2021 Tribeca Film Festival: ‘In the Heights’ is the opening night film; festival will hold live, in-person events outdoors

April 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Tribeca Film Institute has announced that the Warner Bros. Pictures musical “In the Heights” will be the opening night film at the 20th annual Tribeca Film Festival, which will be held in New York City from June 9 to June 20, 2021. Directed by Jon M. Chu, “In the Heights” is based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical of the same name. “In the Heights” tells the fictional story of a group of mostly Latino residents of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood The movie’s cast members include Anthony Ramos, Jimmy Smits, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera, Olga Meridez and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Miranda has a small role in the film.

“In the Heights” will be released in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max on June 11, 2021. The movie was originally scheduled for release in 2020, but the release was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More movies and events for the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival are to be announced.

Miranda commented in a statement: “It is such an honor to open the 20th anniversary Tribeca Festival with In the Heights. We’re so excited to welcome them uptown! This will be an unforgettable night at the United Palace. We can’t wait to share this musical love letter to our community, with our community, in our community.”

The Tribeca Film Festival was one of numerous large-scale events in 2020 that were cancelled as an in-person event. However, a limited number of the festival’s movies were made available online to members of the media and entertainment industry. The festival also had jury-voted awards in 2020.

The Tribeca Film Festival participated with numerous other festivals in the inaugural We Are One: A Global Film Festival, which was held May 29 to June 7, 2020, as a YouTube showcase for festival films that couldn’t be screened by in-person audiences because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these offerings were international films that were not in English but had subtitles.

The annual Tribeca Film Festival had been traditionally held from late April to early May. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival has moved to June in 2021. In March 2021, it was announced that screenings for the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival will be held in person at various venues (mostly outdoors), with social distancing, mask wearing and other safety protocols in place. The venues that will have Tribeca Film Festival screenings include Brookfield Place New York, Pier 57 Rooftop, The Battery, Hudson Yards (all in Manhattan); The MetroTech Commons (in Brooklyn); and Empire Outlets (in Staten Island).

Since the COVID-19 pandemic caused worldwide shutdowns in March 2020, most film festivals that weren’t cancelled have pivoted to becoming online-only/virtual events. It has not been announced if the Tribeca Film Festival will also offer movies online to audiences who can’t attend the festival in person.

The Tribeca TV Festival, which launched in 2017, was cancelled in 2020. It has not been announced if the Tribeca TV Festival will return in 2021.

The Tribeca Film Festival was founded in 2011 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff in to revitalize lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The first Tribeca Film Festival took place in 2002. The festival’s screenings initially took place exclusively in lower Manhattan, but over the years the festival has expanded to venues across New York City. In 2020, the Tribeca Film Festival announced that it would, for the first time, hold some its programming in New Jersey (in the city of Hoboken), but the festival was cancelled as an in-person event before that could happen.

Review: ‘Wojnarowicz,’ starring David Wojnarowicz

April 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

David Wojnarowicz in “Wojnarowicz” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber/Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W.) 

“Wojnarowicz”

Directed by Chris McKim

Culture Representation: The documentary “Wojnarowicz” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American), mostly from the U.S. avant-garde/experimental art community, discussing the life and legacy of New York City-based artist/activist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 37.

Culture Clash: Wojnarowicz battled against homophobia, HIV/AIDS bigotry and right-wing conservatives who thought that his art was too obscene to be displayed in mainstream galleries

Culture Audience: “Wojnarowicz” will appeal primarily to people interested in the history of the New York City art scene from the 1980s to early 1990s, as well as stories about influential AIDS activists.

1984 artwork from David Wojnarowicz in “Wojnarowicz” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber/Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W.)

Some artists want to keep politics out of their work. But the late artist/activist David Wojnarowicz believed that every work of art is some kind of political statement. The illuminating documentary “Wojnarowicz” tells his life story in a way that would have gotten Wojnarowicz’s approval: by crafting the movie like a cinematic version of an art installation retrospective. Directed by Chris McKim, much of the foundation of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary comes from Wojnarowicz’s diary-like audio recordings, journals, photos and Super 8 films that he made from his early 20s until his tragic death from AIDS in 1992, at the age on 37. Many of Wojnarowicz’s loved ones, friends and associates provide commentary, but their interviews (with a few exceptions) are voiceovers only in the movie.

If people put together a list of 20th century visual artists from New York City’s avant-garde art scene who were controversial and unapologetically presented gay/queer erotica in their art, then Robert Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz would definitely be on the list. Wojnarowicz wasn’t as famous as Mapplethorpe, who preceded Wojnarowicz and broke barriers for LGBTQ-themed art in the 1970s. However, Wojnarowicz was more versatile (Mapplethorpe’s main art form was photography, while Wojnarowicz created art in many forms), and Wojnarowicz was a lot more outspoken about his political views than many of his contemporaries.

Because much of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary is told in Wojnarowicz’s voice from his personal recordings, it gives viewers an insightful look into his personality and his innermost thoughts. He had a lot of anger and cynicism, but he could also be very sensitive and empathetic. The documentary includes some audio from media interviews that he did, but they aren’t as interesting as the private recordings that he made to document his life.

The movie also reveals a treasure trove of mementos and previously unreleased footage that undoubtedly make this documentary the definitive visual biography of Wojnarowicz. It’s an impressive historical perspective of the New York avant-garde art scene in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Based on who’s interviewed in “Wojnarowicz,” director McKim wanted to include, with few exceptions, people who knew Wojnarowicz personally to give their comments for the movie. You won’t find Wojnarowicz’s critics or talking heads who never met Wojnarowicz taking up too much of the documentary’s time with any of their opinions.

Those interviewed in the documentary include retired social worker Tom Rauffenbart (who was Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend from the late 1980s until Wojnarowicz’s death) and Wojnarowicz older brother Steven. Also interviewed are Cynthia Carr, author of “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” and art critic Carlo McCormick. Other commentators include David Kiehl, curator emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Stephen Koch, author/director of the Peter Hujar Archive; gallery owner/curator Barry Blinderman; Anita Vitale, formerly of the New York City AIDS Case Management Unit; and Dr. Bob Friedman, who was Wojnarowicz’s physician when Wojnarowicz was living with AIDS.

But the people who have the most to say in the documentary are those who were Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries in New York City’s avant-garde and bohemian artists scene. They include writer Fran Lebowitz; filmmaker Richard Kern; Civilian Warfare gallery co-founder Alan Barrows; artist/collaborator Kiki Smith; filmmaker/photographer Marion Scemama; photographer Dirk Rowntree; curator Nan Goldin; artist Judy Glantzman; Gracie Mansion Gallery founder Gracie Mansion; former Gracie Mansion employee Sur Rodney Sur; P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington; and former 3 Teens Kill 4 bandmates Jesse Hutberg, Doug Bressler, Julie Hair and Brian Butterick.

Wojnarowicz’s critics are not interviewed in the documentary, but their perspectives are shown through archival news footage. Wojnarowicz’s controversies are not glossed over in the movie, and he exposed a lot of unflattering information about himself. For example, Wojnarowicz spent much of his teens and early 20s as a sex worker. He also freely admitted that he was psychologically damaged from growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father.

Perhaps the most conventional thing about “Wojnarowicz” is that it’s told in chronological order, which helps give the movie a coherent narrative. In his own words, through his personal audio diaries and media interviews, Wojnarowicz talks about his unhappy childhood, which led him to be a frequent runaway, beginning at the age of 11. Born on September 14, 1954, Red Bank, New Jersey, Wojnarowicz grew up with two older siblings: brother Steven (who was two years older) and their sister Pat. Wojnarowicz’s New York Times obituary lists two other siblings named Linda and Peter, but they’re not mentioned in the documentary.

When he was 11, Wojnarowicz’s mother Dolores separated from her violent, alcoholic husband and moved with her children to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Moving to New York City would have a profound effect on David as an artist, since much of his identity would come from being a New York artist, specifically from Manhattan’s Lower East Side/East Village. However, at one point in his childhood, perhaps because he was a frequent runaway, he ended up as a ward of the court in an orphanage, where he says his father temporarily kidnapped him.

David’s brother Steven says that David didn’t show any real interest in art when they were children: “We were too consumed with trying to survive.” However, Wojnarowicz biographer Carr says that Wojnarowicz developed his artistic tendencies as a teenager, when he discovered the work of French writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Carr explains why Wojnarowicz felt a kinship with Rimbaud and Genet: “They are outlaws and rebels. And he always identified with outsiders his whole life, and these were the outsider writers.”

Wojnarowicz was no child prodigy, because it took a while for him to find his identity as an artist. By his own admission, he spent most of his teen years and early 20s living on the streets and being a hustler. It’s made pretty clear that Wojnarowicz knew from an early age that he was gay. What isn’t detailed in the documentary is Wojnarowicz’s coming out story or how his parents reacted when he began living openly as a gay person. Based on what’s said about Wojnarowicz’s abusive father, one can assume that the father’s reaction wasn’t a good one.

At the age of 21, Wojnarowicz took a hitchhiking road trip across several U.S. states with his friend John Hall. This 1976 road trip inspired the first-known audio diaries that Wojnarowicz kept. The documentary includes a clip from one of his audio diary entries, where he describes in vivid detail a visit they made in Jamestown, North Dakota.

In September 1978, at age 23, Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat moved to Paris. He submitted a written collection of monologues called “Sounds of Distance,” but it was rejected by all the publishers he sent it to in Paris. According to Wojnarowicz, one publisher told him “the people in the monologues were wasted lives and a waste of time to write about them.” He took this criticism as a badge of honor for this collection: “Everything she said just reinforced my belief that it’s important.”

In June 1979, Wojnarowicz moved back to New York City because he says he missed the city’s unique energy. He describes Paris as a city that gives people a sense of security, and he preferred the edginess of New York City. Upon his return to New York, Wojnarowicz really began to find his identity as an artist. And ironically, it somewhat started with him paying tribute to one of his idols.

He made a face mask of Rimbaud and would wear it around the city. The documentary includes photos of him wearing the Rimbaud mask while on the street, in a diner or on the subway. This mask would later become one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous art pieces. But in a city with a lot of eccentric artists, Wojnarowicz needed more than just a Rimbaud mask to stand out.

Wojnarowicz began experimenting with different art forms, such as painting, stenciling, silk screening, sculpting and photography. He was also lead vocalist of an alternative rock band that wasn’t so much punk as it was spoken word anarchy set to music. That band was 3 Teens Kill 4, which got some recognition in the local music scene, but Wojnarowicz quit the band in 1982 over creative differences.

It was while he was a struggling artist that Wojnarowicz met the most influential person in his life: photographer Peter Hujar, who was well-known in the New York artist scene but always remained on the fringes of the upper echelon of portrait photographers in New York. Wojnarowicz and Hujar (who was 20 years older than Wojnarowicz) started out as lovers and then eventually settled into being best friends, with Hujar also being a mentor to Wojnarowicz.

Lebowitz said that even though she knew that Wojnarowicz and Hujar were once romantically involved with each other, they always gave her the impression of having a father/son relationship. Koch of the Peter Hujar Archive describes the Wojnarowicz/Hujar relationship as “more interesting than Van Gogh and Gaugin—very special and unique.” Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend Rauffenbart says when his own romance with Wojnarowicz began to get serious, he had to find a way to adjust to the close friendship that Wojnarowicz had with Lujar, because Wojnarowicz made it clear to everyone that Lujar would always be his best friend.

Wojnarowicz met some influential people in the art scene through Lujar. And when he was in 3 Teens Kill 4, Wojnarowicz also started to get some recognition, but not all of it was for the music. In the early 1980s, the band would often hang out at a nightclub called Danceteria (also hangout for artist Keith Haring and Madonna), which got raided for violation of a liquor license.

A small riot broke out and Wojnarowicz threw a molotov cocktail at a police car. He and some other band members were arrested, and they later threw a benefit show to raise funds for their legal defense. Butterick says that they didn’t really need to do the benefit concert because “the mob paid for the lawyers to get our cases dismissed.”

It was during this time of youthful rebellion that Wojnarowicz decided he wanted to stand out as not just unusual but also controversial, with art that some people might find disgusting. In an audio clip, he describes going to the city’s meatpacking district, finding discarded cow parts, and using those parts to create sculptures. He says that he also poured cow blood on stairs as part of his art.

At this particular time in the 1980s, there was no “hip” art gallery scene on the Lower East Side. As Sur describes it: “There were no resources like now, where you can go to the Lower East Side, where there are a dozen galleries you’ve never heard of showing stuff. There was nothing! There was SoHo, there was uptown and there were these established galleries. We didn’t feel we had entree into there, so we created space so we could show our work and have fun!”

This burgeoning alternative art scene was different from the type of scene that Andy Warhol led in the 1960s. Warhol and like-minded artists always maintained a level of glamour and more than a bit of fascination with celebrities. The art scene that Wojnarowicz came from wanted to shun the establishment for as long as they could, with art that was intentionally designed to be rudely provocative.

A lot of their work was literally created from garbage and other filthy throwaway items. The erotica in their art was unapologetically raw and could easily be described as pornographic. And because Wojnarowicz was known for putting a lot of male homosexuality in his art, it was automatically deemed not acceptable for certain galleries and other venues that showcase art.

Civilian Warfare, Gracie Mansion Gallery and P.P.W.O. Gallery were some of the places that launched to showcase art that other galleries would reject. Wojnarowicz found a home for a lot of his art at these galleries, before and after his art became accepted by more mainstream New York City art venues, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Civilian Warfare co-founder Barrows says: “We were really drawn to David’s militaristic imagery.”

The year 1982 was a pivotal one for Wojnarowicz. He left 3 Teens Kill 4 that year. His monologue collection “Sounds of Distance,” which had been rejected by publishers in Paris, was published. And 1982 was the year that Wojnarowicz and artist Mike Bidlo began making art in abandoned piers along the Manhattan side of the Hudson River.

Wojnarowicz’s frequent collaborator Smith (who took a well-known photo of Wojnarowicz posed as a bloodied assault victim) says in the documentary that the abandoned piers, which were the sizes of warehouses, had piles of discarded files from Bellevue Hospital. Bellevue had thrown away a lot of illustrations made by the patients in the hospital’s psychiatric facilities. Wojnarowicz used a lot of those illustrations in his art that he created at the piers. The piers were eventually demolished after city officials found out that the property was being illegally used by artists as creative spaces.

In 1983, Wojnarowicz’s first solo exhibition at Civilian Warfare led to another turning point in Wojnarowicz’s career. New York Times arts journalist Grace Glueck did a feature article about East Village artists, and the article prominently featured Wojnarowicz. After that New York Times article was published, Wojnarowicz became a darling of trendy art collectors. As described in the documentary, people began showing up in limousines to buy Wojnarowicz’s art.

Blinderman, who was the owner of New York City’s Semaphore Gallery at the time, remembers paying $3,000 for what would turn out to be one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous and controversial art pieces. The art piece’s title includes a homophobic slur that won’t be repeated in this review. But Wojnarowicz chose the title and the content of the art (which has homoerotic images) as an “in your face” response to homophobia.

In 1985, Wojnarowicz reached another milestone: He was chosen to be part of the Whitney Biennial. And he was commissioned to do an installation for the Mnunchin Gallery. (The gallery was founded Robert Mnuchin, the father of future Donald Trump political ally Steve Mnuchin, who served in the Trump administration as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.)

In an audio clip Wojnarowicz says that because he “despises rich people,” he purposely made the installation as disgusting as possible, with a lot of insect-infested garbage. Robert Mnuchin’s wife Adriana was reportedly repulsed by the bugs crawling around in the pristine gallery. However, Wojnarowicz was a hot brand name at the time, so he got away with doing what he wanted for the installation.

Wojnarowicz also dabbled in filmmaking, including collaborating with Kern on a short independent film called “You Killed Me First.” Wojnarowicz’s role in the film was as an abusive father. In a disturbing re-enactment of what his father did when Wojnarowicz was a child, there’s a scene in the movie of him sadistically killing a rabbit in front of his children, who are portrayed in the movie by adult actors. The rabbit wasn’t killed for food but out of pure cruelty.

Considering Wojnarowicz’s abusive childhood, his history of being a sex worker, and being a part of an art scene awash with illegal drugs, it’s not surprising that Wojnarowicz was a drug abuser. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that Wojnarowicz became addicted to heroin (he used needles), but Hujar got Wojnarowicz to quit heroin by issuing an ultimatum: If Wojnarowicz didn’t stop using heroin, then Hujar would cut Wojnarowicz out of his life. The documentary doesn’t mention if Wojnarowicz ever received any therapy for his problems with drugs or mental health. You get the feeling that he never did.

Rauffenbart, who says in the documentary that he met Wojnarowicz at a gay porn theater called the Bijou Theater, describes himself as someone whose life was transformed by Wojnarowicz. Before he met Wojnarowicz, he was used to hanging around very conventional people. Rauffenbart gives credit to Wojnarowicz for opening up his world to more variety and more fascinating people.

However, Wojnarowicz’s world was about to be rocked by a tragedy: At the age of 53, Hujar died of AIDS in 1987, just 11 months after he was diagnosed. It was also the year that Wojnarowicz and Rauffenbart found out that they were also HIV-positive. These diagnoses and the discrimination experienced by AIDS patients motivated Wojnarowicz to become an AIDS activist.

As for his career, Wojnarowicz learned the hard way how fickle the art world could be when his “Four Elements” show, which was dedicated to Hujar, flopped with audiences. The show had art with the themes of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind and included photos of Huhar on his deathbed. Toward the end of the documentary, there’s a poignant scene of Rauffenbart, accompanied by friend Vitale and P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Olsoff and Pilkington, attending a preview of the Whitney Museum’s 2018 Wojnarowicz retrospective.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that although Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat remained fairly close, his relationship with brother Steven was a lot more strained. They were estranged from the mid-1970s until they reunited in 1985. However, after Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, he and Steven had a major falling out over what Wojnarowicz perceived to be Steve’s homophobia, and they never saw or spoke to each other again. Wojnarowicz audio recorded their final argument, part of which is included in the documentary.

As an AIDS activist, Wojnarowicz participated in many protests about how the U.S. government and the health industry were mishandling the AIDS crisis. At a protest outside of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters, Wojnarowicz wore a hand-made jacket that read on the back “If I Die of AIDS—Forget Burial—Just Drop My Body on the Steps of the FDA.” That jacket became a symbol for AIDS activism.

Wojnarowicz’s “Tongues of Flame” exhibit would turn out to be his most controversial. Blinderman was now the director of University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and he got a $15,000 government grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to commission the exhibit. It would lead to a lawsuit and divisive opinions on both sides. Around this time, Wojnarowicz had angered political and religious conservatives with an AIDS activist essay titled “Postcards From America: X-Rays From Hell,” which was published in the 1988 “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” catalogue for Artists Space.

In the essay, Wojnarowicz used insulting language about U.S. Congressmen Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer and Cardinal John O’Connor (New York’s Archbishop at the time) who were all openly opposed to LGBTQ rights. The essay was accompanied by a photo of a Wojnarowicz art piece with an illustration of Jesus Christ injecting a needle in his lower arm, with a tube tied around his upper arm, like a junkie. Wojnarowicz said the art depicted Jesus taking on the burdens of society, including drug addiction.

It wasn’t long before Donald Wildmon of the conservative American Family Association and other anti-Wojnarowicz people got involved in a campaign to get Wojnarowicz banned from major art venues. These Wojnarowicz critics distributed photos of Wojnarowicz’s most controversial art and called Wojnarowicz a threat to decency. Under political pressure, the NEA then withdrew its grant money from the “Tongues of Flame” exhibit.

Wojnarowicz filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Wildmon and the American Family Association for distributing photos of his art without permission and for trying to damage his reputation. Wojnarowicz won the lawsuit, but was granted an award of just $1. University Galleries of Illinois State University ended up launching the “Tongues in Flame” exhibit in 1990 to enthusiastic crowds. In an audio clip, Wojnarowicz says he was expecting picketing and protestors outside the gallery, but no such pushback happened.

Toward the end of his life, Wojnarowicz began experiencing AIDS-related dementia, which is described in heartbreaking detail by Scemama. She remembers taking a road trip with Wojnarowicz to California’s Death Valley in May 1991. During the trip, it was the first time that she saw Wojnarowicz seem to forget who he was in a brief moment of memory loss. Seeing him in that condition stuck with her because it was then she knew how much he had deteriorated.

During this trip, Scemama took some visually striking photos of Wojnarowicz buried in the dirt, with his face partially peeking out from the ground. It was eerily symbolic of knowing that he would end up in an early grave by dying so young. It was also Wojnarowicz’s last photo shoot. Scemama says that every time she collaborated with Wojnarowicz, he came up with the ideas.

You don’t have to be a fan of Wojnarowicz’s work to appreciate his impact on the art world or on AIDS activism. You don’t have to agree with his political beliefs. What the “Wojnarowicz” documentary does so effectively is show that he overcame a lot of personal struggles in his life to express his truth, even if that truth made a lot of people uncomfortable. And that raw and open honesty is a legacy worth noting.

Kino Lorber released “Wojnarowicz” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 19, 2021.

Review: ‘My Salinger Year,’ starring Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver

April 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Margaret Qualley in “My Salinger Year” (Photo by Philippe Bosse/IFC Films)

“My Salinger Year”

Directed by Philippe Falardeau

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and briefly in Washington, D.C., during the years 1995 and 1996, the dramatic film “My Salinger Year” features a predominantly white group of people (with one black person and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A grad school dropout, who wants to become a professional writer, gets a job as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent and breaks the agency’s cardinal rule of how to answer Salinger’s fan mail. 

Culture Audience: “My Salinger Year” will appeal primarily to fans of co-star Sigourney Weaver and people interested in movies about the New York literary world in the 1990s, but the movie lacks credibility in many crucial areas and portrays its main female characters as stereotypes.

Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley in “My Salinger Year” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The dramatic film “My Salinger Year” (written and directed by Philippe Falardeau) is based on Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir of the same name, but the movie comes across as a fantasy of what women experience in the book publishing world. The female protagonist is an aspiring writer, but she does almost no work on her writing and instead spends most of the story obsessing over famed reclusive author J.D. Salinger and his fan mail, after she becomes an assistant to Salinger’s literary agent. The irony of her spending so much time reading Salinger’s fan mail is that she hasn’t read any of Salinger’s work, but she’s foolishly arrogant enough to think she can judge how his fans should respond to his work.

“My Salinger Year,” which takes place from 1995 to 1996, is one of those “bubble” biopics where the protagonist Joanna Rakoff (played by Margaret Qualley) lives in a privileged bubble mentality. Joanna, who is in her early 20s when this story takes place, expects to get “discovered” as a writer without actually writing anything substantial. She thinks the rules don’t really apply to her in her office job. And she never acknowledges that people who are less privileged than she is have it much harder to get the opportunities that are handed to her because she’s young and has a certain level of physical attractiveness. Her idea of “suffering” is living in a Brooklyn apartment that doesn’t have a kitchen sink.

Joanna is intended to be a stereotypical wide-eyed, charming ingenue in this movie. But her actions show that she’s actually quite self-centered and dishonest—not all the time, but enough for viewers to see that beneath the pretty surface is someone who’s kind of a spoiled brat. Joanna is a dreamer who doesn’t like being reminded that people have bigger problems than she does. As such, the movie tries too hard to be whimsical by showing many fantasy sequences of Salinger’s fans speaking to the camera, as if they’re also speaking to Joanna.

Joanna doesn’t come from a rich family, but she aspires to be accepted into the sophisticated and educated social circles of people in Manhattan who have servants and read The New Yorker, her favorite magazine. She isn’t a snob, per se, because a snob’s sense of superiority comes from thinking about other people as being “lower-class,” whereas Joanna doesn’t really think about other people at all, except for what other people can do for her.

In the beginning of the movie, Joanna says in a voiceover: “I grew up in a quiet, suburban town just north of New York. On special occasions, my dad would take me into the city and we would get dessert at the Waldorf or the Plaza. I loved watching the people around us. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to write novels and speak five languages and travel. I didn’t want to be ordinary. I wanted to be extraordinary.”

The operative phrase here, which explains Joanna’s mindset and personality, is “I want.” She wants all these glamorous fantasies for herself, but actually doesn’t want to put in a lot of the hard work to achieve those dreams. You don’t learn five languages just by imagining yourself doing it. And that’s the same attitude that she has about her career goal of becoming a famous and respected writer. Her only experience at this point is having a few pieces published in The Paris Review.

As Joanna says in a voiceover in the beginning of the movie, she was a grad student at the University of California at Berkeley when she decided to visit her childhood best friend Jenny (played by Seána Kerslake) in New York City for a few days. Joanna’s original plan was to return to Berkeley, where her boyfriend Karl Ansari (played by Hamza Haq) was waiting for her. Instead, Joanna explains, “something shifted.”

As far as Joanna is concerned, she can’t be a real writer without living in New York. And so, she never went back to Berkeley, she dropped out of grad school, and decided to move permanently to New York. And she never bothered to tell Karl that she was breaking up with him and why. So selfish. Karl knew that Joanna wanted to stay in New York, but he was misled into thinking that they would have a long-distance relationship. He eventually figured out that Joanna wanted to end the relationship when she stopped being in contact with him.

Joanna is never seen in Berkeley, as if she and the movie want to erase that part of her life. Instead, Joanna slides right into an easy living arrangement in New York City, where she becomes the roommate of Jenny and Jenny’s boyfriend Brett in the fall of 1995. Joanna isn’t a freeloader because she looks for a job by signing up with an employment agency. But, as can only happen in a movie with a privileged protagonist like this one, she gets a job right away by lying her way into it.

Joanna experiences no real struggles, no series of rejections that young, inexperienced writers often have to face when they’re just starting out in the workforce. (And experienced writers get rejected too.) No, that’s not to supposed to happen to Joanna, because the “My Salinger Year” filmmakers insult viewers’ intelligence by making it look like all you have to do is be a young, attractive female of a certain race to have people going out of their way to help you.

Joanna quickly gets an administrative assistant job at the fictional A&F Literary Management by lying that she knows how to type 60 words per minute. In reality, Joanna doesn’t know how to type. And she’s never given a typing test before she’s hired.

Joanna’s lack of typing skills is an indication that Joanna was too lazy to learn how to type during all of her years in college when she would’ve greatly benefited from having typing skills. Viewers have to assume that Joanna got other people to type her college assignments for her. More privilege on display.

Even when Joanna’s prickly and demanding boss Margaret (played by Sigourney Weaver) finds out later in the story that Joanna can’t type (due to all the mistakes that Joanna makes when she tries to type), Joanna doesn’t get fired. Why? Because Joanna told another big lie in the interview: When Margaret says she doesn’t like to have assistants who are aspiring writers, Joanna tells Margaret that she’s not an aspiring writer. Margaret’s dislike of having aspiring writers work for her is because she thinks wannabe writers give more priority to working on their own material instead of doing the work they were hired to do for the agency.

Margaret’s most famous client is reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whose main claim to fame is his influential 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” a tale of a rebellious teenager named Holden Caulfield. Salinger’s last published work was the novella “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which The New Yorker published in 1965. Joanna knows how famous Salinger is, but she’s never read any of his work. It’s a secret that Joanna only admits to a few trusted people in her life because she doesn’t want to look ignorant when it comes to literature.

During the job interview, Margaret (who refers to Salinger as “Jerry”) tells Joanna that Jerry isn’t a problem but his people (in other words, his other gatekeepers and his obsessive fans) are a problem. Margaret warns Joanna: “You must never, ever give out his address … Remember, there’s no shortage of college graduates who want this job. Be prepared to work long hours.” Joanna acts like an eager beaver who will do whatever Margaret wants, so Joanna gets hired on the spot and is told her first day as an A&F employee will be on January 8, 1996.

Also in the room during the interview is a high-ranking A&F executive named Daniel (played by Colm Feore), who’s about the same age as Margaret. He seems to have enough of a comfort level with Margaret where he can call her a “tyrant” while she’s in the room. When Joanna is hired and gushes that she’s “honored and thrilled,” Daniel says cynically, “No need to be honored. Thrilled, maybe.” Joanna is then seen looking starry-eyed and hopeful as she walks through the hallways of A&F Literary Management to look at the photo-portrait wall hangings of famous authors who were the company’s past and present clients, such as Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.

During her first day on the job, Joanna meets three other employees who have lower rankings than Margaret and Daniel. Hugh (played by Brían F. O’Byrne), who takes care of legal matters such as contracts and correspondence, is the employee whom Joanna interacts with the most, other than Margaret. Hugh tells Joanna that he used to have her job when he started out at the company. On her first day on the job, Joanna also meets literary agents Max (played by Yanic Truesdale) and Lisa (played by Xiao Sun), who seem to be in this movie as token people of color, since their roles are not substantial to the story.

Hugh tells Joanna on her first day on the job, as he hands her stack of Salinger’s fan mail, that Salinger does not want to receive any mail from fans and other people requesting things from him. Instead, Hugh tells Joanna that the company’s policy is that people who write to Salinger are sent a standard form letter explaining that Salinger does not accept any mail. The form letters that are sent out must be identical. Sending a personal reply is strictly forbidden. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that Joanna is going to break that rule.

Hugh also explains to Joanna that all mail addressed to Salinger has to be opened and read as a safety precaution. Hugh makes a reference to Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon who had a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” with him when Chapman was arrested in December 1980 right after the murder. John Hinkley Jr., who tried to assassinate then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan in March 1981, was also obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Hugh says not all of Salinger’s fan mail comes from unknown people of questionable mental stability, because some famous and highly respected people sometimes try to contact Salinger by mail too. If the mail looks like it should be brought to a superior’s attention at the company, whoever reads the mail should do that. Otherwise, the mail has to be shredded. Needless to say, Joanna breaks that rule too, because she steals a lot of the fan mail to take home and read.

After moving to New York, Joanna doesn’t waste time in finding a new boyfriend. His name is Don (played by Douglas Booth), and he’s about five or six years older than Joanna. They met while he was working at a socialist bookstore. A love of reading and being aspiring writers are two of the few things that Joanna and Don have in common.

Don sees himself as a die-hard socialist, and he thinks a magazine like The New Yorker is a bourgeois joke that glorifies greed and capitalism. Considering that The New Yorker is Joanna’s favorite magazine and she has aspirations to lead a high-society, jet-set lifestyle, viewers can easily see how incompatible Joanna and Don are. Later on in the story, there are issues of control, respect and emotional manipulation that affect their relationship.

When Jenny drops hints to Joanna that Joanna has overstayed her welcome at Jenny’s apartment, Joanna decides to move in with Don after not knowing him for very long. Don and Joanna go apartment hunting together, and Don impulsively decides that they should live in a run-down apartment in Brooklyn that’s within their price range, even though they can barely afford the rent on their meager salaries. However, Don doesn’t want his name on the lease because he says he has bad credit (red flag warning signs right there), so Joanna is the one whose name is on the lease. In other words, she’ll be stuck paying the rent if the relationship doesn’t work out.

It isn’t until after she signs the lease that Joanna notices that the apartment doesn’t have a kitchen sink, and she’s not happy about it. Don tells her that it’s no big deal because they can wash dishes in the bathtub. Joanna is determined to convince herself that somehow this is all part of her fantasy of being an aspiring writer in New York. But viewers can easily see where this is going to go, considering that Joanna is the type of person who wants to hang out at the Waldorf Astoria and eat overpriced desserts. (And it’s exactly what she does later in the movie.)

While Don actually does a lot of writing (he’s working on his first novel), Joanna spends her days doing secretary work for Margaret and spends her nights reading Salinger’s fan mail. Joanna shows no passion for writing her own work at all. She doesn’t even have writer’s block as an excuse. And it isn’t until very late in the story, when she has an epiphany about her aimless life, that she finally gets around to reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”

There are some very mid-1990s references in the movie, such as Margaret’s skepticism about using the Internet. Margaret is so “old school” that she doesn’t even want her office to have computers, until she finally relents and gets one computer that she looks at it as if it’s an invention from outer space. And because digital recorders didn’t exist back then, Joanna has to use a cassette dictaphone to transcribe Margaret’s recordings.

The Margaret character might be compared to the tyrannical Miranda Priestly character (played by Meryl Streep), the fashion magazine boss in the much more entertaining 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” which was also based on a memoir written by a former administrative assistant in the New York City publishing industry. Just like Miranda has a brusque attitude toward her assistants, so too does Margaret. However, Margaret has more heart and is not as over-the-top as Miranda with her domineering ways.

Unlike Miranda, Margaret doesn’t take pleasure in demeaning her underlings. In fact, when Margaret finds out that Joanna lied about knowing how to type, and Joanna commits other betrayals of trust, Margaret doesn’t fire her. (Miranda Priestley would never show that type of mercy.) Weaver’s nuanced portrayal of Margaret is as a boss who actually wants to mentor someone, as long as that person is an aspiring literary agent, not an aspiring writer.

As a character, Margaret is a lot more believable than Joanna, although they are both written as stereotypes of women in the workplace: the battle-axe boss and the inexperienced ingenue. Viewers of “My Salinger Year” might find Joanna tolerable because of Qualley’s sympathetic portrayal of this character. Joanna looks an innocent beauty, and that’s why people easily forgive her, even though you know that people wouldn’t be so forgiving if she had a different physical appearance. Time and time again, Joanna is given many chances after she messes up or is caught in a big lie.

Even when Joanna gets her head out of her privileged bubble to acknowledge that other people have more emotional pain than she does, there’s an air of “ulterior motive” about it. When Margaret experiences a tragedy and takes time off from work, Joanna shows up unannounced at Margaret’s apartment with a bouquet of flowers and Margaret’s favorite soup. It’s a compassionate thing to do, but if we’re being honest, it’s also trying to impress the boss.

And when Joanna decides to accept her ex-boyfriend Karl’s invitation to meet with him while he’s in Washington, D.C., it’s only after Margaret tasks Joanna to spy on Salinger when Salinger goes to Washington to meet with a publisher named Clifford Bradbury (played by Matt Holland), who might publish Salinger’s next work. In other words, Joanna is only in Washington because her job is paying for the trip, not because she’s making any personal sacrifices to see Karl again. And she only shows remorse for how she treated Karl after she starts having problems with Don.

Yes, there’s a scene in the movie where Joanna spies on J.D. Salinger. The movie goes to great lengths to show Salinger (played by Tim Post) as a mysterious figure when Joanna sees him in person. His face is obscured or he’s shown only from the back. Salinger also talks to Joanna briefly over the phone, and she is predictably star-struck. Joanna is flattered and somewhat giggly when Margaret tells her that Salinger likes Joanna.

There’s a creepy subtext to all of that if viewers of this movie know that a grandfather-age Salinger had real-life predatory ways with women in their late teens and early 20s, according to author Joyce Maynard, who detailed her youthful experiences with Salinger in her 1998 memoir “At Home in the World.” Since that book was published a few years after the story takes place in “My Salinger Year,” it’s understandable that the movie doesn’t mention that Salinger wasn’t so reclusive after all when it came to trying to seduce his young female fans.

Speaking of older men who prey on younger, less-experienced women, “My Salinger Year” ignores the reality that someone like Joanna would definitely have older men in the publishing industry trying to abuse their power by pressuring her to go on dates with them or other forms of sexual harassment. The movie also doesn’t acknowledge that there’s rampant sexism in the media/book publishing industry. The “My Salinger Year” movie is very much a fantasy version of what a woman like Joanna would experience in real life.

Even though in the beginning of the movie, Joanna shares fond childhood memories of time that she spent with her father while they visited New York City, “My Salinger Year” oddly never mentions Joanna’s family again. Viewers don’t know if her parents are still alive, and if they are still alive, what her parents think about Joanna dropping out of grad school to pursue a writing career in New York City. It’s an example of how the movie treats Joanna as an incomplete sketch in its relentless push of the ingenue narrative for her.

“My Salinger Year” has brief portrayals of a few other authors in addition to Salinger. Judy Blume (played by Gillian Doria) has a contentious meeting with Margaret at the A&F offices. Joanna is in awe of Judy because she read Judy Blume books when she was a child, so Joanna thinks she’s some kind of Judy Blume expert. And like a know-it-all, Joanna blurts out her opinions to Margaret on how Margaret mishandled the meeting with Judy, even though Joanna wasn’t even in the meeting.

In an earlier part of the movie, Joanna meets author Rachel Cusk (played Hayley Kezber), while Rachel is having lunch at a restaurant with Margaret, Daniel, Daniel’s wife Helen (played by Lise Roy) and Max. Joanna is there because Daniel happened to see Joanna walking outside and invited her into the restaurant to join them. When Margaret sees that Joanna and Rachel have a friendly rapport with each other, Margaret shows her spiteful side by coldly dismissing Joanna from the luncheon and telling her to go back to the office and work.

One of the most annoying aspects of “My Salinger Year” is how it portrays Salinger’s fans who write to him as sad, lonely people who act as if their lives will be ruined if Salinger doesn’t reply to their mail. These fans are all fictional characters in the movie, but that doesn’t make this movie’s depiction of them any less insulting to Salinger’s fan base. Joanna reads the fan letters in a mostly “holier than thou” way, but she admits that some of the letters affect her emotionally because she can sometimes relate to the fans who are aspiring writers.

But since the movie makes the fans who get screen time look like they might be mentally unhinged, sure enough, one of these fans (a teenage girl, played by Romane Denis) ends up showing stalker-like behavior when Joanna makes the mistake of writing back condescending, unsolicited advice about being a writer. The teenage fan unexpectedly shows up at the A&F offices to angrily confront Joanna. It’s one of the few times that Joanna gets a much-needed reality check about how her cavalier actions can have serious consequences.

The Salinger fan who gets the most screen time is a man in his late teens or early 20s named Fernell Breault (played by Théodore Pellerin), who’s from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Joanna becomes so fixated on his letters, that the movie’s fantasy sequences of Fernell evolve from him talking to the camera while he’s in North Carolina to actually appearing in front of Joanna and talking to her while she’s on a train, as he appears to her in a hallucination. So pretentious.

Far from being a female empowerment story, “My Salinger Year” shows that Joanna willingly mutes her own voice as a writer for almost the entire movie so that she can be second-fiddle to a famous male writer. This movie isn’t about Joanna being a writer. It’s about her answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail.

Joanna moved to New York City to become a writer, but while she’s living in New York, not once does the movie give an indication about what type of writing Joanna is capable of doing in her free time, except toward the end of the movie when she mentions some new poetry that she’s written. However, the poetry isn’t shown or spoken at all in the movie. Nor is there any indication if she’s good enough to be a professional writer. (Answering fan mail doesn’t count.)

Predictably, Joanna expects to be given a shortcut to her work getting published, but there isn’t a scene of her actually working at writing. It’s all such a wasted opportunity for this movie to show a young aspiring writer developing her craft. Instead, she’s portrayed as a fickle and flighty individual who would much rather wallow in fantasies and read someone else’s fan mail. And the title of this movie says it all: Joanna’s own story isn’t told without using the name of a famous male author.

IFC Films released “My Salinger Year” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘The Vigil’ (2021), starring Dave Davis, Malky Goldman, Menashe Lustig, Fred Melamed and Lynn Cohen

April 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dave Davis in “The Vigil” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“The Vigil” (2021)

Directed by Keith Thomas

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “The Vigil” features an all-white cast of characters representing a middle-class Jewish American community.

Culture Clash: A man has ghostly encounters when he’s recruited to keep vigil over a recently deceased man’s body, as part of a Jewish religious custom. 

Culture Audience: “The Vigil” will appeal primarily to people who like uncomplicated but spooky ghost stories.

Lynn Cohen in “The Vigil” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

Many horror stories try to be overly complex with plot twists galore or convoluted backstories for the characters. However, “The Vigil” (written and directed by Keith Thomas) takes an effective “less is more” approach by keeping the story simple while still delivering on some genuinely creepy scares. It’s the type of movie that does a lot with its modest budget.

“The Vigil” begins with a written on-screen intro that sets up what’s about to happen in the story: “For thousands of years, religious Jews have practiced the ritual of ‘the vigil.’ When a member of the community dies, the body is watched over ’round the clock in shifts by a shomer, or watchman, who recites the Psalms to comfort the deceased soul’s and protect it from unseen evil. This watchman is typically a family member or friend. Shomers are hired to sit the vigil when no on else can.”

The movie’s opening scene is of a SS Nazi officer (played by Hunter Menken) forcing a young man to shoot a woman while they are the woods. Meanwhile, a sinister shadowy creature approaches them from behind. A shotgun is heard, and then the movie’s next scene takes place in the present day. What happened in this World War II-era scene is later revealed in the story. At some point in the movie, it’s pretty easy to figure out who the young man is, but that doesn’t take away from how “The Vigil” succeeds at building a lot of horror suspense.

The majority of the film takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where a group of Israeli Jewish immigrants, who are in their late 20s to mid-30s, have gathered for a house party dinner. There are four men and two women in attendance at this dinner. And based on the conversation, almost all of them have recently moved to New York City.

The leader of the group is named Lane (played by Nati Rabinowitz), who has lived in New York the longest and has been acting as an advisor to the rest of the immigrants. The dinner conversation is mostly casual but serious. A woman named Adinah (played by Lea Kalisch) remarks that men in the U.S. are more sexually forward than men in Israel.

A man named Yakov Ronen (played by Dave Davis), who’s one of the older people in the group, is unemployed and mentions that he recently didn’t get a job that he wanted. Yakov also says that he’s financially struggling and that he’s had to choose between paying for medication or paying for meals. It’s never really made clear in the movie what type of career Yakov wants, but he gives the impression that he’s desperate for any type of job at this point.

Lane gives some words of comfort by saying, “This is a journey. And being here struggling the way you are is only one stop on that journey. If we get bogged down and see this as a destination, we lose hope.” Is this a dinner party or a support group meeting? It seems to be both.

The other woman at the table is named Sarah (played by Malky Goldman), who begins flirting with Yakov. Eventually, she asks him out for a coffee date, and he says yes, so they exchange phone numbers. Yakov fumbles a little with his phone, and says it’s because his phone is new and he’s still getting used to you it. You know what that means in a horror story when it comes time to use a phone in an emergency.

After the dinner, a man named Reb Shulem (played by Menashe Lustig), who’s dressed as an Orthodox Jew and who’s been lurking outside the building, approaches Yakov and Lane as they walk outside. Lane scolds Reb and tells him not to harass members of this group. After Lane leaves, Reb begins talking to Yakov and asks him how Yakov likes his new lifestyle. Yakov cryptically says, “I have my reasons for leaving.”

Reb tells Yakov that a family whose patriarch has died needs a shomer to sit for a vigil at night until the following morning. The job will take approximately five hours. According to Reb, this sudden need came about because the shomer who was originally scheduled to do the vigil abruptly left and is no longer available.

Yakov is very reluctant at first, but he needs the money. It’s implied throughout the story that Yakov has lost his faith in religion. The movie later reveals why. Yakov offers $200 for the vigil job, but Yakov is able to negotiate it up to $500 because it’s a job that’s on short notice.

The deceased man whom Yakov has to watch over is named Rubin Litvak (played by Ronald Cohen), and all Yakov knows about him is from what Reb has told him: Rubin was a Holocaust survivor and his children are estranged from him. Reb says that when Rubin was alive, “he was a good man” but “a little weird” and he lived as a recluse with his wife. She goes by the name of Mrs. Litvak (played by Lynn Cohen), and her first name is not revealed in the film, but Reb tells Yakov that she has Alzheimer’s disease.

The Cohens’ house is in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. And as soon as they arrive, there’s some discord, because Mrs. Cohen, for whatever reason, doesn’t approve of Yakov. She tells Reb in a dismissive tone of voice what her thoughts are on Yakov, “He won’t work. He needs to leave now.”

Reb tells Mrs. Litvak that she has no choice because no one else is going to be available to be the shomer on short notice. And so, Mrs. Litvak agrees to let Yakov stay, but she isn’t very friendly to him. The house remains darkly lit for most of the story, to add to the creepy atmosphere.

Mr. Litvak’s body is covered in a white sheet in the living room. And Yakov begins his vigil by sitting nearby, he goes on his phone and does an online search for articles about how to talk to women. It isn’t long before things start to get weird, beginning with lamps that flicker for no reason.

“The Vigil” is definitely a “things that go bump in the night” movie, because the movie’s sound design and Michael Yezerski’s chilling music score go a long way in ramping up the horror and the tension in the story. Yakov also starts to see things and wonders if they’re real or not. Mrs. Litvak also lurks around and suddenly appears in “jump scare” moments.

One of the reasons why “The Vigil” is a good mystery is because it’s revealed later in the story that Yakov has had some mental-health issues. And so, viewers are left to wonder how much of what’s happening might just all be in his head, or if there really is a supernatural force in the house. At one point, Yakov calls his psychiatrist Dr. Marvin Kohlberg (played by Fred Melamed), which might or might nor help the situation.

Does Yakov try to leave? Of course he does. But something happens that reveals why Yakov became disillusioned with religion and possibly had a nervous breakdown. When he tries to leave the house, it’s a metaphor for him trying to run away from disturbing things from his past.

In his memorable portrayal of Yakov, whose scenes are in about 90% of the movie, Davis does an admirable job of conveying all the complexities and nuances of someone who has been struggling to find happiness, only to face a terror that he didn’t expect. Whether or not the horror is real or all in his head, the movies takes viewers on the same journey as Yakov and will make people feel his discomfort and pain. Lynn Cohen (who passed away in 2020) also gives an affective performance in “The Vigil,” which was one of her final appearances in a feature film.

“The Vigil” is a horror movie that isn’t particularly original, because there have been so many films about people trapped somewhere with frightening spirits. However, “The Vigil” stands out because of how it creatively blends ancient Jewish religious traditions in a setting of a modern Jewish American society. It’s definitely the type of movie that will have the biggest impact if it’s seen in a dark room on the biggest screen possible. And some viewers might feel like they have to sleep with the light on after seeing this haunting thriller.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “The Vigil” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Boogie,’ starring Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige and Bashar ‘Pop Smoke’ Jackson

March 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Taylor Takahashi and Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson  (shown in center) in “Boogie” (Photo by David Giesbrecht/Focus Features)

“Boogie”

Directed by Eddie Huang

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2019 in New York City, the dramatic film “Boogie” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, African American and white) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A Chinese American teenager, who’s in his last year of high school, has conflicts with his parents about his dreams of becoming a professional player in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Culture Audience: “Boogie” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a different type of basketball coming-of-age story, but the movie could be a turnoff because it doesn’t live up to the story’s engaging potential.

Taylor Takahashi and Taylour Paige in “Boogie” (Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Focus Features)

The dramatic film “Boogie” takes a good concept (a Chinese American teenager with goals to play NBA basketball) and squanders it on uneven acting, subpar filmmaking and an obnoxious main character. The movie tries to look gritty and unique. But in the end, it becomes a predictable mush of banality. And unfortunately, “Boogie” panders to some very negative and racist stereotypes of immigrants and urban people of color in the United States.

Written and directed by Eddie Huang, “Boogie” (which takes place in New York City in 2019) has many flaws, but one of the biggest is in the movie’s erratic casting. For starters, almost all the main characters who are supposed to be teenagers in the movie look like they’re in they’re mid-20s or older. It’s distracting and lowers the credibility of this movie, because not once does it look believable that these actors are in the same age group as students in high school.

“Boogie” has a cast that’s mixed with experienced and inexperienced movie actors—and it shows. Taylor Takahashi and the late Bashar Jackson (also known as rapper Pop Smoke), who portray basketball rivals in the movie, make their feature-film debuts in “Boogie,” which is also Huang’s first feature film as a writer/director. Takahashi’s and Jackson’s acting skills are far inferior to those of “Boogie” co-stars Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Taylour Paige, who also portray high-school students in the movie.

Lendeborg and Paige are way ahead in their acting talent, compared to Takhashi and Jackson. This discrepancy results in some awkward-looking moments in the movie where the more talented/experienced actors have to share scenes with those who are less talented/experienced. It doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue is just plain awful.

Takahashi portrays the movie’s title character—Alfred “Boogie” Chin (whose Chinese first name is Xiao Ming)—as an entitled, arrogant “not as smart as he thinks he is” brat, who often shows disdain for women and willful ignorance of what it takes to be a respectful and respected human being. He is singularly focused on his goal of becoming a basketball player for the NBA. And he doesn’t seem to care much about learning about life beyond basketball, dating, and getting the perks of possibly becoming rich and famous.

It’s no secret that Asians are rare in the NBA, so the filmmakers of “Boogie” used that hook to make it look like the movie is an “against all odds” story. But one of the lousiest things about this movie is that it’s not even convincing in showing any dazzling basketball skills that Boogie supposedly has. There are too many cutaway shots with obvious body doubles. And so, viewers are left wondering what’s so special about Boogie. He’s definitely not the extraordinary basketball player that the filmmakers want people to think he is.

Most of the movie consists of Boogie getting into conflicts with his family. His parents are Chinese immigrants who’ve settled in the New York City neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that in 2001, when his mother was pregnant with Boogie (who is an only child), Boogie’s parents went to see a fortune teller to get advice about their crumbling marriage and to find out the baby’s gender. The fortune teller said that she didn’t know the gender of the child, but she advised these two spouses that if they stay together, “Love will melt the sharpest sword.”

Boogie’s parents did stay together, but they don’t have a very happy marriage. They also have very different approaches to parenting and how Boogie should reach his NBA goals. Boogie has major issues with his mother, which explains why Boogie has misogynistic tendencies. The movie doesn’t even bother to give Boogie’s mother a first name.

Boogie’s father Lawrence Chin (played by Perry Yung) is fairly lenient with Boogie, except when it comes to basketball. Mr. Chin is an ex-con who is obsessed with the idea that the best way for Boogie to get to the NBA is by beating a local teen named Monk (played by Jackson), who is a star basketball player at a rival high school in Brooklyn. Mr. Chin believes that basketball talent scouts will flock to Boogie if Boogie defeats Monk. It sounds very illogical (because it is), but Mr. Chin is fixated on Monk as the biggest obstacle to Boogie’s basketball dreams.

Boogie’s mother Mrs. Chin (played by Pamelyn Chee), who is a homemaker, thinks that Boogie’s best way to the NBA is through a college basketball scholarship, preferably at a Big 10 university. She’s the family’s disciplinarian and planner. But apparently, she’s terrible at finances because Boogie’s parents are heavily in debt, to the point where they’re past due on their utility bills. Even though Boogie’s parents can’t afford to pay for any college tuition, Boogie and his parents don’t want to apply for financial aid. They want a full scholarship for Boogie, or else he doesn’t want to go to any college.

Mr. Chin has spent time in prison for operating an illegal gambling business of sports betting. He’s still making money this way, but he and his brother Jackie (played by “Boogie” writer/director Huang) have been laundering their gambling money by operating a small business as town car drivers. It’s too bad that this movie uses the very tired cliché that a working-class family of color in a big American city has a patriarch who’s a criminal and/or an absentee father. Because Boogie’s father spent time in prison, he’s trying to make up for that lost time with Boogie.

Mr. Chin tells Jackie about their illegal gambling business, “Keep taking bets through the end of the current football season. Then I want to wash my hands of it. We’re in the basketball business now.” And by that, he means that he expects Boogie to make it to the big leagues of the NBA, so that Boogie can become rich and pass on some of the wealth to his parents.

Early on in the movie, Mr. Chin reminds Boogie that Boogie’s parents transferred him to City Prep, Boogie’s current high school, so that Boogie could have a better chance of being discovered by basketball scouts. Boogie is in his last year of high school, so the pressure is on for him to get an opportunity that will eventually take him to the NBA.

At school, it’s unclear what type of grades that Boogie is getting, but it’s clear he’s not getting into any university on an academic scholarship. In his Advanced Placement English class (the only class that he’s seen attending in this movie), Boogie mouths off at the teacher Mr. Richmond (played by Steve Coulter) in a “know it all” way that’s not endearing. It just makes Boogie look like a pompous idiot.

There are plenty of ways that Boogie shows his crude and offensive side outside the classroom. This is what he has to say about real-life NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin: “Jeremy Lin can suck my dick. He’s more model minority Jesus freak than Asian.”

One of the students in the English class is named Eleanor (played by Paige), who is Boogie’s obvious crush. Boogie’s best friend Richie (played by Lendeborg) is in the same class and is on the school basketball team with Boogie. One day after class, Boogie and Richie are at a school gym and ogling Eleanor and her friend Elissa (played by Alexa Mareka), as they do some weightlifting. Here’s the way that Boogie tries to make a move on Eleanor:

Boogie says to her, “Nice pants.” Eleanor replies, “You’ve got a staring problem.” Boogie replies, “You’ve got a nice vagina.” Eleanor angrily says, “Get the fuck out of here with that bullshit! You better respect my mind!” As Eleanor and Elissa walk away, Boogie smirks to Richie, “She wants it.”

Any self-respecting person would be put off by Boogie’s rude sexism. But one of the many things that’s so annoying about this movie is it brushes off and excuses Boogie’s blatant hostility toward women and makes Eleanor fall for him. A dumb movie like this with a jerk as the main character usually likes to show how he can get a love interest who will roll over and be submissive, no how matter how this jerk insults her.

It’s hard to take Eleanor seriously when she acts like an attention-starved girl who’s willing to overlook Boogie’s disrespectful and selfish attitude, just because she wants a boyfriend. Sure, the movie does the very predictable back-and-forth banter between Boogie and Eleanor, in a very weak attempt to make it look like she’s playing hard to get. But in the end, based on the way that Eleanor is written in this movie, she does exactly what Boogie predicts and expects. Any “romance” in this movie looks very fake.

The movie tries to make it look like Boogie is just trying to have the same mindset of a “thug” rapper, since he and so many of his peers admire rappers. But his disrespectful attitude toward women just makes him look pathetic and ignorant. “Boogie” predictably has a hip-hop soundtrack featuring multiple Pop Smoke songs, such as “AP,” “Fashion” and “Welcome to the Party.” (The movie’s end credits have a dedication to Pop Smoke, who was tragically murdered during a home invasion in 2020.) Pop Smoke does not rap in the movie.

Boogie’s horrible personality isn’t shown in just one isolated incident. When Monk deliberately assaults another player on a street basketball court (the other player’s ankle is broken during the attack), Eleanor expresses her disgust with this bullying, but Boogie tells her that Monk did what he had to do to win. Boogie is so arrogant that he calls his other team members “hot trash” to the team leader Coach Hawkins (played by Domenick Lombardozzi), because Boogie thinks the team would be nowhere without him. And later in the movie, Boogie shows how ill-tempered he is during a crucial basketball game at school, and this temper tantrum costs him dearly.

How do we know that Boogie is a legend in his own mind? He’s not getting any scholarship offers. And the feedback from college basketball scouts, including one named Patrick (played by Lenard McKelvey, also known as real-life radio personality Charlamagne Tha God) is that they might want to recruit Boogie, but not on a scholarship. After witnessing Boogie’s on-court tantrum, another college basketball scout questions Boogie’s mental stability. Coach Hawkins also has reservations about Boogie’s temperament and reliability.

If this movie is supposed to be about Asian cultural pride, it has an odd way of showing it, because it makes most of the Asian characters look like self-hating caricatures. There’s a Chinese insult scene of Boogie and Richie going to Manhattan’s Chinatown and Boogie complaining that he almost forgot how much Chinatown smells bad.

Boogie then sneers, “How is Chinatown next to SoHo? These gremlin keepers ain’t learned how to boutique their shit.” (It’s a reference to the 1984 horror movie “Gremlins” about gremlin creatures that are sold in Chinatown.) Imagine if a white person said this very racist and degrading comment. Just because an Asian person says it doesn’t make it okay.

Boogie is an immature twit who doesn’t have much to offer to the world except basketball skills that definitely are not ready for the NBA. His mother is written as a domineering and lazy shrew, while his father is a morally dubious hustler. The only Asian character in the movie who seems to show common sense is someone named Melvin (played by Mike Moh), an acquaintance of Boogie’s mother whom she asks to become Boogie’s manager.

And here’s an example of the movie’s terrible dialogue. Boogie whines to Eleanor about his ethnicity, with no self-awareness that he perpetuates negative stereotypes: “Chinese people would be so much better if this country didn’t reduce us to beef and broccoli.” Eleanor replies, “You could be so much more too.” Boogie then says, “It’s so hard. I feel like a piece of beef surrounded by sprouted greens and MSG.”

So with all of the family drama, ethnic drama and dating drama that are badly written and sometimes poorly acted in “Boogie,” that leaves the basketball scenes to possibly salvage this dreadful movie. But “Boogie” fails to deliver as a thrilling sports movie too. There’s a big showdown at the end that checks all the boxes of predictable and unimaginative clichés of a basketball game filmed for a movie.

There’s also some phony sentimentality thrown into the story, which contradicts the crass and raw tone that the movie was trying to push on the audience for most of the film. “Boogie” looks like it wanted to be a vulgar and tough portrayal of urban life, as well as a sweet family film. You can’t really have it both ways, or else you end up with a movie like “Boogie,” which is a jumbled, fake-looking and shoddily filmed mess.

Focus Features released “Boogie” in U.S. cinemas on March 5, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is March 26, 2021.

2021 Golden Globe Awards: ‘The Crown,’ ‘Nomadland,’ ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ win big

February 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pennie Downey, Marion Bailey, Josh O’Connor, Charles Dance, Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Erin Doherty, Michael Thomas and Pennie Downie in “The Crown” (Photo by Des Willie/Netflix)

With four prizes, Netflix’s drama series “The Crown” was the top winner at the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards, which were presented on February 28, 2021. “The Crown” won the award for Best Television Series – Drama. The movie’s other prizes went to Josh Connor, for Best Actor in a Television Series – Drama; Emma Corrin, for Best Actress in a Television Series – Drama; and Gillian Anderson, for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television.

There was no one movie that dominated at the 2021 Golden Globe Awards. Searchlight Pictures’ “Nomadland,” Amazon Studios’ “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and Pixar Animation Studios’ “Soul” won two awards each. “Nomadland” won the prize for Best Motion Picture – Drama. “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao made Golden Globes history by becoming the first woman of color to win a Golden Globe for Best Director. She is also the second woman to win this prize, after Barbra Streisand won for 1983’s “Yentyl.” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” took the prizes for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, while the movie’s star Sacha Baron Cohen won the prize for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. “Soul” won the awards for Best Animated Film and Best Original Score.

The Golden Globes ceremony has traditionally been held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no large, in-person gathering at the ceremony. Instead, the Golden Globes ceremony had video linkups of the nominees, so that when the winners are announced, the winners could react live with their acceptance speeches. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the ceremony, with Fey Rainbow Room in New York City and Poehler at the Beverly Hilton. NBC had the U.S. telecast of the show.

Netflix’s dramatic movie “Mank” went into the ceremony with the most nominations (six), but in the end, didn’t win any Golden Globes. “Mank” is director David Fincher’s movie about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (nicknamed Mank) and his experiences while he co-wrote the 1941 classic “Citizen Kane,” including his clashes with “Citizen Kane” director Orson Welles.

The most emotional moment of the night was for the late Chadwick Boseman, who was awarded the prize of Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, for his final acting role in Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Boseman’s widow Taylor Simone Ledward-Boseman tearfully accepted the prize on his behalf and gave a heart-wrenching statement on what he might have said if he were alive and able to accept the award. Boseman died of colon cancer in August 2020. He was 43.

Other winners in the movie categories included Andra Day of Hulu’s “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama; Rosamund Pike of Netflix’s “I Care a Lot” for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy; Daniel Kaluuya of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Judas and the Black Messiah” for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture; and Jodie Foster of STX’s “The Mauritanian” for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture.

TV winners that won multiple Golden Globe Awards were the Pop network’s “Schitt’s Creek,” which got two prizes: Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy, while Catherine O’Hara won the award for Best Actress in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy. The Netflix limited drama series “The Queen’s Gambit” won for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television, while Anya Taylor-Joy got the prize for Best Actress in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) votes for the nominations and awards. The HFPA and Dick Clark Productions produce the Golden Globe Awards telecast. Eligible movies for the show were those released in the U.S. in 2020 and in January and February 2021. The eligibility window, which usually ends at the end of a calendar year, was extended for movies because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible TV programs were those that premiered on U.S. networks and U.S. streaming services in 2020.

In their opening monologue, co-hosts Fey and Poehler (who previously co-hosted the Golden Globes from 2013 to 2015) made some light-hearted jokes, as well as more serious-minded jokes that took aim at some of the controversial aspects of the HFPA and this year’s Golden Globe nominations. Fey and Poehler slammed the movie “Music,” which has gotten a lot of criticism for its offensive portrayal of autism by a non-autistic actress. Poehler and Fey also blasted the HFPA, which has about 89 members, for not having any black people in the group’s membership. (On February 21, 2021, the Los Angeles Times published an investigative report that exposed this racial diversity problem and other problems at the HFPA. Variety reported on February 26 that the HFPA hasn’t had any black members since 2002.)

Later in the broadcast, three HFPA leaders went on stage and addressed the controversy in prepared statements. HFPA vice president Helen Hoehne commented, “Just like in film and television, black representation is vital. We must have black journalists in our organization.” HFPA chair Meher Tatna added, “We must also ensure that everyone from underrepresented communities gets a seat at our table. We are going to make that happen.” HFPA president Ali Sar concluded, “That means creating an environment where diverse membership is the norm, not the exception. Thank you, and we look forward to a more inclusive future.”

Jane Fonda received the Cecil B. DeMille Award (for outstanding career achievements in entertainment), while Norman Lear received the Carol Burnett Award (for outstanding career achievements in TV). Both awards are non-competitive, and the award recipients are announced weeks before the ceremony takes place.

Presenters at the ceremony included Laura Dern, Angela Bassett, Colin Farrell, Christian Slater, Tiffany Haddish, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Amanda Seyfried, Justin Theroux, Cynthia Erivo, Sarah Paulson, Salma Hayek, Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Tracy Morgan, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Susan Kelechi Watson, Ben Stiller, Margot Robbie, Gal Gadot, Kenan Thompson, Ava DuVernay, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Meloni, Jeanise Jones, Rosie Perez, Renée Zellweger, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sandra Oh, Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig, Awkwafina, Maya Rudolph, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Some of the presenters appeared in person at either the Beverly Hilton or the Rainbow Room, while other presenters appeared by a video link.

Here is the complete list of winners and nominations for the 2021 Golden Globe Awards:

*=winner

MOVIES

Best Motion Picture – Drama
“The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics)
“Mank” (Netflix)
“Nomadland” (Searchlight Pictures)*
“Promising Young Woman” (Focus Features)
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix)

Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (Amazon Studios)*
“Hamilton” (Disney+)
“Palm Springs” (Neon/Hulu)
“Music” (Vertical Entertainment)
“The Prom” (Netflix)

Best Director 
Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”
David Fincher, “Mank” (Netflix)
Regina King, “One Night in Miami” (Amazon Studios)
Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix)
Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” (Searchlight Pictures)*

Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama
Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”)
Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)*
Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”)
Gary Oldman (“Mank”)
Tahar Rahim (“The Mauritanian”)

Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)*
James Corden (“The Prom”)
Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”)
Dev Patel (“The Personal History of David Copperfield”)
Andy Samberg (“Palm Springs”)

Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama
Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”)*
Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”)
Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”)
Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”)

Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
Kate Hudson (“Music”)
Michelle Pfeiffer (“French Exit”)
Rosamund Pike (“I Care a Lot”)*
Anya Taylor-Joy (“Emma”)

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
Sacha Baron Cohen (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)*
Jared Leto (“The Little Things”)
Bill Murray (“On the Rocks”)
Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”)

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture 
Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”)
Olivia Colman (“The Father”)
Jodie Foster (“The Mauritanian”)*
Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”)
Helena Zengel (“News of the World”)

Best Screenplay
“Promising Young Woman” (Focus Features) – Emerald Fennell
“Mank” (Netflix) – Jack Fincher
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix)* – Aaron Sorkin
“The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics) – Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton
“Nomadland” (Searchlight Pictures) – Chloé Zhao

Best Original Score
“The Midnight Sky” – Alexandre Desplat
“Tenet” – Ludwig Göransson
“News of the World” – James Newton Howard
“Mank” – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
“Soul” – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste*

Best Original Song 
“Fight for You” from “Judas and the Black Messiah” – H.E.R., Dernst Emile II, Tiara Thomas
“Hear My Voice” from “The Trial of the Chicago 7” – Daniel Pemberton, Celeste
“Io Si (Seen)” from “The Life Ahead” – Diane Warren, Laura Pausini, Niccolò Agliardi*
“Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami” (Amazon Studios) – Leslie Odom Jr, Sam Ashworth
“Tigress & Tweed” from “The United States vs. Billie Holliday” (Hulu) – Andra Day, Raphael Saadiq

Best Animated Film 
“The Croods: A New Age” (DreamWorks Animation/Universal Pictures)
“Onward” (Pixar Amination Studios/Disney)
“Over the Moon” (Netflix)
“Soul” (Pixar Animation Studios/Disney)*
“Wolfwalkers” (Cartoon Saloon/Apple TV+)

Best Foreign Language Film
“Another Round” (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
“La Llorona” (Shudder)
“The Life Ahead” (Netflix)
“Minari” (A24)*
“Two of Us” (Magnolia Pictures)

TELEVISION

Best Television Series – Drama
“The Crown” (Netflix)*
“Lovecraft Country” (HBO)
“The Mandalorian” (Disney Plus)
“Ozark” (Netflix)
“Ratched” (Netflix)

Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy
“Emily in Paris” (Netflix)
“The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max)
“The Great” (Hulu)
“Schitt’s Creek” (Pop)*
“Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+)

Best Actor in a Television Series – Drama
Jason Bateman (“Ozark”)
Josh O’Connor (“The Crown”)*
Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”)
Al Pacino (“Hunters”)
Matthew Rhys (“Perry Mason”)

Best Actress in a Television Series – Drama
Olivia Colman (“The Crown”)
Jodie Comer (“Killing Eve”)
Emma Corrin (“The Crown”)*
Laura Linney (“Ozark”)
Sarah Paulson (“Ratched”)

Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy
Don Cheadle (“Black Monday”)
Nicholas Hoult (“The Great”)
Eugene Levy (“Schitt’s Creek”)
Jason Sudeikis (“Ted Lasso”)*
Ramy Youssef (“Ramy”)

Best Actress in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy
Lily Collins (“Emily in Paris”)
Kaley Cuoco (“The Flight Attendant”)
Elle Fanning (“The Great”)
Jane Levy (“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”)
Catherine O’Hara (“Schitt’s Creek”)*

Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
“Normal People” (Hulu/BBC)
“The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix)*
“Small Axe” (Amazon Prime Video/BBC)
“The Undoing” (HBO)
“Unorthodox” (Netflix)

Best Actor in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Bryan Cranston (“Your Honor”)
Jeff Daniels (“The Comey Rule”)
Hugh Grant (“The Undoing”)
Ethan Hawke (“The Good Lord Bird”)
Mark Ruffalo (“I Know This Much Is True”)*

Best Actress in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Cate Blanchett (“Mrs. America”)
Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”)
Shira Haas (“Unorthodox”)
Nicole Kidman (“The Undoing”)
Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Queen’s Gambit”)*

Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
John Boyega (“Small Axe”)*
Brendan Gleeson (“The Comey Rule”)
Dan Levy (“Schitt’s Creek”)
Jim Parsons (“Hollywood”)
Donald Sutherland (“The Undoing”)

Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Gillian Anderson (“The Crown”)*
Helena Bonham Carter (“The Crown”)
Julia Garner (“Ozark”)
Annie Murphy (“Schitt’s Creek”)
Cynthia Nixon (“Ratched”)

Review: ‘PVT CHAT,’ starring Julia Fox and Peter Vack

February 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Peter Vack and Julia Fox in “PVT CHAT” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

“PVT CHAT”

Directed by Ben Hozie

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the erotic drama “PVT CHAT” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians in small speaking roles) representing the middle-class and working class.

Culture Clash: An online gambler becomes obsessed with a webcam dominatrix, and she resists his attempts to meet her in real life.

Culture Audience: “PVT CHAT” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a cheap sexploitation movie with a badly written plot and self-absorbed characters who act irrationally.

Julia Fox in “PVT CHAT” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

“PVT CHAT” desperately tries to be the type of edgy New York City movie that writer/director Vincent Gallo used to make in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Gallo’s gimmick of being provocative just for the sake of being provocative eventually turned off movie audiences because of his lazy screenwriting. If people want to watch softcore porn, they can watch softcore porn in any number of places that offer it. They don’t need to be misled by softcore porn trying to masquerade as creative “auteur” work.

For a movie that’s supposed to be a mainstream (in other words, non-porn) independent film, audiences expect a compelling story that’s unconstrained by the type of restrictions that a major studio film would have. Instead, “PVT CHAT” has a very flimsy plot that’s just an excuse to make the movie’s lead actors masturbate and simulate other sex acts on camera to distract from this time-wasting story. The unoriginal concept of “PVT CHAT” is that it’s about a guy who becomes obsessed with a woman he met on the Internet. Yawn.

Written and directed by Ben Hozie, “PVT CHAT” squanders the talent of Julia Fox, who was a standout in the award-winning 2019 drama “Uncut Gems,” where she portrayed the much-younger mistress of Adam Sandler’s gambling-addict character. In “PVT CHAT,” Fox plays another woman who’s the love interest of another gambling addict. Her “PVT CHAT” character is a webcam dominatrix in her 20s who uses the alias Scarlet. Her online persona is someone who’s like a modern-day BDSM version of a black-haired vixen from a Russ Meyer movie, such as 1965’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”

One of Scarlet’s regular customers is a guy around her age named Jack (played by Peter Vack), who eventually becomes fixated on meeting Scarlet in person. To go from “Uncut Gems” to “PVT CHAT” is a big step down for Fox, who has a charismatic on-screen presence. She should probably re-evaluate whoever advised her to do this lowbrow, trashy movie that makes everyone in it look like an idiot.

Jack makes his living as an online gambler, playing mostly blackjack. The movie takes place in New York City, where Jack is barely getting by financially. As a small-time gambler, his income fluctuates. Before this movie takes place, Jack’s roommate died of a drug overdose, and Jack hasn’t found someone else to move in to help pay the bills. Jack is very late with his rent, and his landlord Henry (played by Atticus Cain) has just informed Jack that he’s not renewing Jack’s lease.

The only thing Jack looks forward to in his life is connecting online with his favorite “cam girl” Scarlet, who indulges in his fetish for Jack to masturbate while she simulates tapping ash from a cigarette on his tongue. This fetish for cigarette ash on a tongue is shown repeatedly during the movie. And it’s the first scene in “PVT CHAT.” This movie tries to pass itself off as “daring,” just because it has multiple sex scenes with full-frontal male nudity.

Scarlet has told Jack that she lives in San Francisco. Anyone watching this movie can tell that she’s lying, no doubt for her own protection against creeps like Jack. Meanwhile, Jack does some lying of his own, by telling Scarlet that he works as a tech developer. He says that he’s working on an app called C-Stream that will allow users to directly access other people’s thoughts through an Internet cloud. He explains that people would need to have their brains implanted with a chip in order to use this app.

Although this technology could exist in the future, “PVT CHAT” is not a science-fiction film and is supposed to take place when this technology doesn’t exist. But Scarlet believes Jack, who promises that she’ll be one of the first people he’ll give a discount to when this C-Stream app goes on sale. The people in this movie are so dimwitted that even if the C-Stream app existed, they would need the app to get other people’s brain power. When Jack later confesses to Scarlet that he lied about the C-Stream app, Scarlet is surprised, but viewers of this nonsensical movie shouldn’t be.

As time goes on, Scarlet opens up a little bit about her real career passion: painting abstract art. Eventually, Scarlet shows Jack some of her paintings during their online chats. Of course, he raves about her work and gives her effusive compliments about how talented she is. Scarlet tells Jack that he’s only saying that so he can have sex with her. Jack doesn’t deny it.

“PVT CHAT” then goes into an unnecessary detour to show Jack attending an avant-garde visual arts exhibit showcasing the work of his ex-girlfriend Emma KaVas (played by Nikki Belfiglio), who apparently still has feelings for Jack. At one point, Jack stays at Emma’s place, although it’s never really made clear why, because this movie so shoddily written.

Emma says to Jack as she looks around at her messy bedroom, “What did you do to my room?” She then tries to give a Jack a massage, but he’s not into it, and he brushes her off. It’s hard to see why Emma wants to get back together with Jack, because he’s got a sleazy, untrustworthy personality.

Jack’s only friend seems to be a goofy guy named Larry (played by Buddy Duress), and when they get together, they have a “frat bro” mentality. For example, at Emma’s pretentious art exhibit, Jack and Larry horse around and have a scuffle on the floor, as if they’re 10-year-olds on a playground. There are plenty of other scenes where Jack acts very immature and quite empty-headed.

One day, Jack wakes up to find that his landlord has hired a painter to repaint the walls of Jack’s apartment because the apartment’s next tenant will be moving there in the near future. At this point, Jack is in such dire straits that he has only a few weeks to move out, he’s almost broke, and he hasn’t found a new place to live. The painter is a middle-aged man named William, who also goes by the name Will (played by Kevin Moccia), and they strike up a friendly conversation.

Jack tells Will that he makes money through online gambling. Will is intrigued and asks Jack to show him how it’s done. So one night, Jack, Will and Larry meet up at Jack’s place to smoke some marijuana and gamble. And Jack happens to have a winning streak where he wins a few thousand dollars.

Will is so impressed that he asks Jack to help him get $20,000 through gambling, because Will says he needs the money for his son’s college tuition. Jack says that he can probably do it if Will can come up with at least $10,000 to start. They agree to the deal. But of course, in a movie like this one, you just know something’s going to go wrong with that money.

Meanwhile, one night while Jack is walking through the streets of Chinatown in downtown Manhattan, he’s shocked to see Scarlet walking in front of him. She’s by herself, so he follows her into a deli and watches her as she buys some beer. He then follows her back to a building where she apparently lives. She has no idea that Jack saw her and was stalking her.

However, when Jack gets home, he logs on to his laptop computer and asks Scarlet this creepy question: “How’s the beer? Are you available for a session?” Scarlet ignores him but eventually connects with him again.

When they talk again, Jack tells Scarlet that he saw her in Chinatown and vividly describes what he saw her do in the deli. But she denies that Jack saw her and says that she’s never even been to New York. She insists that Jack must’ve seen someone who looks exactly like her.

Jack doesn’t really believe Scarlet, so he makes a bet with her: Jack says that if he can take a picture or video of her in person, she’ll have to agree to go on a trip to Paris with him. And he’s up front in telling her that he wants to have sex with her at some point when they meet in person. Jack tries to make it sound like the trip to Paris will be romantic, but any adult with a brain can see what his main motive is.

Scarlet’s real life is eventually shown in the movie. Not all of her secrets will be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that she has a shady boyfriend named Duke (played by Will Poulson), who knows about Scarlet’s webcam work. Duke not only knows about it, he expects Scarlet to financially support him, and he takes most of the money she earns so that he can open an off-Broadway theater. Jack finds out more about Scarlet’s personal life, and it leads to Jack doing some more lurid stalking.

“PVT CHAT” tries to make Jack look like a “good guy” by having him try to help Will with the college tuition money, but that generous gesture is overshadowed by how much of an obsessive scumbag Jack is when it comes to dealing with Scarlet. She’s no angel either. And between the two of them, there’s enough lying, cheating and stealing that it’s almost laughable that the “PVT CHAT” filmmakers want viewers of this movie to root for Jack and Scarlet to get together.

It’s all so pointless because Jack and Scarlet are the type of people who gravitate toward toxic relationships filled with dishonesty and manipulation. The movie by no means had to be romantic, but it tries to play into romantic sensibilities toward the end, and it all just comes across as very phony. Even without the issues of sex and relationships, “PVT CHAT” isn’t even an intriguing thriller. There’s an unconvincing plot development that’s sloppily presented in the last 20 minutes of the film.

As the mysterious character of Scarlet, Fox seems to be doing the best she can with a woefully inept script, while Vack is stuck with playing a very unsympathetic and annoying character. The sex scenes are joyless, boring and not sexy at all. And “PVT CHAT” doesn’t deserve extra praise, just because it goes against the norm by having the male actor in the sex scenes have more nudity (full-frontal) than the female actor.

In fact, the movie has a misogynistic tone to it because the only women with significant speaking roles in the movie are those who play a character who does webcam porn (like Scarlet) or has some other sexual connection to Jack, such as his ex-girlfriend Anna. Far from being a sexually liberating film, it’s actually very unimaginative and narrow-minded that “PVT CHAT” writer/director Hozie chose to not put any women in this movie in any other context, except to be sexually in service to a thoughtless lowlife like Jack. But then again, self-respecting people would want to steer clear of a dishonest creep like Jack in the real world. People looking for a quality movie should steer clear of “PVT CHAT” too.

Dark Star Pictures released “PVT CHAT” in select U.S. cinemas on February 5, 2021, and on digital and VOD on February 9, 2021.

Review: ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version,’ starring Radha Blank

January 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Radha Blank in “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Forty-Year-Old Version”

Directed by Radha Blank

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedic film “The Forty-Year-Old Version” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white, Latino and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A struggling African American playwright decides to reinvent herself as a rapper a few months before her 40th birthday, and she has to come to terms with her definition of “success” versus “selling out,” as she deals with racism and sexism.

Culture Audience: “The Forty-Year-Old Version” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories of self-identity from an African American perspective.

Reed Birney and Radha Blank in “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a comedic film that skillfully shows a mid-life crisis that has never before been portrayed on screen: Just a few months before she turns 40 years old, a struggling New York City playwright, who’s looking for a new way to express her creativity, decides that she wants to become a rapper. It’s a career move that’s risky and outside her comfort zone not only because hip-hop isn’t generally welcoming of female rappers but it’s a music genre that also has incredibly difficult barriers for beginner rappers who are over the age of 30. Radha Blank makes a captivating feature-film debut as the star, writer, director and one of the producers of “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a semi-autobiographical movie that strikes the right balance of showing uncomfortable truths with whimsically raw comedy.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is entirely in black and white, which gives the movie a somewhat timeless look. This creative choice might also draw comparisons to filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1986 feature-film debut “She’s Gotta Have It,” which was also entirely in black and white. Both movies are comedies with an independent-minded woman as the main character. And although the overall tone is comedic, both movies also have underlying serious social commentary about how relationships are affected by gender roles and race.

In “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Blank portrays a playwright named Radha, who is about to turn 40 in a few months, and she feels like her life is imploding. She’s grieving over the death of her beloved widowed mother. Radha is also having financial problems and is trying not to get depressed that she hasn’t lived up to her expected potential.

Years ago, Radha received a “30 Under 30” prize by an influential theater organization, to signify that she was considered a promising playwright under the age of 30. And now, all these years later, Radha can’t even get a workshop of her latest play. To pay her bills, Radha teaches an after-school class on dramatic writing at a local high school. But even in that job, she’s not appreciated, because some of the teenage students in her small class (which has eight students) don’t really want to be in her class and show little to no interest in theater.

Radha’s latest play that she’s hoping to get produced is called “Harlem Ave,” which is set in New York City’s predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem. She describes the play as being about “a young man who inherited a grocery store from his parents and struggles to keep the business afloat with an activist wife.” Radha wants the play to be reflective of the real Harlem, by having a predominantly black cast.

In the hopes of getting “Harlem Ave” in regional theater, Radha meets with a pretentious acquaintance named Forrest Umoja Petry (played by Andre Ward), who owns the local OUmoja Theatre, an off-Broadway venue whose specialty is African American stage productions. Forrest, who founded the theater in 1988, doesn’t really take Radha that seriously. Instead of discussing the play with Radha, he makes her meditate with him in his office that he likes to fill with burning incense.

Radha’s best friend Archie (played by Peter Kim), an openly gay Korean American, is an aspiring theater producer. It’s later revealed in the movie that Radha and Archie have been best friends since high school. They were each other’s prom dates back then, when Archie was still closeted to most people and afraid to tell his family about his sexuality. Archie is staunchly loyal to Radha, but he disagrees with her “I’ll never sell out” mindset when it comes to getting her plays financed. Radha wants to be a success, but only on her terms.

Archie excitedly tells Radha that he’s scored an invitation to a black-tie party that will be attended by a powerful, Tony-winning producer named J. Whitman (played by Reed Birney), who could be a likely investor in “Harlem Ave.” Archie wants Radha to be his “plus one” at the party, which Archie thinks will be the perfect opportunity for Radha to pitch her play to Whitman. Radha is very reluctant to go to this party and tells Archie: “J. Whitman only does black ‘poverty porn’ plays. I’d rather do a workshop with Forrest and his stinky-ass ancestors than suck up to J. Whitman!”

But after some pleading from Archie, Radha eventually agrees to go to the party. The soiree is upscale and filled with a lot of well-to-do “theater patron” types, who are usually over the age of 60. It’s the type of party where Archie and Radha stand out because they’re relatively young by comparison, and they’re two of the few non-white people at the party.

Sure enough, Radha gets a chance to talk to Whitman, so she tells him about “Harlem Ave.” Whitman says he would be interested in investing, but he thinks the play should be about “gentrification.” It’s really code for saying, “There needs to be white people as main characters in the play, in order to sell it to a predominantly white audience.”

Radha thinks it’s demeaning for Whitman to suggest that she change her play in this way, but she doesn’t say it out loud to Whitman. Instead, she politely tells him that she doesn’t want to change to focus of her play. She’s ready to end the conversation, but a tone-deaf Whitman adds insult to injury and tells Radha: “I still need a writer for my Harriet Tubman musical.”

This racial condescension enrages Radha, who then lunges at Whitman and begins strangling him. It’s played for laughs in the movie, but the scene demonstrates how infuriating people like Whitman can be, because they think of themselves as “open-minded liberals” but they believe in the same racist stereotypes as close-minded conservatives. Radha is unapologetic for her outburst, but Archie is horrified. Archie tells Radha that he wants to smooth things over with Whitman, but Radha tells Archie not to bother.

Publicly, Radha is defiant. Privately, she’s wracked with self-doubt. In her small and dumpy apartment where she lives alone, she cries in despair and wails: “I just want to be an artist! Mommy, tell me what to do!”

Just then, Radha hears rap music playing nearby. She has a silent “a-ha” moment and suddenly feels inspired to write rap lyrics. The next day, Radha tells Archie that she’s going to try something new with her life: She wants to make a rap mixtape and see where it’ll take her in a possible career as a rapper.

Archie is incredulous and thinks Radha shouldn’t give up her career in theater. But Radha has already made up her mind. Whitman has decided to forgive Radha for physically attacking him, but he tells Archie that he should be a theater producer and that Archie shouldn’t be wasting his time with Radha, whom Whitman calls a “washed-up writer.”

Radha hears about a home recording studio in Brooklyn that works with aspiring rappers, so she goes there to see if she can find a producer who can make the music for her lyrics. When she goes to the cramped, smoke-filled apartment, she’s the only female in a roomful of guys in their 20s. A sullen-looking 26-year-old, who goes by the name D (played by Oswin Benjamin), is the producer/engineer operating the recording equipment. He barely acknowledges Radha in this first meeting.

The entire meeting is awkward because it’s obvious that these guys don’t take Radha seriously. When one of them asks Radha what her rap name is, she’s taken aback and makes up a name on the spot: RadhaMUSPrime. It’s a play on words of the “Transformers” robot hero character Optimus Prime.

Radha has the money to pay for a recording session. D seems reluctant to work with her though, because it’s obvious that he thinks she’s a joke. That is, until Radha starts rapping her song “Poverty Porn,” a scathing rebuke of greedy people who make money in entertainment by exploiting African American poverty. When D sees her perform and hears the lyrics, he shows signs of being impressed with Radha’s talent.

“Poverty Porn” is told from the point of view of the exploiter who would rather make entertainment showing African Americans as poor and down-trodden instead of showing the reality that most African Americans are not poor but are middle-class. The lyrics of the chorus include: “You regular blacks are just such a yawn. Yo, if I want to get on, better make me some poverty porn.”

Radha’s experience with Whitman is the obvious inspiration for “Poverty Porn,” but the lyrics suggest that Radha has had a lifetime of these racist experiences in trying to be a successful playwright. Later in the story, Whitman lets it be known that he still wants to be the lead producer of “Harlem Ave,” but only if Radha makes the changes that he wants. The offer comes when Radha is at a low point in her confidence and financial stability, so she has to make a choice on whether or not she will “sell out” and do the play with Whitman in charge.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” also has a subplot about two of Radha’s students who clash with each other almost every time that they’re in class together: a tough-talking butch lesbian named Rosa (played by Haskiri Velazquez) and a foul-mouthed diva named Elaine (played by Imani Lewis), who is sought-after by many of the boys in the school. Rosa has a crush on Radha and doesn’t try to hide it. For example, Rosa makes gushing comments about Radha such as, “She’s like Queen Latifah and Judge Judy rolled into one!”

Meanwhile, Elaine is often disrespectful to Radha and acts like being in Radha’s class is a waste of time. One day, Elaine insults Radha by calling her a failed playwright. Rosa jumps to Radha’s defense and gets in a brawl with Elaine. Rosa and Elaine are both punished by the school, but the two teens still act like enemies when they’re together in the classroom. Much later, Radha sees something in the school hallway which explains why Elaine is acting the way that she does.

As Radha spends more time with D to write and record her rap songs, she and D become closer, even though their personalities are almost polar opposites. Radha is talkative and high-strung. D is quiet and laid-back. There’s also their age difference and the fact that they have very different social circles.

Even though Radha is trying to be a rapper, she comes from the intellectual theater world, while D has more of a “street life” background. Both Radha and D have a strong sense of identity as African Americans, but their respective upbringings and educations have taken them on different paths. Their relationship is a situation where hip-hop really did bring them together.

Much of the absurdist comic relief in the story comes from recurring appearances of neighbors as a sort of “Greek chorus” who make funny and sometimes rude remarks separately to the camera, as if they’re speaking to or about Radha. These outspoken neighbors are an elderly African American woman (played by Jackie Adam), who’s called Snazzy in the film’s credits; a young Dominican woman (played by Cristina Gonzalez); an elderly Korean vendor (played Charles Ryu); and two of Radha’s students named Waldo (played by Antonio Ortiz) and Kamal (played by T.J. Atoms). When they’re asked what they think of Radha turning 40, the young woman replies, “When a single woman turns 40, she’s like fruit in the ground for the bugs to eat.”

There’s also a scene-stealing homeless man named Lamont (played by Jacob Ming-Trent), who hangs out near Radha’s apartment building and lets her know that he watches all the comings and goings that happen to and from her home. During a pivotal conversation that Radha has on the street when she asks someone for help with her career, Lamont who’s watching nearby shouts: “Give the bitch a chance! Her desperation is making me nauseous! Although technically, you’ve got to eat something to throw up.”

Because “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a low-budget film, it’s fairly obvious that many of the cast members are not professional actors. Some of the cast members deliver their lines better than those whose acting is a little rough around the edges. But that’s part of the movie’s charm, since it looks like many of the people in the movie are really playing versions of themselves and aren’t doing a slick acting job. Of the main cast members, Blank and Kim fare the best in scenes that show the genuine and sometimes volatile friendship between Radha and Archie.

One of the best things about “The Forty-Year-Old” version is how it authentically reveals layers to the story without making it too cluttered. Viewers will get poignant glimpses into Radha’s family life and how her mother’s death affected her. Radha’s brother Ravi (played by Blank’s real-life brother Ravi Blank) wants her to help him decide what to do with their mother’s possessions, but Radha has been avoiding his phone calls. When the siblings eventually meet up, they have a heart-to-heart conversation that’s a standout scene in the movie.

It’s revealed in the story that Radha and Ravi’s parents were both artists but had to take day jobs to support the family. The siblings’ mother was a painter who worked as a teacher, while their father was a jazz drummer who worked as a plumber. Radha is single with no children, so she doesn’t have the family financial obligations that her parents had. However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” shows that one of her underlying fears is not being able to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional and respected artist.

At an age when most people are settled down and secure in their careers, Radha is restless and insecure in her chosen profession. What makes this story stand out is how she takes a bold risk to “blow it all up” to start over in hip-hop, which is a male-dominated and often-misogynistic industry. It’s a risk that most women in the same circumstances would never take. But “The Forty-Year-Old Version” accurately shows what happens when artists follow their instincts, despite any massive obstacles and naysayers in their way.

Thanks to her tour-de-force work in front of and behind the camera, Blank makes “The Forty-Year-Old Version” a truly unique gem of a film that feels very personal yet relatable to anyone who knows what it’s like to be underestimated or discriminated against simply because of race, gender or other physical characteristics. There are plenty of examples of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in the film.

However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” isn’t too heavy-handed about showing this bigotry, and Radha isn’t wallowing in a self-pity party. She just gets on with what she has to do. But there are also moments when Radha has to decide if she should listen to “rational” advice or follow what’s in her heart.

And any decision to go against the grain and listen to her inner voice requires her to be extremely vulnerable when it would be much easier to go along with what she’s pressured to do by other people. There’s a telling moment in the movie where Radha, who usually wears a head wrap that completely covers her hair, decides to take off this head wrap, and it’s symbolic of her shedding a self-protective shell and showing her true self.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is also an incisive commentary on artistic integrity and how it’s often at odds with financial offers that artists can get. At some point, artists who expect to be paid for their work must ask themselves: “Is this monetary offer in line with my values? If it isn’t, is it worth compromising my integrity for what I would be paid? And how much control of my work do I want to give to other people?”

The music of “The 40-Year-Old Version” is a mixture of mostly hip-hop and jazz, which perfectly exemplify the two artistic worlds that Radha inhabits in the story: the rough, street-oriented world of rap and the more refined, traditional world of theater. In addition to “Poverty Porn,” original songs with Blank’s lyrics include “This Is 40,” “F.Y.O.V.,” “Mamma May I,” “”Pound Da Poundcakes” and “WMWBWB,” which stands for “White Man With a Black Woman’s Butt,” a reference to a scene in a movie when Radha sees a white man with a very round and large bottom.

Other songs that are part of “The Forty-Year-Old Version” soundtrack include Queen Latifah’s “Wrath of My Madness,” Babs Bunny’s “I Want In,” Nai Br.XX’s “Adventure Time,” Quincy Jones’ “Love and Peace” and several tunes from jazz artist Courtney Bryan. Radha says in the movie that her song “F.Y.OV.” can stand for things other than “Forty-Year-Old Version,” such as “Find Your Own Voice,” “Find Your Own Vision” or “Fill Your Own Void.” They are all perfect descriptions of the movie’s overall impactful message.

Netflix premiered “The Forty-Year-Old Version” on October 9, 2020.

Review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please,’ starring Henry Arango, James Bidgood, Michael Alonga, Robert Bouvard, Claude Diaz, George Roth and Joseph Touchette

January 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Arango, also known as Adrian, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Alex Bohs/Discovery+)

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please”

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” interviews a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos and African Americans), who are current and former drag queens or LGBTQ book authors/historians, about the New York City drag scene in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Dressing in drag and being a member of the LGBTQ community often had to be kept underground, since people were arrested or faced other punishment if they weren’t heterosexual.

Culture Audience: “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture or LGBTQ history from the mid-20th century.

George Roth, also known as Rita George, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Zachary Shields/Discovery+) 

Drag queens have become a very visible part of mainstream pop culture, due in large part to the Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and other TV shows about drag queens. But there used to be a time in the U.S. when dressing as a drag queen in public was illegal and could put people in danger of being physically harmed. During the 1950s to 1960s, television became fixtures in American households, but the idea of a TV show about drag queens would be considered too offensive or scandalous at the time. What was going through the minds of gay/queer men who were New York City drag queens in their prime during this era?

The documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” takes an insightful look at this underreported part of LGBTQ history, by including numerous interviews with the drag queens of this era, as well as authors of books that researched this culture. During this era, LGBTQ people could be legally fired from jobs, assaulted or worse, just because of their sexuality. When closeted LGBTQ people wrote love letters or other letters declaring their sexuality, it was very common for the letter writers to ask the recipients to burn the letters, out of fear that the letters could get into the wrong hands. This fear of homophobic persecution is the sobering inspiration for the documentary’s title.

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” features a charismatic cast of current and former drag queens who were mostly in their 80s and 90s when this documentary was filmed. Some of the people who are interviewed started out as drag queens in their youth and then decided to live as transgender women. And they all have tales to tell that are fascinating as well as harrowing.

The interviewees include:

  • Michael Alonga (Drag name: Daphne), a former drag queen who had a lover of 18 years named Aaron who died of AIDS in 1986
  • Henry Arango (Drag name: Adrian), a Cuban immigrant whose drag name was inspired by his mother Adriana
  • James Bidgood (Drag name: Terry Howe), a drag queen and costume designer
  • Robert Bouvard (Drag name: Robbie Ross), a former Air Force member who’s originally from Wichita, Kansas
  • Claude Diaz (Drag name: Claudia), who was arrested in 1958, at age 23, for stealing Metropolitan Opera wigs valued at $3,000 at the time
  • Lennie (no last name) (Drag names: Dee Dee LaRue, Dayzee Dee), a former drag ball promoter who came to New York City from a rural Pennsylvania town, after leaving home at 18 to join the military
  • Terry Noel (Drag name: Terry), who got transsexual surgery arranged by Anna Genovese, the sister of mob boss Vito Genovese
  • George Roth (Drag name: Rita George), who was named Miss Fire lsland in 1969, and who impersonated a woman in public for the first time when he put on his mother’s orange taffeta dress and went grocery shopping
  • Joseph Touchette (Drag name: Tish), who says that the description “drag queen” was derogatory back then and the preferred description was “female impersonator”

Also interviewed are “Gay New York” author George Chauncey, “Vintage Drag” author Thomasine Bartlett and “Mother Camp” author Esther Newton. Drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys comments on the importance of finding letters written by LGBTQ people from eras when it was illegal to be a non-heterosexual: “Photographs tell us one thing. Words tell another.”

And because there was such a fear of these letters being found, they were often destroyed. Robert Corber, a professor in American institutions and values at Trinity College, has this to say in the documentary about the huge void in LGBTQ historical papers that chronicle what it was like to be queer in the U.S. during these bygone eras: “We don’t have archives of letters, archives of diaries. What we do have are archives of arrest records.”

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please” mentions one of the main inspirations for the documentary: In 2014, a box containing hundreds of letters was discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit. The letters dated back to the 1950s and were addressed to a young man named Reno Martin, who would later become known as Hollywood agent Ed Limato. When Martin left his hometown to pursue a career in radio, his closest gay/queer friends wrote the letters to stay connected to him.

The friends, many of whom became drag queens in New York City, trusted Martin with their most intimate stories. He became their confidant, and the letters they wrote to him have now become important written documents for drag queen history since most of these types of letters were destroyed out of fear.

Alonga, who was one of the friends who wrote to Martin, comments on the importance of camaraderie in the underground New York City drag queen scene: “We felt like sisters … Well, sisters that were really brothers to the public.” Arango, who has an unapologetically flamboyant personality, shows off his collection of vintage dolls in the documentary and quips later in the movie: “I could never act butch. It would give me a rash.”

Where did these drag queens hang out in New York City? The two nightclubs mentioned the most in the documentary are Club 82 and Cork Club. Club 82 had more of a heterosexual crowd, who often went there to see female impersonators. According to the documentary, Club 82 also attracted a lot of celebrities, including John F. Kennedy Jr. (before he became U.S. president), Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Club 82’s general manager Pete Petillo was married to Anna Genovese, mob boss Vito Genovese’s sister who arranged for Noel’s transsexual surgery.

Cork Club was more underground than Club 82 and catered more to a LGBTQ crowd. One of the Cork Club regulars was a Dominican drag queen named Josephine Baker (real name: Roberto Perez), who dressed like the real Josephine Baker. Drag queen Josephine was a very close friend of Diaz, who describes Josephine in the documentary as “wild,” “gorgeous” and a “kleptomaniac.”

In fact, the two were partners in crime when they were busted for stealing those Met Opera wigs. (Perez tragically died of AIDS in 1988, at the age of 53.) Diaz also mentions that he and Perez were also very close friends with a drag queen named Billie.

Although there are certainly happy memories shared in the documentary, there are also tales of heartbreak, trauma and health problems. Because drag queens are often the targets of bigotry and ridicule, it can take a toll on their self-esteem. Noel says of the way he felt during most of his life: “I didn’t feel worthy of anything.”

Many of the drag queens say that they went through struggles with finances and mental health. Some turned to prostitution to support themselves. Diaz says he was put in a psychiatric institution at age 16, and he later became a sex worker. He says that he made more money as a prostitute when he was dressed in drag.

The documentary mentions that this clique of drag queens had a “trick room,” a description they used for a rented New York City hotel room where they kept their drag queen clothes. It was a safe storage space for those who couldn’t risk keeping the clothes in their own homes, for fear of homophobic retaliation.

Bouvard remembers that when he was in the military in New Orleans, he discovered gay bars. When he dressed in drag, he often fooled the military guys, who would escort him on dates, as if he were a cisgender woman. Bouvard mentions that if the men who escorted him knew the truth, he would have been killed. Later in the documentary, Bouvard opens up about his health problems, including being HIV-positive and having an amputated leg because of a blood clot.

Although all of the current and former drag queens who are interviewed in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” are white or Hispanic, the documentary gives a brief acknowledgement of African Americans in New York City drag culture. Phil Black, an African American drag queen, is mentioned as an influential scenester during the 1950s and 1960s, because he founded the racially integrated Phil Black Ball for drag queens. Unfortunately, Asians and Native Americans are not mentioned at all in the documentary. Viewers are left to speculate why there wasn’t enough information for these racial groups included in the film.

Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams explains in the movie that much of that erasure has to do with white men being the ones who usually get to write American history: “The best thing about history is to be able to go to the past and discover yourself. The great difficulty for we who are marginalized, be we women or black or gay, as you look at what is purported to be history, we’re invisible. We don’t exist.”

The filmmakers could have done a better job at exploring the underreported racial diversity in the New York City drag scene of the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” also could have used more revelations about the era’s drag beauty contests and drag costume balls that were and still are big parts of drag culture. Roth comments on these events: “We didn’t realize we were doing it for the next generations.”

The current and former drag queens in the documentary came of age before Pride parades existed, but they say that they became enthusiastic supporters once these parades began to happen in the 1970s. (The documentary shows Arango, in very skimpy drag gear, attending the New York City Drag March during Gay Pride Weekend in 2017.) These parades were a turning point for LGBTQ people and their allies to openly express themselves in an even more public way than previously done.

Despite some flaws, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” is best enjoyed as a compilation of anecdotes and personal stories, rather than a comprehensive historical account of New York City drag queen life in the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” would make an excellent companion piece with director Peter Howard’s 2019 documentary film “The Lavender Scare,” which goes more in-depth about why letter-burning was a big part of the LGBTQ community before the gay-rights movement happened.

Discovery+ premiered “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” on January 4, 2021.

Review: ‘Farewell Amor,’ starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson in “Farewell Amor” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Farewell Amor”

Directed by Ekwa Msangi

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Farewell Amor” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An Angolan immigrant in New York City is reunited with his wife and teenage daughter after spending 17 years apart from them.

Culture Audience: “Farewell Amor” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in immigrant stories that are rarely told about how family members who haven’t lived together other in several years suddenly have to adjust to living together again.

Jayme Lawson, Zainab Jah and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in “Farewell Amor” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Can a family be put back together successfully after 17 years apart? That’s the question at the center of the multifaceted and emotional drama “Farewell Amor,” which tells the story from the perspectives of the three main characters: a husband, a wife and their teenage daughter. Written and directed by Ekwa Msangi in a spare but effective style, “Farewell Amor” shows the complications that can ensue when a family’s long-awaited reunion doesn’t necessarily equal instant happiness. It’s an aspect of the immigrant experience that’s rarely depicted in movies that are made in America.

“Farewell Amor” takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where Angolan immigrant Walter Santos (played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) lives. Walter has been living in the United States for the past 17 years, after fleeing from war-torn Angola. He had to leave behind his wife Esther and baby daughter Sylvia, who both eventually relocated to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Although Walter has kept in touch over the years, he has not been in the same room as his wife and daughter for all those years. He never gave up on trying to bring them to the United States as legal immigrants. The movie has no flashbacks to this part of the family’s life, but the information is revealed in conversations.

The movie begins with Walter, Esther (played by Zainab Jah) and a now 17-year-old Sylvia (played by Jayme Lawson) reuniting at the airport and greeting each other with joyful hugs. But how long will that joy last? The movie creatively shows the perspective of each character in segments, with each segment beginning with the airport reunion.

Walter’s segment is shown first, followed by Sylvia’s and then Esther’s. Some scenes are repeated, but from the point of view of the person whose perspective is depicted. Other scenes are unique to a segment and help fill in some of the blanks. What the viewers get is a richly layered portrait about a family trying to live together again, but not being able to avoid the awkward realities and emotionally fraught impact of how this long separation has changed them individually.

Walter works as a taxi driver, and he lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He’s a mild-mannered man who’s happily made room for his wife and daughter, even though the living space will be cramped with three people living there. When Esther and Sylvia arrive at the apartment for the first time, Walter has thoughtfully prepared dinner for them. Esther is impressed and asks Walter who taught him to cook. Walter makes a vague reply that people can learn to cook with the will to learn and the right resources.

Walter has a secret that he doesn’t tell his wife and daughter when they settle into the apartment: He had a live-in girlfriend named Linda (played by Nana Mensah), a hospital nurse who moved out and broke up with Walter when she found out that Esther and Sylvia were coming back into Walter’s life. It’s later revealed that Linda knew all along about Esther and Sylvia. But because it took so long for their immigration to be approved, Walter moved on with his life, he met Linda, they fell in love, and started a life together.

Linda was living in the apartment long enough to have her mail delivered there. And when Esther sees an envelope of mail with Linda’s name on it, she asks Walter about it. He quickly makes an excuse that it’s mail that’s been delivered to the wrong address. Meanwhile, Walter notices during that first reunion meal with Esther and Sylvia that a strong-willed and outspoken Esther insists on giving a fervent prayer before eating.

Walter asks Esther when she became so religious, and she replies that it was after she and Sylvia moved to Tanzinia and they received refugee help from church members there. Esther isn’t just religious. She’s fanatically religious, to the point where she thinks dancing is sinful and she is against the idea of Sylvia dating, even though Sylvia is old enough to date.

And that’s a problem for Sylvia, who loves to dance. Sylvia can be quiet and introverted, but dancing is her creative outlet where she lets her personality shine the most. At her school in New York City, Sylvia is treated like an immigrant misfit, but she catches the eye of an attractive fellow student named Devin “DJ” Jamison (played by Marcus Scribner), who strikes up a conversation with a shy Sylvia when they’re waiting together at the same bus stop. DJ notices Sylvia practicing some dance moves, and he tells her about a local hip-hop dance contest where the grand prize is $1,000.

Sylvia eagerly enters the contest, even though she knows that her mother will greatly disapprove. By contrast, Walter has no problem with Sylvia being interested in dancing because he likes dancing too. Walter encourages Sylvia to pursue her dance dreams and doesn’t try to stop her when she tells him about the dance contest. Walter is so supportive of Sylvia that he wants to watch Sylvia and cheer her on when she’s in the contest. Sylvia and DJ gradually spend more time together, and their mutual attraction to each other grows.

Esther is very religious, but she’s not a complete prude, since she’s eager to resume her sex life with Walter, and she wants it to be passionate. She tells him during their first night together after being reunited that she hasn’t been with any other man since their separation. Walter doesn’t reply with a similar comment about remaining faithful. The expression on Esther’s face shows that she’s noticed this omitted statement of fidelity from Walter, but she wants to put any thoughts out of her mind that Walter might have been unfaithful, because she wants to get back to being a “normal” husband and wife.

However, their sexual intimacy is awkward, and Walter seems preoccupied with other thoughts. Esther can’t help but notice, and her suspicions deepen about Walter having another woman in his life. Walter sees Linda a few more times during the story, in situations that won’t be described in this review. But it’s enough to say that Sylvia has a chance encounter with Linda, and something happens that makes Sylvia also suspect that Linda was her father’s mistress.

The movie also shows that the breakup with Linda has deeply affected Walter. At a time when he should be happy to be reunited with his family, he’s secretly pining over Linda. He makes an attempt to see if he can still continue his relationship with Linda on the side. There’s a pivotal scene where Linda tells him what her decision is.

Walter is not religious and he’s uncomfortable with how religion has seemed to take over Esther’s life. Esther is so devoted to her church back in Tanzania that she still wants to tithe and send the money back to the church. And that’s a problem, because in New York, Esther hasn’t found a job yet and the family is on a very tight budget. Guess whose money Esther thinks should be tithed now that she and Walter back together?

Meanwhile, Esther meets a friendly neighbor named Nzingha (played by Joie Lee), who lives on the same floor. Nzingha invites Esther to go grocery shopping with her. They begin talking about the neighborhood, and Nzingha seems open to showing Esther around and helping her adjust to life in America. However, when Esther asks Nzingha if she knows if a woman named Linda used to live in the apartment where Walter and the family now live, Nzingha casually avoids answering the question.

Although “Farewell Amor” could have turned into a soap opera, the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being an overly melodramatic film. The movie is at its strongest in authentically showing little things that depict the gradual and sometimes painful realization that this family reunion in America isn’t quite the harmonious fantasy that all three of these family members thought it would be. As disappointment sets in, viewers can see the emotional toll it takes on each family member.

There’s a scene of Sylvia texting with her best friend Neema in Africa, and Neema thinks that Sylvia is living a glamorous life in New York. In reality, Sylvia’s life is anything but glamorous but she’s too embarrassed to admit it. And that’s probably because Sylvia had those same illusions of having an exciting life in America before she moved to America and found out it isn’t always what’s depicted on TV and in movies.

Meanwhile, it’s revealed at one point in the story that Walter and Esther met in college, where he was studying journalism and she was studying social sciences. But in America, Walter is a taxi driver and Esther is unemployed. It’s a depiction of the harsh reality that many immigrants experience in America, where they can’t benefit from the education that they earned in their native countries, usually because of language barriers and/or immigrant discrimination. Walter, Esther and Sylvia all speak very good English, but it’s implied that they’ll have uphill battles in the workforce from employers who might consider an education in Africa as “inferior.”

And even though the family is back together and living in the same household, each perspective of Walter, Sylvia and Esther shows that they are isolated in their own ways from each other. Walter had a secret life that he’s terrified of his wife and daughter discovering. Sylvia, who wants more independence as a teenager, is torn between the strict parent (Esther) who raised her and the more lenient parent Walter) whom she doesn’t really know. Esther’s religious fanaticism has caused a certain level of alienation from her husband and child.

“Farewell Amor” is an impressive feature-film debut from Masangi, who weaves the perspectives of these three different family members together in a very cohesive and compelling way. The movie resolves certain issues a little too quickly, but there’s enough emotional authenticity portrayed by the three main actors to carry the film. The family members in this story are African, but their immigrant experience of fleeing a war-torn country and trying to build a life together after years apart can speak to an untold number of people who’ve been through the same difficulties or feel empathy for those who have.

IFC Films released “Farewell Amor” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020.