Review: ‘Personality Crisis: One Night Only,’ starring David Johansen

October 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

David Johansen in “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” (Photo courtesy of Showtime)

“Personality Crisis: One Night Only”

Directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the documentary film “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of former New York Dolls singer David Johansen (also known as Buster Poindexter), intertwined with footage of Johansen performing at a January 2020 show at Cafe Carlyle in New York City.

Culture Clash: As a member of the androgynous-looking New York Dolls, Johansen pushed against society norms of what male rock stars should look like, and he later upended expectations by reinventing himself as a vaudevillian performer named Buster Poindexter. 

Culture Audience: “Personality Crisis” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Joahnsen, the New York Dolls, and influential rock music that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

David Johansen in “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” (Photo courtesy of Showtime)

“Personality Crisis: One Night Only” sometimes stumbles with rambling repetition, but this documentary is a true reflection of its unique subject, David Johansen: full of fascinating stories and compelling to watch. The on-stage performances enliven this otherwise mostly predictable movie. Fans of Johansen probably won’t learn anything new, but it’s a capable biographical film that demonstrates why Johansen is a charismatic and often-underrated showbiz survivor. “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” looks like a movie that isn’t intent on winning ant major awards but was made as sort of a gift for Johanen’s family members, close friends and fans. If you have absolutely no interest in the music that influenced punk rock and New Wave artists in the 1970s and 1980s, or if you have no interest in the New York rock music scene from that area, then you might be very bored by this movie, which is heavy on nostalgia for this culture. Johansen is an appealing but often unfocused raconteur, who sometimes goes off on tangents that might or might not hold the interest of viewers.

“Personality Crisis: One Night Only” is a mixture of footage from a January 2020 performance that Johansen did at the Carlyle Club (which is designed like a cabaret/supper club) in New York City; archival footage, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s; and exclusive interviews that he did for the documentary. In the Carlyle Club footage, Johansen performs various New York Dolls and solo artist songs as his alter ego, Buster Poindexter, a pompadour-styled, suit-wearing artist who brings a vaudevillian flair to his stage act.

The Carlyle Club footage includes Johansen performing songs such as “Funky But Chic,” “Melody” and (of course) “Personality Crisis.” The archival footage includes interviews and performance clips from shows such as “Late Night” (hosted by Conan O’Brien), “Later…With Jools Holland,” “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” and “Musik Laden.” The contrast is striking between Johansen’s fiery stage persona as lead singer of the New York Dolls and the grizzled cabaret performer he is in the Carlyle Club footage. You get the feeling that these images are never a complete façade. Johansen is just presenting his personality and state of mind that he had at the time.

Born in New York City in 1950, Johansen briefly mentions his childhood and his early love of music, but most of his commentary is about his life as an adult music artist. Johansen’s daughter Leah Hennessey conducted the exclusive interviews that Johansen did for “Personality Crisis: One Night Only.” It’s probably why the interviews don’t go deep into revelations that could be embarrassing or painful for Johansen and his family.

For example, during the Carlyle Club footage, Johansen lovingly points out his third wife, Mara Hennessey (they’ve been married since 2013), who watches his adoringly from the audience. Johansen says a heartfelt, “I love you to Mara,” and he comments on their courtship: “It was a scandal, but it was worth it.” This is where a better documentary would’ve gone into more details, but it just leaves that information to dangle, without answering any questions that viewers might have.

Mostly, Johansen reminisces fondly about his days on the New York music scene in the 1970s. Most people watching this film already know that the New York Dolls were a short-lived band of five musicians who wore makeup and feminine-looking clothes during a time when men could be arrested for wearing women’s clothes in public. The band played and lived fast and hard.

The first incarnation of the New York Dolls lasted from 1971 to 1976 and released just two albums, but influenced countless people. Although they were respected by many of their peers, the New York Dolls never quite became the American version of the Rolling Stones, as some people had predicted. (The Rolling Stones comparison had a lot to do with how Johansen physically resembled Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger in those days and was known for his flamboyant stage presence.)

The New York Dolls were part of a movement of rock artists who played with ideas of defying society norms, including what is “masculine” and what is “feminine.” The band also straddled the line between hardcore punk and commercial pop. They wanted to be unconventionally edgy, but they also wanted to be played on mainstream radio and be famous enough to. (An archival New York Dolls concert clip shows Johansen proudly telling the audience that the band’s song “Trash” was getting played on AM radio.) I

In the documentary’s current interview footage, Johansen says of his attitude at the time: “I just wanted to be welcoming. I just wanted to bring those walls down and have a party.” He also says, “Ridiculousness, especially if it’s intelligent, is appealing to me.”

Even though the New York Dolls’ lineup had many iterations, Johansen was one of the constant members. Several former New York Dolls members are now deceased. Billy Murcia (drums) died in 1972. Johnny Thunders (guitar), who was Johansen’s main songwriting partner in the New York Dolls, passed away in 1991. Jerry Nolan (drums) died in 1992. Arthur Kane (bass guitar) died in 1991. (Kane was the subject of the 2005 documentary “New York Doll,” which gave more insight into the band than “Personality Crisis: One Night Only.”) Rick Rivets (guitar) passed away in 2019. Sylvain Sylvain (multi-instrumentalist) died in 2021. In “Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” the deaths of Murcia and Thunders get brief mentions.

If anyone is expecting wild tales of sex, drugs and rock and roll in this documentary, forget it. Decadence is only fleetingly referred to but never detailed in the movie. Johansen says in an archival interview that when he used to visit his visual artist friend Harry Smith (who died in 1991, at the age of 68), Smith’s Chelsea home was a “like a speed [amphetamine] den.” In the Carlyle Club footage, Johansen briefly describes working with music producer Todd Rundgren at Rundgren’s Hawaii home studio, which Johansen said looked like “a Colombian drug lord’s bagoda.”

Later on stage in the Carlyle Club footage, Johansen alludes to but never elaborates on his health problems. He mentions that because of the New York Dolls’ 2004 to 2011 reunion, his liver went “ba-boom,” and “that’s probably why you didn’t see me for a while.” At times, Johansen (who holds a drink in his hand while performing) tends to lose his train of thought. After performing “Melody,” Johansen says half-jokingly: “Where am I? Who am I?” Later, when starts to tell a meandering story about one of his experiences with friend at the legendary Max’s Kansas City nightclub in the 1970s, his longtime friend Penny Arcade, who’s in the audience, helps Johansen remember who else was with them and their mutual friend Ingrid Sylvester on that night.

In “Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” Morrissey (former lead singer of the Smiths) is briefly featured in new and archival footage as a New York Dolls superfan. Morrissey says that the New York Dolls should be more widely known, but drugs and the band’s controversial image probably prevented them from having more commercial success. He describes the New York Dolls as a “blighted band” and a “cursed band.” Morrissey (who was the New York Dolls’ U.K. fan club president when Morrissey was a teenager) comments that one of the main reasons why the New York Dolls appealed to him was because they weren’t just a loud and rude band, as their image suggested, but they were also “intelligent and witty.”

Viewers might be curious to watch this documentary because Scorsese is one of the directors. Make no mistake: As entertaining as “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” can be, it’s not on the same level as classic Scorsese music documentaries, such as 1978’s “The Last Waltz” (about the last performance of The Band’s original lineup) or 2011’s “George Harrison: Living in the Material World.” Some of the editing in “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” is very choppy and needed better fine tuning. For example, the Morrissey interview segment segues to archival concert footage of the Smiths, and this Smiths footage goes on for much longer than necessary. Other parts of the documentary have better editing, such as cuts between the New York Dolls performing the same song at different performances.

However, a documentary about David Johansen shouldn’t be too slick and polished, because that’s not the type of artist he is. On stage, Johansen exudes both cockiness and self-deprecation, which is part of the Buster Poindexter image, but it’s very much Johansen’s personality too. After all of his years in showbiz, Johansen still has a hard-to-describe star quality (even when he’s standing still on stage) that comes across as authentic. It’s why “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” shows how artists who were meant to last are the ones who aren’t manufactured.

Showtime will premiere “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” on April 14, 2023.

Review: ‘After Yang,’ starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Justin H. Min and Haley Lu Richardson

March 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja and Justin H. Min in “After Yang” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“After Yang”

Directed by Kogonada

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi dramatic film “After Yang” has a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Latino and Asian) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a family’s android malfunctions and appears to be unfixable, the family’s patriarch goes on a quest to find out the origins of this robot.

Culture Audience: “After Yang” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching introspective movies about what life could be like in the future.

Justin H. Min and Haley Lu Richardson in “After Yang” (Photo courtesy of A24)

What happens when a family robot breaks down and apparently can’t be fixed? And what if that robot was such an integral part of this family, the family might be broken too if the robot can no longer be in their lives? Those are the questions posed in the thoughtful sci-fi drama “After Yang,” written and directed by Kogonada. The movie might be too slow-paced for some viewers, but it’s worth viewing for a contemplative story about how the need for emotional connections won’t change, no matter how much technology advances.

“After Yang” opens with a “selfie” family portrait in the home backyard of the Fleming family: Jake (played by Colin Farrell), Jake’s wife Kyra (played by Jodie Turner-Smith), their daughter Mika (played by Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and their human-looking android Yang (played by Justin H. Min), who operates the camera before getting into the group photo. It seems like a happy family gathering, based on the smiles in the photo, but Jake and Kyra have grown emotionally distant from each other in their marriage.

Mika, who’s about 6 or 7 years old, seems oblivious to the tension in her parents’ relationship. Jake and Kyra adopted Mika as a baby from China. Yang is described as a “techno-sapien.” He was purchased to be a companion to Mika and so he could teach her about Chinese history and culture. Yang, who has a kind and patient personality, has known Mika since she was a baby. Yang is treated like a nanny and a family member.

“After Yang” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city in an unspecified future, when human-looking androids and human clones are fairly common. (“After Yang” was filmed primarily in New York state’s Rockland County.) All of the actors in “After Yang” keep their native accents, so the movie has a very cosmopolitan tone to it. Most of the cast members are American, but Farrell is Irish, Turner-Smith is British, and there are some other non-Americans who are in the cast.

Jake owns a tea shop, while Kyra works at an office job in an unnamed industry. The passion seems to have left their marriage, but Jake and Kyra are not on the verge of splitting up. These two spouses don’t have big arguments, but they just seem to barely tolerate each other.

Through various conversations between Jake and Kyra, viewers find out that her main complaint about him is that she doesn’t think he spends enough time with the family. Kyra tells Jake during one of their tension-filled conversations: “I just want us to be a team, a family.” An early scene in the movie shows Mika and Kyra at home eating dinner. Mika asks where Jake is, and Kyra tells her that he has to work late. However, Kyra puts a positive spin on Jake’s absence by saying that Jake being busy with customers means that his business is doing well.

Jake obliges Kyra’s request to spend more time with family, by participating with Kyra, Mika and Yang in a worldwide virtual dance-off competition that happens once a month. The dance-offs are based on the number of people in each group. For example, groups of four compete against each other, groups of three compete against each other, etc. Because this is a virtual competition, thousands of people can compete at the same time.

In this dance-off, groups go online and dance to the same song and are monitored by judges. The objective is for everyone in the group to dance in sync. Any group that has a member who dances out of sync is eliminated.

The movie’s opening credits play over a memorable montage sequence of the Fleming family and other four-member groups dancing in this contest. Some of the people in the other groups end up being supporting characters in this movie. Despite the Fleming family’s best efforts, someone in their group dances out of sync (Jake gets the blame), and they’re eliminated, but they seemed to have fun bonding over this shared activity.

Not long after the family participated in this dance-off, Yang malfunctions and shuts down. Because his exterior is made of human-like flesh, there’s a limited time to fix him before he will start decomposing. Jake and Kyra have different reactions to Yang’s shutdown. Jake wants to do everything he can to save Yang, because he knows how emotionally attached Mika is to Yang. Kyra is more reluctant to fix Yang, because of the expenses involved and because she thinks that Mika needs to learn about death.

Kyra also gripes to Jake that he should’ve bought Yang as a new android from a company called Brothers and Sisters, which is the main company that has the authority to sell new androids. Instead, Yang was purchased as a used android from a company called Second Siblings, a company that’s considered to be inferior to Brothers and Sisters. The place where Yang was purchased affects the ability to repair him quickly, because Yang’s warranty is with Second Siblings, not with Brothers and Sisters.

The Fleming family has a next-door neighbor named George (played by Clifton Collins Jr.), whom Jake thinks is a little weird and annoying. George notices that Jake is carrying Yang, so Jake tells George that Yang malfunctioned the night before. George mentions to Jake that he has a friend named Russ who does android repairs for a reasonable price. George advises Jake on what to do about Yang: “I wouldn’t take him back to Brothers and Sisters. They’re just going to try to get you to recycle him for a new model.”

When Jake goes to the place where he remembers Second Siblings was located, he’s dismayed to find out that the business has closed, and a fish aquarium store is now in its place. Mika is with him on this trip and is afraid of what will happen to Yang. To placate Mika’s worries, Jake buys her a pet fish from the shop.

Jake then goes to a repair shop called Quick Fix, where a repair consultant named Aaron (played by Brett Dier) tells Jake that he has two options: (1) recycle Yang and get a $1,000 discount toward a new android, or (2) turn Yang’s head and voice box into a virtual assistant, and the family can keep the rest of Yang’s salvaged parts. Jake decides to take neither option.

With Mika growing increasingly anxious about losing Yang, Jake decides to go to George’s friend Russ (played by Ritchie Coster) as a last resort. Russ tells Jake that he needs Jake’s permission to open Yang’s interior core. Opening this interior core is is an illegal thing to do, but Russ insists it’s the only way to figure out how Yang can be fixed. Yang is left at Russ’ repair shop for the time being.

Back at home, Jake and Kyra continue to disagree over what to do about Yang. Kyra also tells Jake: “Yang has been wonderful, and we’d miss him terribly, but we’ve been over-reliant on him. We bought Yang to connect [Mika] to her Chinese heritage, not to raise her.” Jake replies, “Yeah, but we spent a lot of money on Yang.”

Kyra says, “If we can’t fix Yang, we’re not going to buy another sibling for Mika. We can’t afford it anyway.” Kyra also says that she and Jake, not an android, should be responsible for teaching Mika about her Chinese heritage. Jake remains undeterred. His determination to save Yang leads him down unexpected paths and eventually on a quest to find out Yang’s origins.

Along the way, some other people play important roles in this story, including a Museum of Technology curator named Cleo (played by Sarita Choudhury) and a young female clone named Ada (played by Haley Lu Richardson), who has a connection to Yang. It’s enough to say that through a series of circumstances, Jake can access Yang’s memories by putting on special sunglasses. What Jake finds out changes his outlook on many things in life.

“After Yang” takes its time in unpeeling some of the layers in this story. There are several scenes of people staring off into space, as if they’re in deep thought. And although Jake is seen occasionally at work, he doesn’t seem to have any employees at his tea shop. It will make viewers wonder who’s operating Jake’s tea shop while he’s going around investigating the mystery of Yang, while Mika is sometimes along for the ride.

One of the biggest flaws in the movie is how Kyra is such an underdeveloped character. It will be hard for a lot of viewers to emotionally connect to Kyra, who comes across as cold and completely boring. Yang might be a robot, but he has more personality than Kyra does. And for all of Kyra’s complaining about Jake not spending enough time with the family, Jake is the one who ends up spending more time with Mika than Kyra does during the course of this story.

Only when Jake accesses Yang’s memories do viewers get to see a brief glimpse of Jake and Kyra in happier times, when they look like a real married couple. But for the vast majority of “After Yang,” there’s little to no chemistry between Farrell and Turner-Smith as these spouses. Even though they are portraying a married couple drifting apart, there’s nothing in the movie that shows why Jake and Kyra fell in love with each other in the first place.

“After Yang” also could have used more of the story to explore family issues when an adopted child is of a race that’s different from the adoptive parents. The only reference to any realistic challenges of interracial adoptions is a flashback scene where Mika confides in Yang about how some kids at her school told her that Jake and Kyra are not her real parents and asking him what it means to be Asian. Mika knows that she’s adopted, but she still seems a little hurt and confused over people thinking that Jake and Kyra aren’t her “real parents.” Yang then tells Mika about tree grafting as an analogy to adoption. It’s a very trite and simplistic way to deal with this issue.

Later in the movie, Kyra calls Jake while she’s at her job to ask Jake to pick up Mika from school because Mika got into a physical fight with another student. Mika was sent to the school principal’s office over this altercation, but the movie never shows Jake and/or Kyra interacting with anyone at the school about this problem or talking to Mika about it. It would be easy to assume that Mika might have gotten into the fight because of the adoption issue, but the movie never explains how Jake, Krya and Mika tried to resolve this problem.

Tjandrawidjaja is very good in the role of Mika, but her character was basically written to be just a cute and somewhat precocious kid. Instead, “After Yang” puts most of the emphasis on Jake as the person whose thoughts and feelings have the most importance in the story, since he’s the one who’s the most involved with and affected by finding out Yang’s origins. Farrell handles the character of Jake with a lot of care, but some viewers might grow tired of so many people in the movie having pained expressions on their faces without much action happening in the story.

The rest of the supporting cast members are perfectly fine in their roles. Min and Richardson do the best that they can with their Yang and Ada characters in the limited screen time that these characters have. When viewers see the connection between Yang and Ada, it will make a lot of people wish that there could’ve been an entire movie centered on Yang and Ada.

Kogonada brings a futuristic, dream-like style to the flashback sequences of Yang’s memories. These striking visuals are among the best aspects of “After Yang.” If viewers have the patience to watch this movie, the last third is the best and most meaningful part of the film. “After Yang” isn’t a groundbreaking sci-fi movie, but it offers a unique perspective of humanity when human clones and androids that look like humans co-exist with people.

A24 released “After Yang” in select U.S. cinemas on March 4, 2022, the same date that the move premiered on Showtime.

Review: ‘The Humans’ (2021), starring Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, June Squibb and Jayne Houdyshell

November 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, June Squibb, Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell and Amy Schumer in “The Humans” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Humans” (2021)

Directed by Stephen Karam

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “The Humans” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Asian person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Thanksgiving family gathering in a creaky New York City apartment brings out various levels of tension and secrets. 

Culture Audience: “The Humans” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies adapted from stage plays and movies about family gatherings that show realistic conversations.

Amy Schumer in “The Humans” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Humans” will keep viewers guessing on what terrible things might happen at an often-uncomfortable family reunion during Thanksgiving. It’s not a horror movie, but it’s a well-acted study of psychological turmoil. “The Humans” movie is the feature-film directorial debut of Stephen Karam, who adapted the movie from his Tony-winning play of the same name. Don’t expect any major plot twists to happen. This dialogue-heavy movie puts more emphasis on the characters’ interactions and creating an uneasy mood.

If watching “The Humans” makes some viewers feel slightly claustrophobic, that’s clearly the intention. The entire film takes place in one location: a drab New York City duplex apartment in a shabby building. It’s the type of apartment that’s probably overpriced just because it’s in Manhattan’s Chinatown, which has undergone various degrees of gentrification. The apartment has several rooms but still seems cramped and unsettling when the Blake family (the clan at the center of the story) gathers for this Thanksgiving dinner.

The two residents of the apartment are Brigid Blake (played by Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (played by Steven Yeun), who have recently moved into this duplex. Their move is so recent, their new home is still mostly unfurnished. Brigid, who is in her late 20s, is an unemployed classical musician/composer who is looking for work in her chosen profession. Richard, who is 35, is studying to be a social worker.

The other family members who are at this Thanksgiving gathering have all traveled from Pennsylvania. Brigid’s older sister Aimee (played by Amy Schumer) lives in Philadelphia. Brigid and Aimee’s parents are Erik Blake (played by Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre Blake (played by Jayne Houdyshell), who both still live in Scranton, where they raised Brigid and Aimee. Erik’s mother, who’s nicknamed Momo (played by June Squibb), uses a wheelchair and has dementia.

Momo lives with Erik and Deirdre, who is Momo’s primary caretaker while also holding down a job as an office manager. Later on in the movie, Deirdre mentions that she’s been at the same company for 40 years and started working there not long after she graduated from high school. Deirdre expresses some resentment that she’s been passed over for promotions. She complains that she now reports to two guys in their 20s who make a lot more money than she does, just because they have fancy college degrees.

Erik has also been a longtime staffer at his place of employment. For the past 28 years, he’s been working as a maintenance custodian at a Catholic school. As one of the perks of the job, when Aimee and Brigid were children, he was able to enroll them in the school without having to pay tuition. Erik and Deirdre are planning to build a lake house for their retirement. Construction on the house has been stalled due to various issues, but Erik tells the family that things are back on track to finish building the house.

Aimee, who is openly a lesbian or a queer woman, is experiencing some setbacks in her career and personal life. She’s heartbroken over a recent breakup with a girlfriend named Carol, who is not seen in the movie, but who talks to Aimee on the phone during one of the movie’s heart-wrenching scenes. Aimee also tells the family that she’s being ousted from her corporate job because she took too much personal time off from work.

Aimee needed the time off to deal with her medical issues: Aimee has kidney dysplasia and colitis. She hasn’t told her parents yet that she has to make a decision on whether or not to get surgery. Aimee confides in Brigid that she’s afraid that no one will want to date her after the surgery. Brigid gives Aimee a pep talk and tells her that Aimee is attractive and a great catch.

“The Humans” moves along at a slow pace where not much happens except people talking. However, throughout the movie, there are things that literally go bump in the night—specifically, loud thumps that can be heard from the apartment upstairs. The noise unnerves Erik the most. Several times during the movie, Brigid has to assure him that the noise is coming from a harmless elderly woman who lives upstairs.

Out of all the family members gathered for this Thanksgiving, Erik is the one who seems to be the most restless and on edge. He sometimes goes to the windows (which do not have drapes or blinds) to look out, as if he’s certain that people might be looking in on them. This old, creaky building also has problems with its electricity and plumbing. You can easily predict what will happen at one point with the electricity.

“The Humans” might give the impression that it’s going to turn into a haunted house movie. “The Humans” has some “jump scares,” but it’s best if people know in advance not to expect “The Humans” to be a horror film. There’s a feeling of foreboding and dread throughout the film, but it’s mainly from these family members dealing with and confronting their insecurities and secrets.

For example, there are various resentments that certain family members have toward each other. Brigid feels that her mother Deirdre is overly critical of her, while Deirdre resents that bossy Brigid always acts like talkative Deirdre is an embarrassment to the family. Erik and Deirdre are very religious, so they’d prefer that Richard and Brigid live together as a married couple. Brigid seems to want to eventually get married, but it’s a sensitive topic for her because she thinks that she and Richard should be more financially stable before thinking about marriage.

Erik and Deirdre accept Aimee’s sexuality, but they don’t discuss Aimee’s love life at length in the way that they talk about Brigid’s love life. These parents don’t really come right out and say it, but they show through their words and actions that they’re more invested in who Brigid’s life partner will be because they think that because Brigid is heterosexual, she’s more likely to get married and have children.

Erik is more judgmental than Deirdre, when it comes to what other people experience in life. For example, Erik believes that therapy is self-indulgent, and he thinks that he personally never needs therapy in his life. At one point during the dinner, when someone reveals getting treatment in the past for depression, Erik insensitively says that religion has been his own “anti-depressant.”

How religious is Erik? He has a figurine of the Virgin Mary that he has carried with him for this Thanksgiving dinner. And it should come as no surprise that he’s the one who leads the prayer before they begin their Thanksgiving meal. Erik believes in having a traditional patriarchal role for his family. And usually, when someone is this self-righteous in a movie, that person is probably the one who has the biggest secrets to hide.

This is Richard’s first Thanksgiving with the family, so he has the “outsider” role in the movie. He tries to keep the peace when certain family members start to bicker with each other. Richard has some secrets too that eventually come out in the dinner conversation.

As an example of how cheerful Richard wants this family gathering to be, he has a device that can project visual images onto any wall. He chooses to project the image of a cozy, burning fireplace. When it’s projected on the wall, it looks like a real fireplace, and it gives the drab and nearly empty room a warmer ambience.

Brigid, who is somewhat of a control freak, turns off the device because she thinks that having a fake fireplace looks tacky. Richard disagrees and wants to keep some kind of ambience projection image going in the room, to make the room look lived-in and not so barren. Observant viewers will notice that this back-and-forth between Brigid and Richard about whether or not to use this device in the room is not just about any power struggles in their relationship. It’s also about Brigid showing defiance about Erik’s expressed disapproval of the shabby condition of the apartment building.

Erik isn’t shy about telling Brigid that he thinks her choice to live in New York City is somewhat foolish, when she can have bigger and better living space in Scranton for a fraction of the cost of living expenses in New York City. It’s implied that Erik and Brigid have had ongoing disagreements about where she lives. She lives in New York City because she loves it and knows that she will have better career opportunities in New York, but Erik sees it as Brigid turning her back on her Scranton roots. Erik also doesn’t understand why Aimee wants to live in a big city like Philadelphia, although Erik is much more disapproving of Brigid living in New York City.

At first, Richard and Erik have some unspoken awkwardness between them, because Erik doesn’t know Richard very well and isn’t quite sure how much Richard might be a threat to Erik’s influence over the family. However, Richard is very mild-mannered and a people pleaser. Erik starts to warm up to Richard when he sees that Richard has no intention of being the most dominant person in this family.

But some things are really bothering Erik. And little, by little, he begins to reveal what those things are. Erik starts off by telling everyone that he’s been having nightmares of being chased in a tunnel. Richard then confesses that he’s also had a recurring nightmare: falling through an ice cream cone made of grass. Richard is also a sci-fi enthusiast, so he shares a theory of what outer-space aliens must think about human beings on Earth. This theory ties into the main theme of this movie.

Every movie about a family Thanksgiving dinner seems to have it share of family squabbles. “The Humans” is no exception. Much of this discord has to do with family members not feeling respected or heard. For example, an emotional blow-up happens after Brigid shares her disappointment over getting constant rejections for a grant and because her job search hasn’t been going well. Erik replies flippantly, “Well, you can always work in retail.” That comment sets off an argument between certain members of the family.

And what is Momo doing during all of this family drama? She doesn’t say much, but there’s a moment during the dinner when her memory seems very sharp. It gives the other family members some hope that maybe her dementia hasn’t gotten worse. How long that hope lasts is shown in the movie.

Because “The Humans” is more of a “slice of life” film instead of an event-filled movie, some viewers might feel disappointed that the movie isn’t a mystery thriller. The film’s music, cinematography and editing certainly give the impression that something terrifying and possibly supernatural could happen at any moment. However, viewers should know in advance that this movie has several scenes that show mundane activities, such as family members trying to navigate Momo’s wheelchair in narrow doorways, or people making small talk about repairs that need to be done in the apartment.

The main reason to see “The Humans” is for noteworthy performances by the cast members, who bring a lot of authenticity to their roles. The conversations between these family members are at their best when they’re about showing their vulnerabilities and not trying to put up a façade that life is perfect. And that seems to be the point of this movie: It’s easy to blame others for causing misery. It’s a lot harder to admit that people are sometimes their own worst enemies.

A24 will release “The Humans” in select U.S. cinemas and on Showtime on November 24, 2021.

Review: ‘A Girl From Mogadishu,’ starring Aja Naomi King

July 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

“A Girl From Mogadishu” 

Directed by Mary McGuckian

English and Somalian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Somalia and Ireland, the drama “A Girl From Mogadishu” (based on a true story) has a racially diverse cast (white and black) representing Somalian natives and refugees and Irish politicians and social workers.

Culture Clash:  Ifrah Ahmed escapes war-torn Somalia for a life in Ireland, where she becomes a social activist campaigning to outlaw female genital mutilation.

Culture Audience: “A Girl From Mogadishu” will appeal primarily to people who like stories about social justice issues and immigrants who overcome difficult challenges.

Barkhad Abdi and Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

The dramatic film “A Girl From Mogadishu” (written and directed by Mary McGuckian) takes on two very difficult subjects—war-torn Somalia and the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM)—and tells the story from the perspective of someone who’s experienced both in real life. The movie is a biography of Ifrah Ahmed, who fled Somalia when she was 15. She ended up in Ireland, and became a leading activist in a campaign to outlaw FGM, which has been a forced ritual (mostly inflicted on underage girls) in African cultures for centuries.

Aja Naomi King (who is American) gives a compelling performance as Ifrah, from the ages of 15 to her 20s. The entire movie has her voiceover narration, which works well in some scenes, but doesn’t work in others. The movie begins on December 28, 2006, with Ifrah running for her life on the day that’s known as the Fall of Mogadishu, when the militaries of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and Ethiopian troops invaded the Somali capital.

Ifrah becomes separated from her family (her grandmother, her father and her brother) after the military raided the family home. She ends up in an empty house, where three military soldiers rape her. Ifrah has an aunt who lives in Minnesota, so Ifrah thinks her best chance for a life outside of Somalia is to go to the United States to live with her aunt.

Ifrah boards a bus to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From there, she plans to go to the United States. But she has a close call in Addis Ababa when she finds out that she boarded the wrong bus, which is controlled by a sex trafficker.

She runs away from the wrong bus and boards another bus, which leads her to a family with a son named Hassan (played by Barkhad Abdi), who tells Ifrah that he can take her to the United States. The movie doesn’t make it clear how Ifrah was able to pay for this service, since it’s obvious that Hassan isn’t going to all this trouble out of the goodness of his own heart. This missing detail is an example of one of the flaws in this movie’s screenplay.

Hassan provides Ifrah with a passport and specific instructions to follow him and imitate what he does when they’re at the airport. It’s the first time that Ifrah ever gets on an escalator and goes on an airplane, so she’s understandably terrified. But when Ifrah and Hassan leave Ethiopia, they don’t arrive in the United States. They arrive in Ireland’s capital city of Dublin instead.

Ifrah is angry and confused over why Hassan lied to her, but he explains that Ifrah cannot stay with her aunt in Minnesota because her aunt is not a legal immigrant in the United States. Hassan tells Ifrah that she can seek asylum in Ireland. And then he drops her off in the cold winter night at a Dublin Asylum Seekers’ Center with nothing more than a note written in English with her name and why she needs asylum.

Because she is an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum, Ifrah is put into a group home called Ashton House and is placed under the care of social workers. She experiences major culture shock, not only because she can’t speak English but also because she has difficulty adjusting to the type of food that’s eaten in Ireland. In one scene, when a male social worker laughs at how Ifrah eats a bowl of cornflakes with her bare hands, she gets irritated and throws a shoe at him.

Ifrah is reprimanded, but she is able to communicate with the social worker that what she’s really frustrated about is not being able to speak English. With the help of a Somalian translator at Ashton House, Ifrah is able to better communicate with the staff. Ifrah has also become friends with another Somalian refugee at Ashton House. Her new friend is Amala (played by Martha Canga Antonio), and they both help each other learn English.

Ifrah’s life takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when she has her first medical exam in Ireland. The doctors are shocked to find out about her FGM. At first, Ifrah mistakenly thinks that their horrified reaction is because they think she’s HIV-positive. The doctors tell her she’s not HIV-positive and that they’re upset by the mutilation of her genital area. Ifrah replies, “This is my culture.”

However, when Ifrah figures out that FGM is not normal and is a major stigma in cultures outside of Africa, she’s overwhelmed by shame and starts sobbing uncontrollably. The next thing you know, there’s a flash forward to Ifrah as an anti-FGM activist giving a speech to a group of politicians. This sudden flash-forward scene is a little jarring and an example of better editing choices that director McGuckian could have made, since the movie keeps jumping back and forth in time in a way that doesn’t always transition smoothly.

The rest of the movie shows Ifrah’s anti-FGM activism and the increased progress and media attention that she and her allies received for this issue. With the help of Ireland’s Labour Party politicians Emer Costello (played by Orla Brady) and her husband Joe Costello (played by Stanley Townsend), Ifrah was able to get FGM outlawed in Ireland. And, accompanied by a NGO (non-governmental organization) rep (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), Ifrah travels to Africa to further her cause to get FGM banned.

The movie also depicts how Ifrah eventually opened up and went public with all the harrowing details of what happened to her during her FGM torture. She was mutilated at 8 years old with several other girls, and they were tied up for 40 days with a very limited ability to urinate. One of the girls got a urinary tract infection and died.

There’s a scene where Ifrah goes back to Somalia to confront her grandmother for allowing the FGM to happen to Ifrah. Hassan pops up out of nowhere and tells Ifrah, “Good girls keep things private and don’t talk.” Ifrah replies defiantly, “I will not be silenced! Not now, not ever, not even for my family!”

“A Girl From Mogadishu” has an important story to tell, but there are some flaws in how it’s told. The dialogue and narration are often simplistic and predictable. And the movie needed better editing, so that the story didn’t seem so choppy and jumbled during the flashback and flash-forward scenes. However, the acting, especially from King in the lead role, elevates the often-trite screenplay. Her performance is worth watching, even if she has to say a lot of lines that could have been written better.

The production design (by Emma Pucci) and costume design (by Nathalie Leborgne) complement the movie very well. For example, the film does a convincing recreation of Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Ireland, with Ifrah among the thousands of people who went to see him give an outdoor speech in Dublin. Ifrah is also involved in doing fashion shows to raise money for her cause. Those fashion shows are depicted quite nicely in the film.

There are many scenes in “A Girl From Mogadishu” that look like a made-for-TV movie instead of a truly cinematic experience. Despite its flaws, “A Girl From Mogadishu” has emotional authenticity and respect for the traumatic subject matter (the real Ifrah Ahmed was a consultant for the movie), considering that FGM is rarely acknowledged in narrative feature films. This movie will help make people more aware that trying to stop FGM is not just a “women’s issue.” It’s also about human rights.

Showtime Women premiered “A Girl From Mogadishu” on July 15, 2020, and the movie is available on Showtime’s on-demand platforms. Pembridge Pictures will release the film internationally from November 25, 2020 to December 10, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘XY Chelsea’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Chelsea Manning in "XY Chelsea"
Chelsea Manning in “XY Chelsea” (Photo by Tim Travers Hawkins)

“XY Chelsea”

Directed by Tim Travers Hawkins

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 1, 2019.

Less than a month before the documentary “XY Chelsea” was supposed to have its world premiere at 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, controversial whistleblower Chelsea Manning (who’s the subject of the movie) was arrested on March 8, for refusing to testify before a grand jury about the classified U.S. government documents that she leaked to WikiLeaks in 2010. Before the arrest kept her in jail, Manning had been scheduled to attend the “XY Chelsea” premiere and to do an on-stage Q&A afterward. The filmmakers also had to redo the ending of the movie to include updates about the arrests of Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was taken into custody on April 11, 2019.

It’s one of many twists and turns to Manning’s saga that this revealing documentary chronicles with an unwavering purpose: to show viewers who she really is and how she has adjusted to life outside of prison. Manning was imprisoned from 2010 to 2017, the year that President Barack Obama commuted her 35-year sentence. At a post-premiere Q&A, Manning’s criminal-defense attorney Nancy Hollander said that Manning’s refusal to testify is a protest against the system.

Back in 2010, when Manning was first arrested for the notorious case, she was Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old U.S. Army soldier and intelligence analyst with access to thousands of classified government documents. After being convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other crimes in 2013, Manning announced that she was going to live her life as a transgender woman named Chelsea Elizabeth Manning. The “XY” in the documentary’s title refers to the chromosomes that determine if a human is male or female; males typically have the XY chromosome, while females usually have the XX chromosome.

Manning has given many interviews and speeches since her release from prison, and she also had a failed 2018 campaign for U.S. Senator to represent her home state of Maryland. But this documentary, which had unprecedented access to Manning, gives viewers a raw and unflinching look at her life behind the scenes.

The movie begins with the news that Manning was pardoned and is set to be released from prison. As a trans woman who was forced to dress like a man in prison, viewers see that Manning has already picked out the type of clothes she wants to wear after her prison release. There’s a phone conversation with Manning instructing her attorney Hollander on the exact pages of fashion magazines where she can find the clothes that Manning wants to wear. Stepping on the plane that will take her to her new home, it’s clear that Manning still can’t quite believe that she is no longer in prison. But Manning isn’t a typical ex-con, and it’s clear she can’t have a “normal” life because of her notoriety. She has to deal with a multitude of issues, including life after prison, life after the military, and life after coming out as a trans woman.

Viewers see that even though she’s no longer in prison, Manning can’t feel completely free because she believes that the government will always be out to get her, now that she’s been declared an enemy of the state. Her paranoia is palpable as she checks for hidden recording devices when she’s in a hotel room. And because Manning has admitted to suicide attempts while she was in prison, there’s an underlying sense that her mental health has varying degrees of fragility.

In the documentary’s interviews, Manning opens up about her unhappy childhood. She says both of her biological parents were heavy drinkers, her father was abusive, and she was hated so much by her stepmother that she was eventually kick out of their home. Manning also said that although her father had a problem with her living as a gay man, it didn’t bother him as much as when she revealed her true identity as a transgender woman.

As for why she joined the military in the first place, Manning said she did it “almost on a whim” because it was her way of trying to escape her trans identity. By joining an establishment that requires strict conformity, Manning said that she was hoping that the military could “cure” her sexual identity, much like “going cold turkey from a drug addiction.”

She is more guarded about what it was like to be a transgender woman in prison. Choosing her words carefully, and often pausing before she speaks, Manning said that she was constantly watched in prison, guards would do things such as walk in on her while she was changing clothes, and people’s reactions to her trans identity were “complicated” and “human.” Manning’s experience in solitary confinement has left emotional scars, since she said that a part of her died when she had to spend so much time in isolation.

While out of prison, the documentary shows Manning becoming very active on social media. In the photo shoot for her first post-prison portrait (which she uses as a social-media profile picture), she jokes that her low-cut blouse might show too much “boobage.” As Manning’s post-prison life evolves into very outspoken activism, particularly against Republicans, she experiences extreme reactions from the public: The people who love her think she’s an American hero, and they treat her almost like a rock star when she’s at political events. There people who hate her think she’s a traitor, and they treat her like a disgusting freak.

Manning’s mantra/political slogan has become “We Got This,” as a way of saying that whatever life throws her way, she can handle it. Her decision to run for U.S. Senate as a first-time political candidate speaks to how high her ambitions are and the groundswell of support that she felt from people. However, there’s a sense of loneliness that permeates Manning’s life—she’s estranged from her family and does not have very many close friends, since she understandably finds it difficult to trust people, and her fame causes a certain isolation. At one point in the documentary, Manning says, “I know I’m not the person that people think I am.”

The documentary also shows what happened behind the scenes during Manning’s Senate campaign and the moment that it all imploded in January 2018. In a misguided attempt at what Manning calls “rapport building,” she went to a right-wing political event called “A Night for Freedom” in New York City, where she was seen hobnobbing with pro-Trump supporters and people who express racist, sexist and homophobic viewpoints. As Manning described it on social media, she “crashed the fascist/white supremacist hate brigade party,” and that she “learned in prison that the best way to confront your enemies is face-to-face in their space.” But she got an immense amount from backlash from left-wing people, many of whom withdrew their support of her. (Manning lost the Senate primary by a landslide.)

In “XY Chelsea,” Manning is seen having a meltdown over the backlash, which she mistakenly thought would blow over in a few days. In a tension-filled scene, Manning shouts to spokesperson Janus Rose and campaign manager/communications director Kelly Wright, “This is driving us into the fucking ground!” Later, Manning fights back tears, as she says that going to the “Night for Freedom” event was “indefensible” and “wrong.” She adds, “I’m not a hero. I’ve just always been someone wanting to do something.”

And in a prophetic scene near the end of the movie, Manning has this to say about why she’s chosen to be a risk-taking activist speaking out against government corruption: “What are they going to do? Throw me in prison? Kill me? They’re going to do that anyway if we let them. I’d rather go down fighting.”

Showtime will premiere “XY Chelsea” on June 7, 2019.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix