician named Dr. Klausner (played by filmmaker David Cronenberg, who’s worked with Mortensen on several movies): “Don’t let my son anywhere near my asshole. He’s likely to get excited.”

John and Sarah mostly react to their father’s hate-filled rants by trying not to argue with him. A lot of viewers will be frustrated by how Willis isn’t called out enough for his despicable comments and actions, regardless if he has dementia or not. However, as uncomfortable as it may be to watch, John and Sarah’s enabling is very realistic of how people try to ignore bigotry and hate instead of trying to confront it and stop it.

John and Sarah also seem afraid to confront their father because even though he’s an ailing old man, John and Sarah still seem to be a little bit afraid of him. Scenes in the movie show that Willis has a violent temper. And so, there’s probably unspoken violent abuse that Willis inflicted on his kids when they were young that still haunt John and Sarah.

However, the best scene in the movie is when John finally unleashes and gives Willis the verbal takedown he very much deserves. A lot of viewers will be thinking about John finally standing up to his father: “What took you so long?” Other viewers might have different reactions.

One of the few scenes in the movie where the family isn’t under some kind of emotional attack from Willis is when John, Eric, Mónica and Willis all go to an art gallery together. John’s mother Gwen loved art, so this trip to the gallery is his way of trying to pass along Gwen’s appreciation of art to Mónica. However, this relatively calm family outing is rare, because most of what the Peterson family experiences in this story revolves around Willis’ negativity and problems that he usually creates.

The flashback scenes in “Falling” answer some questions about the Peterson family dynamics, but leave other questions unanswered. For example, viewers never get to see how John and Sarah were raised by Gwen after the divorce. And this omission is an indication that the flashbacks are mostly from Willis’ perspective. Maybe this disjointed way of telling the story is writer/director Mortensen’s way of depicting what fractured memories in dementia feel like. The final scene of “Falling,” just like the rest of the movie, can be frustratingly muddled, because it’s better at expressing moods than fine-tuning the details.

Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution released “Falling” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on February 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Haymaker’ (2021), starring Nick Sasso, Nomi Ruiz, John Ventimiglia, Veronica Falcón, Udo Kier, Zoë Bell and D.B. Sweeney

March 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nomi Ruiz and Nick Sasso in “Haymaker” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

“Haymaker” (2021)

Directed by Nick Sasso

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, Los Angeles, Greece, Thailand and Mexico City, the dramatic film “Haymaker” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos, African, Americans and Asians) representing people in the entertainment industry and the world of Muay Thai fighting.

Culture Clash: A Muay Thai fighter becomes the bodyguard of an up-and-coming singer and gets more than he bargained for when he starts to have romantic feelings about her.

Culture Audience: “Haymaker” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a movie that’s a series of tedious scenes that don’t add up to much of a plot.

Nomi Ruiz in “Haymaker” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

The dramatic film “Haymaker” is a globe-trotting film that had the potential to be a compelling adventure/love story. However, the movie’s incoherent storyline, badly written dialogue and dull acting make it very forgettable. “Haymaker” is the feature-film directorial debut of Nick Sasso, who also directed the movie and is the star of the film as the story’s protagonist. But his Nicky “Mitts” Malloy character is so lacking in charisma that he is easily outshined by co-star Nomi Ruiz, who plays the seductive singer (also named Nomi) who steals Nicky’s heart.

In “Haymaker,” Nicky is a retired championship Muay Thai fighter who is now working as a bouncer/security staffer at a New York City nightclub. It’s the type of nightclub where young people like to party but some shady criminal types hang out there too. In the beginning of the movie, Nicky sees Nomi being sexually assaulted in the dressing room by a thug named Bluto (played by Olan Montgomery) before she goes on stage.

Nicky comes to Nomi’s rescue by beating up her attacker, who leaves the club. There’s no mention in the movie of calling the police to report this sexual assault because it’s implied that this is the type of nightclub that doesn’t want the cops anywhere near the place. Nomi, who is a dance/pop artist, thanks Nicky, manages to compose herself, and she performs on stage like a pro.

Nicky is transfixed and awed, as he watches Nomi perform while he stands near the bar. He looks at her in a way that it’s pretty obvious that these two are going to be headed toward a romance at some point in the story. Ruiz is a pretty good singer/performer, but the songs she does in “Haymaker” are very generic.

After the nightclub closes for the night, Nomi says to Nicky while they’re seated at the bar: “You know, I owe you a drink.” Nicky replies, “No, you don’t.” Nomi then says, “I could use one.” This is an example of the simplistic and boring dialogue that drags down the film. The actors also sometimes recite their lines awkwardly, with pauses that are little too long and pacing that doesn’t sound like an authentic conversation.

Because Nomi was impressed with how Nicky fought to protect her, she offers him a job as her bodyguard. Nomi says she needs protection from “her fans,” but her half-joking tone of voice when she says it will make people wonder if she’s serious or not. Nicky is going to need this bodyguard job, because shortly after he and Nomi have the conversation, he gets fired by his boss Javier (played by John Ventimiglia) at the nightclub.

Javier tells Nicky that the firing is nothing personal against Nicky, but it’s because Bluto is “a friend of the club,” and the boss can’t risk alienating this thug. The implication is that Bluto is some kind of gangster or shady person who’s given this nightclub boss a reason to choose Bluto over Nicky. Now that he’s been laid off from the nightclub, Nicky can spend more time being Nomi’s full-time bodyguard. How convenient.

Nicky and Nomi have a conversation outside of the nightclub where they both talk a little bit about their backgrounds. They’re both New York City natives. He’s from The Bronx, while she’s from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.

Nomi tells Nicky that he’s also going to be her driver because she doesn’t have a car. Nicky doesn’t even bother to charge her extra money for this added responsibility. It’s pretty obvious that he’s infatuated with her and he thinks getting paid to be around Nomi is just a bonus. Nicky and Nomi exchange phone numbers and then part ways for the night.

The first time that Nicky goes to work for Nomi, she wants him to drive her to a recording studio. He picks her up at her modest apartment, where Nomi lives with her bed-ridden grandmother, whom she calls Mama (played by Kathryn Kates). While at the apartment, Nicky and Nomi talk some more about their lives. They both find out that they have something in common: They were both expelled from high school.

Nicky is the “strong, silent type,” so even though viewers can see that he’s probably falling for Nomi, he doesn’t really outwardly express it. In terms of personality, Nicky and Nomi are opposites (he’s an introvert, she’s an extrovert) and have very different lifestyles. Nomi is a bit of a wild child who likes to party (she does cocaine and Ecstasy in a few scenes), while Nicky seems to be leading a fairly straight-laced lifestyle.

Nomi is unpredictable and sometimes irrational, as Nicky finds out when he takes her to the recording studio. She orders Nicky to wait for her in the reception area until she completes her recording session. But then, a rapper named Logan (played by Ty Hickson) in the recording studio picks a fight with Nomi, so the recording session is cut short.

Nicky has no way of knowing about this argument because he’s in another part of the building and couldn’t hear what was goin on. But that doesn’t stop Nomi from storming out of the studio and berating Nicky for not coming to her rescue. Nicky tells Nomi that she’s being unreasonable, but she makes it clear that she gets to decide what Nicky should be doing because she’s paying him. Nomi seems to be treating Nicky like a chump, so this movie will have a hard time convincing viewers that this would-be romance is built on mutual respect.

One of the biggest flaws in “Haymaker” is that it constantly hints of an intriguing backstory for Nomi, but then just leaves those hints hanging with no elaboration. For example, one night, Nick goes back to the nightclub where he used to work. He happens to see Nomi at the club. She’s sitting at a table with a mobster type named Fürst (played by Udo Kier, who has a brief cameo) and two couples who appear to be part of Fürst’s entourage.

Nick joins them at the table, but he looks and feels uncomfortable. Fürst talks about how Nomi burned down his Malibu house, but it was an accident. Fürst then tells Nomi in a slightly menacing voice, “You owe me.” After Nomi snorts some cocaine, Nicky escorts her out of the nightclub. Fürst is never seen or heard from again. It’s never revealed in the movie how Nomi and Fürst know each other, what she was doing in Malibu, and what she “owes” him.

And the movie hints at but never explores the fact that Nomi is a transgender woman, as is Ruiz in real life. There’s a scene that’s in the “Haymaker” trailer where she reveals to Nicky that she’s transgender, but that scene was cut from the movie. In the scene, Nicky and Nomi are in someone’s home while he looks at several framed family photos displayed on a table. He picks up a photo of a little boy and asks who the boy is. Nomi replies, “Me.”

Nomi says a few things in the movie that give hints about her transgender identity, by telling Nicky that she can’t really reveal all of herself to him and that she’s not who she appears to be. However, since the filmmakers cut out the scene of Nomi telling Nicky that she lived as a boy when she was a child, the movie doesn’t have a big reveal about Nomi being transgender.

Because Nicky is never told in the final cut of the movie that Nomi is transgender, this omission can be considered careless at best or deliberately dishonest at worst. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want Nomi’s transgender identity to be a distraction to the story. Or maybe they feared that it would alienate transphobic viewers. Whatever the reason, muting or possibly trying to erase Nomi’s transgender identity was a missed opportunity to make this very tedious movie more interesting.

There’s another part of the movie where Nicky briefly meets Nomi’s mother Marisol (Veronica Falcón), and it’s hinted that Nomi and Marisol were estranged at some point. It’s also implied that Nomi spent a great deal of her childhood being raised by her grandmother. But the movie never goes into details over why Nomi was closer to her grandmother than she was to her mother.

Not much is told about Nicky’s background either. He has an older brother named Mack (played by D.B. Sweeney), who has been his trainer. And during a conversation between Nicky and Nomi, Nicky mentions that he had a fiancée, who was his co-worker, but the fiancée broke up with Nicky after he lost a fight. Nicky describes the breakup this way to Nomi: “She was cool. I hurt her feelings. The end.”

Even though it’s never said out loud in the film, and it’s not spoiler information, viewers can easily figure out the ex-fiancée is a woman named Rosie (played by Zoë Bell), who works at a gym where Nicky did a lot of training. Rosie’s brief interactions with Nicky give the impression that they used to be romantically involved and they’re now trying to keep things professional, but Rosie still cares about him as a friend. Nicky seems to have some hard feelings about the breakup though, because he’s a little bit standoffish toward Rosie.

A lot of “Haymaker” is a mishmash of scenes of Nicky going on tour with Nomi in various places, such as Los Angeles, Greece and Mexico City. She’s well-known enough to headline at large nightclubs that hold about 1,000 people, but she’s definitely not very famous. People watching this movie should be prepared to see a lot of scenes of Nicky literally standing around while he watches Nomi perform on stage, or else he’s lingering in the background while she parties in hotel rooms or nightclubs and he barely talks to anyone.

A major problem with “Haymaker” is that the filmmakers seemed more concerned with filming the actors in exotic settings than making this story interesting. Nomi actually doesn’t have anyone in her life who’s a real threat to her, so the supposed “protection” she needs is a very misleading part of this movie. Don’t expect “Haymaker” to be like an indie film version of the 1992 Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner blockbuster “The Bodyguard.” There are no chase scenes, stalkers or assassination attempts in “Haymaker.”

As for the romance in “Haymaker,” it might have been intended as a “slow burn,” but it’s more like a “big snooze.” Because the dialogue is so dumbed-down, Nicky and Nomi don’t have any meaningful conversations that would make it believable that they’re connecting on a level that goes beyond physical attraction. The movie also doesn’t adequately address how Nomi takes advantage of the power imbalance that she has as Nicky’s employer.

Some very cliché jealousy issues happen between Nicky and Nomi. At one point in “Haymaker,” Nicky comes out of Muy Thai retirement, trains in Thailand, and does a Muy Thai fight with Brett “The Threat” Hlavacek, who portrays himself in the movie. But even the fight scenes and the outcome of the fight are formulaic and extremely predictable.

For a low-budget independent movie, “Haymaker” makes an admirable attempt to look stylish, since many of Nomi’s performance scenes and the outdoor vistas benefit from cinematography that tries to make the movie look more glamorous than it really is. “Haymaker” also has a few light touches of comedy, such as a scene where Nomi wants to spend time at a beach, but Nicky doesn’t have a swimsuit. They go into a public restroom and she makes him wear the type of swimsuit he doesn’t like: a Speedo.

Ultimately though, “Haymaker” is too disjointed with its poorly conceived screenwriting, amateurish directing and choppy editing. No one is expecting the Nicky character to be a talkative intellectual (look at “Rocky” movie hero Rocky Balboa, for instance), but viewers expect a leading man to at least have something magnetic about his personality. Unfortunately, between Nicky’s dullness and Nomi not doing much except pouting, singing and acting sexy, “Haymaker” is just a disappointing dud. The movie might have been filmed in various locations around the world, but “Haymaker” ends up going nowhere if people are looking for a quality story that’s entertaining.

Kamikaze Dogfight and Gravitas Ventures released “Haymaker” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 29, 2021.

Review: ‘Nina Wu,’ starring Ke-Xi Wu

March 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ke-Xi Wu in “Nina Wu” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“Nina Wu”

Directed by Midi Z

Taiwanese and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Taiwan, the dramatic film “Nina Wu” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An unknown actress gets her big break with a starring role in a movie, but she has to cope with sexual predators in the industry and secrets in her personal life.

Culture Audience: “Nina Wu” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stylish-looking arthouse movies that are character studies with unsettling subject matter.

Ke-Xi Wu and Hsia Yu-Chiao in “Nina Wu” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“Nina Wu” is an artistically filmed movie-within-a-movie story that takes an unflinching and often-disturbing look at the compromises and indignities that entertainers, particularly women, experience in their quest for fame. The movie tells the story of Nina Wu (played by Ke-Xi Wu), a struggling actress in Taiwan who gets a big break by landing her first starring role in a feature film. But she has to confront what this role will cost her when she finds out that it comes with a heavy price to her dignity and self-worth.

Ke-Xi Wu co-wrote the screenplay of “Nina Wu” with the movie’s director Midi Z, and she says the story is inspired by some of her real-life experiences. She gives a very compelling performance in this movie, which contrasts its beautifully styled aesthetic with the ugly truths of what often goes on behind the scenes in showbiz. The movie tends to be a little jumbled in story structure, but the message behind the film is clear.

Nina’s backstory comes out in bits and pieces in flashbacks and other descriptions. Viewers will have to be comfortable with movies that play out in a non-linear manner. Nina is an aspiring actress who moved from a suburban area to the big capital city of Taipei. Her father (played by Cheng Ping-Chun) runs a factory in Taiwan. And she was discovered by a talent agent when she working at a market stall.

However, Nina’s life as an actress isn’t go so well for her in Taipei. In the movie, Nina (who also goes by the name Sufen) works as a cam girl to pay her bills. Nina has been hiding her struggles as an actress from her family and other people she knows in her hometown. As far as they know, she’s been getting respectable work as a small-time actress and is living a pretty good life in Taipei.

In a meeting with her agent (played by Rexen Cheng), who’s been working with Nina for the past six years, he reminds her that she hasn’t been in a feature film the entire time that he’s worked with her. She has only been in short films. However, the agent (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) tells Nina that he’s gotten an offer to audition for a starring role in a feature film (a spy thriller set in the 1960s) where she would be required to do explicit sex scenes. It’s not a pornographic film, but it’s a movie where there’s little left to the imagination when it comes to sex.

Nina is hesitant to do the audition, but the agent says that any good actor wouldn’t turn down a role because of nudity. (What he doesn’t mention is the reality that women are much more likely than men to be required to have nude scenes in non-pornographic films.) The agent says that he will leave the decision up to Nina. And he tells her that big Hollywood stars take a role for two reasons: It’s a good character or it’s good pay.

Nina decides to audition for the role. And what she goes through in the rest of the story is an emotionally draining experience that also forces her to confront secrets that she’s denied or kept from other people in her life. During the audition process, she meets with a female casting director (played by Hsieh Ying-Hsuan), who tells Nina that Nina’s performance should be as natural as possible. By way of comparison, she asks Nina, “When you take a shower, do you worry about being naked?”

Nina then auditions for a panel of filmmakers. The casting director is the only woman in this group of decision makers. Nina gets the role, but that’s the easy part of making the film. Things get much harder for her when she has to work with the very demanding and sexist director (played by Shih Ming-Shuai), who doesn’t hesitate to be derogatory to her. Most of the characters in “Nina Wu” do not have names. It might be the “Nina Wu” filmmakers’ way of showing how these experiences are so common that they could apply to many people without specific names attached.

Nina’s starring role in the movie is as a woman in a troubled love affair that nearly drives her character to violence with a knife. She threatens to kill her lover and herself. The director is abusive in the name of getting the performance that he wants out of Nina. He chokes her to get her in an agitated mindset. In another incident, he slaps Nina.

Because the director is a highly acclaimed filmmaker in the industry, people on the movie set act as if Nina should feel lucky to work with him. And so, Nina starts to second-guess her discomfort at how she is being treated in this very male-dominated and demeaning work environment. Everyone around her acts like this physical abuse is “normal,” so Nina doesn’t complain about it. It’s also her very first feature film, and she doesn’t want to be perceived as a “difficult person,” which could ruin other career opportunities for her.

At a New Year’s dinner with her family (including her parents, aunts and uncles), they give a toast to Nina to congratulate her on the movie role and wish her success. But as Nina’s career seems to be taking off and she gets some media attention for being cast in the movie, she becomes more miserable inside. Nina’s movie is expected to be a critically acclaimed hit, but this possibility of becoming a famous actress doesn’t bring Nina the true happiness that she expected.

Nina doesn’t say it out loud, but she’s thinking about how her family might react when they find out about the explicit sex scenes that she has in the movie. And she wonders how this high-profile role might affect how she’s perceived in the entertainment industry. Will she be typecast as someone who does sexually explicit performances? Nina is also having nightmares that a woman is chasing her in a life-threatening way.

On the movie set for one of the sex scenes, the director says that the scene is supposed to convey the hopelessness of life. Far from being passionate, the scene is coldly and clinically choreographed. In a set-up for a threesome in the movie, Nina and two male actors pose in sexual positions to test the lighting and are told not to show any emotions while posing.

Instead of feeing like a glamorous movie star, Nina feels like an exploited piece of meat. Nina has no real friends in Taipei, so she turns to a longtime friend of hers named Kiki (played by Sung Yu-Hua, also known as Vivian Sung), a school teacher she knows from her hometown. Nina confides in Kiki about a dream that she had where Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman told Nina to hold on to a tree during a storm. And then, Kidman disappeared and Nina was washed away in the storm.

Kidman was probably in Nina’s dream because in real life, Kidman has done several nude/sex scenes in her career. Kidman is often named as an example of a highly respected and versatile actress who’s able to do big-budget studio films and edgier independent films. The storm in the dream is a metaphor for the inner turmoil that Nina feels about doing the sex scenes in the movie. And it’s a problematic situation where Kidman isn’t going to come to Nina’s rescue.

There’s something else that Nina has to come to terms with as she deals with her conflicted feelings about starring in this sexually explicit movie: Nina is a lesbian and she’s in love with Kiki. Nina’s family doesn’t know about her true sexuality. Ultimately, Nina has to decide if she wants to live openly as a lesbian and how she wants to handle her feelings for Kiki.

In the midst of these issues in her love life and career, Nina has to deal with some crises in her family. Her father’s factory has gone bankrupt and her mother (played by Wang Chuan) has a heart attack. Nina then visits her hometown to help her family during this difficult time. And it should come as no surprise that Nina sees Kiki again during this visit.

The movie-within-a-movie part of “Nina Wu” offers some chilling parallels to the character that Nina plays on screen and who she is off-screen. Both Nina and her on-screen character are tortured in some way by love and sexuality. “Nina Wu” takes a very dark turn toward the end of the film when it shows how women are often pitted against each other by rich and powerful men for their own perverse pleasures. Nina and some other actresses who were in a group of auditioners, including a woman identified in the credits by the name Girl No. 3 (played by Hsia Yu-Chiao), are abused in this sick and twisted game.

Not all the villains in the story are men, because the movie shows that some women can be just as complicit or active in sexual misconduct as men can be. However, within the realm of the entertainment industry, as depicted in “Nina Wu,” men tend to have the most money and power. What’s most haunting about the movie is that the sexual harassment and other degradation portrayed in the movie are all too-often what many desperate and vulnerable people experience in real life when predators abuse their power and exploit people who want to achieve their dreams.

Film Movement released “Nina Wu” in New York City on March 26, 2021. The movie’s release expands to more cinemas in U.S. cities and on digital and VOD on April 2, 2021.

Review: ‘The Fallout,’ starring Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, Shailene Woodley, Julie Bowen and John Ortiz

March 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler in “The Fallout” (Photo by Kristen Correll)

“The Fallout”

Directed by Megan Park

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in California’s Los Angeles County, the dramatic film “The Fallout” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latino, white and African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After experiencing a devastating school shooting, a teenage girl, her schoolmates and her family have different ways of coping with this tragedy.

Culture Audience: “The Fallout” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted and realistically written dramas about how a mass murder has psychological effects on survivors, particularly young people.

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

There have been several documentaries about how survivors of school shootings in the U.S. are coping with these tragedies. “The Fallout” is a fictional drama, but the movie achieves a rare balancing act of handling this sensitive subject matter with realistic emotions and above-average acting. What makes the movie also stand out is that it’s not a non-stop barrage of depression. It’s able to convey, with occasional touches of levity, how life can go on for survivors, even if their lives will no longer be the same.

Written and directed by Megan Park, “The Fallout” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, where it won the top jury prize as the best movie in the narrative feature competition. Writer/director Park, who made her feature-film directorial debut with “The Fallout,” also won the 2021 SXSW Film Festival’s Brightcove Illumination Award, given to a filmmaker on the rise. Park previously directed music videos, such as Billie Eilish’s “Watch.” Eilish’s brother/musical collaborator Finneas O’Connell wrote “The Fallout” musical score.

The beginning of “The Fallout” gives the appearance of being a typical teenage story. The movie’s protagonist Vada Cavell (played by Jenna Ortega, in a standout performance) and her openly gay best friend Nick Feinstein (played by Will Ropp) are driving in Nick’s car to their high school. They live in an unnamed city in California’s Los Angeles County. (The movie was filmed in Los Angeles.)

Vada (pronounced “vay-da”) and Nick appear to be 16 or 17 years old, probably in their third year of high school. If they were in their last year of high school, movies like this would make a point of telling the audiences that these students are high-school seniors because Vada and her classmates would be talking about their plans after they graduate. All of the main characters in the movie come from stable, middle-class homes.

Vada and Nick have the type of comfortable rapport that best friends have with each other, where they discuss things they wouldn’t talk about with just anyone. In their conversation while going to school, Nick and Vada talk about drinking coffee, which leads to Vada mentioning that coffee gives her the urge to defecate. Vada and Nick laugh and say that they should have a code for that bodily function when they talk about it in front of other people.

When Vada and Nick arrive at school, it seems like it’s going to be a normal day. The biggest problem that Vada thinks she’ll have to deal with that day is how to comfort her younger sister Amelia (played by Lumi Pollack), who has texted Vada a “911” emergency alert while Vada is in one of her classrooms. Vada quickly excuses herself from class to go in the hallway and call back Amelia, who attends another school and appears to be about 13 years old. Amelia is hiding by herself in one of her school’s restrooms.

It turns out that Amelia called because she’s surprised and embarrassed that she got her first menstrual period while in school, and she’s confused about how to handle it. Vada mildly scolds Amelia for scaring Vada into thinking it was a real emergency. Vada calms Amelia down and gives her a “big sister pep talk” on what do next. And like any good older sister would do, Vada offers to take Amelia out for a meal after school, so they can talk some more about this milestone in Amelia’s physical growth toward womanhood.

Feeling satisfied that she handled the situation correctly, Vada then goes into the ladies’ restroom. She sees a fellow classmate named Mia Reed (played by Maddie Zeigler) doing her own makeup in the restroom mirror. Based on the way that Vada stares at Mia, Vada is slightly in awe of Mia, who has the look of an Instagram model and a reputation at school for being somewhat of a social media influencer. The other students talk about Mia as if she’s a mysterious and glamorous loner, who gives the impression that she’s more sophisticated that the average student in high school.

Mia comments to Vada: “Photo day,” to explain why she’s doing her makeup instead of being in class. Vada replies before she goes into a stall, “I’ve got to get my shit together.” It’s Vada’s way of saying that she thinks she should pay more attention to her own hair, makeup and wardrobe. When Vada comes out of the stall, she says to Mia as a compliment, “You don’t even need to wear makeup.” And that’s when they both hear gunshots.

During the next six minutes of terror, which are shown from the point of view of the students trapped in this restroom, viewers can hear that people in the school are being killed by a gun. There are screams and cries for help amid the gunshots. This violence is never shown on camera because it doesn’t need to be. It’s a massacre that has occurred all too-often in real life.

Vada and Mia hide in the same bathroom stall together and stand up on the toilet, in case the shooter comes in and looks for feet underneath the stalls. As Mia and Vada clutch each other in horror, someone bursts into the room in the stall next to them. At first, the girls think it’s the shooter, but it’s really a fellow classmate named Quinton Hasland (played by Niles Fitch), who quickly identifies himself.

Mia and Vada tell Quinton that he can hide with them in the same stall. The girls are shocked to see that Quinton’s clothes are covered in blood spatter. He tells them that he hasn’t been shot, but he’s panicking because he witnessed his brother getting shot. Quinton is understandably anguished over the decision to run for his life or stay behind to try to help his brother.

The movie doesn’t show how long Vada, Mia and Quinton were crouched in fear in the bathroom stall. Nor does “The Fallout” show what happened when the police and medical emergency teams arrived. A visual clue later in the movie indicates that eight people died in this massacre.

And “The Fallout” isn’t about what happened to the shooter and why he committed this heinous crime, except to indicate that he was a male student from the school. The shooter is never seen or heard in the movie, although his name is mentioned in one of the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes. It’s not said out loud in the movie, but it’s implied that the shooter died at the scene, most likely by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The rest of the film is from Vada’s perspective about how Vada, Mia, Quinton, Nick and Vada’s immediate family (her parents and Amelia) deal with the aftermath of tragedy, including coping with survivor’s guilt. Vada goes into school-appointed counseling with an empathetic therapist named Anna (played by Shailene Woodley), who tries to break down the emotional walls that Vada puts up in their first few sessions together. Vada tries to persuade Anna that she’s doing as well as she can in her recovery.

In her first session with Anna, Vada talks about how she sleeps up to 14 hours a day, but insists (not very convincingly) to Anna that it’s only a few more hours of sleep per day that was part of her normal routine before the shooting. Vada gives this self-evaluation of her personality: “I feel like I’m very good at managing my emotions. I’m very low-key and chill.” Anna patiently advises without sounding judgmental: “It’s really good to show your emotions.”

Despite what Vada told Anna, there are signs that Vada isn’t coping well at all. When Vada is awake in bed, she shivers and twitches in fear. Her excessive sleeping is a sign of depression. And when her parents—Carlos (played by John Ortiz) and Patricia (played by Julie Bowen)—try to talk to Vada about what happened, she shuts them down and tells them that she’s going to be fine. Vada avoids her family by sleeping in her room as much as she can.

During family time together, such as during meals, Amelia talks as if nothing bad really happened, perhaps in a way to try to get things back to normal. But based on Vada’s angry reactions to Amelia’s nonchalant small talk, Vada is offended that Amelia acts oblivious to how this tragedy is affecting Vada. Although Vada doesn’t want to open up to her family about what she’s going through, she doesn’t want them to completely act as if the school shooting didn’t happen either.

Shortly after the massacre, Vada found out that the shooter (whom she didn’t know) had followed Vada on Instagram. It’s a small detail, but how Vada reacts when she finds out is indicative of how she doesn’t like to show many of her emotions on the surface. She expresses some surprise, but then is quick to add that she never knew the guy and never followed him on social media. Her response is to brush it off, but deep down, this information must be disturbing to her.

After the shooting, Mia and Vada begin texting each other and become each other’s confidantes. Mia invites Vada over to her house (it’s here that it’s obvious that Mia’s family has more money than Vada’s family), and this invitation leads to Vada going to Mia’s place for regular visits. Both girls are afraid to go back to school, but Mia’s anxiety is more severe, since she tells Vada that she’s afraid to leave her bedroom. Because of Vada’s visits, Mia gets over that fear and the fear of leaving her house.

Mia’s gay fathers, who are successful artists, are away in Japan on business. Mia, who is an only child, keeps in touch with them by phone, but they are never shown in the house with Mia. It’s implied that they leave Mia alone a lot, which is why she’s more independent than most of her teenage peers. But it’s also made her lonely, and it explains why she quickly bonds with Vada. After the school shooting, Mia’s parents grant Mia’s request to not go back to the school and to be homeschooled instead.

Vada is intrigued by Mia because before they became friends, she had a perception of Mia of being somewhat of a “badass,” based on Mia’s dance videos that Vada watches on the Internet. The first time that Mia and Vada hang out together, Vada remarks that in real life, Mia is very different than what Vada expected: “In the videos, you come off as so hard.” Vada is pleasantly surprised at how nice and down-to-earth Mia is when interacting with her. When Vada expresses anxiety about going to the funeral of Quinton’s brother, Mia offers to go to the funeral with Vada.

Because of what they went through together during the school shooting, Mia and Vada feel like they can openly talk to each other about it. During one such conversation, it’s revealed that while Vada’s way of dealing with the trauma is excessive sleeping, Mia’s anxiety has resulted in insomnia. Vada asks Mia, “Did you have the craziest nightmares last night?” Mia replies, “You have to be able to sleep to have nightmares.”

Mia is seemingly more confident than Vada, but Mia has her insecurities too. Mia guzzles wine and liquor and she smokes marijuana to block out whatever emotional pain she’s experiencing. Vada gets caught up in drinking alcohol and smoking weed with Mia.

And there’s a memorable scene in the movie where Vada impulsively tries Ecstasy for the first time when she’s at school. While flying high on Ecstasy, she gets blue ink from a pen all over her face, and she has trouble navigating her way down a flight of stairs. It’s one of the few scenes in “The Fallout” that’s intended to be funny. “The Fallout” infuses this slapstick comedy into the story as a way to show that life after a school shooting isn’t all gloom and doom for the survivors.

However, the movie also authentically shows in a non-judgmental way that drug use is often a coping mechanism for trauma survivors. Not much is shown or discussed about what Mia’s drug/alcohol use was like before the school shooting. But there are definite references to Vada being a good student before the shooting. Her “good girl” image begins to tarnish after the shooting took place when her grades start to slip, and she shows signs of minor delinquency.

Despite her occasional acts of teenage rebellion, there are signs that Vada identifies more with nerd culture. Vada mentions in a therapy session with Anna is that she has a celebrity crush on actor Paul Dano, who usually plays soft-spoken, geeky characters. And in a conversation between Vada and Mia, they ask each other if they prefer Drake as a sex-symbol rapper or when he portrayed a basketball-star-turned-misfit-paraplegic teen in the TV series “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” Mia and Vada both agree they prefer the wheelchair “Degrassi” version of Drake.

Vada’s parents try to do the best that they can to help her cope with the shooting tragedy, but Vada tends to avoid them. Vada’s relationship with her mother Patricia has more tension (Vada describes Patricia as “uptight”) than the relationship that Vada has with her father Carlos. There are also hints that some of this tension is because Vada thinks that Patricia prefers Amelia over Vada.

There’s a scene in the movie that exemplifies this tension. Vada sees Patricia and Amelia joking around together in the kitchen. Amelia and Patricia don’t see Vada though. Vada looks sad and a little jealous as she observes them and then walks away.

And in an earlier scene, Patricia tells Vada: “All I want is what’s best for you. I want to see that sparkle back.” Vada looks insulted by that comment, and then tells Patricia, as a way to hurt her mother emotionally: “You know that Amelia got her period?” Patricia looks surprised and says, “When?” Vada than smugly replies, “Like forever ago. I guess she just didn’t want you to know.”

But Vada is keeping secrets too. She doesn’t tell her family about her friendship with Mia. And as Vada spends more time with Mia, they become closer in a way that indicates that their relationship will become more than a friendship. Vada also expresses a sexual attraction to Quinton. (This isn’t spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

Vada doesn’t define her sexuality in this movie, but at one point in the story, she describes herself as a socially awkward virgin, and she expresses some disdain at the thought of herself having a husband in the future. It’s interesting that the two people who are her possible love interests are also the ones who were hiding with her in the restroom during the school shooting. The movie leaves it open to interpretation if Vada showing a romantic attraction to them after the shooting was a direct result of this shared trauma or if she was already attracted to them anyway.

Meanwhile, Kevin and Vada start to become distant from each other. He’s aware that Vada is spending more time with Mia. But he’s become an anti-gun violence activist (there are scenes of Kevin doing things that will remind people of the real-life David Hogg), while Vada avoids going to the activist rallies that Kevin now enthusiastically attends. Vada admits to Mia that she feels a little guilty over not doing more to speak out against gun violence. But the movie shows that, just like in real life, not every survivor of a gun shooting is going to become an activist.

Before Vada’s life was turned upside down, she was closest to Kevin, her sister Amelia, her father Carlos and her mother Patricia. After the shooting, the movie shows an emotionally resonant moment that Vada has with each of them, as she comes to terms with how she’s changed since the tragedy and how her relationship with each of them has changed. When Vada has a heart-to-heart talk with her father, she says something that rings true to anyone who’s survived a mass shooting: “I had no idea one guy with a gun could fuck up my life so hard in six minutes.”

What will stick with people who watch “The Fallout” is how the main characters in the story seem like they could be based on real people, thanks to writer/director Park’s terrific handling of this story and the superb acting by the cast members. It’s not an easy thing to do a coming-of-age drama about people affected by a school massacre. And the last five minutes of “The Fallout” is a harrowing example about how “getting back to normal” is something that’s hard to define and even harder to experience.

Universal Pictures will release “The Fallout” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,’ starring Demi Lovato

March 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil” (Photo courtesy of OBB Media)

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil”

Directed by Michael D. Ratner

Culture Representation: The four-part docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” features a racially diverse group of people (Latino, white and African American) of mostly people in the entertainment industry, including Demi Lovato, discussing her life and career, particularly from 2018 to 2020.

Culture Clash: Lovato, who is a recovering drug addict, relapsed and had a near-fatal overdose in 2018, and she says that she no longer believes that complete drug abstinence is the best method of recovery for her.

Culture Audience: “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about how celebrities cope with addiction and trauma.

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

Singer/actress Demi Lovato is well-known for revealing a lot of painful and unflattering aspects of her life, so it should come as no surprise that her four-part YouTube docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has a confessional tone to it. The docuseries had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. Among other things, Lovato goes into details about what she experienced before and after her near-fatal drug overdose at her Los Angeles home in July 2018. (She has since moved from that house because of the bad memories.) She also reveals publicly for the first time that she’s a rape survivor and how the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine led to her very quick and ultimately failed engagement to actor Max Ehrich.

Directed by Michael D. Ratner, “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has much more disturbing revelations than Lovato’s 2017 YouTube documentary film “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated.” There’s a trigger warning at the beginning of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” because it contains graphic talk of sexual assault, her drug use and eating disorders. She goes into details about what happened before and after her overdose of heroin laced with Fentanyl.

Lovato says that the drug dealer who supplied the drugs also sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. She also reveals that when she was 15, she lost her virginity by being raped by someone she worked with in her Disney Channel days. Lovato doesn’t name either of her alleged rapists, but she says that when she reported her underage rape to adults, nothing happened to her alleged rapist. And she claims that she’s managing her addiction problems by drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. That’s not a good sign that she’s on the road to a healthy recovery.

It’s a big contrast to “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” where her most personal revelation was that she’s openly living her life as a member of the LGTBQ community. (The movie had scenes of her discussing her attempts to find love on online dating sites.) Lovato refuses to label her sexuality, and she will only describe herself as “queer” or “not straight.” “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” shows that although Lovato claims to be in a much better emotional place than she was in 2018, she’s still struggling with the idea that her recovery from addiction means that she has to completely abstain from drugs and alcohol.

She admits to drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana “in moderation,” even though she’s said in many interviews that she’s an alcoholic and drug addict. Although she talks a lot about the drugs that she’s used and/or been addicted to over the years, in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” she leaves out any mention of her alcoholism. And that omission is probably because she keeps repeating in the documentary that she’s tired of other people controlling her life and telling her what she can and cannot put in her body.

Ever since former Disney Channel star Lovato first went to rehab in 2010, at the age 18, she has publicly talked about her recovery from a variety of issues, including drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), self-harming (cutting) and bipolar disorder. In “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” she repeated the claim that she was clean and sober since 2012. And in 2018, during her “Tell Me You Love Me” tour, she was filming another documentary about herself, until her drug overdose resulted in shutting down production of that untitled documentary, which was permanently shelved.

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has some clips from that never-seen-before 2018 documentary that shows a seemingly happy Lovato on tour. But as is often the case with entertainers who are drug addicts, they are very skilled at hiding dark sides of their lives. In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” Lovato says of her shelved 2018 biographical film: “In that documentary, I was allowing the cameras to see the tip of the iceberg.”

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” opens with Lovato backstage during that 2018 tour, in footage that was taken one month before her overdose. She’s on the phone with her mother, Dianna De La Garza. Her mother gushes, “Demi, that was the best show you’ve ever done! It’s only going to get better from here.” Lovato gives a small smile but there’s some sadness in her eyes.

There’s also a clip from that a concert earlier on that 2018 tour, with the footage showing Demi being congratulated on stage by opening acts DJ Khaled and Kehlani for her sixth “sober birthday,” to celebrate her being clean and sober for the past six years. On the surface, Lovato looked healthy and happy. But in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she now confesses that she relapsed later that night.

Lovato says, “I picked up a bottle of red wine that night and it wasn’t even 30 minutes before I called someone that had drugs on them … I’m surprised that I didn’t OD that night. I ended up at a party and ran into my old drug dealer from six years before. That night I did drugs I had never done before.”

According to Lovato, she did a dangerous mix of methamphetamine, Ecstasy, alcohol and OxyContin. “That alone should’ve killed me,” Lovato adds. She also confesses that during this relapse that lasted for months, she tried crack cocaine and heroin for the first time.

The first time she went to rehab in 2010, Lovato says that she was addicted to cocaine and Xanax. Years later, when she turned to crack cocaine and heroin (which she usually smoked, not injected), Lovato says in the documentary that she was trying to get the same “upper/downer” combination feeling that she had with cocaine and Xanax. “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” includes a photo identified as Lovato on crack for the first time and a photo of her while she was smoking heroin.

Lovato says she quickly became addicted to crack and heroin, but she was able to hide these addictions from most of the people who were close to her. Her immediate family members are interviewed in the documentary: mother Dianna De La Garza; stepfather Eddie De La Garza; older sister Dallas Lovato; and younger half-sister Madison De LaGarza. All of them say some variation of how Lovato is very good at keeping secrets and pretending that everything is just fine. “There’s a lot that the public don’t know,” says her stepfather Eddie, who is interviewed while sitting on a couch with his wife Dianna.

Demi’s parents got divorced when she was 2 years old. For years, she has been open about how her biological father Patrick Lovato struggled with mental illness (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and drug addiction, and their relationship was fractured for a very long time. Patrick died of cancer in 2013.

In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she talks about how she still feels trauma over her troubled relationship with her father, whom she says abused her mother Dianna. Demi also says that she feels terrible about how her father died alone. His body, which wasn’t discovered for several days, was so decomposed that there couldn’t be an open casket at his funeral. Demi says that her biggest fear was that he would die alone, and she says she’s still haunted by guilt over it.

As for what led to her relapse and overdose in 2018, Demi comments: “Anytime you suppress a part of yourself, it’s going to overflow. Ultimately, that’s what happened to me in a lot of areas of my life. And it led to my overdose, for sure.” She adds later in the documentary: “I was miserable. I snapped.”

In addition to the issues of abandonment that she had with her father, Demi says she believes that the beauty pageants she entered as a child also had a negative effect on her: “My self-esteem was completely damaged by those beauty pageants.” Demi says that her eating disorders began as a direct result of the pressure she felt to be thin and pretty for the pageants.

Her mother Dianna says in the documentary about Demi’s childhood traumas: “I didn’t know that she needed to work with a professional to work through some of that.” In a separate interview, Demi says, “I crossed the line in the world of addiction. It’s interesting that it took a quarantine to work on this trauma stuff I’ve never really taken the time to dig deep and do the work on.”

To her credit, Demi doesn’t sugarcoat the very real and permanent health damage that her overdose caused: “I had three strokes. I had a heart attack. I suffered brain damage from the strokes. I can’t drive anymore. I have blind spots in my vision. When I pour a glass of water, I’ll totally miss the cup because I can’t see it anymore. I’ve also had pneumonia because I asphyxiated and multiple organ failure.”

What happened the night of the overdose has been reported in many media outlets, but the story in this documentary is told by Demi and some other people who were with her in the 24-hour period before and after her overdose. On the evening of July 23, 2018, Demi had been celebrating the birthday of Dani Vitale, who was Demi’s choreographer/creative director at the time.

Demi, Vitale and some other friends went out to nightclubs before heading back to Demi’s house. (The documentary includes phone footage of Vitale and Demi doing a choreographed dance routine on the rooftop.) Vitale, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that she didn’t know that Demi had been using drugs at that time.

That night, Demi begged Vitale to stay overnight at the house, but Vitale declined because she had to go home and feed her dogs and had to get up early the next morning. However, Vitale says as she was driving away from the house with a friend, she told the friend that she had a strange feeling that something wasn’t right. Ultimately, Vitale says that she didn’t stay because of her other obligations and she didn’t want to treat Demi like a child who needed a babysitter.

Demi says that when she was alone in the house, she called her drug dealer and spent the rest of the night doing drugs with him. The documentary includes blurry video surveillance footage of him leaving her house that morning, a few hours before Demi was found unconscious and the ambulance was called. Police later decided not to arrest him for his involvement in this overdose.

Jordan Jackson, a woman who was Demi’s assistant at the time, was the one who found Demi naked, unconscious and surrounded by vomit in Demi’s bed the next morning on July 24, 2018. “There was one point where she turned blue. Her whole body turned blue. I was like, ‘She’s dead for sure,'” Jackson says in the documentary. “It was the craziest thing I had ever seen.”

When Demi woke up at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she was legally blind for a short period of time. She didn’t even recognize her younger sister Madison, who chokes up with emotion in the documentary when she remembers that moment: “She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Who is that?’ That’s something you never want to hear your sister say.”

Cedars-Sinai neurologist Dr. Shouri Lahiri, who sits next to Demi while he’s interviewed in the documentary, remembers that her oxygen levels were “dangerously low and trending down.” Demi also was put on dialysis to clean her blood, and the tubing had to be stuck through her neck. “It was like a horror movie,” as Dianna De La Garza describes it.

Demi is seated next to Dr. Lahiri when he talks about her hospital treatment. He says he didn’t know she why she was famous until about a week after he became her doctor, when he looked her up on the Internet. In the documentary, Dr. Lahiri mentions that he avoided looking up the information earlier because he didn’t want Demi’s celebrity status to affect his medical decisions about her. It’s kind of hard to believe that while she was in the hospital, he didn’t know for the first several days why she was famous, considering all the media coverage about her overdose.

Demi’s stepfather Eddie De La Garza gives a lot of praise to the hospital doctors who helped Demi with her recovery. But no one (not even Demi) is seen or heard in the documentary explicitly thanking Jackson, the person who found Demi and made the crucially important decision to call 911. Jackson admits in her documentary interview that she was afraid that calling 911 would bring a lot of negative publicity for Demi, but Jackson did the right thing and called anyway. Part of the 911 call is played in the documentary, and Jackson is heard asking the 911 operator if the ambulance could not turn on any sirens when it arrived at the house. However, the operator said that there would be ambulance sirens, and 911 operators have no control over that.

Demi says in the documentary, “I’m really lucky to be alive. My doctors said that I had five to 10 minutes [to live before I was found]. Had my assistant not come in, I wouldn’t be here today.” It would’ve been nice for Demi to directly and publicly thank Jackson in the documentary. If Demi did thank her while filming this documentary, it didn’t make it into the movie. And based on the “bare it all” tone of this film, a moment like that wouldn’t be edited out of the film if this thank you really happened while filming.

The documentary also shows that Vitale’s career and reputation were damaged by this overdose, because she was wrongfully blamed for it and wrongfully identified as being a drug buddy of Demi’s. Vitale says she doesn’t do drugs, but she was bullied and harassed by many of Demi’s fans who believed that Vitale was the one who supplied the drugs that Demi took that night. Vitale lost clients because of the overdose scandal. Demi says that her fans who harassed Vitale went too far.

In the documentary, while Vitale is getting her hair and makeup done for the interview, Demi is shown going into the room, hugging Vitale, and telling her that she’s sorry that she didn’t come forward sooner to clear Vitale’s name, but she was still in recovery at the time. Demi also says that she hopes that the documentary will help Vitale set the record straight that Vitale had nothing to do with Demi’s overdose. They seem to be friendly with each other, but it’s clear that Vitale doesn’t want to risk going through this experience with Demi again.

During her interview, Vitale tears up with emotion when she talks about the fallout from Demi’s overdose: “It was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life. I just wanted [Demi] to live … I lost all my teaching jobs. No one wanted to bring their kid to an apparent heroin dealer teacher. I lost all the artists I was working with. No one wanted to deal with the drama … I had to rethink my whole future, all because of someone else’s decision.”

After recovering from her overdose, Demi says she decided she no longer wanted to have a team of people controlling what she ate or people checking up on her as if she would relapse at any moment. As an example, she says that for her birthdays, her previous management team would only allow her to have watermelon cake. After she fired that management team, Demi says one of the ways she celebrated her freedom from other people telling her what to eat was by having three cakes on her birthday.

After getting rid of her previous management, Demi asked Scooter Braun (who’s most famous for being Justin Bieber’s manager) to become her personal manager. Braun, who is an executive producer of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” is interviewed in the documentary and says that he was skeptical about representing Demi until he met her in person and she won him over. During contract negotiations, Demi says she relapsed and was truthful about it to Braun. Demi says she was sure that after this confession, Braun wouldn’t want to represent her.

But the opposite happened. Braun says that rather than distancing himself from Demi because of the relapse, he wanted to help her. He says his reaction was, “As long as you tell me the truth, we’ll work through it.” Braun also says, “She didn’t need a manager. She needed a friend.”

Demi didn’t get rid of everyone on her business team after the overdose. She gives a lot of credit to her longtime business manager Glenn Nordlinger and head of security/chief of staff Max Lea for helping her through tough times. Nordlinger and Lea are both interviewed in the documentary. Nordlinger says it was his idea to get Demi checked into the Cirque Lodge addiction treatment center in Orem, Utah, for her post-overdose rehab. Demi is seated next to Lea and Nordlinger during some of her interviews, and she often keeps her head lowered, as if she’s still ashamed of what they know about her.

Two other people who’ve remained in Demi’s inner circle and are interviewed in the documentary are Sirah Mitchell (a hip-hop artist) and Matthew Scott Montgomery (an actor), who are each described in the documentary as Demi’s “best friend.” Mitchell is also described as Demi’s “former sober coach.” Mitchell and Montgomery, who were not with Demi on the night that she overdosed, profess unwavering loyalty to Demi. They both say that they knew that Demi was doing heroin and other drugs in the weeks leading up to the overdose, but they say that Demi ignored their concerns and there was nothing they could do about it.

Mitchell and Montgomery seem to be among Demi’s biggest cheerleaders, but they also come across as enablers who will say what she wants to hear so she won’t cut them out of her life. For example, Mitchell and Montgomery make vague excuses for why they’re going along with Demi’s plan to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana as part of her “recovery” from alcoholism and drug addiction. By now, these friends should know that when drug addicts/alcoholics think they can handle drugs and alcohol, that’s still being in the sickness of denial.

As for Demi’s family members, they all say that based on their experiences with Demi, they know that an addict can only truly recover when the addict is willing to stop what’s causing their addiction of their own free will, not because other people are pressuring them to do it. Demi says that the first time she went to rehab, she was forced to go because she was told that she wouldn’t be able to see her sister Madison again if Demi didn’t get rehab treatment. In the documentary, Demi notes the “full circle” irony that after she woke up from her overdose, she literally couldn’t see Madison because of Demi’s temporary blindness.

Demi’s case manager Charles Cook is the one of the few people interviewed in the movie to warn viewers that Demi’s way of handling her addiction is not going to work for everyone. He chooses his words carefully, so as not to offend her, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s conflicted in endorsing Demi’s decision to continue to drink alcohol and use marijuana. Cook and Demi both say that addiction recovery doesn’t have a “one size fits all” solution, and Demi is trying to figure out what works best for her.

The documentary includes interviews with some celebrities who know Demi and have worked with her, including recovering addict/alcoholic Elton John. He is blunt when he comments on addicts/alcoholics who think they can still use their addiction substances as part of their recovery: “Moderation doesn’t work.” However, he praises Demi by saying: “She’s human and she’s adorable and she’s brave.”

Christina Aguilera and Will Ferrell also say good things about Demi. Aguilera says, “She’s just no bullshit when it comes to her spirit and her energy and her laughter.” Lovato and Aguilera teamed up for the duet “Fall in Line,” which was on Aguilera’s 2018 album “Liberation.” The song was also released as a single.

Ferrell says he was inspired to put Demi in his 2020 Netflix comedy movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” after seeing her emotionally perform “Anyone” at the 2020 Grammy Awards. The Grammy show was her first high-profile performance after her overdose, and she followed it up with another critically acclaimed performance at Super Bowl LIV, where she sang a powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Clips of both performances are in the movie, as well as snippets of her performing on tour in 2018 and in the recording studio. Demi says that she wrote and recorded “Sober” while she was in the throes of addiction to crack and heroin. And she mentions that her song “Dancing With the Devil” is one of the rawest, soul-baring songs she’s ever written about her addiction. Braun says, “In the studio, Demi is in her happy place.”

Demi describes her brief engagement to Ehrich in 2020 as part of their whirlwind and unconventional romance. Most of their courtship happened when they moved in with her mother and stepfather to quarantine with them during the coronavirus pandemic. Demi and Ehrich dated for just six months before calling it quits. After the breakup, he went on social media and gave interviews saying that he was blindsided and treated unfairly by Demi.

In the documentary, Demi says that she and Ehrich probably wouldn’t have gotten engaged so quickly if they hadn’t quarantined together. And although she doesn’t divulge the full details of their breakup, Demi reiterates what she’s already said publicly: She says she found out that Ehrich didn’t have the right intentions in their relationship. The documentary has selfie video footage of a forlorn-looking Demi after the breakup, fretting to the camera that she won’t find anyone to love her.

Demi has this to say about her love life at the time she filmed this documentary: “I feel like I’m too queer in my life to marry a man right now.” She describes her outlook: “Life is fluid, and I’m fluid, and that’s all I know.”

In addition to dealing with her physical health problems as a result of the overdose, Demi says she has the psychological trauma of being sexually assaulted. She has this to say about the sexual violation from her drug dealer: “When they found me, I was naked, blue. I was literally left for dead after he took advantage of me. I was literally discarded and abandoned.”

“When I woke up in the hospital, they asked if I had consensual sex,” Demi says in one of her documentary interviews. “There was one flash that I had of him on top of me. I saw the flash, and I said, ‘Yes’ [in answer to the question if the sex was consensual]. It wasn’t until a month after my overdose that I realized, ‘Hey, you weren’t in any state of mind to make a consensual decision.’ That kind of trauma doesn’t go away overnight, and it doesn’t go away in the first few months of rehab either.”

Demi reveals that instead of staying away from the drug dealer that she says raped her, she actually contacted him again when she relapsed after her overdose. And she says that when they had sex again, she wanted to be the one in control. Instead, Demi says this “revenge sex” made her feel worse.

And she also says it was history repeating itself because something similar happened with the person she says raped her when she was 15: “When I was a teenager, I was in a very similar situation. I lost my virginity in rape. I called that person back a month later and tried to make it right by being in control. All it did was make me feel worse.”

In the documentary, Demi doesn’t name her alleged rapists, but the drug dealer who admitted he was the one who supplied the drugs on the night of the overdose already gave tabloid interviews after he found out that he wouldn’t be arrested for supplying her the drugs. His name is already out there in the public. And in at least one of his interviews, he claimed that Demi was his sex partner in a “friends with benefits” situation.

As for the guy whom Demi says raped her when she was 15, she drops some big hints about who he is. “I was part of that Disney crowd that publicly said they were waiting until marriage.” She says in the documentary that this virginity image was a lie for her and her alleged rapist, which obviously implies that he was part of that “Disney crowd” too.

Commenting on how she lost her virginity, Demi says: “I didn’t have the romantic first time. That was not it for me. That sucked. Then I had to see this person all the time so I stopped eating and coped in other ways.”

Then she takes a breath and says, “Fuck it. I’m gonna say it.” She says that her #MeToo moment came when she reported the rape to adults (whom she does not name in the documentary), but her alleged rapist “never got in trouble for it. They never got taken out of the movie they were in. I always kept it quiet because I’ve always had something to say. I don’t know, I’m tired of opening my mouth. Here’s the tea.”

Just like many people with #MeToo stories, Demi says she’s going public with her truth to help give other people the courage to do the same. “I’m coming forward with what happened to me because everyone it happens to should absolutely speak their voice.” She also says, “At the end of the day, I’m responsible for my life choices and only hold myself accountable. And the last two years have been about me doing the work to identify and confront those traumas, so I can be my best self and truly be happy.”

The problem with these types of “confessions of a famous addict” is that they usually have the celebrity confessing that in the past, they put on a fake front of being happy and/or sober in public, but they were really miserable and/or relapsing in private. Then they usually end the documentary by saying they’re doing much better now. But it can be hard for people to believe that, when the celebrity has already admitted that they’re skilled at pretending that their life is better than it really is.

Demi says in the “Dancing With the Devil” documentary that when she made the “Simply Complicated” documentary, she was really miserable and pretended at the time that she happy. Is there eventually going to be another “confession” from Demi where she will say that she was lying in this “Dancing With the Devil” documentary too? It’s a vicious cycle where people aren’t going to know what to believe.

Another problem that people tend to have with these celebrity “tell-alls” is they usually come out at around the same time that the celebrity has a new project to promote. And it makes people wonder how much of this pain is being used to market something that the celebrity wants to sell. Sure enough, the documentary includes studio footage and video clips to promote Demi’s seventh studio album “Dancing with the Devil … The Art of Starting Over,” which is due out on April 2, 2021, the same week as when this docuseries’ last episode is released on YouTube.

Most addicts and alcoholics don’t get to profit from selling their stories. And there’s a lot of denial going on in the documentary when Demi, who spent years telling the world that she’s an alcoholic, now says she can handle drinking alcohol in moderation. Did she not learn anything in rehab?

Although there are website addresses and hotline phone numbers listed in the documentary as resources for people who want to get more information on how to get help for addiction or surviving sexual trauma, the mixed messages that Demi gives in her “Dancing With the Devil” documentary can actually confuse people. She does briefly acknowledge that she’s luckier than most addicts, because she can afford top-notch rehab treatment and a team of people who can get her whatever she asks for because she’s paying them to do it. But that acknowledgement rings hollow because she’s basically saying, “I know I can afford to go to the highest-priced rehab centers in the world, but I’m going to indulge in my addictive substances anyway, just because I feel like it.”

However, people who are not gullible fans can see the documentary for what it is: It shows the difficulty of overcoming addiction and how celebrities are surrounded by “yes” people who will say what the celebrity wants to hear so that they can stay in the celebrity’s inner circle. If there’s any meaningful takeaway from “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” it’s that if celebrities want to tell the world their truth, they should summon the courage to have people in their lives who will tell them the truth. And when it comes to addiction to alcohol and drugs, they can start with the basic fundamentals of rehab, which is that an alcoholic/drug addict isn’t doing enough real work to get clean and sober if that alcoholic/drug addict is still drinking and drugging.

YouTube Originals will premiere “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” on Demi Lovato’s YouTube channel on March 23, 2021.

Review: ‘The Affair’ (2021), starring Carice van Houten, Hanna Alström, Claes Bang, Karel Roden and Roland Møller

March 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hanna Alström and Carice van Houten in “The Affair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Affair”

Directed by Julius Sevcík 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Czechoslovakia and Germany from the 1930s to 1960s, the dramatic film “The Affair” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two women (one wealthy, the other middle-class) in Czechoslovakia fall in love with each other and hide this secret from almost everyone they know (including their husbands), and their relationship is tested when one of the women moves to Germany.

Culture Audience: “The Affair” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in slow-moving European arthouse dramas where the cinematography and production design are better than the story.

Clockwise, from left to right: Hanna Alström, Carice van Houten, Claes Bang and Karel Roden in “The Affair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The dramatic film “The Affair” is truly a case of style over substance. The movie is gorgeous to look at, with stunning architecture and dreamy cinematography, but when it comes to the overall pacing and story structure, “The Affair” comes up very short. Directed by Julius Sevcík, “The Affair” is supposed to be about a longtime secret romance between two women, but there’s no convincing passion between any of the characters in this movie, whose story spans about 30 years.

“The Affair” is based on Simon Mawer’s 2009 novel “The Glass Room,” which was the original title of the movie. Mawer adapted the book into the movie’s screenplay, which is a dull and dreary slog that is further impeded by Sevcík’s haphazard direction. Many of the actors speak in awkward cadences, with too many uncomfortable pauses in the dialogue. There is very little chemistry between the actors, so that’s already a setback for a movie that’s supposed to be about love and romance.

“The Affair,” which takes place from the 1930s to 1960s, is set primarily in Brno, Czechoslovakia, but some of the story also takes place in Germany. In the beginning of the movie, it’s the 1930s, and wealthy newlyweds Liesel (played by Hanna Alström) and Viktor (played by Claes Bang) meet with famed architect Von Abt (played by Karel Roden) about commissioning him to build their dream home. The meeting takes place in Von’s own ornate and formal house.

Von asks the couple if they would like a house designed like his own home. Liesel politely but firmly says no. She says she wants her and Viktor’s house to have “simplicity, clarity, light.” And that’s what they get: It’s a modern minimalist house with many walls made of glass.

Liesel is the type of woman who is attractive to many people, but she is fairly modest and doesn’t like to call too much attention to herself. She could be considered a “trophy wife.” Von is one of the people who is attracted to her, but she has rebuffed his advances.

Von made a pass at Liesel one night, before he built Liesel and Viktor’s house. Von showed her his architecture sketches to a pregnant Liesel, who expressed her excited approval of the sketches. She then gave him a ride home in her car.

Before Von got out of the car, he leered at her and asked her if she would like go inside the house with him. He made it obvious that what he wanted was not an innocent chat with a cup of tea. Liesel turned him down nicely and he got the message that she was not interested in having an affair with him.

Liesel and Viktor (who is a businessman) have settled into their marriage and are anticipating the arrival of their first child. They live near another married couple named Hana (played by Carice van Houten) and Oskar (played by Martin Hoffmann), who are middle-class. While Liesel is introverted and likes to play it safe, Hana is more of an extrovert and is more likely to take chances.

Liesel and Hana have grown close, although the movie never really shows how this friendship has developed. By the time Hana is shown in the movie, she’s already expressing that she has romantic feelings toward Liesel. Hana looks at Liesel lovingly. And when they’re alone together, Hana starts rubbing Liesel’s pregnant belly and starts to put one of her hands underneath Liesel’s clothes, but Liesel stops Hana before anything sexual can happen.

These types of encounters happen a few more times, where Hana makes the first move (such as trying to give Liesel a romantic kiss), but Liesel stops her. Liesel doesn’t express enough about what she’s feeling to say if what bothers her more is the thought of cheating on her husband or having a same-sex romance or if it’s equally both. Hana doesn’t press the issue, but Liesel makes it clear her feelings for Hana are more than friendship, because they kiss each other’s hands in a romantic way.

There are many ways to express repressed passion, but unfortunately Alström and von Houten are not convincing as two people who are longing to be lovers but can’t because of their circumstances. When Hana caresses Liesel’s pregnant belly, Hana looks more like she’s giving an obstetrician exam than someone who is in love. Liesel seems to be in love with her husband Viktor in the beginning of their marriage, but Alström and Bang aren’t able to portray much of a romantic spark between Liesel and Viktor.

Liesel gives birth to a girl named Otilie (played by Anouk Christiansen), and then two years later gives birth to a boy named Martin (played by Evan Cregan). Viktor and Liesel have a live-in nanny named Kata (played by Alexandra Borbély), who is a refugee single mother of a daughter named Marika (played by Tabitha Campbell). The movie doesn’t do a very good job of introducing these characters.

One minute, Liesel is a first-time mother. And then in a subsequent scene, three children are playing together with Kata in Liesel and Viktor’s spacious backyard. Viewers won’t know who the other two children are until it’s mentioned later in the story. The children are Martin at age 4, Otilie at age 6 and Marika at age 8.

Meanwhile, Hana and Oskar have been unable to have children together. Hana tells Liesel that she’s happy for Liesel to be able to have children. However, it’s fairly obvious that Hana is envious, but she doesn’t want to say it out loud. The movie is vague about the nature of Hana and Oskar’s relationship, since they aren’t shown together very much.

For example, in one scene, when Liesel was pregnant with Otilie, Hana is having dinner over at Liesel and Viktor’s house. Hana mentions to Liesel that Von has asked her out to dinner. Hana asks Liesel, “Do you mind?” The implication is that Liesel told Hana about Von making a pass at her.

Liesel says she doesn’t mind if Hana goes to dinner with Von. The implication is that Hana knows exactly what Von’s intentions are. And it’s not to talk about architecture. But in this scene, there’s no mention of why a married Hana is going out on a potentially sexual date. Is she sneaking around on Oskar, or do they have an open relationship? It’s never explained.

One thing that’s clear though is that Hana spends more time with Liesel than she does with Oskar. From the outside, it looks like Hana is the one in the unhappy marriage, while Liesel’s marriage is the stable one. But something happens that rocks Liesel’s world and she can’t look at her own life in the same way again.

It’s enough to say that things take a drastic turn in Liesel and Viktor’s marriage. They stay together, but they move to Germany. And it’s heartbreaking for Liesel and Hana, who continue to write to each other and express their love for one another. As time goes on, they completely fall out of love with their husbands but don’t get divorced because of the stigma.

While all this is happening, Nazi Germany has been invading various countries throughout Europe. Liesel and Hana, who are not Jewish, are worried because their husbands are Jews. As a wealthy man, Viktor has the resources to hide his Jewish identity while he lives in Germany.

Oskar is more vulnerable, since he’s well-known in the neighborhood for being a Jew. There are signs that he is being marginalized and targeted, such as Nazi soldiers showing up to interrogate him. Oskar and Hana’s bank accounts also become frozen. It’s part of Nazi discrimination that the Nazis call “Aryanization.”

Hana grew to love the dream house where Liesel and Viktor used to live in Czechoslovakia. It not only reminds her of Liesel, but Hana also thinks the house is a work of art. After Liesel and Viktor moved to Germany, the house went into somewhat of state of disrepair. However, Hana keeps going back to the house to visit when she can.

The house then became a school for architecture students. And then, an airplane designer named Stahl (played by Roland Møller) moves into the house. Hana and Stahl meet and it isn’t long before they become lovers. He’s a widower, and he tells Hana when they become closer that his wife committed suicide after their baby died while still in the womb.

Meanwhile, Hana and Liesel continue to write love letters to each other. Liesel confesses in one of the letters that when she and Viktor have sex, she thinks of Hana. It’s an indication that if Hana and Liesel ever see each other in person again, Liesel might not stop anything sexual that could happen between them.

“The Affair” goes about telling the story in a jumbled fashion. There are some scenes that are completely useless. And then there are other parts of the story that need to be explained by scenes that aren’t in the movie. The movie’s pacing really drags near the middle of the film. And the romance that’s supposed to be the main storyline is very bland.

And worst of all, there’s a storyline involving Viktor that is a big turning point affecting all the main characters, but then this storyline fades away without being fully resolved. Perhaps with more compelling acting, a more interesting screenplay and better choices in editing, “The Affair” wouldn’t be so monotonous. As it stands, it’s the kind of movie that people can watch and probably forget about a few days later, if they can get through the whole movie without falling asleep.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Affair” on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021. The movie was released in the Czech Republic in 2019.

Review: ‘Billie’ (2020), an oral history of Billie Holiday’s life

February 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Bobby Tucker and Billie Holiday in “Billie” (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“Billie” (2020)

Directed by James Erskine

Culture Representation: The documentary “Billie” features a group of white and black people, who were associated with Billie Holiday, discussing the life of the legendary jazz singer, who died at the age of 44 in 1959.

Culture Clash: Holiday battled drug addiction, and several people who knew her say that she was a target of the FBI.

Culture Audience: “Billie” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a raw and authentic look at Holiday’s life, as told by people who knew her best.

Billie Holiday in “Billie” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

The insightful documentary “Billie” (directed by James Erskine) is a highly unusual non-fiction film because most of it is based on previously unreleased audio interviews that were conducted in the 1970s. Billie Holiday is the subject of the documentary, and there’s expected archival footage of her in her film. But the interviews are by numerous people who knew her best who wouldn’t be able to be interviewed today, because almost everyone is now deceased.

Holiday, who died of heart failure and cirrhosis of the liver at age 44 in 1959, was an iconic jazz singer who was also one of the first African American entertainers to record music speaking out against racial injustice. She was a highly talented and unique star, but she also complicated and deeply troubled. Her highs, lows and everything in between are detailed in the film, but there’s still a sense of mystery about Holiday that remains to this day. (It’s one of the reasons why biopics about Holiday portray her in very different ways.)

The audio recordings in “Billie” come from the archives of New York City-based journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who died by falling from a hotel in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 1978. She was 38. The official cause of death was ruled a suicide, but her younger sister Myra Luftman (who is not interviewed on camera) says in the documentary that Kuehl probably died from foul play because of the research that Keuhl was doing for the book.

Kuehl was an experienced arts journalist who wrote for The Paris Review and The New York Times Sunday magazine. She began working on the Holiday biography in 1971 and interviewed an impressive number of people. (The documentary has lots of images of cassette recorders and reel-to-reel tap machines in operation, to give a visual representation of these interviews.) She was a perfectionist, according to her sister, which is why it took so long for Kuehl to work on the uncompleted book.

According to Luftman, her sister Kuehl was threatened by people close to Count Basie, who became close to Kuehl when she interviewed him for the book. Kuehl was twice-divorced with no children, while Basie was married with children. Although Luftman couldn’t be sure if Basie and her sister had a sexual affair, she thinks those threats might have had something to do with Kuehl’s death.

Kuehl died after attending a Basie concert in Washington, D.C. Luftman says that a big clue for her that it wasn’t a suicide was that Kuehl had a cosmetic face mask on, which was her habit when she got ready for bed. An epilogue at the end of the documentary mentions that because of the destruction of police records, “investigations into Linda’s death made during the film proved inconclusive.”

In the documentary, Luftman explains why her sister wanted to write a Billie Holiday biography: “Even thought they came from totally different backgrounds, I think she really identified with Billie. I think she felt the pain of someone’s struggles. She did not see [Billie Holiday] as the victim, which is the way she had been portrayed.”

Holiday co-wrote her 1956 memoir “Lady Sings the Blues” with William Dufty, and the book became the basis of the 1972 feature film of the same name, starring Diana Ross, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Holiday. The “Billie” documentary gives added depth to Holiday’s memoir, since it includes the perspectives of people who talk about things that Holiday didn’t want to talk about in her book. One thing everyone agrees on is that Holiday grew up rough and grew up fast, which undoubtedly shaped the person she became later in life.

Holiday’s birth name was Eleanora Fagan, and she was born to teenage parents in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915. Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan (a maid) was 13 when she gave birth to Eleanora, and Clarence Halliday (a musician) was 15. Eleanora’s parents got married when she was 3 years old, and she was raised primarily in Baltimore. Her parents split up not long after getting married, and Halliday became an absentee father who remained out of his daughter’s life.

John Fagan, a cousin of Holiday’s, says in the documentary of their upbringing in East Baltimore: “It was a nice community to live. It was a different kind of poor … We were happy with what we had.” Mary “Pony” Kane, a childhood friend of Holiday’s, remembers that Eleanor was foul-mouthed, even as a child. Eleanor’s favorite curse words were “motherfucker” and “cocksucker.”

By all accounts, Eleanor started working as a housecleaner/maid before she was a teenager. She also began hanging out at a brothel, which is where she first heard jazz music. But the time she was 13, she was a prostitute. Her cousin John says, “During them times, she had to survive. She wasn’t like a slut. She just looked fast.”

However, Holiday’s former pianist Memry Midgett says in the documentary that Holiday’s prostitution past haunted her throughout her life. Midgett says that Holiday would “talk for hours about how she started in prostitution when she was 13 years old. At the time, she had her own girls on the street. She was terribly worried about whether or not God would forgive her.”

Skinny Davenport, a pimp who knew Holiday in her prostitution days, describes how the hookers in the neighborhood were treated: “Knock ’em down, kick ’em in the ass. They loved it.” Several people in the documentary describe Holiday as a “masochist” who never knew what it was like to have a healthy love relationship when she was adult. Considering all the trauma that Holiday had when she was a child (she was also raped more than once when she was a teenager), it’s no surprise that she ended up way that she did.

In 1928, Holiday and her mother moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. And by the age of 14, Holiday was singing professionally in nightclubs. In an archival radio interview, Holiday says, “I always knew I could sing, but I didn’t know I could make money out of it, until I was working in a little joint called The Hot Cha.” Pigmeat Markham, an entertainer who knew Holiday in her early days as a performer, remembers that Holiday had “stagefright.”

Detroit Red, a dancer work worked with Holiday at The Hot Cha, remembers: “At that particular time, the only vice she had was smoking [marijuana] reefers.” Later, Holiday became an alcoholic and addicted to cocaine and heroin. Her drug problems led to her multiple arrests at the height of her fame. It’s implied that her addiction issues were inherited, because Sandy Williams, a bandmate of Holiday’s father Clarence, describes Clarence as a “happy-go-lucky guy” who “loved his booze” and was often drunk.

Shortly after she became a professional singer as a teenager, Holiday began working with musician/producer John Hammond, who introduced her to Benny Goodman in 1933. Hammond says of Goodman, “He slept with Billie. I was one of the people who didn’t.” Holiday was the first black singer to work with Goodman in those racially segregated times.

Holiday’s career reached a new level when she began singing for the Count Basie Orchestra. Basie’s saxophonist Lester Young is credited with giving Holiday the nickname Lady Day. Holiday’s mother Sadie (who took an interested in her daughter’s career) was nicknamed Duchess. Along with Count Basie, “we were the Royal Family,” Holiday said in an archival interview. She said of Young, who would become her constant companion: “I returned the compliment and called him the President.”

In a 1972 interview, pianist Jimmy Rowles had this to say about Holiday and Young’s relationship: “They had the funniest way of loving each other. It was brother and sister, but it was another thing … He was one of the strangest people on Earth. He was like a visitor, but she was too.”

Holiday’s time with Basie and his band ended on a sour note when she left. Depending on whom you believe, she either quit or was fired. In the documentary interview, Hammond says, “There was a real problem between Billie and Basie. She wasn’t making enough money. This was one of the principal reasons why she left the band.” Hammond estimates that Holiday’s salary with Basie was $125 a week, at the most.

However, drummer Jo Jones has a entirely different recollection of why Holiday parted ways with Basie. Jones insists: “She didn’t leave the band. She was fired by John Hammond.” Jones says that Hammond fired Holiday because she refused Hammond’s demands to sing blues music.

Kuehl is heard in the interview going back and forth with Jones and Hammond to get their reactions to these conflicting allegations. Jones gets very angry in the interview when he hears that Hammond has denied firing Holiday, while Hammond expresses bewilderment in reacting to Jones’ claims that Hammond fired Holiday.

Meanwhile, Basie doesn’t offer much insight about Holiday in his interview commentary, because he claims he didn’t really know what was going on when she was in his band. (It’s hard to believe he didn’t know.) When asked if the stories were true that Holiday had to darken her skin when performing with Basie and his band, because she was so much lighter-skinned then they were, Basie also claims ignorance about that issue.

Whatever the real reasons for Holiday’s exit from the Count Basie Orchestra, her next career opportunity was one that was groundbreaking but controversial at the time. She was the singer for Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, who were all white. Shaw, bassist Sid Weiss, guitarist Al Arola, guitarist Les Robinson and friend Mae Weiss all mention in their documentary interviews that many racist people back then refused to accept a black female singer performing with a group of white musicians.

On tour, especially in the U.S. South, they encountered a lot of vicious racism. She also got a lot of abuse and harassment from racists they encountered. Holiday was accustomed to being the only woman in a band, but with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, she felt the pain of racial segregation, since she couldn’t she wasn’t allowed in “whites only” public places with the rest of the band, such as restaurants and hotels. The problems became too much for her, and she quit working with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra.

Being a solo act gave Holiday the freedom to record what’s considered the most important and most controversial song of her career: “Strange Fruit.” Written by Abel Meeropol under the alias Lewis Allan, and released in 1939, the song is a poetically brutal commentary on racial injustice, particularly in describing the lynching of black people in the South. “Strange Fruit” was banned from radio airplay in certain areas, and many venues forbid Holiday from performing the song.

Music producer Marty Gabler says in the documentary that Columbia Records didn’t want to release “Strange Fruit” because of “the social content and because of how unusual it was to do a protest song.” “Strange Fruit” is considered historically important because it was one of the first social justice songs released by a mainstream performer prior to the U.S. civil rights movement. Protest songs became more prevalent in the 1960s, but Holiday was a pioneer.

Cafe Society owner Barney Josephson says that it wasn’t unusual for white customers to walk out of the club and complain if Holiday performed the song. Josephson sums up the usual complaint that he got was: “We came to your nightclub to be entertained. We don’t call this entertainment.” Jazz musician Charles Mingus says “Strange Fruit” was very impactful because it shows that Holiday was “fighting for equality before Martin Luther King. The song she chose exposed discrimination, [by] putting it on stage.”

Jazz/swing singer Billy Eckstine says that one of the biggest racial inequality problems that black artists had to deal with was that their music was being controlled and judged by white people. “Get a load of the critics, the people who judge our music. There never was a black critic in swing music. Because of the power structure, [black people] never had a chance.”

As Holiday’s fame grew, so too did her notoriety for being a drug addict. Several people in the documentary say that New York City doormen (especially on 52nd Street) would regularly supply her with drugs. Joe Guy, a trumpet player in her band, was also one of her main drug connections. Holiday’s boxer dog was used as a way to transport drugs underneath the dog’s collar. Although she was a heavy user of marijuana, alcohol and cocaine, Holiday was most associated with her use of heroin and other opiates.

Several people in the documentary literally say in one way or another, “She loved to get high.” And they talk about how she had an unusually high physical tolerance for drugs that was stronger than men who were physically a lot bigger than she was. Sylvia Syms, a singer and longtime friend of Holiday’s, comments on Holiday’s drug addiction: “She really dug being high, but I never saw anyone with such a capacity.”

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Holiday’s well-known drug problem and the controversy over “Strange Fruit” led to a conspiracy to bring her down, with the FBI involved. Jimmy Fletcher, an African American who was a narcotics agent for the FBI at the time, says that Holiday’s agent Joe Glaser worked with the FBI to arrest her in a drug bust “for her own good.”

According to Fletcher, “He [Glaser] confided in me that he wanted to save her. And the only way to save her was to have her knocked out by the government.” George H. White, who was a narcotics agent at the time, says Holiday’s lavish lifestyle also made her a target for the FBI and other law enforcement: “Billie flaunted her way of living.”

A 1947 shootout with cops in Philadelphia led to Holiday’s first arrest for narcotics possession. She was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. The documentary includes archival news video footage of Joan Allen, a correctional officer who worked at the federal rehabilitation facility in Alderston, West Virginia, where Holiday served her prison time.

Allen shows the cell where Holiday stayed and describes Holiday as “quiet and certainly no trouble ever. She was a generous person, I’d say, in thought anyway. She never bothered anybody.” And to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Holiday didn’t sing while she was incarcerated.

Even though she performed a historic sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall after she was let out of prison in 1948 (at the time, Carnegie Hall was a venue for classical and opera music, not jazz), the damage to her reputation was done. She lost her cabaret license to perform in New York City nightclubs, thereby limiting her income options. Her second drug bust came in San Francisco in 1949, but she didn’t get any prison time for that arrest.

Dr. James Hamilton, a psychiatrist who interviewed Holiday when she was in prison, had this diagnosis of her. “She’s a psychopath.” While interviewer Kuehl can be heard gasping in shock when she hears this description, Hamilton elaborates that Holiday was “impulse-driven, strong, talented but not a dependable individual.” He noted that he thinks that Holiday’s inability to control her impulses made her psychopathic.

As for Holiday’s love life, several people in the documentary say that Holiday was openly bisexual. In a 1971 interview, Ruby Davis, who was Holiday’s roommate before the singer was famous, says that Holiday’s nickname was Mr. Billie Holiday “because she was seldom seen with fellas … Her mother put it in her mind to be careful [of men] because they’ll always break your heart, just like Billie’s father.”

Harry “Sweets” Edison, a trumpeter in the Count Basie Orchestra comments on Holiday: “She was like a man, but feminine.” John Simmons, who was her bass player and lover, calls her a “sex machine.” Music conductor Ray Ellis also comments on Holiday’s sex appeal: “I was in love with Billie, not necessarily Billie, but somebody. That voice. It turned me on.”

Although Holiday had several male and female lovers, only one woman is mentioned in the documentary as being one of her paramours: actress Tallulah Bankhead. Some people in the documentary allude to Holiday being fond of sex orgies. And it seems that Holiday didn’t want to settle down with anyone who was considered “nice” or “normal.”

Irene Kitchen, one of Holiday’s friends, mentions musician Sonny White, who was briefly Holiday’s fiancé, as “nice, quiet, a very good musician … Her mother and I hoped that she would marry him. Jimmy “Flashy” Monroe [a pimp who became a trombonist in Holiday’s band] broke them up. The next thing I know, she was using coke.”

Monroe would become Holiday’s first husband, whom she married in 1941. By all accounts, he was abusive and a heavy drug user. By the time that Holiday was arrested in 1947, she listed her marital status as “separated.” She and Monroe got divorced the same year.

Her romances didn’t get any better. John Levy became her manager and lover, even though he was married at the time. He reportedly ripped her off. Maria Bryant, a singer and friend of Holiday’s, calls Levy a “dirty, rotten, stinking bastard.”

In 1945, Holiday moved on to Louis McKay, who would become her manager and then her second husband. They got married in 1957. The documentary includes stories of people witnessing McKay (who’s been described as a mafia enforcer) being physically abusive to Holiday. Earl Zaiding, who was Holiday’s lawyer, calls McKay a “pathological liar.”

There were reports that McKay was very controlling and unscrupulous when it came to Holiday’s finances. At the time of her death, she and McKay were separated and not divorced. She had $750 to her name when she died, according to the documentary. Because McKay was still legally married to Holiday when she died, he inherited Holiday’s estate and future earnings.

Milt Hilton, a bass player who worked with Holiday during her last music recording sessions, remembers: “She was in pretty bad shape.” He took many of the widely published photos of her during these last sessions. A frail-looking Holiday is shown holding a glass of alcohol. Other people interviewed in the documentary include trombonist Melba Liston and singer Carmen McCrae.

The documentary doesn’t uncover any new visual footage of Billie Holiday. The songs that she sings in performance clips include “Strange Fruit, “Blues Are Brewin'” (with Louis Armstrong), “Fine and Mellow,” “My Man (Mon Homme),” “I Loves You Porgy,” “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain,” the song that Holiday said represented her the best. There’s also a clip of her role as Endie in the 1947 film “New Orleans.”

Because “Billie” is told in chronological order of her life, the documentary has a very easy narrative to follow. Tony Bennett, who says he briefly knew Holiday, sums up the way a lot of people feel about Holiday: “She told her own story, just by being herself. She had a wild life.” He adds, “I want to know why all girl singers crack up. When they reach the top, something tragic happens.”

Greenwich Entertainment released “Billie” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘The Sinners’ (2021), starring Kaitlyn Bernard, Brenna Coates, Brenna Llewellyn, Aleks Paunovic, Lochlyn Munro, Michael Eklund and Tahmoh Penikett

February 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Brenna Llewellyn, Natalie Malaika, Keilani Elizabeth Rose, Jasmine Randhawa, Kaitlyn Bernard, Brenna Coates and Carly Fawcett in “The Sinners.” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“The Sinners” (2021)

Directed by Courtney Paige

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed North American city, the horror flick “The Sinners” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few people of color) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: In a conservative Christian town, seven teenage girls form a cult-like clique where they each represent the seven deadly sins, and then members of the group start getting murdered.

Culture Audience: “The Sinners” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in independent horror films that are suspenseful and make the most out of their low budgets.

A scene from “The Sinners.” Pictured in front row, from left to right: Carly Fawcett, Kaitlyn Bernard and Natalie Malaika. Pictured in second row, from left to right: Jasmine Randhawa, Keilani Elizabeth Rose, Brenna Coates and Brenna Llewellyn. (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

Before anyone dismisses “The Sinners” as just another horror movie where a bunch of teenagers get murdered, consider that it skillfully takes on religious bigotry and sexual oppression while balancing it with an intriguing mystery, gruesome horror and even some touches of comedy. It’s not an easy balancing act, but “The Sinners” mostly succeeds in being a memorable independent horror film in a sea of mindless slasher flicks.

“The Sinners” is the feature-film directorial debut of Courtney Paige, who wrote the screenplay with Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith. Paige is also an actress, which might explain why the casting is better than most low-budget movies of this type. Some of the acting is amateurish, but the dynamics between the actors look more authentic and natural than a lot of horror movies that could care less about character development or chemistry between the actors.

The story of “The Sinners” centers on a clique of seven girls who are classmates in their last year at a Christian high school in an unnamed city in North America. (The movie was actually filmed in Paige’s Canadian hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia.) These teenagers call themselves The Sins, and they have each assigned themselves to represent one of the seven deadly sins. They are:

  • Grace Carver (played by Kaitlyn Bernard), the group’s assertive blonde leader, represents the sin of lust. It’s ironic because Grace, who is the child of a strict pastor, is a virgin, but she has a secret love that’s considered taboo in her religion.
  • Tori Davidson (played by Brenna Coates), who sometimes dresses as an emo or Goth, represents the sin of wrath. She’s the tough-talking rebel of the group, and she’s in a secretive romance with Grace.
  • Katie Hamilton (played by Keilani Elizabeth Rose), who is very spoiled and materialistic, represents the sin of greed. She likes to make others feel inferior by bragging about what her wealth can buy her.
  • Molly McIvor (played by Carli Fawcett), a compulsive eater, represents the sin of gluttony. She is very self-conscious about her looks because she’s not as thin as the other girls in the group.
  • Robyn Pearce (played by Natalie Malaika), a passive follower, represents the sin of sloth. She wants to go to a good college but is too lazy to study, so she cheats instead.
  • Stacey Rodgers (played by Jasmine Randhawa), who often compares herself to other people, represents the sin of envy. Her loyalty depends on what she can get out of it.
  • Aubrey Miller (played by Brenna Llewellyn), a quiet redhead who becomes a target for the others’ bullying, represents the sin of pride. The other members of the Sins turn on Aubrey when Grace decides that Aubrey is a snitch.

Aubrey is the narrator of the movie, which opens with a scene of Aubrey being kidnapped by the other Sins, who are wearing masks. This kidnapping ends up being the catalyst for much of the the horror that happens in the last third of the film, when certain members of the Sins are murdered, one by one. This isn’t a slasher film where the murderer is revealed from the beginning. There are several people who could be suspects.

Out of all the members of the Sins, Grace is the one whose home life is shown the most. She lives with her parents and three siblings in a very oppressive and religious home ruled over by her father Pastor Dean Carver (played by Tahmoh Penikett), who demands that everything has to be done his way. Grace’s mother Brenda Carver (played by Loretta Walsh) is passive, but she has compassion and often acts as a peacemaker when Dean and Grace get into arguments.

Grace’s older sister Hannah (played by Karis Cameron) sometimes shares Grace’s tendency to be sarcastic and rebellious. By contrast, their younger teenage brother Luke Carver (played by Maxwell Haynes) wants to be the family’s “goody-two-shoes” child and is ready to tattle on Grace and Hannah to their father if he sees them doing anything wrong. The youngest child in the family is a baby boy, who’s briefly seen in the movie and whose name is not mentioned.

At the beginning of the movie, Grace has broken up with a fellow student named Kit Anderson (played by Dylan Playfair), who is still pining for Grace because he keeps calling her and trying to get back together with her. Some of the students, including the other members of the Sins, are aware that Grace and Tori are more than friends. However, Kit is in denial that Grace could be a member of the LGBTQ community and ignores the rumors that are swirling about Grace’s sexuality.

Grace and Tori have to keep their romance a secret, because they go to a religious high school (where all the students wear uniforms and have classes where they study the Bible) and they live in a very conservative Christian community. Tori and Grace canoodle in bathroom stalls at school, and their study sessions in Grace’s bedroom have some snuggling and kissing. Grace’s pastor father doesn’t really approve of Tori, who’s the type of student who will get sent to the principal’s office for blurting out impatiently in class: “Jesus, are you done?”

Grace’s father also doesn’t really approve of Grace’s part-time after-school job working at a flower stand called Andy’s Flower Stream. The business, which operates out of an Airstream trailer, is owned by a bohemian type named Andy Lund (played by James Neate), who’s a laid-back and friendly boss. Andy lives in the trailer with his hippie-ish girlfriend Summer Dobson (played by Jen Araki), who encourages Grace to walk in bare feet and feel “love and light.”

In a voiceover, Aubrey says about Summer, who used to be Aubrey’s babysitter: “I always had a creepy feeling about her. You know the people who always claim ‘light and love and positive.’ Well, they’re usually the most broken.” But the person Aubrey dislikes the most is Tori, because she thinks Tori is a hateful bully.

The top law enforcement official in town is Sherriff Fred Middleton (played by Aleks Paunovic), who provides some of the movie’s comic relief because he tries to be imposing but he’s really kind of a goofball. He’s first seen in the movie when he shows up in the empty classroom where his wife Maggie Middleton (played by Elysia Rotaru) is a teacher at the high school. (Maggie is also Andy’s sister.)

Maggie walks in the classroom and tells Fred, as she unbuttons her blouse, that they have nine minutes before the students arrive for the next class. Fred and Maggie, who’ve been trying to start a family, end up having quickie sex in the classroom. It’s played for laughs because Aubrey, who sees Fred leave the classroom and guesses what he had been doing there, asks him what he has on his collar. He quickly looks to see if a stain is there (there isn’t) and figures out that Aubrey was just trying to embarrass him when she tells him that she tried to go into the classroom but the door was locked.

Aubrey keeps a journal of her innermost thoughts. And all hell breaks loose when Tori and Kathy steal Aubrey’s journal. Certain incidents lead the other Sins to believe that Aubrey has been snitching on them. And when they find out what Aubrey has to say about them in the journal, their suspicions seem to be confirmed.

First, they lure Aubrey into a “study group” session which turns out to be an excuse to harass and haze her. Then, they kidnap Aubrey and take her to a remote wooded area, where things spiral out of control, but Aubrey manages to escape and goes missing. And then, other members of the Sins start to disappear and are brutally murdered.

Sheriff Middleton and his Deputy Douglas Sanders (played by Taylor St. Pierre) end up clashing with the higher-level government detectives who are sent to investigate the murders. The outside investigators are Detective Zankowski (played Michael Eklund) and Detective O’Ryan (played by Lochlyn Munro), who treat the sheriff and the deputy like incompetent yokels. Middleton and Sanders think that they’re being undermined by arrogant big-city types who don’t know the community. Meanwhile, as these two factions have their power struggle, more of the Sins get killed.

“The Sinners” makes great use of cinematography by Stirling Bancroft to create an atmosphere of foreboding beneath the pristine and orderly exterior of this suburban community. (There’s a recurring image of a rose stuck in the mouth of dead girl that’s particularly striking. It’s probably why the move was originally titled “The Color Rose.”) The movie’s production design and costume design are well-done, given the film’s small budget. And the whodunit aspect of the mystery is not as predictable as viewers might think it is.

There’s only one scene in the movie that seems awkward and out-of-place. It involves Grace having a secret occult meeting with two women and one man who look at least 10 years older than she is. It’s never explained how a sheltered preacher’s kid like Grace came to find these people or how long she’s known them. And the scene ends up being irrelevant, given what happens at the end of the movie.

The actresses who portray the seven Sins are convincing as a pack of “mean girls” who are “frenemies,” with their loyalty to each other always in question. As Tori, Coates stands out with having the most realistic acting and also the most obviously complicated character. On the one hand, Tori is exactly the type of bully that Aubrey despises. On the other hand, Tori has a very tough-but-tender side to her that’s loving with Grace and very protective of her. Their secret romance adds another layer of terror and anxiety in the story, since the unforgiving homophobia in their community makes Grace and Tori afraid to be open about the true nature of their relationship.

“The Sinners” is definitely not a horror classic on the level of director David Fincher’s 1995 film “Seven,” another macabre thriller with the seven deadly sins as its theme. As far as slasher films go, “The Sinners” can be considered slightly better than most. And it’s also a promising feature directorial debut for Paige, who shows she has a knack for telling a gripping horror story in a way that can capture people’s interest from beginning to end.

Brainstorm Media released “The Sinners” on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021.

Review: ‘The World to Come,’ starring Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Christopher Abbott and Casey Affleck

February 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vanessa Kirby and Katherine Waterston in “The World to Come” (Photo by Toni Salabasev/Bleecker Street)

“The World to Come”

Directed by Mona Fastvold

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in 1856, in a rural area of Schoharie County, New York, the dramatic film “The World to Come” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two farmers’ wives have a secret love affair with each other while unhappily married to their husbands.

Culture Audience: “The World to Come” will appeal primarily to people are interested in well-acted dramas about LGBTQ romances and how people cope with being in unhappy marriages.

Katherine Waterston and Casey Affleck in “The World to Come” (Photo by Vlad Cioplea/Bleecker Street)

The dramatic film “The World to Come” skillfully immerses viewers into a world filled with layers of oppression for the story’s two female protagonists. The two women are stifled by being in miserable relationships with their husbands; society’s bigotry against same-sex romances; and living in an era where wives could be considered property by their husbands. It’s a story that shows in understated yet poignant details how someone’s greatest love and passion could also be that person’s greatest heartbreak.

Directed with emotional intelligence and sensitivity by Mona Fastvold, “The World to Come” is based on Jim Shepard’s lyrical short story in the 2017 collection, each titled “The World to Come.” Shepard and Ron Hansen adapted the short story into the movie’s screenplay, which is told from the point of view of a farmer’s wife named Abigail (played by Katherine Waterston), whose diary entries are read in voiceover narration. The movie takes place primarily in 1856 in a rural area of Schoharie County, New York, but “The World to Come” was actually filmed in Romania to capture the type of landscape that no longer exists in that part of New York.

Abigail is an introvert who begins keeping a personal diary of her thoughts, after her husband Dyer (played by Casey Affleck) suggested that she keep a business journal for the farm, such as tools lent out and outstanding bills. Abigail begins her diary in January of 1856, and her subsequent voiceovers over the next several months are told with the dates in chronological order.

Dyer, just like Abigail, is quiet and unassuming. They seem to have an ordinary life with their daughter Nellie (played by Karina Ziana Gherasim), who’s 4 years old. But a tragedy strikes that puts both Dyer and Abigail down a path of depression and emotional turmoil.

By February of that year, Nellie has died from diphtheria. Abigail and Dyer, who are already introverted people, become more withdrawn from each other. Not long after Nellie’s death, Dyer becomes ill with a fever, which puts the productivity of the couple’s farm in jeopardy. (They are the only apparent people who work on the farm.)

Abigail barely has time to grieve while taking care of her ailing husband when another farmer couple moves nearby and unexpectedly changes Abigail’s and Dyer’s lives. Tallie (played by Vanessa Kirby) is a vibrant redhead, while her husband Finney (played by Christopher Abbott) is a brooding control freak. During this very depressing time in Abigail’s life, she writes in her diary: “I have become my grief.”

Dyer eventually recovers from his fever, but he and Abigail remain emotionally distant from each other. They refuse to discuss the death of their daughter, because it seems to be too painful for them to even talk about it. Abigail is expected to help Dyer with farm duties, but soon she’ll have someone who will be taking up a lot of her time and attention.

The first time that Abigail is shown talking about Nellie’s death to another person is in her first conversation with Tallie, who has stopped by Abigail’s home for a neighborly visit. Abigail and Tallie’s first conversation happens to be on the day that would have been Nellie’s fifth birthday. When Abigail tells Tallie this information, unbeknownst to the two of them, it’s the birth of something else: a budding romance between Abigail and Tallie.

The two women become fast friends and eventually confide in each other about their deepest feelings. But the respective marriages to their husbands are never that far from their minds. It’s easy for anyone to see that the passion has dwindled in Abigail and Dyer’s relationship. Tallie and Finney’s relationship is not as easy to read, although Tallie tells Abigail: “I suppose he’s unhappy with me because I have yet to give him a child.”

As Abigail says in one of her diary entries that she reads in a voiceover: “Finney and Tallie’s bond confounds me. At times, when their eyes meet, they seem yoked in opposition to one another, while at other times there seems a shared regard.” Abigail remarks in her diary about her growing romantic feelings about Tallie: “There is something going on between us that I can’t unravel.”

Abigail becomes fully aware of how deep her feelings are for Tallie after Tallie becomes ill from being caught in a snowstorm. Abigail becomes distraught over wondering if Tallie will recover. The snowstorm killed about half of the chickens on Abigail and Dyer’s farm, so the couple will be experiencing some hard times in the near future. However, Abigail is more worried about Tallie’s recovery than the farm’s financial loss from the snowstorm.

Tallie seems to appreciate Abigail’s introverted nature when Tallie tells her: “It’s been my experience that it’s not always those who show the least who actually feel the least.” And Abigail describes their blossoming love affair this way in her diary: “I imagine that I love how our encircling feelings leave nothing out for us to wander or seek.”

One day, Tallie gives Abigail an atlas, which is almost symbolic of their wishful thinking of how they could run off together and travel around the world. By the month of May, Tallie and Abigail’s romance of hand holding and hesitant kisses turn into more passionate displays of affection, and they eventually become secret lovers. Their infidelity to their husbands doesn’t come without feeling guilty about it, but Tallie tries to brush it off by telling Abigail: “I hear intimacy builds good will.”

Dyer and Finney can’t help but notice that their wives are spending more and more time together, sometimes for several hours a day. Dyer expresses frustration that Abigail’s devotion to Tallie has come at the expense of Abigail doing work on the farm. Dyer is annoyed, but he doesn’t become abusive about it.

By contrast, Abigail starts to see signs that Tallie is being abused, such as bruises and how Tallie seems genuinely fearful of Finney, while Tallie tries to pretend that everything is fine. Abigail also tries not to think about something Tallie told her soon after they first met: Finney is thinking about moving further west with Tallie. Later in the story, the two couples have dinner together at Tallie and Finney’s home. And it becomes very clear how cruel Finney can be.

The romance of Abigail and Tallie isn’t really a “sexual identity” story, because the movie never makes a point of declaring what their sexual identities are. There’s no big speech or enlightenment moment that Abigail and Tallie have about why they fell in love with each other. Viewers can speculate that Abigail and Tallie are closeted lesbians or bisexuals, or viewers can speculate that Abigail and/or Tallie don’t care what gender their love partner is. In 1850s America, there really were no specific terms for LGBTQ people, and the subject of any non-heterosexuality was so taboo that it was rarely discussed out loud.

“The World to Come” is really about showing how two lonely people met each other and filled a void in each other’s lives. In Tallie and Abigail’s private conversations, it’s clear that Tallie is more sexually experienced and less sheltered than Abigail, even though Abigail is older than Tallie. Abigail mentions that she married Dyer out of convenience, because he was the older son of a neighbor. By contrast, it’s hinted that Tallie is very aware of her allure and had her pick of suitors before she married Finney. It’s implied that Abigail was probably a virgin when she got married, while Tallie was not.

These hints about their sexual history provide some context for what happens later in the story and how Abigail and Tallie react to obstacles that inevitably occur in their relationship. Abigail is the only person who makes Tallie happy, and vice versa, but Abigail has the added emotional agony of losing a child. It explains why there’s a desperate way that Abigail wants to cling to her relationship with Tallie, no matter what the cost.

Waterston, Kirby, Affleck and Abbott all give commendable performances in their roles. As the story goes on, there’s a noticeable change in the personalities of Abigail and Tallie that Waterston and Kirby express in poignant ways. Abigail starts off very shy and unsure of herself, but becomes more determined and outspoken after she falls in love with Tallie. Meanwhile, Tallie starts off as more of a fun-loving free spirit, but she slowly loses her confidence under the burden of being in an abusive marriage.

Affleck’s Dyer stays on a fairly even keel of being a mournful spouse who has trouble expressing his emotions, but Dyer is someone who hasn’t completely lost his humanity and compassion. Abbott’s Finney is the most complex person of the four because, just like many abusers, Finney has a charismatic side and is skilled at fooling people into thinking that he isn’t as bad as he really is. There’s a scene in the movie that also realistically demonstrates how people who suspect domestic abuse often don’t want to be involved in reporting it or helping a suspected victim.

“The World to Come” is not a groundbreaking film, nor is it going to appeal to people who aren’t interested in deliberately paced dramas that take place in the 1800s. Some viewers might also be slightly annoyed by the film’s constant voiceovers by Abigail. However, her writings are a subtle nod to how articulate and intelligent Abigail is, considering that she was not a wealthy woman with the means to get a higher education, in an era when women were discouraged from being as educated as men.

Fastvold’s unfussy directing style is exemplified by the technical choices made in the movie’s costume design, production design and musical score, which all complement the creative aspects of the film without being overwhelming. The farm folks in this story live simply and quietly. If the movie had made Tallie and Abigail’s romance a big melodrama, it wouldn’t ring true for this rural culture of people who live discreetly and don’t want to call attention to themselves.

The actors in this movie’s relatively small cast make the most out of this intimate snapshot of a year in the life of these four people who have been damaged in some way by disillusionment. Tallie and Abigail experience glimmers of hope and a purpose to live because of the unexpected love that they found with each other. But it’s a love where people will inevitably get hurt, and decisions are made on how much of that love is worth any personal sacrifices.

Bleecker Street released “The World to Come” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is March 2, 2021.