Review: ‘The Lovebirds,’ starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani

May 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in “The Lovebirds” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

“The Lovebirds”

Directed by Michael Showalter

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the comedy “The Lovebirds” has a racially diverse cast (African Americans, Asians and white people) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Two bickering lovers try to solve a murder mystery so they won’t get blamed for the crime.

Culture Audience: “The Lovebirds” will appeal primarily to fans of Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani and predictable comedies that mix romance and action.

Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae in “The Lovebirds” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

“The Lovebirds” is a perfect example of a movie whose trailer makes the film look a lot better than it actually is. It’s disappointing, since the comedic talents of Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani (the movie’s title characters) are wasted on a formulaic screenplay and pacing that is at times surprisingly dull for an action-oriented movie.

Paramount Pictures was originally going to release “The Lovebirds” in cinemas on April 3, 2020. But then, the coronavirus pandemic happened, movie theaters worldwide were shut down, Paramount dumped “The Lovebirds,” and gave the rights to Netflix. Given Netflix’s tendency to have silly and forgettable romantic comedy films, “The Lovebirds” is right at home on the streaming service. If the movie had been released in theaters, it certainly would not have been worth a full ticket price.

“The Lovebirds” starts out very promising in its first 20 minutes. The opening scene is of new couple Jibran (played by Nanjiani) and Leilani (played by Rae) having a blissful moment the morning after spending the night together for the first time. They head to a café, where they make the decision that their new relationship status has made it officially okay to kiss each other in public.

Four years later, Jibran and Leilani are living together, and their relationship has turned into a bickering hell. Jibran is an aspiring documentarian who hasn’t been able to finish his film about corruption in the education system. Leilani works at an ad agency and is the main earner for the household.

Leilani seems to resent that she has to carry most of the financial burden for the couple and is growing impatient that Jibran isn’t pulling his share of the weight. Meanwhile, Jibran is resentful that Leilani doesn’t understand the process of making the documentary, and he thinks she’s the one who’s being unreasonable. The concept of “success” and how it’s tied into self-esteem and respect from a love partner are the real issues in the relationship, but these issues come out in their arguments in petty ways.

For example, Leilani thinks it would be fun for her and Jibran to be contestants on the reality show “The Amazing Race,” a competition where teams of two complete challenges around the world , with the winning team getting a $1 million prize. Leilani has been begging Jibran to apply to the show with her, but he refuses because he’s a snob about reality TV and he’s insulted when Leilani compares documentaries to reality shows.

Meanwhile, Leilani is very social-media conscious and cares a great deal about what other couples in their circle of friends are posting on their social media, but Jibran could care less. When a mutual-friend couple announces their engagement on social media, Jibran chastises Leilani for “liking” the engagement photo, because she’s told him that she thinks marriage is “problematic.” But Leilani argues that if she didn’t “like” the photo, then she would look like a hater to everyone else.

Their arguing escalates into a huge shouting match where Jibran yells, “I don’t want to settle for someone who’s so fucking shallow!” Leilani responds with an insult that cuts even deeper: “I don’t want to settle for someone who’s satisfied with being a failure.” It’s at this point, that it looks like Jibran and Leilani have decided to end their relationship.

This argument is actually the best scene in the movie, which is why it’s so disappointing that the quality of the “Lovebirds” screenplay goes downhill from there. The next day, while Jibran and Leilani are a car together (he’s driving and she’s in the passenger seat), they begin arguing again about their relationship. Their bickering is suddenly interrupted when a man on a bicycle (played by Nicholas X. Parsons) crashes into their windshield.

A horrified Jibran and Leilani get out of the car and ask the man if he needs help, but he refuses and quickly rides off without noticing that he has dropped his phone, which Jibran keeps to probably turn in later. Suddenly, a mustachioed man (played by Paul Sparks) comes up to the couple and identifies himself as a cop who needs to use their car to chase after the man on the bike.

He quickly takes the wheel of the car, while Jibran and Leilani are both terrified and excited at being part of this car chase. Through some action-packed twists and turns, the biker gets cornered and the driver hits him with the car. Instead of calling for medical assistance, the driver instead runs the man over and kills him.

That’s when Leilani and Jibran realize that this mystery carjacker isn’t a cop after all. (The fact that he didn’t concerned about getting police backup during the car chase should’ve been a big clue.) And after the bicyclist is lying dead in the street, the carjacker/murderer runs away, just as another couple walks up and sees Jibran and Leilani standing next to the dead body.

The other couple assumes that Jibran and Leilani are responsible for killing the dead man with the car, so they immediately call 911. That leads to Jibran and Leilani frantically denying that they were responsible and trying to explain that a mystery man who ran away actually committed the crime. It doesn’t sound believable, so Jibran and Leilani both panic and run away, but not before calling out each other’s names so the female 911 caller can tell the police that information.

While taking refuge at a local restaurant, Leilani convinces a reluctant Jibran that they should try to solve the murder mystery on their own so they won’t get blamed for the crime. Her thinking is that it’s up to them to prove their innocence because the police won’t believe their story and it already looks bad that they ran away from the scene of the crime.

Jibran thinks it’s a better idea to explain to the police what happened, but Leilani refuses. She also plays into the couple’s fears of police treating black and brown people worse than other races, and that’s ultimately why Jibran goes along with her plan. The rest of the movie, which takes place over the course of one night, consists of Jibran and Leilani getting into more and more ridiculous situations.

Whether it’s a coincidence or not, Nanjiani previously co-starred in another over-the-top action comedy about a wacky twosome trying to solve a crime, in 2019’s “Stuber.” In “Stuber,” Uber was the ride-sharing service that gets a lot of product placement, while “The Lovebirds” has Lyft as the ride-sharing service of choice. “The Lovebirds” isn’t as annoying and silly as “Stuber,” but it’s pretty close. (You know a movie is bad if one of its big comedic scenes has the stars of the movie singing along when they hear Katy Perry’s “Firework.”)

The biggest disappointment of “The Lovebirds” is how often the movie’s pace drags when it shouldn’t. A scene with Jibran and Leilani ending up at a mysterious black-tie gathering with people wearing masks (something that’s in the movie’s trailer) could have been hilarious, but the humor ends up falling flat.

There are also some fight scenes that don’t make sense. For example, Jibran and Leilani break into what looks like a fraternity house and brutally assault one of the guys there (it’s in the trailer), but while this fight is going on, the other house residents who are in the next room unrealistically don’t hear this very loud and raucous fight. “The Lovebirds” is one of those slapstick movies where certain people get injuries that would send someone to a hospital in real life, but the severely injured person is still able to function as if the injury is nothing more than a pesky bruise.

Michael Showalter directed “The Lovebirds” after previously directing Nanjiani in the 2017 comedy “The Bick Sick,” a film inspired by the real-life love story of Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, who both wrote the  film’s Oscar-nominated screenplay. The difference in quality between “The Big Sick” and “The Lovebirds” shows how crucial having a well-written screenplay can be, even if the director is the same. Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, who wrote the formulaic and uninspired screenplay for “The Lovebirds,” mainly have a background in television (they both worked on the TV series “Blindspot”), so it seems they have a way to go before they can master the art of writing comedic feature films.

Rae and Nanjiani (who are executive producers of “The Lovebirds”) are both talented writers/actors who found fame on HBO comedy series—Rae on “Insecure,” Nanjiani on “Silicon Valley.” You can’t help but wonder how much better “The Lovebirds” would have been if Rae and/or Nanjiani had written the screenplay. Their performances in “The Lovebirds” sometimes elevate what is essentially lowbrow movie material, but the appealing personalities of these actors just can’t quite turn this stinking mess of a movie into the comedy feast that it should have been.

Netflix will premiere “The Lovebirds” on May 22, 2020.

Review: ‘Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics’ starring Sting, Ben Stiller, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, Deepak Chopra, A$AP Rocky and Sarah Silverman

May 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rob Corddry in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics”

Directed by Donick Cary

Culture Representation: This documentary interviews a predominantly white male group of entertainers who talk about their experiences taking psychedelic drugs, and the movie features a diverse group of actors doing comedy skits about psychedelic drug experiences.

Culture Clash: Despite these drugs being illegal, almost all of the people interviewed say that they don’t regret taking psychedelic drugs.

Culture Audience: “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” will appeal to people who just want one-sided comedic stories about taking psychedelic drugs, because the movie’s agenda is to exclude any stories about the drugs’ long-term negative effects on health.

Nick Offerman in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In its overexuberance to portray psychedelic drug taking as something that’s harmless or something to laugh about later, the documentary “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” sinks to new lows of exploitation by prominently featuring two celebrities whose tragic, self-destructive deaths are definitely not funny. The documentary’s filmmakers (including director Donick Cary) made the morbid and tacky decision to display the filmmakers’ interviews with Carrie Fisher and Anthony Bourdain in this parade of celebrities who mostly glamorize taking psychedelic drugs.

Fisher died in 2016 of drug-related causes. Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. They both struggled with mental-health issues and drug addiction and admitted to taking a lot of LSD and other psychedelics in their lifetimes. Needless to say, Fisher and Bourdain are definitely not examples of how psychedelic drugs can help people with mental-health problems and drug addictions. And yet, the documentary pushes the scientifically unproven agenda that psychedelic drugs are beneficial to people suffering from drug addiction and mental-health issues.

But hey, why let these tragic deaths get in the way of making a documentary where these now-dead people are shown joking about their acid trips, as if those drug experiences couldn’t possibly be harmful to them? They’re certainly not going to talk about the negative side effects of “bad trips,” such as suicidal thoughts, depression or psychosis. After all, this movie wants people to believe that psychedelics are “shiny, happy drugs,” without giving a thoroughly honest look at the down sides too, because the film is so focused on having people endorse these drugs.

And there’s a reason why the filmmakers only included entertainers in this documentary that glamorizes psychedelic drugs. Imagine a documentary that featured a bunch of health-care workers, emergency responders, schoolteachers or airplane pilots joking about their experiences doing psychedelic drugs, and many of the interviewees giving the impression that they still do psychedelics on a regular basis. It wouldn’t seem so “harmless” then, would it?

Therefore, it’s no surprise that the documentary focuses on people (some more famous than others) who are in showbiz, where illegal drug abuse is flaunted and often celebrated. The average person in a regular job would not be able to get away with bragging in a Netflix documentary about their drug experiences.

Nor does the average person have the kind of money that rock star Sting has, to fly to Mexico whenever he wants, just to take peyote in an elaborate shaman ritual, which he describes in vivid detail in the documentary. Almost all of the people in this film can easily afford to indulge in taking illegal drugs and do not have to worry about how they’re going to pay for any medical treatment or legal issues if things go wrong. It’s one of the reasons why the documentary glamorizes these drug experiences, because there are some negative consequences to illegal drug taking that the “average” person can’t casually dismiss as easily as a well-paid entertainer can.

In addition to Sting, there are several other entertainers in the documentary who talk about their psychedelic drug trips or say that they’ve used psychedelic drugs: Ben Stiller (who’s one of the documentary’s producers), Nick Kroll, Deepak Chopra, Will Forte, A$AP Rocky, Nick Offerman, Shepard Fairey, Lewis Black, Paul Scheer, Rob Corddry, Andy Richter, Judd Nelson, Sarah Silverman, Jim James, Diedrich Bader, Rob Huebel, Judd Nelson, Reggie Watts, Natasha Lyonne, Adam Horovitz, Mark Maron, Rosie Perez, Donovan, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Brett Gelman, Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and David Cross.

One of the problems of doing a documentary like this is that you never really know how much people could be exaggerating or lying about these drug experiences. Many of the people interviewed are comedians and actors—two professions that are notorious for people fabricating things about their lives in order to get attention. Therefore, this documentary should not be considered very “realistic” by any stretch of the drug-addled imagination.

The psychedelic stories are re-enacted in one of two ways: through animation or by having live actors do a scripted skit. The animated segments (from Sugarshack Animation) are among the best aspects of the documentary. The scripted skits are hit-and-miss.

One of those misfires is miscasting Adam Devine as Bourdain in a re-enactment of Bourdain’s description of a drug-fueled, Hunter S. Thompson-inspired road trip that he took when he was a young man in the 1970s. Devine is known for having a sweet and goofy persona, while Bourdain was the complete opposite, which makes the re-enactment wrong from the get-go.

Even worse, the story that Bourdain tells isn’t even that funny. The road trip included Bourdain and a male friend picking up two women and partying heavily with them in a hotel room, including ingesting several drugs, such as LSD, alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. One of the women overdosed, and the others thought she was dead. So they just left her unconscious on the floor while they tried to figure out what to do, according to Bourdain.

Bourdain, while high on LSD, says that he imagined that there would be police coming to arrest them, with helicopters, searchlights, and a S.W.A.T.-like team surrounding the room. And then the woman suddenly regained consciousness and started to dance as if nothing had happened. Someone could’ve died from ingesting drugs while you were partying with that person, you had a LSD-induced panic attack about being arrested, and that’s supposed to be funny?

A better re-enactment that accomplishes its intended humor is Natasha Leggero dressed in a “Star Wars” Princess Leia outfit, for Fisher’s tale of being high on LSD while in New York City’s Central Park. During that psychedelic experience, Fisher says she spent a great deal of time being upset at seeing an acorn “misbehave” on the grass. During another acid trip on a beach, Fisher vaguely remembers she might have been topless when a bus full of Japanese tourists stopped right in front of her and they recognized her.

And in a somewhat clever casting switcheroo, Corddry plays Scheer in the segment that re-enacts Scheer’s psychedelic story, while Scheer plays Corddy in Corddry’s re-enactment. Meanwhile, Kroll portrays himself in his re-enactment about how he and a group of male friends were high on LSD at a Malibu beach, and the friends covered him in kelp as a prank. He then imagined himself to be a kelp monster and chased them around the beach. (Things weren’t so funny the next morning when he woke up covered in bites from whatever small animals were in the kelp.)

Most of the psychedelic trips described in the documentary are about hallucinations, experiencing colors in a different way, or losing a sense of time or memory. And there are the typical stories of “revelations,” along the lines of “I saw inside my soul,” “I saw how connected the world is” and “I found out the meaning of life is to love everybody.” Some of the people interviewed also give advice by saying it’s better to take psychedelics with trusted friends and to avoid looking in mirrors while under the influence of psychedelics.

A$AP Rocky (one of the few people of color who’s interviewed in the film) tells one of the documentary’s funniest stories, about how he took LSD with a beautiful female companion. During the course of the time they had together, they started having sex. And he swears that he saw a rainbow shoot from his penis during this encounter. “I don’t even like rainbows,” he quips. (Needless to say, the re-enactment for this story is definitely in animation form.)

But for every entertaining story like that one, the documentary has a story that’s basic or boring. The Grateful Dead was considered the ultimate psychedelic rock band, so you’d think one of the Dead’s drummers would have some hilarious stories to tell. Wrong.

Kreutzmann’s anecdotes aren’t that interesting or revealing, unless you consider it’s fascinating that he tells a story of coming home to his parents’ house after staying out all night while he was on LSD, and hallucinating that his breakfast meal of eggs were moving on the plate. He also mentions that he once couldn’t finish performing at a Grateful Dead concert because he was hallucinating that his drums were melting. Yawn.

Being stoned on psychedelics at a Grateful Dead show is also predictably mentioned by some of the interviewees, such as Corddry and Maron. (The late Fred Willard has a cameo as a Deadhead hippie in the re-enactment of Maron’s psychedelic story.) Garant comedically describes how you can tell the difference between someone having a “good trip” and a “bad trip” at a Dead concert, because someone having a “good trip” will lean forward while walking, while someone having a “bad trip” will lean backward while walking, as if they’re afraid of where their head will go.

Sting, who says he’s had good and bad psychedelic trips, mentions that facing his own mortality was one of the most frightening things he ever experienced while under the influence of psychedelics. He also describes the first time he took peyote. It was at a farm in England, where he was unexpectedly asked to help a cow give birth while he was tripping out on the drug. He was told that the cow would die if he didn’t help, and when the calf was born, Sting says he finally understood the miracle of life.

“I think it’s a valuable experience,” says Sting of taking psychedelic drugs. “Whenever I’ve had a bad trip—and I’ve had many—I’ve realized it was what I needed. Sometimes, you need to have your ego taken down a notch or two. On the other hand, you can have immensely rewarding experiences. My feeling is that it balances out.”

Stiller is one of the few celebrities in the documentary who talks about disliking what he says was his one and only experience with LSD (when he was a young man in the ’80s), because it was a bad trip. He says that he was hoping that it would be an enlightening experience, but instead he spent the approximately six-hour acid trip feeling “fear and anxiety.”

“Immediately, I started to freak out and get really scared,” Stiller remembers. “I started staring at my hand, doing the cliché thing of of pondering what my hand was.” His paranoia during the acid trip was made worse, he says, when he and the friend he was with at the time began walking around New York City and saw the parade floats that were going to be in the upcoming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Stiller says that he hallucinated that the floats were chasing him, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the “Ghostbusters” movie.

Perez and Silverman each say that the first time they took LSD, it was by accident. Silverman said that it happened when she and some comedian friends were hanging out at a diner in New York City, when a hippie stranger walked in and handed her a tab of LSD that she took without even asking what it was. Her story isn’t as coherent as some of the others, since she recalls laughing and crying with a group of people in public and then ending up in someone’s car with the driver (who was also on LSD) forgetting how to drive.

Perez said she got “dosed” when she was out with her sister on New Year’s Eve in their hometown of New York City, sometime in the late ’80s. They went to a nightclub, where she was offered some fruit punch as a drink. Little did she know that the punch was spiked with LSD. Perez says that she  hallucinated that the dance floor had turned into waves, and she ended up rolling around with her breasts exposed.

Her trip intensified when she got home and imagined that her body had merged into her bed. Perez says she didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol at this time in her life, so when she was told that she was having an acid trip, her first thought was that she was going to hell. She says that the experience led her to seek therapy, which helped her get over her “Catholic guilt,” so she thinks getting rid of her religious hang-ups was one good thing that came out of the experience.

Speaking of guilt trips, the movie pokes fun at the ridiculous, over-the-top and usually badly acted public-service announcements (PSAs) aimed at preventing people, especially young people, from taking psychedelics. Offerman pops up occasionally throughout the film in a parody of a science professor who talks about the effects of psychedelics. NBC’s “The More You Know” PSA campaign is mocked with “The More You Trip,” whenever one of the interviewees gives advice on what to do or what not to do when taking psychedelics. (For example: “Don’t drive while on acid.”)

The “ABC Afterschool Special” is given the satire treatment with the documentary’s “LSD Afterschool Special,” a multi-part segment that has actor/comedian Adam Scott as the host of a 1980s-styled PSA film with a plot of nerdy high schoolers (played by Haley Joel Osment and Maya Erskine) going to a house party and being tempted into the “evils” of taking LSD. It’s a funny idea but it’s executed poorly.

On a more serious note, “Have a Good Trip” also attempts to promote the theory that using psychedelics is the best way to treat depression and other mental-health issues. Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is interviewed about his research in this area. Not surprisingly, he’s a proponent of using psychedelics to treat these issues (how else would he be able to continue to get research money), but the documentary fails to present other scientific points of view.

The only other non-entertainer interviewed in the film is Zach Leary, son of famed LSD guru Timothy Leary. And what he has to say is very predictable and reveals nothing new at all: “DMT is like the express ticket to primordial ooze. If you want to see what it is to be an organic being and absolutely watch your ego dissipate into nothingness, smoke some DMT, and you’ll get there right away.”

Although some people in the documentary, including Dr. Grob, caution that taking psychedelics isn’t for everyone and can have damaging effects for some people, any of those “bad effects” stories are shut out of the film. It’s like doing a documentary about bungee jumping and refusing to talk about the people who got seriously injured or killed from this risky stunt.

Celebrity spiritual guru Chopra, who says he experimented with psychedelics in the past, is one of the few people in the film who admits “you run the risk of psychosis” from doing psychedelics. Of course, the film only presents stories from people who say that they have “happy endings” from taking psychedelics. And two of those people are now dead because of self-destructive reasons, so viewers can judge for themselves how “beneficial” psychedelics really are in helping people with serious health issues such as depression and addiction.

One of the more irresponsible things about the documentary is that it leaves out any talk of acid flashbacks. Naïve people who see this film as a guide to taking psychedelic drugs might think that once an acid trip is “over,” the drug has left the body, the way that alcohol can leave the human body through urine after a 24-to-48-hour period if no more alcohol is consumed. But the scientific reality is that, depending on the dosage, psychedelic drugs can stay in the body for a variable period of time, and that can lead to unpredictable and random “flashback” trips.

How people feel about “Have a Good Trip” will depend largely on how much they worship celebrities and take their words as gospel. The psychedelic anecdotes in the film should be taken for what they are—stories from people who are in the business of creating fake personas and making things look more glamorous than they really are.

The people who were chosen to be interviewed for this documentary also have the privilege of being less likely to be arrested for illegal drugs. (With few exceptions, most of the people in this film have a certain level of fame.) And they are less likely to have their careers ruined by a lot of psychedelic drug use, compared to people who don’t live in such a privileged bubble. It’s something to think about whenever you hear a celebrity in a certain income bracket openly brag about using illegal drugs.

Netflix premiered “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” on May 11, 2020.

Review, ‘Becoming,’ starring Michelle Obama

May 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michelle Obama in “Becoming” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Becoming”

Directed by Nadia Hallgren

Culture Representation: The Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming” follows her on tour while promoting her 2018 memoir of the same  title, and the movie shows her interacting with racially and socially diverse groups of people during her tour stops in the U.S. and Canada.

Culture Clash: In the film, Obama addresses the hate and criticism that she and husband Barack Obama have received from critics and conservative political opponents, especially when he was president of the United States.

Culture Audience: Aside from fans of the Obamas (the most obvious audience), “Becoming” will appeal primarily to people who are curious to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like for a former first lady to headline a successful arena tour, which had never before been achieved by a first lady of the United States.

Marian Shields Robinson and Michelle Obama in “Becoming” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The good news for Michelle Obama fans is that the documentary “Becoming” is everything people would expect of a movie that takes a behind-the-scenes of her massively successful “Becoming” memoir book tour, which included sold-out arena shows in North America and Europe in 2018 and 2019. The bad news for Michelle Obama fans who want her to run for political office someday is that she makes it very clear in the documentary’s candid interviews that she’s not interested in subjecting herself to the cutthroat business of being a politician. And she definitely doesn’t miss the unrelenting scrutiny and criticism that she and her family got when her husband, Barack Obama, was president of the United States from 2009 to 2017.

As for people who aren’t Michelle Obama fans (who probably won’t watch this movie anyway), the “Becoming” documentary won’t do much to change their minds, since it shows her in a very positive and sympathetic light in her outreach to the public and how she embodies the same progressive ideals that she had when she was first lady of the United States. Because the movie is about a book tour, which basically shows Michelle Obama interacting with numerous adoring fans, the documentary is told very much from a “bubble” perspective. Michelle Obama is not seen having to directly deal with anyone who is critical of her and her husband. (And there are are lot of people who are definitely not fans of the couple.)

However, the movie does include montages of TV footage and Internet comments from Obama critics to show the high level of animosity toward the Obamas. And what people can see from the film (and in Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir “Becoming”) is that she’s not afraid to show her vulnerable side by admitting that a lot of the insults and violent threats from Obama haters have done some damage.

In the documentary, she comments on the hate and backlash that she’s received from people who want to see the downfall of the Obamas: “The one thing I can share is that is does hurt. Because if we walk around like it doesn’t, the perpetrator can just say, ‘I was joking. It’s just politics.’ No, no. That [hatred] changes the shape of a person’s soul.”

“Becoming” is the feature-film directorial debut of Nadia Hellgren, who previously helmed short films such as Netflix’s “After Maria” (a documentary about Hurricane Maria survivors in Puerto Rico), as well as the digital docuseries “She’s the Ticket,” about American women running for political office. Hellgren does a very capable job of balancing tour footage and archival footage in “Becoming,” and the filmmakers are clearly fans of the Obamas. The movie hits some very familiar beats that are often seen in tour documentaries. There’s a “feel-good home movie” approach to the documentary, as opposed to a “journalistic exposé” approach. Some people will have a problem with that, while others won’t.

“Becoming” is the third Netflix project to be released from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, which also backed the Netflix documentaries “American Factory” (which won several awards, including an Oscar) and “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” Since Barack Obama left office, he and Michelle Obama have inked deals with Penguin Random House (for a reported $65 million) and Netflix, which didn’t disclose the financial terms of its deal with the Obamas, but a low-end estimate is that it’s at least $100 million. Award-winning comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle and TV producers Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rimes have each inked Netflix deals in the $100 million to $300 million range, so presumably the Obamas have also garnered a Netflix deal in that range.

The fact that the Obamas’ wealth has significantly increased since Barack left office is not mentioned at all in the movie. Also not mentioned in the film are the superstar-level ticket prices charged for Michelle Obama’s arena tour. However, it’s easy to see why the “Becoming” filmmakers chose to omit that information from the film, because if they included it, there would be inevitable criticism that it would make Michelle Obama look greedy or boastful about her wealth.

In fact, the documentary goes out its way to show that Michelle Obama wants to still be perceived as someone who hasn’t lost touch with her working-class roots—she grew up on the South Side of Chicago, which she frequently mentions in the movie—and that she still identifies with the “common people,” even though she’s very aware that her life has become far from common. There are several scenes of her going to places outside of her massive arena shows to lead small group discussions with people from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, such as teenage students, members of book clubs and African American churchgoers. In these settings, she hugs many people and gives advice that’s meant to uplift people’s spirits and boost their confidence.

Although these groups are often racially diverse, “Becoming” places an emphasis on Michelle Obama connecting with women and people of color in these groups. During one of these group discussions, when Michelle Obama is asked by an African American teenage girl how to handle being treated as invisible, Michelle replies: “I never felt invisible. It’s because my parents always made be feel visible.”

She continues, “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen. We’re far from it. Time will not allow it. It’s not going to happen with one president, with one vote, so you’ve got to find the tools within yourself to be visible and to be heard and to use your voice.”

The documentary even goes as far as showing footage of two of the teenage students—Elizabeth Cervantes and Shayla Allen—who met Michelle Obama in these discussion groups, to see what these students are like in their everyday lives. When Cervantes met Michelle Obama in the discussion group, Cervantes was a senior at Whitney M. Young Magnet School in Chicago, where Michelle went during the book tour.

The movie shows Cervantes questioning why she was one of the small number of people chosen for the group discussion with Michelle Obama, since Cervantes said that she wasn’t an academically outstanding student. However, when Cervantes said that in addition to going to school, she works to help give financial help to her father and younger brothers, Michelle pointed out that Cervantes’ family devotion and hard work made her special and shouldn’t be considered less important than academic achievements.

In another part of the documentary, Michelle Obama says in a group discussion: “I tell people we focus too much on stats and not on story. Stats are ‘What college are you from?’ Story is ‘What was your grandfather like? Who was your favorite relative and why?'”

Because people in the U.S. have divided opinions about the Obamas, this type of public interaction can be seen as either very inspirational or very phony. The fans would say that it shows Michelle Obama as down-to-earth and caring deeply about connecting with people who aren’t as privileged as she is. The critics would say it’s just a calculated façade that’s part of the publicity campaign to sell her book. These smaller gatherings are some of the reasons people will want to see the “Becoming” documentary, because it’s a behind-the-scenes look that wasn’t widely shown in the media coverage of the tour.

As for the on-stage footage, there’s plenty of that too, but it’s less revealing, because so much of it has already been covered by the media and is available on audience-filmed videos that have been posted on the Internet. For whatever reason (which isn’t explained in the movie), “Becoming” only has behind-the-scenes footage of the tour in the U.S. and Canada, not in Europe.

The documentary has the expected charming soundbites and anecdotes (many of them very amusing) of Michelle Obama being interviewed on stage by various celebrities. Each show of the tour had a different celebrity moderator. The moderators included Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Valerie Jarrett, Conan O’Brien, Tracee Ellis Ross and Phoebe Robinson.

People who’ve already read the “Becoming” memoir won’t be surprised by what’s said on stage. For example, Michelle Obama repeats the story about how a guidance counselor at her high school discouraged her from applying to Princeton University, because the counselor told her that she didn’t have what it took to be a Princeton student. Michelle not only graduated from Princeton, but she also got her law degree from Harvard University. On stage, Michelle says about that the counselor’s negativity: “I’m still salty about that,” but she uses it as an example of how people shouldn’t let their identities and dreams be defined by haters or people who don’t want others to succeed.

And the backstage footage is also what people would expect, as Michelle Obama greets star-struck and worshipful fans (mostly female, many of them tearful) during book signings and photo ops. “Becoming” is probably the only documentary where people can see Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey backstage in a prayer circle before going on stage at an arena show. There are some sections of the documentary where Michelle Obama reads excerpts of her “Becoming” memoir, but most of her candid comments in the movie are from new interviews that she did specifically for the film.

Michelle Obama says of her meet-and-greets: “It’s an emotional, sociological dance with people … When somebody walks up to me, [I] don’t look around, look beyond them. Look them in the eye. Take in their story. This is how I relate to people. It helps me stay connected.”

Barack Obama makes a brief appearance in the documentary, as he’s seen backstage at the show in Washington, D.C., and appearing on stage to surprise Michelle with a bouquet of flowers. Barack and Michelle’s daughters Malia and Sasha are also briefly in the documentary. There’s footage of a tearful Malia hugging Michelle backstage after a show and saying, “Those eight years [in the White House] weren’t for nothing. People are here because people believe in love and hope and other people.”

The Michelle Obama family members who get the most screen time are her older brother Craig Robinson (who’s a sports executive) and her mother Marian Shields Robinson. Craig, who says that he will always be his mother’s favorite child, admits that he younger sister’s fame has caused some insecurities for him: “No brother should have to deal with their sister being the most popular person in the world.” (Michelle Obama being “the most popular person in the world” is certainly debatable, considering there are celebrities who are beloved by people of all political affiliations, whereas it’s not a secret that a lot of people dislike the Michelle and Barack Obama because of the couple’s liberal politics.)

The documentary includes scenes of Michelle visiting Craig and his family at Craig’s home, as well as Michelle and her mother Marian going back to Michelle’s former childhood home in Chicago, where she and Barack lived in the first year of their marriage. (The house’s current owners aren’t in the movie.)

Michelle Obama also shares fond and bittersweet memories of her father, Fraser C. Robinson III, who died from multiple sclerosis in 1991: “The pain of losing him is an emptiness that I still haven’t gotten over … He just made people feel loved.”

The former first lady makes it clear that she was never ashamed of being raised in a working-class home. Her father was a pump work at a water plant, while Michelle’s mother worked as a secretary for various organizations, including the University of Chicago and mail-order company Spiegel. Michelle Obama also mentions that because of racism, her father was frequently underappreciated and passed over for promotions at his job, while less intelligent and less qualified white co-workers were rewarded.  

Also interviewed are some of Michelle Obama’s longtime employees including chief of staff Melissa Winters and stylist Meredith Koop. Winters remembers that the first year of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was “exhausting” and “not glamorous.” Koop says that when it comes to Michelle Obama’s personal style, “She’s not a minimalist.”

Michelle Obama jokes with Winters: “Do you know that Melissa loves Barry Manilow? I don’t know why we’re friends. We couldn’t be more opposite.” The beginning of the movie shows Michelle getting in a SUV and listening to hip-hop on her phone. And in case you ever wanted to know what kinds of birthday gifts that Michelle Obama gets from her employees, the documentary has some footage of her backstage on her birthday getting “Happy Birthday” sung to her by her employees and getting a selfie stick as a gift.

Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” memoir revealed many of her experiences and feelings about being first lady of the United States. She does the same in the documentary, where she remembers getting harsh lessons in media scrutiny and public backlash during her husband’s first presidential campaign. “I stopped talking off-the-cuff,” she says. “I stopped talking freely. I used teleprompters. I had to be much more scripted than I had been before.”

She also describes how her life changed after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008: “One day, you’re a normal family, and election happens, and your life changes instantly. It’s like we were shot out of a cannon. We didn’t have time to adjust to it.”

And in somewhat of a rarity, a current U.S. Secret Service agent is interviewed in the documentary. Allen Taylor, who has worked with Michelle Obama since 2008, is “more like a brother” than a government employee, says Michelle. Taylor comments on his job of protecting Michelle Obama: “Stakes are high in this job. It’s a no-fault mission. You have to get it right 100% of the time.”

As for Michelle Obama’s reflections on being first lady of the United States, it’s obvious that she has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she seems proud of the impact that Barack Obama’s presidency had on the entire world, as well as the historical significance of the Obamas being the first African American presidential family of the United States. On the other hand, she clearly does not want herself and her family to continue to go through the viciousness, dangerous hate and intense pressure that come with being family members of a very famous politician who’s in office.

In the documentary, she talks about how on the day that she and Barack left the White House after he left office, she didn’t break down and cry until she was away from the prying eyes of the media and the public: “When I got on the plane, I sobbed for about 30 minutes. I think it was the release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.”

And although Michelle Obama is grateful for all the support that she and her husband received that helped him become a two-term U.S. president, she also expresses disappointment that the same support wasn’t shown in the 2016 presidential election for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was endorsed by Barack and Michelle Obama.

“I understand why people voted for [Donald] Trump,” Michelle Obama says in the documentary. “The people who didn’t vote at all—the young people, the women—that’s when you think, ‘Man, people think this is a game. After all that, they didn’t bother to vote at all.’ That’s my trauma.” And she doesn’t mince words in her disappointment with black U.S. citizens who didn’t bother to vote in the 2016 presidential election: “A lot of our folks didn’t vote. It was almost like a slap in the face.”

She also believes that Barack Obama being the first African American president of the United States unleashed a lot of pent-up racism that has further divided America: “When Barack Obama was first elected, various commentators naively declared that our country was entering a post-racial era and that skin color would no longer matter. Many were overlooking the racism and tribalism that was tearing our nation apart.” She adds that because of her and her husband’s skin color, “Barack and I were living with the awareness that we ourselves were a provocation.”

So what does Michelle Obama want to do next? This documentary shows that it’s a question that she’s still trying to answer, as she detoxes into a less-stressful life and forges ahead with her own identity that is frequently overshadowed by her very famous husband. As she says in the film, “The idea of doing the tour was to be able to reflect, to figure out, ‘What just happened to me?’ This is totally me, unplugged, for the first time in a long time.” And as she says later in the movie, “There is another chapter waiting for me out there.”

Netflix will premiere “Becoming” on May 6, 2020.

Review: ‘The Half of It,’ starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer and Alexxis Lemire

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in “The Half of It” (Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix)

“The Half of It”

Directed by Alice Wu

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional small town of Squahamish, Washington, the romantic comedy “The Half of It” tells the “Cyrano de Bergerac”-inspired story of a love triangle between three middle-class teenagers—one Asian female, one white male and one Latina female—who are in their last year of high school.

Culture Clash: The Asian girl and the white guy are both romantically interested in the Latina girl, but because they all live in a religious and conservative community, the Asian girl is a closeted lesbian.

Culture Audience: “The Half of It” will appeal mostly to people who like well-written romantic comedies that follow familiar tropes, but have characters and dialogue that usually aren’t seen very often in movies of this genre.

Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire in “The Half of It” (Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix)

On the surface, the romantic comedy “The Half of It” might seem to be a lesbian twist on “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the 1897 play about a man (the title character) who helps another man write love letters to a woman while secretly pining for the woman himself. However, “The Half of It” (which has a girl in the Cyrano de Bergerac role) is less about who gets the girl in the end and more about what the main characters find out about themselves when it comes to pursuing love.

“The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu, is her first film since her  2004 debut feature film “Saving Face.” Loosely based on Wu’s own experiences, “The Half of It” was worth the long wait for Wu to make her second feature film. The 2020 Tribeca Film Festival jury must have also felt the same way, since “The Half of It” won the top prize (Best U.S. Narrative Feature) at the festival.

Most romantic comedies about teenagers are either one of two extremes: overly sweet or very raunchy. “The Half of It” is neither, although there are some melodramatic moments in the film that veer into some well-worn territory that every romantic comedy seems to have when secret feelings are revealed. Even with these borderline cliché scenes, the rest of the movie is so charming that even the grouchiest cynics might find something to like about the film.

The movie’s central character, Ellie Chu (played by Leah Lewis), would count herself as one of those grouchy cynics in the beginning of the story. The opening scene has Ellie in voiceover mentioning the Greek mythology of soul mates being conjoined in twos and then being split apart, and there is a constant search for people to find their “other half.”

Ellie—who’s a Chinese American student in her last year at high school—makes this wry comment about this “other half” mythology: “Of course, the ancient Greeks never went to high school, or they’d realize that we don’t need the gods to mess things up for us.”

She adds, “If you ask me, people spend far too much time looking for someone to complete them. How many people find perfect love—or if they do, make it last? More evidence of Camus’ theory that life is irrational and meaningless.”

It’s clear at this point that Ellie has above-average intelligence, compared to other people in her age group. She’s smart and funny—but a misfit at her school and in her community. She lives in the small, conservative fictional town of Squahamish, Washington, where the population is predominantly white and Christian—and Ellie is Asian and an atheist.

She doesn’t really have any close friends, and she sometimes gets racist taunts from other students who mock Ellie for her last name. Some of her fellow students also use her, by paying her to do their homework for them. Although she’s an academic whiz, Ellie also has as very artistic side to her: She sings, plays guitar and piano, and writes her own songs, but she’s too shy to sing her songs in public. Ellie plays keyboards in the school’s music group, which requires that all of the group’s class seniors participate in a talent show to spotlight their individual talent. It’s a spotlight that Ellie is dreading.

Ellie has a part-time job working at a booth at a train station. She spends most of her free time alone or with her widower father, Edwin Chu (played by Collin Chou), a Chinese immigrant who has a Ph. D. in engineering, but he has trouble finding work in the United States because he doesn’t speak English very well. It’s also clear during the course of the movie that Edwin is depressed over the death of his wife. The movie doesn’t mention how she died, but her passing has also deeply affected Ellie, who hides her pain with a mask of sarcastic wit.

Because of Edwin’s inability to find steady work, Ellie and her father are struggling financially. It’s one of the reasons why she plans to attend college close to home, instead of Grinnell College, a private liberal-arts school in Grinnell, Iowa, that Ellie’s English teacher Mrs. Geselschap (played by Becky Ann Baker) has been encouraging Ellie to attend. Mrs. Geselschap is a Grinnell alum, and she wants to write a recommendation letter for Ellie to attend Grinell, but Ellie declines the offer because Ellie has no plans to apply to that college.

One day, while Ellie is riding her bike, one of the school’s football players named Paul Munsky (played by Daniel Diemer) accidentally knocks her down. After a profuse apology, Paul introduces himself and asks Ellie to write a love note to Aster Flores (played by Alexxis Lemire), a pretty, popular and smart classmate whom Paul wants to be his girlfriend. Paul, who is a nice person but definitely not articulate, offers to pay $50 to Ellie for the task.

Unbeknownst to Paul, Ellie has a secret crush on Aster too. Ellie immediately refuses to write the note for Paul because—unlike doing homework for other students—Ellie thinks that writing a love note for someone else is too personal. Ellie quips to Paul when she turns down his request: “Get a thesaurus. Use spell check. Good luck, Romeo.”

But when Ellie and her father’s financial problems reach a point where their house’s electrical power is going to be shut off—and wouldn’t you know, the power company needs a minimum of $50 to not shut off the power—Ellie reluctantly agrees to write one letter for Paul. He’s shy about approaching Aster because she’s already dating Trig Carson (played by Wolfgang Novogratz), a handsome but very conceited classmate who’s also very popular at school. Trig is the kind of guy that many people (including Trig) expect Aster to marry someday.

Paul is also intimidated by the fact that Aster is the daughter of Deacon Flores (played by Enrique Murciano), who’s a well-respected and powerful leader in the community. Paul comes from a large, working-class family (that often bickers with each other), so he feels insecure that Aster and her family might think that Paul isn’t good enough for her. He’s also an aspiring chef, which isn’t the image that most people have of a football player. And so, some of the movie is about Paul trying to figure out how much he wants pursue that culinary dream and what becoming a chef will mean for his identity and other people’s expectations.

Aster is the type of person who’s nice to everyone, but her people-pleasing ways have come with a cost, since she’s often afraid of expressing what she really wants. Aster works as a waitress at a local diner, but she dreams of being a professional artist who paints, when her family’s expectation is that she should get married young and start a family. Aster and her family moved to Squahamish from Sacramento, California, so she’s still adjusting to living in a small town.

Meanwhile, Ellie has her own issues with trying to fit in with the community. She was born in China and immigrated with her parents to the United States when she was 5 years old, but she often lies about her background, by telling people that she was born and raised in Squahamish. And although she’s an atheist, she plays organ at the church where Aster’s father is the deacon. It’s implied in the movie that Ellie only spends time at the church to try to get close to Aster.

One of the reasons why Ellie is so attracted to Aster is they both share a love for the same type of literature. The two girls have a “meet cute” moment, when Aster accidentally bumps into Ellie at school and notices that Ellie is reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day,” which is also one of Aster’s favorite novels. It sparks the idea for Ellie to have Paul pretend that he also has a similar taste in books, even though in reality Paul has very little interest in reading.

What started out as one love note turns into a series of letters and text messages that Ellie concocts for Paul to woo Aster. There’s also a sequence where Ellie (pretending to be Paul) and Aster exchange messages by writing on a neighborhood wall—and somehow, they don’t catch each other in the act. Even when their graffiti is painted over, that doesn’t deter them from continuing to write messages on the wall.  (It also gives Aster a chance to show some of her artistic painting skills.) Their graffiti messaging ends when an adult at a nearby business catches one of the girls in the act and scares her away.

Ellie recommends that Paul take things slow and approach Aster as an admiring friend. Aster starts to be won over by the charismatic correspondence that she thinks Paul is writing to her.  But then, the moment comes when Paul wants to ask Aster out on a date, and the reality sinks in to Ellie that Paul and Aster could actually become romantically involved in real life.

If you know the story of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” then you can probably predict how “The Half of It” is going to end, but there are a few refreshing twists to the movie that aren’t very predictable. Lewis carries the film with an authenticity that makes her the clear standout in the cast. The other actors in the movie do a very good job too, but the Ellie character is the voice (and many people would also say the heart and soul) of the story.

What makes the “The Half of It” better than the average teen movie is that even though it’s a movie about teenagers, the movie isn’t just for teenagers, because it expresses many of the ageless emotions that people have about relationships. There’s plenty of cross-generational appeal in the movie’s soundtrack too, which ranges from Sharon Van Etten’s 2019 song “Seventeen” to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1986 tune “The Carny” to ’70s nostalgia hits, such as Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Can Read My Mind.”

Simply put: “The Half of It” is a much-needed, witty boost to the genre of romantic comedies, which have been struggling for years with mediocre and uninspired stories. And hopefully, it won’t take another 16 years for Wu’s next movie to be made.

Netflix premiered “The Half of It” on May 1, 2020.

 

Review: ‘All Day and a Night,’ starring Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright, Regina Taylor, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Isaiah John, Kelly Jenrette and Shakira Ja’Nai Paye

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ashton Sanders and Jeffrey Wright in “All Day and a Night” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

“All Day and a Night”

Directed by Joe Robert Cole

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oakland, California, the drama “All Day and a Night” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class, lower-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A young African American man struggles to become a law-abiding citizen, but he falls into the same criminal lifestyles of his father and paternal grandfather.

Culture Audience: “All Day and a Night” will appeal primarily to people who want to see the same negative clichés of African Americans in ghettos that several movies and TV shows have already done.

Ashton Sanders and Shakira Ja’nai Paye in “All Day and a Night” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

If people wonder why so many racists automatically think African American men are violent thugs, a movie like “All Day and a Night” just fuels that racism, because this unoriginal and uninspired movie panders to the worst negative stereotypes of African Americans. The fact that “All Day and a Night” was written and directed by an African American—Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote “Black Panther” with director Ryan Coogler—doesn’t excuse it or make it better.

There’s a reason why predominantly African American dramas such as “Black Panther,” “Creed” and “Hidden Figures” did so well at the box office, while predominantly African American films about black criminals, such as the modern-day remakes of “Superfly” and “Shaft,” turned out to be flops. (And it’s probably why “All Day and a Night” went straight to Netflix instead of being a theatrical release.)

People are hungry for diverse African American stories that aren’t about the old, tired stereotype of African Americans being “criminals from the ‘hood.” This “criminals from the ‘hood” movie might have been fresh and original back in the early 1990s, with the success of “Boyz N the Hood,” “New Jack City” and “Menace II Society.” But today’s movie audiences are much more aware of the diversity in African American culture and want to see that diversity reflected on screen. Filmmakers can do better in representing that diversity, instead of lazily falling back on racist clichés that have been done already in countless movies and TV shows.

Set in Oakland, California, “All Day and a Night” is a story about a man in his early 20s named Jahkor Abraham Lincoln (played by Ashton Sanders), who comes from a family where generations of the men in the family have ended up in prison. In voiceovers throughout the movie, an adult Jahkor says things like, “By the time my father was 6, his father had been to jail nine times” and “When violence is all around you, you get used to it.”

It’s shown from the beginning of the film that Jahkor is a cold-blooded murderer—he snuck into a home and shot a man and a woman to death in front of their young daughter—and he’s been sentenced to life in prison for the crime. The rest of the film has flashbacks to various points in Jahkor’s life to show how and why he ended up this way.

There’s absolutely nothing unique or interesting about Jahkor to make audiences think that he was a talented and well-meaning kid who had the bad luck to fall through the cracks in an uncaring society. In fact, Jahkor—who is a mediocre aspiring rapper (how cliché)—grew up with the support of a hard-working mother, a loving grandmother and a schoolmate friend who has goals to get out of the ghetto and do something better with his life than becoming a criminal. But the movie clearly shows that Jahkor ignored these positive role models and instead chose the “thug life” of his own free will. Therefore, he (and this movie’s audience) can’t really blame other people for his choices.

“All Day and a Night” star Sanders played the teenage protagonist Chiron in the Oscar-winning 2016 African American drama “Moonlight” in the protagonist’s adolescent years, before Chiron became a drug-dealing gangster nicknamed Black. Just like “Moonlight,” the story in “All Day and a Night” also shows different stages of the protagonist’s life: as a child, a teenager and an adult. The protagonist in both movies also has an abusive, cocaine-addicted parent—in “Moonlight,” it’s the mother; in “All Day and a Night,” it’s the father.

But what made “Moonlight” different, besides the almost poetic way that the movie was made, was that the gangster protagonist turned out to be a sensitive, closeted gay man who’s had a longtime inner struggle about his sexuality. It’s also why “Moonlight” didn’t have the African American ghetto movie cliché of the protagonist being a deadbeat dad with an angry baby mama by the time he’s 22.

And the protagonist in “Moonlight” really had no positive, law-abiding role models in his home: His mother was an abusive crackhead, and the only male role model who was nice to him as a kid was one of the mother’s boyfriends, who was also her drug dealer. “All Day and a Night” is no “Moonlight,” although writer/director Cole obviously wants this cliché-ridden movie to be as widely acclaimed as “Moonlight.” That’s not going to happen.

“All Day and a Night” tells the story in bits and pieces and in flashbacks. As a child in middle school, Jahkor (played by Jalyn Emil Hall) does poorly in academics, and he’s bullied at school. When his father James Daniel Lincoln, also known as JD (played by Jeffrey Wright), finds out that Jahkor has been bullied, his response is to brutally beat Jahkor, tell him that he needs to toughen up, and order Jahkor to beat up the school bully the next time Jakhor sees the bully. Jahkor follows his father’s orders and gets suspended from school.

In Jahkor’s household, Jahkor’s mother Delanda (played by Kelly Jenrette) just stands by passively and does nothing to stop the abuse, since she’s afraid of JD, who’s abusive and threatening to her too. The movie implies that Delanda is one of those women who thinks it’s better to have a man who’s abusive than to have no man at all, even if her child is being abused too. Delanda loves Jahkor and is kind to him, but she doesn’t have the inner strength to get help for the domestic violence, and to keep herself and her child out of harm’s way.

Jahkor’s maternal grandmother Tommetta (played by Regina Taylor), who does not live with the family, is the most positive role model in Jahkor’s life. She encourages Jahkor to follow his dreams and tells him that there are other ways to solve problems than through violence. JD openly scoffs and ridicules Tommetta, by telling her that she’s making Jahkor soft and that she’s too religious. Meanwhile, JD’s life goes on a downward spiral, as he becomes a coke-addicted, drug-dealing murderer, who ends up in the same prison as Jahkor. A scene in the movie also reveals that JD also spent some time in a psychiatric institution, which is a part of JD’s background that is stated, but not shown, in the movie.

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to show that Delanda and her mother tried the best they could to help Jahkor. In a meeting with Jahkor’s middle-school teacher Ms. Ferguson (played by Baily Hopkins), Delanda and her mother seem to be part of the problem, when they react in disbelief at Jahkor’s low grades. Tommetta says that Jahkor is smarter than the grades that he’s been getting, and they say that he just needs someone to believe in him.

There are a few things wrong with the way this movie handles the parent-teacher involvement in Jahkor’s life. First, the movie tries to make it look like the school system failed Jahkor in his education, when in actuality, the mother and the grandmother should bear some of the blame too. These parental figures have an attitude that someone at the school needs to believe in Jahkor, yet the movie doesn’t show how the mother and the grandmother should be those people who believe in Jahkor, instead of making it the government’s problem.

The grandmother, who’s of retirement age, could have had the time to tutor Jahkor in the subjects that she felt she could help him with the most. The mother and the grandmother also could have enrolled Jahkor in free after-school activities, regardless if he was academically gifted or not. They live in Oakland (not a deprived rural area), and a big city like Oakland has a lot of free resources for underprivileged youth.

These are the pro-active things that parents do when they don’t rely on schools to teach their children things like morality, respect and a good work ethic. And you don’t have to be economically privileged to have these kinds of values. But, of course, that doesn’t fit the movie’s narrative that a kid like Jahkor is “doomed” to repeat the criminal activities of his father and other men in his family. It’s truly offensive how this movie portrays most African American men as criminals and most African American women as passive followers who just go along with what the (criminal) men in their lives want.

As for Jahkor’s peer group, his closest friends include “bad boy” TQ (played by Kaleb Alexander Roberts as a child, and Isaiah John as an adult) and “good boy” Lamark (played by Ramone Hamilton as a child, and Christopher Meyer as an adult). Lamark is the aforementioned friend who has ambitions to not be a negative ghetto stereotype. Lamark comes from a stable, loving, two-parent household with a younger sister. Lamark’s family ends up being somewhat of a surrogate family to Jahkor.

Jahkor utters this line in one of the movie’s voiceovers: “Outside the ‘hood, people think every family is messed-up like mine. Lots of people take care of business, and if they ain’t you, you put your faith in them.” The irony of this statement is that this entire movie is about the “messed-up African American family” stereotype, so it just reinforces the negative images that “people outside the ‘hood” have of African Americans who are “from the ‘hood.”

Lamark ends up volunteering for the Army, where he comes home wounded from the war in Afghanistan. As a result of his war wounds, Lamark becomes a paraplegic. Jahkor becomes bitter that his friend “who did everything right” and served the U.S. government as a loyal soldier ended up in this tragic situation. It’s an excuse for this movie to show why Jahkor turned to a life of crime.

About a year before the murders, a flashback shows that Jahkor had started dating a young woman close to his age named Shantaye (played by Shakira Ja’nai Paye). She ends up doing the most cliché thing that African American women do in ghetto movies like this one: She gets pregnant while not being married to the baby’s father, who doesn’t have a steady job.

When she tells Jahkor about the pregnancy, he’s elated, but they don’t seem too concerned about how they’re going to pay to raise this child, which is yet another racist stereotype that implies that they’re going to live off of government welfare. What Shantaye does for money isn’t really made clear in this movie, because this film obviously doesn’t to want to show African American women as educated career women.

By the time Jahkor finds out that he’s going to become a father, he has a criminal record that includes armed robbery, resisting arrest and home invasion. These arrests are not shown in the movie, but the information is stated after he’s brought to the police station in another scene in the movie when Jahkor is questioned about another crime. “All Day and a Night” is not told in chronological order, so viewers have to keep up with all the random flashbacks.

Because he’s a convicted felon, Jahkor has trouble finding a real job. He gets more motivated to make an honest living after finding out that he’s going to be a father. So, he calls in a favor to a straight-laced friend, and lands a job as a sales clerk at an athletic shoe store, because the person who previously had the position had suddenly quit. In one scene, a white woman goes in the store and sees Jahkor moving some shoe boxes, and she suspiciously asks him what he’s doing, because she thinks he’s a thief. Jahkor tells her that he works there, but she backs out of the store apprehensively and leaves.

In a voiceover, Jahkor says racist incidents like this are like little cuts that add up to big emotional wounds. However, it’s hard to feel too sorry for Jahkor, because although the white woman’s reaction to him was very racist, his own violent criminal record proves that he’s not a harmless angel. And whose fault is it that he chose to be a criminal? Movies like “All Day and a Night” certainly reinforce the negative stereotype that most black men are criminals, and that’s a stereotype that causes a lot of damaging racism.

“All Day and a Night” seems to want to ignore the reality that people who choose to openly live a “thug life” shouldn’t be too surprised when people stereotype them as criminals. If this racist incident depicted in the movie had happened to a black person without a violent criminal record (and racist incidents like this do happen to law-abiding black people in real life), then maybe more sympathy would be deserved.

And “All Day and a Night” certainly can’t blame Jahkor’s destructive lifestyle on white racism (even though the movie seems to want to put the blame there), because there is nothing but black-on-black violence in the film. But the movie wants people to feel sorry for Jahkor, when his choices and actions in life show that he’s his own worst enemy, and it’s not other people’s fault that he turned out to be such a loser.

There are other things that show that Jahkor is a selfish jerk, such as how he mistreats and degrades Shantaye about something she did in her past before she met him. Jahkor also has a disturbingly violent reaction after he meets his mother’s new boyfriend Ray Ray (played by John Que), who was nice enough to bail Jahkor out of jail without even knowing Jahkor. The movie hints that Jahkor might have inherited the mental illness his father has, but at the very least, Jahkor has serious anger management issues. His violent abusiveness is supposed to make him look “tough,” but it just makes him look hateful.

It comes as no surprise that Jahkor ends up quitting his job at the shoe store and becomes more involved with his friend TQ’s criminal activities. At first, Jahkor swears that he won’t get involved in drug dealing, but he changes his mind when he wants to impress the hotshot drug dealer in the ‘hood named Big Stunna (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who hires Jahkor to be his bodyguard/enforcer. Even though Jahkor is not muscular, he has a quick temper and has a reputation for being a vicious fighter. Big Stunna has a female sidekick named La-Trice (played by Rolanda D. Bell), who essentially does what all the African American women in this movie do: Let the men dominate and then react to whatever they want.

The rest of the movie shows why Jahkor committed the murders (he volunteered to do it) and there’s somewhat of a twist toward the end that reveals someone’s ulterior motive for the crime. There are some prison scenes where JD tries to give Jahkor advice on how to survive in the prison. And there’s also an almost laughable scene where Jahkor and JD are in the prison yard, and Jahkor tries to bond with JD by getting his father to some gardening in the yard with him. It’s completely unrealistic that this prison would allow a convicted murderer like Jahkor to have a sharp instrument like a gardening tool in the middle of a prison yard.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of violence in “A Day and a Night” and constant use of the “n” word and other cursing. All of the actors, except for Wright, are relatively unknown to mainstream audiences, so it’s easy to see why they jumped at the chance to work on a movie that was written and directed by someone who co-wrote the mega-successful “Black Panther.” Wright is an excellent actor, but this was clearly a “paycheck” movie for him, since there’s no depth at all to the JD character, who’s a typical abusive thug. Abdul-Mateen’s career is on the rise (he has the role of Black Mantis in DC Comics movies), but so far, he’s mostly known for playing villainous characters.

And the racist stereotyping isn’t just for the black people in the movie. The few white people who are in the film have small speaking roles, and they are portrayed in unflattering ways. There’s the racist store customer who’s afraid of dealing with Jahkor. There’s the young teacher who thinks she’s being a “white savior” by teaching in a predominantly African American school. There’s the young co-worker at the shoe store who talks like she’s a wannabe street gangster, but she really lives an an affluent white neighborhood. And there’s the overzealous cop who resents that Jahkor and TQ were driving in that white neighborhood. (Jahkor and TQ were in the neighborhood because it was Jahkor’s idea to follow that co-worker to her home. Very creepy.)

Aside from being annoyingly derivative, the biggest problem with “All Day and a Night” is that the movie doesn’t even have a protagonist that people will root for in a big way. The movie tries to make Jakhor sympathetic, when he’s in prison and cries on the phone about how he doesn’t want his son to see him in prison. Well, it’s a little too late for that, since Jahkor has a life sentence, and he volunteered to committed the murders when he knew that he was going to be a father.

There’s a flashback scene that takes place after Jahkor committed the murders, when he suddenly shows up at Shantaye’s home, looking anxious with the two guns he used in the crime. Jahkor won’t tell a suspicious and pregnant Shantaye what he did and why he has those guns, but he asks her to keep the guns. He also takes the cash that he was paid for the crime and hides it in Shantaye’s couch, presumably for Shantay to find later and to use as child-support money. But it’s blood money, so using it for child-support payments really doesn’t show any redemption on Jahkor’s part, and it definitely doesn’t justify the ruthless way that he gunned down two people in front of their child.

You have to wonder why these mediocre-to-awful African American gangster movies, which are usually financed by an all-white or predominantly white team of producers, keep getting made, when there are so many more interesting and original stories about African Americans that can be told. Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, who is widely considered to be the most influential African American filmmaker of all time, is respected by other filmmakers because he doesn’t make the same type of movie over and over. The African American protagonists in his movies usually aren’t criminals, just like most African Americans in real life aren’t criminals.  Lee is an example of an African American filmmaker who understands that there is more to realistic African American stories than just depicting the main characters as criminals.

If you want to see a better and more accurate representation of modern African American culture in a Netflix drama that was released around the same time as “All Day and a Night,” check out the far superior and more original “Uncorked,” which is about a young, law-abiding African American man who aspires to be a master sommelier.

“All Day and a Night” would have been a more interesting film if it had made Lamark the protagonist, since it’s rare to have a movie that shows an African American war veteran as the lead character. (Spike Lee has done it with “Da 5 Bloods.”) “All Day and a Night” is writer/director Cole’s second movie as a director, so maybe his next movies that he writes and directs will show that he can come up with more original ideas and less degrading stories than this one.

Netflix premiered “All Day and a Night” on May 1, 2020.

Review: ‘Dangerous Lies,’ starring Camila Mendes, Jessie T. Usher, Jamie Chung, Cam Gigandet, Sasha Alexander and Elliott Gould

April 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jessie T. Usher and Camila Mendes in “Dangerous Lies” (Photo by Eric Milner/Netflix)

“Dangerous Lies”

Directed by Michael M. Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, the crime thriller “Dangerous Lies” has a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Latino and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A young, financially struggling married couple find themselves in the middle of ethical dilemmas and a crime mystery when they get a windfall of inherited wealth.

Culture Audience: “Dangerous Lies” will appeal primarily to people who are looking for a slightly higher-budget version of a Lifetime movie.

Elliott Gould and Camila Mendes in “Dangerous Lies” (Photo by Eric Milner/Netflix)

What would you do if you found a hidden pile of $100,000 in cash in the house of a dead man whom you know doesn’t have any heirs or a will? The young husband and wife at the center of the thriller “Dangerous Lies” experience this dilemma, as their bills are mounting and they don’t have any viable job prospects to get them out of their financial hole. But whether or not to keep the money turns out to be the least of their problems, since ” Dangerous Lies” is the kind of very self-aware B-movie where the number of people who die can be considered directly proportional to the increasingly melodramatic plot twists.

In the beginning of “Dangerous Lies” (directed by Michael M. Scott), married couple Katie Franklin (played by Camila Medes) and Adam Ketner (played by Jessie T. Usher), who are in their 20s, are living in Chicago in a small apartment that they can barely afford. Their relationship will become increasingly strained over their financial issues. Katie and Adam are struggling to make ends meet, since he’s a full-time student, and she’s a waitress at a diner.

One night, when Adam is at the diner to give Katie a ride home after her shift, they both have a passionate makeout tryst in the back of their car while Katie is on a break. When they both go back into the diner, they witness an armed robbery taking place. Adam makes the bold decision to tackle the armed gunman, who has already shot and killed a bus boy at the diner. Adam is able to fight the gunman, whose name is Ray Gaskin (played by Sean Owen Roberts) and tackle him to the ground. Adam briefly becomes a local hero when the criminal is arrested but severely wounded from the fight.

Four months later, Katie and Adam are in even more financial dire straits, as they’re drowning in debt. Adam has dropped out of college, but he still has to pay back his student loan. Katie and Adam are also very close to being evicted from their apartment. The financial pressure has taken a toll on their marriage. Katie and Adam argue because she thinks he isn’t trying very hard to find a job after he dropped out of school. Adam thinks Katie is being too much of a demanding nag who doesn’t understand how hard the job market can be.

In the meantime, Katie has been the earning the money in their household by being a caretaker for wealthy, 88-year-old Leonard Wellsley (played by Elliott Gould), who lives by himself in a mansion on a quiet, tree-lined street. Leonard has never been married, has no kids, and has no living relatives. Katie got the job through an employment agency, which is run by George Calvern (played by Michael B. Northey), who thinks Katie is trustworthy until some occurrences make him wonder if she has a devious side to her. George has a habit of showing up at Leonard’s house unannounced, which understandably annoys Leonard.

On another occasion, Katie encounters another unannounced visitor: a slick-looking Mickey Hayden (played by Cam Gigandet), who introduces himself as a real-estate agent. Mickey says that he has a client with a big family who wants to buy Leonard’s house and is willing to pay whatever the asking price will be. Katie firmly tells Mickey that the house isn’t for sale because Leonard the owner has told her that. Mickey walks away, but will this be the last we see of him? Of course not.

One day, Katie blurts out to Leonard that she and Adam are financially broke, and he offers her to give her money to ease her financial woes, but she politely declines. Instead, she asks Leonard if Adam can work there as a part-time gardener. Leonard immediately agrees.

Adam begins working for Leonard, and things seem to be going very smoothly. Katie and Adam are arguing less and it seems that they are slowly getting back on on track to improving their finances. Leonard has surprised Katie with a check for $7,000 as a gift. At first, Katie wants to refuse the gift and return the check to Leonard. But Adam changes her mind because he convinces her that the money will be more than enough to solve the couple’s immediate financial problems. Therefore, they both go to a bank to deposit the check.

But then, something unexpected happens the next day: Katie goes to work and finds Leonard dead in the attic. In this “finding the body” scene, Mendes shows limited acting range, since she doesn’t appear to be very startled or shocked at finding her boss dead while he’s sitting in a chair. Later, she sheds some tears while she’s calling 911, but the way that Mendes plays Katie’s initial reaction is just a little too wooden for this type of scene.

Before calling 911 about finding the body, Katie tells Adam, who’s nearby, and he rushes over to comfort Katie. While they’re waiting for an ambulance and police arrive, Adam discovers a key on the floor next to Leonard’s body. He finds out that the key opens a trunk in the attic. Although Katie doesn’t think it’s a good idea to open the trunk, Adam does it anyway. He finds old photos and newspaper clippings. But the trunk has a removable shelf inside, and underneath the shelf is a pile of cash that was clearly meant to be hidden.

Adam knows that Leonard has no living heirs, so his first thought is to take the cash, because he knows it will be more than enough to solve the couple’s financial problems. The death of Leonard has left Katie and Adam without jobs, so Adam reasons it’s the only way they can pay their bills. Katie is much more reluctant at first to take the money.

The main investigator to arrive on the scene is Detective Chesler (played by Sasha Alexander), who has the kind of tough-and-slightly tender cop demeanor that would make her right at home in a “Law & Order” series. When Detective Chesler finds out that Leonard has no living heirs, she gets slightly suspicious of Katie when she finds out that Katie has only been working for Leonard for a little more than four months. And the suspicions grow even more when Detective Chesler find out that Katie had deposited a $7,000 check from Leonard the day before he died.

However, Leonard was 88 years old and on medication for health problems. Did he die of natural causes or something else? Pending an autopsy from the medical examiner, George tells Katie that his agency can’t place her in any more jobs until the investigation is closed and it’s ruled that no foul play was involved in Leonard’s death. Suddenly, that pile of hidden cash has become much more tempting, since Leonard had no known will.

The next day, when Katie isn’t home, Adam sees that she has left the keys to Leonard’s house on a table. He takes the keys to go back to Leonard’s house to count the cash, which totals almost $100,000. But while he’s counting the money, he hears someone break into the house, and then someone comes up behind him and knock him unconscious.

When Katie finds out that happened, she’s furious at Adam, but she also knows that they’re desperate for money. She agrees to keep the cash, on this condition for how they would spend the money: “We would have to be very careful,” she tells Adam. Katie and Adam decide to take the money before it’s found, and they put it in a safe deposit box in a bank.

And then another unexpected thing happens: Kim is asked to meet with Julia Byron-Kim (played by Jamie Chung), who says she was hired by Leonard to be his attorney a few months before he died. Julia tells Kim that Leonard actually did have a will, and he made Kim his sole beneficiary. Kim can expect to get the inheritance money after the few months that the will goes through probate proceedings and pending the outcome of the medical examination.

Kim and Adam can’t believe their luck. They immediately move into Leonard’s mansion and start making plans for their future. Adam is very eager to spend the secret pile of cash they have. He’s so caught-up in his new-found wealth that he drops his plans to keep looking for a job, and he splurges on a luxury watch. Kim is more practical and cautious about spending the money, and she grows increasingly uncomfortable with what looks like greed taking over Adam’s mindset.

But, of course, in a story like this one, this luck comes at a huge cost. A series of events puts more suspicion on Kim and Adam for being possibly responsible for Leonard’s death. And that secret pile of cash is starting to make Kim have a very guilty conscience, which puts her at odds with Adam, who has no qualms about how they got the money.

Meanwhile, something strange happens that makes Adam and Kim wonder if someone is trying to set them up. Adam gets a call to go to the police station to do a follow-up statement on the armed robbery that he had foiled months before. But when he gets to the police station, Detective Chesler tells him that no one from the police department made the call. Adam doesn’t bother to tell Kim about this strange phone call, so when she finds out about it from Detective Chesler, she starts to mistrust Adam.

And as for the plot twists that are crammed in toward the end of the film, some of the plot twists are more believable than others. “Dangerous Lies” (which was written by David Golden) follows a lot of familiar tropes of a Lifetime movie (where the female protagonist usually has to decide if her romantic partner is trustworthy or not), while adding in a very good level of suspense. The actors in “Dangerous Lies” don’t do a particularly outstanding job in their roles, but no one is outright horrible either. It’s the kind of made-for-TV movie that someone can watch to pass the time, but it won’t leave much of a lasting impression.

Netflix premiered “Dangerous Lies” on April 30, 2020.

2020 Tribeca Film Festival: jury winners announced

April 29, 2020

Tribeca Film Festival - white logo

The following is a press release from the Tribeca Film Festival:

 The Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T, announced the winners for the 2020 juried competition, awarding top honors from this year’s program. Tribeca has continued its commitment to celebrating storytellers while the 19th edition, previously set to take place April 15-26, 2020 in New York City, is being rescheduled.

The Half of It was honored with The Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature; The Hater for Best International Narrative Feature; and Socks On Fire for Best Documentary Feature. Shorts awards went to No More Wings for Best Narrative Short; My Father The Mover for Best Documentary Short; Friends for Best Animated Short and Cru-Raw for the Student Visionary Award. The Nora Ephron Award went to director Ruthy Pribar for her feature Asia. The award was created seven years ago to honor excellence in storytelling by a female writer or director who embodies the spirit and boldness of the late filmmaker. The full list of films and filmmakers honored are highlighted below.

“We are fortunate that technology allowed for our jury to come together this year to honor our filmmakers,” said Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “Despite not being able to be together physically, we were still able to support our artists, which has always been at the heart of the Festival.”                                                                                    

“While we are not yet able to celebrate these incredible films at their premieres, we are so proud to celebrate them in partnership with our generous jurors through our 2020 Tribeca awards,” said Festival Director Cara Cusumano. “The jury chose to recognize a daring, innovative, entertaining, diverse group of films and filmmakers, and the Festival is pleased to honor all of them with our first ever virtual awards ceremony.”

 Tribeca’s Art Awards, in partnership with CHANEL, honor winners in select categories with original pieces from ten world-class artists, a tradition since the Festival’s beginning. This year’s selections were curated by notable gallerist Vito Schnabel.

 As announced in early April, select programming from the 2020 edition was made available online for the public, industry, and press. This included: Immersive programming/Cinema360, the N.O.W. Creators Market, Tribeca X, Extranet Industry Resource Hub. Additional online programming will be announced in the coming weeks including Tribeca Talks @ Home, which debuted last week with Cinema360 discussions and will continue on May 3rd featuring the creators of selections from the 2020 program. More information can be found here. Projects included are: Bad Education (HBO), Inheritance (DirecTV/Vertical), I Promise (Quibi), Normal People (Hulu), Not Going QuietlyThe Great (Hulu), The Half of It (Netflix).

 Winners of the juried awards, presented by AT&T; Art Awards in partnership with CHANEL; Tribeca X, sponsored by PwC; and the jury participants are as follows:

U.S. NARRATIVE COMPETITION CATEGORIES:

The jury comprised of Cherien DabisTerry Kinney and Lucas Hedges awarded the following:

Daniel Diemer and Leah Lewis in “The Half of It” (Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix)

Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature – The Half of It, directed by Alice Wu.

  • Jury Comment: “The film is so charming, it’s so energetic, it’s so fun, it’s so well-paced, it’s directed with such a sure hand, it’s a really confident film and the characters are really well drawn and the actors were fantastic.”
  • Art Award: Julian Schnabel‘s Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, 2007. Oil on map.

Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Assol Abdullina, Materna.

  • Jury Comment: “Assol just has so much compelling energy; her emotions ran so deep…we cared about her dilemma.”
Sasha Knight and Steve Zahn in “Cowboys”

Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Steve Zahn, Cowboys.

  • Jury Comment: “Steve showed great range in playing this character.”
Lindsay Burdge and Jade Eshete in “Materna” (Photo by Greta Zozula)

Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Materna, Greta Zozula, Chananun Chotrungroj, Kelly Jeffrey, Cinematographers.

  • Jury Comment: “The visuals were striking and played with color, light and dark, in a very interesting way.”
  • Special Jury Mention for Cinematography: My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To.
Steve Zahn and Sasha Knight in “Cowboys”

Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Cowboys, Anna Kerrigan, Screenwriter.

  • Jury Comment: “A beautiful portrait of a father and his transgendered son.”

INTERNATIONAL NARRATIVE COMPETITION CATEGORIES:

The jury comprised of Sabine HoffmanJudith GodrècheDanny BoyleWilliam Hurt, and Demián Bichir awarded the following:

Maciej Musiałowski and Agata Kulesza in “The Hater” (Photo by Jaroslaw Sosinski)

Best International Narrative Feature – The Hater (Poland), directed by Jan Komasa.

  • Jury Comment: “Incredibly relevant for today; we were really impressed by the way it portrayed a character that is not immediately empathetic but really got us into the journey and the story.”
  • Art Award: Helen Marden‘s January Golden Rock, 2020. Watercolor on paper.
  • Special Jury Mention: Ainu Mosir
“Kokoloko”

Best Actor in an International Narrative Feature Film – Noe Hernandez, Kokoloko (Mexico).

  • Jury Comment: “For his raw and brave performance, taking a giant leap of faith, hand-to-hand with his director.”
Shira Haas and Alena Yiv in “Asia” (Photo by Daniella Nowitz)

Best Actress in an International Narrative Feature Film – Shira Haas, Asia (Israel).

  • Jury Comment: “Her face is a never-ending landscape in which even the tiniest expression is heartbreaking; she’s an incredibly honest and present actress who brings depth to everything she does.”
Alena Yiv in “Asia” (Photo by Daniella Nowitz)

Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film – Asia (Israel)Daniella Nowitz, Cinematographer.

  • Jury Comments: “We were impressed with how the cinematography was supporting the emotionality of the story and was allowing us to really deeply feel with the characters.”

“Very simply and beautifully done.”

Ashish Vidyarthi and Suhasini Maniratnam in “Tryst With Destiny”

Best Screenplay in an International Narrative Feature Film – Tryst With Destiny (India, France), Prashant Nair, Screenwriter.

  • Jury Comments: “How cleverly conceived and executed this script was!” “Beautifully made film.”

 

DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION CATEGORIES:

The jury comprised of Yance FordRegina K. ScullyRyan Fleck, Chris Pine, and Peter Deming awarded the following:

 

Bo McGuire in “Socks on Fire” (Photo by Matt Clegg)

Best Documentary Feature – Socks on Fire, Bo McGuire, Director.

  • Jury Comment:  “The film used new techniques woven into documentary filmmaking and narrative storytelling.”
  • Art Award: Sterling Ruby‘s DRFTRS, 2020. Collage, paint and glue on paper.
  • Special Jury Mention: Wonderboy
Eduardo San Juan Breña in “499” (Photo by Alejandro Mejía/AMC)

Best Cinematography in a Documentary Film – 499, Alejandro Mejia, Cinematographer.  

  • Jury Comment: “The filmmakers did an incredible job of weaving this fictional story into what’s happening today with the disappeared and to marry such grand visions that cinema can only do.”

 

‘Father Soldier Son” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Best Editing in a Documentary Film – Father Soldier Son, Amy Foote, Editor.

  • Jury Comment: “Such a well-crafted film from start to finish; a story that stays with you.”

BEST NEW NARRATIVE DIRECTOR COMPETITION:

The jury comprised of Lukas Haas, Juno Temple, Nat Wolff, Grace Van Patten, and James Ponsoldt awarded the following:

Jorge Garcia in “Nobody Knows I’m Here”

Best New Narrative Director – Nobody Knows I’m Here, Gaspar Antillo, Director.

  • Jury Comment: “A film that felt vital and alive, and every time we thought we knew who the protagonist was or what the world was it evolved and revealed more of itself to us.”
  • Art Award: Rita Ackermann‘s The Working Woman 3, 2018. Oil, crayon and graphite on paper.

BEST NEW DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR COMPETITION:

The jury comprised of Erin Lee CarrStacey ReissJosh HutchersonJoel McHale, and Gretchen Mol awarded the following:

“Jacinta”

Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award – Jacinta, Jessica Earnshaw, Director.

  • Jury Comments: “Incredibly engaging filmmaking,” “very moving, beautifully done.”
  • Art Award: Gus Van Sant‘s Achelous and Hercules, 2016. Enamel on paper.
  • Special Jury mention: The Last Out

THE NORA EPHRON AWARD:

The jury comprised of Gina RodriguezAparna NancherlaAnna BaryshnikovRegina Hall, and Lizzy Caplan awarded:

Alena Yiv and Shira Haas in “Asia” (Photo by Daniella Nowitz)

The Nora Ephron Award – Asia, Director, Ruthy Pribar.

  • Jury Comment: “From the writing, to the directing, to the camera moves, to the direction for the acting, to the way Ms. Pribar told a story through non-speaking was just outstanding.”
  • Art Award: Pat Steir‘s Untitled, 2008. Oil, pencil, ink, and acrylic on paper.
  • Special Jury Mention: My Wonderful Wanda

 

Review: ‘A Secret Love,’ starring Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel

April 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel in “A Secret Love” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“A Secret Love”

Directed by Chris Bolan

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Illinois and partly in Alberta, Canada, the documentary “A Secret Love” has an all-white cast telling the story of middle-class lesbian couple Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, whose relationship began in the late 1940s and was kept a secret for decades.

Culture Clash: Donahue and Henschel kept their romance hidden out of fear of homophobic backlash from society and being shunned by family members.

Culture Audience: “A Secret Love” will appeal primarily to people interested in LGBTQ issues and stories about long-term romantic partnerships that survive major obstacles.

Pat Henschel, Terry Donahue and Diana Bolan in “A Secret Love” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The LGBTQ community has gotten an increasing amount of representation in movies and on television, but rarely does that representation include senior citizens of retirement age. A notable exception is the emotionally moving documentary “A Secret Love.” The film tells the heartfelt and often-sentimental story of lesbian couple Theresa “Terry” Donahue and Emma “Pat” Henschel, who began their love affair in 1947, and kept it a secret from almost everyone else in their lives for decades while living together.

The documentary, directed by Chris Bolan (Donahue’s great-nephew), includes a historical look at society’s homophobia that kept Pat and Terry “in the closet” for most of their lives. But most of the movie is an intimate look at Pat and Terry’s relationship in transition, as they have to decide whether or not to downsize from their longtime house in St. Charles, Illinois, and move to an assisted-living household, since Terry has Parkinson’s Disease.

Terry’s family dynamics play a huge role in what happens. Almost all of Pat’s relatives are dead, so Terry’s side of the family (who are mostly in the couple’s native Canada, where they grew up in the province of Alberta) have a big say in what what they think should happen with the couple’s living situation. The most vocal relative is Terry’s favorite niece, Diana Bolan (the mother of this documentary’s director), who doesn’t hold back when expressing her strong opinions.

Terry says, “I love the other kids, but Diana is special. She’s the daughter I never had.” In turn, Diana gushes about Terry: “I owe everything to her.” Terry said that out of all of her relatives whom she told that she’s a lesbian, Diana was the one whose reaction was the one she was most worried about the most.

It turns out that Terry didn’t have to worry.  Diana says that a few years before the documentary was filmed, her Aunt Terry told her that she was in a decades-long lesbian relationship with Pat, who Diana knew as Aunt Pat. Diana said she didn’t care about their sexuality and she gave Terry a big hug.

Tammy Donahue, another niece, had a different reaction. She remembers being shocked at the news of her aunt being a lesbian. “I feel betrayed that she couldn’t have told us sooner,” Tammy says in the film.

Terry says that it was unthinkable for her to come out as a lesbian while certain family members were still alive. According to Terry, she had a very homophobic mother and brother, who probably would have disowned her. Terry was closest to her father, who might have accepted Terry for being a lesbian, but she didn’t want to take the risk of telling him. Terry gets emotional and tears up in the movie when she remembers her close relationship with her father. “I loved my mother, but she wasn’t as understanding as Dad.”

But even though Terry’s closest living relatives accepted her sexuality after she came out to them, the documentary shows that things aren’t always so lovey-dovey in this family. Diana admits that some of the family friction comes from the long-simmering tensions that she’s had with Pat because the two women compete for Terry’s attention. As Diana says in the documentary, any politeness she has with Pat is “contrived” and vice versa. “I think we’re both playing games because of Aunt Terry.” Diana also says that she believes that Pat has purposely kept Terry isolated from her Canadian family.

Pat, who is clearly the dominant partner in her relationship with Terry, also admits that there’s some tension between her and Terry’s side of the family. “Everybody loves Terry. They put up with me because of Terry.” Pat says in the beginning of the film that she’s reluctant to move to back to Canada because she doesn’t like the colder weather there. Terry says she doesn’t care where they live, as long as she and Pat are together. The couple also contemplates moving to Florida. And there’s also the decision of whether or not to have their own home or reside in an assisted-living facility.

As these decisions are being made, “take charge” Diana comes to visit to make calls and appointments, for what she says is the necessary step for Terry and Pat to move because their current house has become too big for the couple to manage. During one visit, which Diana calls her “intervention,” she is also dismayed that Terry has lost an alarming lot of weight since Diana’s last visit.

Diana blames Pat for Terry’s weight lost, and hints that she doesn’t think Pat is properly taking care of her beloved Aunt Terry. It leads to a huge, tearful confrontation where Diana accuses Pat of keeping secrets from her and possibly endangering Terry’s health. Pat denies it, of course, but this confrontation is a turning point for what happens later in the documentary.

Amid all of this family drama, the documentary devotes a lot of time to Pat and Terry telling their love story, while putting into historical context how dangerous it was for them to be open about their romance for decades. Terry and Pat were both athletes who were part of the All-American Girls Baseball League, which included several players and teams from Canada.

Terry was scouted at age 19 and came to live in the U.S. in 1946, at the age of 20. She played for the Moose Jaw Wildcats and the Peoria Redways, while Pat had a stint with the Winnipeg All-Stars. They met at a hockey rink in 1947, when Terry was 22 and Pat was 18.

As members of the All-American Girls Baseball League, they had a little bit of fame, since the league’s games were covered by the media. The documentary has archival footage of newspaper clippings, media photos and film footage about the All-American Girls Baseball League that include Pat and Terry. The 1992 movie “A League of Their Own” (starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna) was inspired by this real-life women’s baseball league. The documentary shows Terry signing baseball memorabilia and talking about still be being recognized in public for being a part of the league.

While Terry had a stable home life when she was growing up, Pat’s family background was more chaotic and filled with a lot of tragedy.  Pat came from a family of seven siblings. Her older brother Wally was a military pilot who died during World War II at the age of 19. Her mother died two years later, when Pat was 15.

Pat’s father remarried, but she didn’t get along with her stepmother. And then, her father and stepmother died in an accident at a train crossing. By then, Pat and Terry were having a secret romance, but they gave the appearance of being close platonic friends. Terry’s family included the orphaned Pat in their family activities and treated her as one of their own.

Pat and Terry say when they were young, they dated men while carrying on a secret love affair with each other, but they never went as far as marrying any of their boyfriends. Terry had a boyfriend named Bill who would visit from Peoria, Illinois, and she remembers telling him: “You can come [to visit], but don’t bring a ring.”

Pat says she got engaged to a guy, who ended up dying young. And she said that another guy she dated when she was in her 20s also ended up dying young during their relationship. Bizarre coincidence? We might never know, but one thing is clear: Pat had a lot of people close to her in her youth who ended up dying. It might explain why in the documentary, she seems to be have a lot of trouble dealing with the grim realities of Terry’s degenerative illness and keeps putting off the idea of transitioning to assisted living.

Although it might be easy to dismiss Pat as stubborn and domineering, she shows a very tender and romantic side to her in the movie, particularly when she reads the love poems and letters that she sent to Terry. And during a dinner that Terry and Pat have at the home of their longtime friends Jack Xagas and John Byrd (who are also a long-term gay couple), Pat is the one who says she likes the idea of getting married to Terry, while Terry says that she doesn’t think they need to get married.

When Pat and Terry tell stories about the lengths they went to to hide their sexuality, it’s a reminder of the persecution they could have faced for being gay, which are still harsh realities in many areas of the world, including in countries that have progressive laws for LGBTQ civil rights. Terry and Pat also had the added fear of being deported if people found out their secret. It’s one of the reasons why Terry and Pat didn’t go to gay bars, which were frequently raided by police. The couple said that any LGBTQ social gatherings they went to in those days were limited to secretive parties.

The documentary includes commentary from some LGBTQ-rights experts, including Yvonne Zipter (an author and University of Chicago Press manuscript editor); activist Marge Summit (former owner of the Chicago gay bar His ‘n Hers); and Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim, author of “Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer.” Emmy-winning producer Ryan Murphy (who’s openly gay) is one of the producers of “A Secret Love,” although he is not in the documentary.

“A Secret Love” shows what happened after the “intervention” of Terry’s niece Diana Boland to get Terry and Pat to decide once and for all what they’re going to do about their living situation. (Sensitive viewers should have plenty of tissues nearby for crying during the last third of the film.) The movie is ultimately a testament to long-lasting true love that can withstand prejudice, family conflicts and other life challenges that can often tear couples apart.

Netflix premiered “A Secret Love” on April 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story,’ starring Cyntoia Brown, Ellenette Brown, Kathryn Evans Sinback, Paul Bruno, Charles Bone and Georgina Mitchell

April 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Cyntoia Brown and Charles Bone in “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story”

Directed by Daniel H. Birman

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tennessee, this true-crime documentary tells the story of biracial Cyntoia Brown, who was adopted by a working-class black family; was convicted in 2006 of murdering a prostitution customer when she was a teenager; and spent years in a legal system of white prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and psychiatrists.

Culture Clash: Brown and her lawyers filed appeals over the years to have her life sentence reduced, because she claimed that she killed out of self-defense and that she should not have been tried as an adult because the killing happened when she was 16.

Culture Audience: “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” will appeal mostly to people interested in true-crime cases that explore issues over how different legal standards should or should not be applied to criminal defendants who are under the age of 18.

Kathryn Evans Sinback and Cyntoia Brown in “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Filmed from 2004 to 2019, the true-crime documentary “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” (directed by Daniel H. Birman) makes it clear from the start that it’s on the side of Nashville native Cyntoia Brown. She shot a man to death in 2004, when she was 16, and was convicted of first-degree murder two years later. Brown claimed the killing was in self-defense.

Her case and its final outcome have received a lot of media attention, so there’s really not much suspense in watching this film, which chronicles her 15-year saga to have her life-in-prison sentence reduced. (And if people don’t know the final outcome of the case, the title of this documentary pretty much gives it away.)

The film (which unfolds in chronological order) includes interview footage from the beginning of Brown’s case in 2004, when she was arrested for murdering real-estate agent Johnny Allen, who hired her for a prostitution encounter in his home. Allen was shot in the back of his head, while lying in bed with his hands clasped in front of him. Brown said she shot him because he threatened her, and she has never wavered from that story in her legal proceedings.

The beginning of the film shows Brown interviewed in juvenile detention, while awaiting trial. The main source of contention in her case was the sentencing she faced if found guilty. Under Tennessee law at the time, an underage person convicted of first-degree murder would get either a prison sentence of life without parole or a prison sentence of 60 years with the possibility of parole after 51 years.

Kathryn Evans Sinback, who was a defense-attorney advocate for Brown from the beginning, fought vigorously to prevent Brown from being transferred from juvenile detention to an adult jail. She lost that battle, but the documentary shows how the psychiatric evaluations of Brown were crucial to her defense. As Evans Sinback says in the film, “My job is to show the judge that Cyntoia is worth saving.” Evans Sinback, who at the time had to represent juveniles in the juvenile court system, was removed from the case when Cyntoia was transferred to the adult court system.

With a lot of up-close access, the documentary shows Brown’s evaluation sessions with forensic psychiatrist William Bernet and forensic psychologist James Walker in the months before she goes to trial. One of her meetings with Walker includes a Robert’s Apperception Test, where a patient is shown a drawing or a picture and asked to tell what they think is the story behind the picture. Her stories, as shown in the film, involve a lot of negative thoughts about betrayal and mistrust.

The teenage Cyntoia Brown reveals in these evaluation sessions that mood swings are very common for her and that she gets angry when she thinks people are trying to control her or tell her what to do. Viewers also are taken inside the meetings that the defense lawyers have to prepare for the trial, which include discussing with Bernet and Walker the results of Brown’s psychiatric evaluations.

Both doctors say that Brown was a very troubled person, with a mindset full of chaos, anger and paranoia. The consensus was that Brown has a serious personality disorder that required therapy in a residential program. But she was on trial for first-degree murder, and this wasn’t a charge that she could get off the hook for with a light sentence.

How did Brown end up in this mess? Although it’s already been covered in her trial and in the media reports about the case, the documentary shows that Brown had a very dysfunctional background. Her biological mother, Georgina Mitchell, came from a family with a history of alcoholism, mental illness and suicidal acts. Mitchell, who also spent time in prison, got pregnant with Cyntoia at the age of 16.

In the documentary, Mitchell says that she abused alcohol, marijuana and crack cocaine during the pregnancy. She eventually gave up custody of Cyntoia, because she said she couldn’t handle being a single mother. While still a toddler, Cyntoia was fostered and later adopted by Ellenette Brown (a teacher) and Thomas Brown (a truck driver), who is not interviewed or mentioned in the documentary. It’s implied that Ellenette and Thomas Brown eventually got divorced.

The documentary shows that Mitchell didn’t come back into Cyntoia’s life until after Cyntoia was arrested. Part of the reason was because the defense needed information about Cyntoia’s biological family background to explain why Cyntoia turned out the way that she did. The film also shows Mitchell visiting with her own mother, Joan Warren, because Mitchell says that she wants prove to the filmmakers how “crazy” her mother is and how her mother knows how to “push her buttons.” The two women don’t get into any big arguments on camera, but it’s clear that they have a very tension-filled relationship.

Ellenette, the quintessential fiercely loyal mother, says in the documentary that Cyntoia began to rebel as a teenager. She was expelled from public school, and she was enrolled in an alternative school, where she ran away. Cyntoia eventually dropped out of school, and moved out of her parents’ home. In documentary interviews, Cyntoia admits to being a rebellious drug abuser in her teen years and that she sought the wrong kind of attention, particularly from men.

By the time she was 16 years old, when the crime happened, Cyntoia was living in a motel with what she describes in the documentary as her boyfriend-turned-pimp Gary McGlothen, also known as Kut-Throat or Kut, where they would spend most of their time “getting high and having sex.” Cyntoia says that he pressured her to start prostituting herself, which led to her encounter with Allen, who picked her up from the street and took her back to his place.

According to Cyntoia, it was very unusual for her to go to a customer’s home for a prostitution job, since most of what she did as a prostitute took place in motels. She claims that during the encounter with Allen, she was very nervous because no one else knew that she was there, and he intimidated her because he seemed to be very controlling. She says she got even more frightened when he showed her his guns, but she wasn’t frightened enough to leave, because she was hoping he would fall asleep.

And at one point, when they were in bed together, she claims that Allen reached for what she thought was one of his guns, and that’s when she shot him with a gun that she kept in her purse. Courtroom footage shows that assistant district attorneys Jeff Burke and Lisa A. Naylor put a lot of emphasis on the fact that Allen was shot in the back of the head and then robbed by Cyntoia, as proof that it was first-degree murder. Although Cyntoia never denied that she killed Allen, she and her attorneys couldn’t convince a jury that she acted in self-defense. The jury came back with the guilty verdict in just six hours.

One of the core issues of Cyntoia Brown’s appeals in her case was whether or not Tennessee’s laws were too harsh in how juveniles were judged and sentenced in first-degree murder trials. The documentary also mentions that at the time she was convicted of murder, underage children involved in prostitution were treated the same as adults accused of the same crimes, but the law was eventually changed to classify underage children involved in prostitution as victims of child sexual abuse and/or sex trafficking.

The documentary moves along at a deliberate and meticulous pace, showing the dates and locations of each segment of footage. A great deal of time is devoted to courtroom footage (cameras were allowed in the trial, appeals and parole hearings), as well as interviews with the defense attorneys that Cyntoia has had over the years. In addition to Evans Sinback, Cyntoia’s other defense attorneys who are interviewed include Wendy Tucker and Rich McGee (who were the defense attorneys during the trial) and post-trial attorneys Paul Bruno, Charles Bone and J. Houston Gordon.

One of the major arguments in the defense’s appeal was that Cyntoia’s criminal actions were largely because she had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), due to her biological mother’s abuse of alcohol while she was pregnant with Cyntoia. Studies have shown that FASD negatively affects judgment, and a high percentage of criminals have FASD. Cyntoia’s defense attorneys argued that this was crucial evidence that should have been introduced in her trial.

The documentary includes footage of forensic and criminal psychiatrist Richard Adler testifying during Cyntoia’s appeal that he examined her in 2011 and determined that she had FASD. The state of Tennessee countered with the argument that there was no medical proof (only the word of Cyntoia’s biological mother Mitchell) that Cyntoia was born with damaged health due to Mitchell’s alcohol abuse during the pregnancy.

If the conviction couldn’t be overturned, the defense team had the goal to get Cyntoia’s sentence reduced. The defense argued that Cyntoia, who had gotten a college education in prison, was a model prisoner who had greatly matured and had turned her life around. Cyntoia, her lawyers and many of her other supporters said that she was an example of someone who was rehabilitated and worthy of being let out of prison so that she could be a productive member of society.

A series of occurrences converged to create the circumstances that led to the final outcome of the case. First, and perhaps most importantly, after years of being locked up in prison, Cyntoia’s case got international media attention in 2017, when pop star Rihanna started a social-media campaign to get Cyntoia out of prison. The hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown went viral, and other celebrities began publicly supporting the cause, including rapper T.I. and reality TV star Kim Kardashian. These celebrity endorsements were the game-changing catalyst for the case moving forward.

Secondly, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam was leaving office in 2019. He was under pressure to give Cyntoia Brown clemency, as a good-will gesture before leaving office. Whichever side you’re on, the documentary makes it clear that Haslam’s decision had a lot to do with the timing of him leaving office. It’s up to viewers to decide whether or not Haslam’s decision was a political strategy for any future career ambitions he might have.

And what about the dead victim in all of this focus on Cyntoia? The documentary gives less than two minutes of screen time to show Anna Whaley, a family friend of Allen’s, speaking at Cyntoia’s final parole hearing. Whaley says about Cyntoia: “I hope sincerely that God has transformed her life.” She adds, “Johnny’s life mattered.” It’s the only time that the documentary tries to portray Allen as a human being who had a life worth living.

Although the documentary is undoubtedly sympathetic to Cyntoia, it’s clear that her case greatly benefited from celebrities who endorsed her. And although it’s not mentioned at all in the film, you also have to wonder if a lot of people would have cared as much if Cyntoia weren’t an attractive, photogenic young woman. Preston Shipp, a former Tennessee appellate prosecutor who changed his mind about Cyntoia serving out her life sentence and testified on her behalf during a parole hearing, seems to almost have a mild crush on her, by calling her “luminous” in his testimony.

The reality is that for every Cyntoia Brown, there are numerous other people in similar circumstances who don’t have the benefit of media attention or celebrity advocates for their cases. The media and celebrity attention definitely fast-tracked the final outcome of the Cyntoia Brown case. Otherwise, she would probably still be in prison, and director Birman would still be filming this documentary.

Although “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” rightfully gives credit to the defense team that didn’t give up, the documentary could have been a little more honest (and more interesting) if it explored how celebrity connections to fame, power and wealth can profoundly affect the outcome of a criminal case. In that respect, Cyntoia Brown isn’t quite the underdog that the documentary wants her to be by the end of the film.

Netflix premiered “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” on April 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Extraction’ (2020), starring Chris Hemsworth

April 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chris Hemsworth and Rudhraksh Jaiswal in “Extraction” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Netflix)

“Extraction”

Directed by Sam Hargrave

Culture Representation: Taking place in Bangladesh and briefly in Australia and India, the action flick “Extraction” has a predominantly Indian/Bangladeshi cast of characters mostly representing the criminal underworld, with the main character as an Australian visitor serving a dual purpose of being a mercenary and a “white savior.”

Culture Clash: The Australian mercenary goes on a mission in Bangladesh to rescue an Indian drug lord’s kidnapped teenage son, who was abducted because of his father’s feud with a Bangladeshi drug lord. 

Culture Audience: “Extraction” will appeal mostly to Chris Hemsworth fans and people who like high-octane, bloody action without much character development.

Chris Hemsworth and Randeep Hooda in “Extraction” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Netflix)

At this point in Chris Hemsworth’s career (he’s best known for playing Thor in several Marvel superhero movies), he might as well just lean in to being an action hero, since that’s the persona that seems to get the best reaction for him from movie audiences. Hemsworth’s starring roles in serious awards-bait dramas (2013’s “Rush” and 2015’s “In the Heart of the Sea”) have fallen flat. And even though he has a great sense of humor in several of his movies that call for comedic moments, he’s only chosen supporting roles so far for any comedy films that he does.

“Extraction” (not to be confused with the 2015 action flick “Extraction,” starring Bruce Willis) reunites Hemsworth with several key members of the team behind “Avengers: Endgame” and “Avengers: Infinity War”—co-director/co-screenwriter Joe Russo (who wrote the “Extraction” screenplay) and stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave, who makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Extraction.” Joe Russo and his brother Anthony Russo (who co-directed the aforementioned “Avengers” sequels) and Hemsworth are among the producers of “Extraction,” which stars Hemsworth as mercenary Tyler Rake.

It’s a movie that might get compared to “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” (another bloody and violent mercenary movie that’s set in Asia and directed by an American with a stunt coordinator background), but “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is a far superior movie, in terms of screenplay and character development. “Extraction” is based on the 2014 graphic novel “Ciudad” (co-written by Ande Parks, Joe Russo and Anthony Russo), which takes place in Ciudad del Este, Venezuela. In “Ciudad,” the Tyler Rake character has to rescue a kidnapped adult daughter of a Brazilian crime lord.

Most of the story in “Extraction” takes place over just two days, but a lot of action and killings are packed in that short period of time. And yet, with all the murder and mayhem that takes place—a lot of it on public streets—the police either don’t show up or they’re relegated to being ineffectual extras. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The plot for “Extraction” is very basic: Two rival drug lords—Ovi Mahajan Sr. (played by Pankaj Tripathi) from India and Amir Asif (played by Priyanshu Painyuli) from Bangladesh—are the top drug lords in their respective countries. However, Ovi Sr. is in Mumbai Central Prison, and has entrusted his right-hand man Saju (played by Randeep Hooda) to take care of his 14-year-old son Ovi Mahajan Jr. (played by Rudhraksh Jaiswal). Ovi Jr.’s mother is not mentioned in this very male-centric movie, which has only two women with speaking roles.

When Ovi Jr. gets kidnapped in the back alley of a teen nightclub, Ovi Sr. blames Saju and demands that Saju find Ovi Jr., or else Ovi Sr. will have Saju’s young son killed. Saju knows someone who can get the job of finding and rescuing Ovi Jr., but he knows that this mercenary is out of Ovi Sr.’s price range.

That mercenary is Tyler Rake (played by Hemsworth), who’s tracked down in the Kimberley, Australia, where he’s a heavy drinker and opioid pill-popper who lives alone in a messy, ramshackle abode. Tyler also likes to dive off of cliffs and hold his breath underwater for as long as he can while sitting cross-legged, as if he’s doing a combination of a meditation and a daredevil death wish. Viewers find out later in the story why Tyler (whose name isn’t revealed until halfway through the film) is such an emotionally damaged and reckless soul. (It’s the most cliché and over-used reason for lone-wolf antiheroes in action flicks.)

The person who goes to Australia to find out if Tyler will take the assignment is Iranian arms dealer Nik Khan (played by Golshifteh Farahani), who’s written as a glamorous badass who doesn’t reveal much of a personality during the entire movie. It’s a very token female character without any depth or backstory. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t fall into the predictable cliché of making her the love interest (which would be too distracting to the single-minded brutal mission in this movie), although the way that Nik and Tyler sometimes eye each other hints that there might be some sexual tension between them.

Nik spends a lot of time communicating with Tyler remotely, since she’s in a room with colleagues waiting to receive an electronic payment for Tyler’s services, although later Nik finally gets in on some of the physical fight action, where she’s the only woman. The only other woman to have a speaking role in the movie is Saju’s spouse Neysa (played by Neha Mahajan), a small supporting role that is very much the stereotypical “worried wife at home” character that’s seen all too often in action movies.

The opening scene of “Extraction” shows a very bloody Tyler shooting at people with a military gun on a highway bridge with abandoned cars. His injuries are so severe that it looks like he’s ready to pass our or die at any moment. The movie then switches to a flashback to two days earlier, which is when the kidnapping of Ovi Jr. took place in India, and the teenager was then taken to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

It isn’t long before Tyler finds Ovi Jr. and rescues him, in an unrealistic manner of Tyler violently taking down the 10 or so thugs who were tasked with guarding the kidnapped boy in a run-down building. Tyler has some assistance from a remote sniper named Gaetan (played by “Extraction” director Hargrave) and later from an old pal named Gaspar (played by David Harbour), who lets Tyler and Ovi Jr. spends some time hiding out at his place. Saju is also looking to rescue Ovi Jr., who has to make a decision to either go with Saju or stay with Tyler, for reasons what are explained in the movie.

One of the best scenes in the movie is a long sequence of Tyler and Ovi Jr. escaping in a thrilling and very suspenseful car chase. The cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel is top-notch in that scene. But in other scenes where it’s just shootout after bloody shootout, the violence becomes a little too repetitive and unoriginal. And, of course, there’s a predictable double-cross in the film that astute viewers can see coming long before it happens.

The only scene in the movie where there’s any  emotional vulnerability from the adults involved in these killing sprees is the scene were Tyler opens up about his past to Ovi Jr., who spends most of the movie looking terrified. Ovi eventually learns to trust Tyler, and in the course of just two days, Ovi apparently becomes so emotionally attached to this man that he just met that he starts to see Tyler as sort of a father figure.

In a scene where Ovi and Tyler are at Gaspar’s place, Ovi looks at Tyler in awe and asks Tyler why he’s so brave and if he’s ever had to kill people. This is after Ovi Jr. saw some of the carnage that Tyler caused, so clearly this is a kid who doesn’t have common sense if he’s wondering at this point if Tyler kills people. Ovi Jr. is supposed to be the son of a high-ranking drug lord, but he isn’t very “street smart.” In another scene where there’s a big shootout with several abandoned cars on a bridge, Ovi Jr. hides behind a car on the bridge that’s on fire, as if he doesn’t realize that the car could explode at any minute.

There’s a bit of a “white savior” mentality to “Extraction” that might be off-putting to some people. And there are a few scenes of children getting murdered, such as when one of Amir’s thugs throws one of Amir’s underage drug runners off of a roof, which might be too disturbing to watch for sensitive or young viewers. And some of the teenagers in Amir’s gang are sent to do battle with the adults, and let’s just say that things happen, and Tyler ends up calling them “the Goonies from hell.”

The chief villain Amir is written as someone who sends his minions to do his dirty work for him, and he doesn’t talk much in the film. He’s a stereotypical cold-blooded criminal, but there was a missed opportunity for screenwriter Joe Russo to give this character more of a personality. It certainly would’ve made “Extraction” more interesting.

And because almost all the main characters in the movie act like killing machines, there’s almost a video-game quality to “Extraction” that’s disappointing for a feature film that could have been better. The ending of “Extraction” hints that there could be a sequel. If there is a follow-up movie, let’s hope that more attention is paid to developing main characters that people will care about more, instead of making the action sequences the only memorable things about the film.

Netflix premiered “Extraction” on April 24, 2020.