Review: ‘The Invaders’ (2022), starring Coby Smith, John B. Smith, Calvin Taylor, Juanita Thornton, Jim Netters, Lance Watson and Clarence Christian

November 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Coby Smith in “The Invaders” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“The Invaders” (2022)

Directed by Prichard Smith

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Invaders” features an all-African American group of people discussing the rise and fall of the Memphis, Tennessee-based militant Black Power group the Invaders, which formed in 1967 and disbanded a few years later.

Culture Clash: Former members of the Invaders say that were wrongfully blamed for a riot that broke out in Memphis in March 1968, during a protest in support of a labor strike by the city’s African American sanitation workers. 

Culture Audience: “The Invaders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about the U.S. civil rights movement in the late 1960s.

John B. Smith in “The Invaders” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

When most people think of the Black Power movement that gained momentum in the U.S. in the late 1960s, they think of the Black Panthers. Many people don’t know about the smaller, grassroots Black Power groups that had similar ideals and made an impact. “The Invaders” documentary tells the story of one such group formed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1967. This traditionally made documentary gives insight into the Invaders and their contributions to the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s an important reminder that the Black Panthers weren’t the only Black Power group making history.

Directed by Prichard Smith, “The Invaders” had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2015. The movie’s release was in limbo for several years because of funding and licensing issues, according to a 2022 interview that Prichard Smith did with the Memphis Flyer, a local newspaper. Seven years after its world premiere at DOC NYC, “The Invaders” has now been released. The documentary is a conventionally structured mixture of archival footage and more recent interviews with former members and associates of the Invaders. What’s been added since “The Invaders” made the rounds on the film festival circuit is voiceover narration from Nasir Jones (better known as rapper Nas), who signed on as an executive producer for the documentary.

“The Invaders” opens with archival footage of Invaders co-founder Coby Smith (no relation to Prichard Smith) being interviewed by an unnamed media outlet in the late 1960s. He says, “We don’t organize burnings, essentially. We organize people. If people burn, they burn. We are black, and we’re proud of it.”

Much of “The Invaders” explores the theme of how there were two types of philosophies for the U.S. civil rights movement, when it came to race relations: One was the philosophy of non-violence, espoused by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther Ling Jr. The other was the philosophy of violence in self-defense, espoused by civil rights leader Malcolm X and later the Black Panthers. What a lot of people don’t know is that King sought out the Invaders to be a bridge between these two philosophies.

Among the people who tell the story in “The Invaders” documentary are Invaders co-founders Coby Smith and John B. Smith, who are not related to each other and not related to director Prichard Smith. Coby Smith and John B. Smith share vivid memories of meeting and forming the Invaders in 1967 with co-founder Charles Cabbage, who died in 2010, at the age of 66.

At the time the Invaders launched, Coby Smith and Cabbage were students and intellectuals who yearned to make a difference in African American communities in Memphis and beyond. John B. Smith was a disabled Vietnam War veteran who became disillusioned with the U.S. government after he came back from the war.

In the documentary, John B. Smith has this to say about what Memphis was like before the civil rights movement: “Segregation wasn’t just laws on the books. It was a state of mind. Black people understood what their place was, and they accepted that.” Calvin Taylor, former minister of information for the Invaders, adds: “When we were growing up, if you were black, that meant you were in the [racism] problem. It didn’t mean you had any opportunities not to be part of the problem.”

John B. Smith tells a story about the turning point when he decided to become a civil rights activist. He had returned from the Vietnam War and considered himself to be very patriotic about America. One day, he was at a gas station, minding his own business, when he saw a white man steal the gas cap from John B. Smith’s car. The alleged thief then tried to sell the gas cap back to John B. Smith.

John B. Smith responded by calling the police, who immediately took the white man’s side and believed the white man’s denials of stealing the gas cap, according to John B. Smith. The white man then accused John B. Smith of harassing him. A crowd gathered and defended John B. Smith, but the police theatened the crowd with arrest if they didn’t leave. John B. Smith says he refused to leave until the matter of the theft was resolved. And as a result, John B. Smith was arrested.

Influenced by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, the Invaders aimed to empower African Americans, beginning in Memphis, with fundraisers to help underprivileged people in the community. The Invaders were involved in the Black Organizing Project, which offered assistance in education and food for the African American community. Black Organizing Project also launched the Community Unification Program.

As the civil rights movement became more dangerous for activists and protestors, the Invaders also believed that black people were better off learning to arm and defend themselves against racist attackers. Juanita Thornton, one of the former Invaders interviewed in the documentary, says of this philosophy: “If you hit me, I should be able to hit you back without a whole lot of bullshit. I loved it.”

It was this militant stance that caused some civil rights leaders to mistrust the Invaders, while other civil right leaders wanted to align themselves with the Invaders. Reverend James Lawson, a civil rights activist who believed in non-violence, came from Nashville to Memphis and interacted for a time with the Invaders. Civil rights leader King became another ally of the Invaders, but he was assassinated (shot to death) on April 4, 1968, before his plans to create a formal alliance with the Invaders ever became a reality.

The Memphis sanitation strike, which lasted from February to April 1968, was the Invaders’ highest-profile protest campaign, for better or for worse. About 1,300 African American male sanitation workers from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike to demand higher wages and safer work environments that were the same given to the white sanitation workers who did the same jobs. Reverend Malcolm Blackburn, a white pastor of Clayborn Temple in Memphis, was an ally of the striking workers, and so were the Invaders.

Contrary to a mythical stereotype, Black Power activists such as the Invaders were not against working with white people in the civil rights movement. Coby Smith comments in the documentary: “We never would’ve gotten through the civil rights movement without an awful amount of whites who came and said [about racist laws/policies], ‘Wait a minute, that does not make sense.'”

On March 28, 1968, King and Lawson led a protest march in downtown Memphis, in support of the sanitation workers who were on strike. The march started out as peaceful but descended into chaos, as the mood turned angry. Some people in the crowd started looting and causing vandalism at nearby businesses. (King and Lawson left the protest soon after it became violent.) Police responded with aggression, including using mace and guns. In the resulting pandemonium, an unarmed 16-year-old African American named Larry Payne was shot to death in the stomach by a white cop.

The Invaders were blamed for inciting the riot, but it’s an allegation that the people in the documentary vehemently deny. Still, the riot tainted the Invaders’ reputation, and they say that key members of the Invaders became the targets of FBI surveillance, just like King was targeted by the FBI. Rather than distance himself from the Invaders, King sought them out for protection when he was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, on that fateful day of his death. (James Earl Ray, who had a long criminal history of being a thief, pleaded guilty to the murder, and he was sentenced in 1969 to 99 years in prison. Ray died in 1998, at the age of 70.)

Still reeling from the damage and increased racial tensions caused by the riot and Payne’s death, about 15 members of the Invaders met with King for a few hours, at his request, at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. About half an hour after the Invaders left the motel, King was murdered. John B. Smith and Cabbage were among those who met with King, who told them that he wanted the Invaders to be the security personnel for the next planned protest in support of the Memphis sanitation workers on strike.

John B. Smith says that King confided in them about being under surveillance by the FBI because then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had a personal grudge against King. In the documentary, John B. Smith remembers that King told him about the famous private meeting that King and Hoover had in December 1964, after Hoover had publicly made this statement in November 1964: “Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country.” (The December 1964 meeting was the only time that King and Hoover ever met face-to-face.)

According to John B. Smith, King went into the meeting with Hoover thinking one way and came out of the meeting thinking another way: “He [King] thought that they could actually come to a meeting of the mind. But once he met with him [Hoover], he realized that Hoover was out to destroy him.” King also said that the racists that King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference group encountered were worse in the Northern states than in the racially segregated Southern states.

Thornton says in the documentary that King wanted to take “the cream of the crop” of African American militants, such as the Invaders, and “put them into a training program that was non-violent.” Later in the documentary, Thornton says, “I believe economic power for poor people was one of the main reasons why Dr. King got assassinated. He was talking about poor people power.”

“The Invaders” is very no-frills when it comes to its editing and cinematography, but the interviewees are compelling and offer some valuable first-hand insights about their perspectives of the U.S. civil rights movement. Other people interviewed in the documentary are Reverend Jim Netters, who was on the Memphis City Council in 1968; Clarence Christian, who was a student activist at LeMoyne-Owen College in 1968; Mad Lads lead singer John Gary Williams, a former member of the Invaders; David Acey, who was a student protester in 1968; and Lance Watson, also known as Sweet Willie Wine, who led the Invaders’ security personnel. Watson later changed his name to Suhkara A. Yahweh. (Williams died in 2019, at the age of 73.)

As interesting as these stories are in “The Invaders,” this documentary doesn’t really reveal anything new. Some of the interviewees have talked about the same things in other media interviews before this documentary was made. John B. Smith also wrote a memoir titled “The 400th: From Slavery to Hip-Hop” (published in 2021), which covers many of the same things that are covered in the documentary.

“The Invaders” doesn’t go deep enough in taking a critical look at why a civil rights group such as the Invaders had very sexist attitudes in not letting women have leadership roles. Thornton (who was never a leader in the group) is the only woman interviewed in the documentary. The small percentage of female representation in this documentary is indicative of problems that the group had with sexism against women that the documentary completely ignores.

“The Invaders” also could have had perspectives from at least a few people who were involved in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, but were not necessarily fans of the Invaders. The documentary seems to be a little too much of a praise fest for the Invaders and doesn’t offer any constructive criticism of the group, which eventually drifted apart and disbanded a few years after King’s assassination. Even with these flaws, “The Invaders” documentary is worth watching for history enthusiasts or anyone interested in a getting an inside story of an African American activist group that has often been relegated to being a footnote in U.S. civil rights history.

1091 Pictures released “The Invaders” on digital and VOD on November 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey,’ starring Darshana Rajendran, Basil Joseph and Aju Varghese

November 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Darshana Rajendran and Basil Joseph in “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” (Photo courtesy of Icon Cinemas)

“Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey”

Directed by Vipin Das

Malayalam with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Kottarakara, India, the comedy/drama film “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman trapped in an abusive marriage fights back by beating up her husband after he beats her, and she gets a reputation for being someone who can defeat men in physical fights. 

Culture Audience: “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about how women handle domestic abuse, but “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” sends a lot of wrong messages about female empowerment and heinously treats domestic violence as slapstick comedy.

Darshana Rajendran and Basil Joseph in “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” (Photo courtesy of Icon Cinemas)

“Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” is disgracefully irresponsible with its intended messages about female empowerment and overcoming abuse. This strange mess of a movie grossly mishandles the serious issue of domestic violence by portraying self-defense against this abuse as cartoonish comedy. It’s not funny at all.

It also ignores the fact that psychological healing from abuse is needed. The movie wants to dismiss the reality that not all domestic violence victims can become self-defense experts. The idiocy of “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” is made worse by the movie’s overly long run time (140 minutes), which shows tedious repetition of the same scenarios for most of the movie.

Directed by Vipin Das (who co-wrote the movie’s atrocious screenplay with Nashid Mohamed Famy), “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” (which takes place in India) tells the story of Jayabharathi, nicknamed Jaya (played by Darshana Rajendran), an intelligent, ambitious and independent-minded woman in her 30s. Jaya wants to go to Mar Ivanios College (a private college in Thiruvananthapuram, India) to get a bachelor of science degree in anthropology, but her dreams are discouraged by her patriarchal middle-class family.

Her parents think that Jaya’s top priority in life should be to get married, be a subservient wife, and have children. Jaya’s uncle (her mother’s brother) Mani Annan (played by Sudheer Paravoor) angrily tells her that the men make the decisions in the family. And he thinks that if Jaya wants to go to college, she has to go to a college that costs less money and is closer to their home than Mar Ivanios College. And so, with great reluctance, Jaya goes to the less-prestigious MSS College, where Jaya’s family has pressured her to study Malayalam, instead of anthropology. She is shown looking very bored in her school classes that she thinks aren’t up to the standards of what she thinks she deserves.

The beginning of “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” shows a flashback to Jaya’s childhood, when she was about 11 or 12. Back then, she was thought of as the family’s overachieving “golden child,” compared to her older brother Jayan, who was thought of as an underachieving screw-up who wasn’t expected to go to college. Jaya’s father (played by Biju Kalanilayam), a clothing workshop supervisor, had such big dreams for her, he encouraged Jaya to think about becoming India’s next female prime minister, with Indira Ghandi as a role model.

An early scene in the movie shows the children’s father using a stick to hit a teenage Jayan for not taking good care of Jayan’s school books. Jayan asks his parents why Jaya isn’t being punished for the same thing. His mother replies, “Are you the same person [as Jaya]?” It’s a scene that shows how Jayan felt like Jaya was getting special treatment by their parents. (These two parents don’t have names in the movie.) Meanwhile, Jaya enjoys being the preferred sibling who seemingly can do no wrong.

Flashing forward to the present day, Jayan (played Anand Manmadhan) is still somewhat living in Jaya’s shadow, because their parents and uncle are preoccupied with finding a husband for Jaya, who still lives with her parents. However, whatever sibling rivalry that Jaya and Jayan had when they were younger is not as bitter as it used to be. That’s because Jaya has been irritating her parents and her uncle because of her stubborn refusal to get married at this point in her life. Jaya says she only wants to get married after she becomes an anthropologist and has established her own career.

What happened to Jaya’s father, who encouraged Jaya to become India’s next female prime minister? It seems like Jaya’s father now thinks what’s more important is the stigma he’s feeling for having a never-married daughter in her 30s. Instead of caring about Jaya’s feelings and goals, he cares more about not having an image of being a “failure” as a father, just because his daughter isn’t married yet. Viewers will notice that Jayan, who is also unmarried, is not under the same pressure as Jaya to find a spouse.

At JSS College, Jaya begins dating one of her professors named Karthikeyan (played by Aju Varghese), who’s about 10 years older than she is. The movie never really addresses the murky ethics of this relationship, but the college apparently doesn’t have a policy prohibiting the school’s teachers from dating their students. It’s obvious that this relationship is doomed when Karthikeyan shows that he’s an abuser who’s very possessive of Jaya.

Karthikeyan tells Jaya to limit her friendships with other men. He also wants to control all of her social media accounts. Karthikeyan yells at Jaya for changing her profile picture on social media without telling him first. And he also becomes physically abusive. During an argument with Jaya in public, he slaps her hard on her face. Witnesses who see this abuse do nothing to stop it and do nothing to help Jaya. Eventually, Jaya and Karthikeyan break up.

At home, Jaya gets more pressure than ever before to find a husband. She tearfully tells her parents that she doesn’t want to get married, but they don’t care about her feelings when it comes to marriage. Jaya’s uncle disapproved of her dating Karthikeyan and thinks this professor-student relationship damaged Jaya’s reputation, so he tells Jaya that she needs to get married soon to restore her reputation. Jaya’s parents and meddling uncle think the only way she can find a suitable husband is if they do matchmaking for her.

It isn’t long before Jaya is introduced to a poultry farmer named Rajesh (played by Basil Joseph), who meets Jaya for the first time when Rajesh, his parents and his younger sister visit the home where Jaya and her parents live. Jaya’s parents, brother and uncle are also at this family gathering. Rajesh and his family are from the town of Kottarakara, which isn’t too far from where Jaya and her parents live.

Jaya spends part of this get-together in the kitchen, preparing and then serving the tea that everyone has, so she doesn’t hear the parts of the conversation where her parents and uncle have told Rajesh how they have Jaya’s marriage plans all mapped out for her. It’s a very telling moment in the movie, because it shows that even though Jaya is an educated woman in her 30s, she still has very little control over decisions that have to do with her getting married. The movie tries to make some kind of feminist statement about the cultural restrictions that Jaya experiences, but this statement is terribly bungled and ends up making Jaya into a caricature.

Rajesh and Jaya eventually get a chance to talk in private. From the beginning, there’s no romantic chemistry between them, or even the type of chemistry that could suggest that Rajesh and Jaya can become good friends. Rajesh is a little socially awkward and asks Jaya what she knows about poultry farming. She admits she knows nothing about it and has no interest in it. He seems like a “nice guy” who’s very nerdy about poultry farming, because he starts to ramble to Jaya about things she doesn’t care about, such as the current wholesale market price for chickens.

Jayan shows that he’s a supportive brother when he tells Rajesh that if Jaya and Rajesh get married, she wants to continue her college education and get her bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Rajesh seems open to that decision, but he never fully commits to agreeing to that decision by the time that Rajesh and Jaya begin dating each other. Soon after Rajesh and Jaya have their first meeting, their parents decide that Rajesh are Jaya are a good match and should get married.

Jaya and Rajesh have a very short engagement before getting married in a festive ceremony where Jaya looks doesn’t look happy to be there. And believe it or not, her macho uncle Mani, who was pushing so hard for Jaya to get married, ends up crying at the wedding. After the wedding, Jaya moves to Kottarakara to live at Rajesh’s poultry farm (which is called Raj Poultry Farm), where they share a house with Rajesh’s parents and sister.

It isn’t long before Jaya founds out that the mild-mannered man she thought she married is actually a nasty-tempered and controlling abuser. First, Rajesh tells Jaya that she has to drop out of college so that she can be a full-time housewife who can help out with the farm. Not long after that, Rajesh begins beating Jaya if he thinks she isn’t doing exactly what he wants her to do. Sometimes, he beats her for no reason at all. Rajesh is not only horrible to Jaya, he’s also a terrible boss to his employees, whom he often berates and treats unfairly.

Jaya doesn’t have her family nearby or any friends to turn to for support. Rajesh’s physical abuse of Jaya causes injuries that are impossible to ignore, but the psychological damage is not really acknowledged in the movie, which turns the physical abuse into comedy. The movie’s tone is very off-kilter and clumsy, because it’s an odd mix of weepy melodrama that’s intended to be depressing, mismatched with kitschy fight action that’s intended to be comedic.

In contrast to Jaya feeling isolated in her abusive environment, Rajesh has a support system of people who completely enable him and his abuse. These enablers include Rajesh’s father, Rajesh’s mother (played by Kudassanad Kanakam), Rajesh’s sister Raji (played by Sheethal Zackaria) and Rajesh’s cousin Ani (played by Azees Nedumangad), who all do nothing to try to stop the abuse or help Jaya. Their attitude is that since Rajesh is Jaya’s husband, he has a right to treat her any way that he wants.

When Jaya tells her family about the abuse, her parents say that she just needs to adjust to it. Jaya’s brother Jayan is more sympathetic and concerned about her being abused. He visits Jaya and tries to protect her and stand up for her as much as he can. But there’s only so much he can do when he’s not living in the same household as Jaya. At one point in the movie, Jaya says that it’s been six months since her wedding, and Rajesh has beaten her 21 times.

One day, while Rajesh is giving Jaya another beating, he is absolutely shocked when she physically fights back and wins. This leads to a series of increasingly exaggerated fight scenes where Jaya suddenly acts like an expert in boxing and martial arts, and she gives Rajesh brutal beatdowns that she always wins. Her punches, kicks and shoves do a lot of damage to Raj and their house. For example, during a fight, she throws Raj on furniture that gets broken.

The word gets out around town that Rajesh is getting beat up by Jaya, and he becomes a laughingstock, especially with the local men. The people who laugh at Rajesh don’t really seem to care that Jaya is acting in self-defense to domestic abuse. All they perceive is Rajesh being emasculated by his wife. This humiliation makes Rajesh become even more resentful and angry toward Jaya.

Rajesh’s father tells Jaya that she’s overreacting to Rajesh’s abuse and mutters to himself, “This is what happens when women are over-educated.” Rajesh’s father also gives Rajesh some awful advice on how to “control” Jaya: He tells Rajesh to get Jaya pregnant, which he says will lessen her chances of leaving Rajesh. Rajesh agrees and says, “We have to stop her arrogance.”

On another occasion, Rajesh’s father says that in order for Rajesh to seduce Jaya into getting her pregnant, he should make an apology to Jaya by writing a song for Jaya. Rajesh’s pathetic attempt at songwriting and his off-key singing are treated as one big joke in the movie. The problem is that it’s a joke that falls flat, but it’s stretched out and repeated in a desperate attempt to make audiences think that it’s funny.

After Rajesh’s father convinces Rajesh to get Jaya pregnant, Rajesh suddenly pretends to be a perfect husband. He’s profusely apologetic and goes out of his way to be extra-nice and deferential to Jaya. Jayan is very suspicious of this sudden change in Rajesh’s attitude, and he warns Jaya not to fall for it.

As over-the-top and unrealistic as the movie can be in its fight scenes, “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” does have some realism in the cycle of abuse, where the abuser turns on the charm and begs for forgiveness from the abuse victim. The abuser also promises that the abuse will never happen again. Until the abuse does happen again. And then, the cycle repeats itself and ends with one of three outcomes: the abuse victim leaves, the abuser really stops the abuse, or someone in the relationship ends up dead.

None of the acting in this movie is noteworthy or special. Rajendran’s portrayal of Jaya veers from someone who has glimmers of a bright personality in the beginning of the film to someone who becomes a cold-hearted fighting machine by the end of the film. If the movie’s intention is to make Jaya a relatable character to abused women, it’s a miserable failure.

Manmadhan is perfectly adequate as Jayan, the only character in the movie who seems to be the most realistic. All of the other cast members portray hollow stereotypes, and they act accordingly in these roles. Unfortunately, “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” wants to trick people into thinking that it’s cool to laugh at the sight of a woman beating up a man who has abused her. But it’s a very misguided way of addressing domestic violence, because it never acknowledges the harsh realities of how escalating violence can make the problem worse.

“Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” wants to poke fun at misogyny and the vicious cycle of domestic violence. But the fight scenes, even when Jaya acts in self-defense, are overly staged to make audiences laugh, when these scenes aren’t worth laughing at all. The movie also thoughtlessly promotes a fantasy that the best way for a woman to stop a partner from abusing her is to inflict the same abuse back on the partner. It’s a fantasy that can get people killed in real life. And that is why “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” is a disgustingly careless exploitation of this very harmful societal problem.

Icon Cinemas released “Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey” in select U.S. cinemas on November 11, 2022. The movie was released in India on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,’ starring Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista

November 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kate Hudson, Jessica Henwick, Daniel Craig and Leslie Odom Jr. in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”

Directed by Rian Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2020, mostly on an unnamed island in Greece and briefly in the United States, the comedy/drama film “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African American and Asians) portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc is invited to the private Greek island of a technology billionaire, who is hosting a murder mystery party, where at least one person gets murdered for real.

Culture Audience: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of 2019’s “Knives Out,” star Daniel Craig, and murder mysteries that are also incisive social satires.

Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe and Daniel Craig in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Simply put: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is a sequel that’s better than the original movie. This comedy/drama is a fantastic follow-up to 2019’s “Knives Out,” another comedically dark murder mystery with its central location being the home of a wealthy person. Both movies, which are self-contained stories written and directed by Rian Johnson, deliciously skewer arrogant, rich elitists and other people with bad attitudes, while American Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) solves the murder mystery. “Glass Onion” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Johnson has said in many interviews that his greatest inspirations for his “Knives Out” movie series are Agatha Christie mystery novels and movie adaptations of these novels. In that respect, Benoit is like an American version of Christie’s “world’s greatest detective” Hercule Poirot from Belgium—someone who can deduce and reveal complex details and secrets about other people’s lives, but his own personal life remains a self-guarded mystery. (Craig is British in real life, but you can tell he has fun with doing a leisurely American Southern accent when he’s in the role of Benoit.)

Because the “Knives Out” movies are self-contained, it’s not necessary to see the first “Knives Out” movie to understand “Glass Onion.” However, seeing “Knives Out” can give viewers a better appreciation of how “Glass Onion” is an improvement from the first “Knives Out” movie, which is enjoyable but more predictable than “Glass Onion.” (“Knives Out” received several accolades that comedic murder mystery movies rarely receive, including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.)

In “Glass Onion,” several people from different parts of the U.S. have each received in the mail a mysterious box from American technology billionaire Miles Bron (played by Edward Norton), a pretentious blowhard who loves to name drop and show off his wealth. Miles, a bachelor who lives alone, has made his fortune from co-founding a company called Alpha Industries. The box that he has sent contains an elaborate puzzle that reveals an invitation to go to Miles’ private island home in Greece for a murder mystery party. In the invitation, Miles says that he will play the murder victim.

Benoit is one of the people who receives this box as a mail delivery. Later, when he gets to the party, he finds out in an awkward way that Miles didn’t actually invite Benoit. But now that Benoit is at the party, Miles doesn’t want Benoit to leave, because Benoit is just another celebrity whom Miles can brag about attending one of Miles’ parties. Who sent Benoit that box? That answer is revealed in the movie.

“Glass Onion” begins on May 13, 2020—the day that the boxes are delivered. It’s just a few short months into the COVID-19 pandemic, before a vaccine was available, and when mask-wearing and social distancing were becoming a way of life for people who cared to take those precautions. Some of the party guests are more concerned about the pandemic than others.

Before going to the party, Benoit is seen having a relaxing bath at his home. He’s on a videoconference call with an eclectic group of famous friends, such as Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (who died in 2021), classical musician Yo-Yo Ma, actress Angela Lansbury (who died in 2022), retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and actress Natasha Lyonne, who all make these quick cameos as themselves in the movie. It’s in this scene that viewers see that Benoit likes to play quiz games with his friends during the pandemic.

The only other peek into Benoit’s personal life is when he’s on a videoconference call with a man named Philip (played by Hugh Grant), who seems to know a lot abut Benoit and his personal life. In this scene, viewers can speculate how close Benoit and Philip are to each other and what kind of relationship they might have. Ethan Hawke makes a brief appearance in the role of an unnamed Miles Bron employee, who sprays a COVID-19 medical screener inside each guest’s mouth when they arrive at Miles’ Greek island home. The implication is that this screener can make any possible COVID-19 symptoms disappear, and Miles is so rich, he can afford this medical treatment before it’s legally sold to the public.

Miles’ party guests have been transported by a private boat to the island, whose biggest building is a high-tech mansion that Miles has named Glass Onion. The property’s centerpiece is a giant glass structure shaped like an onion and located inside a glass atrium. (The onion can also be seen as a symbol of the story’s layers that get peeled to reveal the truth. The Beatles song “Glass Onion” is played during the movie’s closing credits.) Inside this nouveau-riche home are dozens of glass sculptures and gaudy indications that Miles is a narcissist, such as a giant portrait painting of a shirtless Miles that makes his physique look more athletic than it really is.

In addition to Benoit, the other people at this party are:

  • Claire Debella (played by Kathryn Hahn), a progressive Democratic politician who is very image-conscious and currently running for re-election as governor of Connecticut.
  • Lionel Toussaint (played by Leslie Odom Jr.), an experimental scientist who has recently been testing a mystery product called Klear that Miles wants to sell, but Lionel has been warning Miles not to send this “volatile substance” on a manned airplane flight.
  • Birdie Jay (played by Kate Hudson), a controversial former supermodel who is now a fashion entrepreneur, who says and does racially offensive things on social media, and who is currently embroiled in a scandal about her fashion company using an exploitative sweatshop in Bangladesh.
  • Peg (played by Jessica Henwick), Birdie’s always-worried assistant who constantly has to clean up Birdie’s messes and prevent Birdie from doing more damage to Birdie’s reputation and career.
  • Duke Cody (played by Dave Bautista), a very sexist and gun-toting loudmouth who has become a famous social media influencer and “men’s rights” activist promoting the belief that men are superior to women.
  • Whiskey (played by Madelyn Cline), Duke’s airheaded girlfriend/social media sidekick who doesn’t seem to be doing anything with her life but being a hanger-on/gold digger/social climber.
  • Andi Brand (played by Janelle Monáe), Miles’ former business partner, who lost a bitter lawsuit against him, in which she claimed that she came up with most of the ideas for Alpha Industries, and she accused Miles of stealing her share of the company from her.

It’s eventually revealed in the story that Miles, Andi, Claire, Lionel, Birdie and Duke all knew each other from 10 years ago, when they were struggling to “make it” in their chosen professions. Andi was the one who introduced Miles (who was unlikable even back then) to the rest of the group. They all used to hang out at a bar called Glass Onion.

Miles is a big talker who is very good at making people believe that he’s smarter than he really is. For example, he makes up words that don’t exist. His incessant namedropping becomes an ongoing lampoon in the movie. He mentions how he got famous composer Philip Glass to write original music for him. Miles also brags about his other connections to celebrities, such as getting a personal gift from actor/musician Jared Leto and getting invited to a recent birthday party for CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

As the story goes on, cracks begin to show in many of the party guests’ façades. Birdie wants people to think that she’s confident, but she’s actually very insecure about being perceived as unattractive and a has-been. Peg, who appears to cool-headed and logical, is actually on edge and desperate, because she has spent most of her career with loose cannon Birdie, so anything that destroys Birdie’s career will probably destroy Peg’s career too. Lionel is uncomfortable with being paid by Miles to approve this mystery product Klear that Lionel says is too dangerous to approve.

Claire, who prides herself on being a “take charge” control freak, is worried about how wild this party might get and how it could affect her reputation in this crucial election year. Duke becomes uneasy when he sees that Whiskey is openly flirting with Miles, who does nothing to stop this flirtation and seems to be enjoying it. Andi, who is the most mysterious guest, keeps her distance from the group for a great deal of the movie, and she seems to be tough-minded and occasionally rude, but her emotional vulnerabilities are eventually exposed. When Andi arrives at the island, Miles tells her that he’s surprised that she accepted the invitation.

Of course, Andi appears to be the one who has the biggest grudge against Miles. She is also different from the other guests because she was the only one who didn’t bother to figure out the box puzzle but just smashed the box instead and found the invitation. In a group of characters with larger-than-life personalities, Monáe delivers a complex performance that is one of the highlights of “Glass Onion.”

It would be revealing too much to say who actually gets murderded in “Glass Onion,” but it’s enough to say that the movie has more twists and turns and than “Knives Out.” The comedy in “Glass Onion” has much sharper edges that result in some intentionally hilarious moments. The dialogue and scenarios portray in stinging accuracy what can happen when people try to impress each other too much and wallow in self-centered pretension.

Peg and Benoit are the only people at the party who don’t show any completely obnoxious qualities, for different reasons. Peg, who seems like a decent person overall, is at the party in the capacity of being a subservient employee who’s afraid of losing her job. Benoit, as always, is a keen observer of people and doesn’t really jump into action until there’s a murder to be solved. Craig, who seems born to play the role of this sly and sarcastic private detective, has no doubt found his next big movie franchise after retiring from the role of James Bond.

Also turning in very good performances are Norton as billionaire jerk Miles and Hudson as spoiled celebrity Birdie. These two characters have some of the best lines in “Glass Onion,” which makes them the type of characters whom viewers will love to hate. However, if we’re being honest, Norton and Hudson have played these types of unlikable characters in other movies before, so people might not be as surprised by these performances. Monáe shows a range in “Glass Onion” that she hasn’t had a chance to show in her previous movies. The rest of the principal cast members in “Glass Onion” have characters that are a bit shallow and underdeveloped.

The production design of “Glass Onion” (which was filmed on location in Greece) is quite striking and has more originality than the “old money” mansion setting of “Knives Out.” Johnson’s screenplay and direction for “Glass Onion” are sharp, witty and thoroughly engaging, even when the characters are saying and doing awful things. “Glass Onion” also benefits from having less characters than “Knives Out” had, thereby making the “Glass Onion” story less cluttered than “Knives Out.” Most of all, “Glass Onion” admirably avoids one of the biggest mistakes that most movie sequels make: It doesn’t try to copy its predecessor. To put it in baseball terms: It swings big in its ambitions and hits a home run.

Netflix released “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” for a limited one-week engagement in U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Strange World’ (2022), starring the voices of Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu and Jaboukie Young-White

November 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), Meridian Clade (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and Legend in “Strange World” (Image courtesy of Disney)

“Strange World” (2022)

Directed by Don Hall; co-directed by Qui Nguyen 

Culture Representation: Taking place on and below Earth, the animated film “Strange World” features a cast of racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Asian) portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A farmer, his wife, his 16-year-old son and their dog go with a friend on an underground mission to find out why a powerful plant that is an energy source for Earth has been infected, and the farmer’s long-lost estranged father, who lives in this unusual underworld, joins them on this mission.

Culture Audience: “Strange World” will appeal primarily to people interested in formulaic but enjoyable animated films about family, self-identity and Earth’s ecosystem.

Pictured in front row, from left to right: Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), Meridian Clade (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and Legend. Pictured in back row, from left to right: Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid). (Image courtesy of Disney)

Pleasant and mostly predictable, “Strange World” is a solid option for people who want to watch an animated film with dazzling visuals and a good story about family unity and environmental protection. Disney’s “Strange World” is saved from complete mediocrity by a surprise reveal in the last third of the movie, as well as a talented voice cast that brings charisma to what otherwise would be a cookie-cutter group of characters. It’s the type of movie that people of many different generations can enjoy, but “Strange World” might bore some viewers who are looking for a more sophisticated or more complex Disney animated film.

Directed by Don Hall and co-directed by Qui Nguyen, “Strange World” (which was written by Nguyen) thankfully does not fall into the trap of overtsuffing the movie with too many characters or too many subplots. “Strange World” is a very straightfoward story that’s easy to follow. The movie is formulaic for being yet another animated film where the main character has “daddy issues.” Disney’s animated films are notorious for taking the angle of protoganists’ emotional baggage being traced back to problems with a father, whether it’s an absentee father or a father who causes conflicts.

In “Strange World,” the central character is 40-year-old farmer Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), who lives with his family in the fictional U.S. city of Avalonia, which is described in the movie as “a modest civilization surrounded by mountains.” Searcher owns and operates a small farming operation called Clade Farms, where he lives with his smart and loving wife Meridian Clade (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and their 16-year-old son Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who is curious, friendly and adventurous. The family also has a three-legged dog named Legend.

Searcher is a kind and emotionally supportive husband and father, but Searcher’s biggest insecurity has to do with feeling abandoned by his own father. A flashback in the beginning of “Strange World” shows a glimpse of what life was like when 15-year-old Searcher knew his father Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), a macho adventurer who is obsessed with exploring Earth, especially the world’s mountains. Searcher is not as inclined to enjoy these adventures, but Jaeger makes Searcher tag along on these missions anyway. Jaeger’s wife/Searcher’s mother Penelope is briefly in the movie and doesn’t have anything significant to say.

One day, when Searcher and Jaeger are on an adventure mission together, Jaeger saves Searcher’s life from deadly stalacites that almost fell on Seacher. It’s a moment when their father-son bond seems to be strong, because Searcher is grateful that Jaeger saved his life. But the ongoing tensions between Searcher and Jaeger flare up again when Jaeger discovers a mysterious, glowing green plant, which is later called pano. Jaeger and Searcher argue about if and how this plant should be researched.

Flashing forward to the present day, viewers find out that pano has been deemed a “wonder plant” that is the source of energy throughout Avalonia. Pano has essentially eliminated the need for energy from gas or other fossil fuel. Jaeger has become a heroic legend for discovering pano. There’s one big problem though: Not long after discovering pano, Jaeger disappeared while on one of his adventure trips, and he hasn’t had any contact with anyone during those 25 years.

Many people, including Jaeger’s wife Penelope, assume that Jaeger is dead. However, Searcher believes that Jaeger is still alive and made a deliberate choice to abandon his family so that Jaeger could go on his adventure trips without the responsibility of being at home with his family. This feeling of abandonment has haunted Searcher and made him emotionally damaged. Searcher made a vow to himself to never be like his father.

Jaeger is such a sore subject with Searcher, he doesn’t even want to talk about Jaeger. Searcher’s son Ethan sees a photo of Jaeger and asks Searcher why he seems to be ashamed of Jaeger, even though Jaeger has the image of being a legendary adventure hero. Searcher replies bitterly, “Everyone thinks he was an amazing hero. To me, he was a really bad dad. He only cared about conquering those mountains.” Searcher tells Ethan, as if to make a statement about how Searcher wants to be different from Jaeger: “I only care about you.”

Searcher is such a caring father, he wants to give fatherly advice to Ethan about dating, but Ethan has typical teenage embarrassment whenever Searcher wants to talk about Ethan’s love life. Ethan, who is openly gay or queer, has a not-so-secret crush on a fellow classmate named Diazo (played by Jonathan Melo), who seems to be attracted to Ethan too, because he openly flirts with Ethan. Ethan is at the stage of his crush where he’s afraid to reveal his feelings to Diazo. Ethan is normally talkative and extroverted, but Ethan tends to get shy when he’s with Diazo.

The Clade family’s routine life will be interrupted when they get a surprise visit from Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), the leader of Avalonia. Callisto, who used to be on Jaeger’s adventure team, has arrived by spaceship to ask Searcher to help her on an expedition to find out why a massive crop of pano has been infected. The infection is spreading rapidly and could wipe out pano as the energy source for Avalonia and beyond.

Callisto says that scientific research has revealed that pano is a singular organism growing on Earth and originating from the same root underneath the Earth’s surface. “Pano is dying,” Callisto tells Searcher. “We have to save it.” At first, Searcher immediately declines Callisto’s request to join her on this mission. However, he eventually changes his mind because he knows that people, including his family, will suffer if pano dies off and becomes extinct.

It just so happens that Meridian has skills to pilot the spaceship that will be used for this underground expedition. And, of course, Ethan wants to go along for the ride. (Ethan’s passion for adventure ends up becoming a problem for Searcher later in the movie.) And so, off the Clade family members (including Legend the dog) go on the expedition, which includes Callisto and her crew of five other people. The only crew member who has a distinctive personality is over-eager Caspian (played by Karan Soni), who is mild comic relief in the movie.

Not long after the expedition goes underneath Earth’s surface, the explorers find an underground world that’s never been discovered before. Without question, one of the best aspects of “Strange World” is that it’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The underground “strange world” has vibrant hues and some fascinating creatures, some of which are based on real-life creatures. There’s also a walking land mass with legs, as well as cliffs that seem to be alive.

According to the “Strange World” production notes, the filmmakers purposely made the creatures in this underworld look very different from most creatures in animated films. Nguyen says in the production notes: “We decided that these characters would have no eyeballs, no noses, no mouths—no Disney eyes or Disney smiles—all that goes away.” The production notes has this description of some of the creatures: “The lineup includes reapers, which are aggressive, translucent and tentacled; goblinswills, abstract flocks that are reminiscent of dolphins but without structure; transportasaurses, giant ropes designed to collect and throw things; and the cloud o’war, a lizard-shaped cloud with an inflatable top.”

Imagine if a psychedelic candy shop exploded, and you have some idea of what many of the landscape visuals in “Strange World” looks like. It’s not a cutesy and safe world, however. There’s a large body of water that is acidic, as well as hostile creatures that attack. It’s because one of these attacks that the spaceship crashes. The front window shield gets broken during the attack. And as a result of the crash, Ethan and Legend get separated from the rest of the group. Searcher is also separated from the expedition team.

While Ethan and Legend try to find their way back to the spaceship and the other expedition members, they meet (cliché alert) a cute being that becomes their sidekick. It’s a blue-shaped blob that Ethan has named Splat, which does not speak but makes adorable noises. Splat has a personality that is both goofy and helpful.

Meanwhile, (another cliché alert) Searcher ends up finding his long-lost father Jaeger, when Jaeger saves Searcher’s life (again), this time from a creature attack. Jaeger has a flamethrower shotgun, and he’s very trigger-happy with it. It’s not spoiler information that Searcher and Jaeger have reunited, because the trailers and other marketing materials for “Strange World” clearly show that Jaeger is part of the expedition team. In the movie, Jaeger explains to Searcher that he’s been “stuck” in this underworld (in more ways than one), and he needs a way to get back above ground.

It’s also not spoiler information to say that the entire Clade family and Callista end up gong through this adventure together, under circumstances revealed in the movie. The obstacles they face are what you might expect from a movie of this type. It isn’t until the surprise reveal that viewers will find out that “Strange World” has a lot more to the story than just finding and destroying a plant virus.

“Strange World” aims to be a socially conscious movie and does better in some areas than in others. Ethan’s sexuality is treated matter-of-factly by the characters and with total acceptance and no homophobia. When Ethan’s grandfather Jaeger finds out that Ethan has a crush on someone and gets Ethan to tell him who it is, Jaeger has no hesitation or surprise when he finds out that Ethan’s crush is a guy.

Even with its open-minded attitude about LGTBQ people, “Strange World” still falls into old patterns/stereotypes of animated films giving much more importance to male characters than female characters. (Disney princess movies are an exception.) In “Strange World,” Meredian and Callista are strong female characters, but they are very underdeveloped and underused. Viewers of “Strange World” will find out almost nothing about Meredian and Callista, whereas a lot of screen time in “Strange World” is devoted to the personalities and interpersonal relationships between the male characters.

That does not mean a movie like “Strange World” needed to have “forced diversity.” However, it’s very noticeable that the female characters are somewhat used as tokens, with the filmmakers giving less consideration and lower priorities in showing audiences more of who Meredian and Callista really are. As far as the movie’s message about strengthening family bonds, it’s all about the male characters in “Strange World.”

This gender-bias flaw doesn’t ruin the movie, but it’s an example of how filmmakers need to do better in representing the female gender, which is 51% of the human population. “Strange World” is very imaginative in its world building of objects and creatures, but it could have had many improvements when it comes to originality in telling the human aspects of the story. Even with its flaws, “Strange World” is entertaining enough, as long as people don’t expect it to be a Disney classic.

Walt Disney Pictures released “Strange World” in U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Devotion’ (2022), starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell

November 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Thomas Sadoski, Nick Hargrove, Daren Kagasoff, Joe Jonas and Spencer Neville in “Devotion” (Photo by Eli Ade/Columbia Pictures)

“Devotion” (2022)

Directed by J.D. Dillard

Some French with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1950 and 1951, in the United States, Italy, France, North Korea, and China, the dramatic film “Devotion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Based on a true story, Jesse Brown becomes the first African American pilot in the U.S. Navy, and he befriends fellow pilot Tom Hudner, but Jesse experiences racism and self-doubt as obstacles to his success.

Culture Audience: “Devotion” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching war movies that have themes of friendship and dealing with challenges, told in a relatively safe and formulaic style of filmmaking.

Christina Jackson and Jonathan Majors in “Devotion” (Photo by Eli Ade/Columbia Pictures)

“Devotion” is sometimes slow-moving and stodgy, but this Korean War drama has its heart in the right place in paying tribute to U.S. Navy pilot Jesse Brown. The cast members give credible performances. The last third of the movie is better than the rest.

At 138 minutes, “Devotion” should have been a shorter movie, because some of the scenes drag on a little longer than they should and don’t do much to move the story along in a more engaging way. However, the crux of the story is meaningful, especially if viewers want to learn more about real-life people who heroically served in the Korean War.

Directed by J.D. Dillard, “Devotion” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is based on Adam Makos’ non-fiction 2014 book “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice.” Jake Crane and Jonathan A.H. Stewart co-wrote the “Devotion” adapted screenplay.

The movie opens in 1950, when U.S. Navy lieutenant Tom Hudner (played by Glen Powell) is seen leaving Quonset Point Air National Guard Base in Kingstown, Rhode Island, to go to the Naval Air Station in Oceana, Maryland. Tom is going there to be a part of the U.S. Navy’s Fighting Squadron 32, also known as VF-32. Shortly after arriving there. Tom is seen in a locker room, where he meets Anson “Jesse” Brown (played by Jonathan Majors), one of the other VF-32 members who will be going through aviator training with Tom. Their first conversation together shows their immediate rapport.

Jesse asks Tom, who has arrived from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, if he got to fly in “the big show.” Tom replies, “I did not.” Jesse says, “Then you’ll fit right in.” Tom then meets Marty Goode (played by Joe Jonas), another VF-32 member. Other members of the squad who gets some screen time are executive officer Richard “Dick” Cevoli (played by Thomas Sadoski), Carol Mohring (played by Nick Hargrove), Bill Koenig (played by Daren Kagasoff) and Bo Lavery (played by Spencer Neville). Unfortunately, all of these VF-32 pilot characters, except for Jesse and Tom, are very generic.

Near the beginning of the movie, viewers find out a little bit about Tom’s background from conversations that he has with Jesse. World War II ended just one month before Tom graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. Originally from Massachusetts, Tom says his career path wasn’t what his family expected: “I was supposed to take over my old man’s grocery stores,” Tom tells Jesse. Tom says he opted for “adventure” instead.

As for Jesse, he is originally from Mississippi, and he doesn’t reveal too much about his background to anyone. He has his guard up because he’s the only African American in the squad. And he will eventually become the first African American to become a pilot for the U.S. Navy. Jesse is happily married to Daisy Brown (played by Christina Jackson), and they are devoted and loving parents to their 3-year-old daughter Pam.

In April 1950, the VF-32 squad spends time training on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Leyte. Tom excels (he’s the type of trainee who gets perfect test scores) and quickly ascends to the top of the class. Jesse passes the tests too, but Tom is considered the squad’s “star,” who is very straight-laced and “by the book.” Tom and Jesse have a friendly rivalry with each other that occasionally leads to some tense and bitter moments later in the film when their loyalty to each other is tested.

As expected, “Devotion” shows some of the racism that Jesse had to deal with as one of the few African Americans at the time who got to serve in the U.S. Navy alongside (not separately from) his white peers. “Devotion” predictably has a racist bully who’s part of the VF-32 squad. His name is Peters (played by Thad Luckinbill), who openly says racist insults about Jesse, usually in a pathetic attempt to get Jesse to lose his temper. You can almost do a countdown to when Peters and Jesse will get into a physical brawl that Peters instigates.

Publicly, Jesse is confident and avoids trying to define his achievements and skills in terms of his race. For example, at a press event where the VF-32 squad answers questions from journalists, a racially condescending reporter makes a comment to executive officer Cevoli about Jesse, by asking if “your boy does a juggling act too.” While Jesse poses for photos with the other members of the squad, the a reporters tries to bait Jesse into talking about more about his race instead of Jesse’s accomplishments and skills. Jesse doesn’t take the bait.

Privately, Jesse battles with deep insecurities. In multiple scenes in the movie, he is shown by himself, looking in the mirror and crying and/or saying racial insults to himself out loud. It could be interpreted as Jesse using reverse psychology on himself to emotionally prepare himself for any racism he might experience. But mostly, it just looks like Jesse is fighting low self-esteem in the best way that he knows how.

“Devotion” tries to delve into the sense of isolation that Jesse must have felt where he couldn’t really hang out with the lower-ranked African Americans in the U.S. Navy (such as the workers who did jobs in maintenance or in the kitchen), but he wasn’t fully accepted by most of his white peers either, except for Tom. The movie’s handling of this issue doesn’t really go deep enough. It’s well-intentioned at best but superficial at worst. “Devotion” portrays other African Americans in the U.S. Navy as mostly background characters who admire Jesse from afar, except for one scene where they make a collective effort to personally connect with Jesse.

Tom considers himself to be open-minded and not a racist, but even he has a blind spot about race relations in a society built on white supremacist racism. There’s a section of the movie where Tom and Jesse have a conflict over an infraction that could get Jesse into some minor trouble with the U.S. Navy. Jesse explains to Tom that in a racist society, if a black person and a white person do the same thing that’s wrong, the black person tends to get harsher judgment and worse punishment than the white person. “A slap on my wrist is not the same as a slap on yours,” Jesse tells Tom.

Jesse is also sensitive about Tom acting like a “white savior” to Jesse, whereas Tom sees it as wanting to back up Jesse when Jesse experiences racist bullying. Jesse tells Tom, “I can fight my own fights. I’ve been doing it a long time.” Despite these tensions in their relationship, when Jesse and Tom are in the air, they are professional, and they look out for each other in the way that true friends do.

“Devotion” takes a little bit of a detour from the fighter pilot scenes to show some of the VF-32 squad members during some leisure time in Cannes, France. On a beach in Cannes, they meet movie star Elizabeth Taylor (played by Serinda Swan), who is flirtatious with this group of young military men. She is impressed with this squad and invites them to a glamorous party.

When the squad members arrive at the party, which is at a private mansion, two security guards (played by Erik Bello and Michael David Anderson) at the front door are immediately suspicious of Jesse and treat him differently because of his race. They refuse to believe that Jesse is on the guest list, and are so sure of it, they won’t even check the list. Everyone (including members of the squad) are shocked to see that Jesse knows how to speak French. Jesse takes charge of the situation in a confident way that gets them entry into the party.

Because “Devotion” is a male-oriented military film, the movie’s few women who have speaking roles don’t have much to do and are written as solely existing to react to whatever the men do. Jesse’s wife Daisy is pleasant but is essentially depicted as a stereotypical “loyal and worried wife at home” character. Early on in the movie, when Tom is invited to the Brown home for the first time, Daisy literally tells Tom: “I need you to be there for my Jesse.”

The airplane scenes in the movie are watchable but they’re not outstanding. And the movie’s dialogue can often be simplistic and trite. For example, in a scene involving a life-or-death situation, Tom lectures Jesse, “Mistakes get us killed, Jesse.” In another scene, executive officer Cevoli tells Tom that war medals are quickly forgotten and adds, “The real battle in all of life is being someone people can count on.”

Fortunately, Majors and Powell bring enough personality to their roles to make their respective Jesse and Tom characters look like real human beings instead of stereotypes. However, the character of Tom is much less developed than the character of Jesse, since viewers never get much insight into Tom’s personal life. Jesse introduces Tom to Jesse’s family in Jesse’s home. And although Tom seems like the type of non-racist friend who would do the same for Jesse, it’s never shown in the movie.

“Devotion” can certainly satisfy viewers who are looking for some thrilling airplane action scenes, but most of the movie is about the drama that happens on the ground. “Devotion” hits a lot of familiar beats that are seen in many other movies about airplane pilots who are war heroes. It’s far from a groundbreaking film, but “Devotion” has enough heartbreaking moments to make an impact on viewers.

Columbia Pictures will release “Devotion” in U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022.

2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is the top nominee

November 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michelle Yeoh in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (Photo by Allyson Riggs/A24)

With eight nominations, including Best Feature, A24’s dimension-traveling sci-fi/action film “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the top contender at the 38th annual Film Independent Spirit Awards, which will take place at an in-person ceremony at Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, California, on March 4, 2023. The Focus Features drama “TÁR,” starring Cate Blanchett as a maestro classical music conductor facing a scandal, follows close behind, with seven nominations, including Best Feature.

The non-profit group Film Independent votes for and presents the Spirit Awards, which are for movies, which have an independent production budget of no more than $30 million, and TV shows that embody an “indepedent spirit.” IFC will have the live telecast the show, while AMC+ will offer streaming of the ceremony. The show’s host will be announced at a later date.

Nominees in the movie categories were announced by actors Taylour Paige and Raúl Castillo on November 22, 2022. Nominees in the TV categories will be announced by actor Asia Kate Dillon on December 13, 2022. This article will be updated with the TV nominees after they are announced.

Here’s what’s new for the 2023 Film Indepedent Spirit Awards, according to an announcement on the Film Independent website:

  • All acting categories are now gender-neutral. The categories for Best Lead Performance and Best Supporting Performance have a maximum of 10 nominees per category, unless there is a tie in the voting.
  • A new catgeory has been added: Best Breakthrough Performance, given to “performers making themselves known to wider audiences through noteworthy character portrayals,” according to Film Indepedent.
  • The maximum production budget for eligible films has increased from $22.5 million to $30 million.
  • The maximum production budget for the John Cassavetes Award has increased from $500,000 to $1 million.

The director, casting director and principal cast members of the MGM/United Artists Releasing drama “Women Talking” will receive the Robert Altman Award, a non-competitive prize given to one movie per year and announced in advance of the ceremony. “Women Talking” is also up for Spirit Awards in these competitive categories: Best Feature, Best Director (for Sarah Polley) and Best Screenplay (also for Polley).

Some eligible films were noticeably snubbed and didn’t get any Spirit Award nominations, such as the A24 drama “The Whale,” the Orion Pictures drama “Till” and the Netflix documentary “Descendant.” These movies have received nominations or prizes at other award shows that give prizes to movies.


Best Feature

  • “Bones and All” (MGM/United Artists Releasing)
  • “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
  • “Our Father, the Devil” (Resolve Media)
  • “TÁR” (Focus Features)
  • “Women Talking” (MGM/United Artists Releasing)

Best Director

  • Todd Field – “TÁR” (Focus Features)
  • Kogonada – “After Yang” (A24)
  • Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert – “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
  • Sarah Polley – “Women Talking” (MGM/United Artists Releasing)
  • Halina Reijn – “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (A24)

Best Lead Performance

  • Cate Blanchett – “TÁR” (Focus Features)
  • Dale Dickey – “A Love Song” (Bleecker Street)
  • Mia Goth – “Pearl” (A24)
  • Regina Hall – “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” (Focus Features)
  • Paul Mescal – “Aftersun” (A24)
  • Aubrey Plaza – “Emily the Criminal” (Roadside Attractions)
  • Jeremy Pope – “The Inspection” (A24)
  • Taylor Russell – “Bones and All” (MGM/United Artists Releasing)
  • Andrea Riseborough – “To Leslie” (Momentum Pictures)
  • Michelle Yeoh – “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)

Best Supporting Performance

  • Jamie Lee Curtis – “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
  • Brian Tyree Henry – “Causeway” (A24/Apple Original Films)
  • Nina Hoss – “TÁR” (Focus Features)
  • Brian D’Arcy James – “The Cathedral” (MUBI)
  • Ke Huy Quan – “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
  • Trevante Rhodes – “Bruiser” (Onyx Collective)
  • Theo Rossi – “Emily the Criminal” (Roadside Attractions)
  • Mark Rylance – “Bones and All” (MGM/United Artists Releasing)
  • Jonathan Tucker – “Palm Trees and Power Lines” (Momentum Pictures)
  • Gabrielle Union – “The Inspection” (A24)

Best Breakthrough Performance

  • Frankie Corio – “Aftersun” (A24)
  • Garcija Filipovic – “Murina” (Kino Lorber)
  • Stephanie Hsu – “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
  • Lily McInerny – “Palm Trees and Power Lines” (Momentum Pictures)
  • Daniel Zolghardi – “Funny Pages” (A24)

Best Screenplay

  • “After Yang” (A24) – Kogonada
  • “Catherine Called Birdy” (Amazon Studios) – Lena Dunham
  • “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24) – Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
  • “TÁR” (Focus Features) – Todd Field
  • “Women Talking” (MGM/United Artists Releasing) – Sarah Polley

Best First Screenplay

  • “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (A24) – Sarah DeLappe, Kristen Roupenian
  • “Emergency” (Amazon Studios) – K.D. Dávila
  • “Emily the Criminal” (Roadside Attractions) – John Patton Ford
  • “Fire Island” (Searchlight Pictures) – Joel Kim Booster
  • “Palm Trees and Power Lines” (Momentum Pictures) – Jamie Dack, Audrey Findlay

Best First Feature

  • “Aftersun” (A24) – Charlotte Wells (director), Mark Ceryak, Amy Jackson, Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski (producers)
  • “Emily the Criminal” (Roadside Attractions) – John Patton Ford (director), Tyler Davidson, Aubrey Plaza, Drew Sykes (producers)
  • “The Inspection” (A24) – Elegance Bratton (director), Effie T. Brown, Chester Algernal Gordon (producers)
  • “Murina” (Kino Lorber) – Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović (director), Danijel Pek, Rodrigo Teixeira (producers)
  • “Palm Trees and Power Lines” (Momentum Pictures) – Jamie Dack (director), Leah Chen Baker (producer)

John Cassavetes Award (Given to the best feature made for under $1 million)

  • “The African Desperate” (MUBI) – Martine Syms (writer, director, producer), Rocket Caleshu (writer, producer), Vic Brooks (producer)
  • “A Love Song” (Bleecker Street) – Max Walker-Silverman (writer, director, producer), Jesse Hope, Dan Janvey (producers)
  • “The Cathedral” (MUBI) – Ricky D’Ambrose (writer, director), Graham Swon (producer)
  • “Holy Emy” (Utopie Films) – Araceli Lemos (writer, director), Giulia Caruso (writer, producer), Mathieu Bompoint, Ki Jin Kim, Konstantinos Vassilaros (producers)
  • “Something in the Dirt” (XYZ Films) – Justin Benson (writer, director, producer), Aaron Moorhead (director, producer), David Lawson Jr. (producer)

Best Cinematography

  • “Aftersun” (A24) – Gregory Oke
  • “Murina” (Kino Lorber) – Hélène Louvart
  • “Neptune Frost” (Kino Lorber) – Anisia Uzeyman
  • “Pearl” (A24) – Eliot Rockett
  • “TÁR” (Focus Features) – Florian Hoffmeister

Best Documentary

  • “A House Made of Splinters” (Madman Entertainment) – Simon Lereng Wilmont (director), Monica Hellström (producer)
  • “All that Breathes” (HBO) – Shaunak Sen (director, producer), Teddy Leifer, Aman Mann (producers)
  • “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Neon) – Laura Poitras (director, producer), Howard Gertler, Nan Goldin, Yoni Golijov, John Lyons (producers)
  • “Midwives” (POV) – Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing (director, producer), Mila Aung-Thwin, Ulla Lehmann, Bob Moore (producers)
  • “Riotsville, U.S.A.” (IFC Films) – Sierra Pettengill (director), Sara Archambault, Jamila Wignot (producer)

Best Editing

  • “Aftersun” (A24) – Blair McClendon
  • “The Cathedral” (MUBI) – Ricky D’Ambrose
  • “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24) – Paul Rogers
  • “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” (A24) – Dean Fleischer Camp, Nick Paley
  • “TÁR” (Focus Features) – Monika Willi

Best International Film

  • “Corsage” (Austria/Luxembourg/France/Belgium/Italy/England)
  • “Joyland” (Pakistan/USA)
  • “Leonor Will Never Die” (Philippines)
  • “Return to Seoul” (South Korea/France/Belgium/Romania)
  • “Saint Omer” (France)

Producers Award 

(The Producers Award, now in its 26th year, honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality independent films.)

  • Liz Cardenas
  • Tory Lenosky
  • David Grove Churchill Viste

Someone to Watch Award 

(The Someone to Watch Award, now in its 29th year, recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition.)

  • Adamma Ebo – “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”
  • Nikyatu Jusu – “Nanny”
  • Araceli Lemos – “Holy Emy”

“The Truer Than Fiction Award” 

(The Truer Than Fiction Award, now in its 28th year, is presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not yet received significant recognition.)

  • Isabel Castro – “Mija”
  • Reid Davenport – “I Didn’t See You There”
  • Rebeca Huntt – “Beba”

Robert Altman Award (Given to one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast)

“Women Talking” (MGM/United Artists Releasing) – Sarah Polley (director), John Buchan, Jason Knight (casting directors), Shayla Brown, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Kira Guloien, Kate Hallett, Judith Ivey, Rooney Mara, Sheila McCarthy, Frances McDormand, Michelle McLeod, Liv McNeil, Ben Whishaw, August Winter (ensemble cast)

Review: ‘Alienoid,’ starring Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Woo-bin, Kim Tae-ri, So Ji-sub, YuYum Jung-ah, Jo Woo-jin, Kim Eui-sung and Lee Hanee

November 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kim Woo-bin in “Alienoid” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)


Directed by Choi Dong-hoon

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1380s, 1390s, the 2010s and the 2020s, the South Korean sci-fi action film “Alienoid” features an all-Asian cast of characters portraying humans, aliens, supernatural beings, robots and mutants.

Culture Clash: A robot and a supernatural creature travel through time to manage and guard Alien prisoners trapped in human bodies, when they encounter a teenage girl who gets involved in the possession of the Crystal Knife that is the source of the prisoner guards’ superpowers.

Culture Audience: “Alienoid” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching ambitiously told science-fiction movies that require an active imagination to process everything that happens in the story.

Kim Tae-ri in “Alienoid” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Alienoid” can be a little too convoluted with plot developments that are jumbled into different timelines. However, this sci-fi adventure has plenty of orginal storytelling and interesting characters to keep viewers intrigued. People who don’t have the patience to sift through all the layers in the story might be turned off by this movie. That’s why “Alienoid” is best appreciated if watched without any distractions.

Written and directed by Choi Dong-hoon, “Alienoid” is about the ongoing conflicts in a universe where Alien prisoners are kept in human bodies, without the humans knowing about it. Certain beings who are the guards of the prisoners are tasked with ensuring that the prisoners don’t escape from these bodies. The movie compares these escapes to a “jailbreak.” The prisoners trapped in the bodies are supposed to die when the humans die.

Alien prisoners have varying powers. Therefore, some Alien prisoners are more successful than others in escaping. However, on Earth, the Aliens only have about five minutes to live outside of a human body because of the Earth’s atmosphere, which is why some Aliens try to escape to other planets in the short time that they have to live outside of a host human body on Earth. When an Alien escapes from a host human body, that human can die as a result, if the Alien chooses to kill the human.

“Alienoid” has a large ensemble cast that might make the movie look overstuffed with characters. However, viewers should know in advance that the movie’s multi-layered storyline is essentially rooted in these four characters:

  • Guard (played by Kim Woo-bin) is a supernatural being who can transform into looking human and has been tasked to manage and guard Alien prisoners and place them in human hosts. Guard gets his powers from a special weapon called the Crystal Knife.
  • Thunder (voiced by Kim Dae-myung) is a robot that is Guard’s work partner/sidekick that can shapeshift into things (such as transportation vehicles and ships), as well as transform into looking human. Thunder also gets his powers from the Crystal Knife.
  • Lee Ahn (played by Kim Tae-ri) is a mysterious woman who can shoot thunder and plays a key role in the possession of the Crystal Knife.
  • Mureuk (played by Ryu Jun-yeol) is a Taoist swordsman who calls himself Marvelous Mureuk is sometimes physically awkward and emotionally insecure.

The movie goes back and forth between the 1380s, the 1390s, the 2010s and the 2020s. “Alienoid” begins in 1380, when an Alien prisoner has escaped from the body of a woman named Hong Eon-nyeon (played by Jeon Yeo-been), so Guard and Thunder have arrived to try to capture this escaped prisoner. Eon-nyeon knows she’s going to die, so she begs Thunder to take care of her baby daughter, whose name is Yian.

Guard and Thunder bring the baby to the future, in the year 2012. Guard, who is the one who’s more likely to be in human form, raises Yian as her single father. He does not tell her the truth about who he is until Yian (played by Choi Yu-ri) is 10 years old, in 2022. Yian was already suspicious that her father was a robot, because she was telling people that her father is a robot who experimented on her brain. Guard also mysteriously disappears every night at 9 p.m.

It should come as no surprise that the Crystal Knife ends up getting lost, and there’s a battle of good versus evil to get possession of the Crystal Knife. Along the way, many more characters get involved. Some are more eccentric than others. These characters include:

  • Moon Do-seok (played by So Ji-sub) is a detective who is being pursued by Aliens.
  • Heug-seol, (played by Yum Jung-ah), also known as Madam Black, is a sorcerer from Samgaksan.
  • Cheong-woon (played by Jo Woo-jin), also known as Mr. Blue, is a sorcerer from Samgaksan
  • Dog Turd (played by Kim Ki-cheon) is an enemy of Mureuk.
  • Hyun-gam (played by Yoo Jae-myung), also known as Master Hyun, is a Yellow Mountain resident who bought the Crystal Knife.

The hyperactive tone of “Alienoid” just might be too dizzying for some viewers. The action scenes in “Alienoid” are thrilling but can lose their thrill if viewers are confused by what’s going on in the story. All of the cast members are perfectly adequate in their acting skills, but no one is going to win any major awards for “Alienoid.”

“Alienoid” has touches of occasional comedy that work well, since the movie doesn’t take itself entirely too seriously. The visual effects, production design and costume design are among the best assets of “Alienoid,” which leaves a strong visual impression, even when things movie gets a little too cluttered with its time-jumping antics. Some of the twists in the story are very easy to predict, but the biggest surprise is left for the end of the movie. Ultimately, “Alienoid” is a movie made for sci-fi enthusiasts, and it dares viewers to keep up with its high-speed array of ideas.

Well Go USA released “Alienoid” in select U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2022. The movie will be released on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on December 6, 2022.

2022 TheGrio Awards: Inaugural event honorees include Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Tyler Perry, Patti LaBelle, Kenan Thompson

November 21, 2022

The following is a press release from CBS:

African American-focused news, lifestyle, sports and entertainment platform theGrio ( recently celebrated icons, leaders and legends at Byron Allen’s inaugural TheGrio Awards, a star-studded, black-tie event held at the Beverly Hilton. Co-hosted by Sheryl Underwood of “The Talk” and Taye Diggs, “Byron Allen Presents TheGrio Awards” will be broadcast Saturday, November 26, 2022 (8:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network and available to stream live on Paramount +*.

“Byron Allen Presents TheGrio Awards” celebrates excellence in film, music, comedy, television, sports, philanthropy, business, fashion, social justice, environmental justice and education, and the cultural icons and innovators whose many contributions positively impact America. The special pays tribute to and amplifies the history makers, change agents and artists who define and influence our world.

Honorees include Dave Chappelle (Cultural Icon Award), Ben Crump (Justice Icon Award), Allyson Felix (Sports Icon Award), Jennifer Hudson (Trailblazer Icon Award), Patti LaBelle (Music Icon Award), Queen Latifah (Television Icon Award), Norman Lear (Champion Award), Alena Analeigh McQuarter (Young Icon Award), Don Peebles (Business Icon Award), Tyler Perry (ICON Award), Robert F. Smith (Philanthropy Award) and Kenan Thompson (Comedy Icon Award). Also, the special features musical performances by Yolanda Adams, Tyrese, Fantasia and Patti LaBelle. Greg Phillinganes serves as musical director, and DJ Kiss acts as both D.J. and announcer for the awards special.

“I created theGrio Awards to celebrate and amplify African-American excellence and the incredible champions from other communities who truly support us,” said Byron Allen, founder/chairman/CEO of Allen Media Group. “As a child, strong, positive African-American icons such as Berry Gordy, Jr., Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr. helped me see myself differently and changed the trajectory of my life. Celebrating and amplifying iconic individuals is something we can never do enough of, especially for our children.”

“TheGrio Awards” is co-produced by Allen Media Group and Backhand Productions. Byron Allen, Carolyn Folks, Jennifer Lucas, Jeff Atlas and Michelle Willrich are executive producers.

*Paramount+ Premium subscribers will have access to stream live via the live feed of their local CBS affiliate.

About Allen Media Group

Chairman and CEO Byron Allen founded Allen Media Group/Entertainment Studios in 1993. Headquartered in Los Angeles, it has offices in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Charleston, SC. Allen Media Group owns 27 ABC-NBC-CBS-FOX network affiliate broadcast television stations in 21 U.S. markets and twelve 24-hour HD television networks serving nearly 220 million subscribers: THE WEATHER CHANNEL, THE WEATHER CHANNEL EN ESPAÑOL, PETS.TV, COMEDY.TV, RECIPE.TV, CARS.TV, ES.TV, MYDESTINATION.TV, JUSTICE CENTRAL.TV, THEGRIO, THIS TV, and PATTRN. Allen Media Group also owns the streaming platforms HBCU GO, SPORTS.TV, THEGRIO, THE WEATHER CHANNEL STREAMING APP and LOCAL NOW–the free-streaming AVOD service powered by THE WEATHER CHANNEL and content partners, which delivers real-time, hyper-local news, weather, traffic, sports, and lifestyle information. Allen Media Group also produces, distributes, and sells advertising for 68 television programs, making it one of the largest independent producers/distributors of first-run syndicated television programming for broadcast television stations. With a library of over 5,000 hours of owned content across multiple genres, Allen Media Group provides video content to broadcast television stations, cable television networks, mobile devices, and multimedia digital. Our mission is to provide excellent programming to our viewers, online users, and Fortune 500 advertising partners. Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures is a full-service, theatrical motion picture distribution company specializing in wide release commercial content. ESMP released 2017’s highest-grossing independent movie, the shark thriller 47 METERS DOWN, which grossed over $44.3 million. In 2018, ESMP also released the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Western HOSTILES, the historic mystery-thriller CHAPPAQUIDDICK and the sequel to 47 METERS DOWN, 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED. The digital distribution unit of Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, Freestyle Digital Media, is a premiere multi-platform distributor with direct partnerships across all major cable, digital and streaming platforms. Capitalizing on a robust infrastructure, proven track record and a veteran sales team, Freestyle Digital Media is a true home for independent films. In 2016, Allen Media Group purchased The Grio, a highly rated digital video-centric news community platform devoted to providing African Americans with compelling stories and perspectives currently underrepresented in existing national news outlets. The Grio features aggregated and original video packages, news articles and opinion pieces on topics that include breaking news, politics, health, business and entertainment. Originally launched in 2009, the platform was then purchased by NBC News in 2010. The digital platform remains focused on curating exciting digital content and currently has more than 100 million annual visitors.

About Backhand Productions

Jeff Atlas founded Backhand Productions with a contract to produce 14 hours of live TV content for the Democratic National Connvention. From there, Backhand went on to produce a series of diverse, high-quality productions for ABC, NBC, FOX, TNT, Nickelodeon, MTV, and more. Notable projects include Kevin Hart’s theatrical blockbuster, Laugh at My Pain, the launch of YouTube Space LA, and the National Urban League’s National Annual Conference and NAACP Image Awards. His virtual event credits include The Gracie Awards, the 2016 and 2020 Democratic National Conventions, and the go90s live stream of the Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco. In addition, he co-created, and executive produced the limited series Blood Ivory for Animal Planet, which focuses on the non-profit group of American veterans (VETPAW) and their first mission to Tanzania to support the elephant anti-poaching effort. More recent projects include the Biden Inaugural in 2021, the NBA All-Star Game, and project launches for Instagram and Facebook. Backhand is represented by Robyn Lattaker-Johnson at A3 Artists Agency and Kerry Smith of Smith Entertainment Legal Group.

Review: ‘Uunchai,’ starring Amitabh Bachchan, Anupam Kher and Boman Irani

November 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Anupam Kher, Boman Irani and Amitabh Bachchan in “Uunchai” (Photo courtesy of Yash Raj Films)


Directed by Sooraj R. Barjatya

Hindi and Nepalese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and Nepal, the dramatic film “Uunchai” features a cast of predominantly Indian characters (and with some Nepalese people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After their longtime friend unexpectedly dies, three elderly men decide to fulfill their dead friend’s wish to take an adventure trip and hike on Mount Everest, despite people telling them that they’re too old for this type of physical activity. 

Culture Audience: “Uunchai” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s principal stars, but “Uunchai” is filled with cringeworthy stereotypes and takes too long to get to the Mount Everest part of the story.

Amitabh Bachchan, Anupam Kher and Boman Irani in “Uunchai” (Photo courtesy of Yash Raj Films)

“Unchaai” takes a simple and not-very-original concept (elderly people going on an adventure trip) and ruins it with a bloated run time of 173 minutes, very hokey scenarios, and mediocre acting. “Unnchai” (which means “height” in Hindi) is supposed to be about three elderly men who take a trip to Mount Everest in Nepal, as a tribute to their recently deceased friend. It takes the movie about 45 minutes to finally show them starting this road trip. The movie is half over by the time they get to Mount Everest.

Directed by Sooraj R. Barjatya and written by Abhishek Dixit, “Uunchai” is a perfect example of a movie that is overstuffed with filler scenes that are completely unnecessary. And just as irritating is the movie’s unrelenting predictability. “Uunchai” tries to throw in a badly contrived “surprise” toward the end of the film. It’s really no surprise at all, considering that the movie’s central conflict is that these old men want to prove to naysayers that they’re strong enough and healthy enough to go on this Mount Everest trip.

“Uunchai” begins in Delhi, India, at a birthday celebration for a retired man named Bhupen (played by Danny Denzongpa), whose three best friends are at the party. Bhupen is a never-married bachelor who does not have any biological family members who are in his life. His three best friends are his family. All four of the men are in their 60s or 70s.

The other three friends are:

  • Professor/author Amit Srivastava (played by Amitabh Bachchan), who is separated from his wife and has no children.
  • Bookstore owner Om Sharma (played by Anupam Kher), who is a widower with a married son, who manages Om’s store.
  • Boutique owner Javed Siddiqui (played by Boman Irani), who is married and has a married daughter.

Bhupen’s party is a joyous event. Not long after the party, Bhupen tells his three buddies that he wants to fulfill a longtime dream of going with these friends to Mount Everest. He doesn’t want to do anything too dangerous, such as try to climb Mount Everest. Bhupen wants to go to Mount Everest Base Camp, which offers hiking and exploring activities on Mount Everest.

Amit and Javed are politely open to the idea, but Om is the most skeptical and nervous about it. Om quips, “We can barely climb the stairs, let alone a mountain!” However, after the four men have a night of drunken partying at a pub, Om agrees to take the trip.

Not long after they have this discussion, Bhupen suddenly dies of heart attack, alone in his home. His friends are devastated, of course. After the funeral (Bhupen was cremated), Amit is looking through some of Bhupen’s possessions when he finds four tickets that Bhupen bought for the Mount Everest trip. It’s how Amit discovers that Bhupen had been planning to surprise Amit, Om and Javed with these tickets as a gift.

Amit is so emotionally moved, he insists to Om and Javed that they all take the trip as a tribute to Bhupen. They also decide that they will spread Bhupen’s ashes on Mount Everest. The plan is set in motion to take the trip in the near future. They are going to travel to Mount Everest by car. Amit will do the driving.

The friends have two potential obstacles: First, they have to get the approval of their doctors. Second, Javed knows that his very possessive and nagging wife Shabina Siddiqui (played by Needa Gupta), nicknamed Bhabhi, will not let him go on this trip. And so, Javed comes up with a plan to let Shabina go on the road trip with them but to drop her off at the home of their daughter Heeba (played by Sheen Dass), who lives in Gorakhpur, India—about213 kilometers (or 132 miles) southeast of Delhi.

Because it takes so long in the movie for this road trip to actually begin, “Uunchai” has several tedious scenes of Amit, Om and Javed going through physical training and medical checkups to prepare for their Mount Everest adventure. Amit’s doctor advises him not to go on the trip because of the high altitudes of Mount Everest. Amit responds that he’s not changing his plans for the trip: “Doctor, I’m leaving tomorrow.”

During this long and monotonous road trip, “Uunchai” fills up the time with irritating bickering, usually instigated by Shabina, who is miserable being on the road. In addition, Om has some emotional baggage to deal with because he is estranged from his brothers, who live in a rural area and who think that Om abandoned them to become a businessman in Delhi. Om and his brothers have inherited some property, which has caused a family feud that is detailed in the movie.

When the four travelers get to Lucknow, India, they meet a woman in her 60s named Mala Trivedi (played by Sarika), who had a history with Bhupen. Her history is exactly what you think it might be. (It’s all so predictable.) And it’s why Mala ends up going on the road trip too. Mala is also with the men when they go to Mount Everest.

“Uunchai” is so formulaic and so treacly with its obvious attempts to pull at people’s heartstrings, it become a chore to watch this movie because of the way it drags on and on, without any real character development and nothing exciting happening. By the time these travelers get to Mount Everest, you can easily guess that they will have a tour guide who’s skeptical that these senior citizens are capable of keeping up with the rest of the younger people in the group. This cynical tour guide is named Shraddha (played by Parineeti Chopra), and she gets into stereotypical arguments with these elderly men—especially with “alpha male” Amit, who is the most determined of the three pals to prove her wrong.

And speaking of clichés, expect to see a lot of scenes of the old men huffing and puffing, as they run out of breath and struggle to keep up with the rest of the group during their physically demanding activities at Mount Everest. As shown in the trailer for “Uunchai,” Om slips and falls and inveitably gets hurt. And there are more “look at the old people trying to be fearless hikers” spectacle scenes that are too similar to each other and repeated over and over.

“Uunchai” also pours on the schmaltz in eye-rolling ways, such as a scene where the elderly travelers end up playing soccer with some Buddhist monks (who are in their monk clothes) and some of the local Nepalese people. Mostly, the trip consists of generic hiking scenes that show some beautiful scenery but has a lot of uninspired dialogue and a few contrivances. For example, during the trip, Om is distracted when he hears about some warehouse problems that are affecting his business back in Delhi.

Amit, who is a successful and famous author, is supposed to have the most fascinating life out of the three pals, but his life is depicted in a very shallow way in the movie. The only insight to any personal growth that Amit might experience is early on in “Uunchai,” shortly after Bhupen has died, when Amit remembers some constructive criticism that Bhupen gave to Amit. Bhupen told Amit that Amit’s self-help books were starting to sound less like they came from the mind of a writer and more like they came from the mind of a salesman.

Amit’s marital problems, which are barely mentioned in the movie, are then dealt with in a rushed and phony way toward the end of the film. Nafisa Ali Sodhi has a small role in “Uunchai” as Abhilasha Srivastava, Amit’s estranged wife. Amit is supposedly re-evaluating his life after Bhupen’s sudden death, but Amit’s marriage is treated like an afterthought in the overall plot.

“Unnchai” is the type of over-inflated movie where much of the production budget was spent on traveling and hiring the famous actors who headline the film. That money is wasted if the movie just turns out to be stale mush that rehashes similar movies about elderly people who go on a “wish fulfillment/bucket list” trip. The acting isn’t terrible, but it’s terribly generic. For a movie of this annoyingly excessive length, “Uunchai” has very little to say that’s witty, enthralling or truly original.

Yash Raj Films released “Uunchai” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on November 11, 2022.

Review: ‘Railway Children,’ starring Jenny Agutter, Sheridan Smith, John Bradley and Tom Courtenay

November 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zac Cudby, Beau Gadsdon, Austin Haynes, Eden Hamilton and Kenneth “KJ” Aikens in “Railway Children” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Railway Children”

Directed by Morgan Matthews

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1944, mainly in West Yorkshire, England, the dramatic film “Railway Children” features a predominantly white cast of characters (and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During World War II, four British children befriend and help a young African American soldier, who has deserted the U.S. Army and has gone into hiding. 

Culture Audience: “Railway Children” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching corny and sometimes unrealistic dramas that take place during World War II.

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Eden Hamilton, Austin Haynes, Sheridan Smith, Tom Courtenay, Jenny Agutter, Beau Gadsdon and Zac Cudby in “Railway Children” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

Even though the sappy drama “Railway Children” is told from the perspectives of children during World War II, it’s still no excuse for how the movie mishandles issues such as racism and military desertion. The movie’s last 15 minutes are atrociously mushy. Mostly, “Railway Children” is just lackluster and dull, until the last third of the film, where a plot development is crammed in to create a false sense of suspense. This plot development ends up falling very flat because of the way it’s unrealistically resolved.

Directed by Morgan Matthews, “Railway Children” takes place in 1944, mostly in West Yorkshire, England. Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers co-wrote the maudlin “Railway Children” screenplay. If people don’t know anything about the movie before seeing it, the movie’s title might give the impression it’s about vagabond kids who travel by railway. The movie’s actually not about that at all. It’s a sequel to the 1970 film “The Railway Children,” which is based on Edith Nesbit’s 1905 novel. “The Railway Children” was remade into a TV-movie released in 2000.

The children who are the central characters in “Railway Children” (formerly titled “The Railway Children Return”) actually aren’t homeless. Transportation by train is only a significant part of the movie’s plot in the beginning and near the end of the film. “Railway Children” is about three siblings whose mother has made them temporarily relocate from Manchester, England, to West Yorkshire, because a big city like Manchester is more likely to be bombed during the war. Their single mother, who is a nurse, has decided to live and work in Liverpool, England, until it’s safe for her to be reunited with her evacuated kids.

The opening scene of “Railway Children” shows the children’s mother, Angela Watts (played by Jessica Baglow), saying a tearful goodbye to her three kids at the train station in Manchester. She will not be going with them on the train. Eldest child Lily Watts (played by Beau Gadsdon) is about 14 or 15 years old. Middle child Pattie Watts (played by Eden Hamilton) is about 10 or 11 years old. Youngest child Ted Watts (played by Zac Cudby) is about 6 or 7 years old.

Angela tells Lily that because Lily is the eldest child, “You’re the parent now.” Pattie is wearing a dress, and she complains that she doesn’t like wearing dresses. After the children board the train, they meet some other unaccompanied children who have been sent away by their parents for the same reason as the Watts kids. The ticket taker on the train is aware that there are about 20 of these evacuated kids on the train.

During this trip, the kids are mostly obedient but get restless when they are told that the train won’t stop just anywhere for the passengers to use a restroom. The ticket taker gruffly tells Lily that everyone will have to wait until the train gets to the next train station, which has restrooms for people to use. Instead of waiting for that to happen, Lily secretly pulls the train’s emergency brake, forcing the train to stop.

The children then use this interruption to go in a field and relieve themselves. The train conductor suspects Lily pulled the emergency brake and accuses her privately, but she dares him to prove that she pulled the brake. Of course, he can’t prove it.

The main purpose of this scene is to establish early in the movie that Lily is a strong-willed, independent thinker who will break the rules if she thinks it’s for a good reason. Lily demonstrates this personality trait many times throughout the movie, especially when she makes a decision that could get her in trouble with the law. Lily also doesn’t abide by sexist gender roles where girls are expected to be weaker than boys.

When the evacuated kids on the train arrive at West Yorkshire, they are greeted by St. Mark’s School headmistress Annie Clark (played by Sheridan Smith) and Annie’s mother Roberta “Bobbie” Waterbury (played by Jenny Agutter), who live together and are both very welcoming to the kids. Agutter reprises her role as Bobbie, which she played in 1970’s “The Railway Children,” which was about three child siblings in 1905 who try to find out why their father disappeared. In the 2000 TV-movie version of “The Railway Children,” Agutter played the children’s mother.

In the “Railway Children” sequel, various families in the area have gathered at the school to meet the evacuated children and choose which ones they will take into their homes as foster kids. The Watts children don’t want to be separated, but that means no foster family wants to take all three of the Watts siblings together. Bobbie feels a great deal of sympathy for the Watts siblings, because they remind her of herself and her two siblings when she was a child, so she convinces a reluctant Annie to take the Watts siblings into their home.

Annie has an amiable and talkative son named Thomas Clark (played by Austin Haynes), who’s about 10 or 11 years old. Instead of being irritated that he has to share his living space with three kids he doesn’t know, Thomas adapts quickly and seems happy to have the company of kids close to his age. Thomas and the Watts siblings become fast friends and spend most of the movie hanging out together.

Thomas’ father is away, fighting in the war. Lily says that her father is doing the same thing. (As soon as she says that, it’s obvious she’s lying.) An occasional visitor to the household is Annie’s uncle Walter (played by Tom Courtenay), who lives in London and works as a political liaison for the Allies. Walter is a compassionate and wise person, but this character is very underdeveloped in the movie.

Another supporting character who is fairly one-dimensional is Richard (played by John Bradley), the manager of the local train station. Richard acts like a know-it-all and is somewhat impatient with kids. However, Richard likes Thomas enough to show Thomas the surveillance audio equipment that Richard keeps in the train station. Richard tells Thomas that he likes to eavesdrop on unsuspecting people to find out if anyone in town is a traitorous spy.

Unfortunately, the movie’s pace slows down considerably, as it lumbers along in showing how the Watts children have somewhat of a hard time adjusting to their new environment outside of their new household. At school, the Watts siblings are treated like outsiders by the classmates, except for Thomas. Four school bullies, led by a brat named Georgie Duckworth (played by Joseph Richards), try to attack Ted, Pattie and Thomas, but Lily sneaks up behind the bullies and is able to fight them off and scare them away.

“Railway Children” has repetitive scenes of Lily, Ted, Pattie and Thomas playing in an open field area that has some abandoned train cars. They uses these cars as “secret hideouts” when playing games with each other. Lily, Ted and Pattie are happy that they have a new friend in Thomas, but the Watts siblings miss their mother tremendously. Unfortunately, the movie depicts these emotions in a superficial way, as other issues get more importance in the story.

Life in the foster home is fairly tranquil, with occasional disruptions if the four kids are messy or don’t immediately do something that an adult tells them to do. One day, Annie gets a letter from the military with some upsetting news that she wants to keep a secret from the children. The information in the letter is eventually revealed, but the movie drags it out in a weak attempt to have some suspense.

About halfway through “Railway Children,” Lily, Pattie and Thomas make a very surprising discovery in their hideout area. A teenage American soldier named Abraham “Abe” McCarthy (played by Kenneth “KJ” Aikens) is hiding in one of the abandoned train cars. He has a gash injury on one of his legs. Abe tells the kids that he’s 18 years old and that he’s hiding because he’s on a secret mission for the U.S. Army.

Abe asks the children to bring him bandages and begs the kids not to tell anyone that he is there. Of course, all this secrecy means that Abe is probably lying. Eventually, the children find out the truth: Abe has gone absent without leave (AWOL) from the U.S. Army, which has sent the military police and other officials to look for Abe in West Yorkshire. Abe being a military deserter is not the only thing that Abe has lied about, and his other lie is very obvious to figure out.

Several U.S. Army soldiers are temporarily stationed in the area. The movie shows in heavy-handed ways that Abe has additional paranoia about being caught because he’s an African American and is expected to get harsher punishment than if he were white. More than one scene in the movie depicts white American soldiers harassing the African American soldiers, such as when a white American soldier berates and shoves an off-duty African American soldier for talking to a white British woman.

Abe wants to find a way to get on the next train out of town. Lily suggests that Abe get on the train going to Liverpool, where she says Abe can find her nurse mother to give him treatment. This naïve plan is taken very seriously in the movie, which doesn’t even show Lily giving Abe enough information to find her mother in a fairly big city like Liverpool. Meanwhile, Thomas gets very nervous about keeping Abe a secret, so Thomas starts to disagree with Lily about keeping this secret.

“Railway Children” is one of those movies where the kids have a secret plan to help someone and try to outsmart the adults in hatching this plan. Some viewers might find it quaint and charming how it’s all presented in the movie. However, it just comes across as cloying and pandering to people who want a formulaic and lazy movie that doesn’t take any risks and doesn’t try to deal with Abe’s issues in a realistic way.

For example, “Railway Children” makes it look like only the white Americans are racist, when the reality is that white supremacist racism can be anywhere, regardless of the nation. In the movie, Abe says he wants to leave the U.S. Army because of the racism he experiences in the Army. However, “Railway Children” doesn’t adequately address the reality that even if Abe made it back to the United States without getting punished by the U.S. Army, he would still be going back to a nation where racial segragation and other racist practices were legal. Abe talks a little bit about his family, but the British kids helping him don’t seem too interested in knowing what kind of life Abe would be going back home to in America.

All of those societal facts are shoved aside or buried because “Railway Children” wants to be an overly sweet movie about some kind-hearted kids who help a runaway teenager of a different race and nationality. There’s nothing wrong with children being depicted as naïve, but it’s wrong to depict the adults in this story acting like ignorant kids too, especially during a war that was mainly about freeing people from the hatefully bigoted tryanny of Nazi Germany. It doesn’t help that the acting performances in the movie are not very impressive, especially from Aikens, who delivers his lines of dialogue in an awkward and stiff manner.

“Railway Children” missed an opportunity to be a valuable lesson about World War II history and dealing with the harsh realities of war and bigotry. Instead, after a long, boring stretch where not much happens in the first two-thirds of the movie, the last third of “Railway Children” turns into a very clumsily staged runaway caper where everything is dumbed-down in service of being an absurdly sentimental story. Ultimately, “Railway Children” is one in a long list of movie sequels that are far inferior to the movies that spawned the sequels.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Railway Children” in U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 6, 2022. “Railway Children” was released in the United Kingdom on July 15, 2022.

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