Review: ‘What Jennifer Did,’ starring Bill Courtice, Deborah Gladding, Alan Cooke, Hong Ngo, Nam Nguyen, David MacDonald and Fernando Baldassini

May 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Samantha Chang (actress) in a re-enactment scene in “What Jennifer Did” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“What Jennifer Did”

Directed by Jenny Popplewell

Some language in Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “What Jennifer Did” features a predominantly white group of middle-class people (with two Asians and one black person) who are interviewed about the case of Canadian woman Jennifer Pan, who went on trial for the murder of her mother and the attempted murder of her father, in a “murder for hire” crime that took place in 2010, in Markham, Ontario.

Culture Clash: Jennifer Pan was accused of planning this murder-for-hire plot because her parents disapproved of her wanting to date a convicted drug dealer and they found out she lied about having a university degree.

Culture Audience: “What Jennifer Did” will appeal primarily to people interested in true crime documentaries, but this lazily made documentary is dull, omits important information, and offers no further investigations or new insights.

Bill Courtice in “What Jennifer Did” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“What Jennifer Did” has a cheap and unfinished quality to it. This true crime documentary has a sluggish pace and leaves out many necessary facts. The re-enactments and dramatic embellishments are also tacky. The interviews for the documentary repeat a lot of what is already shown in the police interrogation archival videos.

Directed by Jenny Popplewell, “What Jennifer Did” treats viewers like idiots. For the first half of this 87-minute documentary film, it lumbers along by trying to look like a “whodunit” murder mystery, when it’s obvious who the culprit is. And if viewers don’t know who the culprit is before seeing “What Jennifer Did” (which is a turgid rehash of the case), the title of the documentary says it all. There’s no mystery here.

One of the sloppiest things about “What Jennifer Did” is that the documentary doesn’t even mention the date of the crime in an explicit way. Observant viewers will have to notice the time stamps on surveillance videos shown intermittently in the documentary to find out the year the crime took place. The prime suspect’s age on the night of the crime is never mentioned either. Viewers have to make some deductions about what her age was when the crime happened (she was 24), based on the choppy and vague interviews that the documentary has with a few of her acquaintances.

And yet, it’s repeated to the point of irritation that the Canadian city where the crime took place (Markham, Ontario) is considered a safe area, and the murder was a shock to the community. It would have been sufficient to have this “Markham is a nice area” commentary once or twice. But when it’s said in various ways four or five times in the documentary, it’s gets to be tiresome and unnecessary.

Here are the facts of the case that are not detailed in the documentary: Jennifer Pan (the prime suspect in this case) was born in Markham on June 17, 1986. Her parents—mother Bich Ha Pan and father Huei Hann Pan, also known as Hann—were Chinese heritage refugees who moved from Vietnam to Ontario at separate times (Hann relocated to Ontario in 1979), and they met when they were living in Ontario. Jennifer has a younger brother named Felix, who was born in 1989. Shockingly, Felix is never mentioned in this documentary about a crime that was motivated by turmoil in this family. The murder of Bich and the attempted murder of Hann happened in their home in Markham, on November 8, 2010.

The documentary mentions that Bich and Hann worked for the same car parts company (but doesn’t mention the name of the company), where Bich was a “supervisor,” and Hann was a “machinist.” In the documentary, these parents are described as strict, hard-working, upwardly mobile, status-conscious, law-abiding, overprotective and demanding. The documentary makes sure to mention superficial things, such as the types of cars that these parents had (Hann had a Mercedes; Bich had a Lexus), but fails to mention more meaningful and interesting aspects of these parents’ lives for better context, such as what they went through as refugees to escape from Vietnam and to start new lives in Canada.

Jennifer was at home with her parents on the night of this crime. But if you were to believe the selective and incomplete facts presented in this documentary, you would think that Jennifer is an only child. “What Jennifer Did” completely erases her brother Felix from this story. Even if Felix wasn’t available for an interview, it’s absolutely irresponsible for this documentary’s filmmakers to make it look like he doesn’t exist. (Luckily, Felix wasn’t home during the crime.) Felix’s reactions to the case are in public records which aren’t very hard to find.

A great deal of “What Jennifer Did” consists of showing archival footage of interviews that Jennifer had with investigators at a York Regional police station. After each archival clip is shown, the documentary shows its own interviews with investigators repeating what was already shown in the archival footage. Among those interviewed are police detectives Bill Courtice (who was the case’s lead investigator), Deborah Gladding (who is a victim liaison officer), Alan Cooke and David MacDonald.

In her initial interviews with police, Jennifer said on the night of November 8, 2010, three black men she didn’t know did a home invasion with guns, demanded money from her parents, and tied up Jennifer and her parents. Jennifer said that she was taken upstairs, while her parents were downstairs. Bich and Hann were both shot. Bich did not survive. Hann was shot near one of his eyes and was in a coma.

Jennifer had no injuries and made the 911 call for help while she said she had her hands tied behind her back and her shoulder tied to a staircase banister. She also said she used her hands to call 911. The 911 call is played in the documentary. When police arrived, they found cash and other valuable items in the house. They also found there was no forced entry into the home.

You don’t have to be a true crime aficionado to see major holes in Jennifer’s story from the beginning. So-called “home invader thieves” demanded cash but left a lot of cash behind. They knowingly left a witness behind with no injuries while two other witnesses were shot. And how exactly did Jennifer call 911 with her hands, when she said her hands were tied behind her back and one shoulder was tied to a staircase banister? The police initially overlooked these inconsistencies because they couldn’t believe this meek-looking, soft-spoken young woman had anything to do with this crime.

Video surveillance footage from a neighbor eventually showed that Jennifer was telling the truth that three men entered the home that night through the Phan family home’s front door. The door was unlocked, but Jennifer says she didn’t know why. Did these men force their way in, or were they invited in advance? If you don’t know the answer, then you aren’t paying attention to all the obvious clues that Jennifer’s story was a lie from the beginning.

Unfortunately, “What Jennifer Did” drags out this fake suspense in annoying ways, such as showing repetitive shots of police detectives looking contemplative while driving in their cars, or Gladding saying how she had a lot of empathy for Jennifer, whom she believed was an innocent victim—until there was indisputable proof that Jennifer wasn’t an innocent victim at all. The documentary’s re-enactment scenes (with actress Samantha Chang portraying a mid-20s Jennifer) are often shown in dream-like slow-motion. Many of the interviewees talk slowly, as if they are bored by this documentary. Many viewers who know what a good documentary is will be bored too.

One of the major aspects of the case has to do with Danny Wong, Jennifer’s drug-dealer ex-boyfriend. He was the main reason why Jennifer had so much resentment toward her parents, who understandably did not want her dating a drug dealer and forbade her from being in contact with him. Wong is not interviewed for the documentary, but the documentary has some archival video footage of an interview that he did with police after he knew that Jennifer’s parents were shot.

In this archival interview, Wong is never convincing when he tells police that he stopped being a drug dealer after he got arrested for it. At the time of the home invasion, Wong had an alibi He claimed to be living a law-abiding life as an employee at a fast-food restaurant. Wong told police that the main reason why Jennifer’s parents didn’t approve of him was that he wasn’t making enough money in this low-paying restaurant job. (In other words, Wong was downplaying his drug-dealing activity in this police interview.)

Jennifer is not interviewed in the documentary, nor does she need to be. She’s a proven pathological liar and doesn’t need to have a platform to say more lies. She still maintains that she never planned to have her parents murdered. An update on her case is mentioned in the documentary’s epilogue.

Among the many big lies that Jennifer told that were exposed in this case was Jennifer fooled her parents and other people into thinking she graduated with a pharmacology degree from the University of Toronto. She was never enrolled in the university and forged a University of Toronto degree as part of the deceit. It’s mentioned that Jennifer chose pharmacology because she and her parents knew that her grades weren’t good enough in high school for her to become a doctor, lawyer, scientist or engineer, which were the preferred professions that her parents wanted her to have.

However, the documentary never explains how Jennifer’s parents—who are repeatedly described as overbearing and intrusive about what Jennifer did with her time—could be conned into not going to a graduation ceremony that Jennifer knew did not exist for her. The documentary mentions that Hann was so controlling, he used to drive Jennifer to Ryerson University (in Toronto), when she fooled her parents into thinking she was enrolled there, before she faked her enrollment in the University of Toronto. It’s also mentioned that when Jennifer was a child, her parents pushed her into entering pianist competitions that she often won and had plenty of trophies and photos to prove it.

How could these “overbearing” parents miss out on a graduation ceremony, which would be a major milestone that these parents would want photos of too? The answer: Jennifer told her family there were no graduation ceremony tickets available for them, according to Felix’s court testimony detailed in journalist Jeremy Grimaldi’s 2016 non-fiction book “A Daughter’s Deadly Deception: The Jennifer Pan Story.” Felix also testified that Jennifer lied by stating a friend who took the graduation photos went back to Hong Kong without giving Jennifer the photos.

Jennifer’s deception about the graduation ceremony is one of many details that the documentary overlooks and does not explain. Even if Jennifer was going to financially gain from her parent’s deaths, through an inheritance and/or life insurance policy, the documentary makes it look like Jennifer would have been her parents’ only heir, when that is simply not true. The documentary never mentions how other Pan family members felt about this tragedy and about Jennifer being under suspicion for masterminding this “murder for hire” plot.

“What Jennifer Did” is also vague about Jennifer’s employment history after she faked graduating from the University of Toronto. It’s briefly mentioned that she had trouble finding a job as a pharmacist. It doesn’t take a genius to know why she couldn’t be a pharmacist. However, the documentary doesn’t say if she found other types of work or had any type of employment at the time of the crime.

Jennifer was accused of paying for these hit men to carry out this murder-for-hire plot. The money that her parents gave to Jennifer for her fake “university tuition” had already been spent long ago. Where did she get the money to pay for this murder for hire? Don’t expect “What Jennifer Did” to answer that question.

And you can’t really trust a documentary that refuses to mention the important fact that the two victim parents had another child who was affected by this horrible crime. The documentary presents a factually incorrect narrative impression that Jennifer was an only child who felt emotionally smothered by tyrannical parents, who both wanted to keep her as sheltered and family-oriented as possible. But if these parents had so much suffocating control over Jennifer’s life, why didn’t they check up on Jennifer and her supposed university enrollment?

It’s not quite victim blaming, but the documentary presents a narrow and misleading view of the Pan family by having missing or contradictory information. Because “What Jennifer Did” deliberately does not mention Jennifer’s brother Felix, the documentary does not include the parental relationship that Bich and Hann had with Felix, or the sibling relationship that Jennifer had with Felix, to further explain the family’s dynamics. Did the parents treat Felix differently from Jennifer? Obviously, the documentary doesn’t answer that question because it wants to pretend that Felix does not exist.

Three people who knew Jennifer are interviewed in the documentary: Hong Ngo, a Pan family friend; Fernando Baldassini, who was Jennifer’s piano teacher; and Nam Nguyen, who was Jennifer’s friend in high school. Ngo says she knew about Jennifer faking her university education and says that Jennifer’s parents demanded that Jennifer pay back the money they thought went to college tuition. However, the documentary does such a bad job of interviewing people, it’s never made clear when Ngo found out this information.

Baldassini doesn’t offer any information that’s substantial, since it’s obvious he didn’t know what really went on behind closed doors in the Pan family home. Baldassini says the only sign of trouble that he saw was when Jennifer broke down and cried one day during a piano lesson. According to Baldassini, Jennifer said during this meltdown that her parents were driving her crazy. Baldassini says it was the first and only time he saw Jennifer distressed. Not surprisingly, Baldassini says he was completely shocked when Jennifer was accused of masterminding the crime that got her parents shot.

Out of all the interviewees, Nguyen has the most information to share about Jennifer’s volatile relationship with Wong, which lasted off and on, for six or seven years. Nguyen says that Jennifer and Wong frequently argued and broke up. The final breakup was in 2008, and the former couple agreed to be platonic friends. Wong had a girlfriend when the crime happened. By all accounts, Jennifer was obsessed with Wong and was not happy that he had moved on to dating someone else. Nguyen also mentions that he, Jennifer and many of the students at their high school came from Asian immigrant families who expected all family members to be high achievers.

As for the three men who entered the Pan family’s home that night, their names are mentioned, but their photos are never shown in the documentary. It’s a very strange and unexplained omission, considering the outcome of the case. These omissions are just more examples of shoddy filmmaking on display. Any courtroom trials in this case are just briefly mentioned as an epilogue in the documentary.

“What Jennifer Did” completely ignores the racial implications of this case. Many people (including members of the media and investigating police officers) were quick to believe that three black men committed this crime on their own and that a seemingly innocent-looking Asian woman couldn’t have anything to do with it, even though there were massive early clues that she was involved. The police got a lot of answers and evidence when they finally did something they should’ve done earlier: investigate Jennifer Pan’s phone records.

Between the unexplained omissions of important details and the lackluster way that this story is told, “What Jennifer Did” is a disappointing and irresponsible documentary that could have told so much more to this story. The documentary obviously took more time setting up props and hiring actors for re-enactments than caring about presenting a lot of crucial facts. Viewers will learn more from reading the Wikipedia page for Jennifer Pan than in wasting time watching “What Jennifer Did.”

Netflix premiered “What Jennifer Did” on May 10, 2024.

Review: ‘Lover, Stalker, Killer, starring Dave Kroupa, Nancy Raney, Jim Doty, Ryan Avis, Tony Kava, Amy Flora and Chris LeGrow

February 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Dave Kroupa in “Lover, Stalker, Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Lover, Stalker, Killer”

Directed by Sam Hobkinson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Nebraska and Iowa, the documentary film “Lover, Stalker, Killer” features an all-white group of people representing the working-class and middle-class discussing a case involving stalking and murder.

Culture Clash: A bachelor, who works as an automative employee, looks for love online and has the nightmarish experience of getting involved with a woman who stalked him and his loved ones and committed murder. 

Culture Audience: “Lover, Stalker, Killer” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries that have an uncluttered, cohesive storytelling style.

Dave Kroupa and Amy Flora (both in back row) with their two children in an undated archival photo from the 2000s in “Lover, Stalker, Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Lover, Stalker, Killer” is a skillfully told true-crime documentary that keeps its perspective centered entirely on the victims, their loved ones and law enforcement. It’s a bizarre and fascinating case that doesn’t glorify the perpetrator. The perpetrator’s point of view isn’t really needed since there are no legitimate excuses for the heinous crimes committed in this case.

Directed by Sam Hobkinson, “Lover, Stalker, Killer” has an uncluttered, easy-to-follow style that is gripping from beginning to end, even if viewers already know the answers to the mystery and how the case ended after it went to trial. The documentary does not have interviews with the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s friends or family, or any defense attorneys. These omissions might irritate some viewers who want to know more about the perpetrator, but the more important takeaway from this documentary is how the survivors of these crimes coped with their ordeals and sought justice.

“Lover, Stalker, Killer” is told mainly from the perspective of Dave Kroupa, a longtime mechanic/automotive technician in Nebraska, who became one of the targets of a homicidal stalker. He is the main narrator of the documentary, which is formatted like a “whodunit mystery” to keep viewers in suspense if they don’t know the whole story. Kroupa’s online dating activities were the catalyst for the perpetrator to cause the murder and mayhem that damaged many people’s lives.

The problems started in 2012, when Kroupa had recently moved to Omaha, Nebraska, after a breakup with a former co-worker named Amy Flora, who was his live-in partner. Kroupa and Flora became a couple in 2000, and had two children (a son and a daughter) together. Flora and Kroupa both say in the documentary that their breakup was because they eventually grew apart.

Kroupa describes how his love life was in 2012 this way: “I was wild and free at 35, and I was determined to enjoy it.” He went on multiple dating websites, including Plenty of Fish, which is the only dating website mentioned in the documentary. Through these online dating sites, he met several women. Early on in his online dating experiences, he dated two women (both single mothers) around the same period of time. Both women were about the same age as Kroupa was at the time.

Kroupa says in the documentary that he made it clear to both women from the beginning that he didn’t want to be in a committed or monogamous relationship and he was only interested in casually dating them. He says that both women willingly agreed to this arrangement. Kroupa describes his relationships with both women as fun and compatible in the beginning.

The woman he dated first was Shanna “Liz” Golyar, who had a son and a daughter and owned a cleaning company in Omaha. When things started to cool down between Kroupa and Golyar, Kroupa began dating Cari Farver, an office worker with an interest in computers and who had a son. Farver lived in Macedonia, Iowa, but she worked in Omaha, near the automotive company where Kroupa had been working at the time.

Shortly after Kroupa began dating Farver (about two weeks), Golyar unexpectedly came over to Kroupa’s house to pick up something that she left behind. Kroupa and Farver happened to be on a date at Kroupa’s place at the time. Farver also sometimes stayed overnight at Kroupa’s home since it was close to her job. The two women were briefly introduced, and then Golyar left.

It wasn’t long after this incident when Kroupa began getting harassing messages by text and email from someone identifying herself as Farver. The messages would have insults and other derogatory remarks about Kroupa and Golyar. Kroupa ended the relationship with Farver, but the harassment escalated and eventually included stalking; arson of Golyar’s home; a break-in and burglary of Kroupa’s home; vandalism of Kroupa’s car and Golyar’s car; and violent threats to Kroupa, Golyar, Flora, and the children of Kroupa and Flora.

Meanwhile, Farver couldn’t be located after the harassment began, even when law enforcement did extensive stakeouts and investigations. Farver’s mother Nancy Raney (who is interviewed in the documentary) reported to law enforcement that she received messages by social media, email and text from someone identifying as Farver who was using Farver’s phone and accounts for email and social media. The messages said that Farver had taken a job (with an annual salary of $100,000) in Nebraska and that she didn’t want anyone looking for her. The messages also said that Farver expected her mother to look after Farver’s son.

Farver had bipolar disorder, but Raney insisted to investigators that this mental illness was not the reason why Farver disappeared. Raney also firmly believed that Farver was not doing the harassing and had a feeling that something bad must have happened to Farver, who would not willingly abandon her son. Raney reported Farver as a missing person to authorities, because Raney had not seen or spoken to her daughter by phone after getting these written-only messages.

The news media and investigators at the time could only point to Farver as the main suspect in the harassment, which continued over the course of three years. Farver still could not be located, and there was no proof that she was still alive. It’s at this point in the documentary that it’s easy to figure out who the culprit is and the real motives for these crimes.

By 2015, the case took a turn through the diligent efforts of three people working at the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office in Iowa: Jim Doty, a sergeant; his best friend Ryan Avis, an investigator; and Tony Kava, who worked in the information technology department. What’s even more remarkable is that Kava did most of his work while having a brain tumor, but he decided to delay having brain surgery until an arrest had been made in the case. Doty, Avis, and Kava are interviewed in the documentary to given an inside account of how they were able to solve the case.

Other people interviewed are Chris LeGrow (who was a detective at the time for the Omaha Police Department) and Brenda Beadle, a chief deputy at Douglas County Attorney’s Office in Nebraska. All of the interviewees in the documentary give their crucial views and their step-by-step process in this disturbing case. Ultimately, “Lover, Stalker, Killer” is a compelling story about how crime victims and law enforcement can work together to get justice.

Netflix premiered “Lover, Stalker, Killer” on February 9, 2024

2024 Screen Actors Guild Awards: ‘Succession,’ is the top nominee

January 10, 2024

Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin in “Succession” (Photo by Claudette Barius/HBO)

The following is a press release from the Screen Actors Guild:

[Editor’s note: “Succession” has five nominations. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” have four nominations each.]

Nominees for the 30th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards® honoring outstanding individual, cast and ensemble performances for the past year were announced by Issa Rae (Barbie, American Fiction, Insecure) and Kumail Nanjiani (Welcome to Chippendales, The Big Sick) via Instagram Live. The nominees for outstanding action performances by film and television stunt ensembles were announced by SAG Awards Committee Members Jason George and Woody Schultz with an introduction by SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher.

The 30th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, produced by Silent House Productions in partnership with SAG-AFTRA, will stream live globally on Netflix Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT from the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall.

To replay the announcement, follow the SAG Awards® on Instagram @sagawards

As previously announced, the legendary actor, singer, producer, writer, and director Barbra Streisand will be honored with the SAG Life Achievement Award for career achievements and humanitarian accomplishments during the 30th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony.

One of awards season’s premier events, the SAG Awards annually celebrates the outstanding motion picture and television performances from the previous calendar year (SAG Awards Eligibility Period: January 1, 2023 – December 31, 2023). Of the top industry honors presented to actors, only the SAG Awards are selected entirely by performers’ peers in SAG-AFTRA with 119,515 eligible voters. Final voting opens on Wednesday, Jan. 17 and closes at Noon PT on Friday, Feb. 23.

The Motion Picture Nominees are:
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role
BRADLEY COOPER / Leonard Bernstein – “MAESTRO”
CILLIAN MURPHY / J. Robert Oppenheimer – “OPPENHEIMER”
JEFFREY WRIGHT / Thelonious “Monk” Ellison – “AMERICAN FICTION”
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
CAREY MULLIGAN / Felicia Montealegre – “MAESTRO”
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
EMILY BLUNT / Kitty Oppenheimer – “OPPENHEIMER”
JODIE FOSTER / Bonnie Stoll – “NYAD”
Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
ADAM BRODY / Wiley Valdespino
STERLING K. BROWN / Clifford Ellison
KEITH DAVID / Willy the Wonker
ISSA RAE / Sintara Golden
LESLIE UGGAMS / Agnes Ellison
JEFFREY WRIGHT / Thelonious “Monk” Ellison
ISSA RAE / Barbie
HALLE BAILEY / Young Nettie
CIARA / Nettie
ROBERT DE NIRO / William Hale
LILY GLADSTONE / Mollie Burkhart
JOHN LITHGOW / Prosecutor Peter Leaward
EMILY BLUNT / Kitty Oppenheimer
MATT DAMON / Leslie Groves
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. / Lewis Strauss
JOSH HARTNETT / Ernest Lawrence
RAMI MALEK / David Hill
CILLIAN MURPHY / J. Robert Oppenheimer
FLORENCE PUGH / Jean Tatlock
The Television Program Nominees are:
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Limited Series
MATT BOMER / Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller – “FELLOW TRAVELERS”
JON HAMM / Roy Tillman – “FARGO”
STEVEN YEUN / Danny Cho – “BEEF”
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Limited Series
ALI WONG / Amy Lau – “BEEF”
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series
EBON MOSS-BACHRACH / Richard “Richie” Jerimovich – “THE BEAR”
JEREMY ALLEN WHITE / Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto – “THE BEAR”
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series
AYO EDEBIRI / Sydney Adamu – “THE BEAR”
Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series
SALIM DAW / Mohamed Al Fayed
LUTHER FORD / Prince Harry
LESLEY MANVILLE / Princess Margaret
ED MCVEY / Prince William
JAMES MURRAY / Prince Andrew
JONATHAN PRYCE / Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
IMELDA STAUNTON / Queen Elizabeth II
MARCIA WARREN / Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
DOMINIC WEST / Prince Charles
OLIVIA WILLIAMS / Camilla Parker Bowles
DENÉE BENTON / Peggy Scott
CARRIE COON / Bertha Russell
KELLEY CURRAN / Mrs. Winterton
TAISSA FARMIGA / Gladys Russell
DAVID FURR / Dashiell Montgomery
WARD HORTON / Charles Fane
SIMON JONES / Bannister
SULLIVAN JONES / T. Thomas Fortune
NATHAN LANE / Ward McAllister
MATILDA LAWLER / Frances Montgomery
AUDRA MCDONALD / Dorothy Scott
DEBRA MONK / Armstrong
KELLI O’HARA / Aurora Fane
PATRICK PAGE / Richard Clay
BLAKE RITSON / Oscar van Rhijn
MORGAN SPECTOR / George Russell
NICOLE BEHARIE / Christina Hunter
BILLY CRUDUP / Cory Ellison
JON HAMM / Paul Marks
GRETA LEE / Stella Bak
TIG NOTARO / Amanda Robinson
BRIAN COX / Logan Roy
DAGMARA DOMINCZYK / Karolina Novotney
ARIAN MOAYED / Stewy Hosseini
DAVID RASCHE / Karl Muller
ALAN RUCK / Connor Roy
J. SMITH-CAMERON / Gerri Kellman
ZOË WINTERS / Kerry Castellabate
Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series
QUINTA BRUNSON / Janine Teagues
SHERYL LEE RALPH / Barbara Howard
LISA ANN WALTER / Melissa Schemmenti
FRED MELAMED / Tom Posorro
STEPHEN ROOT / Monroe Fuches
HENRY WINKLER / Gene Cousineau
AYO EDEBIRI / Sydney Adamu
ABBY ELLIOTT / Natalie “Sugar” Berzatto
EBON MOSS-BACHRACH / Richard “Richie” Jerimovich
OLIVER PLATT / Jimmy “Cicero” Kalinowski
JEREMY ALLEN WHITE / Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto
STEVE MARTIN / Charles-Haden Savage
PAUL RUDD / Ben Glenroy
JEREMY SHAMOS / Dickie Glenroy
MARTIN SHORT / Oliver Putnam
MERYL STREEP / Loretta Durkin
ADAM COLBORNE / Baz Primrose
PHIL DUNSTER / Jamie Tartt
KEVIN “KG” GARRY / Paul La Fleur
BILLY HARRIS / Colin Hughes
ANTHONY HEAD / Rupert Mannion
BRENDAN HUNT / Coach Beard
TOHEEB JIMOH / Sam Obisanya
JAMES LANCE / Trent Crimm
NICK MOHAMMED / Nathan Shelley
JEREMY SWIFT / Leslie Higgins
JUNO TEMPLE / Keeley Jones
BRONSON WEBB / Jeremy Blumenthal
KATY WIX / Barbara
The Stunt Ensemble Honors Nominees are:
Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture
Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Television Series
About the Screen Actors Guild Awards®
The 30th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards®, presented by SAG-AFTRA with Screen Actors Guild Awards, LLC will be executive produced by Jon Brockett and Silent House Productions alongside producers for SAG-AFTRA JoBeth Williams, Daryl Anderson, Jason George, Elizabeth McLaughlin and Woody Schultz. The ceremony will stream live globally on Netflix Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT from the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall. One of awards season’s premier events, the SAG Awards annually celebrates the outstanding motion picture and television performances of the year. Voted on by SAG-AFTRA’s robust and diverse membership of 119,000+ performers, the SAG Awards has the largest voting body on the awards circuit. Beloved for its style, simplicity, and genuine warmth, the show has become an industry favorite and one of the most prized honors since its debut in 1995.
About Silent House Group
Formed in 2021 by CEO Baz Halpin, Silent House Group is comprised of three companies – Silent House Productions, Silent House Studios, and Silent House Events – which together form one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded, full-service design and production agencies focused on live and unscripted programming across all media platforms. The agency kicked off 2024 by winning the Outstanding Variety Special Creative Arts Emmy Award for their work on Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love, in addition to four other Emmy nominations for the special, and up next will produce the 30th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards as Netflix’s first-ever live awards show. Most recently, the award-winning agency produced the Golden Globe-nominated blockbuster film Taylor Swift I The Eras Tour in partnership with Taylor Swift Productions and has worked with such prominent clients as Beyonce, Adele, Katy Perry, Usher, Harry Styles, Jonas Brothers, Apple, Madison Square Garden Entertainment, CNN, among many others. For more information on Silent House Group, please visit:
About Netflix
Netflix is one of the world’s leading entertainment services with over 247 million paid memberships in over 190 countries enjoying TV series, films and games across a wide variety of genres and languages. Members can play, pause and resume watching as much as they want, anytime, anywhere, and can change their plans at any time.

Review: ‘Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare,’ starring Debbie Cartisano, Lance Jaggar, Chris Smith, Sharon Fuqua and Charles Brofman

December 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

An archival Challenger Foundation photo from “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare”

Directed by Liza Williams

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Asian person) talking about their experiences with controversial entrepreneur Steve Cartisano and the high-priced “wilderness therapy” camps that he founded for troubled juveniles.

Culture Clash: Cartisano, who died of a heart attack in 2019, at the age of 63, was sued several times and had many allegations that his camps illegally abused the children who were forced to be there. 

Culture Audience: “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that show how abuse and exploitation are excused or covered up, but some questions remain unanswered by the end of the movie.

An archival photo of Debbie Cartisano and Steve Cartisano from “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” succeeds in being a cautionary documentary about the dangers of boot camps that claim to be “tough love” rehab for juvenile delinquents. But the movie needed better investigative journalism about the sexual abuse allegations mentioned near the end. Sensitive viewers, be warned: This documentary is disturbing in its details of child abuse. It’s also the type of documentary that will be infuriating to anyone who thinks the perpetrators exploited the system to get away with horrible acts of violence and other crimes.

Directed by Liza Williams, “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” begins with an awkward mention of celebrity socialite Paris Hilton going public in 2020 about experiencing physical and emotional abuse at various group facilities that she was sent to when she was a “wild child” teenager. At the beginning and end of the documentary, there’s archival footage of a 2021 press conference where Hilton and Ro Khanna (a U.S. Representative from California) made statements, after a congressional hearing to introduce a bill to protect children from abuse in group facilities. After showing this footage in the beginning, the documentary mentions that the documentary actually isn’t about Hilton’s experiences but about the “wilderness therapy” camps founded by Steve Cartisano, who is considered to be the “godfather” of this controversial way of dealing with troubled kids. (In 2019, when he was 63, Cartisano died of a heart attack while he had cancer.)

The mention of Hilton is the documentary’s way of saying that if this abuse could happen to a wealthy heiress, it can happen to anyone. However, it comes across as just using a celebrity name to hook people into watching the movie. The fact of the matter is that “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” is about the types of experiences where children were isolated and deprived of food and bathroom facilities for long periods of time and forced to do strenuous physical activities outdoors in extreme weather conditions. This not the same type of abuse that Hilton said she experienced at a boarding school such as Provo Canyon School in Utah, where she says she was treated like an indoor prisoner and deprived of sunlight for long periods of time.

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” places much of the blame for “wildnerness therapy” camps on Cartisano, who is considered to be the first person to take this concept and market it into a business that can generate millions of revenue every year. These camps do not operate like juvenile detention facilities, where kids are sent by the court system. These camps have the kids’ parents or legal guardians sign over the right for the kids to be forcibly taken to these camps, with the intent of punishing the kids enough to scare them out of their troublemaking ways.

Cartisano was a former U.S. Air Force instructor and military special forces officer who had a troubled childhood himself. As mentioned in the documentary, his biological parents gave him up for adoption, and then took him back when he was 2 years old. His biological mother was a heroin addict who died when he was 17. His biological father was reportedly physically abusive.

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” has horrific stories from survivors of programs founded by Cartisano, who was mostly based in Utah. And even though he was sued and faced numerous allegations of child abuse in these programs, he would just shut down a program when it had too many legal problems and then start a new business under a different name and in a different location. According to the documentary, rather than toning down the extreme methods used in each program, Cartisano made each subsequent program worse than its predecessor.

First, there was the Challenger Foundation, which Cartisano founded in 1988. The Challenger Foundation sent kids to an isolated area in Utah and made them go on 500-mile hikes to get food. The children were also deprived of bathroom facilities and indoor sleeping quarters. The Challenger Foundation’s biggest controversy was the death of Kristen Chase, a 16-year-old who died in 1990, after she hiked a long distance in extreme heat while enrolled in the Challenger Foundation. Chase’s tragic passing resulted in a wrongful-death lawsuit, whose outcome is detailed in the documentary.

Legal and financial problems led to the demise of the Challenger Foundation, but that didn’t stop Cartisano from being in the “child reform” business. In the early 1990s, he moved on to founding HealthCare America, based in St. Thomas and later in Costa Rica. Instead of making the kids hike in a Utah desert, the kids had to live in harsh conditions on sailboats that went to various places in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

Pacific Coast Academy, based in Samoa, was Cartisano’s business in the 2000s. He often used the alias Steve Michaels during his Pacific Coast Academy years. Pacific Coast Academy had plans to build a massive facility and used many of the kids in the program as unpaid and untrained workers to do the construction. Critics of Cartisano say that he intentionally misled desperate parents into thinking that the kids enrolled in his programs would be in a safe and healthy environment.

The Challenger Foundation had a 63-day program, but people interviewed in the documentary say that it was not unusual for kids enrolled in the program to stay longer than 63 days if they were being “punished” for not complying with the rules. Other kids stayed longer than 63 days, simply because their parents didn’t want them to come home after the 63 days. Of course, there was an obvious incentive for the camps to extend the enrollment: more money could be made from the people paying to have the kids at the camp.

The documentary makes it clear that it’s not a coincidence that after the scandals that Cartisano had in the United States, he took his operations to countries or territories that had less restrictive laws about the type of business that he was doing. “Hell Camp” also has stories of how Cartisano’s employees would dodge authorities who would investigate complaints about Cartisano’s businesses. A disclaimer at the end of the documentary mentions that any businesses that currently have the names Challenger Foundation, HealthCare America and Pacific Coast Academy have nothing to do with companies founded by Cartisano.

Several survivors of Cartisano’s “hell camps” are interviewed in the documentary. The survivors are identified by their first names only, but their faces and voices are undisguised. The survivors who are interviewed were sent to Cartisano’s camps as teenagers, usually ages 13 to 16. Almost all of them say that the reasons they were sent to the camp were because they had drug problems. Some enrollees had other issues too, such as committing petty crimes, skipping school, or running away from home.

All of them describe experiencing physical abuse from Cartisano’s employees, including assaults, lack of medical care for injuries, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, and basic hygiene deprivation. And they say there was constant verbal and emotional abuse. All of them also say that they’ve had long-term trauma from these terrible experiences.

Challenger Foundation survivors interviewed in the documentary are Nadine, who was in the program in 1989, at the age of 15; a woman named Kinney, who was in the program in 1988, at the age of 13; and Matthew, who was in the program in 1990, at age 15. HealthCare America survivors interviewed are Adam, who was in the program in 1993, at the age of 13; and Ashley, who was in the program in 1993, at the age of 15.

The Pacific Coast Academy survivors who are interviewed are Kurt, who was in the program in 2000, at age 15; and Amber, who was in the program in 2000, at the age of 14. Kurt and Amber knew each other as friendly acquaintances before being in the program, but that all changed when Kurt and other teens in the program were ordered to torture some of the enrollees, including Amber. Kurt admits to it in the documentary, but he says he was just following orders and was too afraid to say no.

Adam’s stoic father Larry is also interviewed and doesn’t seem to have much regret about sending Adam to the HealthCare America program, although he does get a little emotional when he watches an old video of him making a surprise visit to a sobbing Adam in Costa Rica. Larry also says he didn’t know how brutally Adam was treated until it was too late. Larry is one of two parents of a camp survivor to be interviewed in the documentary.

By contrast, Matthew’s mother Kari expresses regret about putting him in the Challenger Foundation program. She remembers thinking at the time about the Challenger Foundation: “I didn’t know what else to do, but this sounds good.” Sharon Fuqua, who sued Cartisano for the wrongful death of her daughter Kristen Chase, is also interviewed, along with Fuqua’s son David, who is Kristen’s younger brother.

Cartisano’s family members and close associates who are interviewed in the documentary don’t really deny the abuse, but they go out of their way to downplay his responsibility in being the leader of a business that enabled or encouraged the abuse. His ex-wife Debbie Cartisano is the one who does the most to push the narrative that Steve was a “good guy” who “meant well” with these programs, but the way his employees behaved was “beyond his control” when he wasn’t at the camps. She also seems more interested in talking about the financial hardships that she had to go through every time Steve had shut down another one of his businesses, rather than Debbie acknowledging any suffering that any child victims experienced because of those businesses.

Also interviewed are Debbie and Steve’s daughter Catie, who openly talks about her troubled teen years of drug addiction and how she recovered from it. Her brother Dave also had the same problems and was sent to Pacific Coast Academy. (He is not interviewed in the documentary, which mentions what happened to Dave.)

Catie says in the documentary: “My dad was brilliant.” But she admits that the scandals and controversies took a toll on the family, and she wanted him to change careers: “I wanted him to do something different. I wanted our family to be normal.” Debbie also says that she wanted Steve to get out of the “child reform” business, but he refused.

The only former Cartisano camp employee interviewed in the documentary is Lance “Horsehair” Jaggar, who says that he immediately bonded with Steve because they were both veterans of the U.S. Air Force. Jaggar is unapologetic about the harsh tactics that were used on the children at these camps. Jaggar says that he doesn’t believe in beatings as punishment, but he thinks spankings are perfectly acceptable. The documentary has archival footage of Jaggar yelling insults at some of the Challenger Foundation kids. You get the feeling that whatever was on camera was very tame compared to what wasn’t on camera.

Jaggar makes this not-very-believable comment about how the kids were treated in these camps: “We broke them down, but we didn’t break them down to hurt them. We didn’t break them down to punish them. We broke them down to get rid of the old crap and help them be a better and more positive person.”

He adds with a sadistic smirk, “Some of the kids were so scared, they’d almost pass out. And that was fine by me. I wanted them to have a little fear. [For] a lot of these kids, this was it, or they were going to jail.”

Also interviewed in the documentary are reporter Chris Smith, who investigated and did news reports of Cartisano camp operations and scandals; attorney Charles Brofman, who represented Steve in several lawsuits; Max Jackson, former sheriff of Utah’s Kane County; and a former U.S. Embassy worker who is only identified by her first name: Mary Lou. The documentary includes a lot of archival footage, such as news reports, interviews that Steve did, and grainy-looking video recordings that were taken at the camps.

Although there is a variety of people interviewed for the documentary, what’s missing is more investigation into the sexual abuse allegations that aren’t mentioned until the last 20 minutes of the movie. Amber says she was sexually abused by a “chief of the village” during her time at Pacific Coast Academy, but the documentary doesn’t mention if the filmmakers followed up on this allegation to try to find this accused abuser to get his side of the story.

And there’s another sexual abuse allegation against someone else that isn’t too surprising, but this allegation is shown so late in the film, it seems like it was mainly put there for shock purposes. The documentary does not give any indication if this allegation is isolated or possibly the tip of the iceberg. If the allegation against this person is true, it’s highly likely that there are many more victims of the same type of sexual abuse, but the “Hell Camp” filmmakers didn’t seem to want to do more investigating.

Even with some noticeable flaws, “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” is a searing look at this unsettling fact: Even when so many people speak their truths about being abused, there are still others who deny or excuse the abuse. This documentary is also a wake-up call about why these types of programs are thriving in a society that should have better ways of dealing with child delinquency. Of course, there are no easy answers, but it should be easy to know when discipline crosses the line into unacceptable and illegal abuse.

Netflix premiered “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” on December 27, 2023.

Review: ‘Holiday in the Vineyards,’ starring Josh Swickard, Sol Rodríguez, Eileen Davidson, Omar Gooding, Carly Jibson, Julian Rangel and Carlos Solórzano

December 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Josh Swickard and Sol Rodríguez in “Holiday in the Vineyards” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Holiday in the Vineyards”

Directed by Alex Ranarivelo

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the comedy film “Holiday in the Vineyards” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, Latino and African American) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An irresponsible playboy goes undercover to get confidential business information for his wine mogul mother, but he falls for the woman whom he has deceived to get this information.

Culture Audience: “Holiday in the Vineyards” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching inoffensive and undemanding romantic comedies.

Omar Gooding in “Holiday in the Vineyards” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Holiday in the Vineyards” is pleasant and predictable, but not in a way that’s cloying or irritating. Unlike many romantic comedies of its kind, everything in the story is believable. Some parts are dull and uneven, but the movie is watchable overall. It’s the type of film where most viewers will know how the movie ends before the movie begins, but the movie’s characters will keep viewers interested.

Directed by Alex Ranarivelo, “Holiday in the Vineyards” is the cinematic equivalent of a low-priced romance novel that is an easy way to pass the time. “Holiday in the Vineyards” (written by Cecilia Franco and David Zanardi) has an easygoing screenplay that follows a familiar formula of an irresponsible man who might be redeemed by the love of a good woman. It’s also one of those romantic comedies that involves someone telling a big lie to potential love interest, so there romance could be ruined if the deceived person finds out about the lie.

“Holiday in the Vineyards” (formerly titled “A Wine Country Christmas”) begins by showing hard-partying playboy Carter Baldwyn (played by Josh Swickard) waking up on a golf course, after being passed out drunk. Carter is very hung over and is running late for a lunch meeting with his widowed mother Margo Baldwyn (played by Eileen Davidson), who is very bossy and judgmental. She is the owner of the California-based family business called Baldwyn Wines, which is a financially successful company that sells low-quality wine.

Margo has become accustomed to Carter being flaky, but she’s losing her patience with him. Margo’s father-in-law George Baldwyn (who is deceased) founded Baldwyn Wines. She wants to retire in the near future but is determined to keep the business in the family. And so, Margo expects Carter (who is an only child) to eventually take over the company.

However, Margo has serious doubts that Carter is capable of being the leader of anything. He has a history of being flaky and selfish. He was engaged to a woman named Emma Dixon (played by Annika Noelle), who had Margo’s approval. However, Carter called off the wedding and callously told Emma by text that he decided to break up with her.

While Margo waits for Carter to show up for the lunch meeting, Margo is rude to a waiter who serves her some Baldwin win at this lunch meeting. She spits out the wine and barks at the waiter: “We sell this wine! We don’t drink it!” She then orders the waiter to serve her the high-quality wine that she thinks she deserves.

During the meeting between Margo and Carter, she tells him that she wants to go to the rural town of Los Santos, where she wants to buy a property in foreclosure called Huckabee Vineyard Estate. Margo has heard that there’s a rival company that might be bidding on ths property. Carter has been given the task of going undercover at Los Santos to try to find out any insider information to help Margo have the upper hand in closing this deal.

Margo orders Carter to “blend in” when he’s in Los Santos. And that means Carter can’t call attention to himself as the spoiled and wealthy heir of Baldwyn Wines. Through a series of circumstances, Carter makes an impromptu decision to pretend that he’s a carpenter. It’s a lie that he tells to several people in Los Santos, including the main target of his undercover investigation: Valentina Espinoza (played by Sol Rodríguez), the real-estate agent that is representing Huckabee Vineyard Estate in the sale.

Valentina is a lonely and grieving young widow, whose husband Chris died of cancer. The movie doesn’t say how long he’s been dead, but it appears to be less than two years. Valentina and Chris’ two sons are Fernando (played by Julian Rangel ), who’s about 10 or 11 years old, and Santiago, nicknamed Santi (played by Carlos Solórzano), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Valentina gets help from her best friend Cindy (played by Carly Jibson), who is a nurse, in taking care of the children.

It just so happens that Valentina has a guest house that is dire need of a cleanup and renovation. Chris and Valentina have their “meet cute” moment (he crashes a private tour that she’s giving of Huckabee Vineyard Estate), he eagerly accepts Valentina’s offer for him to stay in the guest house. His glee quickly turns to dismay when Valentina says he can stay there for free on one condition: He has to renovate the guest house with supplies, which she says shouldn’t be a problem for Chris because he told her that he’s a carpenter.

Valentina says she will pay for all of the supplies and sends Chris goes to a local store called Walker Hardware. Mo Walker (played by Omar Gooding), the store’s friendly and helpful owner, quickly figures out that Chris has lied to Valentina about being a carpenter. Omar thinks that Chris told this lie because Chris wants to date Valentina. Chris denies that he hs a romantic interest in Valentina, but we all know where this story is going. The movie shows as soon as Carter arrives in Los Santos that the town is having an upcoming event on December 23 called the Holiday Garagiste and Artisanal Wine Festival.

“Holiday in the Vineyards” has a lot of the expected occurrences in a “bad boy/good girl” romance formula, where a “bad boy” has to do some soul-searching about his part harmful actions, in order become a better person who’s “worthy” of the love of the “good girl.” Carter goes from someone who’s a commitment-phobic bachelor who can’t picture himself spending too much time taking care of kids to someone who is surprised at how good he is with Valentina’s children and how much he likes the small-town life of Los Santos.

Meanwhile, Valentina also has to rethink how much her grief is holding her back from trying to find happiness and romantic love again. “Holiday in the Vineyards” realistically shows the hesitancy of a widowed person who is afraid and reluctant to get back into the dating scenes. As attractive and accomplished as Valentina is, she not immune from insecurities and sadness. Rodríguez’s portrayal of Valentina is some of the best acting in the movie.

The “sidekick” characters of Cindy and Mo bring most of the movie’s comedy in ways that are often stereotypical, with some of their jokes landing better than other jokes. Cindy is a jokester and a flirtatious bachelorette who is looking for love. And you can almost do a countdown to the scene where Cindy meets Mo, who is also single, and predict how she’s going to react to him.

Mo is an amateur winemaker who makes wine out of his garage, but his wine needs a lot of improvement, to put it nicely. A running joke in the movie is that Mo often asks Carter for Carter’s opinion on Mo’s wine. Every time Carter drinks Mo’s wine, Carter gags and/or spits out the wine.

“Holiday in the Vineyards” doesn’t have any big surprises. But thankfully, there are no over-the-top and ridiculous scenes of people declaring they’ve fallen in love with each other and want to spend the rest of their lives with a love interest whom they’ve known for less than a week. Any transformation that Carter might go through is well-earned and doesn’t looked forced. The romance in the story, just like this movie, is sweet and has enough charm to keep most viewers interested.

Netflix premiered “Holiday in the Vineyards” on December 13, 2023.

Review: ‘Leave the World Behind’ (2023), starring Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, Kevin Bacon, Farrah Mackenzie and Charlie Evans

December 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Mahershala Ali, Myha’la, Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke in “Leave the World Behind” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Leave the World Behind” (2023)

Directed by Sam Esmail

Some language in Spanish with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, the sci-fi/dramatic film “Leave the World Behind” (based on the 2020 novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, one Latina and one Asian person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A group of people in a quiet Long Island neighborhood have different reactions when they find out that they are experiencing some kind of apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “Leave the World Behind” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s headliners and apocalyptic dramas that leave room for elements of mystery.

Charlie Evans and Farrah Mackenzie in “Leave the World Behind” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The apocalyptic drama “Leave the World Behind” isn’t really about any faraway, unknown enemies responsible for the attack. It’s more about how people respond to a crisis when they think enemies are closer to home. The movie’s story might frustrate viewers who want a more definitive ending, but “Leave the World Behind” is supposed to be an observational commentary on how people can have very different reactions if they think they are experiencing an apocalypse.

Written and directed by Sam Esmail, “Leave the World Behind” is based on Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel of the same name. It’s a mostly suspenseful movie that occasionally drags and gets repetitive in some areas when it becomes obvious that certain characters are stuck being where they are during a massive cyberattack that sends things into chaos. Viewers will get more satisfaction from watching “Leave the World Behind” if they don’t expect the movie to answer the question of how the cyberattack happened. It’s more important to see “Leave the World Behind” for what it is: an exploration of why the characters say and do the things they do during this attack.

“Leave the World Behind” begins by introducing the four-person family whose weekend vacation is disrupted by this mysterious catastrophe. Upper-middle-class spouses Amanda Sandford (played by Julia Roberts) and Clay Sandford (played by Ethan Hawke) live in New York City with their two children: 16-year-old Archie Sandford (played by Charlie Evans) and Rosie Evans (played by Farrah Mackenzie), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Clay wakes up one morning to find out that Amanda has spontaneously rented a luxury vacation home on New York’s Long Island for the family to have a getaway weekend.

Amanda, who is an ad agency executive, is domineering and has a prickly personality. Early on the movie, she tells Clay one of the main reasons why she wants to have this getaway trip: “I hate people.” Clay, who is a book author, is friendly and easygoing. Amanda tends to think the worst of people, while Clay is much more open-minded and optimistic.

Archie and Amanda are generally well-behaved adolescents, but they have their occasional bratty or rebellious moments. Archie spends a lot of time playing video games, while Amanda is currently obsessed with watching all of the episode of the sitcom “Friends” in chronological order. Amanda is generally more curious than Archie is, but she is also more high-strung and more likely to get agitated.

When the Sandfords arrive at the house, which is near a beach, things seem to be going very well. Rose does some grocery shopping at a nearby store and notice a man in the parking lot. He’s stocking his truck with a lot of water and canned goods, as if he’s preparing for an emergency. Viewers later find out that this man is a contractor named Danny (played by Kevin Bacon), who is indeed a “doomsday prepper.”

It isn’t long before bizarre thngs start to happen. The Sandfords are at a beach that is fairly crowded when an oil tanker slowly heads toward the beach and then crashes on the beach. Luckily, no one on the beach gets hurt, but it appears to be a ship that got there on its own, since no one is inside the ship. The beach patrol employees have no answer for this weird incident.

Later, when the Sandfords are back at the house, Amanda notices that there is no longer any WiFi service and phone service in the house. Clay and Amanda also notice a mother deer and her kid in the house’s backyard. As already shown in the trailers for “Leave the World Behind” the Sandfords will be seeing a lot more deer in the near future. Observant viewers will notice that the appearances of groups of animals are supposed to be connected to the high-pitched noises that the people in the movie end up hearing.

Later that night, sometime after midnight, the Sandfords get some unexpected visitors, who knock at the front door. The kids are asleep, so Amanda and Clay open the door and find two strangers who are dressed like they just came from a formal event: George “G.H.” Scott (played by Mahershala Ali) politely introduces himself and his daughter Ruth (played by Myha’la, also known as Myha’la Herrold), who’s about 18 or 19 years old. (In the “Leave the World Behind” book,” Ruth is G.H.’s wife.)

G.H. says he’s sorry for showing up unannounced so late at night, but he explains that he’s the owner of the house. G.H. explains that he and Ruth were attending a symphony concert in New York City, which is experiencing a sudden blackout. They live in a 14th-floor apartment, but G.H. has a bad knee and would have to walk up a flight up stairs to get to the apartment, since the building’s elevator isn’t working during the blackout. Instead, they decided to drive to their Long Island home and spend the night there.

Amanda knows that she communicated by email with the house’s owner, but she never saw a photo of him before she rented the place. Her immediate reaction is to be suspicious. She expresses doubt and surprise that G.H. owns the house. G.H. later mentions that he’s a financial manager and that he’s owned the house for the past 20 years,.

Amanda’s reaction has racial undertones, since Amanda is white, and the Scotts are African American. Amanda doesn’t say it out loud, but she finds it hard to believe that black people could own this house. She’s reluctant to let them into the house, but Clay is much more trusting and gracious and lets G.H. and Ruth inside to continue the conversation.

Amanda gets even more suspicious when she asks G.H. to show his photo ID to prove who he says he is, but G.H. says he left his photo ID in the jacket he was wearing at the symphony. In the chaos of the blackout, he left the jacket behind at the venue. To prove that he at least knows the house, G.H. uses keys to open a drawer, where he takes out an envelope of cash.

G.H. and Ruth offer to stay in the basement during this unexpected visit. As an apology and to make up for the inconvenience, G.H. offers to give Clay and Amanda $1,000 in cash, which is half of the cost that Amanda and Clay paid for the weekend rental. Amanda still doesn’t G.H. and Ruth, but Clay convinces her to accept this deal.

In a private conversation that Amanda has with Clay, she says that G.H. and Ruth could be servants of the house’s owner, and this unexpected visit could be a set-up for a robbery. Clay thinks she’s being too paranoid. Because there is no WiFi and no phone service in the house, the Sandfords have no way of verifying what G.H. is saying.

There’s a period of time, early on in “Leave the World Behind,” when the movie keeps viewers guessing if there will be some kind of confrontation between Amanda and the Scotts. Ruth has immediately picked up on Amanda’s hostility, which can easily be interpreted as racial hostility. In response, Ruth is abrupt and sarcastic in communicating with Amanda.

There’s also apprehension behind Ruth’s demeanor. G.H.’s wife/Ruth’s mother is an art dealer who is away on a trip to Morocco. G.H. have been unable to reach her because of the blackout. And now, they’ve found out that there’s no communication services in their Long Island hom.

However, the WiFi service briefly comes back when Amanda gets news alerts on her phone that say there are cyberattacks happening. But the alerts soon disappear, and she wonders if she imagined what she saw. However, electricity still works in the house, and the TV news is showing that the United States in under a cyberattack from unknown sources. It isn’t long before the house loses electricity too.

Meanwhile, more strange things keep happening, some of which are revealed in the trailers for “Leave the World Behind.” Some of the movie’s visual effects look credible, while other visual effects look too much like the computer-generated imagery that it is. The Scotts and the Sandfords soon find out that the cyberattack has caused planes to crash. Although there are external forces that are causing the widespread disaster, the movie takes a very intimate look at how the some of the story’s main characters cause their own types of internal disarray through mistrust and fear.

“Leave the World Behind” also poses a familiar question that’s often found in stories where people are in life-or-death situations: “Will someone help strangers in need, or will someone only be concerned with helping loved ones?” The movie also shows how, when faced with the possibility of death, how people might see life differently.

The cast members’ performances aren’t award-worthy, but they are competent and believable. “Leave the World Behind” doesn’t follow the usual formula of having a warm-hearted mother for a family in crisis. Amanda is downright unpleasant and isn’t afraid to admit it. However, there are a few moments when some cracks appear in Amanda’s hard shell of a personality. These moments are among the best in “Leave the World Behind,” which isn’t about strong heroics during a crisis but what happens when people during a crisis feel they are their most vulnerable.

Netflix released “Leave the World Behind” in select U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Black Barbie: A Documentary,’ starring Kitty Black Perkins, Stacey McBride-Irby and Beulah Mae Mitchell

November 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Black Barbie: A Documentary” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Black Barbie: A Documentary”

Directed by Lagueria Davis

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Black Barbie: A Documentary” features a predominantly African American group of people (and some white people, Latin people, and Asians) discussing the history of black Barbie dolls and/or racial issues for Barbie dolls.

Culture Clash: There is an ongoing struggle for black Barbie dolls to not be perceived as inferior or less important than white Barbie dolls.

Culture Audience: “Black Barbie: A Documentary” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a documentary about the intersection of Barbie dolls with African American history.

Stacey McBride-Irby, Kitty Black Perkins and Beulah Mae Mitchell in “Black Barbie: A Documentary” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” is essential viewing not just for people who are interested in this often-overlooked part of Barbie doll history but also for people who aren’t fans of Barbie dolls but want to watch a fascinating pop culture documentary. The movie (which has a total running time of 100 minutes) packs in a lot of different layers that are mostly cohesive. The movie is fairly ambitious in how it puts certain things in a broader historical and sociological context, thereby avoiding being a formulaic Barbie doll documentary that would probably ignore these larger issues.

Directed by Lagueria Davis (who wrote and spoke the movie’s narration and is one of the movie’s producers), “Black Barbie: A Documentary” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival and has since made the rounds at numerous other festivals, including its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Festival. Davis has said in many interviews that it took her 12 years to make this documentary. It shows in the amount of meticulous research in “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” which makes everything easier to understand by including a timeline of events.

This not a documentary made by a “Barbie fangirl.” In fact, in her narration, Davis (who occasionally appears on screen in the movie) tells viewers from the beginning that in her childhood, she didn’t even like Barbie dolls and never had an interest in them. She says that what inspired her to make this documentary was hearing stories from her aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell, who was one of the first black employees for Mattel, the Barbie toy manufacturing company, where Mitchell worked from 1955 to 1999.

The first Barbie doll, which went on sale to the mass market in 1959, was invented by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler and was inspired by Ruth’s real-life daughter Barbara. Barbie dolls became a hit because they were not the type of shapeless woman dolls that were usually being sold at the time but were dolls designed to emulate the curves and contours of a fully developed woman. The first black Barbie doll went on sale in 1968, at the height of the Black Power movement.

Mitchell was mostly a receptionist throughout her career at Mattel, but she was privy to a lot of insider information that she shares in the documentary. Mitchell also kept many valuable mementos and memorabilia from her time with Mattel, some of which is shown in this documentary and would be right at home in a Barbie museum. In “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” Mitchell describes Ruth Handler as a kind and generous boss who always asked for feedback from employees on how to improve the company. Nevertheless, for years, Mattel had a blind spot or resistance to the idea of Mattel making Barbie dolls that were any race other than white.

Mitchell says part of that resistance came from cultural conditioning at the time in the United States, when it was more acceptable to “erase” people of color from representation in many areas of life where people of color existed. The image manufactured for Barbie at the time and which still exists today is that Barbie leads a life of glamour and privilege, which are often out of reach for people who are treated as being on the margins of society.

In the documentary, Mitchell comments: “My mother loved dolls. I loved dolls. I loved fashion.” Mitchell remembers that she was growing up, she was so used to seeing only white dolls being sold as the “pretty dolls,” that “it didn’t occur to me” that dolls that weren’t white could be included as “pretty dolls” too. She remembers the usual black dolls that were around in her childhood were the Aunt Jemima dolls that were considered frumpy and unattractive.

The reasons why the first black Barbie wasn’t introduced until 1968 had as much to do with race as economics. There was deep skepticism that there would be enough demand for black Barbie dolls to make the dolls a profitable investment for Mattel. The underlying doubt was that although black people might buy black Barbie dolls, what about white people, the majority race that was buying Barbie dolls?

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” briefly goes off on an interesting but necessary tangent by mentioning the famous Clark doll tests of 1947, as an example of how dolls can often influence how young people think of racial differences. Psychologist spouses Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark conducted tests with white and black children by giving them a choice between choosing a white baby doll or black baby doll. The children almost always chose the white dolls, thereby showing how white supremacist racism can be internalized from a very young age.

These test results were used successfully in arguments in favor of making racial segregation illegal in U.S. public education in the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. However, legislating racial justice in public education is one thing. Trying to do that in the business world is another thing.

As is often the case when white-owned corporate companies exclude representation of races that aren’t white, the excluded races create their own businesses. “Black Barbie: The Documentary” admirably mentions the importance of Shindana Toys, a co-op company that was the first major manufacturer of black dolls and became very successful at it. Shindana Toys, which was in business from 1968 to 1983, was a division of Operation Bootstrap Inc.

Mattel noticed the success of Shindana and saw that there was a viable economic demand to make Barbie dolls more racially inclusive. And so, the first black Barbie doll was launched in 1968. Her name was Christie, who was marketed as a friend of Barbie’s. In 1969, another black Barbie doll named Julia was introduced. Julia was inspired by Diahann Carroll’s title character in the TV comedy series “Julia,” where Carroll starred as a young widowed mother who is a nurse.

Eventually, Mattel responded to requests from consumers to make people of color dolls not just as sidekick friends to Barbie but as dolls named Barbie. Kitty Black Perkins was the designer of Mattel’s first black doll named Barbie, which was introduced in 1979 and went on sale in 1980. Black Perkins, who worked at Mattel from 1976 to 2003, is considered the most influential person at Mattel in creating a wider range of black Barbie dolls.

Black Perkins’ interviews in the documentary are among the most insightful. She mentions that a child psychologist was brough in by Mattel to assess her work when designing Mattel’s first black doll named Barbie. Black Perkins says that psychologist backed off when it was obvious that Black Perkins, as an African American, knew better than the psychologist on what should be done in creating a black Barbie doll. She also says that Mattel gave very little promotion to the first black Barbie doll that she designed.

Black Perkins mentored Stacey McBride-Irby, a Mattel designer who continued Black Perkins’ legacy in creating new black Barbie dolls, when McBride-Irby worked for Mattel from 1996 to 2011. One of the documentary’s highlights is showing Mitchell, Black Perkins and McBride-Irby—three generations of black women who have long histories with Mattel’s Barbie dolls—sitting down together for a talk. Their conversation doesn’t look forced or contrived. It’s a joy to watch. McBride-Irby mentions that her own daughter was an influence in many of McBride Irby’s design decisions for black Barbie dolls.

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” also has the expected array of talking head interviews with Barbie doll collectors, historians, entertainers, cultural experts and former Mattel employees. The movie acknowledges that Mattel has come a long way in diversifying Barbie dolls. However, the documentary also points out that there could be more progress in how Mattel’s “Barbie” animated movies still push the idea that the only Barbie who deserves the most attention has to be a white female who is thin, blonde and pretty.

For example, even though the “Barbie” animated movies have introduced a black Barbie named Brooklyn Barbie as a friend counterpart to white Malibu Barbie, the storylines often still presents Brooklyn Barbie as a sidekick, not the main star of the story. Malibu Barbie is still at the center of the marketing campaigns for these movies. If racism is mentioned in the “Barbie” animated movies, Malibu Barbie does most of the talking about it.

Mason Williams—Mattel’s senior director of diversity, equity, and inclusion—is interviewed in the documentary. He looks visibly uncomfortable in the documentary when he’s confronted with criticism that Mattel’s “Barbie” animated movies still don’t show racial equality among the Barbies. Williams gives a tepid response by saying that these changes take time and won’t happen overnight.

One of the best parts of “Black Barbie: A Documentary” is in the last third of the movie, when it goes beyond just talking head interviews and shows a series of focus groups with children (about 7 to 12 years old, male and female and of diverse races) to discuss what they think when they are presented with various Barbie dolls and are asked questions about these dolls. Yeshiva Davis (a therapist whose specialty is family and marriage) is the leader of these focus groups.

The results of these focus groups are revealing about children’s attitudes about race relations and perceptions of physical attractiveness, as well as how these attitudes affect their judgments of others and themselves. The children’s answers are sometimes funny and sometimes sad but always come across as very unfiltered and honest. Davis is then shown discussing the results of these focus groups with various educators and cultural historians, who comment on the children’s answers.

Perhaps that is the greatest takeaway of “Black Barbie: A Documentary”: It’s not about which black Barbie dolls are bestsellers for Mattel. It’s about how Barbie dolls, like them or not, have a great deal of influence on how people (especially impressionable children) can view the world.

Netflix will premiere “Black Barbie: A Documentary” in 2024, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘American Symphony’ (2023), starring Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad

November 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jon Batiste in “American Symphony” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“American Symphony” (2023)

Directed by Matthew Heineman

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2022, this documentary film of jazz/pop musician Jon Batiste features him, his wife Suleika Jaouad, and a racially diverse group of people (African American, white and a few Asians) as he prepares to do a one-night-only “American Symphony” show at New York City’s Carnegie Hall while experiencing difficulties in his personal life.

Culture Clash: At the time that Batiste was experiencing some career highs (including winning five Grammys that year), Jaouad was battling cancer, which came back after years of being in remission.

Culture Audience: “American Symphony” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Batiste and movies about couples or family members dealing with health challenges.

Suleika Jaouad and Jon Baptiste in “American Symphony” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“American Symphony” is a documentary about love on many different levels in telling the story of musician Jon Batiste and his writer wife Suleika Jaouad during her cancer journey. There are no real surprises but the movie is a bittersweet celebration of life. “American Symphony” is also a musical treat for people who appreciate Batiste’s unique artistry. He also composed the score for this documentary. “American Symphony” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival.

Directed by Matthew Heineman, “American Symphony” (which was filmed in 2022) features voiceover narration from Batiste and Jaouad, indicating that this is as much a documentary about her as it is about him. Batiste just happens to be more famous than his wife, but it’s clear from watching the film that they treat each other as respected equals. Batiste and Jaouad have been a couple since 2014. Their 2022 wedding ceremony is shown in “American Symphony.”

In 2011, Jaouad was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and chronicled her cancer journey in The New York Times column/vlog “Life, Interrupted,” which won an Emmy Award. Batiste is an Oscar-winning composer (for Disney/Pixar’s “Soul”) and was the bad leader/music director for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” from 2015 to 2022. In 2022, he was nominated for 11 Grammys and won five Grammys, including Album of the Year for “We Are.” That same year, he also did a one-night-only show “American Symphony” concert at Carnegie Hall, with the show featuring his original music that reworks classical and jazz.

The documentary shows that at the same time Batiste is experiencing these career highs, Jaouad’s cancer has returned. The day that Batiste found out that he was nominated for 11 Grammys was the same day that Jaouad had to begin chemotherapy. Later, she had to get a bone marrow transplant. “American Symphony” shows how Batiste and Jaouad experience emotional lows that are raw and intense. However, the documentary is a testament to inner strength and the power of a loving support system.

“American Symphony” is also Batiste’s personal reflection of what music has meant to him in his life and how he had to stay true to himself, when other people were telling him to change so he could “fit in” better at the places where he wanted to be. Born in 1986 and raised in the New Orleans area, Batista goes back to his alma mater of Juilliard, which he describes as very “European classical,” not a “black Southern thing.”

The bond that this loving couple has is joyful to behold. Batiste says of Jaouad: “I learn from her all the time to look into the darkness and despair and to face it—but you can’t let it consume you.” Jaouad comments that what she admires Batiste’s ability to deal with life’s extremes: “I actually don’t know how to hold such extremes.”

“American Symphony” juxtaposes dreamy-like scenes of Batiste relaxing in nature (there are multiple shots of him in ocean water) with the stark and harsh realities of hospital visits with Jaouad. Batiste’s “American Symphony” concert is a rousing and emotionally moving conclusion that expresses many of the emotions that he poured into writing this symphony. People who watch this memorable documentary will appreciate its message that life is a symphony whose music and lyrics are still being written.

Netflix will release “American Symphony” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023. Netflix will premiere the movie on November 29, 2023.

Review: ‘Run Rabbit Run’ (2023), starring Sarah Snook and Lily LaTorre

July 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sarah Snook and Lily LaTorre in “Run Rabbit Run” (Photo by Sarah Enticknap/Netflix)

“Run Rabbit Run” (2023)

Directed by Daina Reed

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.

Lily LaTorre in “Run Rabbit Run” (Photo by Sarah Enticknap/Netflix)

“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.

Review: ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,’ starring Alisha Weir, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough and Emma Thompson

January 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Emma Thompson and Alisha Weir as Matilda in “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” (Photo by Dan Smith/Netflix)

“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” 

Directed by Matthew Warchus

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.

Lashana Lynch and Alisha Weir in in “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“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.

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