Review: ‘A Thousand and One,’ starring Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross and William Catlett

January 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola in “A Thousand and One” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“A Thousand and One”

Directed by A.V. Rockwell

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, from 1993 to 2005, the dramatic film “A Thousand and One” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After she is released from prison for theft, a New York City mother illegally avoids child welfare services that want to put her underage son in foster care, so she moves to another part of the city with him and gives him a false identity. 

Culture Audience: “A Thousand and One” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching intense dramas about troubled families that are plagued by poverty and dysfunction.

“A Thousand and One” could be an apt description about all the storylines in movies and TV shows about African American pain and struggles. What makes this dramatic film different from the many that just wallow in negative stereotypes is how authentically the complex humanity is presented in the story. The well-worn subject of an African American family living in urban poverty gets a rarely seen perspective of an undocumented U.S.-born child living in America. The middle of the movie tends to drag, but the last third of the film is emotionally powerful.

Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, “A Thousand and One” won the grand jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere. “A Thousand and One”—which takes place in New York City, from 1993 to 2005—follows the lives of two people who are on the margins of society because one of them is a child with a false identity. “A Thousand and One” shows how this identity deception was made with good intentions to benefit the child in a system that often neflects or abuses children with unstable home lives. “A Thousand and One” shows in unflinching ways whether or not this decision to change the child’s identity was the right decision.

“A Thousand to One” begins by showing the woman who is the catalyst for most of what happens in the story. Inez de la Paz (played by Teyana Taylor) is a prisoner at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in 1993. The opening scene shows Inez appying makeup on the face of a female inmate. The movie then abruptly cuts to 1994, when Inez is 22 years old. Inez, who has a feisty and outspoken personality, is now out of prison and trying to get her life back on track.

Inez returns to her Brooklyn neighborhood and reconnects with a shy and quiet 6-year-old boy named Terry (played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who knows Inez as his mother, but he seems emotionally distant and very mistrustful of her. Terry refuses to talk to Inez and can barely look at her. That’s because for however long that Inez was in prison, Terry has been living in foster care, and he feels like Inez abandoned him.

Terry’s father has not be involved in raising Terry, who has no other known relatives. Inez has told people that her ex-boyfriend Lucky (played by William Catlett) is Terry’s father, but Inez says that Lucky and Inez broke up shortly after she gave birth to Terry. For now, Inez plans to raise Terry on her own. But because she currently has no job and no permanent home, it’s very unlikely that Inez will get custody of Terry.

Inez insists on spending time with Terry, whom she usually gets to see when he’s hanging out with his friends on the streets. She promises Terry that she will stay out of trouble and that she won’t ever leave him again. Eventually, Terry starts to warm up to Inez and begins to trust her again.

Meanwhile, Inez wants to work as a hairstylist, but her criminal record and not having a permanent address make it hard for her to get hired at places that do background checks. She also has a reputation in her neighborhood for being a convicted thief. In an effort to find work, she hands out flyers to advertise her services as an independent hair stylist.

A montage early in the movie shows Inez calling people she knows to find a place to stay, and she gets frustrated when people say no, or she can’t reach them on the phone because she gets voice mail or the phone number is no longer in service. Remember, this is in 1994, when most people did not have mobile phones, so Inez has to rely on pay phones to make her calls. Because Inez doesn’t have her own phone, it’s another reason why it’s hard for her to find a job.

Just as Inez thinks she’s making progress with Terry, he ends up in a hospital with a non-critical head injury from a fall out of a window. Although Terry says that he fell on his own, it’s implied that it’s very likely his foster mother abused him, and it resulted in the injury. One of the signs that Terry is being abused in his foster home is that he is afraid to go back and live there. Another sign is that Inez is told that Terry will probably be moved to another foster home after he’s discharged from the hospital.

Inez is so upset by the thought of Terry going back to a foster home, she asks Terry if he wants to stay with her for a couple of days. He says yes. That’s all Inez needs to hear to decide to take Terry with her without telling the proper authorities. Inez and Terry go to Harlem, where Inez grew up. They temporarily hide out with Inez’s close friend Kim Jones (played by Terri Abney), who has known Inez since childhood. Kim lives with her mother Mrs. Jones (played by Delissa Reynolds), who openly disapproves of Inez, because she thinks Inez is a bad influence on Kim.

Inez confides to Kim that Inez has illegally taken Terry and has no intention of returning him to the child welfare system. Inez makes Kim promise to keep it a secret. However, the local news is reporting that Inez has kidnapped Terry. Photos of Inez and Terry are on local TV stations and in other visual media’s news reports about this kidnapping. Even though the Internet was in its infancy in 1994, a kidnapping reported on the TV news would be a big deal in 1994, as it would be today. “A Thousand and One” doesn’t handle the effects of this mass-media coverage very realistically.

That’s why viewers need a huge suspension of disbelief for the rest of “A Thousand to One,” which shows that Terry and Inez stayed in Harlem through 2005, the year that the movie ends. This isn’t spoiler information, because the movie is being marketed as a story about a woman who kidnapped her son and was able to raise him through his teenage years by giving him a false identity. The movie’s remaining chapters take place in 2001, when Terry (played by Aven Courtney) is 13 years old, and in 2005, when Terry (played by Josiah Cross) is 17 years old.

It’s very hard to believe that people who know Inez (who makes no attempt to disguise herself) wouldn’t find out that she was in the news for kidnapping. It would be easier to believe that Inez got away with it for several years if Inez and Terry had moved to another part of the United States, or even out of the New York City metropolitan area. In real life, too many social workers and law enforcement officials (including parole officers) would be able to easily track down Inez and Terry because she went back to her childhood neighborhood.

And making things even more implausible, Inez and Terry stay in the same Harlem apartment for several years, which would make them even easier to find. (Most fugitives don’t live in one place for too long.) Inez and Terry live an apartment that has the number 10-01 on the door. This apartment number is the inspiration for the movie’s title, because without the hyphen, the number would be 1,001.

Terry is homeschooled for some of his early childhood when Inez goes into “hiding” with him, but Terry eventually goes to public schools, where Inez occasionally interacts with some of the schools’ faculty and staff. It’s another plot hole in the movie, because some of these school employees would realistically be aware of local child kidnappings that were in the news and would recognize Inez. It’s important to mention that Inez’s physical appearance barely ages in the movie. Through the years, her very distinctive face looks exactly the same in the photos of Inez that are shown in the news about the kidnapping case. Law enforcement wouldn’t have do any “aging updates” to her photos.

Inez and Terry being able to “hide in plain sight” and go undetected for years is this movie’s way of saying that children like Terry often “fall through the cracks” of the child welfare system, because no one is really looking that hard for them. A better and more realistic narrative to the story would have been that Terry’s disappearance would not have made the news at all. But because “A Thousand and One” repeatedly shows Inez’s and Terry’s photos on TV as a kidnapping case, this TV news coverage seems very contrived for the movie’s dramatic purposes, in order to make the character of Inez more paranoid about getting caught.

Despite the credibility flaws in this part of the kidnapping investigation narrative, “A Thousand and One” is more authentic in showing the turmoil and dysfunction that result from being an outlaw and having poverty problems. Yes, there are many cringeworthy scenes of Inez being the “angry black woman” stereotype, but Taylor delivers a good-enough performance that it doesn’t devolve into being a pathetic parody. Viewers will see more than enough of Inez’s “I’m angry because I’ve had a hard life” attitude.

However, “A Thousand and One” saves itself from being racially offensive with these negative stereotypes for Inez because the movie shows her vulnerable side, especially during Terry’s early teenage years when she starts to mellow out a little bit when the life that she makes for herself and Lucky becomes more stable. The movie also presents a variety of other African American people who are also living in poverty but who aren’t the clichés of being bitter and “ready to pick a fight” that Inez can often be. Inez’s friend Kim is street-smart too, but Kim is more compassionate and more patient than Inez.

Lucky comes back into Inez’s life, and he’s not quite the deadbeat dad that he could easily be if the movie followed the usual race-demeaning formulas that other movies and TV shows have about low-income African American fathers. Lucky is flawed but he does try to redeem himself as a parent. The scenes with Lucky and Terry are among the most authentic because they show that it takes time for Lucky to build trust as a father who was absent for Terry’s formative childhood years.

What will probably impress people the most about “A Thousand and One” is how superbly the movie shows Terry growing up into the bright and sensitive person that he is, with a lot of potential to succeed, despite Terry coming from dire circumstances and a volatile family background. Terry has a knack for science and technology. But what he really wants to do with his life is to be a music composer like his idol, Quincy Jones. Adetola, Courtney and Cross are all terrific in their roles as Terry in the three life stages that are depicted in “A Thousand and One.”

“A Thousand and One” has plenty of hard edges to its storytelling, but there are some sweet-natured scenes of teenage Terry awkwardly trying to impress his longtime crush Simone (played at age 14 by Azza El, and at age 17 by Alicia Pilgrim), who is dismissive and rude to Terry. As 17-year-old Terry, Cross is particularly skillful at showing introverted Terry’s frustration of wanting to be more confident, but his shyness and insecurity often get in the way. Terry has a slight stutter that is realistically depicted. There are also some tender mother/child moments between Inez and Terry.

“A Thousand and One” transitions between each of the three chapters of Terry’s life, by showing aerial views of New York City with audio clips of news reports about New York City’s mayor at the time. These transitions are an effective way to not only give a quick history lesson of New York City during these years but also put into context the types of mayoral policies that were put in place during these time periods. The news clips highlighted in the movie reflect the type of news that African Americans likely would be paying attention to the most because it’s news that would have an impact on African American communities.

For 1994 and 2001, these clips briefly encapsulate the reign of Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani, who is credited with “cleaning up” New York City and reducing the city’s crime rate, but who also instilled a damaging and racist “stop and frisk” police policy that disproportionately targeted African Americans and Latinos of the male gender. These clips have mentions of the police brutality cases that violated young, unarmed African American men Abner Louima (a victim of police sodomy in 1997) and Amadou Diallo (killed by 41 rounds of police gunfire in 1999), to serve as reminders of the racial dangers in New York City for young African American men like Terry. The 2005 audio excerpt of the reign of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg foreshadows how certain people will be affected by Bloomberg’s legacy of bringing more big business and more gentrification to New York City.

Viewers of “A Thousand and One” will get the sense that all the problems experienced by Inez and Terry are not meant to invoke condescension or pity, as some of the move’s more privileged characters react when they’re with Inez and/or Terry. Instead, the movie shows in frank and empathetic ways how quickly people’s lives can spiral in these circumstances. It would be very easy to judge people in these circumstances as self-destructive or lazy. But the ending of “A Thousand and One” makes it very clear that it’s a mistake to harshly judge someone without knowing that person’s whole life story, because some of life’s bad decisions start off as good intentions.

Focus Features will release “A Thousand and One” in select U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘The Son’ (2022), starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath and Anthony Hopkins

December 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zen McGrath, Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman in “The Son” (Photo by Rekha Garton/See-Saw Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Son” (2022)

Directed by Florian Zeller

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and briefly in Washington, D.C., the dramatic film “The Son” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A workaholic corporate lawyer, his ex-wife and his current wife struggle with understanding the depression of his 17-year-old son from his first marriage. 

Culture Audience: “The Son” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s stars and don’t mind watching movies about mental illness that awkwardly handle this serious subject matter.

Hugh Jackman and Vanessa Kirby in “The Son” (Photo by Rob Youngson/See-Saw Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

A talented cast can’t save “The Son,” a sloppily edited drama that mishandles issues about mental illness in a turgid and manipulative way. This is writer/director Florian Zeller’s sophomore slump as a feature filmmaker. Zeller triumphed with his feature-film directorial debut “The Father,” his stellar 2020 drama for which he and co-writer Christopher Hampton won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. “The Father,” which is based on Zeller’s play of the same name, is a story told from the perspective of an elderly British man who has dementia. Anthony Hopkins portrayed the person with dementia in the “The Father,” and Hopkins won an Oscar for Best Actor for this performance.

Zeller brought Hopkins in for a short scene (which lasts less than 10 minutes) in “The Son,” and this scene is one of the highlights of this very uneven and ultimately disappointing movie. “The Father” and “The Son” are not similar to each other all, except for the fact that both movies are based on Zeller’s stage plays of the same names, and both movies are about families coping with a loved one who has a mental illness. The title character in each movie is the one dealing with the mental health issues.

Zeller and Hampton teamed up again to co-write “The Son” screenplay. “The Son” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. It also made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest in Los Angeles. Being at these high-profile festivals might seem like the “The Son” is a “prestige picture,” but it’s more indicative of the movie’s star power than the quality of the film. “The Son’s” clumsy treatment of a complicated issues such as depression is a lot like what you would see on a TV-movie made for a basic cable network.

“The Son” covers a well-worn topic that’s been the subject of numerous movies and TV shows: A workaholic father’s absence from home ends up causing resentment from some of his family members, and he might spend the rest of the story trying to mend any broken relationships caused by his lack of attention to his family. Arguments, grudges and sometimes physical altercations then happen. And then, depending on how predictable the story wants to be, a truce is usually called and people go on a path toward healing.

“The Father” was told from the perspective of the title character, but “The Son” is not told from the perspective of the title character. Instead, “The Son” puts most of its efforts in showing the thoughts and feelings of the son’s father. Up until a certain point in the movie, “The Son” is a formulaic story of a family damaged by divorce and not knowing how to deal with mental illness. But perhaps in a misguided effort to not have a typical ending, “The Son” does something so off-putting in the film’s last 15 minutes, it essentially ruins the movie.

In “The Son,” Peter Miller (played by Hugh Jackman) is an ambitious attorney who works at a corporate firm in New York City. Viewers will soon see that Peter (who is in his 50s) is highly motivated to succeed, and he expects excellence from himself and everyone around him. Peter lives in an upscale New York City apartment with his second wife Beth (played by Vanessa Kirby), who’s about 20 years younger than Peter. Beth and Peter, who’ve been married for less than two years, are parents of an infant son named Theo (played by twins Felix Goddard and Max Goddard).

Conversations in the movie reveal that Beth and Peter had an affair while he was still married to his first wife Kate (played by Laura Dern), who was devastated when Peter left Kate to be with Beth. Peter and Beth met (ironically enough) at a wedding, and Beth knew from the beginning that Peter was married. Peter and Kate have a 17-year-old son named Nicholas (played by Zen McGrath), who is also emotionally wounded from his parents’ divorce. Kate has full custody of Nicholas, who lives with her in New York City.

Peter will soon find out how much Nicholas has resentment toward him and how depressed Nicholas is. It starts with a worried phone call from Kate, who tells Peter that she recently found out that Nicholas stopped going to school for almost a month. Nicholas pretended to her that he was going to school, but he was actually just spending time walking around the city, according to what he confesses later. When the school tried to contact Kate by phone and by email about Nicholas’ absence, Nicholas was able to intercept those messages until the truth came out.

Kate also tells Peter that she and Nicholas no longer get along with each other. “He’s not well,” Kate insists. Kate also ominously hints to Peter that Nicholas could be dangerous. She describes how Nicholas once looked at her with so much hatred, she thought he might physically hurt her. “He scares me, okay?” Kate says to Peter about Nicholas.

It’s reached a point where Kate (who feels helpless and confused) has reluctantly agreed to Nicholas’ request to live with Peter for the time being. Nicholas tells Peter why he wants to live with him when he describes how he fells about living with Kate: “When I’m here, I get too many dark ideas. I want to live with my little brother. Sometimes, I feel like I’m going crazy.”

Peter’s way of handling Nicholas’ problems is to try to find a logical solution. Peter tries to be understanding, but he often talks to Nicholas like a prosecutor interrogating a defense witness in court. At this point, Peter isn’t fully aware that Nicholas has a mental illness. Peter thinks Nicholas is just being a rebellious brat.

In one of the movie’s several emotionally charged conversations, Peter demands that Nicholas tell him what’s wrong. On the verge of tears, Nicholas tries to explain to Peter why he’s been skipping school: “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s life. It’s weighing me down.”

Peter tells Beth what’s going on with Nicholas and asks her if it will be okay if Nicholas lives with them for a while, even though it’s obvious that Peter has made up his mind that Nicholas will live with them. Kate and Peter also agree that Nicholas (a loner who has difficulty making friends) can transfer to another school. What they don’t do is try to get him into therapy. Peter is the type of person who thinks the family can solve this problem on their own.

At first, Beth is reluctant to have this troubled teen living with them when she’s already busy taking care of a newborn child. However, Beth agrees to let Nicholas live with them (they have an extra bedroom that Nicholas will have to himself) because she sees how much Peter wants to help Nicholas, and she doesn’t want to interfere in this father-son relationship. Beth has only known Nicholas for two years, so she feels she doesn’t have the right to make parental decisions about him.

The rest of “The Son” is a back-and-forth repetition of Nicholas seeming to improve while living with Peter and Beth, but then something happens to show that Nicholas is not doing very well at all. Eventually, Peter finds out that Nicholas self-harms by cutting himself. Peter and Kate go through various stages of denial, guilt, sadness and anger, while Beth has her guard up and doesn’t really want to deal with the family problems when they get too intense. Beth also has stepparent insecurities about how much a spouse cares about any children from a previous marriage, compared to how much the spouse cares about any children from the current marriage.

“The Son” has a not-very-interesting subplot about Peter getting a job offer to work for a U.S. senator from Delaware named Brian Hammer (played by Joseph Mydell), who wants to hire Peter for Senator Hammer’s re-election campaign. The job would require Peter to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C., so Peter has to decide whether or not to take the job in the midst of all of his family problems. “The Son” uses this subplot as a way try to create some suspense over whether not Peter will accept this job offer. This decision isn’t as suspenseful as the movie wants it to be.

The Washington, D.C., area is also where Peter’s unnamed widower father (played by Hopkins) lives, so there’s a gripping scene where Peter visits his father while Peter is in the area to meet with Senator Hammer. It’s in this scene where viewers find out more about Peter’s family background and why Peter has the parenting style that he does. Even though Peter doesn’t want to admit it, he’s a lot like his father, when it comes to letting work get in the way of spending quality time with his family.

But unlike Peter, his father is cold, cruel and unapologetic for making work a higher priority than his family. Peter tells his father that Nicholas is now living with Peter, and this new living arrangement seems to be helping Nicholas with Nicholas’ problems. Instead of being concerned or empathetic about Nicholas, Peter’s father accuses Peter of telling him this information to make Peter look like a better father.

Peter denies it, of course. This unfair and paranoid accusation stirs up some deep-seated resentments, and Peter reminds his father how selfish he was not to visit Peter’s mother when she was dying in the hospital. Peter’s father responds this way: “Just fucking get over it.” Even though Hopkins has a standout scene in “The Son,” too many other scenes in the film are mired in predictability.

“The Son” puts so much emphasis on Peter, he’s the only main character who gets a backstory. The movie reveals nothing about the backgrounds of Kate and Beth, even though Kate has been Nicholas’ primary caretaking parent after the divorce, up until Nicholas began living with Peter and Beth. Viewers will never find out how Kate’s own upbringing affected her parenting skills.

The movie also gives no information about Nicholas’ background to indicate how long he’s been having these feelings of depression. Several times in the movie, Nicholas tells Peter that he blames Peter’s abandonment and the divorce for feeling depressed, but it all seems too convenient and intended to put Peter on a guilt trip. If Peter had been too busy with work to notice Nicholas’ problems, then what indications did Kate see? Don’t expect the movie to answer that question.

Instead, the most that viewers will see about Nicholas before he moved in with Peter are several cutesy flashbacks of a 6-year-old Nicholas (played by George Cobell) in happier times during a vacation that he took with his parents in Corsica. “The Son” keeps showing flashbacks of this family of three taking a trip on a small boat, and Peter teaching an adorable Nicholas how to swim in the sea. These superficial flashbacks are examples of lazy storytelling that doesn’t give viewers a chance to get to know Nicholas as a well-rounded person.

“The Son” gives no information about what Nicholas’ personality was like a few years before the divorce. It’s possible that he had depression when his parents were still married, but that information is never revealed or discussed in the movie. “The Son” brings up a lot of questions about Nicholas that the movie never answers. It’s a huge misstep in how this movie portrays its title character.

Considering these limitations, McGrath gives a compelling but not outstanding performance as Nicholas. A few times in the movie, Nicholas is described as looking “evil,” but the expression on his face just looks like he’s pouting and glaring like a spoiled child who didn’t get his way. People with enough life experience can see that Nicholas has depression problems, but he’s also very manipulative, and he knows how to make his parents (especially Peter) feel guilty about the divorce.

As for the other principal cast members, Dern gives an authentic performance for her underdeveloped Kate character when expressing the anguish of a parent who goes through what Kate goes through in the movie. Kirby gives some depth to what is essentially a “trophy wife” role, but so little is known about Beth, there’s only so much that Kirby can do with this often-aloof character. Beth also complains to Peter about how he spends more time at work than at home, which kind of makes her look like a ditz that she didn’t know he was a workaholic when she married him.

Ultimately, “The Son” comes across as a showboat movie for Jackman, because it spends so much time showing Peter’s life outside the home, as well as Peter’s feelings about his own “daddy issues.” Peter is supposed to be American, but Jackman’s native Australian accent can sometimes be heard in his performance of Peter, especially in scenes where Peter is shouting or arguing with someone. Jackman certainly delivers a heartfelt performance, but a lot of it seems overly calculated too, much like how the movie handles the most sensitive scenes.

Unfortunately, “The Son” has much bigger problems than actors trying too hard to be noticed in obvious “awards bait” roles. The movie’s editing is haphazard and sometimes baffling. For example, there’s a scene that’s interrupted by a five-second flashback of Peter and 6-year-old Nicholas frolicking in the water on that vacation. This brief flashback is so random and out-of-place, it makes you wonder why Zeller made such amateurish editing decisions for “The Son” when “The Father” was so brilliantly edited.

The last 15 minutes of “The Son” are what will really turn off viewers the most. The way the story ends is gimmicky and could easily be interpreted as crass exploitation, for the sake of having a “surprise” plot twist. If “The Son” intended to be respectful of people who deal with the same issues as the ones portrayed in this substandard movie, then “The Son” torpedoed any good will by conjuring up a truly awful ending that cannot be redeemed.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Son” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 16, 2022, and on January 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Spoiler Alert’ (2022), starring Jim Parsons, Ben Aldridge and Sally Field

December 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge in “Spoiler Alert” (Photo by Giovanni Rufino/Focus Features)

“Spoiler Alert” (2022)

Directed by Michael Showalter

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2002 to 2015, primarily in New York City (and briefly in New Jersey), the dramatic film “Spoiler Alert” (based on a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two gay men, who are almost total opposites, meet and fall in love with each other, but their relationship is tested by mistrust/jealousy issues and when one of the men gets cancer. 

Culture Audience: “Spolier Alert” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based and will appeal to people who are interested in watching a tearjerking drama about love and loss.

Bill Irwin, Sally Field, Ben Aldridge and Jim Parsons in “Spoiler Alert” (Photo by Linda Källérus/Focus Features)

“Spoiler Alert” can get awfully treacly, and the movie’s ending fizzles out in a trite manner, but there are plenty of other things to like about this bittersweet love story. The principal cast members give charming and believable performances. This drama hits a lot of the same, predictable beats of movies about couples whose lives are affected by cancer. However, “Spoiler Alert” offers some unique narrative choices—some that work better than others.

Directed by Michael Showalter, “Spoiler Alert” is based on entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello’s 2018 memoir “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies.” David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage co-wrote the “Spoiler Alert” screenplay, which is the movie’s weakest link. The screenplay sometimes does a disservice to this true story by cutting to some cutesy and comedic flashbacks in between scenes that are supposed to be emotionally gut-wrenching.

Some of the movie’s supporting characters are shallow stereotypes, but the relationship between the central couple is depicted in a mostly authentic way. Having talented actors playing the main characters also makes a big difference in the appeal of “Spoiler Alert,” which is watchable, but not quite the overwhelmingly beloved crowd-pleaser that it wants to be. People with empathy will be rooting for this couple, despite most viewers being told from the beginning of the film that one person in the relationship will die of a terminal illness.

That’s because the movie “Spoiler Alert” literally does what the book title “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies” does: It reveals that there’s going to be a major death. The very first scene of “Spoiler Alert” shows Michael Ausiello (played by Jim Parsons) and his husband Christopher “Kit” Cowan (played by Ben Aldridge), who are both in their 40s, huddled together on Kit’s hospital death bed in New York City. Kit (who has rectal cancer) has all the signs of someone with a terminal illness who’s about to die.

Michael can be heard saying in a voiceover: “It wasn’t supposed to end this way, but meeting you in the first place was the plot twist I never expected.” It’s possible that many people seeing this movie will already know in advance that someone in this relationship will die. But many other viewers of “Spoiler Alert” won’t really know that before seeing the movie. And when they see this death bed scene in the very beginning of the movie, it really is a “spoiler” with not much of an “alert.”

The problem with telling viewers from the very beginning that Kit is going to die—especially for people who don’t know this death is going to happen before seeing the movie—is that revealing this information so early will lessen the impact of how the death is depicted toward the end of the movie. It also makes the movie essentally a countdown until this tragic death, because viewers will be bracing themselves for the scenes where Kit and his loved ones find out that he has cancer, he goes though inevitable suffering, and then he dies.

Michael is the narrator of “Spoiler Alert,” so a better movie would have let viewers experience the same rollercoaster of emotions of shock, sadness, hope and fear that Michael experienced with Kit during this cancer journey. But viewers don’t get that perspective, because viewers have been told from the beginning that Kit’s cancer journey does not have a happy ending. You can’t get any clearer when a spouse of a cancer patient looks back on the spouse’s final moments on a hospital deathbed and says about the relationship: “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”

After this hospital deathbed scene (which the movie circles back to toward the end of the film), “Spoiler Alert” becomes mostly a depiction of Michael and Kit’s 13-year relationship in chronological order, beginning in 2002, the year that they met at a gay bar in New York City. In 2002, Michael is a staff writer for TV Guide, while Kit is an aspiring photographer working a day job at Cosi, a fast-casual restaurant that’s part of a nationwide chain of Cosi restaurants.

As Michael explains in a voiceover, Michael has been obsessed with television since he was child. When he was a kid, he liked to imagine that his life would be like a family sitcom called “The Ausiellos,” which is why all his childhood flashback scenes are filmed like a 1980s sitcom, including having a prerecorded laugh track. In these flashbacks, Michael is shown at about 9 or 10 years old (played by Brody Caines), mostly in his family’s living room watching TV. He has fond memories of watching soap operas with his widowed mother (played by Tara Summers), who would later die of cancer when Michael was still a pre-teen.

Michael is the middle of three brothers. His older brother (played by Braxton Fannin) would sometimes tease or bully young Michael about his chubby physique. Later in the movie, during a scene where Michael and Kit are sexually intimate for the first time, a very nervous and awkward Michael confesses that he has had lifelong body issues. Michael describes himself as “FFK: former fat kid.”

Michael thinks TV Guide is his dream job, and he doesn’t mind working the long hours required. However, his demanding work schedule has left little room for his love life. In 2002, at the urging of a friend/co-worker named Nick (played by Jeffrey Self), Michael goes to a gay club during a theme night called Jock Night, where the patrons are encouraged to dress as athletes. Michael goes to the club in his regular clothes.

Michael and Kit have their “meet cute” moment when they see each other across the room. Kit, who immediately smiles at Michael, is wearing a sweatband and workout clothes, like he just walked out of Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 “Physical” video. They eventually introduce themselves to each other and start talking.

Michael is such a self-described TV nerd, he immediately points out that their names (Michael and Kit) are the same names as the main characters in the 1982-1986 TV series “Knight Rider.” Kit doesn’t really get the joke because he never watched “Knight Rider.” It soon becomes obvious to Michael and Kit that they’re almost complete opposites.

Kit is outgoing and confident. Michael is reserved and insecure. Kit likes to dance. Michael doesn’t like to dance, but he eventually does dance with Kit that night. It’s a classic “opposites attract” situation.

It isn’t long before Michael and Kit start kissing each other at the club. Michael doesn’t want them to go back to his place, so Kit agrees with some hesitation that they should go back to Kit’s apartment. Their first sexual encounter is depicted in a semi-comedic way, because Michael is so anxious about everything. Michael also thinks that Kit is too good-looking for him.

After spending the night together on the first night that they met, Michael and Kit begin dating. During their first dinner date together, they find out even more how different they are from each other. Michael has been openly gay since he was a child. He said his mother knew he was gay when Michael was 8 years old, and she noticed Michael had a crush on the “Days of Our Lives” character Bo Brady. Michael says his mother was completely accepting of Michael being gay.

By contrast, Kit is still semi-closeted. His friends know that he’s gay, but he hasn’t told his parents yet. Kit describes his parents as very traditional. Other contrasts: Michael is a TV fanatic. Kit hardly watches TV. Michael grew up with two brothers, who are never seen or mentioned in the movie as adults. Kit is an only child. Michael says that he believes in marriage, while Kit thinks marriage is an outdated institution.

The rest of “Spoiler Alert” chronicles the ups and downs of the relationship between Kit and Michael. Early on in their romance, Michael says to Kit that they should confess to each other what their childhood obsessions were. Michael says his childhood obsessions were soap operas and Christmas. Kit says his childhood obsession was becoming a magician.

Kit soon discovers that Michael has another obsession stemming from Michael’s childhood. Michael has been avoiding bringing Kit over to Michael’s apartment (Michael lives alone) until Kit insists on seeing where Michael lives. Kit is shocked when he finds out that Michael has a major Smurf obsession: Michael’s entire apartment looks like a cluttered Smurf merchandise store. Michael says his Smurf collection reminds him of when his mother was alive and she used to buy him Smurf memorabilia.

Michael’s Smurf obsession is a quirk that Kit accepts because he and Michael are starting to fall in love at this point. However, later in the movie, when Michael and Kit move in together, they live in an apartment where the overload of Smurf merchandise is no longer there. There are some Smurf memorabilia as decorations, but not to the vast extent that Michael had when he lived alone.

It’s an example of how the movie skips over some details that would give the relationship more depth in the movie, such as if there had been some explanation for why such a big part of Michael’s life is no longer in the home that he shares with Kit. Did Michael put most of his Smurf merchandise in storage? Did he sell most of it? Don’t expect the movie to answer to these questions.

“Spoiler Alert” could have used better character development for the people in Michael and Kit’s social circle. On the night that Michael and Kit met, Kit was with a straight female friend named Nina (played by Nikki M. James), who was drunk. Upon meeting Michael, she blurted out that she has a thing for good-looking gay men like Kit, which Nina says is probably why she’s still single. Nina is nothing but a stereotype of a “straight woman friend of a gay man,” whose only purpose in the movie is to make sassy comments.

When Michael and Kit first began dating, Kit had a roommate named Kirby (played by Sadie Scott), who is also an underdeveloped character, for a better reason. As Kit accurately describes her, Kirby is “monosyllabic.” Kirby’s tendency to say one-word sentences becomes a joke in the movie, which makes Kirby look like a parody of an eccentric roommate.

The “Spoiler Alert” dialogue is the wittiest when it involves Michael and his self-deprecating and sarcastic comments. Parsons (former star of the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”) has made a career out of playing uptight and insecure nerds, so he’s in familiar territory here, and he does it very well. He navigates the comedic moments, as well as the heavier emotional scenes, with great aplomb. Parsons is also one of the “Spoiler Alert” producers.

People who are pop-culture enthusiasts will have the most appreciation for Michael’s jokes, since he makes references to several movies and TV shows. In a hospital scene, where Kit is getting cancer treatment, Michael has a temper tantrum at a nurse because he wants Kit to have a hospital bed when the nurse says all the hospital beds are already occupied. Michael later quips to Kit that it was his Shirley MacLaine moment. It’s a reference to a similar temper-tantrum scene that MacLaine had in the 1983 film “Terms of Endearment,” but people who don’t know that won’t understand the joke.

Aldridge is perfectly adequate as Kit, although “Spoiler Alert” could have done a better job of telling more about Kit’s life outside of his relationship with Michael. There are vague references to Michael and Kit agreeing to not be monogamous when they first started dating. The movie never really explains if that agreement actually changed over time. There’s a brief subplot of how Michael gets jealous of Kit’s handsome co-worker Sebastian (played by Antoni Porowski), because Michael is afraid that Kit will have an affair with Sebastian.

“Spoiler Alert” has an imbalance in how the movie shows the respective career trajectories of Michael and Kit. Michael eventually becomes the founder/editor-in-chief of TVLine (but the movie doesn’t mention his real-life, two-year stint at Entertainment Weekly), and he is shown actually working more than Kit. Kit’s photography career is depicted in vague terms, with the movie making it look like he did occasional freelance photos shoots for mostly unnamed employers. Kit is shown taking more pictures in his free time (such as when he’s with Michael) than in a job.

The sequence where Michael meets Kit’s parents is played for laughs. Michael and Kit have been dating each other for months (before they moved in together), but Kit wants to keep the relationship and his sexuality a secret from his parents. And so, there’s a scene where Kit (who’s in the hospital for appendicitis) asks Michael to go to his apartment and remove all evidence that Kit is gay before Kit’s parents bring Kit home from the hospital. Michael asks sarcastically, “You want me to de-gay your apartment?”

Kit’s parents Marilyn (played by Sally Field) and Bob (played by Bill Irwin) eventually find out that Kit is gay and in a relationship with Michael. (This isn’t spoiler information, since it’s indicated in the movie’s trailer.) Kit’s parents are accepting of everything, but Marilyn is upset that Kit didn’t tell them sooner that he’s gay.

Marilyn, who is a former long-distance running champ, is very domineering, talkative and opinionated. Her personality is in stark contrast to Bob, who is laid-back, quiet and not as judgmental as Marilyn. Field brings a lot of crackling energy to the Marilyn character, but she has played these types of “mother knows best” type of roles many times before, so there’s nothing very revelatory about her acting skills in “Spoiler Alert.”

“Spoiler Alert” handles the cancer part of the story with a mixture of sensitivity and schmaltz. One of the criticisms the movie might get is that it really erases the hard conversations and tough decisions that a terminal cancer patient must make about preparing loved ones for life after the cancer patient dies. It’s a glaring omission that puts “Spoiler Alert” into some shallow territory.

Before Kit had cancer, he and Michael were having problems in their relationship, but those problems are only vaguely referenced in one or two arguments. In one of these arguments, Michael shouts that he’s fed up with Kit’s marijuana addiction, while Kit accuses Michael of becoming a drunk. The movie doesn’t explore these substance-abuse issues in a meaningful way, even though they were big problems in the relationship. The movie has just one short scene of Michael and Kit in a relationship counseling session with a therapist.

There are the expected scenes of Kit’s hair loss and vomiting from chemotherapy, as well as Michael’s tears and denial about how close Kit is to dying. “Spoiler Alert” has some touching scenes of Michael and Kit spending time with Marilyn and Bob in Kit’s final days. These scenes are among the movie’s highlights, because they look the most natural and not overly staged for a movie.

“Spoiler Alert” has its share of flaws (such as an over-reliance and occasional misplacement of the sitcom-formatted childhood flashbacks), but these flaws don’t ruin the movie. The principal cast members give “Spoiler Alert” a lot of warmth and humanity, in a film that sometimes looks overly contrived. In telling this true story, “Spoiler Alert” at least succeeds in delivering what most viewers want to see in this film: a love story that endured in the midst of some very painful and tragic circumstances.

Focus Features released “Spoiler Alert” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 9, 2022.

2022 Critics Choice Documentary Awards: ‘Good Night Oppy’ is the top winner

November 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

A digital recreation of the robotic rover Opportunity in “Good Night Oppy” (Image courtesy of Prime Video/Amazon Content Services)

With five prizes, the Mars exploration movie “Good Night Oppy” was the top winner at the Seventh Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards, which were presented at the Edison Ballroom in New York City, on November 13, 2022. “Good Night Oppy” (from Amazon Studios) earned the awards for Best Documentary Feature, Best Director (for Ryan White), Best Musical Score (for Blake Neely), Best Narration and Best Science/Nature Documentary. “Good Night Oppy” (which tells the story of how NASA sent two robots to explore Mars, beginning in 2003) ended up winning five of the six awards for which it was nominated.

In one of his many acceptance speeches, “Good Night Oppy” director White thanked his colleagues and NASA. He also commented when comparing Earth to Mars, “I hope that this film can be a reminder of what can happen to our planet if we don’t treat it with the care it deserves.”

Ryan White at the Seventh Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards in New York City on November 13, 2022. (Photo by Carla Hay)

The only other documentary to win more than one prize at the ceremony was the Disney+ three-episode series “The Beatles: Get Back,” which won two awards: Best Limited Documentary Series and Best Music Documentary. “The Beatles: Get Back” (directed by Peter Jackson) is a restored and extended version of the 1970 Beatles documentary “Let It Be,” which was originally directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

“Fire of Love” (from National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon), a movie directed by Sara Dosa about married French volcanologists Maurice Kraftt and Katia Kraftt, went into the ceremony as the top contender, with seven nominations. In the end, “Fire of Love” got one award: Best Archival Documentary.

The 2022 Critics Choice Documentary Awards is presented and voted on by the Critics Choice Association. Grammy-nominated performer/writer Wyatt Cenac hosted the show, which was livestreamed for the first time on Facebook Live and Instagram Live.

The Critics Choice Documentary Awards had some other first milestones in 2022. It was the first time that the show was held in the New York City borough of Manhattan, after previously being held in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. In addition, two categories—Best Ongoing Documentary Series and Best Limited Documentary Series—that have traditionally been included in the Critics Choice Real TV Awards are, as of 2022, now being presented at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards.

Another big change to the show in 2022 was the announcement of the two films that came in second place and third place in votes for the category of Best Documentary Feature. Second place went to “Fire of Love,” while third place went to Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Navalny,” a movie about Russian political activist Alexei Navalny and his investigation into who poisoned him in 2020. The second-place and third-place documentaries were announced before the winner of Best Documentary Feature.

The ceremony also included two non-competitive prizes, whose recipients were announced weeks before the show took place. Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA” and “American Dream”) was bestowed with the Pennebaker Award (formerly known as the Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award), which was presented to her by D.A. Pennebaker’s widow/filmmaking partner, Chris Hegedus.

In her speech, Kopple thanked her longtime friends Pennebaker and Hegedus for being her mentors, and she expressed gratitude for people in the documentary filmmaking community. Kopple, who began making films in the 1970s, said in her speech that critics play a crucial role in whether or not documentaries can get distribution and find an audience. “I remember when critics wouldn’t even look at documentaries,” Kopple said. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart. All we want is to be able to tell a good story.”

Meanwhile, Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble”) received the Critics Choice Impact Award, given to documentarians whose work is about promoting changes for the better in society. Disney’s Onyx Collective head of documentary programming Jacqueline Glover presented Porter with this award. In her speech, Porter remembered the leap of faith that she took to leave a secure full-time job to make her first documentary, 2013’s “Gideon’s Army.” She thanked her documentary subjects and people she has collaborated with over the years.

Presenters at the show also included style entrepreneur/film producer Kathy Ireland, actor Richard Kind, musician/actor Paul Shaffer, actress Soshana Bean, actor Jeremy Sisto, “Good Night Oppy” director White, actress Tamara Tunie, filmmaker Tonya Lewis Lee, filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, musician Willie Colón, actor Erich Bergen and actress/singer Idina Menzel.

Here is the complete list of winners and nominees for the 2022 Critics Choice Documentary Awards:

*=winner

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • Aftershock (Hulu)
  • The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Descendant (Netflix)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down (Briarcliff Entertainment)
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)*
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Sidney (Apple TV+)

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio – George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • Margaret Brown – Descendant (Netflix)
  • Sara Dosa – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Reginald Hudlin – Sidney (Apple TV+)
  • Brett Morgen – Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Laura Poitras – All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (HBO/Neon)
  • Daniel Roher – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Ryan White – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)*

BEST FIRST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • Andrea Arnold – Cow (IFC Films)
  • Lisa Hurwitz – The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Jono McLeod – My Old School (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Amy Poehler – Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • Alex Pritz – The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • David Siev – Bad Axe (IFC Films)*
  • Bianca Stigter – Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Benjamin Bernhard, Riju Das – All That Breathes (HBO)
  • Magda Kowalczyk – Cow (IFC Films)
  • Lucas Tucknott – McEnroe (Showtime)
  • Gabriela Osio Vanden, Jack Weisman, Sam Holling – Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)
  • The Cinematography Team – Our Great National Parks (Netflix)*
  • Alex Pritz, Tangãi Uru-eu-wau-wau – The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)

BEST EDITING

  • Jabez Olssen – The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  • Erin Casper, Jocelyne Chaput – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Joe Beshenkovsky – George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • Helen Kearns, Rejh Cabrera – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)
  • Brett Morgen – Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)*
  • Langdon Page, Maya Daisy Hawke – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Katharina Wartena – Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)

BEST SCORE

  • Hummie Mann – The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Nicolas Godin – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Blake Neely – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)*
  • Max Avery Lichtenstein – The Janes (HBO)
  • David Schwartz – Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • Marius de Vries, Matt Robertson – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)

BEST NARRATION

  • Deep in the Heart: A Texas Wildlife Story (Fin and Fur Films) – Written by Ben Masters; Performed by Matthew McConaughey
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon) – Written by Shane Boris, Erin Casper, Jocelyne Chaput, Sara Dosa. Performed by Miranda July
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios) –Written by Helen Kearns, Ryan White; Performed by Angela Bassett*
  • Our Great National Parks (Netflix) – Performed by Barack Obama
  • Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures) – Written by Tobi Haslett; Performed by Charlene Modeste
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon) – Written by Bianca Stigter; Performed by Helena Bonham Carter

BEST ARCHIVAL DOCUMENTARY

  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)*
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Nothing Compares (Showtime)
  • Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)

BEST HISTORICAL DOCUMENTARY

  • The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Descendant (Netflix)*
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power (Peacock)
  • Still Working 9 to 5 (Mighty Fine Entertainment)
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)
  • The U.S. and the Holocaust (PBS)

BEST BIOGRAPHICAL DOCUMENTARY

  • George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • The Last Movie Stars (HBO Max)
  • Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Peacock)
  • Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Sidney (Apple TV+)*
  • Sr. (Netflix)

BEST MUSIC DOCUMENTARY

  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)*
  • Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • If These Walls Could Sing (Disney Original Documentary)
  • Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (Apple TV+)
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Nothing Compares (Showtime)
  • The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile (Sony Pictures Classics)

BEST POLITICAL DOCUMENTARY

  • Aftershock (Hulu)
  • All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (HBO/Neon)
  • Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down (Briarcliff Entertainment)
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)*
  • Retrograde (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Netflix)

BEST SCIENCE/NATURE DOCUMENTARY

  • All That Breathes (HBO)
  • Cow (IFC Films)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)*
  • Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)
  • Return to Space (Netflix)
  • The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)

BEST SPORTS DOCUMENTARY

  • Citizen Ashe (Magnolia/HBO)* (tie)
  • Hockeyland (Greenwich Entertainment)
  • Kaepernick & America (Dark Star Pictures)
  • McEnroe (Showtime)
  • The Redeem Team (Netflix)
  • Welcome to Wrexham (FX/Hulu)* (tie)

BEST SHORT DOCUMENTARY

  • 38 at the Garden (HBO)
  • Angola Do You Hear Us? Voices From a Plantation Prison (MTV Documentary Films)
  • The Flagmakers (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Four Seasons Total Documentary (MSNBC)
  • My Disability Roadmap (The New York Times Op Docs)
  • Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)*
  • Stranger at the Gate (The New Yorker)

BEST LIMITED DOCUMENTARY SERIES

  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)*
  • Hostages (HBO)
  • The Last Movie Stars (HBO Max)
  • The Lincoln Project (Showtime)
  • Our Great National Parks (Netflix)
  • The U.S. and the Holocaust (PBS)
  • We Need to Talk About Cosby (Showtime)

BEST ONGOING DOCUMENTARY SERIES

  • 30 for 30 (ESPN)*
  • American Masters (PBS)
  • Cheer (Netflix)
  • The Circus (Showtime)
  • Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix)
  • Welcome to Wrexham (FX/Hulu)

Review: ‘When I Consume You,’ starring Evan Dumouchel and Libby Ewing

October 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Libby Ewing and Evan Dumouchel in “When I Consume You” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“When I Consume You”

Directed by Perry Blackshear

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “When I Consume You” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Asian) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A brother and a sister, who are in their 30s and live together, have an evil stalker who tries to ruin their lives. 

Culture Audience: “When I Consume You” will appeal primarily to people interested in supernatural horror movies that can do a lot on a low-budget and take their time to reveal the cause of the terror in the story.

Evan Dumouchel and Libby Ewing in “When I Consume You” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“When I Consume You” is an effectively atmospheric horror movie with a story that unfolds in layers. This brooding film, which is about a brother and a sister plagued by a mysterious stalker, is not what it might first appear to be to some viewers. “When I Consume You” explores themes about loss, loneliness, power and control that aren’t obvious at the outset. However, these themes that become clearer further into “When I Can Consume You” can give viewers something to think about after watching the movie. This is not the type of horror film that people will see and then instantly forget.

Written and directed by Perry Blackshear, “When I Consume You” centers on the very insular personal lives of unmarried siblings Wilson Shaw (played by Evan Dumouchel) and Daphne Shaw (played by Libby Ewing), who are both in their 30s and who live together in a small apartment in New York City. Why are Wilson and Daphne living together at an age when most siblings live apart in own households? Wilson and Daphne have a murky and traumatic past that is hinted at with some details but never fully disclosed in the movie.

It’s enough to say, based on the siblings’ conversations in the movie, that Wilson and Daphne are very close. They have what could be described as a co-dependent relationship. Daphne is younger than Wilson, but she the bolder and more outspoken of the two siblings. Their parents are still alive, but Wilson and Daphne are no longer in contact with them, apparently by choice. The movie brings up questions that it doesn’t always answer, such as why Wilson and Daphne are estranged from their parents.

In opening scene of “When I Consume You,” Daphne has locked herself in the apartment bathroom and seems to be distress. She pulls a bloody tooth out of her mouth. Wilson is in the next room and worriedly asks Daphne to come out of the bathroom, because he can sense that something is wrong. Daphne tries to pretend that everything is fine with her and says that she’s just taking a shower.

But everything is not fine with Daphne. A flashback scene shows Daphne confronting a man wearing a black hoodie jacket in a deserted parking lot. This hoodie-wearing man is seen multiple times in the movie. And eventually, it’s revealed that this man has been stalking Daphne and has been physically attacking her. Eventually, Wilson sees this man too, under some very tragic circumstances.

Daphne and Wilson are at crossroads in their lives where they want to turn their lives around and have a more stable family. Daphne is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who has applied to adopt a child. She works as a project manager at a company called Behemoth that is in an industry that is not mentioned in the movie. Daphne is never seen working at her job.

Wilson is a janitor at an unnamed school for underage kids. He is hoping to get a job as a schoolteacher. Wilson has an upcoming job interview to become a schoolteacher, and Daphne helps him rehearse what he’s going to say in the interview. It’s an example of how Wilson is not as confident about his communication skills as Daphne is.

Daphne has her own important upcoming interview. She’s supposed to meet with an adoption counselor named Anete (played by Margaret Ying Drake), who will decide if Daphne is a good candidate to adopt a girl who has recently become available for adoption. Daphne has a lot of nervous tension when she meets with Anete, who is skeptical about moving Daphne’s application forward to have Daphne meet the child.

In a very defensive tone, Daphne explains that she’s clean and sober for at least a year, and she has a steady job. There was apparently a incident in the recent past where Daphne lost her temper and possibly got violent. When Anete brings up this incident (which is vaguely mentioned), Daphne quickly says that she’s sorry it happened and that it will never happen again.

As for her own attitude about parenting, Daphne says in the meeting: “People think they own their kids. They’re not [to be owned]. They’re their own [people]. You’re only there to help and protect them.” Anete still doesn’t look convinced that Daphne is qualified to be an adoptive parent and tells Daphne: “With your history, what would you do if you were me?”

Needless to say, Daphne gets rejected for this adoption. And things don’t go well either for Wilson and his job interview. These two siblings are about to have something even worse happen to them: One day, Wilson comes home to find Daphne on her bed, dead of an apparent opioid drug overdose, because there is drug paraphernalia nearby.

However, almost immediately after Wilson finds Daphne’s body, he sees a man wearing a black hoodie jump out of the window and onto the street. Wilson chases this stranger, but the stranger is able to escape out of sight from Wilson. A terrified Wilson frantically tells police about this stranger, whom he is sure had something to do with Daphne’s death. However, Daphne’s death is ruled as a self-inflicted drug overdose, not a murder.

The rest of “When I Consume You” shows Wilson’s quest to find out the truth. The man who was stalking Daphne now begins to stalk Wilson. And the movie has a major plot development that will come as a surprise, but it leads to more information being revealed about who this stalker is and why this stalker has been targeting Daphne and Wilson.

“When I Consume You” has some slow-paced parts of the movie where Wilson does a lot of moping around New York City. Because he doesn’t talk much and he is in almost every scene of the movie, don’t expect there to be a lot of dialogue in this movie. The dialogue is not wasted on nonsense though. Observant viewers can also discern a lot of the personality traits of Daphne and Wilson, thanks to Dumouchel’s and Ewing’s skillful use of facial expressions and body language.

This is not a horror movie that has a lot of jump scares, but it has slow-burning tension that eventually erupts into an inevitable showdown scene. The “When I Consume You” musical score by Mitch Bain is pitch-perfect in creating a foreboding atmosphere, while Blackshear’s cinematography maintains the movie’s gloomy tone, even during the scenes that take place during the daytime. The villain in the story has a very creepy whisper that can give more chills to viewers than a lot of violent and bloody scenes in other horror movies.

Beyond the horror aspects of the movie, “When I Consume You” shows a tender relationship between siblings whose strong bond with each other has as much to do with trauma and fear as it does with love and respect. Wilson and Daphne are both emotionally damaged siblings who rely on each other for support but seem unaware of how much their co-dependency has stunted their emotional growth. For example, Daphne and Wilson don’t seem to have any other people they are close to in their personal lives.

Dumouchel and Ewing give nuanced performances that make the most of scenes that don’t always telegraph to viewers where the story is going. “When I Consume You” has some imperfections, such as in the last third of the movie that tries to rush in some ambitious action sequences that occasionally look awkward. The middle of the movie has a pace that drags at times, especially during scenes where Wilson is grieving in solitude. These flaws do not ruin the movie, however. Even with all of the horror depicted in “When I Consume You,” the movie offers thoughtful contemplation about love that continues after death.

1091 Pictures released “When I Consume You” on digital and VOD on August 16, 2022.

Review: ‘Armageddon Time,’ starring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb and Anthony Hopkins

October 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in “Armageddon Time” (Photo courtesy of Anne Joyce/Focus Features)

“Armageddon Time”

Directed by James Gray

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1980 in New York City, the dramatic film “Armageddon Time” (inspired by director James Gray’s own childhood) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An 11-year-old, middle-class Jewish boy, who befriends a working-class African American boy from school, learns some of life’s harsh lessons about bigotry and privilege. 

Culture Audience: “Armageddon Time” will appeal primarily to people interested in retro movies that explore the loss of innocence in childhood.

Jaylin Webb and Banks Repeta in “Armageddon Time” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The talented cast’s performances elevate “Armageddon Time,” a drama that apparently wants to condemn racism, antisemitism and social class snobbery. Ultimately, the movie doesn’t have anything new to say about people who enable these types of bigotry. The cast members’ acting should maintain most viewers’ interest, but parts of “Armageddon Time” (written and directed by James Gray) might annoy or bore viewers who feel like they’ve seen this type of “loss of childhood innocence experienced by a future movie director” many times already.

That’s because there have been several movie directors who’ve done movies based on their real childhoods, with the childhood versions of themselves as the protagonists of the movies. In these semi-autobiographical or autobiographical films, these directors depict their childhood selves as inquisitive, imaginative and often misunderstood by many people around them. The child has at least one parent who usually doesn’t encourage the child’s artistic inclinations, because the parent thinks it’s not a good career choice to be any type of artist.

All of these clichés are in “Armageddon Time,” Gray’s dramatic retelling of what his life was like for a pivotal two-month period when he was 11 years old. “Armageddon Time”—which takes place from September to November 1980, mostly in New York City’s Queens borough—can be considered semi-autobiographical, because the characters in the movie are based on real people without using the real people’s names, except for members of Donald Trump’s family. At a certain point in the movie, viewers can easily predict where this movie is going and what it’s attempting to say.

However, because the cast members deliver good performances and have believable chemistry with each other, “Armageddon Time” has moments that can be entertaining and compelling. “Armageddon Time” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in France. The movie then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, the Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland, and the New York Film Festival in New York City.

The story is told from the perspective of 11-year-old Paul Graff (played by Banks Repeta, also known as Michael Banks Repeta), who has talent for drawing illustrations of people. Paul has a mischievous side where he makes caricatures or illustration parodies of people he knows. He’s also a science-fiction enthusiast who has created an original superhero character named Captain United.

In the beginning of the movie, it’s September 8, 1980—Paul’s first day of school as a sixth grader at P.S. 173, a public school in Queens. One of the first things that happens in a classroom led by a cranky teacher named Mr. Turkeltaub (played by Andrew Polk) is that Mr. Turkeltaub has found a drawing that depicts him as a turkey. An infuriated Mr. Turkeltaub demands to know who made the drawing, and Paul eventually confesses that he did it.

Just a few minutes later, a classmate named Johnny Davis (played by Jaylin Webb) tells a harmless joke as a reply to the teacher’s question. Johnny’s flippant response gets Mr. Turkeltaub even angrier. He hisses at Johnny as he points to Johnny’s head, “You’ve got nothing up here.” Johnny snaps back, “Look who taught me.”

Paul and Johnny both get mild punishments for their disobedience, as Mr. Turkeltaub orders them to clean the chalkboard in the classroom. Johnny and Paul become very fast friends from this shared bonding experience. Their friendship is defined by a lot of the rebellious things that they do together.

Johnny and Paul also share a passion for outer space. Johnny dreams of becoming an astronaut for NASA, while Paul wants to illustrate comic books about space travel. Although both boys talk about a lot of things with each other immediately, they’re not as up front about each other’s home lives when they first meet.

Paul’s family is middle-class, but he lies to Johnny by saying that his family is rich. Johnny, who doesn’t like to talk about his parents, comes from a low-income household and lives with his grandmother (played by Marjorie Johnson, in a quick cameo), whom Johnny describes as “forgetful.” (It’s implied that she has dementia.) Eventually, Johnny opens up to Paul about what’s really going on with him at home, but Paul keeps up the lie about his parents being rich for as long as Paul can keep telling this lie.

Paul’s tight-knight family at home consists of his energetic mother Esther Graff (played by Anne Hathaway), who is the president of P.S. 173’s Parent Teacher Association; his stern father Irving Graff (played by Jeremy Strong), who is an engineer; and Paul’s smug older brother Ted Graff (played by Ryan Sell), who is about 15 years old and almost the opposite of Paul. Ted is a popular, outgoing student at his private school, and he gets good grades. Paul is introverted, somewhat of a loner, and an average student, even though he has the intelligence to get better grades in school. Paul is much closer to his mother than he is to his father, who has a bad temper and tells Paul that being an artist is not a wise occupation.

Frequent visitors to the Graff home for family dinners are Paul’s grandparents, aunts and uncles. Esther’s father Aaron Rabinowitz (played by Anthony Hopkins), who is from the United Kingdom, is Paul’s favorite of these relatives. Grandfather Aaron is kind and patient with Paul, who feels like Aaron is the only family member who truly accepts Paul for who Paul is. Aaron is also the only one in this family who teaches Paul the realities of antisemitism and racism and how not to be a bigot.

Many of the Graff/Rabinowitz family members, including Aaron, are originally from Europe and survivors of the Holocaust. Aaron’s mother was a Ukrainian refugee who eventually settled in England. Aaron and his wife Mickey Rabinowitz (played by Tovah Feldshuh) are both retired schoolteachers. Other relatives who are in the story are Paul’s aunt Ruth (played by Marcia Haufrecht) and uncle Louis (played by Teddy Coluca), who are both very opinionated.

Family conversations around the dining room table reveal that although members of this family have experienced prejudice for being Jewish, many of the adult family members are racists who don’t like black people. Some of the family members are more blatant about this racism than others. Aaron is the only adult in the family who doesn’t come across as some kind of bigot or difficult person. He’s not saintly, but the movie depicts Aaron as the only adult who comes closest to having a lot of wisdom and a strong moral character.

Meanwhile, at school, Johnny and Paul get into some more mischief. In Mr. Turkeltaub’s class, Johnny tends to get punishment that’s worse than what Paul gets. Johnny is a year older than his classmates because he’s had to repeat sixth grade. Johnny usually get blamed first by Mr. Turkeltaub if there’s any student trouble in the classroom.

It doesn’t help that Johnny sometimes curses at the teacher in response to being singled out as a troublemaker, whereas Paul tends not to go that far with his disrespect for authority. However, Mr. Turkeltaub seems to deliberately pick on Johnny to get him angry. There are racial undertones to the way that Mr. Turkeltaub treats Johnny, who is one of the few African American students in the class.

Through a series of events and circumstances that won’t be revealed in this review, Paul transfers to the same private school where Ted is a student: Kew-Forest School, located in the affluent neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens. Paul is very unhappy about this transfer because he will no longer get to see Johnny at school. Paul also experiences culture shock, because most of the students come from upper-middle-class and wealthy families.

Members of the real-life Trump family are major financial donors to Kew-Forest School and sometimes stop by the school to make speaking appearances to the assembled students. “Armageddon Time” shows Fred Trump (Donald Trump’s father, played by John Diehl) and Maryanne Trump (Donald Trump’s older sister, played by Jessica Chastain) in cameos, as they give condescending lectures disguised as pep talks at Kew-Forest School. Maryanne Trump, who inherited her fortune from her father, even has the gall to say in her lecture that she worked hard for the wealth that she has.

Because “Armageddon Time” writer/director Gray didn’t change the names of Fred Trump and Maryanne Trump in the movie, the only conclusion that viewers can come to is that Gray wanted to show some kind of disdain for the Trumps in the movie, by depicting them as out-of-touch rich people whom he did not like or trust, even as a child. The only other semi-political statements made in “Armageddon Time” are scenes where the 1980 U.S. presidential election is in the news and discussed in the Graff family home. Irving and Ethel Graff are Democrats who want incumbent Democrat president Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan (a Republican), to win the election.

Because “Armageddon Time” takes place during the height of the nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia (then known as the Soviet Union), the movie makes some references to the fear that many people had that a nuclear war could be imminent and would cause an apocalypse. In the production notes for “Armageddon Time,” Gray says that the movie’s title was named after the reggae song “Armagidion Time,” which had a cover version released by The Clash in 1979. (The Clash’s remake of this song is in the “Armageddon Time” movie.) Gray further explains in the production notes that the movie is about Paul’s personal Armageddon.

It’s during Paul’s experiences as a new student at Kew-Forest School that he begins to understand how race, religion and social class are used as reasons for bigots to inflict damaging prejudice on others. When Johnny shows up near the Kew-Forest School playground to talk to Paul, it’s the first time that Paul is fully aware that many of his peers at Kew-Forest school look down on someone like Johnny, just because Johnny is a working-class African American. One of the Kew-Forest students uses the “n” word to describe Johnny, and Paul is shocked.

Paul’s mother Esther also disapproves of Johnny, mainly because she blames Johnny for being a “bad influence” on Paul. There are some racial undertones to Esther’s dislike of Johnny, mainly because Esther wants to deny that Paul is a willing and active participant in whatever rebellious and rude antics that he and Johnny decide to do. Paul, who has an angelic face, is not as “innocent” as Esther thinks he is.

Repeta skillfully plays the role of Paul, a boy who starts to see life in ways that Paul did not expect. His performance is an admirable anchor for the movie, which at times is hindered by writer/director Gray’s self-indulgent nostalgia. And although Hathaway and Strong give solid performances as Esther and Irving, Paul’s emotional connections to his parents at this particular time in Paul’s life are secondary to the emotional connections that Paul has with his grandfather Aaron and with his new friend Johnny. Hopkins and Webb deliver fine performances as Aaron and Johnny, but much about how these two characters are written (the wise grandfather and the rebellious kid) are reminiscent of characters seen in many other movies.

One of the problematic elements of “Armageddon Time” is that Johnny is often treated as a “black token” in the movie. He has all the negative stereotypes of what many racists think black boys are: troublemakers who can’t be as accomplished or as intelligent as their white peers. It would have been better if the movie had at least a few other African American people in prominent speaking roles for some variety (after all, this movie takes place in racially diverse New York City), instead of putting almost all of the African American representation in the movie on a troubled adolescent boy.

There’s a point in the movie where Johnny runs away from home, because he suspects that child protective services will put him in foster care, and he asks Paul for help in having a place to stay. Paul’s reaction is realistic, but it seems like Gray wants to gloss over how Paul contributes to a lot of Johnny’s pain. “Armageddon Time” is less concerned about the root causes of Johnny’s problems and more concerned about making Aaron the noble sage who preaches to Paul about the evils of racism. However, the movie doesn’t actually show Aaron helping anyone from an oppressed racial group, or even caring about having anyone in his social circle who isn’t white.

“Armageddon Time” is a lot like watching people say repeatedly, “Isn’t bigotry terrible?” But then, those same people don’t really do anything to actively stop the bigotry that they complain about. The Graff household also has some domestic abuse that seems to be put in the movie for some shock value, and then the matter is dropped completely. The ending of “Armageddon Time” could have been a lot better, but the movie has enough good acting and memorable characters to make up for some scenes that wander and don’t serve a very meaningful purpose in the movie.

Focus Features released “Armageddon Time” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022.

2022 Critics Choice Documentary Awards: ‘Fire of Love’ is the top nominee

October 17, 2022

Maurice Krafft and Katia Krafft in “Fire of Love” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The following is a press release from the Critics Choice Association:

The Critics Choice Association (CCA) has announced the nominees for the Seventh Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards (CCDA). The winners will be revealed at a Gala Event on Sunday, November 13, 2022 at The Edison Ballroom in Manhattan, marking a change of venue and borough. The ceremony will be hosted by longtime event supporter, actor, and standup comedian Wyatt Cenac.

Fire of Love leads with seven nominations, including nods for Best Documentary Feature, Sara Dosa for Best Director, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Narration, Best Archival Documentary, and Best Science/Nature Documentary.

Good Night Oppy is recognized with six nominations, including Best Documentary Feature, Ryan White for Best Director, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Narration, and Best Science/Nature Documentary.

Cenac is an Emmy-winning, WGA-winning, and Grammy-nominated performer, writer, and producer. From 2008 to 2012, he was a writer and popular correspondent on the hit late-night Comedy Central series The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he earned three Emmy Awards and one Writer’s Guild Award.

For the very first time, the Awards will be live-streamed through Facebook Live and Instagram Live. Viewing links will be available on the Critics Choice Association website at 7:00 PM ET on Sunday, November 13.

The Critics Choice Association is honoring the year’s finest achievements in documentaries released in theaters, on TV, and on major digital platforms, as determined by the voting of qualified CCA members.

This year, two categories – Best Ongoing Documentary Series and Best Limited Documentary Series – that have traditionally been included in the Critics Choice Real TV Awards will now be presented at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards.

In addition to the 17 award categories listed below, a most prestigious honor – The Pennebaker Award (formerly known as the Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award) – will be presented to esteemed documentarian Barbara Kopple. The award is named for Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award winner D A Pennebaker, who passed away in 2019. The award will be presented to Kopple by Pennebaker’s producing partner and wife, Chris Hegedus.

Kopple, a director of documentaries, narrative TV, and film, is a two-time Academy Award winner and ten-time Emmy Award nominee. Her most recent project is the forthcoming documentary Gumbo Coalition, which premieres at DOC NYC as the Centerpiece Presentation in November 2022.

Kopple produced and directed Harlan County USA and American Dream, both winners of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Her other films include Miss Sharon Jones!, Desert One, The House of Steinbrenner, Woodstock: Now and Then, Shut Up and Sing, Havoc, A Conversation with Gregory Peck, My Generation, Wild Man Blues, Running From Crazy, Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson, This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, and many more.

For the second year in a row, the Critics Choice Documentary Awards welcomes back National Geographic Documentary Films as the Presenting Sponsor.

The Catalyst Sponsor for the Seventh Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards is Peacock, with more sponsor announcements forthcoming.

“This year’s nominees prove that documentaries of all lengths and formats are advancing nonfiction media like never before,” said Christopher Campbell, Co-President of the Critics Choice Association Documentary Branch. “And we are excited to celebrate the tremendous talents who contributed to all of these brilliant films and series.”

Carla Renata, Co-President of the Critics Choice Association Documentary Branch added, “We are also thrilled to witness an exemplary number of women filmmakers and female-focused subjects being represented, further solidifying the Critics Choice Documentary Awards’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion within the documentary landscape.”

Last year at the Sixth Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) received the award for every category in which it was nominated, including the evening’s most prestigious award for Best Documentary Feature, as well as Best Director (TIE), Best First Documentary Feature, Best Editing, Best Archival Documentary, and Best Music Documentary. Subsequently, the film took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film.

The nominees for the Seventh Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards Presented by National Geographic Documentary Films are:

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • Aftershock (Hulu)
  • The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Descendant (Netflix)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down (Briarcliff Entertainment)
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Sidney (Apple TV+)

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio – George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • Margaret Brown – Descendant (Netflix)
  • Sara Dosa – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Reginald Hudlin – Sidney (Apple TV+)
  • Brett Morgen – Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Laura Poitras – All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (HBO/Neon)
  • Daniel Roher – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Ryan White – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)

BEST FIRST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • Andrea Arnold – Cow (IFC Films)
  • Lisa Hurwitz – The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Jono McLeod – My Old School (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Amy Poehler – Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • Alex Pritz – The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • David Siev – Bad Axe (IFC Films)
  • Bianca Stigter – Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Benjamin Bernhard, Riju Das – All That Breathes (HBO)
  • Magda Kowalczyk – Cow (IFC Films)
  • Lucas Tucknott – McEnroe (Showtime)
  • Gabriela Osio Vanden, Jack Weisman, Sam Holling – Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)
  • The Cinematography Team – Our Great National Parks (Netflix)
  • Alex Pritz, Tangãi Uru-eu-wau-wau – The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)

BEST EDITING

  • Jabez Olssen – The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  • Erin Casper, Jocelyne Chaput – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Joe Beshenkovsky – George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • Helen Kearns, Rejh Cabrera – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)
  • Brett Morgen – Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Langdon Page, Maya Daisy Hawke – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Katharina Wartena – Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)

BEST SCORE

  • Hummie Mann – The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Nicolas Godin – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Blake Neely – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)
  • Max Avery Lichtenstein – The Janes (HBO)
  • David Schwartz – Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • Marius de Vries, Matt Robertson – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)

BEST NARRATION

  • Deep in the Heart: A Texas Wildlife Story (Fin and Fur Films) – Written by Ben Masters; Performed by Matthew McConaughey
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon) – Written by Shane Boris, Erin Casper, Jocelyne Chaput, Sara Dosa. Performed by Miranda July
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios) –Written by Helen Kearns, Ryan White; Performed by Angela Bassett
  • Our Great National Parks (Netflix) – Performed by Barack Obama
  • Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures) – Written by Tobi Haslett; Performed by Charlene Modeste
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon) – Written by Bianca Stigter; Performed by Helena Bonham Carter

BEST ARCHIVAL DOCUMENTARY

  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Nothing Compares (Showtime)
  • Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)

BEST HISTORICAL DOCUMENTARY

  • The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Descendant (Netflix)
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power (Peacock)
  • Still Working 9 to 5 (Mighty Fine Entertainment)
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)
  • The U.S. and the Holocaust (PBS)

BEST BIOGRAPHICAL DOCUMENTARY

  • George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • The Last Movie Stars (HBO Max)
  • Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Peacock)
  • Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Sidney (Apple TV+)
  • Sr. (Netflix)

BEST MUSIC DOCUMENTARY

  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  • Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • If These Walls Could Sing (Disney Original Documentary)
  • Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (Apple TV+)
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Nothing Compares (Showtime)
  • The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile (Sony Pictures Classics)

BEST POLITICAL DOCUMENTARY

  • Aftershock (Hulu)
  • All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (HBO/Neon)
  • Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down (Briarcliff Entertainment)
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Retrograde (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Netflix)

BEST SCIENCE/NATURE DOCUMENTARY

  • All That Breathes (HBO)
  • Cow (IFC Films)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)
  • Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)
  • Return to Space (Netflix)
  • The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)

BEST SPORTS DOCUMENTARY

  • Citizen Ashe (Magnolia/HBO)
  • Hockeyland (Greenwich Entertainment)
  • Kaepernick & America (Dark Star Pictures)
  • McEnroe (Showtime)
  • The Redeem Team (Netflix)
  • Welcome to Wrexham (FX/Hulu)

BEST SHORT DOCUMENTARY

  • 38 at the Garden (HBO)
  • Angola Do You Hear Us? Voices From a Plantation Prison (MTV Documentary Films)
  • The Flagmakers (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Four Seasons Total Documentary (MSNBC)
  • My Disability Roadmap (The New York Times Op Docs)
  • Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)
  • Stranger at the Gate (The New Yorker)

BEST LIMITED DOCUMENTARY SERIES

  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  • Hostages (HBO)
  • The Last Movie Stars (HBO Max)
  • The Lincoln Project (Showtime)
  • Our Great National Parks (Netflix)
  • The U.S. and the Holocaust (PBS)
  • We Need to Talk About Cosby (Showtime)

BEST ONGOING DOCUMENTARY SERIES

  • 30 for 30 (ESPN)
  • American Masters (PBS)
  • Cheer (Netflix)
  • The Circus (Showtime)
  • Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix)
  • Welcome to Wrexham (FX/Hulu)

About the Critics Choice Awards

The Critics Choice Documentary Awards are an offshoot of the Critics Choice Awards, which are bestowed annually by the CCA to honor the finest in cinematic and television achievement. Historically, the Critics Choice Awards are the most accurate predictor of Academy Award nominations.

The Critics Choice Awards ceremony will be held on January 15, 2023 at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Century City, CA, and will be broadcast live on the CW.

About the Critics Choice Association (CCA)

The Critics Choice Association is the largest critics organization in the United States and Canada, representing more than 580 media critics and entertainment journalists. It was established in 2019 with the formal merger of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, in recognition of the intersection between film, television, and streaming content. For more information, visit: www.CriticsChoice.com.

To learn more about the Critics Choice Documentary Awards and see the full list of nominees, visit the Critics Choice Association website.

Review: ‘She Said,’ starring Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Morton and Ashley Judd

October 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan in “She Said” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures)

“She Said”

Directed by Maria Schrader

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2016 and 2017, primarily in New York City (and briefly in California, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Italy), the dramatic film “She Said” (based on real events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey investigate sexual abuse allegations against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein and help usher in a new era in the #MeToo movement.

Culture Audience: “She Said” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted historical dramas about investigative journalism and seeking justice for crimes.

Wesley Holloway, Jennifer Ehle and Justine Colan in “She Said” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures)

With the tone and pace of a procedural crime drama, “She Said” uncovers nothing new about The New York Times’ 2017 report that helped spur the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who went from being a powerful mogul in the entertainment industry to becoming an imprisoned, convicted rapist. However, the movie’s top-notch cast members (including a terrific Samantha Morton in a standout supporting role) deliver better-than-average performances in this important story that needs to be told. It’s a very female-driven movie that puts the narrative where it belongs: on Weinstein’s abuse survivors who had the courage to speak to The New York Times for this groundbreaking report, as well as the two women who investigated and wrote this report.

Directed by Maria Schrader and written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, “She Said” is adapted from the 2019 non-fiction book “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement,” written by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the two New York Times reporters who investigated and wrote the report that exposed accusations against Weinstein for crimes and misdeeds against women, spanning several decades as far back as the 1980s. The report, which was published in October 2017, included detailed accounts of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault alleged by a variety of women, including some of Weinstein’s former employees, famous actresses (such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd) and various other colleagues. “She Said” had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

“She Said” opens with a flashback to 1992. In this scene, a 21-year-old female production assistant is on a film set in Ireland. She comes across as an eager and friendly employee who’s happy to be at her job and enjoys being around her co-workers. The movie then abruptly shifts to showing her running in fear on a city street, as if she’s just experienced something terrifying.

It’s at this point you know that this woman has become one of Weinstein’s sexual abuse victims. In 1992, Weinstein (who co-founded Miramax Films and later The Weinstein Company) was on the rise in the industry as a movie producer and studio chief. He would eventually win an Academy Award for Best Picture, for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love.”

Later on in “She Said,” which takes place mostly in 2016 and 2017, viewers find out that this frightened young woman’s name is Zelda Perkins. And 25 years after her horrifying experience with Weinstein left her with deep trauma and disillusionment about the entertainment industry, Zelda (played by Morton) is ready to tell her story to The New York Times. It’s by far the best scene in the movie. She declares, “This is bigger than Weinstein. This is about the system protecting abusers.”

“She Said” goes step-by-step in showing how Jodi Kantor (played by Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (played by Carey Mulligan) ended up working together on this landmark investigation which helped bring a surge to the #MeToo movement and garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Kantor and Twohey. (For the purpose of this review, the movie characters will be referred to by their first names, while the real-life people will be referred to by their last names.) Someone who is briefly mentioned (but never shown) in the movie is investigative journalist Ronan Farrow, who also won a Pultizer Prize for his own Weinstein exposé that The New Yorker published a day after The New York Times’ report. “She Said” portrays Farrow’s report as something that Jodi and Megan were aware was happening simultaneously, but Farrow’s competing report did not distract Jodi and Megan from their own investigation.

Jodi’s and Megan’s respective personal lives are shown tangentially for context reasons, in order to give viewers an idea of how this investigation affected their lives outside of their jobs. Jodi and Megan both have loving, supportive husbands (Jodi’s journalist husband Ron Lieber is played by Adam Shapiro; Megan’s literary-agent husband Vadim “Jim” Rutman is played by Tom Pelphrey), but the women are at different stages in their lives when it comes to motherhood.

At the beginning of the investigation, Jodi had two daughters under the age of 12, while Megan was a mother of a newborn child. (Elle Graham has the role of Jodi and Ron’s older daughter Gracie, while Maren Heary has the role of younger daughter Nell.) Their struggles with post-partum depression are mentioned in the movie when Megan confides in Jodi about having post-partum depression, and Jodi reveals that she had this type of depression too.

“She Said” also shows that while Jodi was enthusiastic about pursuing the investigation from the beginning, Megan was more skeptical and reluctant, because many of their sources refused to go on the record, usually because they signed non-disclosure agreements with Weinstein in exchange for a monetary settlement, and/or the accusers feared retaliation. The movie takes on sinister qualities when it shows that Megan and Jodi (and some of their sources) were stalked and threatened by unidentified men who were believed to have been hired by Weinstein.

Slowly but surely, through in-person visits to interview many of the survivors in person, Jodi and Megan begin to get a growing number of women who were willing to go on the record. Judd portrays herself in the scenes where she interacts with Megan and Jodi. In real life and in the movie, Judd tells her story about how Weinstein had her blackballed from getting jobs after she rejected his sexual advances.

Two other key witnesses come forward to help with the investigation: former Weinstein employees Rowena Chiu (played by Angela Yeoh) and Laura Madden (played by Jennifer Ehle), a mother of two underage children, who was also dealing with the recent news that she would have to get a mastectomy due to her breast cancer. (Justine Colan has the role of Laura’s daughter Iris, while Wesley Holloway has the role of Laura’s son Hywel.) Yeoh and Ehle both make an impact with their admirable performances.

Jodi, the more emotionally sensitive reporter of the duo, is described by Megan at one point in the movie as “less intimidating” than Megan because Jodi is shorter and looks more approachable. There’s a well-performed scene where Jodi makes a big mistake in revealing some information to Rowena’s husband that could derail a possible interview with Rowena. Jodi is distraught by this mistake, in a powerful scene that shows the human fallibility that can happen in investigative journalism.

Megan considers herself to be a more seasoned and more jaded reporter than Jodi. Megan doesn’t like to show emotional vulnerability, but she goes through more of an emotional rollercoaster due to her post-partum depression, which she tries to hide from her colleagues, in order not to be perceived as “weak” or “incompetent.” It’s an issue that many mothers in the workforce go through in real life, and it’s handled with tasteful respect in “She Said,” with Mulligan giving a nuanced performance.

The movie also depicts some of the rejections that Jodi and Megan received from potential sources who ultimately were too afraid or uninterested in going on the record with The New York Times. And the movie also depicts some of Weinstein’s enablers, including attorney Lisa Bloom (played by Anastasia Barzee), who tarnished her feminist image when she was hired to be a paid consultant to do damage control for Weinstein. Bloom also had a book deal with Weinstein. John Schmidt (played John Mazurek), who worked for Weinstein as a chief financial officer, and attorney Lanny Davis (played by Peter Friedman), who used to be one of Weinstein’s consultants, are shown having guilt-ridden reckonings when they are confronted by Megan and Jodi about their active participation in covering up Weinstein’s abuses.

The New York Times is portrayed as approaching this story meticulously, with supportive editors who demanded a high level of accountability and evidence before publishing the report. Patricia Clarkson has a generic role as New York Times assistant managing editor Rebecca Corbett. Andre Braugher has the flashier supervisor role as New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet, who has some of the best scenes in the movie in showing how he’s not intimidated by a bully like Weinstein.

As for any portrayal of Weinstein, “She Said” wisely relegates him to just being mostly a voice, with a brief glimpses of an actor (Mike Houston) portraying Weinstein on screen, such as when he walks in a public area with members of his team. There’s a scene where Weinstein threatens Dean with legal action against The New York Times because of the investigation that he knows will expose dark secrets. In response, Dean tells Weinstein that if he wants to make any statements on the record, Weinstein needs to talk directly to Jodi and Megan.

“She Said” also includes the 2015 real-life audio recording of Weinstein trying and failing to coerce actress/model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez into his hotel suite, a day after she says he sexually groped her without her consent. She reported this crime to the New York Police Department, which investigated Weinstein for that incident at the time, but no charges were filed against him. It’s an example of how not all of Weinstein’s accusers waited years to come forward to report Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct against them. The movie shows in no uncertain terms that those who did go public before 2017 were silenced or ignored.

Also getting a “voice only” depiction in “She Said” is actress/activist Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail), who is shown declining to be interviewed by The New York Times about her accusation that Weinstein raped her, because she says she felt mistreated by The New York Times in the past. In real life, McGowan would go on the record with Farrow for his coverage for The New Yorker. “She Said” also has a scene of Megan and Jodi going to Paltrow’s California home to interview this Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love” actress, but Paltrow is also just a phone voice in the movie. (Near the beginning of the movie, there’s also voice cameo from an actor portraying Donald Trump, who calls Megan in 2016, during his presidential campaign, to tell her that she’s a “disgusting human being” for reporting sexual harassment allegations against Trump.)

Early on in “She Said,” the movie acknlowedges that Weinstein’s downfall happened after the April 2017 downfall of former Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly over sexual harassment allegations. Sarah Anne Masse, who is one of Weinstein’s real-life accusers (she claims he sexually harassed her in a job interview), has a cameo role as New York Times reporter Emily Steel, who helped break the story about O’Reilly’s alleged sexual misconduct. Steel and Michael S. Schmidt co-wrote the New York Times report that exposed how News Corp. (the parent company of Fox News) paid at least $13 million to settle sexual-harassment complaints made against O’Reilly, who was eventually fired from Fox News when advertisers boycotted his show. (That settlement total is now estimated to be at least $32 million.)

“She Said” might get some comparisons to the Oscar-winning 2015 drama “Spotlight,” which was about the Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation of the Catholic Church covering up priests’ sexual abuse for decades. In real life, that Boston Globe report also won a Pulitzer Prize, but “Spotlight” was very much about a male-majority team of journalists (with one token woman) doing the investigating. “She Said” is much more streamlined, because there is only one main sexual abuser being investigated, although the movie does hammer home the point many times that Weinstein was aided by a system that allowed him to get away with his crimes for years.

None of this information is surprising to anyone who followed the Weinstein scandal and the aftermath of what was reported in The New York Times and The New Yorker. There have been countless news reports and some documentaries of the same subject matter. What will resonate with viewers the most in “She Said” is exactly what the title of the movie promises: Instead of making the villain the center of the story (which true-crime movies tend to do), “She Said” is all about celebrating the bravery and fortitude of the women survivors who came forward to tell their truths, and the people who helped bring some measure of justice to stop Weinstein’s reign of terror.

Universal Pictures will release “She Said” in U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022.

Review: ‘TÁR,’ starring Cate Blanchett

October 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“TÁR”

Directed by Todd Field

Some language in German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Berlin and New York City, the dramatic film “TÁR” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An internationally famous classical music conductor finds her life spiraling out of control when her past actions come back to haunt her. 

Culture Audience: TÁR” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Cate Blanchett, writer/director Todd Field and well-acted movies about powerful people who experience a scandalous fall from grace..

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Cate Blanchett’s riveting performance in writer/director Todd Field’s “TÁR” makes it a psychological minefield of a drama. It’s an absorbing portrait of someone intoxicated by her own power and facing a reckoning that’s as unwelcome to her as a nasty hangover. Blanchett’s Lydia Tár character is a classical music conductor who has reached the top of her field, which makes her public downfall such a disastrous mess. Viewers can decide for themselves if this downfall could have been diminished based on how it was handled by the movie’s central character.

“TÁR” is Field’s first movie as a writer/director/producer since his Oscar-nominated 2006 drama “Little Children,” another movie about how a woman is affected by a sex-related scandal. Whereas “Little Children” told the story of a private citizen in a suburban U.S. neighborhood, “TÁR” is about a public figure who is an internationally famous entertainer. “TÁR” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy and subsequently had premieres at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, and the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

In “TÁR,” Lydia fits every definition of a type-A personality who’s an overachiever. The movie’s opening scene takes place at The New Yorker Festival, where writer Adam Gopnik (playing a version of himself) is interviewing Lydia in a one-on-one Q&A in front of the audience. It’s a laudatory interview, where her accomplishments are listed like badges of honor: She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. Lydia is also a piano performance graduate of the Curtis Institute, and she has a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Vienna, specializing in music from the Ucayali Valley in Eastern Peru.

At one time or another, she has been a conductor for all of the “Big Five” American orchestras: New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. Lydia is a rare entertainer who is an EGOT winner: someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She considers herself to be a New Yorker, and has a home in New York City, where she still visits on a regular basis. However, for the past seven years, Lydia has been living in Berlin, because she has been a conductor for an unnamed German orchestra.

Lydia, who describes herself as a “U-Haul lesbian,” lives with her German domestic partner Sharon Goodnow (played by Nina Hoss) and their adopted Syrian daughter Petra (played by Mila Bogojevic), who is about 6 or 7 years old. Sharon is a violinist in the German orchestra that Lydia conducts. It’s the first sign in the movie that Lydia has a tendency to blur the lines between her job and her personal life.

Lydia is a loner who doesn’t have a close circle of friends, so Sharon is Lydia’s closest confidante. Sharon knows a lot of Lydia’s secrets. However, Sharon eventually finds out that she doesn’t really know everything about Lydia. Two American men also have an influence on Lydia, and they give her advice, whether she wants to hear it or not.

Eliot Kaplan (played by Mark Strong) is an investment banker and amateur conductor, who has financed a non-profit program called the Accordion Conducting Fellowship, which is led by Lydia. The fellowship gives apprenticeships and job opportunities to aspiring female classical music conductors in this very male-dominated field. Near the beginning of the movie, Lydia tells Eliot during a lunch meeting that she’s thinking that the program recipients shouldn’t just be one gender.

The other man who plays an influential role in Lydia’s life is her mentor Andris Davis (played by Julian Glover), who was her predecessor at the German orchestra that Lydia currently conducts. Andris was the one who recommended her for the job, although it’s made clear throughout the movie that Lydia’s talent is so highly respected and sought-after, she probably didn’t need to a recommendation to get the job. What started out as a temporary job for Lydia to be the guest conductor position at this German orchestra turned out to be a long-term, permanent position.

If viewers believe the narrative that Lydia tells people, one of the reasons why she and Sharon decided to settle in Berlin was to be closer to Sharon’s family members who live in the area. But as the story unfolds, it becomes pretty obvious that Lydia might have had a reason to avoid living in New York full-time. It turns out that Lydia has a “stalker” who lives in New York City.

Lydia’s French assistant Francesca Lentini (played by Noémie Merlant) knows who this “stalker” is, because this person has been sending obsessive and threatening email messages to Lydia. Francesca has permission to access these messages, because Francesca screens Lydia’s mail. Francesca is an aspiring conductor who greatly admires Lydia and considers Lydia to be her mentor.

Over time, based on the way that Francesca acts and what she says, Francesca seems to assume that she will be Lydia’s first choice if any big job opportunity comes along that Lydia can help Francesca get. Lydia expects unwavering loyalty from Francesca, but Francesca expects the same loyalty in return. There’s some sexual tension between Lydia and Francesca that will make viewers speculate if or when the relationship between Lydia and Francesca ever became sexually intimate.

Just like a lot of hard-driving, ambitious and accomplished people, Lydia is a perfectionist who is just as hard on herself as she is on other people. A very telling scene is when she is a guest teacher in a classical music class at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. The students seem very intimidated by Lydia’s reputation for being merciless in her criticism, but she’s also full of praise for anyone who meets or exceeds her high standards.

During this class session, Lydia singles out a student named Max (played by Zethphan Smith-Gneist) and asks him, “What are you actually conducting?” Max is so nervous in her presence, one of Max’s legs is literally shaking as Max talks to her. However, Max isn’t so afraid of Lydia that Max won’t challenge some of the things that she lectures to the students.

For example, Lydia tells the students any great conductor or musician can find something to relate to in the music of classical icons Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven. Max disagrees and tells Lydia and the rest of the people in the room: “As a BIPOC [black, indigenous, or person of color], pan-gender person, it’s impossible to take Bach seriously.”

Lydia tells Max that she doesn’t know what BIPOC and pan-gender means, and her attitude is that she doesn’t care to know. She treats Max dismissively, like an ignorant young person whose opinions matter very little to her, because she’s the more experienced, older person. Finally, a fed-up Max gets tired of feeling belittled by Lydia, and Max walks out of the class. Before leaving the room, Max tells Lydia, “You’re a fucking bitch.”

In response, a stone-faced Lydia calls Max a “robot.” Throughout the movie, Lydia mentions that she dislikes it when people act like robots. During her lunch with Eliot, she says, “There’s no glory for a robot. Do your own thing.” Ironically, when Lydia’s world starts to come crashing down on her, she represses her emotions and turns to rigid routines (such as rigorous jogging and boxing) to cope, and thereby acts very much like a “robot,” in an attempt to tune out her troubles.

Lydia is under enormous career pressure when things start to fall apart for her. The German orchestra is preparing for a Deutsche Grammophon live recording date of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which will be a major accomplishment in her career. In addition, Lydia is working on writing an original classical piece. However, she seems to be having writer’s block, and she doesn’t really want to admit this problem to anyone.

While in Berlin, Lydia meets a Russian cellist Olga Metkina (played by Sophie Kauer), who is 18 or 19 years old. Olga acts like a star-struck fan with Lydia, who is flattered. Lydia also seems to be sexually attracted to Olga. Meanwhile, Olga seems to be aware of this attraction and makes it clear that she’s eager for any opportunity to work with Lydia.

“TÁR” is fascinating to watch for how it unpeels the layers of Lydia’s contradictory character that is capable of hiding a web of lies and secrets. Lydia can be charismatic and funny, but she can also be ruthless and cruel. She is a workaholic who doesn’t spend a lot of quality time with her daughter Petra, but Lydia quietly threatens the girl at Petra’s school who has been bullying Petra.

Lydia claims to be open to collaboration and hearing different ideas, but when anyone dares to question her ideas or decisions, she gets revenge in passive-aggressive ways. An elderly orchestra member named Sebastian Brix (played by Allan Corduner) finds out the hard way how vindictive Lydia can be. What happens to Sebastian sets off a certain chain events that will accelerate the scandal that could lead to Lydia’s downfall.

In telling the story of this complex person, Field also uses haunting flashback techniques that resemble a fever dream, where Lydia remembers things related to the scandal that threatens to end her career. Lydia also sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to random sounds, such as a metronome that seems to have started on its own. It further fuels the sense that Lydia is being haunted. How much of it is her own doing? As the tension builds and things get worse for Lydia, the movie’s cinematography (played by Florian Hoffmeister) and the music (by Hildur Guðnadóttir) become more foreboding, creating a sense that the proverbial walls are closing in on her.

The character of Lydia is so well-written and embodied with such realism by Blanchett, people who don’t know anything about the world of classical music might mistake “TÁR” for being a biopic based on a real person. All of the other cast members play their parts well, but the movie would not be as effective without Blanchett’s masterful performance. (Field has said in interviews that he wrote the “TÁR” role only for Blanchett.) It’s the type of virtuoso, top-notch performance that would make Lydia Tár very proud.

Focus Features released “TÁR” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Amsterdam’ (2022), starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Robert De Niro and Andrea Riseborough

October 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon in “Amsterdam” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/20th Century Studios)

“Amsterdam” (2022)

Directed by David O. Russell

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and Amsterdam, from 1918 to 1933, the dramatic film “Amsterdam” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A medical doctor, his attorney best friend, and the attorney’s girlfriend get caught up in a murdery mystery involving wealthy and powerful people. 

Culture Audience: “Amsterdam” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the stars of the movie, which doesn’t offer much that’s compelling except for its star power.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Christian Bale, Robert De Niro and Margot Robbie  in “Amsterdam” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/20th Century Studios)

The frequently boring and muddled “Amsterdam” has many big-name stars, but this misguided drama just adds up to a lot of posturing and hot air. The filmmakers cared more about wrangling celebrities into the cast than crafting a story worthy of this talent. “Amsterdam” is a huge misfire from writer/director David O. Russell, who seems so enamored with the star power in the movie, he let the acting and tone of “Amsterdam” become scattershot and uneven.

“Amsterdam” veers in and out between voiceover narration of three characters: medical doctor Burt Berendsen (played by Christian Bale), his attorney best friend Harold Woodman (played by John David Washington), and Harold’s girlfriend Valerie Voze (played by Margot Robbie). Burt gets the most voiceover narration and is presented in the movie as the lead protagonist. The story, which takes place primarily in New York City and Amsterdam, jumps around in the timeline from 1918 to 1933, with several flashbacks within this time period.

As shown in a flashback, Burt (who has questionable medical ethics) and Harold (who is more sincere and staightforward), who are both from New York City, met each other in Europe in 1918, when they were soldiers in World War I. When they were both wounded in the war in France, they ended up in the care of Valerie, who pretended to be a French nurse named Valerie Vandenberg while living in France. It turns out (which was already revealed in the “Amsterdam” trailer), Valerie is really an American heiress who was estranged from her family and trying to start over with a new life in Europe.

While Burt and Harold healed from their wounds, the three of them went to Amsterdam, became close, and made a loyalty pact with each other. Harold and Valerie fell in love, while Burt remained ambivalent about his crumbling and unhappy marriage to heiress Beatrice Vandenheuvel (played by Andrea Riseborough), who pressured a reluctant Burt to enlist in the military so that he could become a war hero who would get medals of honor. The tight-knit trio of Burt, Harold and Valerie unraveled when Valerie suddenly left of her own choice and didn’t tell Harold and Burt where she was going.

Burt and Harold eventually returned to New York City, where they have been helping each other out by referring clients and patients to each other. The movie opens in 1933, when Burt is asked by heiress Liz Meekins (played by Taylor Swift) to do an autopsy of her father, General Bill Meekins (played by Ed Begley Jr.), who passed away unexpectedly. Liz believes that her father did not die of natural causes. The autopsy reveals that her father could have been poisoned. (Squeamish viewers be warned: The autopsy scene is very graphic.)

But before toxicology test results can be processed, Liz tells Burt and Harold that she wants to call off the investigation. While Liz, Harold and Burt are speaking outside on a street, a shady character named Taron Milfax (played by Timothy Olyphant) pushes Liz in front of a car in motion. She is run over by the car and killed instantly. Police are nearby, and Taron immediately says that Burt and Harold killed Liz by pushing her in front of the car.

Burt and Harold vehemently deny it, and then run away when it looks like the police don’t believe them. Burt and Harold become the prime suspects in the murder and do their own investigation to clear their names. During the course of this investigation, Burt and Harold find out that Valerie is really an American heiress who has been living in nearby New Jersey for several years. Valerie lives with her oddball brother Tom Voze (played by Rami Malek) and Tom’s domineering wife Libby Voze (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who tries to control the lives of Valerie and Tom.

Harold, who was heartbroken over Valerie’s sudden departure from his life, eventually forgives her, and they resume their love affair. Burt’s love life isn’t going so well, since Burt’s wife Beatrice has asked him to move out of their apartment. Beatrice tells Burt that she’s unhappy in the marriage because he used to be “beautiful,” but his war scars (including his injured back) have made him “hideous,” and he’s an overall disappointment to her. Harold, Valerie and Burt eventually cross paths with General Gil Dillenbeck (played by Robert De Niro), “the most decorated military general in U.S. history,” who has power, influential connections and political aspirations.

“Amsterdam” is packed with a lot of undeveloped characters who don’t do much except show that the “Amsterdam” filmmakers could get well-known actors to play the roles of these characters. Chris Rock has the role of Milton King, a wisecracking former war buddy of Burt and Harold. Milton, who currently works for Harold, is supposed to be hilarious, but he’s not. Milton’s not-funny-at-all remarks include his obnoxiously racist comments about white people. Alessandro Nivola is Detective Hiltz, and Matthias Schoenaerts is Detective Lem Getweiler, the two generic police characters who are leading the Meekins murder investigation.

Zoe Saldaña has the role of Irma St. Clair, Burt’s strong-willed autopsy nurse, whose feelings for Burt might go beyond a work relationship. And, of course, any movie that involves war and international intrigue has to predictably have spies. In “Amsterdam,” they are Paul Canterbury (played by Michael Shannon) and Henry Norcross (played by Mike Myers), whose spy identities are shown as captions immediately when these characters are first seen on screen.

“Amsterdam” is made with the tone that audiences should automatically be impressed by all the celebrities who are in the cast. Unfortunately, “Amsterdam” has so much awful dialogue and messy plot developments, all that star power is wasted in a substandard movie. Bale, Washington and Robbie seem to be doing their best as the three central characters, but this three-way friendship looks awkward and fake on screen. Awkward and fake is how to describe “Amsterdam” overall—an example of how star power in front of the camera can’t save a bad movie.

20th Century Studios released “Amsterdam” in U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022.

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