Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Inglemore, Australia, the horror film “Run Rabbit Run” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A divorced fertility doctor is disturbed when she finds out that her tween daughter apparently has psychic abilities that involve reincarnation.
Culture Audience: “Run Rabbit Run” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced and repetitive horror movies with an obvious storyline.
“Run Rabbit Run” is a very stale and unimaginative horror flick that has repetitive and boring scenes of a mother hallucinating and having a bad temper. The story’s “mystery secret” (revealed at the end) is too easy to solve, so there’s hardly any suspense. The movie’s ending is sure to repulse many viewers and seems to only be in the movie for exploitative shock value, not as a meaningful end to a horror story. “Run Rabbit Run” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
Directed by Daina Reed and written by Hannah Kent, “Run Rabbit Run” takes place mostly in Inglemore, Australia, where the movie was filmed on location. A fertility doctor named Sarah Gregory (played by Sarah Snook) is successful in her job, but her personal life has had its share of failures. Sarah is divorced and has primary custody of her daughter Mia (played by Lily LaTorre), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Sarah and Mia live in a house that’s in a fairly isolated prairie-like area.
Sarah’s only other living relative is her widowed mother Joan (played by Greta Scacchi), who is in a nursing facility. It soon becomes obvious that Sarah despises Joan. Sarah’s animosity for Joan runs so deep, Sarah has not let Joan meet Mia. In the beginning of the movie, Sarah has planned for Mia to have a very small birthday party, but Joan is obviously not invited. Joan has sent a birthday card to Mia, but Sarah has intercepted the card and burned it without Mia knowing about it.
Mia says to Sarah about Joan: “I miss her.” Sarah abruptly replies, “Isn’t it hard to miss someone you’ve never met?” Mia replies, “I miss people I’ve never met all the time.” It’s at ths point you know that Mia has psychic ablities. Sarah later comes home to find Mia playing with a stray rabbit. This rabbit becomes a symbol for Sarah’s past and all the things that Sarah would like to forget about Sarah’s past.
Sarah’s ex-husband Pete (played by Damon Herriman) has moved on to a new relationship. He has a live-in girlfriend Denise (played by Naomi Rukavina), who has a son named Toby (played by Hugo Soysa) from a previous relationship. Toby is about 4 or 5 years old. Pete, Denise and Toby sometimes visit Sarah and Mia, so that Mia can spend time with Pete and hang out with Toby.
Pete, Denise and Toby have arrived for Mia’s birthday party. Sarah gets in a bad mood at the party because Pete tells her privately that he and Denise are trying to have a biological child together. Sarah has told many people over the years that she has only wanted one child. When Sarah and Pete were married, he agreed to this “one child only” decision. Apparently, Sarah expected Pete to feel the same way after they got divorced, but he’s obviously changed his mind.
The other reason why Sarah gets in a bad mood is because Toby hits Mia for no good reason. Sarah loses her temper and says to Toby, “You little shit.” Denise is naturally upset that Sarah has used this abusive language on Toby instead of resolving the problem in a more productive manner. Privately, Pete tells Sarah that he agrees with her about Toby: “He is a little shit.”
“Run Rabbit Run” has these types of scenes that don’t really go anywhere and have horrendous dialogue. Mia doesn’t have any friends, so Mia becomes attached to her new pet rabbit. Her mother Sarah seems to be very jealous of anything or anyone whom Mia might pay attention to more than Mia pays attention to Sarah.
Sarah gets rid of the rabbit by putting the rabbit over a fence, but the rabbit bites Sarah very hard on her left hand before she drops the rabbit. Mia witnesses this incident from a house balcony and is so upset that she runs away from home. Sarah finds Mia hiding in the playground tunnel. Mia is wearing a simple rabbit face mask that Mia has cut out of paper. This rabbit mask is supposed to be a creepy aspect of the movie, but it’s just a dreadfully dull visual gimmick.
It doesn’t take long for Sarah to see more signs that Mia has psychic abilities. And what Mia tells Sarah starts to put Sarah over the edge of sanity. This is where the horror clichés in “Run Rabbit Run” really kick into high gear, such as the over-used horror cliché of “the female who is not believed, and people start to think she’s mentally ill.” Sarah starts to get angry at Mia and accuses her of making up stories, while Sarah might be having her own disconnect with reality.
“Run Rabbit Run” might have worked better as a short film. The movie drags on and on and on, when you just know that Mia’s psychic abilities will inevitably lead to Mia talking to or talking about someone who has died. (It’s not spoiler information, because “Run Rabbit Run” is marketed as a ghost story.) Sarah has obviously got some major issues and big secrets, which are revealed at the end of the film.
The acting in “Run Rabbit Run” is nothing special, unless it’s the highlight of your life to watch Snook portray an annoying character looking miserable in a subpar horror movie. The movie’s weakest links are the lackluster screenplay and bland direction. “Run Rabbit Run” completely misses the point of a horror movie, which is to scare people, not be so boring that viewers will want to go to sleep.
Netflix premiered “Run Rabbit Run” on June 28, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, this movie version of the Olivier-winning musical “Matilda the Musical” (which is based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 “Matilda” children’s book) features a predominantly white group of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A highly intelligent, book-loving 5-year-old girl with neglectful parents is sent to a private school, where a caring English teacher becomes her mentor, and the school’s cruel headmistress becomes the girl’s enemy.
Culture Audience: In addition to appealing to the obvious target audience of fans of Dahl and previous “Matilda” adaptations, “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a family-friendly musical with themes of good versus evil and taking a stand against bullying.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” takes the best aspects of the stage production and gives them a vibrant, cinematic version that delivers drama and comedy veering on the cartoonish. It’s a mixture of 1980s gaudiness and traditional British theater that mostly works well, but some viewers will be put off by some of the shrill aspects of this musical. Lashana Lynch’s performance is a delightful standout, for her portrayal of compassionate schoolteacher Miss Honey, one of the movie’s few characters with any real complexity and depth.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” is directed by Matthew Warchus, who won an Olivier Award in 2012, for the West End musical production of “Matilda,” which is based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 book of the same name. Warchus also received a Tony nomination for directing the Broadway musical version of “Matilda.” The first movie version of “Matilda” is a 1996 American (non-musical) comedy, directed by Danny DeVito (who also co-starred in the movie) and starring Mara Wilson in the title role. The songs from the “Matilda” stage musical (with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin) are also in “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.”
The world of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” is set in the 1980s, and it’s filmed like a garish 1980s sitcom, when viewers are first introduced to the selfish low-lifes who will become Matilda’s parents. The movie’s opening scene takes place at a hospital maternity ward in an unnamed city in England. (The song “Miracle” is performed in this scene.)
Mr. Wormwood (played by Stephen Graham) is a ruffian who works as a used-car salesman and welder involved in shady business practices. Mrs. Wormwood (played by Andrea Riseborough) is an egomaniacal makeup artist whose only real passions are ballroom dancing and spending money on herself. Both spouses are not equipped to be good parents. But here they are in the maternity ward, as Mrs. Wormwood is giving birth to what these sleazy spouses hope will be a son.
When Matilda is born, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood’s negative attitude about being parents gets even worse because this child is a girl, not the boy they wanted. Throughout Matilda’s young life, her parents refer to her using male pronouns, as if they can’t accept Matilda’s gender. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are neglectful parents who give Matilda the basics (food and shelter) but not love or proper guidance.
At 5 years old, Matilda (played by Alisha Weir) has learned to be self-sufficient. Matilda also has a mischievous side to her, such as a scene where she puts super glue in her father’s hat, which gets stuck to his head. She has become a voracious reader with the type of intelligence that makes her child prodigy in any subject and could easily put her on the level of genius. Influenced by many of the novels she has read, Matilda has a vivid imagination and can make up elaborate stories.
Matilda escapes from her unhappy home life by regularly spending time with Mrs. Phelps (played by Shindhu Vee), a librarian who owns and operates a bookmobile. In this movie, Mrs. Phelps is unfortunately a very underdeveloped character. Viewers will find out very little about Mrs. Phelps. The main purpose for Mrs. Phelps is for her to become fascinated when Matilda tells her a story (in stops and starts) about an escapologist (played by Carl Spencer) and an acrobat (played by Lauren Alexandra), who work at a circus, fall in love with each other, and experience a tragedy. This story comes to life in various scenes in the movie.
One day, Miss Honey and a school official colleague, who both work at the prestigious Crunchem Hall school, visit the Wormwood household because there is concern for Matilda’s welfare. Matilda has been homeschooled up until this point. Miss Honey tactfully asks Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood if Matilda can go to a traditional school so that she can be around other children. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood say yes, not because it will benefit Matilda, but because they will no longer have to be responsible for educating her, and she will be spending less time at home.
Matilda quickly makes a friend at the school named Lavender (played by Rei Yamauchi Fulker), one of the schoolkid characters in this movie that could have used better character development. Other students who are featured in prominent speaking roles (but very little is revealed about them) are cheeky Eric (played by Andrei Shen), nervous Nigel (played by Ashton Robertson) and eager-to-please Bruce Bogtrotter (played Charlie Hodson-Prior), who gets a big moment in a famously uncomfortable scene involving chocolate cake. Matilda becomes the target of a student bully named Hortensia (played by Meesha Garbett), who is a stereotypical “mean girl.”
But the biggest bully at the school is headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (played by Emma Thompson, wearing hag-like makeup), who is very abusive (physically and verbally), and despises children so much, she often calls them “maggots.” The sign in front of Agatha’s office even says, “Maggots May Not Enter.” Everyone at the school is afraid of Agatha, except for Matilda. As Bruce comments soon after Matilda arrives at Crunchem Hall: “This isn’t a school. It’s a prison.”
Matilda soon stands out for having more academic knowledge than the teachers. Miss Honey is so impressed with Matilda, she tells Agatha that Matilda should be given the curriculum of someone who’s at least 11 years old. A jealous Agatha nixes the idea because she says that Matilda doesn’t deserve special treatment. Matilda soon becomes the focus of Agatha’s rage when Matilda shows that she’s not easily intimidated by this nasty school leader. Agatha is also prejudiced against Matilda because Agatha thinks Matilda’s parents are “gangsters, not intellectuals.”
The rest of the movie plays out exactly like you think it will, even for people who don’t know anything the the “Matilda” story. Thompson’s depiction of Agatha is a very campy, non-stop performance of “fire and brimstone” malevolence. The hairstyling, makeup and costume design are top-notch in in creating this character, and Thompson is certainly very talented, but it’s an entirely one-note portrayal that would have been more interesting if the filmmakers made Agatha’s personality a little less predictable and more nuanced.
The real heart of the story (and the best part of the movie) is the beautiful friendship that develops between Matilda and Miss Honey. Even though Matilda is wise beyond her years, she is still a child who needs positive and helpful adult guidance. Matilda and Miss Honey are kindred spirits who share an avid appreciation of books and a strong sense of personal ethics that includes standing up for people who are being treated unfairly.
In the role of Matilda, Weir makes an impressive feature-film debut as the feisty and resilient Matilda, who manages to charm, even when she’s being a pouty brat. Some of the pacing of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” tends to drag in the middle of the movie. However, the last third of the film is by far the best section and makes up for any of the movie’s flaws. Lynch gives an emotionally stunning version of “My Home,” while Weir’s standout musical solo moment is with “Quiet.” And the “Revolting Children” song-and-dance sequence is an absolute, show-stopping high point.
Unfortunately, other than Matilda and Miss Honey, the characters in this movie are rather two-dimensional. The filmmakers of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” missed an opportunity to create meaningful backstories and more compelling personalities for some of these other characters. The villains in the movie are complete caricatures and therefore entirely formulaic.
The movie also could have taken more time to explore the interpersonal relationships that Matilda has with her fellow students, because what is shown in the movie all looks very rushed and superficial. However, this is a musical that succeeds in most areas and stays true to the overall spirit of the “Matilda” book. “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” is not a masterpiece, but it’s entertaining enough to appeal to many generations and cultures.
Netflix released “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” in select U.S. cinemas on December 9, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 25, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “The Guilty” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A police officer, who has been demoted to 911 operator duties, gets a harrowing phone call from a woman who says she’s in a vehicle and she’s been kidnapped, and the police officer breaks protocol to try to help her.
Culture Audience: “The Guilty” will appeal primarily to people interested in thrillers that have many twists and turns, with some plot developments more believable than others.
Gripping and tension-filled, “The Guilty” succeeds in creating a suspenseful story with good acting, even though some parts of the movie are hard to believe and seem too contrived. Unfolding in “real time,” it’s a story about an intense two-hour period in the life of a police officer while he’s on 911 emergency call operator duties. During the course of the story, he frantically tries to save an adult female caller who claims that her ex-husband has kidnapped her in a vehicle. “The Guilty” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Nic Pizzolatto, “The Guilty” is a remake of the 2018 Danish film “The Guilty” (“Den Skyldige”), which was co-written and directed by Gustav Möller as Möller’s feature-film debut. By most accounts and critics’ reviews, the original Danish movie is better than the American version. However, the American version of “The Guilty” is still a satisfying thriller for anyone who can tolerate a movie where most of it is centered on a not-very-likable protagonist working as an emergency phone operator in a call center.
The American version of “The Guilty” adheres very close to the original story in the Danish version on “The Guilty.” There are some questionable things in the American version that might be more acceptable or overlooked in Denmark because of different laws and policies when it comes to emergency call operators and what cops can and cannot do while on duty. The American movie was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic before a COVID-19 vaccine existed. Because almost the entire setting of the movie is a call center and consists of phone conversations, it turns out those were ideal conditions to film during a pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic.
In the American version of “The Guilty,” Joe Baylor (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a Los Angeles police officer who’s under a great deal of stress. Joe has been assigned 911 call operator duties because he’s been temporarily demoted. And he’s not happy about it. The reason for Joe’s demotion is revealed toward the end of the film. Joe has asthma and uses an inhaler. Not surprisingly, his asthmatic condition is aggravated by all the stress he goes through during the course of the story.
Even without this demotion, it’s obvious from the beginning of the film that Joe is someone with a short temper. When he gets a call from a bicycle rider who injured himself in an accident and has called 911 to request an ambulance, Joe scolds the injured person and tells him not to ride a bike when he’s drunk. And then Joe hangs up. Joe has no proof that the caller is intoxicated. His lack of empathy and the way he jumps to conclusions with anger are indications that he’s a “loose cannon.”
Adding to the stress level at the call center, a wildfire is raging in Los Angeles County, so there’s a shortage of emergency workers who can respond to calls that aren’t related to the fire. The 911 call center has TV monitors tuned into the local news to keep track of the wildfire situation. This wildfire is a plot development that was added to the American version of “The Guilty.”
Joe gets some other calls in the beginning of the movie that show how he’s ill-tempered and impatient with callers. When Joe talks to a male caller who’s having a panic attack, and the caller admits that he’s high on meth, Joe says he’ll send an ambulance as well as police to arrest him. The caller quickly hangs up.
Joe takes another call about a computer stolen from a rental car. He quickly determines that the caller whose computer was stolen was involved in a sex worker transaction that went wrong. Joe concludes that the sex worker probably stole the computer, so Joe is unsympathetic to the theft victim. Throughout the movie, viewers see that Joe cannot be an impartial phone operator and he acts like an investigative cop who reaches his own conclusions when he might not know all the facts.
The first big clue that Joe is involved in a high-profile matter is the movie’s opening scene, when he gets a call on his cell phone from a female Los Angeles Times reporter, who wants to interview him. Joe abruptly tells her that he has no comment, and he hangs up. People who work at call centers generally aren’t allowed to use their cell phones while they’re on duty in the call center, so it’s also the first sign that Joe thinks that the call center’s policies don’t really apply to him.
Joe’s sense of entitlement becomes even more apparent later in the story when Joe goes beyond what a 911 call operator is allowed to do, and he acts like a cop who wants to solve a case and be a hero rescuer. For example, emergency call centers, such as the one depicted in “The Guilty,” usually have a policy of using only the authorized, monitored phones to help a caller. But there’s a scene in the movie when Joe breaks this policy by sneaking off to an empty office room to make secret phone calls that can’t be recorded.
Joe is also standoffish or rude to any of the other 911 operators he interacts with, including a friendly co-worker named Manny (played by Adrian Martinez) and a supervisor named Riva (played by Becky Wu), who seems to just let Joe do what he wants because he’s a cop. The only time that Joe is shown being somewhat nice to his colleagues is when he wants a favor from someone. But even then, it’s only after he finds out that getting angry at them won’t help him get what he wants.
Even though he has a mostly dismissive attitude toward his work colleagues, there is one colleague whom Joe seems to care about: his cop partner Rick (voiced by Eli Goree), whom Joe later describes as his best friend. While Joe is at the call center, he calls his police supervisor Sgt. Bill Miller (voiced by Ethan Hawke) to ask how Rick is doing. What’s wrong with Rick that has gotten Joe so concerned about Rick’s well-being? That answer is also revealed toward the end of the movie.
It’s eventually shown that things aren’t going so well for Joe in his personal life. He’s been separated from his wife Jess (voiced by Gillian Zinser) for the past six months, and he doesn’t get to see their young daughter as often as he would like. Joe seems to want to get back together with Jess, but she’s very reluctant and seems to be fed up with him. During a phone call, Jess tells Joe that she won’t be there for his upcoming court appearance that’s happening the next morning.
Joe’s personal problems temporarily take a back seat when he becomes consumed with the kidnapping call. The female caller identifies herself as Emily Lighton (voiced by Riley Keough), and she says she’s been abducted by her ex-husband, who’s driving the two of them in a white van. Through some quick detective work of looking up the cell phone number that Emily is using, Joe finds out that the ex-husband is named Henry Fisher (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), and Henry has a criminal record.
There’s an additional urgency to this phone call because Emily and Henry have two underage children who are home alone: a 6-year-old daughter named Abby (voiced by Christiana Montoya) and an infant son named Oliver. The biggest problem in locating Emily is that she doesn’t know the license plate number of the van, and she doesn’t know exactly where she is on the road because she says she can’t look out of any of the van’s windows. The rest of the movie is about Joe’s race-against-time in his efforts to save Emily. There are some twists and turns (some more shocking than others) that happen along the way.
“The Guilty” requires some suspension of disbelief when showing Joe as the only person who seems to care the most about finding this alleged kidnapping victim. However, the movie’s plot addition of the wildfire happening at the same time does make it plausible that emergency responders have to give priority to the fire at that time. There are some parts of the movie where Joe steps way over the line of police ethics when he plays judge and jury in his reactions. But when more details about Joe’s personal problems are revealed, it’s actually consistent with his personality and past actions that he acts this way.
Gyllenhaal is the only actor seen on screen for most of the film, so his compelling performance is effective in depicting this anxiety-ridden situation. The voice actors in the cast also perform capably in their roles. The last 15 minutes of the movie cram in a lot of melodrama that might have some viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief. However, stranger things and more melodramatic things have happened in real life, so the movie isn’t completely far-fetched.
After it’s revealed why Joe is going to court, a few questions remain unanswered at the end of the movie, such as: “How or why was Joe allowed to work in law enforcement in this capacity, considering what he’s being accused of in court? And what kind of attorney (it’s presumed that Joe has an attorney) would allow a client to work in this high-stress environment the day before an important court appearance?”
There are some believable explanations, of course. Maybe the police department didn’t want to suspend Joe, for whatever reason, and demoted him instead. And maybe Joe is the type of stubborn person who wouldn’t take an attorney’s advice and thinks he could handle working in a stressful job the day before his court appearance.
As for how realistically “The Guilty” depicts 911 call centers and 911 phone operators, the podcast Real Crime Profile interviewed two real-life former 911 phone operators to get their perspectives of the American version of “The Guilty.” (Spoiler alert: This podcast episode discusses everything that happens in the movie.) These former 911 operators say that “The Guilty” is mostly accurate.
Fuqua (whose directorial credits include “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” movies) and Pizzolatto (the Emmy-nominated creator of HBO’s “True Detective” series) are very familiar with telling stories about law enforcement officers who operate outside the law to solve a case or to get what the cops want. “The Guilty” tells an intriguing story, but some viewers might be bored that most of the movie takes place in one location, and the on-camera action mostly centers on a series of phone calls. People who can appreciate “The Guilty” the most are those who use their imagination, because a lot of the terror is what’s not seen on screen.
Netflix released “The Guilty” in select U.S. cinemas on September 24, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on October 1, 2021.
Some language in Norwegian and Hebrew with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Israel and various countries in Europe, the true crime documentary “The Tindler Swindler” features a nearly all-white group of people (with a few Asians) representing the middle-class, who talk about convicted fraudster Simon Leviev.
Culture Clash: According to the documentary, Leviev has swindled millions from an untold number of victims (three of whom speak out in this film), often by luring women on the dating app Tinder.
Culture Audience: “The Tinder Swindler” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about con artists who use romance as part of the fraud.
“The Tinder Swindler” shows in chilling and heartbreaking details the dark side of meeting strangers through online dating. It’s a cautionary tale about superficial “fairy tale” images that promote style over substance. If you think that real and potential victims like the ones in “The Tinder Swindler” are just a small number of people, then think again.
Think about all the millions of people who consider themselves to be devoted fans of contrived reality dating shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” Think about all the people who have self-esteem problems because they’re constant comparing themselves to others who seem to have better and more glamorous lives on social media. Think about all the women who wish they could be like Princess Diana and Meghan Markle, by marrying a famous and wealthy prince, even if that marriage comes at a heavy price of feeling suicidal because of all the pressure, media intrusion and royal family conflicts. And then maybe you’ll have an idea of how many people could easily be lured into a toxic relationship under certain circumstances.
Directed by Felicity Morris, “The Tinder Swindler” tells a thoroughly fascinating yet infuriating story of how a fraudster named Simon Leviev conned his way into the hearts of gullible women, drained them of their financial assets, and left them heartbroken and heavily in debt. He pretended to be the heir to a diamond fortune. He met his victims (almost all were women) on dating websites and apps, particularly Tinder.
“The Tinder Swindler” doesn’t interview a lot of people, which actually benefits the way this documentary unfolds, because it allows viewers to easily digest the stories of the victims instead of having too many talking heads who would clutter up the narrative. The majority of “The Tinder Swindler” screen time is given to the three victims who are interviewed for this documentary: Cecilie Fjellhøy (originally from Norway and currently living in London); Ayleen Charlotte (originally from Amsterdam and currently living in the Czech Republic); and Pernilla Sjöholm (from Stockholm, Sweden). In their own ways, all three women got revenge on Leviev, but Charlotte’s revenge is perhaps the sweetest.
Also interviewed are three Norwegian journalists who were involved in breaking the story and exposing Leviev and his con games to a worldwide audience: Natalie Remøe Hansen, Kristoffer Kumar and Erlend Ofte Arntsen. One of the best parts of the documentary is the archival footage of the undercover investigation that Hansen did with video and photos. It includes a trip to Leviev’s native Israel and a brief interview with his mother.
Leviev has a certain type of women he lures into his traps the most: Thin, attractive European women who are under the age of 40. He seems to prefer blondes. And his victims aren’t necessarily rich. Many of his victims might be “book smart,” but they don’t appear to be “street smart.” The victims interviewed in the documentary place a high value on loyalty, almost to a fault of being too trusting, which made them blind to seeing how Leviev took advantage of them just a few months after he met them.
Leviev’s modus operandi was very similar with all three of the victims who are interviewed in the documentary: He met them through Tinder. He said he was the son of billionaire diamond mogul Lev Leviev, the founder of LLD Diamonds. Simon claimed to be the CEO of the company. It was all a lie. Simon Leviev is not related to the Leviev family of LLD Diamonds, and he does not come from a rich family.
The documentary shows how Simon even Photoshopped family photos to make it look like he belonged to this wealthy clan. And he had his name legally changed to Simon Leviev to add to the illusion. His birth name is Shimon Yehuda Hayut. He was born in Israel in 1990, and he began conning people in his late teens, according to the documentary. Over the years, he has used aliases such as Michael Biton, Mordechay Tapiro and David Sharon.
Simon wined and dined his victims on elaborate and lavish dates, such as trips on a private jet and vacations at five-star resorts. He complimented them and heaped a lot of attention on them that made them feel good. He bought them high-priced gifts. But what these victims didn’t know until it was too late was that Simon Leviev was using other people’s money for all this courting, in an elaborate Ponzi scheme. And he eventually got them to hand over their own money, and he used that money to court other victims.
How did he get the money? By convincing the women to take out bank loans so they could give the cash to him. For the victims interviewed in the documentary, the stories are eerily similar on how he was able to fool them into giving him what amounted to their entire life savings and other finances. All three of them talk about the “instant connection” they had with him.
First, he “groomed” them with luxurious dates to convince them he was wealthy. But he also said that his work in the diamond industry was dangerous because there were unsavory people in the business, which is why Simon constantly had security employees. One of them was a bodyguard/companion named Peter, whose last name is not mentioned in the documentary.
At one point in Simon’s relationships with his victims, Simon was away in another country and sent them an alarming video of himself and Peter, who are both bloodied and appearing to get medical treatment in an ambulance. In the video, Peter’s injuries seem to be worse, because he has a big, swollen bump on his bald forehead, which looks like a bump that came from an assault. Simon sent the women this video to tell them that he and Peter had been assaulted by “enemies,” and that Peter was able to save Simon’s life.
Because of this assault, Simon told the women that he had to go into hiding, and his bank accounts were now frozen, so that his enemies couldn’t track him. He told his victims to send money to help him, and he promised that he would pay them back after he was able to gain access to his bank accounts. The amounts he asked for from each victim usually totaled in the hundreds of thousands in monetary funds.
How could anyone fall into this trap? Fjellhøy met Simon in 2017, when she was in her mid-20s. At the time she was interviewed for “The Tinder Swindler” documentary in 2021, she was working as an information technology consultant. She says she has a master of arts degree from the University of London. Clearly, this is an educated woman. And even after all she went through with this online dating disaster, Fjellhøy says she still uses Tinder, which she doesn’t blame for being the way that Simon met her and his other victims.
Even with a good education and career, Fjellhøy makes this very telling comment on why she was so vulnerable to this con artist’s charms: She fully admits in the documentary that she has a Disney princess idea of what love should be like for her. Fjellhøy says, “The first memory I have of love is Disney. I memorized the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ cassette … It sticks with you, a bit. I think everyone has a little bit of hope, deep down inside, that [falling in love] will be as magical as they were portraying it to be.”
It’s ironic that “Beauty and the Beast” was her most beloved Disney princess movie, since the movie is about a woman who falls in love with a “beast” who’s in disguise over who he really is. As an example of how Simon was able to charm women, on Fjellhøy’s first official date with him, they flew by private jet from London to Sofia, Bulgaria. Two of the people in the entourage for this trip included the mother of Simon’s daughter and the daughter, whose names are not mentioned and whose faces are not shown in the documentary footage of this trip that Fjellhøy filmed on her phone.
In the documentary, Fjellhøy (who says she quickly fell in love with Simon) describes how when she met Simon in person for the first time in a bar lounge (at a luxury hotel, of course) after chatting online, he told her that he and his ex-girlfriend were co-parenting a 3-year-old daughter. Fjellhøy describes this hotel encounter as a meet-up, not a real first date, to see if they were compatible in person. Fjellhøy says that she didn’t expect that the ex-girlfriend and daughter would be on that first date on the private jet.
However, Fjellhøy’s concerns were eased when the ex-girlfriend told her what a great father Simon was, and Fjellhøy saw that the ex-girlfriend had no bad blood or jealousy that Simon was dating someone new. Later in the documentary, this ex-girlfriend’s history with Simon is revealed. And although this history might be shocking to some viewers, it actually shows how skilled Simon is at charming women.
Of the three victims interviewed in the documentary, Fjellhøy is the most forthcoming about what she does for a living and her background. She’s also the only one to say that she had friends who warned her to be careful because Simon could be a con artist. Charlotte has a background working in the luxury goods industry, so she knew the value of the authentic designer items that Simon owned. It’s unclear from the documentary what Sjöholm does to make money. Sjöholm will only say that she’s been “independent” since she was 16 years old. Media reports about Sjöholm describe her as a “business owner.”
However, all three women make it clear that they are middle-class, not wealthy, and that Simon ruined them in more ways than just taking their money. He obviously violated their trust and made them question their self-worth and intelligence after they found out the awful truth. But all three women were responsible in some way for exposing Simon and getting as much justice as they could for what he did to them.
Not all of Simon’s victims were romantically involved with him. Sjöholm says that the first time she met Simon in person, they both knew that they would just be friends. She was invited into his “inner circle” and treated to the same lavish trips and gifts as the women whom Simon was dating. Sjöholm also befriended a Russian model named Polina (whose last name is not mentioned in the documentary), who was one of many women whom Simon was dating at the time. Sjöholm says in the documentary: “I don’t need a man to take care of me, but I would appreciate a man to share my life.”
Charlotte doesn’t appear in the documentary until the last third of the film, because her way of finding out that Simon is a con artist was different from the way that Sjöholm and Fjellhøy discovered his lies and fraudulent schemes. In many ways, Charlotte’s story is the most fascinating of the three because she was involved with Simon for a year-and-a-half, and she saw sides of him that the other two women didn’t see. One side of his personality that all of them saw was his cold and nasty side, when their relationships with Simon turned sour, and he started to threaten them and their loved ones if they didn’t give him money.
No one from law enforcement is interviewed in “The Tinder Swindler.” And when you find out how much Simon got away with in real life, it’s easy to see why no one from the appropriate law enforcement would want to face documentary filmmakers’ tough questions about him. However, the victims who are interviewed in this documentary tell a great deal about what happened to them. All three victims have ways of telling their stories that are never boring. They are also candid about the criticism they’ve received from people (mostly online bullies) who’ve called them gold diggers and fools.
As for “Tinder Swindler” Simon Leviev, who declined to participate in the documentary, he continues to deny all accusations against him. The documentary’s epilogue includes an angry voice mail recording of Simon making threats to “The Tinder Swindler” filmmakers. Even without his participation, “The Tinder Swindler” gives further insight into how he operates through archival video footage and audio recordings of Simon—as well as his email, text messages and hand-written communication—that were saved by some of his victims. An actor named Joe Stassi portrays Simon Leviev in the documentary’s re-enactments. Simon claims that the money he took from his victims were “gifts.” It’s easy to see from this documentary who is credible and who is not.
Netflix premiered “The Tinder Swindler” on February 2, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. town of Corallis, the dramatic film “Intrusion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one person of Indian heritage and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After a married couple experiences a terrifying and deadly home invasion, the wife begins her own investigation into why this break-in happened.
Culture Audience: “Intrusion” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in mystery thrillers that follow a predictable formula and have too many moments of ridiculousness to be considered high-quality entertainment.
“Intrusion” is a mystery crime drama that’s so lazy and mediocre, it’s too easy to figure out who’s the chief villain, long before the movie is over. The only memorable things about “Intrusion” are some of the ludicrous and unbelievable scenes that some viewers might consider unintentionally funny. The film’s climactic showdown scene permanently sinks “Intrusion” into the cesspool where vapid and generic thrillers are quickly forgotten.
Directed by Adam Salky, “Intrusion” has very little flair, wit or charisma. And that includes the non-existent chemistry between Freida Pinto and Logan Marshall-Green, who play the married couple at the center of the story: Meera Parsons and Henry Parsons. Meera (who’s a therapist) and Henry (who’s an architect) have been married to each other for 12 years. They have recently moved into their dream home that Henry built for Meera.
The house is in a fictional American small town called Corallis, which has a mix of working-class and middle-class people. Moving to a small town is quite an adjustment for this couple. Meera, who is originally from India, met Henry when they used to live in Boston. Meera and Henry have also had a big challenge in their marriage: Meera is recovering from breast cancer, which is currently in remission.
One evening, shortly after moving into their new house, Meera and Henry have dinner together at a nearby restaurant. When they come home, they immediately see that their living room and study have been ransacked. When an investigating cop named Detective Steven Morse (played by Robert John Burke) shows up to take the crime report, Henry tells him that two cell phones and a laptop computer were stolen from the home. Detective Morse remarks that if Henry designed the house himself, then Henry should’ve also installed a security system.
Not long after the break-in, Meera has an appointment with her oncologist Dr. Burke (played by Denielle Fisher Johnson), who has some good news for Meera: The test results came back for a lump that Meera felt on one of her breasts, and the lump was scar tissue, not cancer that returned. Dr. Burke can see how Meera’s cancer recovery has been taking a toll on Meera’s emotional well-being, so she recommends that Meera see a therapist, but Meera dismisses this advice. She tells the doctor that her husband Henry provides all the emotional support that she needs.
Dr. Burke also mentions that she heard about the break-in, and she’s concerned this invasive crime might cause extra stress for Meera, who is very surprised that Dr. Burke knows about the break-in. “It’s a small town,” Dr. Burke explains. Meera will soon find out that there’s a lot she has to learn about Corallis.
Trust and uncovering secrets are recurring themes in “Intrusion.” Meera had made her appointment with Dr. Burke without telling Henry. And when Henry finds out about it, he gets annoyed, and he lectures Meera about how they shouldn’t keep secrets from each other. They have a little tiff over this issue, but it’s not an argument that causes a big rift in their relationship.
Meera’s and Henry’s lives change forever one night, when three intruders break into their home—and not everyone makes it out alive. The first sign that something is wrong is when there’s an electrical power outage in the home. Henry checks the power generator outside, and he sees that it has been deliberately damaged. When he goes back in the house, he’s shocked to find that Meera has been tied up by intruders, who are not in the room.
Henry quickly unties Meera. He gets a gun and fights off the intruders, who are three other men, and they have an attack dog with them. Meanwhile, Meera jumps from a second-floor balcony to go outside to her car to try to escape. She hears gunshots coming from inside the house. And the next thing you know, one of the men appears in front of her with the dog, but he’s shot and immediately killed by Henry.
It’s later revealed that Henry also shot the two other intruders inside the house. Two of the intruders are now dead, while the other has survived and is in the local hospital’s intensive care unit. Who were these three intruders? They all come from the same family: Paul Cobb (played by Antonio Valles) and his younger brother Colby Cobb (played by Brandon Fierro), both in their 20s, are the ones who were shot dead. Their father Dylan Cobb (played by Mark Sivertsen) is the one who is severely injured in the hospital.
Because Corallis is a small town with a small police department, Detective Morse is on this home invasion case too. He tells Meera and Henry that the Cobbs are related to Christine Cobb, a freshman at a community college, who has been missing for several weeks. Christine is Dylan’s daughter and the sister of Paul and Colby. After the police investigate the crime scene and take statements from Meera and Henry, it’s determined that Henry acted in self-defense, so he’s not charged with any crimes.
As upsetting and traumatic as this home invasion was, Henry still wants to go ahead with the housewarming party that he and Meera had planned for the following evening. Meera is reluctant to have the party, but Henry insists that the best way to deal with the trauma is to not let it disrupt their lives. Even though Meera is grateful that Henry saved their lives, she’s upset that Henry secretly had a gun that she didn’t know about until this home invasion happened.
The police are investigating why Henry and Meera were targeted for these two break-ins, but the police investigation is not enough for Meera. She begins looking for clues on her own, starting with what she can find around the house when Henry isn’t home. Meera suddenly acts like a private detective when certain clues lead her to some of the seedier areas in town. It isn’t long before Meera does some trespassing and break-ins herself, in her growing obsession to find out the truth.
There’s a scene at a trailer park where Meera is confronted by a local lowlife named Clint Oxbow (played Clint Obenchain), who catches her snooping around. It’s an example of one of many scenes in “Intrusion” that will have viewers giggling or groaning at the absurdity of it all. The clues in this mystery lead to a very predictable answer. By the time the big reveal happens in a very clumsily written and poorly executed scene, a lot of viewers who already had the mystery figured out will probably be very unimpressed. The cast members give very average or subpar performances.
Between the too-obvious clues and the short list of possible suspects, “Intrusion” offers very little suspense. The movie might have risen above its mediocrity if the main characters were more engaging. Unfortunately, Meera and Henry are so boring and emotionally awkward as a couple, viewers will have a hard time believing that Meera and Henry are supposed to be each other’s best friend. “Intrusion” gives everything the “blah” treatment, including the marital relationship and the mystery that are supposed to be at the heart of the story.
Netflix premiered “Intrusion” on November 22, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Greece, England and Italy, the dramatic film “The Lost Daughter” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A British woman, who works as a comparative Italian literature professor, goes on vacation in Greece, where she has flashbacks of her troubled background as a young mother, after she encounters a young mother from a boisterous Italian American family who are staying in the same vacation villa spot.
Culture Audience: “The Lost Daughter” will appeal primarily to fans of star Olivia Colman and expertly acted psychological dramas.
“The Lost Daughter” upends the stereotype that mothers depicted in movies are supposed to think that parenthood is the greatest thing that ever happened to them. Much of the discontent in the movie has to do with doubts and insecurities that mothers have when they find out that motherhood doesn’t make them as happy as they were taught to believe it would. The movie might start off looking like a mystery thriller, but it’s really a psychological drama that takes viewers inside the restless and uneasy mind of woman during a tension-filled vacation and how she affects other people around her. Olivia Colman anchors the movie with a memorable and intriguing performance.
“The Lost Daughter” is the feature-film directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who wrote the adapted screenplay, which is based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, but the movie changes the nationalities of the main characters and the coastal vacation setting from Italy to Greece. “The Lost Daughter” benefits from cinematic elements (such as production design and music) that very much enhance the mood and emotions conveyed in the story. Just like in the book, the movie centers on a vacation that is fraught with some psychological torment and guilt over motherhood issues.
In “The Lost Daughter,” Colman portrays Leda Caruso, a 48-year-old university professor of comparative Italian literature. Leda is originally from England: She grew up in Leeds and currently lives in Cambridge. Leda is on vacation in Greece, where she is renting a villa during this trip. (In “The Lost Daughter” book, Leda is an Italian native who is a university professor of English and vacationing in Italy.)
Leda is divorced with two adult daughters: 25-year-old Bianca and 23-year-old Martha, who are not seen in the movie but whose voices can be heard when they talk to Leda on the phone. Ellie James is the voice of the adult Bianca, while Isabelle Della-Porta is the voice of the adult Martha. At different points in the movie, Leda has flashbacks to when her daughters were underage children. In these flashbacks, Jessie Buckley plays young Leda, Robyn Elwell plays Bianca at approximately 7 or 8 years old, and Ellie Mae Blake plays Martha at about 5 or 6 years old.
Leda is looking forward to spending some quiet and relaxing time alone on this vacation. Two of the first people she meets are Lyle (played by Ed Harris), the middle-aged caretaker of the villa where’s staying, and Will (played by Paul Mescal), an Irish college business student who works at the resort during the summer as a lifeguard and general handyman. Lyle and Will are both friendly and accommodating. Lyle mentions that he’s been the villa’s caretaker for the past 30 years.
Leda’s plans for a tranquil holiday become disrupted when her vacation becomes anything but quiet and relaxing. Not long after Leda finds a space on a beach to settle down and get some sun, a large and very loud Italian American family shows up and interrupts Leda’s peace and quiet. There are about 12 to 15 people in this group of raucous newcomers.
Two of them are a married couple named Callie (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and Vassili (played by Panos Koronis), who ask Leda to move out of her spot on the beach to make room for some people in the group. Leda firmly says no. In response, a young man in the group calls Leda a derogatory and sexist name that rhymes with “punt.” Callie and Vassili walk away, visibly annoyed with Leda.
Needless to say, Leda and this family do not make a good impression on each other. From where Leda sits on the beach, she observes this family. Leda notices a strikingly good-looking couple who’s part of the group: They are Callie’s younger sister Nina (played by Dakota Johnson) and Nina’s husband Toni (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who seem to have a passionate marriage, based on their public displays of affection. Nina and Toni have a daughter with them named Elena (played by Athena Martin Anderson), who’s about 5 years old.
Shortly after the awkward encounter with Leda, Callie approaches Leda again on the beach. This time, it’s to make an apology for the family being so rude. Callie brings a piece of cake as a peace offering, and she asks Leda about herself. Leda doesn’t really seem interested in making friends with anyone on this trip, but she reluctantly answers the questions, such as where she’s from and what she does for a living.
During this conversation, Callie is talkative and friendly. Callie says her family is from New York City, but they have other family members who’ve lived in this part of Greece for “300 years.” She mentions that she’s 42 years old and seven months pregnant with her first child, which the family already knows will be a girl. This talk abut motherhood makes Leda visibly uncomfortable. Leda comments to Callie: “Children are a crushing responsibility.”
During her observation of this family on the beach, Leda notices that Elena shows a strong attachment to a girl doll that Elena carries around. Elena also shows signs of possibly disturbed behavior because she bites the doll in an unusually aggressive manner. The doll and what happens next to Elena end up being the catalyst for most of what triggers Leda’s memories and actions during this trip.
While the family’s adults are partying on the beach, Elena suddenly goes missing. A frantic search ensues that takes a few hours, but Leda ends up finding Elena by herself in a wooded area near the beach. When Leda brings Elena back to her family, Leda is treated like a hero. But deep inside, Leda doesn’t feel like a hero.
That’s because Elena’s disappearance reignites a painful memory of when Leda’s elder daughter Bianca went missing on a beach when Bianca was about the same age as Elena. This memory and other things that happened in Leda’s past are presented as flashbacks in the movie. And that’s when it’s revealed that Leda didn’t really enjoy being a mother very much.
Slowly but surely, viewers find out how Leda was as a mother to two young children; what led to the demise of Leda’s marriage to her husband Joe (played by Jack Farthing); and what happened when a young Leda was accepted into grad school at a university in Italy. Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband Peter Sarsgaard has a supporting role as Professor Hardy, a charismatic professor of an Italian literature class that Leda took when she was in grad school.
Colman gives a compelling performance as Leda, who seems brittle on the outside but has emotional vulnerabilities on the inside. Elena’s doll and what happens to it are symbolic of clinging to youthful memories. As Leda’s memories from the past come flooding back, she also becomes increasingly caught up in what’s going in Nina’s life and the distress that’s caused when Elena’s doll goes missing.
At one point, Will warns Leda that Nina and her family are “bad people.” How dangerous are they? Leda finds out at least one big secret about Nina, who remains somewhat of a mystery throughout the entire movie. Buckley’s portrayal of a young Leda gives a necessary emotional depth to the older Leda, who wants to keep her inner turmoil hidden from the world.
“The Lost Daughter” is best enjoyed by audiences if people know from the beginning that this isn’t a movie filled with big action scenes or with any obvious villains. It’s a searing portrait of how one woman reflects on how she handled motherhood and how her personal encounters with another mother often feels like an eerie and upsetting reminder of the past. The title of the movie refers to a child who goes missing in two separate parts of the story, but the overall emotional arc is how a woman finds parts of herself that she wants to lose or forget.
Netflix released “The Lost Daughter” in select U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021. The movie premieres on Netflix on December 31, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the late 1920s, the dramatic film “Passing” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Two African American women, who were friends in high school, see each other for the first time in years and find out that they are living two very different lives: One of the women lives as her true identity as a black woman, while the other woman passes herself off as white.
Culture Audience: “Passing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about how racial identity affects people’s perceptions about themselves and about other people.
If you could live your life identifying as another race, would you do it? It’s a question that viewers will inevitably have when watching the dramatic film “Passing,” where racial identity is used as both a weapon and as a shield, depending on the individual and the racial identity that the person presents to the world. Social class and sexuality are other identities that “Passing” shows can be used to confine or liberate people. A talented cast and steady direction from Rebecca Hall bring a cinematic vibrancy to this fictional story from the 1920s, but it’s a story that applies to many people’s lives in the past, present and future.
“Passing,” written and directed by Rebecca Hall, is Hall’s feature-film directorial debut. She adapted the movie from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Larsen based the novel on her own experiences as a biracial person (her father was African American and her mother was Dutch), who was raised by her mother and white stepfather. Hall (who is British) also has “passing as white” in her family history: Hall’s maternal grandfather was an African American who passed himself off as white, according to the “Passing” production notes and according to what Hall has said in interviews.
“Passing” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Although the “Passing” novel and the movie are set the late 1920s, many of the same social constructs exist today. Most societies still expect biracial or multiracial people to choose just one race to identify with the most. And white supremacy still makes people think that the “whiter” someone is, the more “superior” that person is, and therefore more entitled to the best things that life has to offer.
It’s why in the story of “Passing,” when two African American women who were friends from high school, see each other for the first time in about 12 years, one of them has decided to live her life as a white woman. It’s a sweltering day in New York City when Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) stops by the restaurant of the upscale Drayton Hotel to cool off and have some lunch. Irene is a light-skinned black woman who considers herself to be a cultured and classy, but she knows that as long as people know that she is black, she won’t be allowed into certain places, such as this hotel whose guests are white people.
Therefore, when Irene is out in public, she tends to wear outfits (such as a hat that’s worn low enough to obscure much of her eyes) and talk a certain way so that people assume that she might be white. She doesn’t deny that she’s black, but she lets people think that she’s white if it helps her get through her day a lot easier. Irene lives in New York Cit’s Harlem neighborhood with her doctor husband Brian (played by André Holland) and their two sons Junior (played by Ethan Barrett) and Ted (played by Justus David Graham). Junior is about 10 or 11, whle Ted is about 8 or 9.
At the Drayton Hotel’s restaurant, Irene sees another woman sitting by herself at a table nearby. They look at each other, almost like they’ve just seen a ghost from their past. The other woman is Clare Kendry Bellew (played by Ruth Negga), who was a close friend of Irene’s when they were both in high school. Irene and Clare haven’t communicated with each other in the approximately 12 years since they’ve seen each other. They’re about to find out how their lives have gone down different paths.
After Clare and Irene greet each other and make small talk, Clare says that she’s visiting from Chicago. Clare is married to businessman named John Bellew (played by Alexander Skarsgård), and they have a daughter together named Marjorie, who is not on the trip with them and who is never seen in the movie. Clare proudly announces to Irene that John is white, and that they are raising their daughter as white. Clare also mentions that she was worried before Marjorie was born what shade the child’s skin color would be.
And there’s something else: John doesn’t know that Clare is not white. Clare was raised by her white aunts, which is one of the reasons why it was easy for her to conceal her true racial identity from John. Clare smugly comments on the burden of lying to her husband and many other people about her true racial identity: “All things considered, it was worth the price.”
When Irene says that she’s married to a black man who’s a doctor, Clare laughs in a surprised and condescending way. It’s as if Clare can’t believe that Irene chose to marry a black man with the knowledge that by doing so, Irene’s life would be harder. Irene asks Clare with some curiosity and envy if Clare is happy. Clare gloats, “Of course! I have everything I wanted!”
Shortly after this somewhat awkward reunion, John joins Clare at the restaurant table. Because this restaurant’s customers are white people and because Clare is talking to Irene, John incorrectly assumes that Irene must be white. He tells Irene that Clare dislikes black people so much that Clare won’t even have black maids. And in case it wasn’t clear that John is a racist, he says the “n” word during this conversation.
Clare smiles and agrees with John, without seeming to care how this conversation might be hurting Irene, who is too polite to object to all the racist talk in the conversation. However, it’s clear from the expression on Irene’s face that she’s feels hurt and betrayed. And so, when the conversation ends with Clare saying that they should keep in touch, Irene can barely hide the look of disbelief at Clare’s blatant phoniness.
At home, Irene tells her husband Brian about this uncomfortable encounter. He’s appalled, and he advises Irene to completely distance herself from Clare if Clare tries to get in touch with Irene again. At first, Irene takes that advice by ignoring the apology letter that Clare sends to her.
But one day, Clare shows up at Irene’s home unannounced and uninvited. This time, Clare says that she’s traveled to New York City for an extended visit without her husband and child. Clare is able to charm her way back into Irene’s life, with results that neither woman expects.
“Passing” is a “slow burn” movie where the pacing might be too sluggish for some viewers. But as a psychological drama, the movie is fascinating. It might be worth it to watch the movie more than once to pick up on subtle clues that might not have been noticed during the first viewing.
During Clare’s extended visit, she spends most of her time in Harlem, where she is introduced to Irene and David’s social circle. Viewers find out that when in Clare and Irene were in high school, Clare was considered to be prettier, more glamorous and more charismatic than reserved and introverted Irene, who often felt overshadowed by Clare. Those same dynamics start to repeat themselves as Clare starts to become the center of attention at social gatherings that she attends with David and Irene.
Things get complicated because of an unspoken romantic attraction that Irene seems to have for Clare that apparently existed since they knew each other in high school. Clare drops big hints in conversations that her own sexuality is fluid, while Irene seems to also be somewhere on the queer spectrum but is definitely in the closet about it. Any sexual attraction between the two women seems to be mostly on Irene’s part, based on the furtive, longing glances that she gives to Clare when Irene thinks no one else is looking.
Clare, who is extremely vain and manipulative, seems to sense this attraction and uses it to her advantage. It should come as no surprise when Clare starts flirting with Irene’s husband Brian, who seems attracted to Clare too. It puts Irene in a difficult situation because she doesn’t want to react too strongly by sending Clare away. After all, Irene still wants Clare to be around because Irene is attracted to Clare.
Meanwhile, Irene and Brian have disagreements over how to teach their sons about the dangers of white supremacist racism. Brian thinks that the boys should know about this harsh reality as soon as possible to prepare them for the real world. Irene thinks that the boys are too young to know, and that this type of knowledge will ruin what she thinks should be the boys’ happy childhoods.
For example, when there’s a newspaper report about a black man being lynched, Brian wants to talk about it with the kids, while Irene vehemently objects. They argue about it. Brian gets so frustrated with Irene that he blurts out to her: “I don’t understand how as intelligent you are, you can be so stupid!”
Over time, it becomes obvious that although Clare is lying about her racial identity to certain people, Irene is in a type of denial of her own—not just about her sexuality, but also about how her children will be treated as black people in a society that enables, teaches, and encourages white supremacy. Clare’s presence is a reminder to Irene about the extreme lengths that people will go to kowtow to a white racist mentality.
However, what Irene doesn’t expect is that Brian, who seemed to be all about black pride and who previously disapproved of Clare, is starting to grow closer to Clare. As for Clare, it’s eventually revealed that her so-called “perfect” life with her husband John isn’t so perfect after all. Clare’s lies about her racial identity have affected her a lot more than what she originally told Irene.
“Passing” has a few other characters in the movie who are mostly there as people who are part of Irene and David’s social life. Hugh (played by Bill Camp) is a white bachelor who is among the well-to-do white people who think it makes them look “cool” to hang out with black people in Harlem, but the same black people would never be invited into these white people’s homes. Hugh is a big gossip who likes making sarcastic observations about people.
Another person in the movie’s party scenes is black man named Ralph Hazleton (played by Amos Machanic), whose dance partners are often white women. Ralph often gets mentioned as an example when Hugh and other people at these parties talk about dark-skinned black men who attract white women. When Hugh asks Irene if she thinks Ralph is handsome, she says no but that Ralph is “exotic.” It’s left up to viewer intepretation to think if Irene really believes that or she just said something that she thought Hugh wanted to hear.
These are all just side characters to the main focus of the story, which is about Clare and Irene’s rekindled friendship and how it starts to affect Irene’s marriage to David. “Passing” could have taken a predictable melodrama route by turning this story into a love triangle involving screaming arguments or women catfighting over a man. But the movie has a low-key approach that is more about repressed feelings, with fear bubbling under the surface that secrets might be revealed.
Negga rises to the challenge of depicting Clare, who could be completely unlikable, as a complex character who is neither a hero nor a villain but someone who masks her insecurity with a “bon vivant” personality that can shapeshift to whatever can get Clare what she wants. When Clare sees that Irene is happily married and that Irene doesn’t have the burden of pretending to be another race, Clare wants some of that happiness too.
Thompson gives Irene an aura of someone who is used to being hurt but is trying to hold on to whatever dignity that she has when she’s in situations that cause her emotional pain. It’s why she’s reluctant to confront people or cause a scene. And it’s why she wants to delay as much as possible how and when her sons find out about the evils of racism.
“Passing” was filmed in black and white, using 4:3 aspect ratio, which was the standard aspect ratio for movies of the 1920s and 1930s. The movie admirably recreates a lot of other characteristics of the era, such the costume design, production design and music. Thompson’s body language and speech patterns as Irene seem particularly calibrated to embody someone from that era who wants to be a highly respected society woman, no matter who is with her. Irene is not someone who talks one way with white people and another way with black people. Clare, who comes from a higher-income household than Irene does, is the one who seems coarser and less refined than Irene when Clare is around other African Americans.
What the cast members and Hall are able to achieve with this film is more than commentary about people’s attitudes when it comes to race, social class or sexuality. By the end of the movie, audiences will understand that “Passing” is ultimately about truth telling about ourselves and other people. And telling the truth can sometimes have dangerous consequences when people are invested in perpetuating lies or keeping secrets.
Netflix released “Passing” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 10, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana in 1925, the dramatic film “The Power of the Dog” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A bullying rancher, who is secretly gay and who comes from a wealthy family, tries to make life miserable for his younger brother’s new wife and her young adult son from a previous marriage.
Culture Audience: “The Power of the Dog” will appeal primarily to fans of star Benedict Cumberbatch, filmmaker Jane Campion and well-made Westerns where the challenges are more psychological than physical.
“The Power of the Dog” gives an unflinching and riveting portrait of toxic masculinity, homophobia and family tensions. Even though the movie is set in 1925 Montana, the themes are universal and timeless. Written and directed by Jane Campion (who adapted the movie from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name), “The Power of the Dog” is a masterfully made film on every level. Many parts of the movie are not easy to watch, but unless you have a heart of stone or only want to watch mindless junk movies, it’s nearly impossible not to be affected in some way after seeing “The Power of the Dog.”
The story of “The Power of the Dog” essentially centers on four people, who end up being caught up in a maelstrom of mistrust and hard feelings. There are varying degrees of love and fear that drive the motives behind these characters’ actions and words. The four characters who are the focus of the story are:
Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the aggressive alpha male rancher, who seems ultra-skilled at almost everything except staying in a healthy and loving relationship.
George Burbank (played by Jesse Plemons), Phil’s mild-mannered younger brother, who is the opposite of Phil in almost every way.
Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst), the widow restaurateur who becomes of one the targets of Phil’s scorn, especially after Rose marries George.
Peter Gordon (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the sensitive, young adult son from Rose’s first marriage, who also gets Phil’s wrath because Peter is unapologetically effeminate.
Many other characters come and go in “The Power of the Dog,” but the most interesting and best parts of the movie are about the four main characters. Campion (who is also one of the movie’s producers) wisely pared down the “Power of the Dog” novel by choosing the parts that have the most cinematic impact. If everything in the book had been adapted to the screen, the “The Power of the Dog” would’ve been a miniseries, not a feature-length movie.
Still, the deliberately slow pacing in the beginning of the movie might be a bit of a turnoff to people with short attention spans. The first third of the movie takes place before Rose and George get married. She’s the sole owner/manager of a small eatery called the Red Mill restaurant, which is her only source of income since her first husband, Dr. John Gordon, passed away. Dr. Gordon was a loving husband and father, by all accounts. Peter helps out at the restaurant as a waiter/busboy.
Phil (who is in his mid-40s) and George (who’s in his early-to-mid 30s) come from a wealthy rancher family and live together on the family’s expansive ranch property in Montana. (“The Power of the Dog” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Their parents are both deceased. Phil (a never-married bachelor) is in charge of the ranch, where he shows off his cowboy skills to his underlings. Phil oversees the ranch’s day-to-day manual operations, while the better-educated George handles the ranch’s business affairs. But if push came to shove, everyone knows that Phil is really the boss of the ranch.
Phil isn’t just talented at ranch responsibilities. He also plays the banjo, which he learned how to play with ease and speed beyond what the average person would be able to do. Later in the movie, Phil uses his banjo playing as a weapon to emotionally torment Rose. Because Phil is so multi-talented and has a charismatic side (he’s well-known for enrapturing people with his storytelling), he gets away with a lot of appalling things with people who seem to both admire and fear him.
Rose and Peter (who’s in his early 20s) are still grieving over the loss of Dr. Gordon, but they do what they can to survive in an often-harsh world. They experience some of this harshness when Phil and his rancher cronies come into the restaurant and put their toxic masculinity on full display. Phil is a bully who likes to taunt and insult people he thinks are vulnerable, just so he can feel superior to them.
Phil makes obnoxious and cruel comments to Rose and Peter while he’s a customer at the restaurant. Phil’s rancher buddies just laugh and do nothing to stop Phil. These weak-willed enablers often join in on Phil’s bullying. One day, at the restaurant, Phil’s bad behavior becomes potentially dangerous, when he deliberately sets fire to a bouquet of paper flowers that’s on display on the restaurant table. The fire doesn’t spread to cause any significant damage. However, this arson is the first sign that Phil has destructive tendencies.
During this restaurant meal, Phil leads a group toast to his deceased best friend Bronco Henry, who died in 1904 at the age of 50. Bronco Henry (who is not seen in flashbacks) is described as a mentor to Phil. As time goes on, there’s a pivotal scene in the movie that reveals that Bronco Henry was more than a best friend/mentor to Phil. It’s the scene that reveals that Phil is gay and in the closet about his true sexuality. It’s left open to intepretation if Phil and Bronco Henry had a sexual relationship, but it’s clear from this scene that Phil was in love with Bronco Henry.
Until that scene happens, the movie drops big hints that Phil’s homophobia is masking his own self-hatred about being gay. The biggest indication is in how Phil zeroes in on Peter for Phil’s worst bullying. Peter, who is shy and very intelligent, is contemplating going to medical school. He has no interest in a job that would require athletic prowess. Therefore, Phil delights in calling Peter a “sissy” and other derogatory names so that Phil can let it be known to everyone that he thinks Peter is probably gay.
Peter’s sexuality is not identified or defined in “The Power of the Dog,” because Peter doesn’t state what his sexuality is, and he doesn’t show interest in dating anyone at this point in his life. Peter is definitely a “mama’s boy” though, and his mother is very protective of him. Having an annoying and homophobic customer who comes into the restaurant is one thing. Having him become part of Peter’s family is another.
And so, it’s with growing dread that Peter (who does voiceover narration in the movie) notices that Phil’s younger brother George has taken a romantic interest in Peter’s lonely mother Rose. George is very smitten with Rose. The feeling isn’t mutual, but she likes George enough to entertain his amorous attention.
There’s an ulterior motive for Rose to consider marrying George: She needs money to pay for Peter’s medical school fees. Her restaurant is also struggling, and she wouldn’t have to work outside the home anymore if she married this wealthy rancher. Rose appreciates that George is kind to her, but she doesn’t have the same romantic passion for him that he does for her. She’s also living in an era when a woman’s financial stability depends largely on what kind of man she marries.
Peter isn’t the only one who doesn’t really want Rose to marry George. Phil tries to discourage George from marrying Rose. During a private conversation between the two brothers, Phil reminds George that they’ve had fun together when they visit prostitutes. Phil also warns George about not being seduced into paying the “nancy boy’s” medical school fees. George is undeterred in his pursuit of Rose because he’s truly in love with her.
Under these circumstances, it doesn’t take Rose long to decide she’s going to marry George. Rose and George have a whirlwind courtship, they get married, and she and Peter move to the Burbank family ranch. It’s during this life transition that things start to get ugly for Rose and Peter. George is often away on business, so he’s at first oblivious to what goes on at the ranch when he’s not there. And he’s sometimes clueless about the trouble that’s brewing, even when he’s at the ranch.
Because of George’s trusting nature, he lives life in an open and transparent way. By contrast, Phil is very secretive and highly manipulative. Phil sees life almost like a chess game where he always has to end up as the winner. George tends to dismiss the bad things that he hears about Phil, partly because Phil is his only sibling (and closest living relative) and partly because George likes to think that all people are essentially good.
Rose is a talented piano player, but Phil is the type of egomaniac who can’t stand the thought of anyone outshining him in any talent, especially in his own home. And so, one of the more fascinating aspects of the movie plays out, when Phil engages in psychological warfare with Rose, by using the music he plays on the banjo, how he plays it, and when he plays it. The marriage of Rose and George also threatens the closeness that Phil and George once had but is now changed because most of George’s attention is now on Rose, not Phil.
You also don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Phil is also jealous of George because George has found love and is with a spouse who makes him happy. It’s something that Phil knows he can never experience as a gay man, when homosexuality is forbidden in every way in this 1925 society. Over time, Rose starts to care deeply for George, and that makes Phil even more jealous.
A warning to viewers who are sensitive about seeing animal abuse depicted in movies: There’s a shocking and disturbing scene where Phil takes out his anger by brutally and repeatedly punching a horse. This act of animal cruelty is not entirely shown on camera, but the sound effects are sickening. And there are other scenes of horses being mistreated when Phil and his ranch workers use rough methods to “break” a horse in training. (There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s end credits that confirms that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.)
People who abuse animals usually abuse other people too. Needless to say, Phil tries to make Peter’s life a living hell at the ranch. And when Peter temporarily goes away to attend medical school, Rose gets the brunt of Phil’s animosity. While on a break from medical school, Peter comes back to the ranch to visit. Rose is shocked and fearful when Phil suddenly starts treating Peter like a protégé.
Even though Phil has stopped overtly bullying Peter, Rose is suspicious that Phil’s sudden transformation into being a “nice mentor” is all an act, and that Phil is setting up Peter for something sinister. Rose confides in George about her suspicions, but George doesn’t really know what to think. Peter seems happy and grateful that Phil is no longer bullying him. The movie delivers a knockout punch to audiences in showing how all of this turmoil is resolved.
All of the cast members give terrific performances, but the biggest standouts are Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee. Dunst and Plemons are a couple in real life, and they have an easy chemistry together. Where things really get really shaken with unease is in how Phil, Rose and Peter navigate their relationships with each other in this very uncomfortable blended family situation.
Rose and Phil predictably don’t get along with each other. But what Dunst portrays so well is being emtionally knocked-off balance when she sees that Phil and Peter, who could easily be enemies, are now starting to become close to each other and could possibly become friends. Phil knows that Peter is the person whom Rose loves the most, so what better way to disturb Rose than to gain the loyalty and trust of Peter?
It’s easy to see why Rose would feel emotionally betrayed by Peter too. Peter is starting to assert his independence, so he seems to want to ignore his mother’s increasing apprehension that Phil does not have good intentions for Peter. The tension is ramped up even more in scenes where Peter and Phil spend time alone together. As the hard-to-read Peter, Smit-McPhee probably has the most diffcult character to play because Peter doesn’t express his emotions as easily as the other main characters.
Cumberbatch gives one of the best performances of his career as the ruthless and complicated Phil. This character is by no means an “anti-hero”—he’s a villain, through and through. But the movie can inspire thoughtful discussions over how much homophobia plays a role in Phil’s deep-seated hatred and bitterness. If Phil had been able to live his life openly as a gay man, would he still be a jerk? That question is definitely open to debate.
It’s one of the many aspects of Campion’s version of “The Power of the Dog” that make it intriguing cinematic art. The movie does not offer easy answers and weaves a rich-enough tapestry in the story that’s open to interpretation. The movie’s cinematography, production design and musical score enhance the film’s ability to be both hypnotic and suspenseful. It’s easy to see why Campion won the Best Director prize at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where “The Power of the Dog” had its world premiere. The movie also screened at other prestigious film festivals in 2021, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.
“The Power of the Dog” gets its title from Psalm 22:20 in the Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” In the movie, a mountain range can be seen from the ranch, and the characters talk about how the mountain has a specific rock formation that resembles a dog, if looked at in a certain way. Phil represents any toxic force that threatens to ruin someone’s life. And the powerful message of the movie is that you can either fear this toxicity and look away, or you can look at it directly and confront it head-on.
Netflix released “The Power of the Dog” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2021, and on Netflix on December 1, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States (mostly in Michigan, Illinois and Washington, D.C.) during the six months before an apocalypse, the dark comedy film “Don’t Look Up” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: After a Ph.D. student in astronomy discovers that a catastrophic comet is headed to Earth to destroy the planet in six months, people have varying reactions, including a stubborn refusal to believe that the apocalypse is coming.
Culture Audience: “Don’t Look Up” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast and apocalyptic comedies that repeat the same types of gags for an overly long runtime of nearly two-and-a-half hours.
The dark comedy “Don’t Look Up” is the equivalent of watching an annoyingly smug hack comedian tell the same clumsily executed joke for more than two hours. This movie crams in a lot of big-name stars to try to make it look better than it really is. In trying to make a point about complacency and denial about how climate change is a global crisis, writer/director/producer Adam McKay instead mishandles that point in “Don’t Look Up,” by not only overselling it with stunt casting but also selling it short with a bloated and messy story.
In a statement in the production notes for “Don’t Look Up,” McKay says that he was inspired to do the movie after reading David Wallace-Wells’ 2019 non-fiction book “The Uninhabitable Earth.” In the statement, McKay comments on the book: “I couldn’t get it out of my head. It depicts the ways in which global warming will wreak havoc on the planet if nothing is done to combat the climate crisis.”
McKay continues, “And, it all boiled down to this idea I just couldn’t shake: We all know how to react when there is a killer with an ax, or when your house is on fire, but what the author David Wallace-Wells was writing about was a million times worse. How do we get people to realize this is a clear and present danger? How close does that danger have to be for us to have the proper response? I felt like I needed to write this script.”
Based on the disappointing end results of “Don’t Look Up,” McKay should’ve spent more time honing the script, which lazily repeats the same gimmick about climate-change deniers being blithering idiots, and hammers this stereotype all over the movie like a robotic jackhammer on full-blast. Almost all of the people in the movie are caricatures who aren’t very funny at all. In a movie about an impending apocalypse, most of the main characters are not seen with any family members or even shown talking about family members. That’s how phony “Don’t Look Up” is and how it makes these caricatures just hollow vessels for the movie’s dumb jokes.
McKay and the other “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers seem to have spent more energy corralling numerous celebrity cast members (many of whom are Oscar winners and Oscar nominees) to overstuff the movie, rather than giving these cast members well-rounded characters to play. All of the characters are extremely shallow and one-note. And for a movie that has an all-star cast and is set primarily in the United States, it’s appallingly exclusionary and racist that the “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to cast any Hispanic/Latino people to be among the stars of the movie. When people talk about how Hispanic/Latino people are underrepresented in American-made movies, “Don’t Look Up” is part of that problem.
“Don’t Look Up” is the type of movie that takes nearly two-and-a-half hours (138 minutes, to be exact) to tell a story that could’ve been told in 90 minutes or less. And even if the movie had been about 90 minutes, it still would be stretched too thin by the flimsy plot. If you want to watch an apocalypse movie where people deny that an apocalypse is going to happen, and other people get angry at these deniers, while everyone mugs for the camera and tells really pathetic and poorly written jokes, then “Don’t Look Up” is the movie for you.
In “Don’t Look Up,” Jennifer Lawrence portrays Kate Dibiasky, a Ph.D. student in astronomy at Michigan State University. Kate works in an unrealistic-looking high-tech science lab that looks like a movie set, not a lab that’s supposed to be on a university campus. Kate is a character that looks like what an uptight person thinks is “edgy,” because Kate’s hair is dyed bright red, she wears a nose ring, and she likes to smoke marijuana. One day, a bored-looking Kate sees on her computer monitor that an unusual comet is in the universe. She perks up when she finds out that this comet is extremely rare.
She alerts her professor/supervisor Dr. Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who is so elated by this comet discovery, he throws an impromptu party with other students in the lab. But that elation soon turns to horror, when Randall calculates during the party that this comet is actually headed toward Earth. He’s so freaked out by these results that he doesn’t tell his students right away and quickly orders them to leave the building. However, he tells Kate to stay behind and confides his suspicions to her. Kate does her own calculations and finds out that the comet will destroy Earth in six months and 14 days.
Kate and Randall call high-level people at NASA, including NASA chief Dr. Jocelyn Calder (played by Hettienne Park), who is skeptical and doesn’t want to deal with investigating this claim about a comet that will destroy Earth. She passes Kate and Randall off to her underling Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (played by Rob Morgan), who is NASA’s head of planetary defense. Dr. Oglethorpe essentially becomes an awkward sidekick to Kate and Randall for much of the movie.
The next thing you know, Kate and Randall are whisked on a military plane to the White House, where they meet President Janie Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), who is obviously supposed to be a female version of Donald Trump. (Even if people didn’t know that McKay is an outspoken liberal, his political bias is obvious in his movies.) President Orlean is currently distracted because she’s in the middle of a scandal: Her nomination choice to be a U.S Supreme Court Justice is trigger-happy, right-wing Sheriff Conlon (played by Erik Parillo), whose past as a nude model has been exposed.
The scandal gets worse, when it’s revealed in the news that Sheriff Conlon and President Orlean (who is a bachelorette) have been secret lovers, and she sent him photos of her vagina. This is not spoiler information because—much like all the other crude scenarios in “Don’t Look Up”—it has no bearing on the plot. This movie is filled with a bunch of conversations that do nothing to enhance the story but are just in the movie to try to make everything in the film look like it’s “cutting-edge,” when it’s not. “Don’t Look Up” is really just a dumpster of tawdry and witless jokes thrown together in a monotonous cesspool.
Even though Sherrif Conlon is President Orlean’s choice to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, he doesn’t have a law degree. Choosing unqualified people for high-ranking government jobs seems to be President Orlean’s speciality. She has appointed her unqualfied and very obnoxious son Jason Orlean (played by Jonah Hill) as the White House’s chief of staff. (Jason’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.)
Jason likes to go on egotistical rants and occasionally spews garbage lines that allude to him having incestuous feelings for his mother. Here’s an example of the not-very-funny dialogue in the movie. At one point, Jason smirks about his mother when he says, “I can’t think of another president I’d rather see in Playboy.” He makes other creepy comments to make it clear that he’s sexually attracted to his mother.
Randall estimates that the comet’s destruction of Earth will be like “a billion Hiroshima bombs.” Kate and Randall desperately try to warn anyone who will listen about this impending apocalypse. The movie wastes a lot of time with repeated scenarios of Randall and Kate seeming to be the only people in America who are really sounding the alarm about this apocalypse and sometimes having emotional meltdowns because people won’t take the warnings seriously.
The over-used “joke” in the movie is that most people whom Kate and Randall tell about the apolcalypse either don’t believe them, or if they do believe, they shame Randall and Kate for being too depressing and paranoid. Meanwhile, other people try to use the apocalypse for their own selfish reasons, which usually have to do with wanting more money and power. A military plan to destroy the comet goes awry when certain greedy people discover there are vaulable minerals inside the comet that could make certain people a massive fortune.
The movie’s title comes from a catch phrase used by “apocalypse deniers,” who say, “Don’t Look Up” as their mantra, which they chant whenever and wherever they fell like chanting it. Many of these “apocalypse deniers” gather at rallies that the “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers deliberately made to look a lot like rallies for Donald Trump supporters, including many attendees wearing red baseball caps. In the movie, the “Don’t Look Up” slogan is used by people to identify themselves as not only apocalypse deniers but also advocates of other conservative-leaning political beliefs.
As an example of how poorly written “Don’t Look Up” is, several characters in the movie are useless and just take up space to further stretch out the running time in the movie. In the beginning of “Don’t Look Up,” Kate has a journalist boyfriend named Phillip (played by Himesh Patel), who adds nothing to the overall story. Somehow, the filmmakers of “Don’t Look Up” think it’s hilarious that there’s a scene of Phillip pondering how he’s going to describe in an article that Sheriff Conlon reportedly had an erection when he was doing nude modeling for an art class. “Was he noticeably aroused or engorged?” Phillip asks aloud when trying to decide which words to use in the article.
Randall is married with two adult sons: Marshall Mindy (played by Conor Sweeney) and Evan Mindy (played by Robert Radochia), who appear to be in ther late teens or early 20s. Marshall and Evan still live at home with Randall and his unassuming wife June Mindy (played by Melanie Lynskey), who has to quickly adjust to their lives changing when Randall starts to be believed and he becomes a celebrity “sex symbol” scientist. Randall also gets the nickname of A.I.L.F. (If you know what the slang acronym MILF stands for, just substitute the word “astronomer” for the word “mother” to know the meaning of the acronym A.I.L.F.)
June gets a little bit of a story arc in “Don’t Look Up,” but Marshall and Evan are completely generic. The movie makes no effort to distinguish between Marshall and Evan, in terms of their personalities. All the movie shows is that Randall has two sons who adore and almost worship him. This seemingly blissful family life is supposed to make Randall look like even more of a jerk when he gives in to temptation to cheat on June. (This review won’t reveal who becomes Randall’s mistress, but it’s not the most obvious guess.)
Other caricatures in the movie include Mark Rylance as a billionaire tech mogul named Peter Isherwell, who physically resembles Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook but who talks more like an Elon Musk type who wants to be a spaced-out New Age guru. Peter is a major donor to President Orlean, who kowtows to his every whim. It’s an obvious satire of how corrupt elected politicians will serve their biggest donors rather than serve the people whom the politicians are supposed to represent.
And in a lazily conceived apocalypse movie involving the U.S. government, “Don’t Look Up” has the most stereotypical of apocalypse movie stereotypes: a war-mongering military officer who’s in charge of a military operation to try to stop the apocalypse. His name is Colonel Ben Drask (played by Ron Perlman), who spouts a lot of racist and xenophobic comments. It’s all so the movie can further put an emphasis on showing that President Orlean surrounds herself with a lot of unhinged, extreme right-wingers.
More useless characters include an on-again/off-again music celebrity couple named Riley Bina (played by Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (played by Scott Mescudi, also known as real-life rapper Kid Cudi), whose relationship drama further clogs up the movie. It seems like the only reason why these shallow lovebird characters are in the movie is to show their concert scenes, where they perform songs that refer to the apocalypse. Oh, and so Grande could do an original song (“Just Look Up,” the anthem of the movie’s apocalypse believers) that the filmmakers obviously wanted to be nominated for an Oscar.
And there’s a silly running “joke” in the movie that a character named General Themes (played by Paul Guilfoyle), who hangs out at the White House, charges people money for snacks and drinks that are supposed to be free at the White House. When Kate finds out that she was conned into paying General Themes for free food and drinks, she gets very snippy and bratty about it, which seems to be her reaction to most things. Kate’s ranting about having to pay for snacks at the White House seems to be the movie’s heavy-handed way of showing that even in an impending apocalypse, when people should be worried about more important things, people will still go out of their way to get angry over petty things.
Two of the more memorable characters in “Don’t Look Up” are slick and superficial TV news co-hosts Brie Evantee (played by Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (played by Tyler Perry), who would rather talk about the status of the relationship between Riley and DJ Chello than talk about the apocalypse. Blanchett and Perry understood the assignment of being in a dark comedy, because their Brie and Jack characters are the only ones in “Don’t Look Up” who come closest to being characters that viewers can laugh at and laugh with, in these news anchors’ non-stop parade of vanity. Brie gets more screen time than Jack because the movie has a subplot about her personal life.
Brie and Jack host a program called “The Daily Rip” on a 24-hour news network. Kate and Randall are guests on the show multiple times. And each time, Brie and Jack dismiss and disrespect the warnings about the apocalypse. The first time that Kate and Randall are on “The Daily Rip,” Kate has a very angry tantrum and storms off of the show. Kate’s meltdown becomes an unflattering meme. Meanwhile, just because Brie flirts with Randall and flatters him on the show, he suddenly becomes a sex symbol.
Kate’s relationship with Phillip doesn’t last when she becomes the laughingstock of the world, and he writes a tell-all article about her. She ends up working as a cashier at a convenience store called DrinkMo! that sells a lot of liquor (it’s an obvious spoof of the real-life BevMo! liquor store chain), where she meets a disheveled skateboarder named Yule (Timothée Chalamet), who comes into the store with a few friends. Yule is about 10 years younger than Kate, and he immediately flirts with her. You know where this is going, of course.
One of the worst things about “Don’t Look Up” is how predictable it is. And that predictability makes everything move along at a much more tedious pace. In addition to the terrible jokes, “Don’t Look Up” falters with cheap-looking visual effects, and the film editing is often careless and amateurish. “Don’t Look Up” has a lot of talented cast members, who get no cohesive direction in the movie. For example, Lawrence’s acting in the movie is very uneven: Sometimes she plays the comedy in a deapan way, while other times she’s way too over-the-top.
Other cast members try too hard to be funny. There’s a reason why DiCaprio rarely does comedies. Maybe he should stick to the dramas that he does best. Streep obviously used Trump as a template for her performance, so there’s nothing new and surprising about how she plays President Orlean. (And she’s played many bossy characters in other movies.) Rylance lets the shiny white teeth veneers he’s wearing as Peter do a lot of the acting for him.
Most the cast members seem to have been told to act as irritating as possible while in character. Only a few characters (such as Randall’s wife June and sidekick Dr. Oglethorpe) appear to be decent people. Riley and DJ Chello are too vapid to make an impact on the story.
And this is yet another “end of the world” movie where the male actors far outnumber the female actors. It’s not what the real world looks like at all, because females in reality are 51% of the world’s population. The same 51% female statistic applies to the U.S. population.
“Don’t Look Up” makes half-hearted attempts to show sexism, when people overlook Kate and shower attention on “sex symbol” Randall, who gets most of the glory for work that Kate did. But if the filmmakers intended to have any insightful commentary on women overcoming sexism, it’s overshadowed and negated by the movie making any woman in power (namely, President Orlean, NASA chief Dr. Calder and media star Brie Evantee) use sex to get what she wants and act like groupies when they brag about powerful men they had sex with or dated. “Don’t Look Up” does not celebrate female empowerment. The movie degrades female empowerment, by making it look like women have to sleep with men to gain power, with a woman’s worth in the workplace being valued more for sex appeal rather than talent, personality and intelligence.
Dark comedies are supposed to offer acerbic wit in poking fun at society’s problems, but “Don’t Look Up” is only concerned with stringing together a bunch of scenes where people say and do tacky and annoying things. Simply put: “Don’t Look Up” is boring, sloppily made, and nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. For a better-made and much-funnier all-star apocalyptic comedy film with adult jokes, watch 2013’s “This Is the End.”
Netflix will release “Don’t Look Up” in select U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021, and on Netflix on December 24, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in the mid-1880s, the Western action drama “The Harder They Fall” has a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people, Latinos and Native Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.
Culture Clash: When cowboy Nat Love finds out that his arch-enemy Rufus Buck has escaped from prison, Nat assembles a posse that battles against Rufus’ gang.
Culture Audience: “The Harder They Fall” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted, action-oriented Western dramas about the underrepresented African American cowboy culture of the 1880s, but viewers of the movie should have a high tolerance for over-the-top violence.
With grisly violence that is almost cartoonish, “The Harder They Fall” puts a well-acted spotlight on real-life African American cowboys of the 1880s. The movie’s excessive violence might be a turnoff to some viewers. But for viewers who can tolerate all the blood and gore, “The Harder They Fall” is a bumpy and thrilling ride with a top-notch cast.
“The Harder They Fall” is the second feature film of director Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote “The Harder They Fall” screenplay with Boaz Yakin. Samuel, also composed the movie’s score, has said in interviews that the title of the movie was inspired by the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come,” starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff—not the 1956 Humphrey Bogart/Rod Steiger movie “The Harder They Fall.” Samuel is a British filmmaker (he’s the younger brother of pop star Seal) who grew up adoring Western movies. However, Samuel eventually found out that these Westerns often gave inaccurate demographic depictions of what post-Civil War life was like the Old West of the 19th century.
In reality, people of color and women had much more agency and independence in Old West culture than what’s shown in most old-time Western movies, which usually portray only white men as leaders of cowboy posses. “The Harder They Fall” aims to course-correct these historical exclusions by doing a fictional portrayal of real-life African American posse members from the 19th century. In case it wasn’t clear enough, a caption in the movie’s introduction states in big and bold letters: “While the events are fictional, the people are real.” (At least the movie’s main characters are based on real people.)
“The Harder They Fall” also doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that there were good and bad cowboy posses. Black people are no exception. The African Americans in the movie are not portrayed as subservient stereotypes, but they aren’t exactly saintly either. Most are just trying to get by and live good lives, while there are some hardened criminals who create chaos for people who have the misfortune of crossing their paths. “The Harder They Fall” takes place in various parts of Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.
“The Harder They Fall” opens with a 10-year-old boy named Nat Love (played by Chase Dillon) witnessing the brutal murder of his parents—Reverend Love (played by Michael Beach) and wife Eleanor Love (played by DeWanda Wise)—during a home invasion. The gangsters shoot Nat’s parents, but they spare Nat’s life. The leader of this gang uses a knife to carve a cross on Nat’s forehead.
About 20 years later, Nat (played by Jonathan Majors) still has the scar on his forehead. And he’s had a lifelong obsession with getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his parents. Nat knows that Rufus Buck (played by Idris Elba) is the gang leader who is the main culprit for the murders. Rufus has recently been in prison for armed robbery and murder.
However, Nat finds out that Rufus has made a prison escape. Two of Rufus’ loyal cronies—ruthless Trudy Smith (played by Regina King) and smooth-talking Cherokee Bill (played by LaKeith Stanfield)—have hijacked the train where prisoner Rufus was being transported, and they broke Rufus out of the cell where he was being kept.
After Nat discovers that Rufus is now a free man (but still wanted by law enforcement), Nat assembles his own posse to get revenge. The other members of the Nat Love Gang are Mary Fields (played by Zazie Beetz), who is Nat’s feisty love interest; Bill Pickett (played by Edi Gathegi), who is a loyal and logical; Jim Beckwourth (played by RJ Cyler), who is a cocky young cowboy; and Cuffee (played by Danielle Deadwyler), who lives as a transgender man.
Nat makes a living by finding “wanted dead or alive” criminals for reward money. Nat has no qualms about killing these criminals if he thinks they deserve it. That’s what happens in an early scene in the movie when Nat shoots and kills a wanted criminal who shows up at a Catholic church with the intention of robbing the church. Nat’s reward is $5,000.
It turns out that Nat and his gang are outlaws too, because they make money by stealing from robbers. Therefore, one of their least-favorite people is Bass Reeves (played by Delroy Lindo), a U.S. marshal who’s determined to put a stop to all this criminal activity. In addition to seeking revenge on Rufus, the Nat Love Gang also wants to avoid capture by Reeves and his law enforcement team. The posse members on both sides are also mistrustful of Wiley Esco (played by Deon Cole), the Redwood City mayor whose allegiances can be murky.
It should be noted that in real life, Bass Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character, which has been played by white actors in movies and television. Reeves was considered a pioneer for African Americans in law enforcement, because he did a lot to change American viewpoints that white people aren’t the only race who can become U.S. marshals. In real life, Reeves worked closely with Native American leaders. It’s an alliance that’s depicted in the movie too.
In many ways, “The Harder They Fall” follows a lot of the traditions of typical Westerns, with gun shootouts and chases on horseback. There’s also some romance, as Mary and Nat have an on-again, off-again relationship. Mary, who works as a saloon singer, has a hard time trusting Nat because he’s cheated on her in the past. Nat is an emotionally wounded rebel who’s trying to win back Mary’s heart, but first he has to learn how to heal his own broken heart.
And there’s inevitable fighting among posse members. Most of the friction in Nat’s gang comes from Jim and Bill having personality clashes with each other. Bill thinks Jim is arrogant and reckless, while Jim thinks that Bill is uptight and too cautious. It’s the classic older cowboy/younger cowboy conflict that’s often seen in Westerns.
There are also some gender issues with Cuffee, who wants to live life as a man, but some people think that Cuffee is a woman just doing a drag act. There are parts of the movie where people aren’t sure whether to call Cuffee a “he” or a “she,” since the word “transgender” did not exist at the time. And when Cuffee has to wear a dress (for reasons what won’t be revealed in this review), it makes Cuffee very uncomfortable. After seeing Cuffee in a dress, Jim blurts out that he now knows why was kind of attracted to Cuffee.
Damon Wayans Jr. has a small role in the movie as Monroe Grimes, someone who is captured by Nat’s posse members to get information about Rufus. As for Rufus, he’s a cold-blooded killer who has enough of a twinkle in his eye and swagger in his walk to indicate why his posse subordinates find him so magnetic. Mary can give Rufus a run for his money, in terms of being fearless in battle. Cherokee Bill is violent too, but he’s more likely to use psychology to try to outwit an opponent.
“The Harder They Fall” isn’t particularly innovative in the story structure and dialogue, but there are some impressive camera shots from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., and the movie delivers when it comes to adrenaline-filled action scenes. A standout camera shot is in a scene where the camera zooms in with a bullet-like trajectory at a group of posse members to then reveal that there are others standing behind them. Also adding to the striking visuals of “The Harder They Fall” is the first-rate costume design by Antoinette Messam, who brought a practical yet fashionable look to many of these Old West characters.
All of the actors perform well in their roles, with the best scene-stealing moments coming from Majors, King, Elba, Beetz, Stanfield and Deadwyler. Where the movie falters a bit is in how it abandons its mostly gritty realism for some stunts that are so heavily choreographed, it takes you out of the realism and just becomes a reminder that this movie’s fight scenes can sometimes look like ultra-violent parodies of fight scenes in Westerns.
What doesn’t come across as a parody is how credibly the cast members portray their characters. These engaging characters bring real heart and soul to “The Harder They Fall.” (There’s also a poignant plot twist/reveal at the end of the movie that might or might not be surprising to some viewers.) Even though not everyone makes it out alive by the end of the movie, it’s clear by the movie’s last shot that there’s room for a sequel for a spinoff.
Netflix released “The Harder They Fall” in select U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021. The movie’s Netflix premiere was on November 3, 2021.