Culture Representation: Taking place in Austria, Hungary, England and Germany, in 1877 and 1878, the dramatic film “Corsage” (based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria) features an all-white group of people representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.
Culture Clash: As she nears her 40th birthday, Empress Elisabeth feels neglected by a philandering husband and tries to rebel against a repressive environment that dictates her physical appearance, what she wears, and how she raises her children.
Culture Audience: “Corsage” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of history-based biopics but viewers should be prepared to see a story that is more downbeat than uplifting.
“Corsage” is gorgeously filmed and woefully depressing with glimmers of playful sarcasm about royal culture. Vicky Krieps gives a memorable performance as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, but this drama won’t appeal to anyone looking for a fun-filled story. “Corsage” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where Krieps won a Best Performance award in the festival’s Un Certain Regard competition. “Corsage” also screened at other film festivals in 2022, including the New York Film Festival.
Written and directed by Marie Kreutzer, “Corsage” takes place in 1877 and 1878, mostly in the Austrian city of Vienna and the Hungarian city of Budapest. Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sissi, was also queen of Hungary. The movie, which changes some real-life facts, gives an up-close and sometimes disturbing personal look at the life Elisabeth, who seems to be living a charmed life in the public eye. In private, things are quite different for the empress, who is fretting about soon turning 40, her physical appearance, and her crumbling marriage.
Elisabeth says in a voiceover: “From the age of 40, a person begins to disperse and fade.” (Keep in mind, this is during an era when the average life expectancy was much lower than it is today.) From the first 10 minutes of the movie, it’s made clear that Elisabeth is deeply troubled and has self-esteem issues.
One of the things that she does on a regular basis (as shown in an early scene in the movie) is hold her breath underwater in a bathtub for as long as possible. The first time the movie shows her engaging in this dangerous stunt, she’s held her breath underwater for 40 seconds. She’s clearly not doing this for daredevil fun. It’s an obvious cry for help, because her life is making her miserable.
Elisabeth’s husband Franz Joseph I of Austria (played by Florian Teichtmeister) is inattentive and cold toward her. He seems bored with their marriage. Franz Joseph (who wears a fake beard and a hairpiece) won’t even let Elisabeth eat dinner with him. And when Elisabeth tries to be sexually intimate with Franz Joseph, he’s not interested. Later, Elisabeth sees Franz Joseph being affectionate with another woman. It just confirms what she probably knew already: Franz Joseph has been unfaithful to her.
Elisabeth and Franz Joseph have a daughter together named Valerie (played by Rosa Hajjaj), who’s about 7 or 8 years old, and a son named Rudolph (played by Aaron Friesz), who is in his early 20s. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth had another daughter named Sophie, who died years ago and would have been 22 years old in 1847. As a couple, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph do not talk about Sophie, but it’s implied that Sophie’s death has taken a toll on their marriage. In real life, Sophie died in a fire in 1897, which was 20 years after the story in this movie takes place.
Elisabeth feels so neglected, when she’s in public, she pretends to faint, just so she can get the type of attention that a royal woman would get when she faints. She does this phony fainting after getting out of a carriage during a visit to King Ludwig II of Bavaria (played by Manuel Rubey). Later, she tells King Ludwig II in a private conversation that her fainting spell was all an act. And she shows him how she does it.
One of Elisabeth’s concerns is how she is covered by the tabloid media. There have been reports that she’s been trying to lose weight. These reports are true. “Corsage” has several scenes where Elisabeth’s weight and diet are obsessively monitored by Elisabeth and many of the people around her. Observant viewers will notice that not much has changed with today’s tabloid media outlets, which give obsessive coverage to the physical appearance (including any weight loss or weight gain) of young and famous royal women.
In her spare time, Elisabeth does fencing and horse-riding activities. The movie shows how Elisabeth impulsively orders Valerie to ride horses with her in the early-morning hours. As a result, Valerie gets sick. Franz Joseph blames Elisabeth for Valerie’s illness, and it causes further strain in their marriage. Franz Joseph wants to make Elisabeth feel like she’s an unfit mother.
Elisabeth’s closest confidante is Ida Ferenczy (played by Jeanne Werner), a Hungarian lady-in-waiting for Elisabeth. Elisabeth is also close with another lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics (played by Katharina Lorenz), who keeps meticulous diaries of what her royal employer does. Also in Elisabeth’s inner circle is her hair stylist Fanny Feifalik (played by Alma Hasun), who is in for a shock after Elisabeth cuts off her own long hair during an emotional fit. It says a lot about Elisabeth and that her closest friends were also her servants.
Elisabeth also has some male friends, one of whom becomes her love interest. She and a younger man named Bay Middleton (played by Colin Morgan) have a mutual attraction. Elisabeth’s son Rudolph expresses concern to her that people are gossiping about how much time she spends alone with Bay. Elisabeth also strikes up a friendship with French cinematographer Louis Le Prince (played by Finnegan Oldfield), who makes short films with her. (In real life, Le Prince is considered the “godfather” of cinematography.)
“Corsage” has a very revisionist take on the real Elisabeth’s life, including how she died. The movie portrays her as possibly manic depressive but with a mischievous streak. She likes to flip her middle finger or stick her tongue out at people when she’s displeased about something. And in an era where it was considered not very ladylike to smoke cigarettes, Elisabeth was a chronic smoker.
Under the astute direction of Kreutzer, “Corsage” delivers everything that viewers might expect of a drama about European royalty: sumptuous costumes, luxurious production design, and elite characters talking as if they’re always breathing rarefied air. However, this admittedly stuffy movie can just as easily be a turnoff to viewers who won’t feel any emotional connection to these characters at all. Krieps gives a compelling performance, but Elisabeth’s self-destructive tendencies becomes a bit draining to watch.
One of the movie’s highlights is the musical score by Camille. It’s haunting and enchanting in all the right ways. “Corsage” is a cautionary tale told in an “all that glitters is not gold” manner. It’s a story that is about a specific royal woman, but it can apply to anyone who is living a restrictive and unhappy existence, even if that life might look privileged and wonderful on the outside.
IFC Films released “Corsage” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on February 7, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Portland, Oregon, the comedy/drama film “Showing Up” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An introverted sculptor artist, who works for an arts college, must contend with a variety of challenges, including a difficult landlord, getting her art ready in time for an upcoming exhibit, her divorced parents and a troubled brother with mental health issues.
Culture Audience: “Showing Up” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Michelle Williams, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and realistic movies about neurotic people in quirky communities.
“Showing Up” is right in line with writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s pattern of doing low-key movies about people who are emotionally stifled in some way. The last third movie is not as good as the rest of the film, but it’s still a watchable story. Viewers who are expecting “Showing Up” to have a lot of melodrama, suspenseful action or shocking surprises will be disappointed. In keeping with Reichardt’s filmmaking style, “Showing Up” is a movie about people going about their everyday lives and facing challenges that aren’t that unusual. “Showing Up” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and also screened the 2022 New York Film Festival.
Reichardt co-wrote “Showing Up” with Jonathan Raymond after they originally wanted to do a biopic about Canadian artist Emily Carr (who died in 1945, at the age of 73), but Reichardt and Raymond abandoned the idea when they found out how famous Carr is in Canada. Instead, they made “Showing Up” a fictional film about a sculptor artist named Lizzy Carr (played by Michelle Williams), who is not famous and is living a quiet and unassuming life in Portland, Oregon.
Lizzy is a sculptor artist whose day job is working in administration at a small arts college. (The college scenes in “Showing Up” were filmed at now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft, which closed in 2019.) Lizzy is introverted and lives by herself. When she’s at home, she prefers to work on her art and doesn’t like being interrupted. Lizzy doesn’t get her art in gallery exhibits very often. And so, the upcoming gallery exhibit that she has is a very big deal for her.
Most of Lizzy’s sculptor pieces are the size of figurines and are often of people sculpted in ragged shapes. Lizzy wants to finish all of her art on time for this exhibit, but several things happen during the course of the story that prevent her for working on her art in the uninterrupted way that she would prefer. “Showing Up” is mostly about how she deals with these challenges, as well as what she learns about herself and her priorities.
In the beginning of the movie, Lizzy is dealing with one of those challenges: her landlord Jo (played by Hong Chau), who is also an artist. Jo has an annoying habit of ignoring or delaying Lizzy’s request to repair things in Lizzy’s rental home. (Jo lives nearby.) One of the movie’s early scenes shows Lizzy becoming irritated with Jo because Lizzy has no hot water for her shower, and Jo has once again been ignoring Lizzy’s requests to fix the shower.
Jo tells Lizzy that Lizzy can use Jo’s shower in the meantime. But that’s not the point. Lizzy is paying Jo rent to have working utilities in the home. Jo isn’t keeping her end of the deal as a landlord. Lizzy comments to Jo, “You’re not the only person with a deadline.” Jo’s replies, “I know, but I have two showers, which is in insane.”
Lizzy’s art in the movie was made in real life by Cynthia Lahti. Jo’s installation-sized art in the movie was made in real life by Michelle Segre. The sizes of art pieces are meant to reflect the different personalities of Lizzy and Jo. Lizzy is quiet and unassuming. Jo is extroverted and likes to call attention to herself.
Lizzy has some other issues in her life. Her mother Jean (played by Maryann Plunkett) is also her boss at work. Jean and Lizzy sometimes have disagreements that on the surface seem to be about work, but they’re really about unspoken resentments that Lizzy and Jean have toward each other. Jean thinks Lizzy is stubborn, while Lizzy thinks Jean is too demanding. Their conflicts aren’t major, but they’re enough to make the relationship slightly strained.
A lot of this mother-daughter friction has to do with how Lizzy has been affected by her parents’ divorce. Jean uses Lizzy as a go-between to communicate with Lizzy’s free-spirited father Bill (played by Judd Hirsch), who is very different from uptight and rigid Jean. Bill has let a random bohemian couple named Dorothy (played by Amanda Plummer) and Lee (played by Matt Malloy) live with Bill in his home, shortly after he met them. Dorothy and Lee, who are from Canada, say they’re just “visiting,” but they haven’t told Bill when they’ll be leaving.
Jean thinks that Bill is being taken advantage of by this couple, because she’s pretty sure these new housemates are not giving Bill any compensation for his hospitality. Because Jean is Bill’s ex-wife and no longer lives with him, she doesn’t have a say on how he lives his life. However, Jean is pressuring Lizzy to talk to Bill about his living arrangement with these two new housemates. Lizzy doesn’t really want to get involved, so she resents that her mother is trying to use her as a pawn.
Meanwhile, Lizzy has a younger brother named Sean (played by John Magaro), who’s been struggling with mental health issues, which have led to him being homeless at various times in his life. Jean is in deep denial about Sean’s mental health issues. Jean thinks Sean is a “genius” who doesn’t need psychiatric help, while Lizzy has a completely opposite opinion.
When Sean has a big scene in a certain part of the movie, “Showing Up” falters because it just looks like awkward slapstick comedy. “Showing Up” loses a lot of emotional resonance in this scene where the movie could have been had its strongest and most meaningful impact. And frankly, it seems like this mentally ill character is just used in the most negative, stereotypical ways, instead of treating this character as a well-rounded person.
Another wasted opportunity was in casting André Benjamin as Eric, Lizzy’s friendly co-worker who is a kiln master at the college. Benjamin shares headlining billing for this movie, but you wouldn’t know it, based it on how little screen time he has (less than 10 minutes) and how Eric ends up being a character who is completely inconsequential to any storyline in the movie. Quite frankly, Eric looks like a token character in “Showing Up,” as if the filmmakers wanted to show the audience: “Look, we gave an African American a speaking role the movie to make our cast look racially diverse.”
“Showing Up” also has a few subplots that might induce boredom with some viewers. Lizzy takes care of a wounded bird with a broken wing, after Jo finds the bird and hands off the responsibility of taking care of it to Lizzy. At least the wounded bird subplot (which is obvious symbolism for how Lizzy feels) actually has a purpose for the story—unlike a meandering and flimsy subplot about Lizzy and her co-workers having to accommodate an artist in residence named Marlene Heyman (played by Heather Lawless), who is diva-like and has many star-struck fans at the school.
“Showing Up” greatly benefits from having talented cast members (especially Williams and Chau), who make the movie’s characters believable when less-skilled cast members wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing. There have been many movies made about mopey male artists who’ve dedicated themselves so completely to their art, it’s affected their personal lives. Not many movies are made about this type of female artist, so viewers might have varying reactions to Lizzy’s less-than-charismatic personality. “Showing Up” is a well-acted story about the reality of most artists’ lives: far from glamorous, struggling in obscurity, and trying to be their definition of personal greatness.
A24 released “Showing Up” in select U.S. cinemas on April 7, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016, in Paris and Saint-Omer, France, the dramatic film “Saint Omer” (based partially on a true story) features a cast of white and black people representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A writer/teacher becomes obsessed with attending the trial of a Senegalese immigrant woman accused of murdering her own toddler daughter.
Culture Audience: “Saint Omer” will appeal primarily to fans of courtroom dramas that reflect larger issues in society.
“Saint Omer” skillfully draws parallels between the gripping drama of a courtroom trial and how mothers are judged by society, when it comes to race, class and privilege. The movie is partially inspired by director Alice Diop’s real-life experiences of becoming obsessed with the case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant woman accused in 2013 of killing her own baby girl by abandoning the infant on a beach at the rising tide in Berck-sur-Mer, France. Diop traveled from Paris to attend Kabou’s trial, which was held in Saint-Omer, France. Saint-Omer is located about 131 miles (211 kilometers), or a four-hour train ride, from Paris. It’s the same plot presented in “Saint Omer,” which was co-written by Diop, Marie N’Diaye and Amrita David.
“Saint Omer” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize. The movie then made the rounds at several other high-profile film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest. “Saint Omer” has been selected as France’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film for the 2023 Academy Awards. “Saint Omer” is also Diop’s first narrative feature film. She previously directed the 2022 documentary “La Permanence” and the 2016 documentary “We.”
“Saint Omer” opens in 2016, with the introduction of a Paris-based writer/teacher named Rama (played by Kayije Kagame), who teaches a film class and is also working on a novel. Rama and her supportive husband Adrien (played by Thomas de Pourquery) are happily married. She is also close to her two sisters Khady (played by Mariam Diop) and Tening (plauyed by Dado Diop) and their mother Seynabou (played by Adama Diallo Tamba), who are all of Senegalese heritage. The only hint of sadness in the family is when the family members look at old home videos and talk about Seynabou’s late father, who unexpectedly passed away of an unnamed illness. It’s mentioned when they watch these videos that he doesn’t look sick in the videos.
Rama’s world is about to be rocked to the core when she becomes caught up in getting the latest news about a 36-year-old Senegalese woman named Laurence Coly (played by Guslagie Malanda), who is accused of murdering her own 15-month-old daughter Adélaïde in 2015, by abandoning the child on a beach during a high tide. Laurence was raising Adélaïde as a single mother. The prosecution says the motive for this murder was that Ph.D. student Laurence didn’t want the burden of raising a child while working on her thesis.
Rama is struck by how much she and Laurence have in common, in terms of being Senegalese French women of the same age and educated with graduate degrees. Rama is also pregnant, but doesn’t reveal that information right away. And just like Laurence’s child, Rama’s child will be biracial, by having have a black mother and a white father.
Rama is compelled to attend the trial every day, so she travels to Saint-Omer by train, and she stays at a hotel for however long the trial will take place. She tells Adrien and her family that maybe the trial could be an inspiration for her next novel. However, it soon becomes obvious that Rama is going to the trial for more than just informational purposes or research. She’s going to see what kind of person Laurence is and how she will be treated by the criminal justice system in this trial. So much of Laurence’s case is subtly and not-so-subtly focused on how Laurence’s race and immigrant status might have affected what she’s been accused of doing.
The majority of screen time in “Saint Omer” consists of the trial proceedings, especially the riveting testimony of Laurence, who essentially tells her life story under questioning. It’s a story of a woman whose life is a mess of contradictions: She sought to gain social-status privilege but was also repelled by social-status privilege. She hates her dysfunctional relationship with her unavailable father, but she also got involved in a dysfunctional relationship with an unavailable older married man, who was the father of Adélaïde. She’s educated about the psychology of people but also ignorant about how she should treat her own mental-health issue of depression.
Laurence’s father Robert is a United Nations translator, who was in a relationship with Laurence’s mother for seven years, but they never married, and he ended the relationship to be with another woman. Robert financially supported Laurence up until a certain point, but he was never emotionally available to her, according to what Laurence says in her trial testimony. Laurence says that her single mother put a lot of pressure on her to succeed. In 1998, at the age of 18, Laurence moved from Senegal to France, because she wanted to get away from her parents.
Laurence’s ex-lover/Adélaïde father Luc Dumontet (played by Xavier Maly) and his wife Cécile Jobard (played by Charlotte Clamens) also testify in the trial. But it is Laurence’s testimony that captivates the courtroom spectators (and the viewers of “Saint Omer”) the most. Rama feels such a strong connection to Laurence, when Rama happens to see Laurence’s mother Odile Diatta (played by Salimata Kamate) randomly outside the courtroom, Rama impulsively strikes up a conversation with Odile and tries to get to know her better.
Malanda’s transfixing performance as Laurence is really the centerpiece of “Saint Omer,” because Rama’s story takes a backseat when the movie focuses on Laurence’s testimony. However, viewers get to see how this trial is affecting Rama when she goes back to her hotel room and has conversations with Adrien about it. Keeping her pregnancy a secret starts to take its toll. Rama eventually reveals in a powerful scene why she kept her pregnancy a secret. Kagame’s performance as Rama is very good, but Rama is not as complex as Laurence.
The underlying tone of “Saint Omer” asks viewers to pay attention to the clues of how people in the movie react to Laurence as a defendant in this case. There’s a stereotype that women who are accused of murdering their children usually have a financial motive, either because they can’t afford childcare or want to get insurance money. Laurence doesn’t fit that stereotype, so it adds fuel to the public’s fascination with her.
Laurence also doesn’t fit the stereotype of an underprivileged, undereducated “angry” black woman who gets accused of a violent crime. There are racial implications in how people react to Laurence’s demure image, eloquence in speaking and calm demeanor when she’s on the witness stand. Does it unnerve people that Laurence comes across as mournful and defeated instead of angry and defiant? And what does that say about how people think black women “should” act in the situation that Laurence is in during this trial?
By extension, Rama feels some of this racial judgment in Saint-Omer, a city that has a large population of working-class white people. How do many of these people feel when they encounter or see well-educated immigrants who are of a different race? The voir dire process shown in “Saint Omer” gives an insightful look into people’s attitudes among the pool of potential jurors before they even hear a word of testimony from Laurence.
The trial in “Saint Omer” is a symbol for larger issues of how the criminal justice system treats people of different races who are accused of the same crimes. Who deserves mercy and redemption? There are no easy answers, but there are patterns to how a defendant’s fate in the criminal justice system is largely determined by the defendant’s race and socioeconomic status. “Saint Omer” is also a thoughtful warning of what can happen when mental health problems go untreated, which is an issue that transcends all cultural boundaries.
Super LTD released “Saint Omer” in select U.S. cinemas for a one-week limited engagement on December 9, 2022. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas on January 13, 2023. “Saint Omer” was released in France on November 23, 2022.
Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” a predominantly African American group of people (with a few white people), who are all connected to the movie industry in some way, discuss the impact of African American-oriented movies that were made from 1968 to 1978.
Culture Clash: Black filmmakers and cast members had uphill battles dealing with racism and socioeconomic inequalities when making movies centered on African Americans.
Culture Audience: “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in cinema history from 1968 to 1978, as well as how sociopolitical issues affected African American movies that were made during this time period.
The title of the documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is inspired by this catchphrase being said in director Ossie Davis’ 1970 action comedy film “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” It’s a phrase that can apply to the debates and dilemmas about African American representation on screen and behind the scenes, in the art and business of filmmaking. Writer/director Elvis Mitchell gives elegant narration and an informative retrospective in this noteworthy cultural documentary, which puts a deserving spotlight on African American-oriented movies and filmmakers from 1968 to 1978.
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival) is the feature-film directorial debut of Mitchell, a longtime film critic and historian. As he explains in the documentary, he chose to focus on the years 1968 to 1978 not just because movies from that 10-year time period had a massive impact on him in his youth but also because its the first major renaissance period when movies centered on or starring African-Americans became mainstream hits in the United States and other parts of the world. Through interviews, archival footage and Mitchell’s superb analysis, “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” takes viewers on a journey that is unique, informational and worth watching by anyone who loves movie history.
Mitchell begins the movie on a personal note, by describing how he developed his passion for on-screen entertainment. He says that he and his family would regularly go to the movies when he was growing up. His grandmother, who was originally from Mississippi, was particularly influential on him. She would describe movies as resembling dreams.
From an early age, Mitchell says he was keenly aware of whether or not he was seeing African Americans like himself on screen. He tells an anecdote about how his grandmother wouldn’t let him and other young people in their family watch “The Andy Griffith Show” comedy series, because there were no black people on the show. His grandmother would say about the black people who weren’t part of the American communities represented on screen: “What do you think happened to them?”
As people who are knowledgeable about U.S. history already know, what happened was that it was legal in the U.S. to segregate white people and people of color until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Since movies are often a reflection of what’s going on in society at the time, the origins of African American cinema’s first major renaissance can reasonably be traced back to the effects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It just so happens that 1968 was a flashpoint year for African American history that extended to filmmaking. It was the year that civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, but it was also a year that Sidney Poitier was one of the biggest movie stars in the world and the first black actor to have this type of movie star status. Poitier helped pave the way not just to have international hit movies with a black person as the star but also to create more opportunities for filmmakers who wanted to make movies with a black-majority cast. It was the first time in movie history that movies with black-majority casts would become big hits and/or have an important influence on mainstream culture.
In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the Black Power Movement thrived and challenged white supremacist racism permeating through all aspects of society. Mitchell comments in the documentary: “Revolt broke out in the movies too.” It wasn’t enough just for African Americans to be on screen, usually in roles showing subservience to white people. There was a movement to have more movies showing the varieties of African American people and communities that exist, including roles where African Americans could be in charge.
Actor/activist Harry Belafonte, a longtime friend of Poitier (who passed away in 2022), says in the documentary that Poitier made a name for himself in the movies by being the only black man among an overwhelming majority of white people. Although Poitier usually played upstanding, professional men, Poitier’s earliest movies were often about him having to assimilate into a white-majority community or society. The tone, whether overt or subtle, was that the characters that Poitier played in these movies had to make white people feel comfortable around him, rather than the character just being allowed to be himself without having to “accommodate” anyone.
Breaking racial barriers can be an achievement that’s diminished if the person breaking the barrier is treated or perceived as a token. Mitchell comments on the type of success that Poitier had with in the first few decades of Poitier’s career: “Unfortunately, he’s the entertainment industry’s reaction to people of color. Black success in the entertainment industry is like finding a $100 bill on the subway: an unrepeatable phenomenon.”
Belafonte says in the documentary that one of the reasons why he stopped making movies from 1959 to 1970 was that these types of Afro-centric movies just weren’t being greenlit by major movie studios at the rate that Belafonte thinks they should have been. And he didn’t want to take the same old racially demeaning roles that were often offered to African American actors at the time. Belafonte comments on how he dealt with racist attitudes in the entertainment industry, “I’m not going to do anything that I didn’t think was worthy of being done. I have a destination that answers your denial of what I could be.”
Fortunately, many African American filmmakers didn’t want to wait around for major studios to offer them opportunities. “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” gives an excellent overview of the African American independent filmmaking community that grew from the late 1960s onward. Many of these filmmakers hired large numbers of black people in front of and behind the camera.
Among the African American filmmakers who get props in the documentary for being directors who hired a lot of black people from 1969 to 1978 are Charles Burnett (one of the people interviewed in the film), William Greaves, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan (also interviewed in the documentary), Max Julian, Davis and Poitier. Julian is mentioned as one of the few African American filmmakers at the time who owned his movies. The documentary also gives credit to pre-1960s filmmakers who paved with way with African American-majority casts, including Oscar Micheaux and Alice Guy-Blaché.
Poitier made his feature-film directorial debut with the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. In the documentary, Belafonte says he believes that the movie was not a commercial success because mainstream movie audiences at the time just weren’t ready to see a movie centered on black cowboys. To be fair, Belafonte notes that black audiences didn’t really show up for the movie either. He comments that the movie’s adversaries were “black perception of itself and black perception as the world sees us.”
The documentary mentions the 1968 Western “Once Upon a Time in the West” (directed by Sergio Leone) as one of the few mainstream films of this era that actually had a black person in a significant speaking role: the character of Stony, played by Woody Strode. Although some might think of Stony as a black token, this representation mattered to a lot of people. As an example, it’s mentioned in the documentary that Isaac Hayes (who won an Oscar for composing the music to 1971’s “Shaft”) was influenced by Stony when writing film music.
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” cites director George Romero’s 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” as the first hit movie to have a black man (Duane Jones, in the character of Ben) starring in an action hero role. Mitchell says in the narration that what was also groundbreaking about the film was that Ben’s race wasn’t the focal point of “The Night of the Living Dead,” because the movie was about people surviving a zombie invasion. Mitchell notes that “Night of the Living Dead” was embraced by a lot of African American militants at the time because of the parallels between what happened in the movie and what was going on with all the civil unrest in America.
Numerous other seminal feature films starring African Americans are mentioned in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” including 1969’s “Putney Swope” (directed by Robert Downey Sr.); 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (directed by Melvin Van Peebles); 1972’s “Super Fly”; 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues” (directed by Sidney J. Furie); 1972’s “Sounder” (directed by Marvin Ritt); and 1974’s “Claudine” (directed by Jack Starrett). Impactful documentaries during this era included the 1970 Muhammad Ali biography “A.K.A. Cassius Clay” (directed by Jimmy Jacobs) and the 1973 concert film “Save the Children” (directed by Lathan).
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” also celebrates some of the breakthrough African Americans who were Oscar nominees from 1968 to 1978, including Rupert Crosse (Best Supporting Actor nominee for 1969’s “The Reivers”), James Earl Jones (Best Actor nominee for 1970’s “The Great White Hope”), Diana Ross (Best Actress nominee for “Lady Sings the Blues”), Cicely Tyson (Best Actress nominee for “Sounder”), Paul Winfield (Best Actor nominee for “Sounder”) and Diahann Carroll (Best Actress nominee for “Claudine”). One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Suzanne de Passe, who became the first black woman to get a screenplay Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay), for co-writing “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Other people interviewed in the film include entertainers Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Glynn Turman, Zendaya, Billy Dee Williams, Sheila Frazier, Mario Van Peebles (son of Melvin Van Peebles), Margaret Avery, Roscoe Orman and Antonio Fargas. Louise Archambault Greaves (William Greaves’ widow) and “Super Fly” cinematographer James Signorelli also weigh in with their thoughts. Williams comments on his sex-symbol status that he had, beginning in the 1970s: “It was very funny to me. It was something that had never happened to me before.”
Frazier tells a memorable story about how she was initially rejected for the leading actress role in “Super Fly.” She was so hurt by this rejection that she changed her phone number, only to find out a few months later by randomly meeting one of the filmmakers that they had been trying to contact her during those months because they changed their mind. Fishburne talks about how he was originally cast in “Claudine,” but when Diane Sands (who originally was cast in the title role) died in 1973 of leiomyosarcoma (a rare form of muscle cancer), the filmmakers decided to make major recastings for the film.
Mario Van Peebles tells some great behind-the-scenes stories about his father Melvin, who pioneered the marketing tactic of releasing a movie’s soundtrack before the movie. (“Super Fly” used the same tactic to great success.) Mario Van Peebles says that his father used to have a secretary named Priscilla, who wanted to be an actress in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” but her boyfriend at the time (a member of Earth, Wind & Fire who is not named in the documentary) wouldn’t let her. However, as a compromise, Melvin convinced Earth, Wind & Fire to write the soundtrack music for the movie.
Mario Van Peebles also tells a story about how his father came up with a clever idea to convince nervous white studio executives to distribute the potentially controversial 1970 comedy film “Watermelon Man.” The movie was about a racist white man (played by African American actor Godfrey Cambridge), who woke up one morning to find out that he had turned into a black man. Mario says that before the meeting with the studio executives, his father payed an African American sanitation worker in the building to be in the screening room and laugh at the jokes in the movie while the executives watched “Watermelon Man.” This “one-man focus group” tactic worked, says Mario Van Peebles, who describes this tactic as being “like racial jiu jitsu.”
The “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s (include those made by actor/producer Rudy Ray Moore) have their share of fans and critics. As mentioned in the documentary, the upside to the “blaxploitation” genre of this era is that they were the first major hit films to have African American women as the central action stars, not just as sidekicks or supporting players. Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson are credited with being pioneers for African American female action stars, with Grier’s 1973 film “Coffy” and Dobson’s 1973 film “Cleopatra Jones” mentioned as their most influential movies. The documentary also mentions some of the low points in blaxploitation films, including “Mandingo” and “Coonskin,” both released in 1975.
This era of African American-oriented filmmaking also gave rise to a new wave of African American movie stars who came from backgrounds other than acting. Ross was famous for being in the Supremes and had a successful solo singing career when she landed her first movie star role in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Richard Pryor was a well-known stand-up comedian before he had his movie breakthrough in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Jim Brown was a football star before he launched his movie career, which included action films such as 1968’s “Kenner” and 1972’s “Black Gunn.”
One of the best things about “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (which has great editing by Michael Engelken and Doyle Esch) is that this documentary doesn’t just spotlight mainstream hits but it also gives screen time to underrated movie gems that prominently feature African Americans. Greaves’ 1968 “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” is mentioned as an important experimental film from an African American filmmaker. The 1972 drama “Black Girl” (directed by Davis) is described as an often-overlooked African American movie that’s worth watching.
The 1976 musical drama “Sparkle” (directed by Sam O’Steen) is cited as an influential precursor to the “Dreamgirls” stage musical and movie. The 1975 urban drama “Cornbread, Earl and Me” (directed by Joseph Manduke) was influential to 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood,” says “Boyz N the Hood” co-star Fishburne. And before black superheroes got their own movies with 1997’s “Spawn,” 1998’s “Blade” or 2018’s “Black Panther,” there was 1977’s “Abar, the First Black Superman,” directed by Frank Packard.
The commercial disappointment of the 1978 movie musical “The Wiz” is mentioned as the end of an era, because movie executives began to think that African American-oriented movies were starting to become less popular with the moviegoing public. It then became harder for African American-oriented movies to get financing until a new renaissance emerged in the 1990s, with hit films such as “Boyz N the Hood,” “House Party,” “Menace II Society,” “Friday,” “Set It Off,” “The Best Man” and “Soul Food.” If Mitchell or any other filmmakers want to do a documentary about the 1990s renaissance of African American movies, there would be plenty of people who would be interested.
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is more than a love letter to the movies of 1968 to 1978 that celebrated African Americans. It’s also a full immersion into a fascinating culture with a narrative that is very thoughtful and almost poetic. (For example, Mitchell has this to say about some of the music of the movies featured in the documentary: “The scores weren’t just textures, but detonation of thought and sound.”) It’s a documentary that gives people a better appreciation for these movies, as well as inspiration and anticipation for any more creativity to come in African American-oriented filmmaking.
Netflix released “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 11, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Seoul, South Korea, from 2014 to 2022, the dramatic film “Return to Seoul” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A 25-year-old woman, who was born in South Korea and was adopted by a white, middle-class French family when she was a baby, impulsively goes to Seoul to find her biological parents and goes on an unexpected life journey in Seoul for the next eight years.
Culture Audience: “Return to Seoul” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional movies about adoptees looking for their biological parents.
“Return to Seoul” is as wandering and unpredictable as the protagonist’s emotional journey in her search for biological parents. The movie’s ending could have been better, but there is realistic ambivalence in how her search will affect her identity. “Return to Seoul” goes off on an unexpected tangent that might be a turnoff to some viewers, because this plot development doesn’t fit the usual narrative of scripted movies about adoptees looking for biological relatives. However, it’s an interesting and original choice that’s actually consistent with the the protagonist’s unpredictable and rebellious personality.
Written and directed by Cambodian French filmmaker Davy Chou, “Return to Seoul” draws on Chou’s own experiences of having a dual-nationality heritage. The movie’s lead character is named Frédérique Benoît (played by Park Ji-min), but she prefers to be called by her nickname Freddie. She was born in South Korea and adopted as a baby by a white, middle-class French family, who gave her a very good life. “Return to Seoul” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “Return to Seoul” is Cambodia’s official entry for consideration in the Best International Feature Film category for the 2023 Academy Awards.
“Return to Seoul” begins in 2014, when 25-year-old Freddie checks into the hotel where she will be staying in Seoul during her search for her biological parents. She makes fast friends with Tena (played by Guka Han), who is the hotel’s front desk clerk, and Tena’s close pal Dongwan (played by Son Seung-beom), who speaks French and can often act as a translator, since Freddie doesn’t really know how to communicate in Korean. Freddie tells Tena and Dongwan why she is in Seoul. Dongwan immediately recommends that Freddie go to the Hammond Adoption Center, where many South Korean babies and other children were adopted out to parents outside of Asia.
When Freddie checks into the hotel, she says she only plans to stay for three nights. “Return to Seoul” shows that she ends up staying in Seoul for the next eight years. As already shown in the movie’s trailer, Freddie meets her biological father (played by Oh Kwang-rok, in a very good performance), who does not have a first name in the movie. Freddie also finds out her birth name (Do Yeon-hee) and why she was given up for adoption.
Freddie’s biological mother remains elusive for much of the story though, despite efforts to contact her. It’s obvious that Freddie wants to meet her biological mother more than she wants to meet her father. Freddie’s biological father is remorseful and desperate to make up for lost time with Freddie. He lives with his wife (played by Cha Mi-kyung); their teenage daughters Aimee (Song Hae-in) and Cadette (played by ); and his mother (played by Hur Ouk-sook), who all welcome Freddie into their family with open arms.
What Freddie does not anticipate is for her biological father to become almost obsessed with her. He insists that she live with him and his family. And he expects Freddie to have a traditional South Korean life, where he says he can help her find a husband. It’s established early on that Freddie considers herself to be an independent French woman, so her reaction is what you will expect it to be.
And what does Freddie’s adoptive family in France think of her trip to Seoul? When she tells her adoptive mother by a video chat, Freddie mentions that the trip was not planned and that Freddie only went to Seoul because the two-week trip to Tokyo that Freddie had originally planned was cancelled because of a typhoon. Freddie’s mother is the only member of her adoptive family who is shown reacting to the news that Freddie is looking for her biological parents. Freddie’s adoptive mother (played by Régine Vial Goldberg) is accepting of the idea and doesn’t appear to be upset but is curious about how this search might affect Freddie.
There are other examples of how Freddie is the type of person who often acts spontaneously. Early on in the movie, while Freddie, Tena and Dongwan are drinking at a casual restaurant/bar, Freddie impulsively flirts with a table of bachelors. She then invites strangers who are men and women over to the same table to join in on the conversation, and almost everyone gets drunk. Freddie ends up spending the night with one of the bachelors, whose name is Jiwan (played by Kim Dong-seok), and he is almost immediately smitten with her.
“Return to Seoul” takes an unorthodox turn when the movie fast-forwards to 2016, on Freddie’s 27th birthday, where she is in Seoul on a dinner date with a middle-aged Frenchman named André (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who has four kids and is going through his third divorce. The last part of the movie takes place from 2021 to 2022, when Freddie gets involved in some shady dealings with a guy named Maxime (played by Yoann Zimmer), and Freddie’s biological father is still trying to develop a family relationship with her.
As the mercurial and sometimes flaky Freddie, Park makes an impressive feature-film debut in “Return to Seoul.” Freddie is complex in wanting to be strong and independent, but she has moments of vulnerability where she begins to question her identity and she fears if what she will find out about her biological family members will be qualities that she has inherited. And although Freddie never says it out loud, viewers can see that it shakes Freddie to her core to be reminded that she was once an unwanted child by biological parents she never know.
“Return to Seoul” is not a movie that will satisfy people who want a formulaic story with predictable outcomes. What makes the movie worth watching, even though the pacing of the movie sometimes drags, is showing how Freddie is subtly and not-so-subtly affected by the search for her biological parents. She gets more than she wanted and less than she expected in certain ways. What would make someone, who originally planned to stay in Seoul for three nights, end up staying for eight years? “Return to Seoul” is a compelling psychological portrait rather than a definitive statement about one woman’s quest for a deeper meaning to her identity.
Sony Pictures Classics released “Return to Seoul” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Wales, the dramatic film “The Eternal Daughter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person and one person of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A screenwriter, who has writer’s block, checks into an isolated hotel with her mother, where memories and family secrets affect their stay at the hotel.
Culture Audience: “The Eternal Daughter” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tilda Swinton, filmmaker Joanna Hogg and movies with plots that blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
Tilda Swinton is in yet another artsy film that has quirky and neurotic characters. “The Eternal Daughter” takes place at a mysterious hotel. You’re either going to be fully on board with this type of movie, or you’re not. “The Eternal Daughter” made the rounds at several film festivals in 2022, including the Venice International Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.
Written and directed by Joanna Hogg, “The Eternal Daughter” has a story enigma that’s very easy to solve. It’s the type of movie where viewers should be up for a ride where a lot of weird things happen. You can figure out early on what’s the root of the problem, and then just watch as Swinton delivers a compelling performance. Swinton has two roles in “The Eternal Daughter,” which is an automatic clue that can answer many questions put forth in the movie.
In “The Eternal Daughter” Swinton has the dual roles of screenwriter Julie Hart and Julie’s elderly mother Rosalind Hart. Julie is working on a movie about herself and her mother. They check into a stately old Moel Famau. hotel, which is a converted country mansion in Wales. (“The Eternal Daughter” was actually filmed at Souton Hall, a 15-bedroom Georgian estate, built in 1714, in Wales.) The purpose of this mother-daughter trip is so Julie and Rosalind can talk about Rosalind’s memories that Julie might use in her screenplay.
The atmosphere is ominous and tense from the moment that Julie and Rosalind arrive at the hotel on a very foggy night. Rosalind’s spaniel dog Louis is also with them. (The dog belongs to Swinton in real life.) The Julie character is supposed to be a version of “The Eternal Daughter” writer/director Hogg. Julie is the same character who was portrayed in her early 20s in Hogg’s 2019 film “The Souvenir” and 2021 film “The Souvenir Part II,” which both had Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in the starring role of young-adult Julie.
The hotel receptionist (played by Carly-Sophia Davies), who doesn’t have a name in “The Eternal Daughter,” tells Julie (who made the hotel reservation) that they have no record of her reservation, and the hotel is already booked up. Julie is understandably upset, and there’s some haggling back and forth before the receptionist finds a room for Julie and Rosalind. As far as Julie is concerned, this trip has gotten off to a very bad start.
The rest of “Eternal Daughter” involves a series of unnerving incidents and encounters that alarm and confuse Julie. At this very depressing hotel that doesn’t seem to know the meaning of well-lit rooms, Rosalind immediately notices she hasn’t seen any other hotel guests. Where are the other guests?
When Julie and Rosalind dine in the hotel’s small restaurant, the hotel receptionist is also their server at the restaurant. It’s another indication that this hotel isn’t as busy as the receptionist wants to say that it is. Why did the receptionist say that the hotel was booked up, when it obviously is not? The only other employee who’s seen at the hotel is a friendly groundskeeper/maintenance worker (played by Joseph Mydell), who also doesn’t have a name in the movie.
During the night, Julie’s sleep is interrupted by the sound of loud banging. When she tells the hotel receptionist about it, she’s assured that this matter will be resolved. But the banging continues. Is this a haunted hotel? If you’re thinking that “The Eternal Daughter” is Hogg’s version of “The Shining,” it’s not.
It’s enough to say that “The Eternal Daughter” is not a horror movie, so viewers should not watch “The Eternal Daughter” with expectations that it will be a scary film. “The Eternal Daughter” is a psychological drama that keeps viewers guessing about what might be real and what might be someone’s imagination. And whose reality is the truth?
“The Eternal Daughter” is sometimes bogged down by some very mundane conversations that Julie and Rosalind have about their family. These discussions are meant to make an increasingly agitated Julie feel a sense of normalcy in this hotel that she thinks is not normal at all. Julie is also feeling a lot of anxiety because she has writer’s block.
People who are looking for an elaborate mystery or non-stop suspense might be disappointed in “The Eternal Daughter.” The movie is really a showcase for how Swinton can convincingly play these two characters who have very different personalities. Julie is restless and on edge, while Rosalind is calmer and more passive. “The Eternal Daughter” is ultimately an intriguing statement on how family memories can shape people’s lives and how important it is to value the people who can share these memories.
A24 released “The Eternal Daughter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 2, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2010, in an unnamed part of the United States, the dramatic film “Women Talking” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: At a patriarchal religious colony, the colony’s women have conflicts in deciding what to do next when almost all of the men in the colony have temporarily left because they are dealing with legal problems related to several of the colony’s men being arrested for drugging and raping the colony’s women and girls.
Culture Audience: “Women Talking” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Miriam Toews book on which the movie is based; the stars of the movie; and well-acted dramas about female empowerment in oppressive and misgoynistic environments.
“Women Talking” is an accurate description for this tension-filled drama, because most of the movie centers on conversations rather than a lot of physical action. Sarah Polley directed and wrote the adapted screenplay of “Women Talking,” which is based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name. The movie comes across as a stage play in many areas, but it’s a worthy cinematic adaptation of the book, mostly because of the admirable performances from the talented cast members. The pacing is sluggish in some parts of the movie. However, viewer interest can be maintained if people are curious to see how the story is going to end.
The “Women Talking” movie, which is set in 2010 in an unnamed part of the U.S., makes some interesting and unexpected changes to the book, but largely remains faithful to the story’s plot. (The movie was actually filmed in Canada’s Ontario province.) “Women Talking” had its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. The movie than made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.
One of the main reasons why “Women Talking” looks so much like a stage play is that the movie is mostly confined to the rural and isolated property where this religious colony lives. Several of the movie’s best scenes take place in a hayloft, where crucial decisions (and several arguments) happen during a crisis that will affect the future of the colony. “Women Talking” is a fascinating psychological portrait of what oppression can do to people and how people can deal with trauma in different ways.
The movie begins with this statement: “What follows is an act of female imagination.” Even if viewers don’t know anything about the “Women Talking” book, the movie tells viewers in the first 10 minutes what the crisis is in this colony. Several men in the colony have been drugging and raping the colony’s women and girls. As a result, most of the men of the colony have been arrested, while the other men who have not been arrested have gone to the city to get the men bailed out and attend to other legal matters.
Before these rapes were discovered, the women and girls who were raped were told that by the men that their assault injuries were the work of ghosts or part of the rape victims’ imaginations. Much harder to explain were the underage pregnancies that resulted from these rapes with girls who were supposed to be virgins. Some of these rapes were also incestuous. Toews (who was raised as a Mennonite) has said in interviews that “Women Talking” was inspired by a real-life Mennonite colony in Bolivia, where several men were arrested in 2009 for drugging and raping the colony’s women and girls.
“Women Talking” never shows these rapes—only the aftermath. It’s a wise decision on the part of Polley and the other filmmakers, because what’s more important is for the movie to show how rape survivors can try to heal from the trauma instead of recreating the rapes in ways that could easily become exploitative. The movie never names the religion of this colony, but it’s implied that it’s an extremist Mennonite community, just like it is in the book.
In this community, the people are taught that the male gender is always superior to the female gender. The women of the colony are not allowed to get a formal education and don’t know how to read and write, whereas the men are allowed to be educated. The colony also preaches that anyone who disobeys what the men want will have eternal damnation in hell.
The women have an emergency meeting in a hayloft to vote on one of three options: (1) Stay and fight; (2) Leave; and (3) Do nothing. The first and second options get the most votes, but the votes are deadlocked in a tie. Most of “Women Talking” shows the women trying to break this stalemate by getting a majority vote for one of the options. Things are also complicated because some of the women have underage sons, so if the women choose to leave, they also have to decide if the boys will go with them.
There are three families involved in this grueling process:
Agata Friesen (played by Judith Ivey), a level-headed matriarch, is emotionally torn because her two daughters have very different opinions about what to do.
Ona (played by Rooney Mara), Agata’s bachelorette eldest daughter who is pregnant by rape, is open-minded, believes in female empowerment, and is inclined to make the decision to leave.
Salome (played by Claire Foy), Agata’s married younger daughter, also believes in female empowerment, but outspoken and feisty Salome wants to stay and fight, because she’s furious about her 4-year-old daughter Miep (played by Emily Mitchell) being raped.
Neitje (played Liv McNeil), Agata’s granddaughter, who is in her mid-teens, is being raised by Salome because Neitje’s mother Mina (the younger sister of Ona and Salome) committed suicide after Neitje was raped.
Greta Loewen (played by Sheila McCarthy) is a soft-spoken matriarch who is inclined to want to leave.
Mariche (played by Jessie Buckley), Greta’s elder married daughter who is sarcastic and cynical, wants to stay, but she is very skeptical that the women could win against the men in a fight.
Mejal (played by Michelle McLeod), Greta’s younger bachelorette daughter, is inclined to stay, and she’s considered the most rebellious and “unstable” of the group because she smokes cigarettes and sometimes has panic attacks.
Autje (played by Kate Hallett), Mariche’s daughter, who is about 13 years old, is the best friend of Neitje.
Scarface Janz (played by Frances McDormand), a stern matriarch, is adamant about her decision to do nothing and firmly believes any other option will doom the women to an afterlife in hell.
Anna (played by Kira Guloien), Scarface’s adult daughter is quiet, passive, and seems to be living in fear of her domineering mother.
Helena (played Shayla Brown), Anna’s teenage daughter, just like Anna, doesn’t say much.
One of the movie’s departures from the book is that Neitje is the narrator, and she is speaking in the future to Ona’s child, who has now been born. Near the beginning of the movie, Neitje says in a voiceover narration: “I used to wonder who I would be if it hadn’t happened to me. I don’t care anymore.”
Only one man has been left behind on the property while the other men are in the city. His name is August Epp (played by Ben Whishaw), a kind and gentle teacher who has been allowed to come back to the colony to teach the boys of the colony. August spent most of his childhood in the colony, but when he was a boy, his parents were excommunicated from the colony for questioning the authority of the colony’s leaders. August helps the women by taking notes during the meeting and doing any other reading and writing that the women might need.
August has an additional motivation to help the women: He’s been in love with Ona for years, but she just wants August as a friend. August stays neutral during the women’s arguments and debates. However, it’s very obvious that he wants to be wherever Ona is.
Also part of the story is a mild-mannered teenager named Nettie (played by August Winter), who likes taking care of the colony’s younger kids. Nettie identifies as a transgender male who prefers to be called Melvin. (Winter is non-binary in real life.) Because this colony is isolated from the rest of society, the colony members (including Melvin) don’t know what transgender means, so many of the colony members treat Melvin as a girl who likes to dress and wear her hair like a boy.
Because this colony is very insular and doesn’t believe in using modern technology or cars, “Women Talking” often looks like it takes place in the mid-20th century. The biggest indication that the movie takes place in the 21st century is when a census employee drives his truck on the road near the property and uses a speaker to remind the residents to take the 2010 census. The Monkees’ 1968 hit “Daydream Believer” memorably plays on the speaker and is heard again later in the movie during the end credits.
The colony’s women hide themselves inside buildings when this census employee drives by, but Neitje and Autje run to the truck to have a friendly chat with the census taker. Things aren’t so friendly inside and outside the hayloft, as the debate continues over what to do, and as time is running out before the colony’s men return to the property. Some of the women think that if they stay, they can demand new rules for the colony, such as the right to be educated and to be treated equally. Others think the women and children are better off leaving and starting a new community on their own.
In this showcase for powerhouse acting talent, Foy and Buckley have the flashiest roles as the women who clash with each other the most. Salome is filled with defiance and rage and shouts things like, “I will burn in hell before I allow another man to satisfy his urges with the body of my 4-year-old daughter!” Mariche raises her voice too, but she also expresses her anger in some “are you insane” expressions on her face that are very entertaining to watch.
Whishaw’s sensitive and nuanced performance is thoroughly believable and sometimes heartbreaking, as August experiences unrequited love. Because he is the primary teacher the boys of the colony (who are all homeschooled), there are glimmers of hope that these boys will be raised to have more respect for women and girls than how they were taught before August returned to the colony. Rooney’s performance as Ona, who speaks in calm and measured tones, is very good, but Ona is often overshadowed by the sassiness of Salome and Mariche.
One aspect of “Women Talking” that might disappoint some viewers is that McDormand is only in the movie for less than 15 minutes. She’s one of the producers of “Women Talking” and shares top billing, but her on-screen appearance in the movie—although effective—still doesn’t seem like enough for someone McDormand’s high caliber of talent. In the production notes for “Women Talking,” McDormand explains: “I did not option the book with the idea of acting in the film, I optioned it because I wanted to produce a film based on the book, with Dede [Gardner, one of the producers] and Sarah [Polley]. But I love Scarface dramaturgically.”
Even with all the friction and arguments between the women, Polley’s thoughtful direction never lets the movie devolve into a “catfight” story. The women might not know how to read and write, but they are very articulate in exposing their wants, needs, hopes and dreams. Luc Montpellier’s brown-tinged cinematography in “Women Talking” might look dull to some viewers, but it’s supposed to be a reflection of the drab existence that the colony’s women have experienced for too long. Observant viewers will notice that scenes that have more hopeful emotions have more vibrant lighting.
“Women Talking” is not a man-bashing film, as some people might mistakenly think it is. It’s a movie against gender oppression and against sexual violence. The villains of the story are not given the type of agency and screen time that other filmmakers would choose to put in their version of “Women Talking.”
“Women Talking” is not the type movie that people will quickly forget after watching it. Whether people like or dislike the movie, “Women Talking” is the type of film that will inspire thought-provoking discussions for viewers. And that’s an indication of cinematic art that can make an impact.
Orion Pictures will release “Women Talking” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023.
Culture Representation: The documentary film “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American and one Asian) discussing the life and career of New York City-based artist/photographer Nan Goldin, who became an activist speaking out against the wealthy pharmaceutical Sackler family’s role in creating the opioid epidemic in the United States.
Culture Clash: Goldin (who is a recovering opioid addict) led protests and boycotts to remove the Sackler family name from prominent buildings, to have Sackler family donations rejected, and for the Sackler family to be held accountable for flooding the marketplace with prescription opioids, while also using her art and celebrity to express her greatest passions.
Culture Audience: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in learning more about Nan Goldin and how artists become activists.
The documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a fusion of a revealing biography of photographer Nan Goldin and an impressive chronicle of her activism against pharmaceutical moguls, especially Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family, whom she blames for the opioid crisis. Goldin is very candid about being a recovering opioid addict and about other struggles in her life, including her mental health issues, her turbulent love life (such as being a domestic violence survivor of an ex-boyfriend), and her still-unresolved turmoil about the suicide of her older sister Barbara. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which was filmed mostly from 2017 to 2021, shows what happens when an artist does more than just talk about making a difference in social justice issues but actually becomes an agent for change in these issues.
Directed by Laura Poitras, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it became a rare documentary to win the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” has since made the rounds at several other festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival and DOC NYC. It’s a documentary that covers a lot of issues, sometimes in a way that’s jumbled and messy, but no one would ever describe Goldin’s life as neat and tidy.
Goldin, who was born in 1953, is the narrator of the documentary, which jumps around in the timeline of her life story. Goldin has a gravelly voice that comes from years of smoking cigarettes, fast living and surviving traumatic experiences that would kill many other people. She comes across as jaded but hopeful, world-weary yet determined to fight for the causes that mean the most to her. The scenes of Goldin being an activist are interwoven with her telling stories about her personal life.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” opens with a visually striking scene of a Goldin-led protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on March 10, 2018. In this scene, dozens of protestors have gathered in a museum atrium to throw empty prescription bottles in a water fountain while chanting, “Temple of money, temple of greed!” and “Sacklers lie, people die!” The atrium is in a section of the museum named after the Sackler family, the wealthy American clan that owns Purdue Pharma and Mundipharma. Purdue Pharma is the manufacturer of OxyContin. The protesters have gathered to demand that the museum remove the Sackler family name from anywhere in the museum.
The protesters lie down on the floor to represent the people who died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription drugs. As far as the protestors are concerned, any the Sackler family’s donations and philanthropic actions are tainted by “blood money” generated from the millions of lives destroyed by addictions to OxyContin and other opioids manufactured and marketed by the Sackler family’s pharmaceutical businesses. The protesters are eventually escorted out by the museum’s security personnel, but the documentary shows what eventually resulted from these kinds of protests.
In 2017, Goldin and some of her colleagues founded Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), a group dedicated to preventing and reducing harm from prescription drug addiction, as well as shaming the greedy people who over-sell and over-prescribe these highly addictive drugs to vulnerable people. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” documents how P.A.I.N. staged protests at museums in various international locations, including the Louvre in Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Gallery in London; and the Guggenheim in New York City.
P.A.I.N. put pressure on these museums and other institutions to refuse donations from the Sackler family and to remove or prevent the Sackler name from anything associated with these institutions. This activism created worldwide awareness about the Sackler family putting the Sackler name on philanthropic causes, in the family’s attempts to deny or avoid responsibility for the opioid crisis. Goldin comments in the documentary about the Sackler family: “We will target their philanthropy. They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.”
The U.S. government’s legal prosecutions of certain members of the Sackler family have been well-documented, but “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” puts a spotlight on Goldin and P.A.I.N.’s grassroots work in getting this prosecution to even take place. This behind-the-scenes look has the added benefit of Goldin’s participation, because her narration gives a very personal and touch that would be missing if she had not been actively involved in making the documentary. Goldin and Poitras are among the producers of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”
Early on in the documentary, Goldin comments: “It’s easy to make your life into a story. It’s harder to sustain real memories. The difference between the story and the real memory: The real experience has the smell and is dirty and is not wrapped up in simple endings. The real memories are what affects me now. Things can appear that you don’t want to see. You’re not safe.”
In “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Goldin dredges up a lot of unsafe memories, beginning with her childhood, which she describes as living in a “claustrophobic suburb.” Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., but spent most of her childhood living in the Boston suburbs of Swampscott and Lexington in Massachusetts. Her father was Goldin’s father worked in broadcasting and was the chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. Her mother was a traditional homemaker.
Goldin’s older sister Barbara, who was seven years older than Nan, was a lesbian and was shamed by their parents about her sexuality. It was during a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, so Barbara was forced into a psychiatric institution for a certain period of time. Goldin believes this institutionalization caused further damage to an already mentally fragile Barbara, whom Goldin says had depression and anxiety. Goldin remembers that their mother used to say about Barbara’s sexuality: “Don’t let the neighbors know.”
Goldin shares fond memories of Barbara, whom she considered to be more of a mother figure to her than their own biological mother. “Barbara had a wildness to her,” Goldin says. “You couldn’t hold her back … She trusted me with all of her secrets.”
Goldin also remembers Barbara’s talent for playing classical music on the piano. “You could always tell how she felt by how she played,” Goldin says. “I felt very close to her, but she was in and out of institutions for most of her childhood.”
Tragically, Barbara committed suicide in 1964, at the age of 18. Goldin says with some bitterness, “I heard my mother say, ‘Tell the children it was an accident.’ She didn’t want us to know the truth. That’s when it clicked.” Goldin says in the documentary that Barbara probably wouldn’t have committed suicide if Barbara had a support group for LGBTQ teenagers and other young people. Those support groups didn’t exist in most places in 1964.
By the age of 13 or 14, Goldin left home. At 16 years old, she was enrolled at Satya Community School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when a school employee introduced Goldin to photography. Thus began Goldin’s lifelong passion for telling visual stories through photos. She began documenting her life in photos, long before it became a common way of life for people in the era of the Internet and social media.
By the time Goldin was in her late teens, she was living in Boston as part of an avant-garde artist scene that she chronicled in her photography. Long before drag queens became part of mainstream media, Goldin had a particular affinity of taking photos of drag queens and transgender women, many of whom were friends of hers. In the documentary, Goldin talks about being in awe of a transgender woman named Bea, who became Goldin’s friend and roommate. Goldin’s first solo exhibit in Boston was in 1973, when she was 20 years old.
Goldin eventually relocated to New York City, the center of the art world in the United States. Life wasn’t glamorous at all in those early years when she was a a struggling artist. Goldin talks about living in New York City’s seedy Bowery district and having a drug-fueled lifestyle that included abuse of cocaine and methamphetamine. To pay her bills, Goldin says she became a nightclub go-go dancer then later became a brothel prostitute.
Goldin says, “Sex work is one of the hardest jobs you could ever have.” She also mentions that she wanted to talk about her past as a sex worker in this documentary, in order to get ride of the stigma and shame that is often associated with sex work. Eventually, Goldin became a bartender at the women-controlled nightclub Tin Pan Alley, whose owner hired people who wanted to transition out of sex work. Author/playwright Darryl Pickney says that Tin Pan Alley was very racially integrated and cut across social class boundaries.
One of the people in the New York City art scene who had a bg influence on Goldin was Cookie Mueller, whom Goldin describes in the documentary as “the center of downtown life. “The mid-1980s was when I was closest to Cookie.” Their friendship changed somewhat after Mueller married Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati in 1987. Tragically, Mueller and Scarpati died of AIDS-related illneses, just two months apart in 1989.
The documentary includes footage of Goldin’s activism in AIDS causes, including working with fellow activist/artist David Wojnarowicz. They were both heavily involved in the AIDS activist group ACT Up. In the documentary, Goldin describes Wojnarowicz as “my spiritual guide, my political guide.” (The 2021 documentary “Wojnarowicz,” directed by Chris McKim, has more information.)
Goldin and Wojnarowicz worked on an AIDS-themed artist installation that was scheduled to be at the Artist Space Gallery in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood from November 1989 to January 1991. However, the National Endowment of the Arts controversially cancelled its grant funding for the project after getting pressure from conservative religious groups. Goldin says of the AIDS installation: “It was about the loss of community and trying to keep people’s legacy alive.”
She describes her history of drug abuse in matter-of-facts terms. Goldin says that she went to rehab for the first time in 1988. For a period of time that she does not fully disclose, she says she was addicted to OxyContin, a drug that went on the market in 1996. Goldin says that she is now clean and sober, but she firmly believes that she and an untold number of OxyContin addicts were deliberately not properly informed by medical professionals about how addictive OxyContin is, because too many people were and still are getting rich from OxyContin sales.
Goldin, who identifies as queer, also opens up about her love life. She talks about being in an abusive relationship with a man called Brian, whom she says she dated from 1981 to 1984. “I fell in love with him,” Goldin comments. “We had very good sex, and that can keep people together for a long time. And then, we started fighting.” Their troubled relationship included domestic violence.
Goldin describes a trip that she and David took to Provincetown, Massachusetts (a popular vacation spot for LGBTQ people), and jealousy issues arose because Goldin says she fell in love with a woman during this trip and photographed this woman constantly. Goldin, who does not name the woman, describes her as an “oddball” who would wear pearls at the beach. Goldin says about the early-to-mid-1980s: “It was a time of freedom and possibility. That’s when I did my first slide shows.”
Although Goldin’s career was on the rise in the early-to-mid-1980s, her relationship with David wasn’t getting any better. Goldin says that David broke up with her because he found out “I’d been with this girl.” (Goldin does not name this other lover.) She goes on to say about David, “He punched me in the face repeatedly.” To add insult to injury, David burned a lot of Goldin’s photos.
Most victims of domestic violence would hide this abuse, but Goldin made the very bold and unusual decision to do a photo exhibit showing her bruised and battered face from the injuries that David inflicted on her during this vicious attack. These photos were included in her ongoing photography collection “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which started out as a slide show exhibition and film in 1985, and then became a published book in 1986.
More than 700 photos are in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which Goldin describes in the documentary as “the struggle between autonomy and dependency.” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” includes many samples of Goldin’s work over the years, including photos from “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”; “The Other Side,” a photo collection of drag queens from 1992- 2021; and “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls,” a photo collection from 2004 to 2021. The photos showcase Goldin’s penchant for documenting herself and other eccentrics in ways that can be gritty, glamorous or both.
In the documentary, Goldin gives a reminder that back in the 1970s and 1980s, she got a lot of resistance to her art because of sexism. She says many people told her, “Nobody photographs their own life.” And it was even rarer for women to want to make a living from this type of photography. Goldin says for some people who were born after the 1970s and 1980s, “It’s hard to understand that could’ve ever been radical.” Long before Instagram was even invented, Goldin was ahead of her time.
Because “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” weaves in and out of telling Goldin’s stories about her personal life and her activism, the film editing sometimes gives the movie a rambling tone, but it never derails too far off course. One of the documentary’s highlights is a videoconference call in which Goldin and other people affected by OxyContin addiction confront David Sackler and his aunt Theresa Sackler (two of the Sackler family defendants named in many lawsuits) to give a victim/survivor statement. Even though the Sacklers were not allowed to respond to these statements during this conference call, it’s a powerful moment that contrasts the Sacklers’ emotional aloofness with these survivors’ emotional pain.
Goldin, who has never been married and doesn’t have children, has this to say about her personal life: “The relationships that have mattered the most to me for probably my whole life have been my friends.” The documentary gives the impression that most of Goldin’s closest friends are also her P.A.I.N. colleagues.
Some of the P.A.I.N. members interviewed in the documentary include P.A.I.N. deputy Megan Kapler, artist Maria Berrio, P.A.I.N. deputy Harrison “Harry” Cullen and psychiatrist Annatina Miescher. The documentary includes a segment about how some of the P.A.I.N. activists believe that they were stalked and spied on by people hired by the Sackler family. Kapler shares footage of an unidentified middle-aged man who followed her and photographed her without her consent. He also staked her out in his car outside of her home.
Other interviewees in the documentary include Ad Hoc Committee of Accountability attorney Mike Quinn, who does a lot of pro bono work for P.A.I.N.; Robert Suarez of the Urban Survivors Union, a non-profit support group for drug addicts; Artforum International magazine editor-in-chief David Velsaco; TruthPharm executive director Alexis Pleus; set designer/interior decorator Noemi Bonazzi; actress Sharon Niesp; writer Patrick Radden Keefe; and actress Maggie Smith.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” also shows the next big initiative for P.A.I.N. is removing the stigma of doctors treating opioid addicts who are in clean needle programs. And one of the final scenes in the film shows P.A.I.N. raising $35,000 for Urban Survivors Union to purchase a machine that gives drug users an analysis of the content in their drugs. This machine does not encourage drug use but is aimed at preventing deaths when people unknowingly ingest drugs with lethal content.
People who know about Goldin before seeing “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” might not be as surprised by her unique personality, her artistic talent and her unwavering commitment to the causes that she cares about the most. However, what will resonate with viewers the most is how someone who has experienced as many highs and lows as Goldin has can take those experiences and turn them into something positive that can help other people. No matter what type of backgrounds that people have, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is an inspirational story that shows the true meaning of persistence and hope.
Neon released “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in New York City on November 23, 2022. The movie’s U.S. release expands to Los Angeles and San Francisco on December 2, 2022, with more cities added on December 9, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place from 1988 to 1989, in various parts of the United States, the horror film “Bones and All” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After being abandoned by her single father, an 18-year-old loner who has a terrible secret (she’s a cannibal) becomes a nomad and falls in love with a young man who’s also a nomadic cannibal, and they go on a road trip where they feed their deadly desires.
Culture Audience: “Bones and All” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet; filmmaker Luca Guadagnino; and gruesome horror movies that know how to make people squirm.
“Bones and All” is more than just a gory horror film about a cannibal couple. The movie also has clever social commentary about the pitfalls of judging people by outward appearances. Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet portray the attractive young couple at the center of the movie, but supporting actor Mark Rylance steals the show with a creepy performance as a middle-aged cannibal with a sinister obsession. Sensitive viewers, be warned: “Bones and All” is not a cute horror romance. This movie has very explicit scenes showing human cannibalism.
Directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, “Bones and All” is his first movie filmed in the United States. Chalamet and Guadagnino previously worked together in 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name,” starring Chalamet in his Oscar-nominated breakout role as a 17-year-old American in Italy who falls in love with a 24-year-old American man who works as a college teaching assistant. “Bones and All” is based on the 2015 novel by Camille DeAngelis. David Kajganich wrote the “Bones and All” adapted screenplay. “Bones and All” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy, where Guadagnino won the festival prize for Best Director, while Russell won the Marcello Mastroianni Award, a prize given to emerging actors and actresses.
Taking place in 1988 and 1989, “Bones and All” begins in 1988, in an unnamed U.S. state. Shy and introverted 18-year-old Maren Yearly (played by Russell), who is in her last year of high school, has been invited to a slumber party by a fellow student named Sherry (played by Kendle Coffey), who is a popular student in the school. Maren doesn’t have any close friends at this school, so she’s very surprised by this invitation. Maren tells Sherry that Maren’s overprotective father won’t allow her to go this party, but Sherry suggests that Maren sneak out f Maren’s home at night.
Maren takes this advice and goes to the slumber party, where the female teenagers in attendance are curious to know more about Maren, who is fairly new to the area. Maren and her father Frank Yearly (played by André Holland) have moved around a lot, and they currently live in a trailer in the working-class/poor part of town. Maren recently moved to the area from “the Eastern shore.” She tells the other girls at the party that she doesn’t have any memories of her mother, who abandoned Maren and Frank when Maren was a very young child.
Maren has a big secret about herself that will soon be exposed: She has an intense craving to eat human flesh. The party starts off as festive and friendly. However, Maren’s urges take over, and she suddenly lunges at Sherry and bites off one of Sherry’s fingers. While Sherry and the other partygoers scream in horror, Maren runs back to her home in a panic.
As soon as Frank sees that Maren has come home in a distressed state of mind, he immediately figures out that she snuck out against his wishes and has revealed her cannibal ways. It’s only a matter of time before the police show up at their door. Maren tells Frank that she’s sorry, but he is visibly annoyed and doesn’t want to hear any excuses.
Maren and Frank quickly pack up what they can and leave that night, with no intention of ever going back. Frank and Maren hide out and stay at a motel in Maryland for a few days. It’s not the first time they’ve had to suddenly leave an area because of Maren’s cannibalism.
One morning, Maren wakes up in the motel room and finds out that her father has abandoned her. Frank has left a note saying that he can no longer be around her because he doesn’t know how to deal with her anymore. Frank has also left behind these items for Maren to keep: Maren’s birth certificate, some cash and an audio tape of Frank’s diary-like messages.
In his farewell note, Frank asks Maren to destroy the tape after she’s finished listening to it. In his audio recordings, which Maren plays throughout the movie, Frank tells Maren that when she was 3 years old, she killed her babysitter. Frank covered up that crime and many other cannibal-related crimes committed by Maren. He says after the babysitter’s murder, he changed the family’s surname.
Now completely on her own and homeless, Maren spends the majority of the story as a nomad. Maren is deeply ashamed of being a cannibal, but she also won’t ignore her cannibalistic urges. And now that Maren has her birth certificate, she’s determined to find her mother, whose name is Janelle Kerns (played by Chloë Sevigny).
One night, Maren is out on the street when she meets a soft-spoken, eccentric man named Sully (played by Rylance), who tells her that he’s a cannibal too. Sully says that he knew that Maren is a cannibal because cannibals can smell each other. He also tells Maren that he can tell that Maren has not eaten human flesh in months.
Sully, who is middle-aged and speaks in a Southern drawl, has a very unusual appearance of wearing long, braided hair and a fisherman’s vest. Later, viewers find out that Sully has a gruesome fascination with braided hair: After he eats a human, he takes the dead person’s hair, braids it, and keeps it in a collection.
Knowing that Maren is hungry for human flesh, Sully invites her to go with him to a house where a dying, elderly woman lives alone. Upstairs in her bedroom, the woman is barely conscious. Sully tells Maren that he found the woman in this condition. Sully convinces Maren that if they kill the woman, it will be a mercy killing. And you can imagine what happens next.
Sully tells her a few things about cannibal life that Maren did not know: He says that the most important rule is that cannibals should not eat other cannibals. Sully also warns Maren that her cravings for human flesh will increase as she gets older.
Sully lives in a small, unassuming house. He invites Maren to stay with him for as long as she wants. At first, Sully gives the impression that he wants be a protective father figure to Maren. But it soon becomes apparent that Sully is sexually attracted to Maren and will eventually expect them to be more than friends. Maren knows it too, which is why she secretly gets on a bus to leave the area without saying goodbye to Sully.
The bus is going to Minnesota. Maren’s plan is to eventually travel to Ohio, the state where Maren has her mother’s last-known address. Along the way, she meets another wayward cannibal named Lee (played by Chalamet), who’s a runaway in his late teens. He’s originally from Kentucky and has been living on his own since he was 17. Lee has a truck that he stole from one of his victims: a bachelor named Barry Cook from Centerville, Indiana. Lee invites Maren to travel with him, and they take turns driving.
Lee is not as conflicted as Maren about giving in to his cannibalistic urges. He also tells Maren that he prefers to kill someone who lives alone so he can steal that person’s car and other belongings. As if to justify his crimes, Lee says he usually chooses victims who do something awful to show Lee that these victims “deserve” to be killed.
Lee knew that murder victim Barry lived alone, so he and Maren go to Barry’s home to look for things to steal. Because the vehicles that Lee steals will eventually be reported stolen, he says that’s the motivation he needs to find and kill other people who have cars that he can steal. It’s a vicious cycle that puts Lee and Maren at great risk of getting caught.
Maren isn’t entirely comfortable with what Lee does, but she goes along with everything because she’s lonely and very attracted to him. Lee and Maren become friends and eventually lovers during their extended road trip. During this trip (which takes them to states such as Missouri and Iowa), Lee and Maren experience a lot of highs and lows.
Over time, Lee and Maren share some of their previous cannibal experiences. Lee says that his first cannibal victim as his babysitter. He remembers feeling a like a “superhero’ the first time that he killed and ate her. Maren shares an experience she had when she was 8 years old and went on a camping trip, where a boy was one of her victims.
A memorable part of the movie is when Lee and Maren encounter two other middle-aged cannibals named Jake (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and Brad (played by David Gordon Green). Over a campfire, Jake and Brad tell Lee and Maren that eating a body, “bones and all,” can give a cannibal an ecstatically powerful feeling like no other. Stuhlbarg, who co-starred with Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name,” has a much smaller role in “Bones and All,” but his screen time in the movie is still meaningful.
One of the most pivotal parts of “Bones and All” takes place at a carnival, where Lee decides to target a booth worker (played by Jake Horowitz), for reasons that are shown in the movie. This experience is a turning point, because it’s the first time that Maren sees firsthand what Lee is capable of doing. She has to decide if it’s worth staying with him, or if she should continue her journey on her own.
“Bones and All” has stellar acting and a few surprises that make this movie better than the average horror flick. Russell and Chalamet are believable as an emotionally damaged couple who find comfort with each other but are always on edge because of the terrible secrets that they have to keep. Lee and Maren make an interesting pair who are opposites in some ways. Maren is quiet and doesn’t like to call attention to herself, while talkative Lee (with his magenta-streaked hair) has a way about him that practically screams, “Look at me!”
Unlike Maren, whose parents abandoned her, Lee has chosen to abandon his family. Lee has a backstory involving his turbulent relationship with his younger sister Kayla (played by Anna Cobb), who has a lot of resentment toward Lee for leaving the family. Lee confides in Maren that he feels guilty about leaving Kayla behind when he had promised her that he would give her driving lessons.
Chalamet (who is one of the producers of “Bones and All”) is perfectly fine in the role of a troubled young rebel, but it’s the type of character that’s been seen and done in many other movies and TV shows. Russell has the more difficult role, since Maren is very guarded and insecure about her feelings and not a typical wisecracking or sweet ingenue character that would usually be the female love interest in this type of story. Russell capably expresses many emotions through facial expressions and body language because Maren is often afraid of saying what she’s thinking out loud.
And although Sully is not in most of “Bones and All,” his scenes in the movie are what might disturb people the most. Rylance is riveting as this utterly sleazy character, who deliberately disarms people into thinking that he’s just a harmless oddball. On a different level, Lee is a con artist too, because he presents himself as a down-on-his-luck charmer to his victims, who are fooled into thinking that he won’t hurt them.
“Bones and All” has a total running time of 130 minutes, which is a little long for a movie that could have easily been a little under two hours. Although a few scenes in “Bones and All” weren’t entirely necessary, the overall film will still leave a big impression on people. One of the movie’s biggest strengths is that it could have ended in many predictable ways, but it has a twist that many viewers won’t see coming. “Bones and All” goes down a path that will no doubt upset some viewers, but it’s bold enough to not take the easy way out in how to end this grisly and often-heartbreaking story.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Bones and All” in select U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2003, on Parris Island, South Carolina, and briefly in New York City, the dramatic film “The Inspection” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, Latino and Middle Eastern) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Based on a true story, a 26-year-old African American gay man enlists in the U.S. Marines to escape from homelessness, and he has to deal with rampant homophobia and bullying during his boot camp training.
Culture Audience: “The Inspection” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union and well-acted dramas about LGBTQ people in the U.S. military.
Even when “The Inspection” becomes a little too repetitive in its drama, the movie shines brightest where it matters the most. Elegance Bratton tells a very authentic, heartfelt story of homophobia that he experienced inside and outside the U.S. military. The movie is based on Bratton’s real-life triumphs and traumas during his boot camp training in the U.S. Marines. There have been other movies about LGBTQ people who tried to hide their sexualities in the military, but “The Inspection” is a rare movie were the gay protagonist in the military is an African American cisgender man.
Bratton wrote and directed “The Inspection” as a semi-autobiographical film where the protagonist goes through many of the same things that Bratton went through in real life. Several characters are based on real people, while some characters are fictional. “The Inspection” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival.
The movie takes place in 2003, during the era when the U.S. military banned any sexuality that isn’t heterosexual, but there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it came to disclosure of the sexualities of people in the U.S. military. In the beginning of the movie, Ellis French (played by Jeremy Pope), who prefers to be called French, is a 26-year-old homeless man. He lives in New York City, and he has been homeless for about 10 years. When he was 16 years old, his very homophobic mother Inez French (played by Gabrielle Union) kicked him out of their home because French (who is an only child) is gay. All of this happened to Bratton in real life, as he has said in many interviews.
French has no other relatives he can turn to for support. He never knew his father, who abandoned Inez when she was pregnant with French. French has a tight-knit group of friends, many of whom are also openly queer, but he’s become tired of having an unstable and dangerous lifestyle on the streets. It’s mentioned at one point in the movie that some of his friends have died from violent crimes, while others have died from AIDS, and others are in prison.
French doesn’t want to end up in any of these situations. His mother Inez works as a corrections officer at a prison, and she already thinks that French is a major disappointment. French does not want to risk doing anything that could further alienate his mother. French goes to his mother’s apartment unannounced to ask her for his birth certificate. Why? French has decided that he’s going to enlist in the U.S. Marines to receive training in a career so he won’t have to be homeless anymore.
Inez and French have been estranged for years, but French never stops wanting his mother’s love and acceptance. When he shows up at her door, she’s not happy to see him, because she knows he’s homeless. Inez immediately asks French, “Are you in trouble?” Inez mentions that she’s been getting “notice to appear” courtroom documents addressed to him in the mail. He tells her about his life as a homeless person: “You have no idea how hard it’s been … Something has to change.”
When French tells her the reason for the visit, Inez laughs at the thought of French committing to something as demanding and strict as the military. She is also skeptical that French will be able to hide the fact that he’s gay. “What about your lifestyle?” she asks, as an indication that she thinks homosexuality is a choice.
At first, Inez doesn’t want to give him his birth certificate, but she eventually does when she sees that French is serious, and he’s not going to change his mind. Even though the vast majority of “The Inspection” takes place during French’s training on Parris Island, South Carolina, he continues to make attempts to connect with his mother in New York. His attempts are usually rejected.
When French is at his former home with his mother, she tells him exactly what she thinks about French: “I made peace with losing you.” When she gives him the birth certificate, Inez tells French: “This piece of paper is all I have left of the son I have birth to. If you don’t come back, consider this birth certificate void.” There are indications that Inez has misguided hope that somehow, being in the military will turn French into a heterosexual.
French is so determined to leave his homeless life behind, before he leaves for boot camp, he gives his cell phone to an elderly homeless man named Shamus (played by Tyler Merritt), who was French’s friend on the streets. Shamus, who calls himself an “old queen,” comments to French about French’s enrollment in the U.S. Marines: “You don’t have to do this. You can be anything you want to be.” French replies, “You and I both know that’s not true.” Shamus adds with stern words of encouragement, “I better not see you back here.”
French’s boot camp training is depicted exactly how you think it will go, based on how boot camp has been portrayed in many other movies and TV shows. There’s the shouting, macho drill sergeant, who uses his superior position to bully new recruits, especially those he thinks are the weakest emotionally and physically. This cruel tyrant is named Laws (played by Bokeem Woodbine), who constantly hurls abusive insults and who looks the other way when his underlings physically assault each other in their attempts to impress Laws and each other.
Laws, who is in his 40s, served in Operation Desert Storm. He the type of drill sergeant who snarls at his underlings: “I hate recruits, but I love Marines.” Later, in another scene, Laws says, “We don’t make Marines. We make monsters.” Although “The Inspection” has many emotionally raw and realistic-looking scenes, the movie occasionally falters with these types of corny statements from Laws.
Even though the U.S. military has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2003, Laws breaks that policy by yelling at French in front of his fellow recruits: “Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?” French is afraid of “outing” himself, so he shouts back, “No, sir!” It’s a lie that will eventually be exposed.
In addition to having a mean-spirited drill sergeant, another predictable aspect of “The Inspection” is the protagonist having a jealous rival, who is also a bully. His name is Harvey (played by McCaul Lombardi), who is very competitive and wants to be the “alpha male” of the recruits. Harvey expresses his homophobic views early on in the boot camp process. There are also big hints that Harvey (who is white) is racist against people who aren’t white. Harvey’s ego gets even more inflated when Laws appoints Harvey as the squad leader of the recruits.
At first, French thinks he can hide his sexuality, in order to avoid homophobic bullying and possible expulsion from the military. When the other recruits talk about their girlfriends and wives, French pretends that he has a female love interest too. The “special woman” he’s writing letters to is really French’s dismissive mother Inez.
French’s secret about being gay is eventually revealed when he and several other recruits (ncluding Harvey) are in a public shower. French starts thinking of a sexual fantasy about a good-looking drill sergeant in his 40s named Rosales (played by Raúl Castillo), who is Laws’ second-in-command. And the next thing French knows, his fellow recruits have noticed that French has an erection. French makes a half-hearted attempt to deny that he’s gay, but the secret is out. It gives Harvey and the rest of the homophobes even more of a reason to target French.
And so, for most of the movie, French is either shunned or abused (including beatings) by Harvey and some other recruits for being gay. Laws finds out and does nothing to stop this cruelty. In fact, when French tries to stand up for himself and threatens to report this abuse, Laws lets it be known that he hates snitches. Considering that Laws will be the one to decide which recruits will graduate from the training program, it puts French in a very precarious and vulnerable situation.
There are some bright spots to French’s traumatic and bleak experiences as a bullied recruit. He befriends another “outsider” recruit named Ismail (played by Eman Esfandi), who is harassed and insulted for being of Middle Eastern/Islamic heritage, during a time after 9/11 when hatred against Middle Eastern and Islamic people was encouraged in the U.S. war against Iraq and Afghanistan. Ismail is one of the few people who’s willing to stick up for French when things get very rough.
Another recruit named Castro (played by Aaron Dominguez) doesn’t really befriend French, but Castro doesn’t fully participate in the bullying against French either. Castro is someone who “goes along to get along” and tries to stay under the radar and not alienate anyone. But there’s a pivotal scene in the movie where Castro is forced to take a side, and he has to make a decision that will test his ethics and show his true character.
The person in the Marines who has the biggest emotional impact on French is drill sergeant Rosales, who is battling some personal demons of his own. Rosales wants to be a friendly mentor to French. However, French is sexually attracted to Rosales and wants a physically intimate relationship with him. Rosales is in a troubled marriage to a woman and is conflicted about his own sexuality. You can probably guess what that means in terms of the movie’s plot development.
French is often underestimated as being a “sissy,” but he proves to be a resilient and physically adept recruit who’s a fast learner. As his skills improve in the boot camp challenges, so does his confidence. And that’s a problem for Harvey, who doesn’t like to see French excel. Harvey is a stereotypical “villain” in this movie that doesn’t give him much of a backstory.
“The Inspection” greatly benefits from having a very talented cast, with Pope, Union and Castillo giving the standout performances. Their respective characters are also the best-written in the movie as fully formed human beings, instead of shallow stereotypes. Even with all the blood, sweat and tears that French experiences during boot camp, Pope’s soul-stirring performance never lets viewers forget that French’s real heartbreak comes from being rejected by his mother.
Union doesn’t have very many scenes in the movie, but when she’s on screen, she brings depth to her Inez character. Inez has self-righteousness about her homophobia because Inez genuinely believes that French’s sexuality means that he’s doomed to be in hell on Earth and elsewhere. Her anger toward French has other reasons too: As a single mother who had financial struggles in raising him, she somewhat blames him for giving her a harder life than she thinks she deserves.
Castillo’s Rosales character doesn’t talk much, but Rosales does a very credible job of expressing Rosales’ inner turmoil. Rosales is a good listener and observer who, unlike Laws, has a compassionate side. One of the best scenes in “The Inspection” is when Rosales asks French why French puts up with all the abuse he’s getting in boot camp and why French wants to be a Marine. This scene is partially shown in the movie’s trailer.
French candidly replies, “I’ve been raising myself since I was 16. My mom won’t even talk to me, If I die in this uniform, I’m a hero to somebody.” Although the story in “The Inspection” is mostly limited to French’s boot camp experiences, the movie shows some hints that French is a talented camera operator—a foreshadowing of Bratton’s future career as a filmmaker. In real life, Bratton got his first experiences in filmmaking as a camera operator in the U.S. Marines.
“The Inspection” doesn’t have a lot of dazzle or artsiness in the movie’s cinematography because this emotionally gritty film doesn’t need it. This is not a movie where people should expect to see a lot of insight into anything other than the world as French sees it in this specific period of his life. Viewers will feel his isolation in the midst of being surrounded by people.
This movie isn’t about how U.S. Marines prepared for war in the Middle East in the early 2000s. It’s about how people can be at war with themselves and their insecurities. “The Inspection” has moments of despair and hope in telling this memorable story. The movie also effectively shows how sometimes a person’s biggest strength is having nothing left to lose.
A24 released “The Inspection” in select U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on December 22, 2022.