Review: ‘Inside Out 2,’ starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Maya Hawke, Kensington Tallman, Tony Hale, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Ayo Edebiri and Paul Walter Hauser

June 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Disgust (voiced by Liza Lapira), Fear (voiced by Tony Hale) and Anger (voice of Lewis Black) in “Inside Out 2” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

“Inside Out 2”

Directed by Kelsey Mann

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the animated film “Inside Out 2” (a sequel to 2015’s “Inside Out” features a group of characters portraying emotions (inside a specific girl) and human beings.

Culture Clash: New emotions arrive inside a 13-year-old girl, and they clash with her previously existing emotions.

Culture Audience: “Inside Out” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, the first “Inside Out” movie, and animated films about adolescence.

Embarrassment (voiced by Paul Walter Hauser), Anxiety (voiced by Maya Hawke), Envy (voiced by Ayo Edebiri) and Ennui (voiced by Adèle Exarchopoulos) in “Inside Out 2” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Continuing the story that began in the 2015 Oscar-winning animated film “Inside Out” (about emotions that are characters inside a specific girl,) “Inside Out 2” is a worthy sequel in its amusing and touching story of emotions that often conflict with each other inside a 13-year-old girl. The voice cast performances and visuals are stellar, even if the overall plot has no real surprises. People of many generations can enjoy the film, but many of the jokes are best appreciated by people who know or who have experienced how puberty hormones and adolescence can change people’s moods.

Directed by Kelsey Mann and written by Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein, “Inside Out 2” is a combination of a familiar movie story of a teenage girl who is insecure about accepted by her peers and a race-against-time depiction of the girl’s inner emotions that are battling against each other. “Inside Out” was directed by Pete Docter, who co-wrote the “Inside Out” screenplay with Josh Cooley and LeFauve. The human protagonist in both movies is Riley Andersen. In “Inside Out,” Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is 11 years old. In “Inside Out 2,” Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman) is 13 years old.

In the world of “Inside Out,” the Emotions are characters inside of Riley. The Emotions work inside the core of her being, which they call Headquarters, and they use a console board to control Riley’s feelings. In the first “Inside Out” movie, Riley’s emotions were in turmoil because Riley (who is an only child) and her unnamed parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan, who both return for “Inside Out 2”) have moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, and Riley has problems adjusting to her new environment.

The Emotions in “Inside Out 2” are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Disgust (voiced by Liza Lapira), Fear (voiced by Tony Hale, replacing Bill Hader, who had the role in “Inside Out”) and Anger (voice of Lewis Black). Joy is the unofficial leader of the group and the voiceover narrator for “Inside Out 2.” The main conflict in the story happens when new Emotions arrive and take over Headquarters, while the original Emotions strive to take back the control they originally had. The new Emotions are Anxiety (voiced by Maya Hawke), Embarrassment (voiced by Paul Walter Hauser), Envy (voiced by Ayo Edebiri) and Ennui (voiced by Adèle Exarchopoulos). Anxiety is the unofficial leader of these new emotions

In the beginning of “Inside Out 2” (which takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area), Riley is described as being a well-adjusted and happy teenager who is “still exceptional,” says Joy. Riley is intelligent, friendly, and obedient. She excels in academics and in her favorite sport: hockey. The opening scene shows Riley playing in a hockey game, where she is considered to be a star player. Soon afterward, Riley meets two other students who will become her best friends and hockey teammates: Grace (voiced by Grace Lu) and Bree (voiced by Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green), who have fairly generic personalities.

Riley, Grace and Bree are all looking forward to spending their summer vacation attending a hockey camp hosted by Bay Area High School, where the three girls plan to attend. Grace and Bree tell Riley some upsetting news before they go to the camp. Grace and Bree are transferring to another school in the fall. However, Grace and Bree are still enrolled in the hockey camp for the summer.

Riley is desperate to stand out and impress the camp’s no-nonsense and strict leader—Coach Roberts (voiced by Yvette Nicole Brown)—as well as the experienced hockey players at the camp. The varsity captain is Valentina “Val” Ortiz (voiced by Lilimar), an outgoing person who treats everyone with respect. Riley greatly admires Valentina and aspires to achieve the rare accomplishment that Valentina did: make the varsity team as a freshman classmate.

“Inside Out 2” has the expected scenarios that would churn up a teenager’s emotions under these circumstances. The movie depicts Riley being under pressure to win games, dealing with catty gossipers, and trying to fit in with the “cool kids.” Meanwhile, Joy deviates a little from her perpetually perky persona by having a little bit of a meltdown in a memorable scene.

“Inside Out 2” avoids a lot of pitfalls that many sequels make when several new characters are introduced. Because the Emotions characters have the same names as whatever feelings they represent, it’s very easy to not gets these characters confused. Hawke and Poehler are the standouts in the voice cast.

There’s an amusing cameo from an Emotion called Nostalgia (voiced by June Squibb), who is told that she needs to come back when Riley is older. Another new character is Deep Dark Secret (voiced Steve Purcell), who reveals his secret during the movie’s end credits. “Inside Out 2” goes exactly where you think it will go in the battle of the Emotions. It’s still a entertaining ride that has a lot of meaningful things to say (both serious and comedic) about humanity.

Walt Disney Pictures released “Inside Out 2” in U.S. cinemas on June 14, 2024.

Review: ‘Wildcat’ (2024), starring Maya Hawke, Rafael Casal, Philip Ettinger, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn and Laura Linney

May 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Maya Hawke in “Wildcat” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Wildcat” (2024)

Directed by Ethan Hawke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia and in New York, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the biopic drama film “Wildcat” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Young author Flannery O’Connor struggles with various issues, including writer’s block, sexism, lupus, a domineering mother, and religion, specifically Catholicism. 

Culture Audience: “Wildcat” will appeal primarily to fans of O’Connor, filmmaker Ethan Hawke and slow-paced and uneven biopics.

Maya Hawke in “Wildcat” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Wildcat” wants to be an edgy and experimental biopic of author Flannery O’Connor, but it’s just a pile-on of overly pretentious rambling that’s trying too hard to look clever. Everything in this drab drama looks phony and forced, not natural or organic. This is the type of pompous movie that gets into major film festivals mainly because the director is famous. “Wildcat” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, and later screened at other festivals that year, such as the Toronto International Film Festival, the Zurich Film Festival and the Stockholm International Film Festival.

Ethan Hawke directed “Wildcat,” which he co-wrote with Shelby Gaines. “Wildcat” (starring Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) is based on some of O’Connor’s short stories. (For the purposes of this review, the real O’Connor will be referred to as O’Connor, while the Flannery O’Connor character in the movie will be referred to as Flannery.) “Wildcat” (which takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s) is a mixture of realism and surrealism. In several scenes, O’Connor’s short stories come to life as she’s writing them, with Maya Hawke portraying not only O’Connor but also the protagonists of these short stories.

It’s an ambitious concept for a movie that only works in short spurts and then gets muddled and meanders for long stretches. Parts of “Wildcat” look better-suited for a stage play (especially in poorly lit scenes were people just talk in rooms), while other parts of the movie fit better in a cinematic format. For example, Flannery is fascinated with peacocks, and one of the best shots in the film involves a visual image of Flannery with peacock feathers unfurling behind her, like an art installation. But artsy visuals and self-indulgent monologues (of which this movie has plenty) cannot turn “Wildcat” into a very good movie.

People who are not familiar with O’Connor might be rolling their eyes at how O’Connor in “Wildcat” is depicted with every checklist cliché of an artist who died young. (At the age of 39, she died of lupus in 1964). Flannery in “Wildcat” is a moody and insecure loner, with a “tortured soul.” She puts her writing above everything else in her life. And then, she’s frustrated that her personal relationships are unfulfilling or downright disastrous.

“Wildcat” opens with a scene that might confuse some viewers. It’s a fictional trailer for a fictional 1964 movie called “Star Drake,” based on one of Flannery’s semi-autobiographical short stories. Flannery is supposed to be imagining this movie trailer in her head. “Wildcat” depicts many fantasies imagined by Flannery. In this imaginary “Star Drake” movie trailer, the movie’s plot is described as “the outspoken story of an indiscreet woman.”

Flannery portrays the title character of “Star Drake,” who is a young writer who temporarily stays with a middle-aged couple and causes havoc in their lives as a femme fatale. It’s no doubt partially inspired by O’Connor’s real-life 1949 experience of temporarily living with classic book translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally Fitzgerald in Ridgefield, Connecticut, although O’Connor’s real-life visit wasn’t as dramatic as it’s portrayed in “Star Drake.”

Throughout “Wildcat,” the movie switches back and forth between Flannery’s “real life” and the “fantasies” inspired by her short stories. An early scene in “Wildcat” takes place in 1950, when Flannery (who spent most of her life living in her home state of Georgia) has a tense meeting in New York City with her book publisher John Selby (played by Alessandro Nivola), who admittedly doesn’t understand the eccentric Flannery and her writing style. (“Wildcat” was actually filmed in Kentucky.)

John thinks Flannery’s angst-filled short stories aren’t very ladylike. He tells her that she doesn’t have to write like “she’s picking a fight” with readers. John also suggests that Flannery give him an outline of what she’s writing before she turns in the draft. However, Flannery explains that she doesn’t do outlines. She just writes what comes to her.

“Wildcat” doesn’t want to dwell on harsh realities of being a female author in a male-dominated field in this particular time period. Flannery, for all of her “struggling artist” posturing, is never really seen struggling with harmful sexism or poverty in “Wildcat.” The way it looks in “Wildcat,” the people who are Flannery’s biggest obstacles in life are women: herself and her domineering mother.

Flannery has an encouraging mentor is Robert “Cal” Lowell (played by Philip Ettinger), a bachelor who isn’t much older than she is and is a great admirer of Flannery’s work. Flannery gets accepted into a writer’s workshop at an unnamed university. Cal is Flannery’s writing instructor for this workshop, where Flannery is one of only a few female students.

This part of the movie seems inspired by O’Connor’s real-life stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. The character of Cal seems to be based on a combination of the real-life Paul Engle, who was the workshop leader. In “Wildcat,” Flannery and Cal they seem to be attracted to each other for more than just professional reasons.

Some of the dialogue in “Wildcat” is cringeworthy. In a scene taking place at train station, Cal says to Flannery: “I love you, Flannery. That’s not a [marriage] proposal. You know me. I’ve got a lot of eggs to fry.” Flannery responds, “You let me know when you’re done with breakfast then.”

Flannery’s relationship with her widowed mother Regina (played by Laura Linney) is the source of most of Flannery’s conflicts in the movie. Regina is a conservative Catholic who is overbearing and racist. Flannery (who is an only child) moves back home to Georgia to live with Regina and Regina’s gossipy sister Duchess (played by Christine Dye), who becomes Flannery’s closest confidante.

Flannery’s father died of lupus when Flannery was a child. His death is barely mentioned in the movie. In real life, O’Connor’s father Edward, who was a real-estate agent, died in 1937, when she was 8 years old. “Wildcat” never really explores how this tragic death affected Flannery.

Flannery seems to take pride in being an oddball non-conformist, but she also seems conflicted over it. She likes to dress in men’s clothing (much to the dismay of her mother Regina), but the female heroines in her stories are often ultra-feminine and vulnerable. Flannery openly scoffs at and questions the concept of religion, but she sometimes wonders if being a devout Catholic would make her life better. (Liam Neeson as a cameo as a Catholic priest named Father Flynn, who counsels Flannery when she’s at a low point in her life.)

Flannery has lupus, which is a diagnosis that she doesn’t discover until later in the movie. By then, “Wildcat” viewers will see depictions of various characters in Flannery’s short stories. In these short stories that play out in her head and on screen, Flannery usually imagines herself in the role of a young woman who is sexually repressed and/or sexually inexperienced, including Sarah Ruth Cates from “Parker’s Back,” LucyNell Crater from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Mary Grace from “Revelation” and Joy “Hulga” Hopewell from “Good Country People.”

Each of these imaginary heroines is usually controlled and manipulated by an older woman, who is a mother or maternal figure to the heroine—and obviously representative of Regina. In “Wildcat,” Linney also has several roles in the movie, including the roles of Mrs. Crater, Mrs. Turpin and Mrs. Hopewell. Predictably, these bossy characters are argumentative and difficult.

“Wildcat” also has depictions of various love interests of the heroines from these short stories. Obadiah Elihue “O.E.” Parker (played by Rafael Casal) is the tattooed and gun-toting rebel from O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” Tom R. Shiftlet (played by Steve Zahn) is the homeless con man from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” who agrees to marry naïve LucyNell Crater, after Mrs. Crater sells LucyNell into this marriage with cash and the use of Mrs. Crater’s car as a “dowry.” Manley Pointer (played by Cooper Hoffman) is the conniving Bible salesman from “Good Country People.”

Maya Hawke certainly has an admirable acting range that she gets to show in “Wildcat.” Linney is always a pro at what she does. And the rest of the “Wildcat” cast members do reasonably well in their roles. The problem is that you never forget that they are acting in a way that comes across as showboating instead of truly embodying the characters.

The movie’s cinematography consists of mostly of shades of blues and grays, as if to reflect the story’s depressive mood. “Wildcat” doesn’t really have a lot that’s important to say about Flannery O’Connor and her life experiences. Instead, this lethargic movie depicts her as a fever dream of disjointed fantasies that she thinks about when she wants to escape the uncomfortable realities of her life.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Wildcat” in select U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024.

Review: ‘Maestro’ (2023), starring Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan

October 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Bradley Cooper in “Maestro” (Photo by Jason McDonald/Netflix)

“Maestro” (2023)

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York state, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, the dramatic film “Maestro” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy in this biopic of mega-famous composer/orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Culture Clash: Bernstein led a double life as a semi-closeted queer man who had male lovers during his entire relationship with actress Felicia Montealegre, who knew about his true sexuality and was his wife from 1951 until her death from cancer in 1978. 

Culture Audience: “Maestro” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Bernstein; stars Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan; and decades-spanning biopics, even if the movie looks like it’s trying too hard to win major awards.

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in “Maestro” (Photo by Jason McDonald/Netflix)

“Maestro” skillfully depicts the life of a fiery and mercurial music star, even if this very flawed protagonist will leave some viewers cold because of his unrelenting narcissism and selfishness depicted throughout the movie. In this Leonard Bernstein biopic, his musical talent is a very secondary part of the story, compared to his personal relationships. Some viewers won’t like the timeline jumping and small number of musical scenes, but the acting performances are stellar.

Directed by Bradley Cooper (who co-wrote the “Maestro” screenplay with Josh Singer), “Maestro” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival. Cooper stars in “Maestro” as Bernstein, the influential and very famous composer/orchestra conductor, whose best-known work includes writing the music for “West Side Story” and being the longtime music director for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bernstein died in 1990, at the age of 72. For the purposes of this review, the real Leonard Bernstein is referred to as Bernstein, while the character of Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” is referred to as Leonard.

“Maestro” is Cooper’s second movie as a director. He made his feature-film directorial debut with the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born,” which is a far superior movie when it comes to authentic-looking scenes that grab people’s emotions and never let go. “Maestro” has all the characteristics of an “awards bait” movie (including Oscar-winning filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese as producers), but many of the scenes look a little too staged. The movie’s jumpy timeline editing (the story is told in non-chronological order) gives “Maestro” a fidgety tone that might cause some viewers to lose interest by the time the movie is half-over.

“Maestro” (which takes place mostly in New York state) begins and ends with a scene taking place sometime in the 1980s, when Leonard is giving a recorded TV interview that is being filmed in what appears to be a library room in his home. The “Maestro” scenes that take place in the 1970s and 1980s are in color. Any scene taking place before the 1970s is in black and white. In the beginning of the movie, during this opening interview scene, a frail-looking Leonard plays a little bit of piano while he mumbles a few sentences. (This movie’s makeup and hairstyling are above-average, especially in the scenes with Leonard as an elderly man.)

The movie then suddenly flashes back to New York City to 1946, when Leonard wakes up in bed next to clarinetist David Oppenheim (played by Matt Bomer), his lover at the time. (There is no nudity in this movie.) Leonard (whose real name was Louis Bernstein) playfully slaps David on the rear end before jumping out of bed. At the time, Leonard was a young and famous composer/conductor on the rise in the music world, with lots of charm, confidence and enthusiasm. Leonard prefers to be called Lenny by people he knows or those whom he wants to know.

It isn’t long before social butterfly Leonard meets actress Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan) at a party hosted by Claudio Arrau (played by Oscar Pavlo), who was Felicia’s piano instructor at the time. Felicia (who born in Costa Rica, and raised in Chile) is intelligent, witty and very self-assured. Felicia and Leonard have an instant connection expressed through flirting and banter. They soon begin dating, and he is very up front in telling her his secret: He’s also sexually attracted to men. Felicia doesn’t seem to have a problem with it because Leonard makes her happy, and he seems to genuinely love her—just not in the way that he loves men.

Leonard juggles his relationships with David and Felicia, until he decides to spend more time in a committed relationship with Felicia. When Leonard introduces Felicia to David for the first time, the eventually jilted David seems a little envious but not too bothered that Felicia has captured Leonard’s interest. Apparently, David is used to Leonard’s polyamorous ways. Felicia will never really gets used to it.

Someone who approves of Felicia is Leonard’s younger sister Shirley (played by Sarah Silverman), who is sarcastically funny and who knows about Leonard’s true sexuality. The movie depicts Shirley being at the same party where Felicia and Leonard met. Felicia and Shirley become genuine friends. Shirley and Felicia are close enough that Felicia confides in Shirley when she’s having marital problems with Leonard.

As an experienced actress in theater and television, Felicia has her own established career when she meets Leonard. As depicted in “Maestro,” Felicia’s American father Roy Elwood Cohn owns a performing arts theater where she and Leonard meet for dates. Leonard and Felicia have a quick courtship where she’s the one who brings up marriage to him first. “Let’s give it a whirl,” she smiles when they decide to get married. Leonard and Felicia get married in 1951. He was 33, while she was 29.

The movie then flashes forward to 37-year-old Leonard and 33-year-old Felicia as new parents to their first child, a daughter named Jamie. They would eventually have two more children: middle child Alexander (nicknamed Alex) and youngest child Nina. “Maestro” depicts Jamie (played as a teenager and young adult by Maya Hawke) as the child who has the closest bond to Leonard. She is curious and intelligent—just like her father.

Alex and Nina are barely in the movie. Brooklyn Rockett portrays Jamie as a child. Sam Nivola has the role of Alex as a teenager/young adult. Alexa Swinton is Nina as a teenager. Maybe the real-life Alex and Nina did not want to be featured prominently in the movie for privacy reasons. Whatever the reason is, Alex and Nina are sidelined characters with vague personalities.

When Jamie goes away to college, she is the one who asks Leonard if the gossip that she’s hearing about him is true. Jamie doesn’t come right and say what she’s heard, but Leonard knows she’s heard that he has affairs with men. Felicia has made Leonard promise never to tell their children the truth about his sexuality, so he lies to Jamie and says the gossip isn’t true, although he hesitates for a moment as if he’s on the verge of telling her the truth.

Don’t expect “Maestro” to show the inner workings of how some of Bernstein’s classics were made. There are really only two big performance scenes that show Leonard conducting an orchestra. They are masterfully filmed and impactful scenes, but then the movie goes right back to what the majority of the story is about: Leonard pursuing younger men, while Felicia tries and often fails to not be jealous.

The movie hints at but doesn’t explicitly show Leonard’s promiscuity. For example, there’s a scene where married Leonard has a pleasant conversation in a park with David and David’s wife, who have their newborn baby with them. Leonard leans in to talk to the baby and says, “Can I tell you a secret? I slept with both of your parents, but I’m reigning it in.”

The scene is played for laughs (David and his wife think that Leonard’s comment is funny), and it’s an effectively comedic moment in the movie. However, there are underlying issues with Leonard that are shown in this scene—namely, Leonard’s flippant attitude over his comment about “reigning it in” indicates that he knows his sexual antics are probably out of control and hurtful to people, but he doesn’t care enough to really stop the emotional pain he causes. His attitude is: “This is who I am. Deal with it.”

The male lover who becomes a constant companion to Leonard is Tommy Cothran (played by Gideon Glick), who was a music director at a San Francisco radio station when he met Leonard at a party in 1971. When they first meet, Leonard and Tommy flirt openly with each other in front of Felicia. And within minutes, Felicia sees Leonard and Tommy kissing in a hallway at the party. She walks away, looking hurt but not too surprised.

Later, when the relationship between Tommy and Leonard becomes more serious, Leonard insists that Tommy be treated like a member of the family. Tommy is frequently included in family activities, such as meals, trips and parties. When Tommy, Leonard and Felicia go on dates together, Felicia is the one who feels like the awkward third wheel.

At first, Felicia tries to act like she’s okay with this arrangement. But it eventually starts to bother her a lot. Felicia and Leonard have more arguments, and they decide to separate but never get divorced. The movie has hints that Leonard abused cocaine or was addicted to cocaine in the 1970s and 1980s. (Observant viewers will notice how sweaty-looking he is in his older years.)

Felicia asserting herself in her marriage and how she deals with her cancer diagnosis are among the best scenes in “Maestro.” Mulligan excels in these scenes that show Mulligan’s exceptional talent in portraying a wide range of emotions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that although the movie is called “Maestro” and it’s a Leonard Bernstein biopic, the soul of the movie is about Felicia.

Felicia also has some of the best lines in the movie. While arguing with Leonard about his deceitful double life (which she admits she’s enabled), she tells him: “There’s a saying in Chile: ‘Never stand underneath a bird that’s full of shit.’ I’ve been living under that bird for too long.” Later in the argument, Felicia makes this cutting remark to Leonard: “If you’re not careful, you’re going to die a lonely old queen.”

Meanwhile, self-absorbed Leonard utters mopey lines such as, “I feel like the world is on the verge of collapse.” It’s quite an ironic statement, when Leonard is constantly shown to be the one causing chaos in his own personal life. The problem with his attitude is that he acts as if he entitled to do what he wants because it feels good to him, even if it hurts other people. When confronted with the consequences of his actions, he acts as if everyone is uptight and wrong for not understanding him.

“Maestro” certainly is elevated by all the great talent in front of and behind the camera. However, after a while, the movie becomes a little too fixated on Leonard’s marital problems and his obsession with seducing men who are younger and less powerful than he is. (In a lecherous scene that takes place after he and Felicia have separated, Leonard is shown getting sexually involved with one his male students who is in Leonard’s orchestra class.) Cooper gives a very ambitious performance, but it all looks very calculated—a bright, polished sheen on a very troubled and complicated man.

Although technically proficient, “Maestro” needed to be more balanced in the story to show more of Leonard’s musical side. It’s like doing a feature-length biopic about a famous singer and only showing the singer perform two or three songs. The movie looks great, thanks to top-notch cinematography from Matthew Libatique, but the story is told like a book with its chapters slightly jumbled.

“Maestro” wants to have its cake and eat it too: It tries very hard to make it look like Felicia was the love of Leonard’s life, and yet he seemed to care more about making his lover Tommy happy. True love also does not inflict the type of suffering that Felicia endured in the marriage. Although she knew about Leonard’s sexuality before they got married, Felicia probably did not anticipate how his double life would be so painful to her and their children.

Bernstein certainly led a very full and accomplished life that deserves a biopic. And there are definitely plenty of reasons why “Maestro” should be seen by people, especially those who are inclined to watch biographical films about celebrities. Just don’t expect this movie to be completely cohesive or thorough in detailing major aspects of Bernstein’s life that aren’t about how his sexuality affected his personal relationships.

Netflix will release “Maestro” in select U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Italian Studies,’ starring Vanessa Kirby

January 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Vanessa Kirby in “Italian Studies” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Italian Studies”

Directed by Adam Leon

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and briefly in London, the dramatic film “Italian Studies” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A British woman, who’s a book author with amnesia, wanders around New York City and tries to befriend a group of teenagers who are complete strangers to her. 

Culture Audience: “Italian Studies” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching meandering films that don’t have much of a plot.

Simon Brickner in “Italian Studies” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Italian Studies” is a misguided stream-of-consciousness drama about amnesia. Too bad the filmmakers forgot to make it an interesting movie. “Italian Studies” is an annoying and repetitive bore that’s trying desperately to be “artsy” and “meaningful,” but the movie ultimately isn’t very creative, and it has nothing to say.

Written and directed by Adam Leon, “Italian Studios” is essentially a 78-minute film where actress Vanessa Kirby plays a character who walks around and acts confused in New York City and briefly in London. In the movie, Kirby portrays a book author named Alina Reynolds, a Brit who has amnesia and no identification on her.

Don’t expect the movie to reveal how Alina got amnesia. Alina doesn’t find out her name until about halfway through the film, but she doesn’t do what most people with amnesia would do if they found out their names: Use that information to find out more about herself, where she lives, and if she has any loved ones who are looking for her.

Instead, the movie wastes a lot of time showing Alina, who is in her 30s, being fixated on hanging out with teenagers who are complete strangers to her. The teens, who are between 15 to 18 years old, are all part of a loosely knit social circle in New York City. Most of them are played by non-professional actors and most of the teenage characters in the movie don’t have names.

Some sections of “Italian Studies” try to go for a vibe that’s similar to Larry Clark’s 1995 teen movie “Kids,” by having several scenes of the teens partying and talking about their lives. The teenagers in “Italian Studies” aren’t as hedonistic as the ones in “Kids,” but they have the same concerns that a lot of teenagers do about finding their identities and where they can get acceptance from other people. Unfortunately, almost all of the teen characters in “Italian Studies” (including Maya Hawke in a small role as a character named Erin McCloud) are forgettable and don’t have distinct personalities. Expect to see these rambling teen scenes go nowhere in “Italian Studies.”

“Italian Studies” also has many scenes that drag out the repetition of showing Alina’s amnesia without her doing much to find out who she is. Before she finds out what her name is, Alina remembers that she was staying at a motel and the room number. She goes to the motel and asks the front-desk clerk (played by Sam Soghor) to give her a spare key to her room because she lost the key. When the clerk asks for her name, she says that she can’t remember, and she doesn’t have any ID on her.

Not surprisingly, the clerk gets suspicious and doesn’t give her the room key. Alina gets irritated that he won’t just hand over the key, which is an indication that not only has she lost her memory, she’s also lost her common sense. This is obviously a motel that doesn’t ask for photo IDs when people check in to get a room, which is why the motel has no record that her identify was verified before they gave her a room. Even if the motel has this lenient check-in policy, Alina should still know that motels don’t just hand out keys to anyone who asks, so her entitled attitude is not justified at all.

There’s another time-wasting sequence about Alina having a white poodle that she left outside on the street and tied to a street post when she went into a convenience store. When she left the convenience store, she forgot to take the poodle with her. It isn’t until an untold number of days later that Alina remembers that she had a dog, and she tries to find it. For anyone who’s not interested in seeing this movie, the good news is that she eventually finds the dog, which was being kept at the convenience store.

“Italian Studies” has some random moments that look like they were put in the movie as filler. While walking on a street in New York City, Alina passes by two young Hasidic Jewish men (played by Misha Brooks and Luca Scoppetta-Stern), who repeatedly ask her, “Are you Jewish?” She answers, “I don’t know.”

In other scene, Alina steals some candy from a convenience store, because she’s hungry and has no money. Not once is she shown making any realistic attempt to find out who she is, or even try to get substantial help in finding out her identity. (This movie takes place in the 21st century, when the Internet and cell phones exist.) Most people with amnesia would seek help, in order not to reach a point of desperation where they have to steal food because they have no money.

A moment that looks “only in a movie” phony is how Alina meets a teenage stoner named Simon Brickner, played by an actor with the same name. They’re in a fast-food place that sells hot dogs. Simon asks Alina if she can buy some of the hot dogs that he recently purchased there. He explains that he used a credit card to buy the hot dogs, because the place has a minimum monetary amount required to use a credit card. Therefore, Simon bought more hot dogs than he can eat, so he wants to resell them.

Alina declines the offer because she’s already eating her own hot dog. (It can be assumed she had a little bit of cash with her, because later in the movie she’s run out of money and steals candy for food.) Alina then tells Simon that she’s actually a vegetarian. Simon asks her why she’s eating a hot dog if she’s a vegetarian. She replies, “I’m taking a break.”

During this conversation, Simon asks if Alina wants to hang out with him. She says yes with no hesitation, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world for a person in her 30s with amnesia to not care about finding out who she is, and hang out and party with a teenager instead. The scenes with Simon and Alina are boring and very self-indulgent.

Viewers learn more about Simon than Alina in this movie. He’s a motormouth 18-year-old who’s not very smart and doesn’t know what to do with his life. He lives with his parents, he has no job, and he has no plans to go to college. Simon likes to smoke a lot of marijuana, which he shares with Alina. Simon keeps his marijuana stash hidden inside a book at a local library, because he says that his mother searches his room.

According to Simon, his parents think that Simon is a loser, and he despises his father, whom Simon calls “an asshole.” Simon also has a younger sister. (His family is not seen in the movie.) Later, there’s a cringeworthy part of “Italian Studies” where Alina makes out with Simon. It just shows that not only as she lost her memory and any common sense, she’s also lost good judgment.

The only reason why Alina eventually finds out her name and occupation is because a woman approaches her on the street and gushes to her about how much of a fan she is of her collection of short stories called “Italian Studies.” The adoring fan also tells Alina that she saw Alina doing a reading of “Italian Studies” two years ago. Because of this conversation, Alina finds out that she’s a successful author, and “Italian Studies” is her first book.

And so, off Alina goes to a library to find her “Italian Studies” book and to see if it could lead to more clues about her identity. It’s at the library that she finds out her name, but the movie is so stupid that it leaves out something that anyone with amnesia would do: Look at the part of the book that lists the author’s biography information.

The movie shows that the book is dedicated to two people named Ade and Richard, but Alina just ignores that information too. She also doesn’t think about contacting the book publisher, which is information that’s also listed. Instead, Alina wants to autograph the book.

Another library patron (played by Joshua Astrachan), who’s sitting at the same table, sees Alina writing in the book, and he tells her that she shouldn’t be doing that. She replies with indignation that she wrote “Italian Studies,” and then tries to shame him for daring to question who she is and why she’s writing in the book. It’s one of many indications of how Alina—amnesiac or not—is an unpleasant and somewhat arrogant person. Alina haughtily tells the man before she leaves the library in a huff: “You’re a cold world. A signed book is a warm world.”

More tiresome and incoherent scenes ensue as Alina hangs out with Simon and his group of acquaintances and friends. She finds out from some of the teens that her next book that she was working on before she got amnesia was going to be a novel about teenagers, so she was interviewing real teenagers as research. She decides to continue this research by interviewing Simon and his friends, who know that she has amnesia, but they don’t seem to care much at all. When one of the teens tells Alina that it isn’t very original to write a young-adult novel about teenage issues, Alina has this obnoxious reply: “Go fuck yourself!”

One of these teens in Simon’s social circle is a talented singer named Lucinda (played by Annabel Hoffman), and Alina becomes fascinated with her. After Alina sees Lucinda singing at a party, she starts showing up at places where Lucinda sings, such as a nightclub and a recording studio. Alina tries to befriend Lucinda, who is a little confused over why this older woman, who’s a stranger, is paying so much attention to her.

Alina tells Lucinda that she thinks Lucinda is very talented. Lucinda’s reaction to Alina is polite caution. Alina also keeps asking Lucinda’s friends for more information about Lucinda, and where Lucinda is if Lucinda isn’t there. It’s all very stalkerish, but none of this creepy behavior is questioned by anyone in the movie.

In fact, it seems like none of the filmmakers questioned the half-baked, irritating and pointless scenes that pollute this entire movie. As the amnesiac Alina, Kirby is hindered by playing such a vague, prickly and unrelatable character. It’s difficult to root for this protagonist. The acting in this movie is not very impressive.

To make matters worse, the dialogue in “Italian Studios” is atrocious and often very unbelievable. The end of “Italian Studies” abruptly throws in a scene that shows if Alina found any of her loved ones or not. But by the time this final scene stumbles into the movie, most viewers will have emotionally checked out and not care at all.

Magnolia Pictures released “Italian Studies” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Human Capital,’ starring Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei, Peter Sarsgaard, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff and Fred Hechinger

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liev Schreiber in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Human Capital”

Directed by Marc Meyers

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Human Capital” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and the upper-class.

Culture Clash: A hit-and-run car accident and financial pressures affect the lives of two families from different socioeconomic classes.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful dramas and who won’t mind that the story is told in a non-chronological manner.

Alex Wolff and Maya Hawke in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The tightly wound dramatic film “Human Capital” shows what happens when desperate people do desperate things and how they deal with the ethical dilemmas they face in the process. Based on Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel “Human Capital” (which was adapted into the 2014 Italian film “Il Capitale Umano”), this American movie version begins with the incident that is at the center of the turmoil in the movie, which takes place in an unnamed suburb in upstate New York.

While riding his bicycle home from work one night, a restaurant waiter is suddenly stuck by a speeding Jeep Wrangler in a hit-and-run-accident. The Jeep Wrangler briefly stops and the unseen driver does not get out of the car before speeding off. Observant viewers can immediately notice some clues (including the make and model of the car), but even then it’s best not to assume that these clues are proof of who the perpetrator really is.

The mystery unfolds in layers, as the three acts in the story are each told from the perspective of three of the main characters: financially desperate real-estate broker Drew Hagel (played by Liev Schreiber), rich housewife Carrie Manning (played by Marisa Tomei) and high-school student Shannon Dark (played by Maya Hakwe), who is Drew’s daughter from his first marriage. (Shannon took her mother’s maiden name after her parents got divorced.) All of them are or will be connected to the hit-and-run accident in some way.

Drew’s perspective is told first. He’s first seen on screen with Shannon, as he drives her to the home of her new boyfriend Jamie Manning (played by Fred Hechinger), who is the son of a wealthy hedge-fund mogul named Quint Manning (played by Peter Sarsgaard). While Drew marvels at the Manning family’s large estate, Shannon acts like she’s not impressed by the family’s wealth and she looks like she just hopes that her father doesn’t embarrass her when he drops her off at the home.

Drew first meets Quint’s wife Carrie. In the space of a few minutes, Drew tells Carrie that he owns his own real-estate company, he and his first wife (Shannon’s mother) did not have friendly divorce, and he’s now married to a woman whom Drew calls “his trophy wife.” These are indications that Drew wants to give the impression that he’s a rich and successful businessman.

As Drew is getting ready to leave, he meets Quint, when Quint asks Drew to join him in a game of doubles tennis on the mansion’s tennis court. After the game, Drew asks Quint if he’s taking any more investors in his hedge fund WNV. Quint tells Drew that the only new investors he’ll accept are family and friends. But since they’ve gotten along so well in their short time together, Quint tells Drew that the minimum investment is $300,000.

Drew can get the money, but only through borrowing via home equity at a fairly high interest rate. Drew discusses the matter with his business manager Andy (played by James Waterston), who advises him against the deal. It’s a risky move because Drew’s real-estate business (he’s the only employee) hasn’t been doing well, but he’s too embarrassed to admit his financial problems to anyone other than Andy. Drew seems determined to impress Quint, with the hopes of making a profit from the investment, so Drew ignores Andy’s advice and goes through with the investment deal by doing something illegal.

Drew doesn’t tell his current wife Ronnie (played by Betty Gabriel) about this deal. But she’s got news for him: After having multiple miscarriages in the past, she’s now pregnant with twins. Ronnie is a therapist, but her salary wouldn’t be enough to cover the financial losses if Drew’s investment turns out to be a bad decision. Needless to say, the impending birth of the children puts even more financial pressure on Drew.

Meanwhile, the movie’s second act focuses on the perspective of Quint’s wife Carrie. Viewers find out that she’s interested in buying a run-down performing-arts theater in the area and turning it into a cultural center for movie screenings, stage performances and other events. But first, she needs her husband Quint’s money, and she convinces him to buy the theater for their nonprofit foundation.

One of the people on the foundation board is a professor (played by Paul Sparks), who recognizes Carrie as a former actress who used to do horror movies. When he’s alone with Carrie, he flirts with her and confesses that he’s a fan of her work. He also mentions that if the theater needs an artistic director, he’d like to be considered for the position.

During a lunch appointment with him, Carrie confesses that her marriage has had some problems, including Quint having “three affairs in 20 years.” When the professor asks Carrie if she’s ever cheated on Quint, her response is that she’s thought about it many times, but never actually did it. When Quint finds out about the lunch, he tells Carrie about a decision he made about the theater. You can see where this is headed, so it comes no surprise at what happens next.

The third and final act of the story is told from Shannon’s perspective. Viewers find out that she’s a lot more angst-ridden than she first appeared in the other parts of the story. She’s desperate for love and attention outside of her family, but hides that desperation behind a façade of appearing emotionally distant and insolent. While visiting her stepmother Ronnie at Ronnie’s job, Shannon is in the waiting area and meets another teenager named Ian, who is one Ronnie’s patients. They exchange some sarcastic banter, but it’s obvious that they’re attracted to one another.

There’s too much spoiler information to talk about what happens during other parts of the movie, but it’s enough to say that there are several flashbacks that revolve around what happened the night of a gala event where Jamie’s elite private school gave a prestigious award to one of its students. Seated at the same table at the event were Quint, Carrie, Jamie, Quint’s obnoxious lawyer Godeep (played by Aasif Mandvi), Godeep’s wife (played by Christiane Seidel), Shannon, Ronnie and Drew.

The American version of “Human Capital” (directed by  Marc Meyers) is not as stylishly filmed as director Paolo Virzì’s Italian version. While the Italian version had a sleek, minimalistic look to its production design and cinematography, the American version opts for a grittier, more cluttered look. The American version of the movie is a straightforward mystery thriller, while the Italian version seemed to have more to say about the dark sides of ambitious social climbing.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Oren Moverman (2009’s “The Messenger”) does a capable job with the American version of the “Human Capital” screenplay, which certainly ramps up the “whodunit” tension throughout the film. However, the film’s middle section that’s shown from Carrie’s perspective really doesn’t add much to the story, compared to the beginning and ending to the film.

One character in particular has a backstory that is mentioned but never seen in the movie. It would have been interesting to explore more of this person’s history. However, enough of this person’s background is revealed to explain why this person does an extreme act toward the end of the film. All of the actors do a very good job with their roles, but Hawke’s Shannon character is probably the hardest one to pull off because her character is the least predictable.

For people who want to know who committed the hit-and-run, the movie does end up showing the entire set of circumstances that led up to the hit-and-run, who was responsible, and what happened afterward. However, the American version of “Human Capital” doesn’t fully address some of the illegal acts that certain characters committed in the movie that might or might nor be related to the hit-and-run crime. In other words, some loose ends are tied up, but not all.

Vertical Entertainment released “Human Capital” on DirecTV on February 20, 2020, and on VOD on March 20, 2020.

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