Review: ‘IF’ (2024), starring Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, John Krasinski and the voices of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Louis Gossett Jr. and Steve Carell

May 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Cailey Fleming and Blue (voiced by Steve Carell) in “IF” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“IF” (2024)

Directed by John Krasinski

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the live-action/animated film “IF” features a cast of characters that are humans and imaginary creatures.

Culture Clash: A lonely 12-year-old girl interacts with imaginary beings and agrees to help them find matches with the right people who need imaginary friends. 

Culture Audience: “IF” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and filmmaker John Krasinski, but this poorly paced and unfocused movie might bore many of the people in the intended audience.

Ryan Reynolds and Cailey Fleming in “IF” (Photo by Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures)

Although it’s sweet-natured and trying to have the same impact as the “Toy Story” movies, the live-action/animated film “IF” has an unfocused and messy plot about childhood nostalgia, with underdeveloped characters. This uneven mushfest takes too long to get to the story’s purpose. And the last 30 minutes of “IF” are nothing but blatant emotional manipulation intended to make viewers cry in a way that doesn’t feel earned, considering the shallow depictions of most of the movie’s characters.

Written and directed by John Krasinski (who is also one of the movie’s producers), “IF” begins with voiceover narration from a 12-year-old girl named Bea (played by Cailey Fleming), who says, “I remember my mom always wanted to tell me a story. It wasn’t until much later, I realized the stories she wanted me to tell had nothing to do with me at all … The most important stories are the ones we tell ourselves.” (It’s mentioned later in the movie that Bea’s real name is Elizabeth, and her mother gave her the nickname Bea.)

Throughout the movie, several flashbacks are shown as clips from videos of happier times in Bea’s family. Her father has kept many of these videos on an old video camera that Bea finds in a closet at her paternal grandmother’s home. Bea is the only child of an unnamed father (played by Krasinski) and unnamed mother (played by Catherine Daddario), who both have unnamed health issues. The video flashbacks show Bea at ages 3 and 5 (played by Audrey Hoffman) and her parents having a close and loving relationship. Videos of a family trip to New York City’s Coney Island are significant to the story.

In the beginning of the movie, Bea has arrived with some of her luggage at the New York City home of her unnamed British grandmother (played by Fiona Shaw), who is the mother of Bea’s father. Bea’s mother died of an unnamed illness, presumably cancer, because the flashbacks hint that Bea’s mother lost her hair in chemotherapy. The movie never says when Bea’s mother died, but it seems like it was about seven years ago, because Bea is 5 years old or younger in all the family photos and videos with Bea’s mother.

Bea will be staying with her grandmother because Bea’s father has to check into a nearby hospital to have surgery for an unnamed reason. When Bea arrives, the grandmother mentions that she hasn’t seen Bea in years, when Bea was a lot younger and smaller. The grandmother is very surprised to see how much Bea has grown. Bea also looks uncomfortable when she arrives, as if she’s staying in a stranger’s home. In this day and age when family members can easily share photos and videos, the movie gives no explanation for why Bea’s grandmother has gone years without seeing what Bea currently looks like until Bea shows up at the grandmother’s home.

Bea’s father tries to assure Bea that the reason for his surgery is not for a terminal illness. Bea inexplicably doesn’t ask for details on why her father needs this surgery. Viewers can assume it’s because Bea is afraid to know what her father’s medical issues are because of how her mother died. Those are details that the movie refuses to address because “IF” wants to focus on having a slew of animated characters that can be turned into toys and other merchandise to sell in the real world.

Bea spends a lot of time by herself or without adult supervision. There’s no mention of her being in school, so viewers will have to assume she’s on a break from school when this story takes place. Bea is friendly, talkative and intelligent, but she has no friends, for reasons that are never explained in the movie. The adults in her life seem too self-absorbed to care that Bea doesn’t have a social life.

“IF” shows that when Bea was younger, she used to draw an unnamed imaginary character with a big smiley face. Bea’s father tries to recreate that character by putting some craft designs on an IV drip irrigation tower in his hospital room. Bea tells her father that she’s outgrown this imaginary character by saying, “Dad, you really don’t have to do this.” He says, “What?” She replies, “Treat me like a kid.” (Someone needs to tell Bea that she really is still a kid.)

The imaginary characters in Bea’s world don’t appear to her right away. Glimpses of them are shown as they furtively seem to be watching her in the background and then quickly run away if they think she will see them. It’s stalking, but the movie wants people to think this stalking is adorable. It’s not. It’s just an example of how the movie drags out how long it takes for Bea to finally talk to these characters for the first time.

One of the first places that the imaginary characters are seen stalking Bea is at the hospital where Bea’s father is staying. One day, Bea is walking in a hospital hallway with a bouquet of flowers that she’s bringing to her father. A boy named Benjamin (played by Alan Kim), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, is bedridden (with a cast on his right leg) in a nearby room and calls out to Bea to ask her if the flowers are for him.

Benjamin is joking, of course, and he introduces himself to Bea, who tells him the flowers are for her father. Bea and Benjamin have a short conversation. There are a few more scenes in the movie that repeat this scenario. Bea and Benjamin develop a casual acquaintance, not a real friendship. Bea having a real and meaningful friendship with another human being is something that the movie could have explored but does not. Instead, “IF” has an irresponsible message that Bea is better off interacting with imaginary characters.

Each imaginary character in the movie is an imaginary friend (IF) of a human, but an IF can get discarded when a human does not need the IF anymore. In the movie, no longer needing an IF is portrayed as a human reaching emotional maturity but losing a sense of childlike imagination and hope. Many IFs are wandering around in search of another human who will take them as an imaginary friend.

The three main IFs in the movie are these such wandering IFs in search of human companionship and want to match IFs with human children. They are a wisecracking man named Calvin, nicknamed Cal (played by Ryan Reynolds); a giant purple furry creature named Blue (voiced by Steve Carell), who is goofy, clumsy and amiable; and a walking bee named Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who wears a ballerina tutu and has the voice and personality of a polite British nanny. Blue got his name because he was created by a color-blind human boy.

Cal is the leader, while Blue and Blossom are his sidekicks. Cal, Blue and Blossom are first seen trying to do a “friendship match” with an unnamed, sleeping 7-year-old girl (played by Sa’Raya Paris Johnson) in her bedroom. Needless to say, this endeavor is a disaster and leaves the girl’s room in a terrible mess, with the girl frightened and confused about what just happened. Don’t expect to learn anything about this girl. She’s never seen again in the movie.

At separate times, Bea meets Cal, Blue and Blossom, who all live in an abandoned apartment that’s being used as someone’s storage room. Bea faints from fear the first time that Bea sees Blossom. Eventually, Cal explains to Bea that Cal, Blue and Blossom are abandoned IFs who are on a mission to be matchmakers for kids who need imaginary friends. Cal asks Bea to help them with this mission about 45 minutes into this 104-minute movie. That part of the plot should’ve happened a lot sooner and would’ve helped this frequently sluggish movie pick up its pace.

Cal, Blue and Blossom have a close friend named Lewis (voiced by Louis Gossett Jr.), a teddy bear who looks very cuddly but has a personality that is very bland. (During the movie’s end credits, there’s a brief “in memory” tribute to Gossett, who died on March 29, 2024.) Ask anyone who’s seen “IF” if Lewis was a necessary character, and most people will say, “No.”

As for the human characters, “IF” has a very questionable and outdated racial depiction of New York City. In real life, the 2020 U.S. Census reports that in New York City, white people are the minority (31%), and people of color are the majority (69%). The few human adults of color in the movie are characters with small, subservient roles. Two examples are Liza Colón-Zayas (who plays a hospital nurse named Janet) and LaQuet Sharnell Pringle, who has the role of an unnamed receptionist.

“IF” introduces numerous other imaginary friend characters voiced by an all-star cast, but most of these animated characters have cameo roles and are not essential parts of the main story. It just seems like the “IF” filmmakers’ way of showing that they could get several big celebrity names in these cameo roles. In other words, it’s all shallow stunt casting. It’s like “IF” is trying to be like a “Toy Story” movie, but without the memorable characters.

These fleeting characters are Unicorn (voiced by Emily Blunt); Bubble (voiced by Awkwafina); Ice (voiced by Bradley Cooper); Guardian Dog (voiced by Sam Rockwell); Flower (voiced by Matt Damon); Banana (voiced by Bill Hader); Robot (voiced by Jon Stewart); Alligator voiced by Maya Rudolph); Magician Mouse (voiced by Sebastian Maniscalco); Cosmo (voiced by Christopher Meloni); Slime (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key); Ghost (voiced by Matthew Rhys); and Gummy Bear (voiced by Amy Schumer). Brad Pitt has a voice role as a character named Keith. All of these characters are gimmicky and are just there to crack a few jokes instead of making meaningful contributions to the story.

“IF” has a flashback of Bea as a younger child doing karaoke and dressed as a mid-1980s Tina Turner while singing Turner’s hit “Better Be Good to Me.” This leads to an awkward sequence where 12-year-old Bea, Cal (in a 1980s mullet and leather jacket) and various characters imagine themselves on stage with Turner while Turner performs the song. Through visual effects, parts of the real “Better Be Good to Me” music video are used in this sequence, with Cal filling in for Cy Curnin (lead singer of The Fixx), who appears in the real music video for “Better Be Good to Me.”

It leads to a question that many “IF” viewers will ask themselves: What kind of audience does “IF” really want? On the surface, it seems like a movie aimed at kids under the age of 13, but as the movie goes on, it becomes obvious that it’s really for people who are old enough to know that “Better Be Good to Me” was a hit video on MTV, back in the days when MTV played a lot of music videos. Why else would this misguided film turn into such a sappy mess about adults reminiscing about their childhood imaginary friends?

“IF” really loses its way when the mission of matchmaking IFs with new kids gets sidelined, and the movie becomes about people being reunited with the IFs they thought they outgrew. There’s a nervous businessman named Jeremy (played by Bobby Moniyahan), who suddenly shows up in the movie with absolutely no backstory or purpose, except to provide a contrived cornball moment that involves Bea following him to a corporate office where Jeremy is about to give an important presentation.

As the character of Bea, Fleming does an admirable job of conveying several emotions. It’s too bad that Bea and the rest of the characters in the film aren’t very interesting. Reynolds is just doing the same type of character he does in most of his movies: sarcastic and jaded, but capable of being a nice guy under certain circumstances. Shaw has a few moments to shine, but her grandmother character is just too absent and too vague to be taken seriously as someone who could have a positive impact on Bea’s life. All of the other performances in “IF” are serviceable and quite generic.

One of the most noticeable problems with “IF” is that it sends a dubious message that it’s okay for people to spend more time with imaginary friends than real friends. Death and medical issues are presented as the main reasons for Bea’s family problems and her sad loneliness. But “IF” refuses to realistically address those problems. Instead, the movie seems more concerned about showing a parade of cute and quirky imaginary characters that can distract Bea from those problems. It’s a very unhealthy way of coping with grief.

The adults in Bea’s life ultimately fail Bea by never talking to Bea about her grief and obvious loneliness. Her grandmother rarely interacts with Bea and only seems to show a personality when the grandmother reminisces about being a child ballet dancer and bemoans that people don’t want to see old women dance. It leads to a very corny scene where the grandmother hears a song from her ballet dancer days, and the grandmother doesn’t really dance, but she just waves her arms like she’s in a nostalgia trance.

“IF” revolves around the flimsy and immature concept that having an imaginary, wisecracking friend should be the gateway to healing over the loss of a loved one. “IF” did not have to be an emotionally heavy drama in order to address issues of human suffering, but one of the movie’s biggest flaws is the movie’s refusal to properly address a child’s grief. “IF” is a family-oriented movie, but the sentimental themes in this film seem geared more to adults who want to reminisce about their childhoods, rather than being geared to kids who want to see a magical movie about imaginary friends. “IF” just has too many unanswered questions about Bea and her family, who should be the emotional center of the story, but instead are just emotionally stunted due to a very flawed screenplay and mishandled direction.

Paramount Pictures will release “IF” in U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024.

Review: ‘Drive-Away Dolls,’ starring Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp and Matt Damon

February 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in “Drive-Away Dolls” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features)

“Drive-Away Dolls”

Directed by Ethan Coen

Culture Representation: Taking place in December 1999, in various states on the East Coast of the United States, the comedy film “Drive-Away Dolls” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two lesbian best friends go on a road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee, Florida, and find out that they are being chased by criminals who want some things that are in the two friends’ rental car. 

Culture Audience: “Drive-Away Dolls” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Ethan Coen and comedies about road trips or lesbians.

Colman Domingo, C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick in “Drive-Away Dolls” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features)

Neither terrible nor great, “Drive-Away Dolls” can have some appeal to viewers who are open to raunchy road-trip comedies that have lesbians as the central characters. The wacky tone is off-kilter, but the dialogue and characters are snappy and memorable. The “Drive-Away Dolls” filmmakers have said that it’s intended to be a B-movie (in other words, kind of trashy and kind of goofy), so people won’t have any expectations that “Drive-Away Dolls” is aspiring to be award-winning art.

Directed by Ethan Coen, “Drive-Away Dolls” is his first movie as a solo director since he ended his filmmaking partnership with his older brother Joel Coen. Together, the Coen Brothers’ specialty was making often-violent movies about offbeat characters, with their most-lauded achievement being the 2007 Oscar-winning drama “No Country for Old Men.” Other well-known movies in the Coen Brothers’ filmography include 1996’s crime drama “Fargo,” 1998’s stoner comedy “The Big Lebowski,” 2000’s prisoner escapee thriller “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” and the 2010 remake of the Western “True Grit.”

“Drive-Away Dolls” isn’t nearly as good as the above-named films, but it does have some quirky charm. (The word “quirky” is an over-used description for a Coen movie simply because it describes so many Coen movies.) The trick is how in how much quirkiness can be put into a movie before it becomes very irritating. “Drive-Away Dolls” comes dangerously close to being a constant barrage of quirkiness for the sake of trying to look unconventional. However, the movie takes a turn toward the end that is very conventional, so don’t expect any major plot twists.

Ethan Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke co-wrote the “Drive-Away Dolls” screenplay and are two of the movie’s producers. Cooke identifies as openly queer (as she says in the movie’s production notes and in many interviews), but the movie sometimes looks like it’s treating its lesbian characters (who are all young, under the age of 30) as caricatures. How would “Drive-Away Dolls” be if it had been written by young lesbians instead of a middle-aged husband and wife? We’ll never know, but some of the scenes with sexual activities just seem to be in the movie in a self-conscious way, as if to say: “Look at how progressive we are with these lesbian scenes.”

The racy sexual content can’t quite cover up the obvious: “Drive-Away Dolls” is essentially using the same formula that many road-trip movies have with two people as the central characters: The two people, who usually have opposite personalities, bicker with each other and bond with each other, as they face various obstacles on the way to their destination. If there’s a possibility of romance between the two people, one of the people in this relationship denies or resists the attraction.

In “Drive-Away Dolls,” the two argumentative travel partners are lesbian best friends in Philadelphia—brash and horny Jamie Dobbs (played by Margaret Qualley) and uptight and prudish Marian Pulabi (played by Geraldine Viswanathan)—who go on a road trip together to visit Marian’s aunt in Tallahassee, Florida. Jamie wasn’t officially invited by this aunt, but Jamie persuaded Marian to let Jamie go on this trip. Marian tries to dissuade Jamie from going by saying the visit will probably be boring because Marian’s aunt is a birder who is very conservative. Viewers soon learn that once Jamie has put her mind to getting something, she goes after it with gusto.

Jamie is what some people might call a “sexual free spirit” and what other people might call “promiscuous.” It’s the reason why Jamie’s most recent heartbroken girlfriend Suzanne “Sukie” Singelman, a Philadelphia police officer, has broken up with live-in lover Jamie, who admittedly has a hard time with being monogamous. Early on in the movie is a sex scene between Jamie and a woman named Carla (played by Annie Gonzalez) that has partial nudity but leaves very little doubt about what’s going on in the bed.

Jamie is so well-known at a local lesbian nightclub called Sugar’n’Spice, there’s a scene where she gets in front of a cheering audience to show off some souvenirs of her sexual exploits. Also in the crowd are Marian and Carla, who mildly scolds Marian for being at the club in a business suit. Marian’s excuse is that she just came from her office job and she’s not interested in “peddling her wares” at this pickup joint. Meanwhile, Sukie is so incensed at Jamie’s bragging antics on stage, Sukie storms up to Jamie and punches her.

Sukie has ordered Jamie to move out of the apartment. When Jamie arrives with Marian to pick up Jamie’s belongings, Sukie is trying to unfasten the bolts of a dildo that has been bolted to the lower half of a wall. This sex toy was a gift from Jamie, but Sukie angrily says that she doesn’t want it anymore. It’s intended to be a funny scene in “Drive-Away Dolls,” but if this type of thing doesn’t make you laugh, then “Drive-Away Dolls” is not the movie for you.

Sukie and Jamie also have a pet Chihuahua named Alice that Sukie doesn’t like, but Jamie is reluctant to take the dog because Jamie knows how irresponsible Jamie is. This dog isn’t used for a comedy gimmick as much as you might think it could be. Feeling some break-up blues, Jamie convinces Marian to let Jamie go on this road trip with Marian to Tallahassee.

The very first scene of “Drive-Away Dolls” shows something that is the catalyst for the danger that Jamie and Marian encounter on this trip. A man calling himself Santos (played by Pedro Pascal), but who is listed in the movie’s end credits as The Collector, is sitting by himself at a darkly lit Italian restaurant called Cicero’s and is waiting nervously for someone who doesn’t show up. Santos is clutching a silver metal briefcase. As he leaves the restaurant, he finds out too late that his waiter (played by Gordon MacDonald) was really an assassin, who followed Santos into an alley and killed him in a very gruesome way.

What happened to Santos’ body and the briefcase? And what’s in that briefcase? Those questions are answered in the movie. It’s enough to say that Marian and Jamie go to a car rental place owned by a shifty-looking man named Curlie (played by Bill Camp), who hears that the two women are going to Tallahassee. Curlie knows exactly what car he’s going to give them: an aquamarine blue Dodge Aries.

Not long after Marian and Jamie drive off, three criminals show up expecting to rent this Dodge Aries, and “Tallahassee” was their code word to get the car. There are certain things in the car’s trunk that these thugs want. After Curlie tells them all he knows about the travelers who rented the car, Curlie gets savagely assaulted for the mistake of renting the car to these unsuspecting women.

The three criminals who are on the hunt for Jamie and Marian are a cold and calculating killer called The Chief (played by Colman Domingo), an impatient hothead named Flint (played by C.J. Wilson) and a dorky henchman named Arliss (played by Joey Slotnick), who all work for a mysterious boss who is later revealed in the movie. The Chief, Flint and Arliss start their chase by going to the apartment of Sukie, who was listed as the emergency contact person for Jamie and Marian’s car rental.

“Drive-Away Dolls” stretches out the “opposites attract” schtick between Marian and Jamie for as far as it can go. Marian is horrified when Jamie immediately defaces the car with this graffiti message on the trunk: “Love is a sleigh ride to hell.” Jamie is horrified when Marian admits that she’s been celibate for three years, ever since Marian’s breakup from her ex-girlfriend Donna. During their road trip, Jamie wants to have fun at lesbian bars and pick up sex partners, while Marian would rather sit in bed at night and read a book. The movie makes a big deal out of the fact that Marian is reading Henry James’ “The Europeans” during this trip.

“Drive-Away Dolls” also has psychedelic-looking interludes that feature brief, uncredited appearances by Miley Cyrus as a hippie woman from the 1960s. Her character’s name is later revealed in the movie. The name has a connection to a famous real-life 1960s groupie who died in 2022. If you watch all of the movie’s end credits, you’ll see a caption that shows “Drive-Away Dolls” is dedicated to this real-life groupie.

Fans of Matt Damon (who plays a politically conservative U.S. senator from Florida named Gary Channel) and fans of Pascal should know that the screen time for Pascal and Damon in “Drive-Away Dolls” is limited to less than 10 minutes each, even though Pascal and Damon share top billing in the movie. It’s a “bait and switch” that will turn off some viewers who might be fooled into thinking that Pascal and Damon have a lot of screen time in the movie.

“Drive-Away Dolls” has fun with being campy, but some scenes are kind of useless. For example, Jamie and Marian encounter a traveling all-female soccer team whose members look like they’re in their late teens. Jamie and Marian end up in a hotel room with the team and their young coach, while they all take turns making out with each other.

Everyone on the soccer team is queer? Really? It looks so unrealistic and gratutitous, just for the sake of having a scene showing young women making out with each other in the same room. And what happened to Marian being so uptight? (She’s not drunk in this scene, so intoxication isn’t an excuse.) This is the type of scene that could have been edited out of the movie, and it would have made no difference to the overall story.

Qualley’s acting in “Drive-Away Dolls” looks like she’s trying to mimic the blunt-talking, verbose style of Mattie Ross, the precocious teen character played by Hailee Steinfeld in 2010’s “True Grit.” There’s a clipped, galloping pace to the way they talk that is not unlike the pace of a Kentucky Derby race horse and comes complete with a Southern twang. Jamie is originally from Texas, but her thick Southern accent (which doesn’t sound completely convincing in Qualley’s performance) and Jamie’s personal history with the South aren’t fully explained, considering that the movie makes insulting comments about Florida.

Qualley looks like she’s trying too hard to be funny as Jamie, while Viswanathan has a more naturalistic (and better) comedic style as Marian, who can say more with a few cynical eye rolls than Jamie can say with any of her motormouth rambling. Jamie’s dialogue can be hilarious at times, but it’s very stagy, much like a lot of the comedy in “Drive-Away Dolls.” All the movie’s supporting characters are not developed enough to have full personalities. Just like a slightly rusty car, “Drive-Away Dolls” is a comedy that spurts and lurches and takes a while to rev up, but it eventually can take you on a path that goes where it’s expected to go.

Focus Features released “Drive-Away Dolls” in U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on March 12, 2024. “Drive-Away Dolls” will be released on Peaock on April 12, 2024, and on Blu-ray on April 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Oppenheimer’ (2023), starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek and Kenneth Branagh

July 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Benny Safdie and Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer” (Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures)

“Oppenheimer” (2023)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and in Europe, from the late 1920s to the late 1960s, the dramatic film “Oppenheimer” (based on the non-fiction book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”) features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer invents the atomic bomb, which is used in Japan toward the end of World War II, but he struggles with the moral consequences of this invention.

Culture Audience: “Oppenheimer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the star headliners and history-based movies with a top-notch principal cast.

Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer” (Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures)

“Oppenheimer” has the words “awards bait” written all over it. This epic drama about atomic bomb inventor J. Robert Oppenheimer is crammed with showy performances from an all-star cast. The last third of the movie is the best and most meaningful section.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer” is based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 non-fiction book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Oppenheimer was born in 1904 and died in 1967. This three-hour movie has a story that spans from the late 1920s to the late 1960s, with most of the story taking place in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a very ambitious film that at times seems more interested in showing off how many famous cast members can be stuffed into quick-cutting scenes. The middle part of the movie tends to drag with some repetition, but the movie’s last hour is absolutely riveting.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, also known as Robert (played by Cillian Murphy, giving an award-worthy performance), is an intense and quietly brooding American theoretical physicist who is originally from New York, but he did his most significant work in remote areas of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was tested. The top-secret research into making the atomic bomb was called the Manhattan Project. The movie shows that Robert had mixed feelings about this invention, even before it was actually built. He also worried about how this bomb could possibly start a competition among other countries (specifically, Russia, then known as the Soviet Union) to make an even more destructive bomb.

The first hour of “Oppenheimer” cuts in and out of scenes so quickly, it does a disservice to the story by preventing viewers from getting to know the main characters better. After a while, the movie’s first hour just becomes a parade of big-name actors portraying scientists and government officials who have various debates about the merits and morality of the atomic bomb. It all becomes a bit long-winded, although the visuals in the movie are often stunning. Also noteworthy is composer Ludwig Göransson’s stirring “Oppenheimer” musical score.

There are repetitive mentions of Robert always feeling like the white Anglos who dominate the U.S. government will never truly accept him because he’s Jewish. There’s some antisemitism depicted in the movie, but the biggest prejudices in “Oppenheimer” have to do with political alliances. The movie’s story is steeped in people’s obsession with finding out who’s a Communist (or Communist ally) and who is not. This “Red Scare” would eventually be the undoing of more than one person in the story.

The other real-life people portrayed in “Oppenheimer” include Leslie Groves Jr. (played by Matt Damon), the politically conservative officer of the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers and director of the Manhattan Project; Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.), the founding commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission); and physicist Ernest Lawrence (played by Josh Hartnett), the extroverted inventor of the cyclotron, who befriends the more introverted Robert. Other real-life historical figures portrayed in “Oppenheimer” include Danish physicist Niels Bohr (played by Kenneth Branagh), a mutual admirer of Robert; hydrogen bomb inventor Edward Teller (played by Benny Safdie), an uneasy subordinate of Robert; and physicist Frank Oppenheimer (played by Dylan Arnold), Robert’s younger brother, who was recruited by Robert to work on the Manhattan Project.

And there’s more: Hans Bethe (played by Gustaf Skarsgård), the leader of the Manhattan Project’s theorist department; physicist/chemist Isidor Rabi (played by David Krumholtz), Robert’s longtime friend/advisor; Vannevar Bush (played by Matthew Modine), the leader of the Office of Scientific Research and Development; William Borden (played by David Dastmalchian), executive director of the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy; and world-renowned scientist Albert Einstein (played by Tom Conti), who has a few contrived-looking scenes where he has private conversations with Robert.

And there’s even more: Jason Clarke as Roger Robb, special counsel to the Atomic Energy Commission; Macon Blair as Lloyd Garrison, Robert’s attorney; Rami Malek as physicist David Hill; Alden Ehrenreich as an unnamed U.S. Senate aide who works with Lewis Strauss; Casey Affleck as U.S. Army military intelligence officer Boris Pash; Dane DeHaan as civil engineer Kenneth Nichols. Also in the “Oppenheimer” cast are Tony Goldwyn as national security/defense government official Gordon Gray; Jack Quaid as physicist Richard Geynman; Josh Peck as physicist Kenneth Bainbridge; Alex Wolff as physicist Luiz Alvarez; and James Remar as U.S. government official Henry Stimson. Even with a cast packed with well-known actors, most of the supporting actors who are in the movie for less than 10 minutes each don’t have much to do but say their lines while sitting or standing in offices.

One of the best scenes in the movie is when Robert has a tension-filled meeting in 1945, with U.S. president Harry Truman (played Gary Oldman), who dismisses Robert’s concerns about the atomic bomb being a trigger for other countries, such as the Soviet Union, to get into an arms race to build an even more destructive bomb. The scene is less than 15 minutes long, but Oldman absolutely stands out as tough-talking President Truman, who has no regrets about deciding to drop the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that year. President Truman scolds Robert by saying: “Do you think Hiroshima and Nagasaki care who invented the bomb? They care about who dropped it. I did!”

The only two women with prominent speaking roles in the movie are mainly there as love interests to the male protagonist, even though these women have their own careers. Florence Pugh plays a commitment-phobic, Stanford-educated psychiatrist named Jean Tatlock, who has a fling with Robert around the same time that he meets his future wife Katherine, nicknamed Kitty (played by Emily Blunt), who is an outspoken botanist/biologist. Robert was Kitty’s fourth husband.

Both women are portrayed as being “difficult” for Robert, who’s depicted as the “long-suffering” person who has to deal with these strong-willed and opinionated women. Robert is portrayed as a “romantic” who just can’t help falling for women who might be wrong for him. “Oppenheimer” absolutely excuses his affairs with married women, including Kitty, whom he got pregnant when she was married to her third husband. Robert’s responsibility in this homewrecking infidelity is glossed over in the movie with a “wink, wink, nudge nudge/boys will be boys” attitude, while Kitty gets the most of the shaming.

As was the case with many wives in the 1940s and 1950s, Kitty (who came from an affluent family) had to make her career take a back seat to her husband’s career while she was the primary caretaker of their two children: son Peter and daughter Toni. Kitty is very unhappy in New Mexico. Her mental health starts to deteriorate, and she has some addiction issues.

Despite her personal challenges, Kitty maintains a defiant nature. Kitty encourages Robert to stand up for himself when he becomes the target of a smear campaign by former ally Lewis Strauss, who spreads lies that Robert is a secret Communist who might have been a spy for the Russian government. Blunt gives a compelling performance that has a little more depth than the typical “loyal wife of the main character.” Downey has his moments to shine as the sneaky and duplicitous Lewis, but Downey performs in “Oppenheimer” like he’s trying too hard to win an Oscar.

“Oppenheimer” is a very “male gaze” movie that wallows in showing a lot of men in ego rivalries and power struggles, while all the women react to whatever the men do. Pugh being topless in her sex scene with Murphy is a very “male gaze” decision, since she didn’t need to be shown with her naked breasts exposed in this movie. Meanwhile, her male co-star had absolutely no “private parts” nudity in this sex scene. Directors really need to stop this blatant double standard about nudity in sex scenes, where women have to show some kind of nudity, while men do not have to show any nudity. It’s a very outdated double standard that’s a turnoff to many viewers who aren’t stuck in this type of backwards and sexist mindset.

The lead-up to the making of the atomic bomb isn’t nearly as interesting in “Oppenheimer” as what happens in the aftermath, when Robert struggles with the consequences of his invention. He becomes famous and lauded as a war hero in America, but with that fame come scrutiny and jealousy from some of the people he had trusted as colleagues. People who know what happened in real life to Oppenheimer can debate if what is shown in the movie is entirely accurate. The “Oppenheimer” movie obviously makes him look like a sympathetic person.

One of the ways that “Oppenheimer” depicts Robert’s guilt is when he hallucinates visions of people in front of him dying from the bomb, with their faces melting or their bodies being ripped apart. Curiously, he only envisions white people suffering from this catastrophe, not the thousands of Japanese people who were actually killed by the bomb he invented. It might be a tone-deaf part of the movie, or it might be writer/director Nolan’s way of showing that even “liberal” Robert Oppenheimer couldn’t see past his own insular world that has no racial diversity.

“Oppenheimer” is not the masterpiece that some people might hail it to be. As a history-based drama, it’s got a very narrow point of view. However, the performances by Murphy, Blunt and Oldman elevate this very long movie, even if much of the dialogue is basic and perfunctory. During the course of the story, Robert Oppenheimer goes from being an underdog to a hero to an embattled public figure. It’s this most difficult phase of his life that brings out his true character and the best that “Oppenheimer” has to offer.

Universal Pictures will release “Oppenheimer” in U.S. cinemas on July 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Air’ (2023), starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker and Viola Davis

March 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Matthew Maher, Matt Damon and Jason Bateman in “Air” (Photo by Ana Carballosa/Amazon Content Services)

“Air” (2023)

Directed by Ben Affleck

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1984, primarily in Oregon and in North Carolina, the dramatic film “Air” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Against the odds, Nike executives convince a young Michael Jordan to sign with Nike, which makes a historic deal to create the Air Jordan shoe brand entirely around him. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Michael Jordan, Air Jordan shoes and the movie’s headliners, “Air” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about landmark business deals, from the perspectives of the business executives.

Matt Damon and Viola Davis in “Air” (Photo by Ana Carballosa/Amazon Content Services)

“Air” is designed to be an awards-bait movie with mass appeal, but it has a very selective agenda in which characters get the most importance in the story. This dramatic origin story of the Air Jordan business hits many familiar beats of sports underdog movies. The acting and writing are engaging, but Michael Jordan is a sidelined character. His mother is at least given credit for being a smart dealmaker. “Air” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Directed by Ben Affleck and written by Alex Convery, “Air” takes place in 1984, in the months leading up to the September 1984 launch of Nike’s very first Air Jordan shoes, also known as Air Jordan 1. According to several reports, Nike (which is headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon) had $5 billion in sales from Jordan Brand (Nike’s division Air Jordans shoes) in 2022. In “Air,” the underdogs and main heroes of this sports story are not athletes but the Nike executives who played crucial roles in conceiving and launching this industry-changing athletic shoe brand. It’s a very feel-good, slanted view of a fascinating story, but “Air” is a scripted drama, not a documentary.

The main protagonist of “Air” is Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon), a Nike basketball recruiter who’s been mainly working with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in selling Nike basketball shoes. Vaccaro is often credited with being the person who came up with the idea to have Nike pay NCAA colleges to have their basketball teams wear Nike shoes as product endorsements meant to influence people to buy the shoes. This type of product endorsement is now commonplace in the NCAA.

Sonny is passionate about basketball. And because he is deeply entrenched in NCAA basketball, he has a knack for being able to predict which NCAA players will be the top recruits by the National Basketball Association (NBA). But getting the top recruits for Nike endorsement deals requires a lot of money that Nike doesn’t have. The problem is that in 1984, Nike is financially struggling from decreased sales and massive money losses.

In terms of basketball shoe sales, Converse was the market leader at the time, with 54% of the market share, according to a statistic mentioned in “Air.” Converse had endorsement deals with NBA stars such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Adidas, which was Converse’s closest competition in 1984, was popular with hip-hop stars, such as Run-DMC. Adidas was also Jordan’s first choice on where he wanted to sign an endorsement deal as a 21-year-old rookie for the Chicago Bulls.

Meanwhile, in 1984, Nike had only 17% of the market share for basketball shoe sales before the historic deal with Jordan. Nike also had an image and reputation of being an outdated company whose specialty was shoes for joggers. Basketball fans come in all different races, but NBA basketball is mostly played by African Americans. As Nike vice president of athlete relations Howard White (played by Chris Tucker), who is African American, half-jokingly comments in the movie: “Black people don’t jog.”

Nike vice president of marketing Rob Strasser (played by Jason Bateman) isn’t as passionate about basketball as Sonny is, but he is passionate about making profits from his marketing ideas. Rob is cynical about Nike’s office politics, and he has a world-weary attitude about him. He gives the impression that he is very annoyed with being part of a losing company, but he doesn’t want to quit Nike because he’s convinced that he can be part of the team that turn things around for Nike. Privately, Rob is afraid that no other company would hire him if he wanted to leave Nike.

“Air” makes a point of showing that middle-aged Sonny (a bachelor with no children) is at a crossroads in his life and at Nike. Sonny’s life revolves around Nike, which is in a slump. And he’s got a lot to prove, because Sonny’s self-esteem is very wrapped up in his job. Observant viewers will also see that Sonny likes to gamble a lot in his free time, which is a possible addiction that the movie never really explores. The parallels are obvious: Sonny is about to make the biggest gamble in his career with the Jordan deal.

Someone else who’s also got a lot to prove is Nike founder/CEO Phil Knight (played by Affleck), who is exactly the type of upper-class jogger that Nike has been courting for years. But there’s no denying that basketball shoes will be a driving force of sales for athletic footwear. Nike has been slow to adapt. Sonny says to Phil: “Basketball is the future.” Phil is skeptical: “Basketball is dead.”

In a Nike executive meeting that includes Sonny, Rob and a few other employees, Rob asks everyone in the room who their top choices are for NBA recruits who should be pursued by Nike. Sonny wants Jordan. Sonny also gets frustrated because everyone else names safe choices of basketball players who probably won’t achieve greatness. Sonny berates the employees by saying: “I have no tolerance for people who have no insight.”

In the men’s restroom, Rob tells Sonny that Sonny should be more diplomatic in these meetings. Sonny brushes off this advice. He is determined to sign Jordan and will do whatever it takes. Sonny thinks Nike should be spending even more money on the Jordan deal, while Phil wants to spend less.

Part of Sonny’s goal includes persuading Phil to spend Nike’s entire $500,000 recruiting budget on Jordan, before Jordan even starts playing for the Bulls. It’s unprecedented. And at the time, its seems like more than a big risk. It seems like financial suicide for Nike.

Sonny reminds Phil that Phil took a big risk by founding Nike. And he needs Phil to take a big risk on Sonny’s gut instinct that Jordan is the one and only NBA player that Nike should sign for this basketball season. Sonny tells Phil that if Sonny is wrong about Jordan, then Sonny will probably resign from Nike.

Sonny’s enthusiasm (or obsession) to sign Jordan means that Sonny inevitably offends people with his aggressive tactics. One of those people is Jordan’s agent David Falk (played by Chris Messina), a fast-talking, foul-mouthed New Yorker, who has some of the funniest scenes in the movie when he has raging meltdowns every time Sonny bypasses David to try to close the deal. David makes threats to Sonny that’s just a lot of empty, blustering talk. David is also one of the naysayers who thinks that Nike won’t be able to afford Jordan. In real life, Falk is credited with coming up with the name Air Jordan, but “Air” pokes a little fun at this claim to fame.

As part of his preparation for the deal, Sonny watches footage of Jordan’s college games and figures out the inner workings of Nike’s competition. He also gets some important advice from Jordan family associate George Raveling (played by Marlon Wayans), who was an assistant coach of the U.S. Olympics basketball team at the time. It’s a short but well-acted scene in the movie, where George tells Sonny a memorable story about being in the crowd during Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.

“Air” depicts Sonny as being inspired to create an entire Nike shoe line around Jordan after Sonny sees an old TV ad with tennis star Arthur Ashe talking about his custom-made tennis shoes that have been replicated for people to buy. Ever the wheeler dealer, Sonny makes a bold move to pitch the idea directly to Jordan’s parents Deloris Jordan (played by Viola Davis) and James Jordan (played by Julius Tennon), by driving to the Jordan parents’ home in Wilmington, North Carolina, and showing up unannounced. (Davis and Tennon are married in real life.) Deloris is the outspoken and savvy business person of the couple, and she makes the best power play in the entire story.

And where is Michael Jordan during all of these schemes and deals that wouldn’t exist without him? “Air” depicts Michael Jordan (played by Damian Young) as an occasional bystander who says very little in this story, and he is mostly filmed with his back to the camera. There’s some archival footage of the real Michael Jordan, but the screen time in “Air” for these clips is also very brief.

In the production notes for “Air,” director Affleck explains this choice: “Michael Jordan is so famous that I truly felt if we ever saw an actor playing [him], it would be hard to get the audience to suspend their disbelief, because, in my opinion, there’s no convincing anybody that someone who isn’t Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. We felt a more interesting way to tell the story would be for him to exist in the ether of the movie. To be talked about by everyone but not seen is somewhat analogous to the experience of celebrities and sports stars in modern life, because most people go their whole lives without ever meeting or seeing their favorite sports star or celebrity in person. So we only see Michael in clips and flashes. We don’t ever fully see him in person because to see him in person would be to put his feet on the ground in a way that the movie doesn’t want to do.”

In other words, Affleck didn’t want any character to overshadow the Sonny character, played by Affleck’s longtime friend Damon. (Affleck and Damon are two of the producers of “Air.”) The fact of the matter is that this movie could have shown a little bit more respect for Michael Jordan’s role in this monumental deal. The “Air” movie depicts Michael Jordan as mostly caring about getting a new red Mercedes 380SL as part of the deal, while his parents (especially his mother) did almost all of the talking for him. It’s hard to believe that Michael Jordan didn’t speak more in these business meetings.

Another thing that looks very fabricated for the movie is how the first Air Jordan design came about, because it’s depicted as a “race against time” over a weekend to get a prototype ready in time for a Monday meeting with Michael Jordan and his parents. It’s the prototype for the shoe that would become Air Jordan 1. Peter Moore (played by Michael Maher) is portrayed as the artistic visionary who came up with the design for the shoe all by himself. The movie mentions a team of designers who worked with Peter to bring his vision to life, but these team members are nowhere to be seen in “Air.”

It’s another misstep that doesn’t properly acknowledge the contributions of an untold number of real-life people who were essential members of the team. “Air “didn’t have to single out all of these people in the movie, but they could have at least been characters seen in the movie as background extras. It’s odd that with so much of Nike’s Air Jordan deal riding on the actual product (the shoes), so little thought in the movie is given to the shoemakers who helped make the first Air Jordans a reality. Instead, “Air” makes it look like it was only Peter Moore in a Nike shoe design room who created the first Air Jordan.

What “Air” does get right is having an infectious energy in the behind-the-scenes drama that went into making this deal happen. The dialogue is snappy and intelligent but accessible. And the performances, especially from Damon and Davis, are above-average for movies of this type of subject matter. “Air” also has excellent soundtrack choices, with well-placed pop songs from the 1980s, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” Chaka Khan and Rufus’s “Ain’t Nobody” and Squeeze’s “Tempted.” The movie also has Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” which actually wasn’t released until 1985, but that’s a minor dateline error in an otherwise commendable soundtrack.

A movie like “Air” obviously wants to be more important than just a story about how Nike made a comeback by signing a young Michael Jordan in what would turn out to be the most lucrative celebrity endorsement deal in athletic shoe history. (For a deep dive into the cultural impact of Air Jordans, the 2020 documentary “One Man and His Shoes” is worth seeing.) The story depicted in “Air” serves as an example of how some of the best risks are taken by people who’ve got a lot to lose but take the risks anyway. It’s too bad that Michael Jordan’s perspective of this inspirational story is completely erased from the movie.

Amazon Studios will release “Air” in U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2023. Prime Video will premiere the movie on May 12, 2023.

Review: ‘Thor: Love and Thunder,’ starring Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe and Natalie Portman

July 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in “Thor: Love and Thunder” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

“Thor: Love and Thunder”

Directed by Taika Waititi

Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth and other parts of the universe (including the fictional location of New Asgard), the superhero action film “Thor: Love and Thunder” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nordic superhero Thor Odinson, also known as the God of Thunder, teams up with allies in a battle against the revengeful villain Gorr the God Butcher, while Thor’s ex-girlfriend Jane Porter has her own personal battle with Stage 4 cancer. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of comic book movie fans, “Thor: Love and Thunder” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and action movies that skillfully blend drama and comedy.

Christian Bale in “Thor: Love and Thunder” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Thor: Love and Thunder” could also be called “Thor: Grief and Comedy,” because how of this superhero movie sequel balances these two themes with some results that are better than others. The movie goes big on showing bittersweet romance and the power of true friendships. Some of the movie’s subplots clutter up the movie, and any sense of terrifying danger is constantly undercut by all the wisecracking, but “Thor: Love and Thunder” gleefully leans into the idea that a superhero leader can be a formidable warrior, as well as a big goofball and a sentimental romantic.

Directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is also a commercial showcase for Guns N’Roses music. It’s the first Marvel Studios movie to blatantly shill for a rock band to the point where not only are four of the band’s hits prominently used in major scenes in the movie, but there’s also a character in the movie who wants to change his first name to be the same as the first name of the band’s lead singer. The music is well-placed, in terms of conveying the intended emotions, but viewers’ reactions to this movie’s fan worship of Guns N’Roses will vary, depending on how people feel about the band and its music. The Guns N’Roses songs “Welcome the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “November Rain” are all in pivotal scenes in “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

“Thor: Love and Thunder” picks up where 2019’s blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame” concluded. What’s great about “Thor: Love and Thunder” (which Waititi co-wrote with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) is that the filmmakers didn’t assume that everyone watching the movie is an aficionado of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), nor did they assume that everyone watching “Thor: Love and Thunder” will know a lot about the Nordic superhero Thor Odinson (played by Chris Hemsworth) before seeing the movie. Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a montage summary (narrated cheerfully by Waititi’s Korg character, a rock-like humanoid who is one of Thor’s loyal allies) that shows the entire MCU history of Thor up until what’s about to happen in “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

The movie’s opening scene isn’t quite so upbeat, because it gets right into showing that grief will be one of the film’s biggest themes. In a very barren desert, a man and his daughter (who’s about 8 or 9 years old, played by India Rose Hemsworth) are deyhdrated, starving, and close to dying. The girl doesn’t survive, and the man is shown grieving at the place where he has buried her. Viewers soon find out that this man is Gorr the God Butcher (played by Christian Bale), who is the story’s chief villain. But he didn’t start out as a villain.

After the death of his daughter, a ravenously hungry Gorr ends up a tropical-looking, plant-filled area, where he devours some fruit. Suddenly, a male god appears before Gorr, who is pious and grateful for being in this god’s presence. Gorr tells the god: “I am Gorr, the last of your disciples. We never lost our faith in you.”

The god scoffs at Gorr’s devotion and says, “There’s no eternal reward for you. There’ll be more followers to replace you.” Feeling betrayed, Gorr replies, “You are no god! I renounce you!” The god points to a slain warrior on the ground and tells Gorr that the warrior was killed for the Necrosword, a magical sword that can kill gods and celestials. The Necrosword levitates off of the ground and gravitates toward Gorr.

The god tells Gorr: “The sword chose you. You are now cursed.” Gorr replies, “It doesn’t feel like a curse. It feels like a promise. So this is my vow: All gods will die!” And you know what that means: Gorr kills the god in front of him, and Thor will be one of Gorr’s targets.

Meanwhile, Thor is seen coming to the rescue of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who need his help in battling some villains on a generic-looking planet in outer space. All of the Guardians are there (except for Gamora, who died at the end of “Avengers: Endgame”), and they see Thor as a powerful ally. However, the Guardians are worried that Thor has lost a lot of his emotional vitality. Thor (who hails from Asgar) is grieving over the loss his entire family to death and destruction.

Thor is also still heartbroken over the end of his romantic relationship with brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman), who was in 2011’s “Thor” and 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World.” Viewers will find out in a “Thor: Love and Thunder” flashback montage what really happened that caused the end of this relationship. Jane and Thor are considered soul mates, but their devotion to their respective work resulted in Thor and Jane drifting apart.

Guardians of the Galaxy leader Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt), tries to give Thor a pep talk, because Star-Lord can relate to losing the love of his life (Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana), but the main difference is that Thor has a chance to see Jane again because she’s still alive. As shown in the trailer for “Thor: Love and Thunder,” Jane will soon come back into Thor’s life in an unexpected way, when she gains possession of Thor’s magical hammer, Mjolnir, and she reinvents herself as the Mighty Thor. As an example of some of the movie’s offbeat comedy, Korg keeps getting Jane Foster’s name wrong, by sometimes calling her Jane Fonda or Jodie Foster.

The Guardians of the Galaxy section of “Thor: Love and Thunder” almost feels like a completely separate short film that was dropped into the movie. After an intriguing opening scene with Gorr, viewers are left wondering when Gorr is going to show up again. Instead, there’s a fairly long stretch of the movie with Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy

After spending a lot of meditative time lounging around in a robe, Thor literally throws off the robe for the battle scene with Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, as the Guns N’Roses song “Welcome to the Jungle” blares on the soundtrack. After the battle is over (it’s easy to predict who the victors are), Thor’s confident ego seems to have come roaring back. He exclaims with a huge grin: “What a classic Thor adventure! Hurrah!”

As a gift for this victory, Thor gets two superpowered goats, which have the strength to pull space vessels and whose goat screaming becomes a running gag in the movie. The visual effects in “Thor: Love and Thunder” get the job done well enough for a superhero movie. But are these visual effects groundbreaking or outstanding? No.

The Guardians’ personalities are all the same: Star-Lord is still cocky on the outside but deeply insecure on the inside. Drax (played by Dave Bautista) is still simple-minded. Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper) is still sarcastic. Mantis (played by Pom Klementieff) is still sweetly earnest. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) still only has three words in his vocabulary: “I am Groot.”

Nebula (voiced by Karen Gillan), who is Garmora’s hot-tempered adopted sister and a longtime Guardians frenemy, is now an ally of the Guardians. Guardians associate Kraglin Obfonteri (played by Sean Gunn) makes a brief appearance to announce that he’s gotten married to an Indigarrian woman named Glenda (played by Brenda Satchwell), who is one of his growing number of his wives. It’s mentioned in a joking manner that Kraglin has a tendency to marry someone at every planet he visits.

With his confidence renewed as the God of Thunder, Thor decides he’s ready to end his “retirement” and go back into being a superhero. He says goodbye to the Guardians, who fly off in their spaceship and wish him well. Little does Thor know what he’s going to see someone from his past (Jane), whom he hasn’t seen in a long time.

Sif (played by Jaimie Alexander), an Asgardian warrior who was in the first “Thor” movie and in “Thor: The Dark World,” re-appears in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” but she now has a missing left arm and has to learn to re-adjust her fighting skills. Sif’s presence in this movie isn’t entirely unexpected. It’s a welcome return, but some viewers might think that Sif doesn’t get enough screen time.

Meanwhile, as shown in “Avengers: Endgame,” Thor gave up his King of New Asgard title to his longtime associate Valkyrie (played by Tessa Thompson), who’s finding out that being the leader of New Asgard isn’t quite as enjoyable as she thought it would be. She’d rather do battle alongside her buddy Thor instead of having to do things like attend dull council meetings or cut ribbons at opening ceremonies. New Asgard is a fishing village that has become a tourist destination that plays up its connection to Thor and his history.

The stage play recreation of Thor’s story was used as a comedic gag in 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok” (also directed and written by Waititi), and that gag is used again in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” as this play is staged in New Asgard, but with an update to include what happened in “Thor: Ragnarok.” Making uncredited cameos as these stage play actors in “Thor: Love and Thunder” are Matt Damon as stage play Loki (Thor’s mischievous adopted brother), Luke Hemsworth as stage play Thor, Melissa McCarthy as stage play Hela (Thor’s villainous older sister) and Sam Neill as stage play Odin (Thor’s father). This comedic bit about a “Thor” stage play isn’t as fresh as it was in “Thor: Ragnarok,” but it’s still amusing.

One of the New Asgard citizens is a lively child of about 13 or 14 years old. His name is Astrid, and he announces that he wants to change his first name to Axl, in tribute to Axl Rose, the lead singer of Guns N’Roses. Axl (played by Kieron L. Dyer) is the son of Heimdall (played by Idris Elba), the Asgardian gatekeeper who was killed by supervillain Thanos in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” As fans of superhero movies know, just because a character is killed on screen doesn’t mean that that character will never be seen again. And let’s just say that “Thor: Love and Thunder” makes it clear that people have not seen the last of Heimdall.

Jane has a poignant storyline because she has Stage 4 cancer, which is something that she’s in deep denial about since she wants to act as if she still has the same physical strength as she did before her cancer reached this stage. Jane’s concerned and loyal assistant Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) makes a brief appearance to essentially advise Jane to slow down Jane’s workload. Jane refuses to take this advice.

The way that Jane gets Thor’s hammer isn’t very innovative, but she finds out that the hammer gives her godlike strength and makes her look healthy. It’s no wonder she wants to explore life as the Mighty Thor. (Her transformation also includes going from being a brunette as Jane to being a blonde as the Mighty Thor.)

And where exactly is Gorr? He now looks like a powder-white Nosferatu-like villain, as he ends up wreaking havoc by going on a killing spree of the universe’s gods. And it’s only a matter of time before Gorr reaches New Asgard. With the help of shadow monsters, Gorr ends up kidnapping the children of New Asgard (including Axl) and imprisoning them in an underground area. Guess who’s teaming up to come to the rescue?

After the mass kidnapping happens, there’s a comedic segment where Thor ends up in the kingdom of Greek god Zeus (played by Russell Crowe), a toga-wearing hedonist who says things like, “Where are we going to have this year’s orgy?” Zeus is Thor’s idol, but Thor gets a rude awakening about Zeus. Thor experiences some humiliation that involves Thor getting completely naked in Zeus’ public court. Crowe’s questionable Greek accent (which often sounds more Italian than Greek) is part of his deliberately campy performance as Zeus.

“Thor: Love and Thunder” packs in a lot of issues and switches tones so many times, it might be a turnoff to some viewers who just want to see a straightforward, uncomplicated and conventional superhero story. However, people who saw and enjoyed “Thor: Ragnarok” will be better-prepared for his mashup of styles that Waititi continues in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” which has that same spirit. “Thor: Love and Thunder” tackles much heavier issues though, such as terminal illness and crushing heartbreak.

The movie’s cancer storyline with Jane could have been mishandled, but it’s written in a way that has an emotional authenticity among the fantastical superhero shenanigans. “Thor: Love and Thunder” also goes does fairly deep in exposing the toll that superhero duties can take on these superheroes’ love lives. Thor and Jane have to come to terms with certain decisions they made that affected their relationship.

The movie also provides a glimpse into the personal lives of supporting characters Korg and Valkyrie. In a memorable scene, Valkyrie and Korg are alone together in an area of Thor’s Viking ship, and they have a heart-to-heart talk about not finding their true loves yet. They are lovelorn cynics but still show some glimmers of optimism that maybe they will be lucky in love. It’s in this scene where Korg mentions that he was raised by two fathers, and Valkyrie briefly mentions having an ex-girlfriend. A scene later in the movie shows that Korg is open having a same-sex romance.

All of the cast members do well in their roles, but Hemsworth and Portman have the performances and storyline that people will be talking about the most for “Thor: Love and Thunder.” The ups and downs of Thor and Jane’s on-again/off-again romance are not only about what true love can mean in this relationship but also touch on issues of power, control, trust and gender dynamics. It’s a movie that acknowledges that two people might be right for each other, but the timing also has to be right for the relationship to thrive.

Bale does a very solid job as Gorr, but some viewers might be disappointed that Gorr isn’t in the movie as much as expected. That’s because the first third of “Thor: Love and Thunder” is taken up by a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy interactions with Thor. In other words, Gorr’s villain presence in “Thor: Love and Thunder” is not particularly encompassing, as Hela’s villain presence was in “Thor: Ragnarok.”

The movie’s final battle scene might also be somewhat divisive with viewers because one member of Thor’s team is not part of this battle, due to this character being injured in a previous fight and being stuck at a hospital. Fans of this character will no doubt feel a huge letdown that this character is sidelined in a crucial final battle. Leaving this character out of this battle is one of the flaws of “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

The mid-credits scene and end-credits scene in Thor: Love and Thunder” show characters who are supposed to be dead. The mid-credits scene also introduces the family member of one of the movie’s characters, while the end-credits scene teases the return of other characters who exist in another realm. Neither of these scenes is mind-blowing. However, they’re worth watching for MCU completists and anyone who likes watching all of a movie’s credits at the end.

What “Thor: Love and Thunder” gets right is that it shows more concern than many other MCU movies about how insecurities and isolation outside the glory of superhero battles can have a profound effect on these heroes. Saving the universe can come at a heavy emotional price, especially when loved ones die. Whether the love is for family members, romantic partners or friends, “Thor: Love and Thunder” acknowledges that love can result in grief that isn’t easy to overcome, but the healing process is helped with loyal support and some welcome laughter.

Disney’s Marvel Studios will release “Thor: Love and Thunder” in U.S. cinemas on July 8, 2022.

Review: ‘The Last Duel’ (2021), starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck

October 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Adam Driver and Matt Damon in “The Last Duel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios)

“The Last Duel” (2021)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place in France from the years 1377 to the late 1380s, the dramatic film “The Last Duel” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: Two former friends, who fought battles together in the French military, face off in a violent duel after one of the men is accused of raping the other man’s wife.

Culture Audience: “The Last Duel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent medieval-era dramas where some of the acting and dialogue are too modern be considered authentic, and sadistic machismo is put on the highest pedestal.

Jodie Comer in “The Last Duel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios)

When watching “The Last Duel,” it might be annoying or amusing to see Matt Damon in a mullet, as he fumbles attempts to be a medieval Frenchman, by having a modern British-American accent. Ultimately, the movie has nothing new or insightful to say about violent machismo. If you really need to see the same rape of a woman depicted twice in a movie, just for the sake of showing the rape from the perspectives of the rapist and the victim, then “The Last Duel” is your kind of movie.

Directed by Ridley Scott, “The Last Duel” is written by Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener. They adapted the movie’s screenplay from Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name. Scott, Damon, Affleck and Holofcener are among the producers of “The Last Duel” movie. All of them have considerable talent, but all of them have made much better movies than “The Last Duel.”

It’s worth noting that “The Last Duel” is the first movie screenplay that Damon and Affleck have written together since their Oscar-winning original screenplay for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” a better-quality film about masculine identity. (Damon and Affleck also co-starred in “Good Will Hunting.”) “The Last Duel” certainly has the top-notch production design and cinematography that viewers have come to expect when Scott does a period movie, but it’s no “Gladiator.” In addition, “The Last Duel” has too much subpar acting from Affleck and cringeworthy dialogue in several parts of the movie for “The Last Duel” to be an Oscar-caliber film.

People familiar with the medieval era already know it was a brutal and violent period in history, when women were treated as nothing more than property to be bought and sold for marriage, with husbands having the legal right to “own” their wives. All of that misogyny is accurately depicted in “The Last Duel.” The problem is that the movie has a tone of a little too much enthusiasm when showing hatred and degradation of women.

It’s as if the filmmakers felt that just by having the movie take place during this ancient era, it was enough of a reason to show this misogyny so gratuitously. Any attempt to show any female character with some kind of inner strength is rushed in the last third of the film. This half-hearted nod to female empowerment doesn’t come across as genuine but rather it seems manipulative. It’s the equivalent of filmmakers putting a little dab of cleaner on the avalanche of dirty, sexist muck that’s poured all over the film.

Based on true events, “The Last Duel” takes place in France (mostly in Paris) from 1377 to the late 1380s. But if you were to believe this movie, women couldn’t possibly be as smart or as powerful as men. It completely refuses to acknowledge that women had positions of power and minds of their own in France during the medieval era—most notably Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was a leader more than 200 years before this story takes place. “The Last Duel” is so insistent on shutting out any depictions of intelligent women in power (even if it’s power in their own households) that when Queen Isabeau (played by Serena Kennedy) appears in the movie, she doesn’t have any lines of dialogue and is just there as a spectator sitting next to her king husband (who does talk) during the jousting match that is the movie’s namesake.

“The Last Duel,” is told in three chapters, each from the perspective of the three people involved in a rape case that is the reason for this jousting duel:

  • Jean de Carrouges (played by Damon) is a domineering, middle-aged knight, who has fought many battles in the Crusades. He has the scars on his face and the rest of his body to prove it. Jean’s first wife and son died during the bubonic plague known as the Black Death. His second marriage is to a woman who is the story’s rape victim.
  • Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver), a roguish playboy who’s about 10 years younger than Jean, has risen through the military ranks to become a captain. Jacques is a never-married bachelor who has never had a committed love relationship.
  • Marguerite de Carrouges (played by Jodie Comer), Jean’s second wife, is about 20 years younger than Jean. She comes from a well-to-do family that has fallen on hard times because her scandal-plagued father has been branded as a traitor. Marguerite accuses Jacques of raping her.

Each of the movie’s chapters is titled “Part One: The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” “Part Two: The Truth According to Jacque Le Gris” and “Part Three: The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges.” Unlike Showtime’s 2014-2019 drama series “The Affair,” “The Last Duel” doesn’t have wildly different memories of the same incidents from the three people involved in a love triangle. The memories and perspectives do have some differences, but they add up to a generally consistent overview of what life was like for the three people who are at the center of the rape case.

Someone who can influence the outcome of the rape case is the hard-partying Pierre d’Alençon (played by Affleck), who is the presiding judge and a close ally of Jacques. Pierre is also the much-older cousin of King Charles IV (played by Alex Lawther), who is portrayed as a brat in his 20s who doesn’t have the maturity to be an effective leader, but he’s tolerated by people around him because he inherited the title of king.

One of the biggest problems with “The Last Duel” is that it’s filled with modern lines of dialogue that sound like they’re straight out of a foul-mouthed movie written by Quentin Tarantino. Certain people, especially Pierre, like to say the words “fuck” or “fucking” a lot. That doesn’t mean that cursing didn’t exist in the medieval era, but the way the words are used in a contemporary-sounding dialogue context is just not accurate for those times.

And it doesn’t help that Affleck and Damon (who are both American) struggle with their fake European accents. Damon has entire scenes where he sounds American and British every time he talks. Driver (who is American) does a much better job at having a European-sounding accent, while Comer doesn’t have to pretend at all, since she’s British in real life.

For a movie that’s supposed to take place in France, it’s kind of pathetic that there are very few French people in “The Last Duel” cast, and none of these French actors has a large role in the film. (“The Last Duel” was actually filmed in Ireland.) This lack of significant French representation in the movie’s cast is an indication that “The Last Duel” director Scott (who is British) has an ethnic bias when it comes to who he wants in his movies. It’s also obvious that he didn’t care about having accurate language consistency for “The Last Duel” characters, since the stars of the movie sound British and American instead of French.

And in case anyone mistakenly thinks “The Last Duel” is a prestigious, Oscar-caliber film, think again. The movie goes into borderline softcore porn territory. Under Scott’s direction, “The Last Duel” seems enamored with showing in more than one tacky scene that Pierre and Jacques regularly participated in orgies together with willing women. One of the orgy scenes has a very “male gaze” to it, because it lingers on three women on a bed having sex with each other, while they wait for Pierre to join them. It’s such a predictable stereotype in these types of movie orgy scenes that same-sex hookups always comes from the women, not from the men.

Pierre is married with eight children, but he seems to think his family life just gets in the way of his sex parties. He even started to have an orgy in front of his pregnant wife Lady Marie Chamaillart (played by Zoé Bruneau), who seems to know what’s about to happen and quickly leaves the room. After having this orgy, Jacques asks Pierre if he wants to spend time with his wife. Pierre scoffs at the idea and says that Marie is “pregnant and hysterical. I’d rather take my chances with the wolves.”

This 152-minute movie plods along in showing Jean’s transactional marriage to Marguerite, whom he hopes will bear him a son so that he can have a male heir again. Jean drove a hard bargain for Marguerite’s dowry, by convincing Marguerite’s disgraced and financially desperate father Sir Robert de Thibouville (played by Nathaniel Parker) to give him a coveted strip of land as part of the deal. Sir Robert reluctantly agrees.

Jean is very patriotic and proud to serve in the military. Jacques becomes a close companion of his during their military battles, and Jean even saves Jacques’ life on one occasion. When Jean is not away from home for war duties, his occupation is being a landlord, but the Black Death caused many of his tenants to die, so he’s been struggling financially and is heavily in debt. Pierre later takes advantage of Jean’s financial woes when Pierre decides that Jean has become his enemy.

Marguerite handles the landlord transactions when Jean is away from home, and she finds out that he’s been an irresponsible business manager by not bothering to collect rent when he was supposed to do it. However, Marguerite is in the type of marriage where she can’t really speak up and point out these mistakes to Jean because his huge ego would just dismiss her concerns. She is constantly reminded by people in society that she should not speak up about problems that would be considered “embarrassing” or “disobedient” to her husband or other men.

Jacques and Marguerite meet at an outdoor party, where Jean introduces his new wife to his friend and tells Marguerite to give a friendly kiss to Jacques. Marguerite ends up kissing Jacques on the lips, and he looks at her in a way that shows it’s attraction at first sight, with that kiss causing some kind of spark in him. Marguerite admits to some of her female friends at the party that she thinks Jacques is handsome, but she doesn’t trust him because of his “bad boy” reputation.

Marguerite is well-read, while Jean is illiterate. In more than one scene in the film, Jacques and some other people express surprise that Jean allows Marguerite to read books. Jacques uses this information to his advantage when, shortly after he meets Marguerite, he flirts with her and tries to impress her with his knowledge of literature.

Later, it becomes clear that Jacques’ lust for Marguerite has turned into obsession, although he claims several times that he’s deeply in love with Marguerite and it’s the first time that he’s ever felt this way. It doesn’t justify him raping her. The movie leaves no ambiguity that this rape did occur.

Up until the rape (which is depicted in a disturbing way that might be too upsetting for sensitive viewers), “The Last Duel” becomes a soap opera filled with clichés that you might find in a cheap and tawdry romance novel. There’s the pretty housewife who’s lonely and bored because her husband is away from home a lot. And when he’s at home, their sex life is passionless and he doesn’t seem to care about what her needs are.

There’s the workaholic husband who’s so preoccupied with his work and self-image that he doesn’t see how unhappy his wife is. He thinks that all he needs to be a good husband is to be a good provider. He’s also annoyed with his wife because she hasn’t gotten pregnant as quickly as he wanted. After five years of marriage, she still hasn’t conceived a child.

There’s the tall, dark “bad boy” who’s just waiting for the right moment to “seduce” the lonely wife. The fact that the husband used to be the bad boy’s best friend makes the bad boy’s lust for the wife even more taboo. Driver is perfectly adequate in this villain role, but he’s limited by this two-dimensional character, and therefore it’s not an outstanding performance.

Also part of this parade of soap opera clichés is the bad boy’s “wingman”/sidekick, who gleefully helps with the scheming because he wants to cause some chaos too. In “The Last Duel,” the “wingman” character is named Adam Louvel (played by Adam Nagaitis), and he plays a pivotal role in Jacques’ planning of the rape. Just like Jacques, he’s a shallow character with no backstory.

The extra strip of land that Jean was promised as part of Marguerite’s dowry becomes the subject of a legal dispute when Jacques, in an effort to impress Pierre, seizes the land and hands it over to Pierre. It results in a messy lawsuit, with Jean suing Pierre and Jacques. Pierre grows increasingly alienated from and irritated with Jean because of this legal dispute. Meanwhile, Jacques tries to put the lawsuit behind him and makes the first move to repair his broken friendship with Jean.

However, any attempts for Jean and Jacques to become friends again get obliterated when the rape happens. “The Last Duel” gives harsh but realistic depictions of the victim blaming and victim shaming that rape survivors experience when they come forward and try to get justice for this crime. Complicating matters, Jacques admits that he had a sexual encounter with Marguerite, but he says it was consensual. He vehemently denies that it was rape. For many people who hear about Marguerite’s accusation, it’s a “he said/she said” situation.

The movie shows in chilling details how victim blaming/shaming reactions to a rape story are universal and timeless and don’t just come from men. Jean’s mother Nicole de Carrouges (played by Harriet Walter) believes Marguerite, but she scolds Marguerite for not keeping quiet about the rape. Meanwhile, Marguerite’s best friend Marie (played by Tallulah Haddon) doubts Marguerite’s accusation, because Marie thinks Marguerite was attracted to Jacques and that Marguerite might have done something to make Jacques think she was willing to have sex with him.

In her depiction of Marguerite, Comer gives an admirable performance of a woman who often has to suppress her emotions, out of fear of being labeled as a “hysterical” wife who might embarrass her husband. Through tearful eyes that still show steely determination, she achieves a balance of being emotionally vulnerable but mentally strong. Marguerite is going to need that inner strength when she gets an onslaught of criticism from many people because she went public with this accusation.

Marguerite tells Jean about the rape before they decide to go public with this accusation. Jean’s initial reaction isn’t to comfort Marguerite but to get angry that Jacques has betrayed him again. Jean eventually takes Marguerite’s side, but he’s motivated more by defending his own honor and reputation than defending Marguerite’s. Because it’s not spoiler information that “The Last Duel” is about Jean and Jacques’ jousting showdown about the rape, the movie just becomes scene after scene that builds up to this battle. Marguerite’s feelings and trauma get pushed to the side, while the movie ultimately gives more importance to the feuding between Jean and Jacques.

Although the movie shows Marguerite’s considerable bravery, it’s Jean who’s supposed to be the “hero” of the story for defending his wife. We know this because the viewer catharsis in the movie is supposed to come mainly from the jousting battle, which centers “The Last Duel” back on the men. The movie ends with scenes showing Marguerite, but make no mistake: “The Last Duel” is very much a movie about egotistical men and the violence they commit to get what they want.

20th Century Studios will release “The Last Duel” in U.S. cinemas on October 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Stillwater’ (2021), starring Matt Damon

July 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Matt Damon and Camille Cottin in “Stillwater” (Photo by Jessica Forde/Focus Features)

“Stillwater” (2021)

Directed by Tom McCarthy

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Marseille, France, and briefly in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the dramatic film “Stillwater” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Middle Eastern people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged oil rig/construction worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma, goes to Marseille, France, where he tries to prove that his mid-20s daughter has been wrongly imprisoned for murder.

Culture Audience: “Stillwater” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful and emotionally layered murder mysteries, even if some aspects of this crime investigation are far-fetched.

Abigail Breslin and Matt Damon in “Stillwater” (Photo by Jessica Forde/Focus Features)

“Stillwater” is a crime drama that’s somewhat flawed in how a murder mystery is investigated in the movie, but the principal cast members bring emotional authenticity that resonates in an impactful way throughout the story. It’s a movie about a man with a checkered past who’s seeking redemption not only for his imprisoned daughter but also redemption for himself for being an absentee father for most of her life. And on another level, it’s a classic “fish out of water” story about an American trying to navigate the legal system and culture in France when he knows next to nothing about either.

“Stillwater” writer/director Tom McCarthy won a best original screenplay Oscar for 2015’s “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s real-life investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the Catholic Church knowingly covering up these crimes. The crime investigation in “Stillwater” is much more personal and much more underground because it doesn’t always follow legal protocol, and is therefore much more dangerous. However, “Stillwater” (which McCarthy wrote with Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey and Noé Debré) is nowhere as authentic as “Spotlight,” when it comes to depicting a crime investigation.

In “Stillwater,” Bill Baker (played by Matt Damon) is a longtime oil rigger (also known as a roughneck) who has been experiencing some hard times in his hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Six months ago, he was laid off from his job. He’s been able to find temporary construction jobs here and there, but his lack of steady employment has caused him a lot of financial strain. Bill has been an oil rig worker, ever since he dropped out of high school to work with his father, who was also a roughneck.

Bill’s personal life is also a mess. He’s been a widower ever since his wife committed suicide a little more than 20 years ago, when their daughter Allison (played by Abigail Breslin) was 4 years old. After this tragedy, Allison was raised by her maternal grandmother Sharon (played by Deanna Dunagan), who has a cordial relationship with Bill. It’s in contrast to the estranged relationship that Bill has with his own mother, whom he hasn’t been in contact with for years. Bill only hears about how his mother is doing when Sharon tells him.

The movie never explains why Bill and his mother are estranged, but later on in the story, Bill reveals that he’s in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Now that Bill has more free time on his hands than when he was working full-time, he’s decided that he’s going to Marseille, France, for two weeks to try to solve the biggest problem he’s ever encountered: getting Allison exonerated for murder and released from prison.

Allison, who’s about 24 or 25, is in a Marseille prison and has served five years of a nine-year prison sentence for murdering her live-in lover Lena Momdi, who attended Marseille University with Allison. Going to the same university is how the former couple met. Lena is not shown in flashbacks, and whatever information about her in the movie comes mostly from Allison, who has vigorously maintained her innocence in Lena’s murder.

Why did Allison want to enroll in a university in France? It’s revealed later in the movie that she was very unhappy in Stillwater and wanted to live somewhere far away from her hometown. Lena, who was of Arabic heritage, had a very different background than Allison’s: Lena came from a stable, upper-middle-class family.

Allison’s and Lena’s personalities were different too. Allison is a creative type who likes to draw. She’s introverted and doesn’t make friends easily. Lena was more sociable and extroverted. It’s hinted throughout the movie that Lena was Allison’s first serious romance and the first relationship where Allison could live openly as a lesbian or queer woman.

The story comes out in bits and pieces in the movie, but these are the indisputable facts: In 2014, Lena was stabbed to death in the apartment that she shared with Allison, who doesn’t have an alibi during the time that investigators say that Lena was murdered. Allison claims that she came home to find Lena murdered. At the time, Lena and Allison were having problems in their relationship because Lena was cheating on Allison.

Allison says she doesn’t know who murdered Lena, but she has a theory that it was probably a guy in his 20s named Akim (played by Idir Azougli), whom Lena had recently met in a bar. Allison says she briefly met Akim too, but Allison doesn’t know anything about him except his first name, and she has a vague memory of what he looks like. Allison has told her father Bill that she found out that a female acquaintance had overheard Akim bragging about stabbing Lena.

That’s not enough to prove Allison’s innocence, but there was untested DNA at the crime scene. Allison thinks that the DNA is the DNA of the murderer and could be Akim’s, if Allison’s theory is correct. Bill then takes it upon himself to try get Allison’s case re-opened by finding the evidence that could exonerate her.

If this murder mystery sounds a lot like the real-life Amanda Knox case, that’s because “Stillwater” was partially inspired by Knox’s case, according to the “Stillwater” production notes. Knox was an American student attending a university in Perugia, Italy, in 2007, when she, her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and their acquaintance Rudy Guede were convicted of sexually assaulting and stabbing to death Knox’s British female roommate Meredith Kercher, who attended a different university in the same city. However, only Guede was directly tied to the crime through physical evidence (his bloody fingerprints), and Knox never wavered from proclaiming her innocence. The case was notorious for its twists and turns and worldwide media exposure.

Allison’s murder case in “Stillwater” also made a lot headlines, but the filmmakers wisely chose not to have flashbacks in this movie. That’s because the main characters in the story want to forget painful memories from their past. By the time that Bill visits Allison in prison, the media frenzy over Allison’s case has died down. And it seems that almost everyone involved, except Allison and her few family members, have given up hope that she will be exonerated and set free from prison.

While Bill is staying at a low-priced hotel, he notices the two people who are in the room next to his. He doesn’t find out who they are until a little later, but these hotel neighbors are theater actress Virginie (played by Camille Cottin) and her 8-year-old daughter Maya (played by Lilou Siauvaud), who is a bright and energetic child. Bill doesn’t know it yet, but all three of them will become part of each other’s lives in ways that they don’t expect.

The first time that Bill talks to Virginie, it’s because she’s partying on her room balcony with a friend. They’re laughing, drinking, and playing music loudly, so Bill asks them to keep the noise down. Virginie says that she only speaks French, and she has a dismissive tone toward Bill. A disgruntled Bill decides not to cause an argument and just shuts his room’s sliding glass door.

The next day, Bill sees that Maya has been locked out of the room and she doesn’t have a room key. Because he wants to make sure that Maya is safe, he takes her to the hotel lobby so that the front desk can give Maya a spare key. Virginie eventually shows up and she thanks Bill for his act of kindness. Bill notices that Virginie can speak perfect English. And when he points it out to her, Virginie looks embarrassed and makes a sheepish apology.

Virginie explains that the reason why Maya was accidentally locked out of the hotel room was because Virginie (who’s a single mother) was running late from an appointment for their new apartment. Virginie and Maya are staying at the hotel until they can move into their new home. Later, Virginie reveals to Bill that Maya’s father is alive but not in their lives, and that Virginie has been the only parent to raise Maya. Virginia describes Maya’s father as a “fling” who now lives in Crete.

Meanwhile, Allison doesn’t trust the prison mail system and knows all meetings and phone conversations in prison are recorded. And so, Allison has given Bill an important letter written in French that she wants him to hand-deliver to her defense attorney named Leparq (played by Anne Le Ny), to try to get the case re-opened. After encountering some obstacles, Bill gets an in-person meeting with Leparq, who reads the letter and says that there’s nothing more she can do because the case cannot be appealed without significant evidence.

A frustrated and angry Bill goes back to the hotel, where he asks Virginie to translate the letter for him. In the letter, Allison describes Akim as a likely person of interest who could be a match for the untested DNA that was at the crime scene. Allison also says in her letter that she doesn’t trust her father to help, even though he is her only family member who can be in France. (Allison’s grandmother Sharon, who wears an oxygen tube, has health issues and can’t travel overseas.)

As soon as Bill knows what the letter says, it’s at this point where viewers know he’s going to want to get back in Allison’s good graces. He meets with a local private investigator named Dirosa (played by Moussa Maaskri), but Bill can’t afford the investigator’s starting fee of €12,000. And so, that means Bill is going to do the investigating himself.

The first step is to find the witness who claims that she heard Akim confess to the murder. This witness can only speak French. Luckily, Viriginie is very sympathetic to Bill’s plight, and she readily agrees to be his translator. Things don’t go smoothly, of course, and Bill finds himself increasingly obsessed with finding Akim. Bill also gets personally involved with Virginie.

Although “Stillwater” does a very good job of unpeeling the layers of the story’s three complicated adults—Bill, Allison and Virginie—where the movie falters is in the almost absurd acts of vigilantism that Bill commits in the movie. His two immediate main goals are to find Akim and get Akim’s DNA. But since Bill doesn’t know Akim’s last name, and Allison can only give a vague description, there’s a time-consuming process of finding out if Akim really exists.

Akim really does exist. Bill finds him and stalks him. And there’s a scene in the movie where Bill has the perfect opportunity to get Akim’s DNA by taking a plastic straw and cup that Akim was drinking from and then discarded at an outdoor cafe. However, Bill doesn’t take the cup and straw as DNA evidence. Something else happens that takes this movie down a very dark path. Viewers will have to assume that Bill is so ignorant about the law that he doesn’t know that how evidence is gathered can affect whether or not the evidence is admissible in court.

“Stillwater” has many references to the cultural and social class differences of an American like Bill being in France. Bill has to correct people who incorrectly assume that because he’s American who has the ability to travel to France, he must be rich. In another scene, Virginie agrees to help Bill after she suspiciously asks him, “Did you vote for [Donald] Trump?”

Bill doesn’t say what his political leanings are and instead says he can’t vote in U.S. elections because he’s a convicted felon, although he doesn’t say why he was in prison and when. Virginie makes it clear that Bill’s prison record wouldn’t bother her as much as it would bother her if he voted for Trump. She hangs out with a lot of progressive hipster types in her theater group.

In another scene, Virginie and Bill have an argument when she helps him interview a local cafe owner who might have seen Akim. The cafe owner named Max (played by Pierre Piacentino) is very racist against Arabs and tells Virginie in French that he’s willing to accuse anyone Arab to help with the case. Virginie abruptly ends the interview in disgust and tells Bill why, but Bill is willing to overlook this racism because he thinks the cafe owner might still have valuable information.

Bill tells Virginie that he works with a lot of people who have these racists thoughts, but he believes you can still work with these people if they’re on your side. It’s the first of many clues that Bill is willing to do whatever it takes to free Allison from prison, even if it could mean getting a racist witness who will lie in order to wrongfully accuse someone. Virginie makes it clear that she has certain ethics that are non-negotiable. It won’t be the last time that Bill’s and Virginie’s two different moral codes will clash with each other.

An issue that “Stillwater” doesn’t adequately address is that Allison got only a nine-year prison sentence for murder. That’s an incredibly lenient sentence, considering that it was a brutal stabbing that appears to have been pre-meditated. It’s implied throughout the story that Allison was convicted of first-degree murder. It’s never discussed in the movie (although it should have been discussed) that Allison, who’s young enough to potentially have several decades of life ahead of her, was lucky to get such a light prison sentence for this serious crime.

No one says the words “white privilege” in this movie, but a lot of viewers who know that racial inequalities exist in criminal justice systems will immediately think about how a person of color in the same circumstances as Allison probably would’ve gotten a punishment that’s a lot worse and longer than a nine-year prison sentence. Likewise, Bill takes for granted and feels emboldened that as a white man traveling by himself, he can feel entitled to go in certain neighborhoods as a stranger and do whatever vigilante things that he does. It’s because he consciously or subconsciously knows that people are less likely to call the police on someone who looks like him when he acts aggressively or does suspicious things.

Allison already served five years of that nine-year prison sentence, so it raises more questions that the movie doesn’t answer about how Bill and Allison went about solving her legal problems. The legal process to get someone exonerated could take a lot more than four years. And it means that Allison could be released from prison in a shorter period of time than it could take for her to be exonerated.

That probability is never discussed in the movie, because “Stillwater” is all about Bill trying to get things done in an unrealistic “only in a movie” period of time. And yes, Bill and Allison want to clear Allison’s name. But at what cost, when Bill starts breaking the law like a vigilante?

It’s why “Stillwater,” even though it benefits from stirring performances by the principal cast members, it still feels like a Hollywood version of how to free a prisoner who claims to be wrongly convicted. Usually, in melodramatic movies like “Stillwater,” someone is portrayed as a one-person juggernaut doing almost all the detective work. In reality, it takes several people and many years of investigations and court procedures to get a convicted prisoner exonerated.

In the production notes for “Stillwater,” McCarthy comments on some of the main inspirations for him to make the movie: “I was inspired by a number of Mediterranean Noir writers like Andrea Camilleri, Massimo Carlotto and Jean-Claude Izzo, whose brilliant Marseille Trilogy led me to the French city. One visit to Marseille and I knew that I found my port.”

And just like those novels, “Stillwater” is a fictional version of life. The movie is entertaining, suspenseful and a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale. However, “Stillwater” shouldn’t be used as an ideal example of a dramatic film that realistically portrays how to try to get someone out of prison.

Focus Features will release “Stillwater” in U.S. cinemas on July 30, 2021.

2019 Hollywood Film Awards: recap and photos

November 3, 2019

Al Pacino (left), winner of the Hollywood Supporting Actor Award, and “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

The following is a press release from Dick Clark Productions:

The 23rd Annual “Hollywood Film Awards” brought together Hollywood’s elite to honor the year’s most talked about and highly anticipated actors, actresses and films, and those who helped bring them to life. The awards ceremony, celebrating its 23rd anniversary as the official launch of the awards season, was hosted by actor and comedian Rob Riggle, and took place at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. In its 23-year history, over 340 of the world’s biggest stars and filmmakers have been highlighted at the “Hollywood Film Awards” and more than 140 of the honorees have gone on to garner Oscar nominations and/or wins.

Rob Riggle  at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for HFA)

Host Rob Riggle infused the ceremony with heart and humor, proving to be a steadfast guide through the evening’s many memorable moments. There was no shortage of standing ovations for both presenters and honorees alike, who included some of the most iconic members of the Hollywood community. Al Pacino took time to acknowledge many of his fellow honorees and friends in the room as he accepted the “Hollywood Supporting Actor Award.”

Martin Scorsese at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

After a presentation from her mentor Martin Scorsese, “Hollywood Producer Award” recipient Emma Tillinger Koskoff delivered an emotional speech, offering a tear-filled thank you to the legendary director and producer. “Hollywood Filmmaker Award” honoree Bong Joon Ho, spoke in his native tongue to deliver a universal message that “we use only one language of cinema.”

Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for HFA)

In a touching moment between “Hollywood Career Achievement Award” presenter Nicole Kidman and this year’s honoree Charlize Theron, Kidman remarked that “we don’t get to choose our heroes, but through this journey, I got to work with one of mine!”

Antonio Banderas and Dakota Johnson at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Dakota Johnson took the stage to present Antonio Banderas with the “Hollywood Actor Award,” and reflected upon her realization that Banderas has become one of the most influential people in her life. He accepted by dedicating the award to Dakota, and his daughter Stella, who was in the room to share the night with him.

Cynthia Erivo at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

Viola Davis presented Cynthia Erivo with the “Hollywood Breakout Actress Award,” calling her “fearlessness personified” as she takes on the role of Harriet Tubman. Ray Romano brought the laughs as he showered praise upon “Hollywood Breakout Actor” honoree Taron Egerton, pointing out how unfair it is that Egerton is not only endlessly talented, but funny as well.

Robert Downey Jr. and Shia LaBeouf at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019 . (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for HFA)

Christian Bale and Matt Damon turned up to honor their “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold, while Robert Downey Jr. was on hand to laud “Honey Boy” actor and screenwriter Shia LeBeouf with the “Hollywood Breakthrough Screenwriter Award.”  Former co-stars Jennifer Garner and Olivia Wilde celebrated Wilde’s “Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award,” each sharing humorous tales of their adventures together on set.

Olivia Wilde at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

Kevin Feige and Victoria Alonso joined together to accept the “Hollywood Blockbuster Award,” thanking their amazing writers, directors, and awe-inspiring cast, including presenter Mark Ruffalo. Alicia Keys began her tribute to “Hollywood Song Award” honoree Pharrell Williams by recognizing all of the love in the room, before Williams delivered a powerful speech focusing on the unparalleled contributions made by “The Black Godfather” subject, Clarence Avant. He said that he has opened doors when others would glue them shut and has consistently demanded equality throughout his career.

Finn Wittrock, Renée Zellweger and Jessie Buckley at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

“Judy” co-stars Finn Wittrock and Jessie Buckley were on hand to recognize their leading lady Renée Zellweger with the “Hollywood Actress Award.” She said that the experience of playing Judy Garland was “one of those rare opportunities that essentially make no sense at all, but becomes your greatest accomplishment!”

Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for HFA)

After an earnest tribute from Jon Hamm, “Hollywood Screenwriter Award” honoree Anthony McCarten joked about finding success when he strayed from his teacher’s advice to write what he knows. He advised others to write what they want to know, that curiosity is what drove him to this project. Willem Dafoe presented his friend and colleague Laura Dern with the “Hollywood Supporting Actress Award,” praising the inspiring way in which she connects to audiences through her compassion.

This year’s award show honored the following:

“Hollywood Career Achievement Award”
Charlize Theron, presented by Nicole Kidman

“Hollywood Actor Award”
Antonio Banderas for Pain and Glory, presented by Dakota Johnson

“Hollywood Actress Award”
Renée Zellweger for Judy, presented by Finn Wittrock & Jessie Buckley

“Hollywood Supporting Actor Award”
Al Pacino for The Irishman, presented by Francis Ford Coppola

“Hollywood Supporting Actress Award”
Laura Dern for Marriage Story, presented by Willem Dafoe

“Hollywood Producer Award”
Emma Tillinger Koskoff for The Irishman, presented by Martin Scorsese

“Hollywood Director Award”
James Mangold for Ford v Ferrari, presented by Christian Bale & Matt Damon

“Hollywood Filmmaker Award”
Bong Joon Ho for Parasite, presented by Sienna Miller

“Hollywood Screenwriter Award”
Anthony McCarten for The Two Popes, presented by Jon Hamm

“Hollywood Blockbuster Award”
Avengers: Endgame, presented by Mark Ruffalo

“Hollywood Song Award”
Pharrell Williams for Letter To My Godfather, presented by Alicia Keys

“Hollywood Breakout Actor Award”
Taron Egerton for Rocketman, presented by Ray Romano

“Hollywood Breakout Actress Award”
Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, presented by Viola Davis

“Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award”
Olivia Wilde for Booksmart, presented by Jennifer Garner

“Hollywood Breakthrough Screenwriter Award”
Shia LaBeouf for Honey Boy, presented by Robert Downey Jr.

“Hollywood Animation Award”
Toy Story 4

“Hollywood Cinematography Award”
Mihai Malaimare Jr. for Jojo Rabbit

“Hollywood Film Composer Award”
Randy Newman for Marriage Story

“Hollywood Editor Award”
Michael McCusker & Andrew Buckland for Ford v Ferrari

“Hollywood Visual Effects Award”
Pablo Helman for The Irishman

“Hollywood Sound Award”
Donald Sylvester, Paul Massey, David Giammarco, & Steven A. Morrow for Ford v Ferrari

“Hollywood Costume Design Award”
Anna Mary Scott Robbins for Downton Abbey

“Hollywood Make-Up & Hair Styling Award”
Lizzie Yianni-Georgiou, Tapio Salmi, & Barrie Gower for Rocketman

“Hollywood Production Design Award”
Ra Vincent for Jojo Rabbit

Honoree Portraits are available on the show’s Twitter and Instagram pages. For all information and highlights, please visit the website for the Hollywood Film Awards.

For the latest news, follow the “Hollywood Film Awards” on social and join the conversation by using the official hashtag for the show, #HollywoodAwards.

Twitter: @HollywoodAwards
Facebook: Facebook.com/HollywoodAwards
Instagram: @hollywoodawards

About Dick Clark Productions
Dick Clark Productions (DCP) is the world’s largest producer and proprietor of televised live event entertainment programming with the “Academy of Country Music Awards,” “American Music Awards,” “Billboard Music Awards,” “Golden Globe Awards,” “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest” and the “Streamy Awards.” Weekly television programming includes “So You Think You Can Dance” from 19 Entertainment and DCP. DCP also owns one of the world’s most unique and extensive entertainment archive libraries with over 60 years of award-winning shows, historic programs, specials, performances and legendary programming. DCP is a division of Valence Media, a diversified and integrated media company with divisions and strategic investments in television, film, live entertainment, digital media and publishing. For additional information, visit www.dickclark.com.

About the Hollywood Film Awards
The Hollywood Film Awards, founded in 1997, were created to celebrate Hollywood and launch the awards season. The recipients of the awards are selected by an Advisory Team for their body of work and/or a film(s) that is to be released during the calendar year. For additional information, visit www.hollywoodawards.com.

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