Review: ‘Paris, 13th District,’ starring Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant and Jehnny Beth

May 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Paris, 13th District”

Directed by Jacques Audiard 

French and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “Paris, 13th District” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four people, who are in their 30s and live in Paris, have lives that intersect as friends and as lovers.

Culture Audience: “Paris, 13th District” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about adults navigating complicated relationships.

Noémie Merlant in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The erotic-infused romantic drama “Paris, 13th District” uses a familiar formula of showing casual sex turning into love. The movie’s compelling performances and a few plot twists enliven a story that wants to be edgy yet sentimental. It’s yet another “singles who date” movie about two people in a “friends with benefits” relationship; one of them falls in love first with the other one; and both of them try to figure out what to do about it.

Adding to the complications in “Paris, 13th District” are the sexual and romantic entanglements of two other people whose lives are interconnected in some way to the would-be couple. The movie becomes like maze within a love quadrangle. And it’s a maze where some people might get lost and drift apart, while others find a way to each other. The “Paris, 13th District” director Jacques Audiard, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma co-wrote the movie’s adapted screenplay from short stories by Adrian Tomine.

“Paris, 13th District” (which is named for the location where most of the movie takes place) is a film in black and white, which instantly gives it a classic and somewhat artsy look. “Paris, 13th District” is not “color blind” when it comes to its casting and storylines, because racial issues are definitely not ignored in this movie, where most of the sex partners are interracial couples. Immigrant identities are also not erased for characters who come from immigrant families.

With that being said, even though “Paris, 13th District” tries to look like it’s completely progressive and modern, the movie still falls into some stereotypical and old-fashioned formulas in movies about casual sex turning into love. One of the biggest stereotypes is the emotionally unattainable ladies’ man, who tells his sexual conquests up front that he doesn’t want to be in a monogamous and committed relationship, but one of his sex partners tries to change his mind anyway. Some people might like think that “Paris, 13th District” (especially the ending) plays it too safe, while other people might think the movie is too vulgar.

The four people who are part of the movie’s “love quadrangle” are all in their 30s, and they are feeling discontent about various aspects of their lives.

  • Émilie Wong (played by Lucie Zhang) is a talkative free spirit, who comes from a Chinese immigrant family, where she is considered an underachiever. Émilie has a science degree but works as a telemarketer selling cell phone services. Émilie works in a call center, where she sometimes breaks the rules when she thinks she can get away with it. Émilie (who identifies as bisexual or queer) lives rent-free in an apartment owned by her grandmother. In contrast to Émilie’s aimless life, Émilie’s older sister is a successful medical doctor named Karin (played by Geneviève Doang), who often scolds Émilie for being immature and self-centered.
  • Camille Germain (played by Makita Samba), the movie’s Lothario, is a high school teacher who quits that job to pursue getting his Ph.D. in modern literature. At one point in the story, Camille starts working at a real estate agency to earn more money. Camille has a fairly good relationship with his immediate family: Camille’s widower father (played by Pol White) and Camille’s 16-year-old sister (played by Camille Léon-Fucien), who wants to be a stand-up comedian. However, Camille doesn’t visit them as much as they would like because he seems to want to avoid being reminded that his beloved mother is no longer with them.
  • Nora Ligier (played by Noémie Merlant) is a loner with a vague background. She’s originally from Bordeaux, France. In the beginning of the movie, Nora has enrolled in a criminal law class because her dream is to eventually become a lawyer. However, Nora ends up working as an agent for a real estate company, which is how she meets Camille. Nora also goes through some harrowing experiences because she’s often mistaken for a porn actress who uses the alias Amber Sweet.
  • Amber Sweet (played by Jehnny Beth), who wears a blonde wig styled in a shoulder-length bob, looks so similar to Nora, they could pass for fraternal twins. Amber is the most mysterious person of these four characters. However, she eventually opens up and becomes close to someone in this group of four people. It’s not really surprising who ends up befriending Amber, but some things that led up to that relationship are not as predictable.

In the beginning of “Paris, 13th District,” Émilie meets Camille for the first time, because he has answered an ad that she placed to look for a roommate. When he shows up at her door, she’s surprised that Camille is a man, because she assumed from his name that Camille was a woman. Even though Émilie lives rent-free in her apartment, she has a secret scam going on where she gets a roommate to give her the roommate’s share of the rent, and she keeps the money. The movie shows whether or not Camille finds out about this con game.

In their first conversation, Émilie and Camille (who seem to be instantly attracted to each other) don’t waste time getting personal and talking about sex after some small talk about what they do for a living. Émilie asks Camille to describe his love life. He replies, “My parents aren’t laughing.” Then, he adds, “I channel professional frustration into intense sexual activity. Nothing noisy or invasive for a roommate.”

When Camille asks Émilie about her love life, she sums it up this way: “Fuck first. See later.” Émilie also shows that she’s insecure about her physical appearance. Even though Émilie is already thin, she mentions that she likes to put Saran wrap around her body to “get thin.”

For Émilie, it’s an easy decision for Camille to move in with her. And they soon start having casual sex with each other. After just a week of these sexual hookups, Émilie grows very emotionally attached to Camille and shows signs that she’s falling in love with him. It makes him uncomfortable, so he tells Émilie that he doesn’t want to have sex with her on a regular basis anymore. “We have fun, but we’re not a couple,” Camille tells Émilie.

Émilie feels hurt and offended, but she tries to hide it by becoming standoffish to him. She tells Camille: “We need new rules. We share cleaning and food. And stop walking around naked.” As much as Émilie wants to pretend that she can handle these new boundaries, she becomes increasingly crabby and difficult. Camille starts casually dating a woman he works with named Stéphanie (played by Oceane Cairaty), who spends the night sometimes at the apartment. Predictably, Émilie gets jealous.

Émilie’s moodiness becomes too much for Camille, who eventually moves out of the apartment. But that doesn’t mean that he’s completely out of Émilie’s life. Camille and Nora end up working together. And because Camille is a ladies’ man, it’s not surprising what happens between him and Nora. Émilie (who eventually meets Nora) tries to move on from Camille by dating other people, but her mind is never far from thinking about Camille.

Meanwhile, Nora’s life collides with Amber’s when Nora goes to a nightclub wearing the same type of blonde wig that Amber wears in Amber’s porn videos. At the nightclub, several men start approaching Nora and treating her like a celebrity, by asking to take photos with her and being extra flirtatious with her. Nora is confused but flattered by this attention.

Nora later finds out why all these strangers acted as if she’s famous: Nora looks a lot like Amber Sweet when she wears the blonde wig. Nora has never heard of Amber Sweet until discovering that she’s an Amber Sweet look-alike, but she finds out the hard way that being mistaken for a porn star definitely has its down sides. Over time, Nora gets unwelcome and abusive attention when people think that she is Amber Sweet. It’s also eventually revealed that Nora and Amber both identify as queer or bisexual women.

One of the best things about “Paris, 13th District” is that the movie authentically shows how flaky, confused and desperate people can get when it comes to finding love and sex. The four central people in this story have a certain restless defiance that can come from people in their 30s who are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives, while other people in their age group are settling down with marriages, kids and careers. Émilie, Camille, Nora and Amber are not pressuring themselves to conform to society’s expectations, but they are putting certain pressures on themselves to find happiness wherever and whenever they can.

Émilie could have easily been written as a perfectly lovable ingenue to make it easier for audiences to root for her. But she’s often irritable, narcissistic and impatient, in addition to being someone who is capable of giving and receiving real love. She likes to think she’s independent, but she has the emotional maturity of a childlike woman who is very dependent on her family for financial support and approval. Émilie is a flawed but very believable character.

Zhang performs well in this role, while Samba’s performance as commitment-phobic Camille is also realistic. The roles of Émilie and Camille have better character development than the roles of Nora and Amber. Nora and Amber both have an intertwined storyline that seems a little too convenient and rushed into the plot toward the last third of the movie. Viewers never get to see any of Nora’s and Amber’s family members (it’s implied that Nora and Amber are estranged from their families), whereas Émilie’s and Camille’s family members are in the movie as integral to understanding Émilie’s and Camille’s personalities.

“Paris, 13th District” has some sex scenes that some viewers might think are a little risqué, but the movie doesn’t take many risks when it comes to a tired, over-used stereotype in movies about single people who are dating: A woman is always trying to get a man to commit to her. “Paris, 13th District” sacrifices aspects of Émilie’s free-spirited personality to make her sometimes look like a clingy shrew.

However, “Paris, 13th District” also makes a point of showing that many people are often full of contradictions. It’s a movie about people who appreciate and pursue the pleasures of sex, but they also use sex as a way to cover up a lot of emotional pain. And no matter what people’s attitudes are about sex, “Paris, 13th District” is essentially a movie that acknowledges that everyone wants to be loved in some way or another.

IFC Films released “Paris, 13th District” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 15, 2022. The movie was released in France in 2021.

Review: ‘Badhaai Do,’ starring Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar

April 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar in “Badhaai Do” (Photo courtesy of Zee Studios)

“Badhaai Do”

Directed by Harshavardhan Kulkarni

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in India, the comedy/drama film “Badhaai Do” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gay man and a lesbian, who are both in the closet about their sexualities, decide to get married to each other to throw off suspicion from their families, but complications ensue when they both meet real love partners. 

Culture Audience: “Badhaai Do” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories of how LGBTQ people live in India, where homophobia is encouraged and practiced by much of society.

Chum Darang, Bhumi Pednekar and Rajkummar Raoin in “Badhaai Do” (Photo courtesy of Zee Studios)

“Badhaai Do” is a rare LGBTQ Bollywood film that achieves a balancing act of comedy and drama. It’s about the damage caused by homophobia and the courage it takes to live authentically. The main cast members’ charismatic performances make this movie a winner. It’s a story that’s both sobering and heartwarming.

Directed by Harshavardhan Kulkarnia, “Badhaai Do” (which translates to “Felicitations Due” in English) is a witty, often-sarcastic and engaging film that has a brisk pace that doesn’t make it seem the movie is really two hours and 27 minutes long, even though it is. Kulkarnia co-wrote the “Badhaai Do” screenplay with Suman Adhikary and Akshat Ghildial. There are some parts of the movie that have a heightened tone of a screwball comedy, but the movie does not veer too far off from reality, except for the expected Bollywood musical interludes where the characters begin singing and dancing to their dialogue.

In “Badhaai Do” (which takes place in an unnamed city in India), a gay man and a lesbian get married to each other, because they’re hiding their true sexualities from almost everyone they know, including their families who have been pressuring them to have heterosexual marriages. The two people in this closeted couple are police officer Shardul Thakur (played by Rajkummar Rao) and physical education teacher Suman “Sumi” Singh (played by Bhumi Pednekar), who are both in their early 30s.

Shardul comes from a large family of women, including his unnamed widowed mother (played by Sheeba Chaddha), who are all pressuring him to get married to a woman. As expected, Shardul’s female relatives have also been playing matchmaker by trying to set him up with women whom they think could be a suitable wife for Shardul. He pretends that he’s interested, even though he knows that he’s not sexually attracted to women.

Sumi was once engaged to a man, who died six years ago in a tragic accident. She hasn’t had a serious boyfriend since then, but her conservative parents Prem Singh (played by Nitesh Pandey) and his wife Mrs. Singh (played by Loveleen Mishra) are expressing concerns to Sumi that she hasn’t moved on and found someone else to marry. Sumi and her brother Naman Singh (played by Vyom Yadav), who is 10 years younger than she is, still live with their parents. Naman has a bratty and sexist attitude about Sumi being an unmarried woman at her age, and he often makes snide comments to her about her marital status.

Even though Sumi can’t bring home any women she dates, Sumi still tries to find a love partner. She has been talking to someone on a lesbian dating app. But when she meets this possible love interest in person, she finds out that it’s really a young man, who tries to get Sumi to date him.

Sumi refuses to date him, so he starts harassing her and threatens to tell her family and friends that she’s a lesbian. Sumi is a feisty person who’s not afraid to stand up for herself, so she goes to the police to report this harassment. It’s how Sumi ends up meeting Shardul, who takes the report. It’s also how he finds out that Sumi is a lesbian. Shardul gets rid of the harasser by smacking him around—not bad enough where medical treatment is needed, but enough to scare someone away.

At work, Shardul is so fearful about revealing that he’s gay, he overcompensates by saying homophobic things. For example, early in the movie, Shardul and a police co-worker are in a local park when they catch two men who are about to be in a compromising sexual situation. Shardul and his colleague interrupt this tryst before things go further and tell the men to leave. Shardul makes a big show of expressing disgust with gay people, as if to say, “I’m not one of them!”

It just so happens that Sumi is nearby in the park at the same time. Shardul sees her sitting on a park bench by herself and strikes up a conversation with her. They end up talking about how their families are pressuring them to get married. And so, Shardul then confesses to Sumi that he’s gay and in the closet.

Shardul suggests to Sumi that they pretend to date each other and then get married, in order to “get our families off of our backs.” Shardul also says that he and Sumi can live like roommates. And because Shardul is a police officer, he tells Sumi that he can probably protect her better than most other people could.

Sumi is skeptical about this idea at first, but she eventually agrees. Shardul and Sumi’s short “courtship” soon turns to marriage. The movie’s wedding predictably has the most elaborate musical scenes in “Badhaai Do.”

But there are some big problems to living this lie of a phony marriage. Around the time that Sumi and Shardul concoct their fake romance, Sumi meets and begins dating Rimjhim Jongkey (played by Chum Darang), a confident woman who works as a hospital employee who processes lab samples. (The movie has some scatalogical comedy because Rimjhim deals with stool samples. Sumi meets Rimjihm because Sumi dropped of her own stool sample at the hospital.)

Sumi and Rimjhim have an instant mutual attraction, they begin dating, and they end up falling in love with each other. Rimjhim knows almost from the beginning that Sumi is pretending to be in a romance with Shardul. Rimjhim doesn’t really approve of this deception, but she goes along with it because she understands what’s at stake: Sumi’s family could disown Sumi if they found out that she’s a lesbian. (None of this spoiler information, because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

Rimjhim lives openly as a lesbian/queer woman because she says that she doesn’t have any family members living in India. If she did, Rimjhim says that she would probably have to hide her true sexuality too. After Shardul and Sumi get married and move in together, Rimjhim spends so much time in their apartment, she essentially starts living there too.

If anyone notices that Rimjhim has spent the night at the apartment, Shardul tells people he knows that Rimjhim is Sumi’s cousin, while Sumi tells people she knows that Rimjhim is Shardul’s cousin. It’s a flimsy lie that bound to unravel if people who know Shardul and Sumi start talking to each other about Rimjhim.

As for Shardul’s real love life, his is more complicated than Sumi’s. When Shardul and Sumi met, he was already in a long-distance romance with a man who’s about 10 years younger: a graduate business student named Kabir (played by Deepak Aurora), who might not have the same feelings for Shardul that Shardul has for him. Kabir meets up with Shardul (at Shardul’s invitation) at the resort where Shardul and Sumi are having their “honeymoon.”

Soap-opera-styled drama ensues, as well as some hilarity when Shardul and Sumi desperately try to fool their family through staged photos that Shardul and Sumi are on a romantic vacation together. More backstory about Shardul’s love life is revealed which somewhat explains the patterns of mistakes he makes in his relationships. And then, things get more complicated when Shardul meets and has a mutual attraction to an attorney named Guru Narayan (played by Gulshan Devaiah), who is an obvious better match for Shardul than Kartikey.

During this fake marriage, Shardul and Sumi sometimes clash with each other over certain issues. One of those issues is about parenting. Sumi says she has always wanted to be a mother, and she’s thinking about adopting a child. Shardul is adamant that he’s not ready to become a parent. Sumi accuses Shardul of being selfish and immature. Shardul accuses Sumi of being demanding and unreasonable.

They also bring some emotional baggage to the relationship. Although Sumi wasn’t romantically in love with her fiancé who died, she loved him as a friend. And so, Sumi is still dealing with grief over his death. Shardul has some unresolved issues with how his first big love affair ended and why it’s affected his fear to live openly as a gay man.

The movie’s plot has a few twists and turns, some of which are more expected than others. Rao and Pednekar give admirable performances that will make audiences root for Sumi and Shardul in the highs and lows of their unconventional relationship. (The realistic homophobia shown in the movie is heartbreaking, but it’s balanced out with moments of LGBTQ pride and self-confidence.) “Badhaai Do” shows in exemplary ways that no matter what people’s sexualities are, everyone deserves a chance to be happy, wherever they can find their personal joy that doesn’t hurt anyone else.

Zee Studios released “Badhaai Do” in select U.S. cinemas on February 11, 2022, the same date that the movie was released in several other countries, including India, Australia, Singapore, France and Ireland. “Badhaai Do” is also available on Netflix.

Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,’ starring Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Callum Turner and Jessica Williams

April 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jessica Williams, Callum Turner, Jude Law, Fionna Glascott, Dan Fogler and Eddie Redmayne in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore”

Directed by David Yates

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1930s in the United Kingdom, New York City, China, Germany, Austria and Bhutan, the fantasy film “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) portraying wizards, witches and Muggles (humans with no magical powers).

Culture Clash: In this prequel movie to the “Harry Potter” series, good wizard Albus Dumbledore assembles a team to do battle against his former lover Gellert Grindelwald, an evil wizard who wants to oppress Muggles and take over the world. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Harry Potter” universe fans, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” will appeal to viewers of fantasy films about battling wizards, but viewers of this jumbled movie will be very confused unless they saw or know what happened in 2018’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.”

Mads Mikkelsen in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Messy and often tedious, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” stumbles and fumbles around like a franchise in search of a coherent plot. It’s ironic that this sequel about battling wizards has lost the magic of the first “Fantastic Beasts” movie and doesn’t even come close to the best “Harry Potter” movies. The “Fantastic Beast” movies, which are the prequels to the “Harry Potter” movies, began with 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and continued with 2018’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and 2022’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.”

David Yates, who directed the last four “Harry Potter” movies, directed all three of these “Fantastic Beasts” movies, and he has been announced as the director of more “Fantastic Beasts” movies. Unfortunately, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” looks like a movie where, even though many of the same filmmakers from previous “Fantastic Beasts” movies are involved, they’ve gotten too self-satisfied with their financial success and are just churning out uninspired mediocrity. “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is a perfect example of a movie with “sequel-itis,” where there’s little to no effort to surpass the creativity of the first (and usually best) movie in the series.

“Harry Potter” and “Fantastic Beasts” book series author J.K. Rowling has been the screenplay writer for the “Fantastic Beasts” movies. For “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” Rowling and Steve Kloves are the credited screenwriters. However, they make the mistake that a lot of movie sequel screenwriters make when crafting a story: assuming that everyone seeing the movie saw a preceding movie in the series.

If you don’t know who Grindelwald and Dumbledore are, if you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a magician and a Muggle, and you don’t care enough to find out, then “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is not the movie for you. But if you are new to the franchise and are curious, then you probably still need to go and watch the previous “Fantastic Beasts” movies to fully understand what’s going on in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.” Otherwise, too many parts of the film will be baffling to you.

What is easy to understand is that “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” has the predictable cliché of a good leader versus a bad leader, who wants to take over the world/universe/fill-in-the-blank space with whatever population. If it’s a fantasy film, various supernatural powers are used and/or spells are cast. And then, it all leads to a big showdown that has the expected outcome. The End.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” follows the same formula, but it doesn’t care enough to inform new viewers about meaningful backstories of the main characters. Viewers would have to know in advance that magizoologist Newton “Newt” Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) is a British Ministry of Magic employee, who works in the Beasts Division of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Viewers would also have to know that Newt is the protégé of Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law), a highly respected member of the British Wizarding Community and a professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he teaches students how to defend against the dark arts. (It’s the school that’s later attended by Harry Potter and his friends.)

Viewers would also have to know that Dumbledore is gay and that he and his ex-lover Gellert Grindelwald (played by Mads Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp in the role), who were a couple when they were in their late teens, are now sworn enemies, because Grindelwald is now an evil wizard who wants to take over the world. One thing that “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” does explain more than adequately (and repeats to the point where it insults viewers’ intelligence) is that Dumbledore and Grindelwald made a blood pact when they were a couple to never directly harm each other. This pact manifests itself in the movies with thorn-like chains around their wrists and a pendant that gets pulled out to show from time to time.

Viewers would also have to know that in this world populated by secret and not-so-secret wizards and witches, human beings with no magical powers are called Muggles. One of these Muggles is Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler), a lovelorn baker who has been Newt’s ally in all of the “Fantastic Beasts’ movies. However, Jacob has mixed feelings about helping Newt in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.” That’s because he’s in love with a witch named Queenie Goldstein (played by Alison Sudol), who was in a forbidden romance with Jacob because it’s taboo for wizards and witches to have romantic relationships with and marry human beings.

Viewers would also have to know the backstory about Newt’s sometimes tension-filled relationship with his older brother Theseus Scamander (played by Callum Turner), who is considered an upstanding employee of the British Ministry of Magic. By contrast, Newt is considered an unpredictable, somewhat roguish employee of the British Ministry of Magic. As explained in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” Newt and Theseus fell in love with the same woman named Leta Lestrange (played by Zoë Kravitz), whose fate is shown in that movie.

And then there’s the complicated history of Credence Barebone (played by Ezra Miller), whose real name was revealed to be Aurelius Dumbledore in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” He’s been caught in a tug-of-war between good and evil. In the beginning of “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” Credence/Aurelius (who is very dour and mopey) is on evil Grindelwald’s side. And so is Queenie, the love of Jacob’s life.

What does all of this mean? Dumbledore is going to assemble a team to defeat Grindelwald, who is a political candidate in the upcoming election for supreme head of the International Confederation of Wizards (ICW). This election is supposed to show that Grindelwald is not going to operate in the underworld, but he wants to become part of the establishment government in power. Grindelwald’s two opponent candidates in this election are Brazil’s minister of magic Vicência Santos (played by Maria Fernanda Cândido) and China’s minister of magic Liu Tao (played by Dave Wong), while the outgoing ICW supreme head is Anton Vogel (played by Oliver Masucci), who is Germany’s minister of magic.

In addition to Newt and Jacob, the others who are on Dumbledore’s team are Professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (played by Jessica Williams), a sassy teacher at Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; Yusuf Kama (played by William Nadylam), an even-tempered Senegalese French wizard; and Bunty Broadacre (played by Victoria Yeates), who is Newt’s loyal and trustworthy assistant. Queenie’s sister Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (played by Katherine Waterston), a love interest of Newt’s, makes a brief appearance toward the end of the movie. Aberforth Dumbledore (played by Richard Coyle), Albus’ somewhat estranged brother and the owner of the Hog’s Head Inn, is in the movie as an explanation for more of the Dumbledore family history.

And you can’t have a movie called “Fantastic Beasts” without some magical creatures running around. In “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” the creature at that’s the center of the story’s intrigue is the rare Qilin (pronounced “chillin”), which looks like a combination of a horse and a dragon. The Qilin has the ability to read someone’s heart and determine if someone is good or evil. In the beginning of the movie, Newt discovers a Qilin that has given birth. However, Grindelwald wants to kill any Qilins, to prevent Grindelwald’s dark heart and sinister intentions from being exposed.

There’s also the Manticore, a three-eyed beast that’s up to no good and looks like a combination of a crab/lobster and a scorpion. And there’s a shape-shifting avian creature called a Wyvern. Returning to the “Fantastic Beasts” series are the Bowtruckle named Pickett and the Niffler named Teddy. Although these creatures all contribute some way to the story, the visual effects for these creatures and the battle scenes won’t be winning any awards.

The opening scene of “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is an example of how drab the movie is when in areas it should be electrifying and intriguing. The scene shows Albus Dumbledore and Grindelwald meeting each other at a restaurant. A scene that should sizzle with unresolved feelings between these two former lovers just ends up fizzling with dull dialogue.

Dumbledore tells Grindelwald of their blood oath to never directly harm each other: “We can free each other of it.” Dumbledore adds, “I was in love with you.” Grindelwald is unmoved and expresses his disgust of Dumbledore interacting with Muggles: “Do you really intend to turn your back on your own kind?” Grindelwald sneers. And of the human customers in the restaurant, Grindelwald asks Dumbledore if he can “smell the stench [of humans] in the room.”

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” has more monotonous conversations throughout the movie, which makes the characters’ personalities very hollow and formulaic. The story has a lot of globetrotting to several countries to distract from the weak plot. The pacing is too slow in areas where there should be a higher level of intrigue. Many of the action scenes are poorly staged and look too forced and awkward. There’s nothing wrong with any of the cast members’ performances in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” but there’s no real spark to anything about this movie, which plods along until its very predictable conclusion.

The movie’s biggest failing is not adequately explaining crucial backstories. (At one point in the film, Lally does a rushed “exposition dump” by giving a babbling summary of what happened in the first two “Fantastic Beasts” movies.) The film’s lackluster dialogue and trite action scenes don’t help matters. The end result is a movie that seems to take its loyal fan base for granted and doesn’t really make new “Fantastic Beasts” viewers feel welcome.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” in U.S. cinemas on April 15, 2022. HBO Max will premiere the movie on May 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Better Nate Than Ever,’ starring Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Lisa Kudrow, Joshua Bassett, Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer

April 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rueby Wood (center) in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo by David Lee/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Better Nate Than Ever”

Directed by Tim Federle

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pittsburgh and New York City, the comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy, who dreams of becoming a star of musicals, temporarily runs away with his best friend from their hometown of Pittsburgh to New York City, so that they can audition for prominent roles in the Broadway show “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical.”

Culture Audience: “Better Nate Than Ever” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in sentimental, family-friendly stories about finding one’s identity and self-acceptance.

Aria Brooks and Rueby Wood in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” is an unapologetically sentimental love letter to musical theater geeks and anyone struggling with self-esteem issues. Everything in the movie is entirely predictable, but the movie is so earnest in its heartwarming intentions, most viewers will be charmed by it. People who have a deep hatred of musical theater or schmaltzy stories about kids who love performing will think “Better Nate Than Ever” is very irritating, so it’s best to avoid this movie if sounds like it isn’t worth your time.

Written and directed by Tim Federle, “Better Nate Than Ever” is adapted from his 2013 novel of the same name. Federle is also the showrunner of the Disney+ series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Federle has said in many interviews that the title character of Nathan “Nate” Foster, who is 13 years old, is inspired by who Federle was when he was around the same age. In the book and in the movie, Nate is an unabashed fanatic of musicals. His biggest dream in life is to star in a Broadway musical.

Nate (played by Rueby Wood) lives in Pittsburgh with his parents Rex Foster (played by Norbert Leo Butz) and Sherrie Foster (played by Michelle Federer) and Nate’s brother Anthony Foster (played Joshua Bassett), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Anthony is a popular athlete at his high school, and he thinks that musicals are a “wimpy” interest for boys to have. Nate has no interest in sports, and he’s somewhat of a social outcast at his middle school. Anthony sometimes acts like he’s embarrassed that Nate is his brother, and this type of rejection hurts Nate, but Nate tries not to let his hurt emotions show.

Nate’s best friend (and his only friend) at school is outspoken, confident and sassy Libby (played by Aria Brooks), who is the about the same age as Nate. Libby is also Nate’s biggest supporter in pursuing his dream of becoming a Broadway musical star. She has an interest in performing too, but she’s not as passionate about it as Nate is. Libby is very good at giving advice and coming up with ideas, so Nate often relies on her when he’s got a problem that he needs to solve or if he needs pep talks.

At school, Nate (who likes to wear lip gloss) is predictably the target of bullying. When Nate tries to take a seat on a school bus, a male student (played by Alex Barber) blocks Nate and sneers, “No more girls in this row.” When the bully steals Nate’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Nate fights back by hitting him. Nate gets more bullying in a few other parts of the movie.

Nate is the type of musical aficionado who can recite musical trivia by heart. He frequently sings songs from musicals out loud, and he practices his dance moves in front of mirrors at home. Nate’s school is staging a production called “Lincoln: The Unauthorized Rock Musical.” Nate has auditioned for the lead role of Abraham Lincoln. This audition is not shown in the movie, which opens on the day that Nate will find out if he was chosen for the role.

Nate is crushed when the casting results are posted, and he didn’t get the starring role that he desperately wanted. The teacher who made the decision tactfully tells Nate that Nate isn’t experienced enough to handle the lead role in this musical. As a consolation, Nate is offered the role of a background singer/dancer.

Around the time that Nate gets this disappointing news, Libby tells Nate about upcoming open auditions in New York City for the Broadway production “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical,” which will have a cast of mostly underage kids. Nate and Libby think it’s a good idea for them to audition for this Broadway musical. (In the “Better Nate Than Ever” book, Nate runs away to New York City to audition for “E.T.: The Musical.”)

And it just so happens that Nate’s parents Rex and Sherrie will be in West Virginia that weekend for a romantic getaway to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Anthony will be out of town that weekend for a sports meet. Nate and Libby hatch a plan to pretend that Nate will be staying at her house. Instead, Nate and Libby sneak off and take a bus to New York City to go to the auditions.

It’s never really mentioned what Nate’s parents do for a living, but the Fosters are a middle-class family who are going through a financial rough spot because Rex is currently unemployed. Sherrie is estranged from her older sister Heidi (played by Lisa Kudrow), who lives in New York City’s Queens borough. The two sisters no longer speak to each other because Sherrie thinks that Heidi abandoned the family to pursue a career on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Nate has a lot of admiration for Heidi and wishes that he could be just like Heidi. After a series of mishaps, Nate and Libby make it to the auditions, only to find out that an underage kid who auditions needs an adult guardian, for legal reasons. It just so happens that Heidi is available, and she reluctantly agrees to be the adult guardian for Nate and Libby.

Libby decides that being a performer isn’t really for her, so she decides to go back home to Pittsburgh, while Nate continues his pursuit of his Broadway dreams, with some help from Heidi. Nate finds out the reality that Heidi’s life isn’t as glamorous as Nate thought it was. Heidi is a struggling actress who lives alone in a small, one-bedroom apartment. She works for a catering company to pay her bills.

Nate turns out to be a plucky and optimistic kid who forges ahead, despite obstacles that get in his way. Many of these challenges test his confidence, but his love of performing is too strong for any skeptics and roadblocks to deter him. When Libby is away from Nate, she keeps in touch with him by phone to get updates on his audition journey.

Heidi is the type of person who starts off thinking that she’s not very good at taking care of kids. But as Nate and Heidi get to know each other better, they develop a newfound respect for each other. Heidi and Nate also begin to understand that the estrangement between Heidi and her sister Sherrie had repercussions on the family that went beyond the two sisters’ relationship with each other.

“Better Nate Than Ever” has some slapstick comedy that can be very corny, but it’s what you might expect from a Disney film. What isn’t typical for a Disney film is how the movie addresses Nate’s sexual identity without anyone in the movie ever giving Nate any specific identity labels. At 13 years old, Nate is too young to date anyone, by most standards.

However, there are signs that Nate and his loved ones know that he’s not heterosexual. People in his life describe him as “different” and not interested in dating girls. At various points in the movie, Nate goes out of his way to get merchandise in the style of the rainbow flag, which is the universal symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, while he’s in New York City, Nate buys a rainbow-colored rabbit’s foot as a lucky charm.

“Better Nate Than Ever” shows these obvious signs without being preachy or heavy-handed about it. It’s all just presented as part of Nate’s natural identity. And although Nate gets some bullying for being “effeminate,” he embraces who he is and doesn’t try to change for anyone. That’s a positive message for people who go through life thinking that they have to pretend to be something they’re not, in order to be accepted.

As for the musical numbers, they are very contrived but play into fantasies that anyone might have of being the star of a musical. One of the standout musical scenes is when Nate attracts a crowd in Times Square as he does an impromptu performance of George Benson’s 1978 hit “On Broadway.” It’s a very corny scene but also very cute. Benson makes a cameo appearance as himself during this Times Square performance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Better Nate Than Never” has some obvious cross-marketing promotion of the real-life New Amsterdam Theatre, which is owned by Disney and is home to all of Disney’s Broadway musicals. In “Better Nate Than Ever,” the “Lilo & Stitch” musical’s final auditions take place at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The “Better Nate Than Ever” movie seems like it’s a marketing test to gauge public interest in Disney making the 2002 Disney animated film “Lilo & Stitch” into a Broadway musical in real life, since Disney has turned many of Disney’s hit animated movies into Broadway musicals.

“Better Nate Than Ever” is the feature-film debut of Wood, who makes a lasting impression as the effervescent and talented Nate. This is a movie where the casting choices make a huge difference in how likable the characters are, because it’s obvious that Wood lives and breathes musicals as much as Nate does. Most people can’t really fake that kind of passion. Wood is also a fantastic singer who really does look like he was born to star in a Broadway musical. In addition to “On Broadway,” he sings the show-stopping: “No One Gets Left Behind” (written by Lyndie Lane), and he performs a monologue from “Designing Women.”

Brooks brings her own unique pizzazz to her role as Nate’s best friend Libby, a character who is thankfully not written as just another two-dimensional sidekick. Libby goes through her own journey of self-identity and figuring out what her passion and talents are in life. Libby is also a good “reality check” to Nate when he gets too hyper or too sarcastic. A recurring comment she makes to Nate to watch his tone of voice is to tell him calmly, “Nate: Tone.”

Kudrow also does nicely in the movie as Nate’s aunt Heidi, who finds a kindred spirit in Nate because of his love of theater performing. Nate sees Heidi as a role model, but she feels like a misfit and a failure. Through Nate’s perspective, Heidi’s self-confidence is boosted when she begins to understand how her life has inspired someone in ways that she didn’t even think were possible. The tensions between Heidi and Sherrie are eventually dealt with exactly how you think they will be dealt with in this type of family-oriented movie, as are the tensions between brothers Nate and Anthony.

“Better Nate Than Ever” sticks to a familiar formula, but there are elements to the movie that are truly unique and heartfelt. Federle obviously wanted to make a movie that could speak to people who have ever felt misunderstood, rejected or doubted because of who they are. Despite a lot of cloying moments in “Better Nate Than Ever,” the movie succeeds in its intended message to celebrate people for being their authentic selves.

Disney+ premiered “Better Nate Than Ever” on April 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Hypochondriac’ (2022), starring Zach Villa

March 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zach Villa in “Hypochondriac” (Photo by Dustin Supencheck)

“Hypochondriac” (2022)

Directed by Addison Heimann

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Hypochondriac” features a cast of white, Latino and African American characters representing the working-class middle-class.

Culture Clash: A pottery maker is haunted by his traumatic childhood in ways that begin to affect his relationship with his boyfriend. 

Culture Audience: “Hypochondriac” will appeal primarily to people in horror movies that explore themes of mental illness and generational trauma.

Although it can get a little repetitive, “Hypochondriac” skillfully shows the blurred lines between psychological horror and mental illness. The movie’s plot is fairly simple, but the striking and often horrifying visuals in the movie will leave an impact. “Hypochondriac” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Addison Heimann, who shows promise as a filmmaker who can craft stories and characters that hold people’s interest. “Hypochondriac” had its world premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

In “Hypochondriac,” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, the opening scene shows a mentally ill woman (played by Marlene Forte) having paranoid delusions in her home. She looks frantically out of the window, because she thinks people are out to get her. And then, this unnamed mother turns hostile toward her only child—a 12-year-old son named Will (played by Ian Inigo)—and she accuses him of “being in collusion with them.” After Will denies her accusation, she does something horrifying: She tries to kill him by strangling him.

Later, another incident that’s not shown in the movie involves this mother, a knife and a lot of blood in the house’s kitchen. Viewers find out that this incident is the one that caused the mother to be sent to a psychiatric facility. Will’s unnamed father (played by Chris Doubek) tells Will that Will’s mother has been taken away to get psychiatric help, and he orders Will to not look in the kitchen until it can be cleaned up. But, of course, Will does look in the kitchen. And he sees that it’s a blood-splattered mess.

“Hypochondriac” then fast-forwards 18 years later. Will (played by Zach Villa), who is openly gay, is now a pottery maker for a small company that caters to upscale clients. He seems to be fairly happy, and he has settled into a loving relationship with his boyfriend Luke (played by Devon Graye), who is as laid-back as Will is neurotic. Will and Luke (who is an AIDS counselor) have been dating each other for the past eight months.

Will has been guarded with Luke about his past. But things happen in the movie that cause Will to open up to Luke about the childhood trauma that still haunts him. Will also has a co-worker named Sasha (played by Yumarie Morales), who is a sassy friend, but she has her own personal struggles too. There’s a scene in the movie where Sasha has a panic attack, and Will helps her get through it.

It isn’t long before Will’s seemingly stable life starts to unravel. He gets mysterious headaches. Then he seems to be having random fainting spells. Throughout the story, Will visits a series of clinic doctors and other medical professionals, who can’t find anything that’s physically wrong with him. Michael Cassidy has a satirical cameo role as a nurse practitioner named Chaz, who insists on being called “NP Chaz” and who gives off-the-cuff, incompetent diagnoses.

Will also starts getting phone calls from his mother, whom he does not want to hear from at all. His mother repeatedly warns him not to trust Luke. She also leaves a lot of rambling messages on Will’s voice mail. And there are recurring visions of someone dressed in a wolf costume that have to do with Will’s Halloween memories from when he was a child.

It’s very easy to tell at a certain point in the movie how much is reality and how much is a hallucination. Thanks largely to Villa’s riveting performance and the engrossing direction of the movie, the entire journey of “Hypochondriac” is a harrowing ride that takes viewers into the mind of an increasingly disturbed person. “Hypochondriac” has an ending that might not satisfy some viewers, but it realistically shows how mental illness remains with people throughout their lives and isn’t like a nightmare that goes away when someone wakes up.

XYZ Films will release “Hypochondriac” in 2022, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Compartment No. 6,’ starring Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov

February 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov in “Compartment No. 6” (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Compartment No. 6”

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen

Russian and Finnish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia in the 1980s, the dramatic film “Compartment No. 6” features a cast of an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Finnish woman and a Russian man meet on a train when they’re forced to share the same compartment, and they have conflicts when he attempts to get close to her in sometimes crude and off-putting ways. 

Culture Audience: “Compartment No. 6” will appeal primarily to people interested in European films about seemingly mismatched people who have to travel together under awkward circumstances.

Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov in “Compartment No. 6” (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Compartment No. 6” avoids a lot of movie stereotypes about two strangers who meet on a train. It’s not a thriller or a comedy, but it’s a realistic, wandering drama about human connections that develop in spite of friction. This isn’t the type of movie that will appeal to people who are expecting wacky or extreme things to happen. However, for viewers who appreciate thoughtful observations of individual personalities and how strangers get to know each other, “Compartment No. 6” offers an engaging ride.

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen, “Compartment No. 6” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won the Grand Prix and a special mention for the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Kuosmanen and Andris Feldmanis wrote the movie’s screenplay, which is adapted from Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel of the same name. “Compartment No. 6” is the type of artsy European film that tends to be well-received at the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s not a movie that’s too pretentious, because it’s about two “ordinary people,” but viewers should not expect the type of overly contrived scenarios that often plague stories about two strangers stuck on a long trip together. There’s good acting all-around, but how much people will enjoy this movie will depend mainly on if they’re interested in watching the dynamics of two people who spend a lot of awkward moments together during much of the movie. The ending of “Compartment No. 6” is a “full circle” moment that viewers will appreciate for how it shows that first impressions can be lasting impressions that yield unexpected results.

“Compartment No. 6,” which takes place in Russia, is told from the perspective of a Finnish woman in her late 20s or early 30s named Laura (played by Seidi Haarla), who has been temporarily living with her Russian lover Irina Mezhinskaya (played by Dinara Drukarova), who is in the closet about her sexuality. The movie opens with a house party at Irina’s place, where host Irina is the jovial center of attention. Laura is introduced to people at the party as Irina’s “friend,” and they dance together like friends. But when Irina and Laura have a moment alone together in the bedroom during the party, they kiss each other passionately.

The movie gives no details of how long Laura and Irina have been together, but it doesn’t appear to be very long. Laura is not a Russian citizen, and she doesn’t appear to have a job. Irina, who’s about five to seven years older than Irina, has an unnamed job that has given her an income to afford a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. This living situation appears to be making Laura a little uncomfortable because she doesn’t want to be considered a “freeloader.” Laura also seems to be more willing than Irina to go public with their relationship.

“Compartment No. 6” does not specify the decade in which this story takes place. And the movie’s costume design and hairstyling aren’t overt indications either. But there are enough clues to show that the movie takes place in the 1980s. Laura listens to music on a Sony Walkman-type of cassette player. No one has cell phones. No one talks about the Internet. And on her trip, Laura makes video messages for Irina on a cassette-using video camera.

The day after this house party, Laura (who says she wants to be an archeology student) and Irina had planned to take a trip by train to the Murmansk, Russia, to look at the famous petroglyphs there. Laura has very much been looking forward this trip, which she wanted to be a romantic getaway. However, Irna backed out of the trip on short notice because of unexpected work obligations. Laura seems to be more upset about this change of plans than Irina is.

Because archeology enthusiast Laura still wants to see the petroglyphs, she decides to take the trip by herself, with the encouragement of Irina. And so, that’s how Laura ends up on a train in the second-class section’s Compartment No. 6, where she meets the passenger who’s sharing the compartment with her. He’s a crude Russian miner named Ljoha (played by Yuriy Borisov), who is close to the same age as Laura is. Ljoha is drunk and verbally aggressive to Laura during the first time that they meet.

Underneath his coarse attitude, Ljoha obviously is attracted to Laura. She can sense it too, but she makes it clear to him that she’s not interested in him for romance or friendship. She tries to avoid talking to him, but he keeps pestering her with questions. Some of his interrogation includes asking her, “What are you doing on this train alone? Selling your cunt?”

When he finds out that she’s Finnish, Ljoha demands that Laura teach him a few words in Finnish, such as “hello,” “goodbye” and “blizzard.” When Ljoha asks Laura to tell him how to say, “I love you” in Finnish and write it down for him, she writes down these words in Finnish instead: “Fuck you.” Ljoha has no idea, of course.

Ljoha eventually gets physically aggressive with Laura. It makes her so uncomfortable, Laura tries to see if she can switch compartments, but the rest of the compartments are full. Because she has a second-class ticket, she can’t go in the first-class section. Laura even tries to bribe the train ticket taker named Natalia (played by Yuliya Aug) to let her go to another compartment by explaining the problem, but Natalia is unmoved.

There’s no getting around it: Laura is stuck on the train with Ljoha for about three days. Over time, she finds out that Ljoha is going to Murmansk for a job at Olenegorsk GOK, a mining and processing combine. Along the way, some hijinks ensue, but they’re not as exciting as they would be if the movie had been a Hollywood version of the story.

One thing that becomes obvious is that Ljoha is so attracted to Laura, he gets a little jealous when other strangers on the train catch her attention and she starts having friendly conversations with them. Laura tries to keep an emotional distance from Ljoha, but Ljoha has an impish charm that she eventually gets involved with in a way that starts out as cautious, but then she lets more of her guard down when she’s with Ljoha. The movie shows if Laura eventually tells Ljoha that she’s romantically involved with another woman.

Because of the meandering tone of “Compartment No. 6,” there will be times when viewers will wonder where the story is going and what’s the point of having certain scenes in the movie. There are some scenes that go nowhere, but they are just meant to be “slice of life” scenes. Since it’s already established that Laura isn’t romantically interested in Ljoha, this isn’t a “will they or won’t they get together” cliché that would usually be in a romantic movie.

In addition to the authentic-sounding dialogue, one of the reasons why “Compartment No. 6” is a better-than-average film is that all of the actors are entirely believable in their roles. Laura’s well-justified initial repulsion of Ljoha then gives way to curiosity and then an understanding that she’s a lot more like Ljoha than she would care to admit to anyone. Ljoha (who drifts from job to job) and Laura are both lost souls who don’t really have a permanent home at this point in time. You won’t learn much about Ljoha’s and Laura’s backgrounds before they met each other, because that’s the point: They both have rootless existences.

When Ljoha isn’t drunk, he even shows a little bit of a tender and compassionate side of himself to Laura. He isn’t quite the jerk that she initially thought he was, and she isn’t quite the uptight snob that he initially thought she was. The connection between Laura and Ljoha is an example of how when there’s an opportunity to get to know someone outside of one’s comfort zone (even if it’s unavoidable because you’re sharing a train compartment), it’s an opportunity that can result in some insightful surprises about the other person and about yourself.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Compartment No. 6” in select U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2022. The movie was released in Russia and other parts of Europe in 2021.

Review: ‘Benedetta,’ starring Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson and Olivier Rabourdin

February 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in “Benedetta” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Benedetta”

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Culture Representation: Taking place in 17th century Italy, the dramatic film “Benedetta” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy who are connected in some way to the Roman Catholic Church.

Culture Clash: A nun, who claims to have visions of Jesus Christ visiting her, gets involved in a taboo sexual relationship with another woman living in the convent.

Culture Audience: “Benedetta” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies that have provocative but ultimately not very groundbreaking depictions of how religion and sex are handled by the Catholic Church.

Charlotte Rampling (pictured in front, at far left) in “Benedetta” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Benedetta” is not as subversive as perhaps the filmmakers want it to be, because this dramatic depiction of a true story is often campy and predictable. The intrigue is in the cast members’ performances, which are never boring. In its observations about religious hypocrisy and misogyny, “Benedetta” also strives to have more meaning than just being known as a “lesbian nun” movie. “Benedetta” (which also has the title of “Blessed Virgin,” depending on where the movie is released) had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

Paul Verhoeven directed “Benedetta” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with David Birke. The movie, which takes place in 17th century Italy, is based on Judith C. Brown’s non-fiction book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.” That “lesbian nun” is Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira), who is eventually labeled as “insane” by church officials because of her adamant claims that Jesus Christ appears to her in visions. Benedetta also claims to have stigmata wounds, as proof that she communicates with Jesus. About the same time Benedetta has been branded as mentally ill, Benedetta is revealed to be having a sexual relationship with a nun-in-training who’s living in the same convent: Bartomolea (played by Daphne Patakia), who was the one who initiated the affair, according to how this movie depicts it.

“Benedetta” essentially leaves it open to interpretation if Benedetta would have been treated as harshly if there was no sexual activity in her scandal. Would she have been viewed as just a harmless oddball with an active imagination of communicating with Jesus Christ? The movie could also make people think about the implications of gender inequality: When a (male) Catholic priest is caught breaking the vows of celibacy, is the Catholic Church (and society in general) more likely to overlook it or be quicker to forgive a priest, compared to a (female) Catholic nun who does the same thing?

One point the movie definitely makes is that women can be just as misogynistic as men can be when it comes to judging other women. “Benedetta” predictably has a “battle-axe” villain nun named Sister Felicita, the Abbess (played by Charlotte Rampling), who is all too eager to get involved in the downfall of Benedetta, because Benedetta dared to question Sister Felicita’s authority. There are also obvious signs that Sister Felicita felt threatened that the younger and more physically attractive Benedetta would become more popular with the male clergy in charge of making decisions in the convent’s power structure.

Another antagonist to Benedetta is a nun named Sister Christina (played by Louise Chevillotte), who is the first person in the convent to find out about the secret affair between Bendetta and Bartomolea. And it happens around the time that Benedetta’s visions of Christ have made her a rising star at the convent. It all leads to a predictable showdown of back-and-forth accusations and female cattiness, presided over by an all-male group of Catholic Church officials who will decide who’s telling the truth and what will happen to Benedetta.

Two of the officials who will decide Benedetta’s fate are Alfonso Cecchi (played by Olivier Rabourdin) and the Nuncio (played by Lambert Wilson), who doesn’t have a first name in the movie. Alfonso, who has ambitions to become a bishop, is more inclined to believe Benedetta’s claims. The Nuncio, who acts as a government messenger/ambassador for the Pope, gives a lot of weight to the opinions of Sister Felicita, who wants to be his political ally. Even though the Nuncio has taken the vow of celibacy, there are hints that he has violated of that vow, such as having sex with prostitutes and getting his maid pregnant.

“Benedetta” takes perhaps a little too much time in the beginning of the movie to over-explain Benedetta’s restrictive childhood. The movie shows that Benedetta was a very devout Catholic who adhered to the tenets of the Catholic religion, but she was already claiming to have special communication with deities. One of the more interesting aspects of “Benedetta” is how it keeps viewers guessing over whether or not Benedetta was really a non-conformist “psychic,” a mentally ill eccentric, or a very skilled con artist.

At 12 or 13 years old, Benedetta (played by Elena Plonka) travels with her father Giuliano (played by David Clavel) and her mother Midea (played by Clotilde Courau) to the city of Pescia so that she can get her confirmation veil. On the way there, the family is stopped by some soldiers, who steal a necklace from the family. Benedetta scolds the soldiers that they will be punished by the Virgin Mary for this theft. And just like that, bird excrement lands on the face of the soldier who has the necklace, and he gives it back. It’s one of many campy moments in the movie.

Viewers soon find out that Benedetta’s parents have essentially sold her to a convent. Because a nun is considered a non-sexual “bride” of Jesus Christ, Giuliano wants to be a hardball negotiator with Sister Felicita for how much of a “dowry” he can get from the Catholic Church. Giuliano asks Sister Felicita: “Is the bride of Christ worth less than 100 [in currency]?”

Another campy moment arrives when an adolescent Benedetta (who is now living at the convent) begins praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary, which is wearing a veil that extends down to the Virgin Mary’s chest. Suddenly, the statue falls on Benedetta, and the statue’s veil comes off to expose the Virgin Mary’s naked breasts. Benedetta than starts sucking on the breasts. This movie is not subtle at all in telegraphing what will happen later in the story.

The movie then fast-forwards 18 years later. Benedetta is now a headstrong nun who often clashes with Sister Felicita. One day, a woman in her early 20s bursts into the convent because she is being chased by her abusive father (played by Frédéric Sauzay), who calls her a “harlot.” The frightened woman is Bartomolea, who will eventually become Benedetta’s lover.

Bartomolea begs to be taken into the convent, but an unsympathetic Sister Felicita says that Bartomolea can only stay if her father pays a dowry. Her father (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) reluctantly obliges. Bartomelea than begins to live in the convent as a novitiate. Bartomolea and Benedetta share the same bedroom space, where their beds are separated by a thin curtain.

At first, Benedetta treats the younger Bartomolea as somewhat of a friend/protégée. Bartomolea confides in Bendetta, by telling her that after Bartomolea’s mother died in an unnamed plague, Bartomolea’s father made Bartomolea become his “wife.” In other words, Bartomolea was the victim of incest rape. Having a domineering and controlling father who abandoned them in a convent is something that both Bartomolea and Benedetta have in common, so it seems to strengthen their bond that the two women start to develop with each other.

Bartomolea has not taken the vows of celibacy as a nun, so she’s not as invested as Benedetta is in abstaining from sex. Bartomolea also isn’t as timid as she first seemed when she arrived at the convent. It isn’t long before Bartomolea makes it known to Benedetta that she’s sexually attracted to Benedetta. Benedetta thinks it’s sinful for a nun to act on any sexual urges, so she resists Bartomolea’s sexual advances. Benedetta also tells Bartomolea that she has visions of Jesus Christ saying that it’s a mortal sin to break her vows.

Over time though, Benedetta’s visions change. In Benedetta’s new visions, Jesus Christ begins to tell her that the previous Jesus that Benedetta was seeing is a false prophet. And soon afterward, Benedetta and Bartomolea are having secret sexual trysts in their bedroom. One of the more talked-about aspects of “Benedetta” is how a figurine of the Virgin Mary is used as a sex toy. The movie’s sex scenes leave no mystery about what goes on in these sexual encounters.

Regardless of how audiences might react to the movie’s explicit sexual content, one of the best things about “Benedetta” is that it shows how sex and religion are both used as ways to have power and control over people. Efira’s opaque performance as the rebellious Benedetta and Charlotte Rampling’s assured performance as the imperious Sister Felicita are fascinating to watch for these reasons. For all the attention that this movie is getting about the sex scenes, it’s worth noting that no matter what happens between Benedetta and Bartolomea, the power struggle between Benedetta and Sister Felicita will have a more lasting impact on all of their lives.

Benedetta’s visions of Jesus Christ aren’t all sweetness and light. She has a recurring nightmare that she’s being hunted down by men who try to rape her, and Jesus comes to her rescue. Of course, anyone can interpret these scenes as the would-be rapists being symbolic of patriarchy trying to take power away from Benedetta and any woman. At first, Benedetta sees the Catholic Church as her savior (with Jesus coming to her rescue in these visions), but eventually she’s conflicted and disillusioned over how much she should believe in the Catholic Church.

These attempted rape scenes are part of a pattern of filmmaker Verhoeven’s fixation on showing the rape or attempted rape of women in almost all of his movies. He’s gotten a lot of criticism over the years for his very “male gaze” films, where women’s naked bodies are used for explicit, full-frontal sex scenes and/or violence, but the men in Verhoeven’s movies almost never have full-frontal nudity. It’s a double standard that Verhoeven doesn’t seem interested in acknowledging or ending in his movies.

As much as Verhoeven points out in “Benedetta” how the patriarchy of the Catholic Church is responsible for a lot of sexual hypocrisy that shames women and absolves men, Verhoeven has made an entire career of doing films about some type of female exploitation. If not for the quality of talent that Verhoeven works with in casts and crews, many of Verhoeven’s so-called “artsy” movies would be B-movie schlock. That’s why “Benedetta,” although it has very good acting, is by no means a cinematic masterpiece.

IFC Films released “Benedetta” in select U.S. cinemas on December 3, 2021. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 21, 2021.

Review: ‘Parallel Mothers,’ starring Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma and Julieta Serrano

January 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Milena Smit, Penélope Cruz and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón in “Parallel Mothers” (Photo by Iglesias Más/El Deseo/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Parallel Mothers”

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Madrid, Spain, from 2016 to 2019, the dramatic film “Parallel Mothers” features an all-Hispanic cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two single mothers (one middle-aged and one teenage) and the teenager’s mother find their lives intertwined and affected by secrets and lies.

Culture Audience: “Parallel Mothers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, star Penélope Cruz and well-acted movies that explore the highs and lows of family histories.

Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit in “Parallel Mothers” (Photo by Iglesias Más/El Deseo/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Parallel Mothers” is more than a drama about the relationship between two single mothers. On a much broader level, it’s about how secrets can be damaging to families. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Parallel Mothers” is one of his most emotionally moving and effective movies in his illustrious filmography. “Parallel Mothers” had its world premiere at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where “Parallel Mothers” star Penélope Cruz won the Volpi Prize for Best Actress. The movie’s North American premiere was at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

“Parallel Mothers” (which takes place from 2016 to 2019) begins and ends with a very personal family quest by a Madrid-based photographer named Maria Janis Martinez Moreno, also known as Janis (played by Cruz), who is trying to find the anonymous mass grave where her great-grandfather was buried, after he was murdered in the Spanish Civil War. Janis, who is 39 when this story begins, comes up against a lot bureaucratic stonewalling from government officials who seem to want to erase this shameful part of Spanish history where thousands of murdered people were buried in unmarked graves without notifying the dead people’s family members. It’s important for Janis and her family to give her great-grandfather’s body a proper burial, according to their Catholic traditions.

The only details that Janis knows about the grave are from what her grandmother told her: It’s an unmarked grave, where 10 men were buried. Janis’ grandmother gave her the names of the other men who are said to be buried in the same grave. Janis’ great-grandfather was not in the military during the Spanis Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. He was a teacher and a photographer, who went missing during the war. The family got the news that he was murdered, but his body was never found.

During her search for this grave, Janis ends up doing a studio photo session with a forensic entomologist named Arturo (played Israel Elejalde), who works for the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. It’s a group that decides its projects years in advance, and it has the authority to decide which unmarked graves can be excavated. Janis asks Arturo what he can do to help her start the process to excavate a grave that she’s fairly certain is where her great-grandfather is buried. Arturo says he can talk to his management supervisors about this issue.

There’s some sexual attraction between Janis and Arturo. Not long after this photo session, they begin having an affair. Although Janis is completely single, Arturo is not. He’s up front in telling Janis that he’s married, but he and his wife are having marital problems. The movie later has some back-and-forth drama over whether or not Arturo and his wife (who is never seen in the film) will break up or not.

Soon after Janis and Arturo begin their affair, Janis unexpectedly gets pregnant. Janis is at an age when she thought she would never have children, so she’s elated by this unplanned pregnancy. Arturo is not. In fact, he questions if he’s the father of the child and asks Janis to consider having an abortion.

Janis is so insulted that she breaks up with Arturo and tells him she wants to raise the child without any financial help from him. Janis also tells Arturo that she won’t have a paternity test done for the child, and that she doesn’t Arturo in the child’s life. Arturo accepts this decision, but he seems hurt that Janis wants to completely cut him out of her life. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Janis and Arturo aren’t completely out of each other’s lives after she gives birth to their child.

When it comes time for Janis to give birth, she checks into a maternity ward at a local hospital. Janis knows that her baby will be a girl and already has decided that her daughter’s name will be Cecilia. Janis’ roommate is another single, expectant mother who’s about to give birth to her first child that was the result of an unplanned pregnancy.

Janis is sharing a room with Ana Manso (played by Milena Smit), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Unlike Janis, Ana is not excited to be a mother. Ana is terrified and reluctant about parenthood. Ana doesn’t feel that she’s ready for this big change in her life. Ana also tells Janis that she regrets getting pregnant, while Janis tries to get Ana to think about the positive benefits of being a parent.

Janis has her somewhat-comical best friend Elena (played by Rossy de Palma) as a support system during this pregnancy. Ana is under the care of her divorced and domineering mother Teresa (played by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who greatly disapproves that Ana is going to be an unwed, teenage mother. Teresa thinks that Ana is headed down the wrong path in life, and she frequently berates Ana about it.

Teresa is a busy actress who often has to travel for her job. She does a lot of work on plays that tour. It’s not stated what Teresa’s ex-husband Alex (Ana’s father) does for a living, but he makes enough money to give financial support to Ana and Teresa. During Ana’s stay in the hospital, Ana says to Teresa that Teresa should tell Alex that he needs to increase his child-support payments, now that Ana is about to become a mother who is still underage.

Despite their very different attitudes about their impending motherhoods, Ana and Janis become fast friends in the maternity ward. Their bond becomes stronger when they both end up giving birth to daughters on the same day. Ana names her daughter Anita. Ana is overwhelmed by being a new mother, but she loves Anita and wants to do what’s best for her. Janis is also a doting mother to Cecilia.

The friendship between Ana and Janis continues after they both leave the hospital. When Ana’s mother Teresa temporarily goes away because of a job in a play, she thinks it’s a good idea for Ana to stay with Janis, who has plenty of room in her home. Janis also has a comfortable living situation because she has a nanny and a housekeeper to help.

Janis and Ana become closer and eventually confide some secrets to each other. Ana, who is a self-admitted “wild child,” tells Janis how she really got pregnant. Janis tells Ana that Janis’ seemingly upstanding family has some shady history: Janis’ father was a Colombian drug dealer. As a sign that Ana wants to start a new life and possibly appear to be more mature, Ana cuts her hair short and dyes it gray.

Ana and Janis initially bond over being two mothers of two daughters who share the same birthday. Their friendship turns into a more intimate relationship when Janis and Ana become lovers while they live together. They do not put a label on their sexuality. Janis has told Ana about Arturo from the beginning. It should come as no surprise when Arturo seems to want to come back into Janis’ life, Ana gets very jealous.

But the real test of the relationship between Ana and Janis is when Janis finds out a shocking secret that she knows could very likely ruin her relationship with Ana if Janis tells Ana. Much of the suspense in “Parallel Mothers” is about whether or not Janis will tell anyone this secret. And if she does, what will happen?

During all of this drama, Janis still has not lost sight of looking for her great-grandfather’s grave. Janis learns more about her family history from her Aunt Brígida (played by Julieta Serrano), who keeps a lot of the family’s ancestral mementos and records. One of the most emotionally moving aspects of “Parallel Mothers” is showing how the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath resulted in thousands of missing people who were presumed murdered but whose families never got proper closure over these disappearances. These disappearances and the untold number of unmarked graves have left an immeasurably sad impact on families and on Spain as a country.

“Parallel Mothers” is not a political film that points fingers at the right-wing Nationalists who won the war, or at Francisco Franco’s regime that ruled Spain until Franco’s death in 1975. Instead, the movie brilliantly weaves the stories of Janis, Ana and Teresa together as examples of what can happen when dishonesty, love and pride have long-term effects on relationships. And what Almodóvar does so well, in very nuanced ways, is show that the “Parallel Mothers” is also about another mother—a mother country called Spain and the effects of dishonesty, love and pride on this mother.

All of the cast members do commendable jobs in their roles, but Cruz is a clear standout because of how authentically she expresses the range of emotions that her Janis character goes through in this story. Simply put: Cruz gives one of her best performances in “Parallel Mothers,” which has a knockout ending that will stay with viewers long after seeing the movie. Considering the movie’s subject matter and Janis’ secret, “Parallel Mothers” could have easily devolved into into a mawkish soap opera. But under Almodóvar’s artistic and thoughtful guidance, “Parallel Mothers” makes an impactful statement about trying to heal from emotional scars, whether they are from personal battles or national wars.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Parallel Mothers” in select U.S. cinemas on December 24, 2021.

Review: ‘The Sound of Identity,’ starring Lucia Lucas

December 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hidenouri Inoue and Lucia Lucas in “The Sound of Identity” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

“The Sound of Identity” 

Directed by James Kicklighter

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the documentary “The Sound of Identity” features a nearly all-white group of people (with one Asian person) discussing the life and career of Lucia Lucas, the first female baritone to perform a principal role on an American operatic stage.

Culture Clash: Lucas, who is a transgender woman, encounters obstacles and prejudice because of her transgender identity.

Culture Audience: “The Sound of Identity” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories of transgender people succeeding in traditionally conservative and elitist environments.

Lucia Lucas and Tobias Picker in “The Sound of Identity” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

You can count on one hand the number of female baritones who have been a principal cast member of a major operatic production. The revealing documentary “The Sound of Identity” tells the fascinating story of opera singer Lucia Lucas, the first female baritone to star in an American-produced opera. The fact that Lucas is a transgender woman makes her story even more unique and compelling.

Directed by James Kicklighter, “The Sound of Identity” follows a conventional format of interviews, archival footage and scenes that are exclusive to the documentary. Although Lucas talks about the part of her life before she began openly living as a transgender woman, the movie doesn’t dwell too much on her past. The focus on the movie is primarily on Lucas’ career as an opera singer.

Born in 1980, Lucas doesn’t talk too much about her childhood, except to say she still has emotional scars from her parents’ divorce. She half-jokingly says that one good thing that came out of her parents’ divorce was that her father gave her a Nintendo video game system because he felt bad about the divorce. Nintendo sparked an interest in playing video games that Lucas still has today.

Lucas, who is an only child from her parents’ broken marriage, says she still feels emotionally hurt by that her father, had a hard time accepting that she is transgender. Lucas is close to her mother, whom she describes as completely accepting of Lucas’ transgender identity. She and her mother speak frequently by phone, as shown in the documentary.

Lucas’ father, Jack Harbour, got remarried and gained a new family (including a stepson and stepdaughter) after the divorce. Lucas expresses some resentment that her father was more attentive to his younger children than he was to her. As soon as Lucas talks about her “daddy issues,” you just know there’s going to be a scene in the documentary where her father is going to see one of her performances. That scene happens toward the end of the film.

Lucas comments, “The worst time, absolutely, in my life was in junior high, because I felt like my body was betraying my mind.” The movie could have had more insight into how Lucas discovered her passion for opera and how she developed her craft when she was younger. And there isn’t much discussion about any particular performers had an influence on Lucas.

Despite some painful childhood memories, Lucas seems to be in a good place in her life. She’s happily married to her wife, Ariana Lucas, a former professional singer who stood by Lucas during her transgender transition. (Ariana is interviewed in the documentary.) The biggest challenge in the couple’s relationship is all the time that Lucia has to spend traveling because of her job. As Lucia says in the documentary: “Performing is not the job. The job is traveling all over the place and not getting sick.”

The portrait that emerges of Lucia is of someone is focused and determined to be the best opera singer that she can be. Her current performing home base is in Oklahoma, at the Tulsa Opera at the Tulsa Center for Performing Arts. The documentary chronicles Lucia’s journey as the star of the Tulsa Opera’s 2018 production of “Don Giovanni,” as a rare female singer to perform the opera’s title role.

Lucia says of the Tulsa Center for the Performing Arts: “This theater is sacred in a way.” She also comments on performing live: “There’s no substitute for it. [Performing virtually] is not going to make up for that energy when you are in person.” Lucia is also a Method actor, immersing herself into the role she has at the time, even when she’s not on stage.

But one of the challenges for this “Don Giovanni” production is selling tickets. As Tulsa Opera development associate Susan Stiff says in the documentary, the audience for opera is shrinking. The movie shows that Lucia is not a diva who thinks it’s beneath her to do grunt work tasks to sell tickets. In the documentary, she’s a tireless promoter: She doesn’t hesitate to handout promotional flyers for “Don Giovanni” and paying for the flyers herself. “I’ve been told it’s not my job to sell tickets,” Lucia says.

In her interactions with the public to convince random people to buy tickets to “Don Giovanni,” Lucia shows a natural curiosity and a flair for making an impression when she asks people what they think of a transgender woman starring in the show. She doesn’t convince everyone to buy tickets, but she seems to have opened up people’s minds a little bit to the idea that it’s not far-fetched for a well-known opera to gender swap in the character in the title role.

As for the idea of having a transgender woman in the role of Don Giovanni, Tulsa Opera general director/CEO Ken McConnell comments: “We’re not trying to make a political statement. We’re not trying to offend people.” Tulsa Opera artistic director/composer Tobias Picker adds: “It’s an added benefit that she’s trans. No trans singer has performed ‘Don Giovanni’ in the world.”

“Don Giovanni” director Denni Sayers comments, “It just shows that we’re not doing anything traditional here.” Later in the documentary, Sayers notes of having a transgender woman in the role of Don Giovanni: “We’re not saying that Don Giovanni is a transgender person. We’re saying that Don Giovanni is a master of disguise.”

As for how the public reacted to this unusual casting, “Don Giovanni” conductor Andres Cladera observes that the audience members seem to enjoy the singing, but they often have a hard time looking at Lucia. It’s no doubt because it’s difficult for some people to reconcile such a deep singing voice coming out of the mouth of a woman. Overall, the reaction to this version of “Don Giovanni” is very positive.

The documentary shows how Lucia and Picker have a close friendship not just because of their passion for opera but also because Picker is an openly gay man who is a tireless LGBTQ activist, just like Lucia is. Picker shares some of his personal story when he says that growing up gay and having Tourette Syndrome, “I felt like a freak.” Picker adds, “I am interested in helping people who are oppressed.”

The group of people interviewed for the documentary consists mostly of people directly involved in the “Don Giovanni” production. They include actor Hidenouri Inoue, who had the role of the Commendatore; actor Michael St. Peter, who had the role of Don Ottavio; actor Anthony Clark Evans, who had the role of Leporello; and Tulsa Opera vice chair Ronnie Jobe. Also interviewed are Lucia’s half-sister Kaitlin Schaars and Michael Cooper, who was theater editor for The New York Times at the time.

The documentary acknowledges that opera is not a genre of music that’s been embraced by popular culture. In North America and Europe, opera attracts people who are mostly affluent, mostly white and mostly over the age of 40. It’s briefly mentioned that the Tulsa Opera board of directors has struggled with its lack of racial diversity.

The board also has issues with attracting young people to become loyal opera audience members, because younger generations are needed to economically sustain the business over time when older people eventually pass away. It’s not said outright, but Lucia’s groundbreaking role in opera is a sign that opera institutions (at least in Tulsa and some other places) are open to progressive and open-minded casting decisions. It’s not just for idealistic reasons, but there are financial reasons too: Lucia’s starring role in “Don Giovanni” got a lot of publicity that helped sell tickets.

“The Sound of Identity” is a fairly straightforward and briskly paced film that doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. It presents Lucia mostly as a performer but doesn’t dig too deep into her entire personal history. It’s not a comprehensive biography, which might disappoint some viewers.

Instead, “The Sound of Identity” is more of a capably made snapshot of what she was like while preparing for and performing a pivotal opera in her career. The performance scenes are expected highlights of the documentary. And thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t overstuff the movie with too many talking heads.

If there’s any big takeaway from the movie it’s that true happiness starts with being true to yourself. “I make art for me,” Lucia says of her philosophy on being an artist. “Your art has to be for you. You can’t make other people like you. You can’t live your life for other people. I tried that. It didn’t work.”

Shout! Studios released “The Sound of Identity” on digital and VOD on June 1, 2021. Starz premiered the movie on June 21, 2021.

Review: ‘Flee,’ starring Amin Nawabi

December 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Amin Nawabi in “Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

“Flee”

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

In Danish, Dari and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Afghanistan, Denmark, Russia, Estonia and Sweden, the animated documentary “Flee” features a group of Middle Eastern people and white European people (in animated form) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A real-life Afghan man, who happens to be gay and living in Denmark, tells the harrowing story of what he and his family have experienced as refugees. 

Culture Audience: “Flee” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional and emotionally impactful movies about the Afghan refugee crisis.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen and Amin Nawabi in “Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

There have been many documentaries and news reports about the devastating traumas experienced by Afghan refugees and other people affected by war and political unrest in Afghanistan. But “Flee” is perhaps one of the most unforgettable and emotionally moving accounts that someone can see in a movie. At first glance, it might seem that telling this story in the format of an animated movie might lessen the impact, but it does not. In many ways, it increases the impact because animation can do things that actors and real-life locations cannot do in a recreation. Animation can add visuals to enhance the tone and meaning of the storytelling.

“Flee” (directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen) uses a real-life audio interview of a Syrian refugee named Amin Nawabi (which is an alias) telling his life story, and the movie recreates what he says through animation. Based on what he says in the interview, Nawabi was born in the early 1980s. He did not want to appear on camera for the documentary, and he did not want to use his real name, out of lingering fear that he and his family members would be targeted for persecution. And so, Rasmussen suggested that the story be told through animation.

“Flee” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize. The movie also made the rounds at several other international film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Flee” has gotten overwhelmingly positive responses at every film festival where it has been. It’s the type of movie that audiences will most likely discover through recommendations, rather than through a flashy marketing campaign.

At the time of the documentary interviews for “Flee,” Nawabi (who is openly gay) was living in Demark’s capital city of Copenhagen and was engaged to marry his Danish boyfriend Kasper, who is occasionally heard in parts of the movie. Nawabi and Kasper were also looking for a new place to live in Copenhagen. The movie includes Nawabi’s account of his “coming out” journey as a gay man in environments where homophobia is rampant and often sanctioned by the government.

Rasmussen has known Nawabi since they were teenagers who went to the same high school. They met when Rasmussen was 15, and Nawabi was living in a foster home in “my sleepy Danish hometown,” according the Rasmussen’s director’s statement in the production notes for “Flee.” Rasmussen can be heard asking some questions in “Flee” during the interview process.

The rest of the voices in the movie are actors portraying the people who are talked about in Nawabi’s narration. Other names have been changed to protect people’s privacy and identities. All of this is explained in the beginning of the movie, so that audiences know that although the names have been changed, and actors are providing most of the voices, it’s a true story based on a real person’s narrative account.

“Flee” begins with Rasmussen asking Nawabi: “What does ‘home’ mean to you?” Nawabi answers, “Home? It’s someplace safe. Somewhere you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on. It’s not someplace temporary.” It’s that feeling of permanent safety that Nawabi says he has been seeking for most of his life so far.

Nawabi begins by talking about his earliest childhood memories when he was living in Kabul, Afghanistan. He describes being the youngest child in his family and being raised by a loving and attentive mother. His older siblings are brothers Saif and Abbas and sisters Fahima and Sabia. Amin remembers that, as early as 3 or 4 years old, he would wear his sisters’ nightgowns in public. “I think I always had a tendency to be a little bit different,” Amin says.

In “Flee,” the voice actors that portray the family members are Daniel Karimyar (the voice of Amin, ages 9 to 11); Fardin Mijdzadeh (the voice of Amin, ages 15 to 18); Milad Eskandari (the voice of Saif, at age 8); Elaha Faiz (the voice of Fahima, ages 13 to 18); Zahra Mehrwaz (the voice of Fahima, at age 28); and Sadia Faiz (the voice of Sabia, ages 16 to 26). Many of the voice actors in the cast are listed as “Anonymous” in the end credits. It’s probably an indication that they also fear retribution for being involved in telling this story.

Amin’s father Akhtar Nawabi was a pilot, but he died tragically. He was killed because he was considered to be a threat to the Communist government, according to Amin. He also says that his mother told him that Ahktar was one of 3,000 people who were rounded up in a day raid and imprisoned. Most of the people didn’t make it out alive from their imprisonment.

According to what Amin’s mother told him, Akhtar was expecting this raid. Akhtar’s family was able to visit him in jail. But then, three months later, he disappeared and was never seen alive again. The family’s life was never the same. And things continued to get worse for them.

“Flee” intersperses the animation with occasional real-life archival footage of news events going on during the times that are described by Amin in his story, which is told in chronological order. There’s disturbing footage of the Taliban invading villages in Afghanistan. There’s also footage of then-Afghanistan president Mohamad Najibullah saying that Afghanistan could be the U.S.’s next Vietnam if the U.S. chooses to interfere in the conflict. (Najibullah was assassinated in 1996.)

Under all of this chaos and strife, Amin and his mother were forced to separate from the rest of the family, and they both fled to Moscow together in the early 1990s. The rest of Amin’s story is a painful and horrifying account of long family separations; living in poverty; and being detained, shunned or incarcerated for being refugees. Amin also details Abbas’ struggles to earn enough money to pay for human traffickers to smuggle family members over certain borders, with the hope of having everyone reunited. Fahima and Sabia experienced nightmarish abuse from evil and corrupt human traffickers.

The Nawabi family’s journey separates them and takes them down different paths in various countries, such as Russia, Estonia, Sweden and Denmark. There’s a part of the story where Amin confesses that in order to get through certain national borders, he had to lie and say that all of his immediate family members are dead. He fears that this lie will come back to haunt him and might affect his current immigration status.

Although this story is told primarily in an animation format, there’s no mistaking the real rollercoaster of emotions that can be heard in Amin’s voice when he tells the story. The wonderfully expressive animation also conveys the emotions of the characters. The voice actors also do an admirable job in their roles.

At times, the interview setting is recreated, as Amin is shown being so overwhelmed when telling his story, he has to lie down on a carpet at some point, just like a therapy patient lying down on a couch during a therapy session. Because make no mistake: The interview does start to be like a therapy session, with a lot of raw emotions and excruciating memories.

Although there’s so much sadness in Amin’s personal story, there is also some joy. His experiences with coming out as gay weren’t easy, but he describes finding acceptance about his sexuality in some unexpected places. Amin says he knew he was gay since he was about 5 or 6 years old. One of his earliest celebrity crushes was actor Jean-Claude Van Damme.

One of the funniest parts of the movie is how Amin describes his family’s surprising reaction when he told them that he’s gay. He also talks about what it was like to live in a country for the first time where he didn’t have to worry about being arrested for being gay. And, of course, Amin finding true love with Kasper is an indication that this documentary is not completely depressing.

Like all relationships, there are some challenges in Amin and Kasper’s romance. During the making of this documentary, Amin (who is highly educated) was invited by a Princeton University professor to complete Amin’s post-doctoral studies at Princeton. Therefore, Amin and Kasper had to have a long-distance relationship for a while. It took a toll on their romance, and it tested the strength of their commitment to each other.

“Flee” is not the most technically dazzling animated movie you’ll ever see. The movie is not a fun-filled adventure, like most animated films are. However, “Flee” is one of the best animated films you’ll ever see, because the true story behind it is so powerfully moving, it will have an impact on you that you will never forget.

Neon released “Flee” in select U.S. cinemas on December 3, 2021.

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