Review: ‘Mayday’ (2021), starring Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Soko, Havana Rose Liu and Juliette Lewis

January 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Mia Goth, Grace Van Patten, Soko and Havana Rose Liu in “Mayday” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Mayday” (2021)

Directed by Karen Cinorre

Culture Representation: Blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, the dramatic film “Mayday” features an almost all-white cast (with one Asian) representing the working-class, and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four young women find themselves on a deserted island and go into combat in a war that’s supposed to represent a war against misogyny.

Culture Audience: “Mayday” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in pretentious movies that try to be clever with symbolism and alternate worlds but fall short in having interesting characters and a coherent plot.

Juliette Lewis in “Mayday” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Some movies take a potentially clever concept and bungle it with a lot of confusing scenes and boring pretension. “Mayday” is one of those misfires. The movie awkwardly mixes heavy-handed preachiness about misogyny with incoherent storytelling wrapped in a war movie. Once viewers understand all the symbolism in “Mayday,” the concept quickly wears thin and becomes an annoying chore to watch.

Written and directed by Karen Cinorre, “Mayday” begins by introducing a woman in her 20s named Anastacia, nicknamed Ana (played by Grace Van Patten), the story’s central character. Ana, who lives and works in an unnamed part of the U.S., is a waitress at an event hall that’s owned and managed by Russian men. She’s teetering on the edge of poverty because she’s been sleeping in her car. Her co-worker Dmitri (played by Théodore Pellerin), who’s a cook at this event hall, tells her one day: “No more nights in the car, Ana.”

Ana needs this job, but viewers soon see that it’s a horrible place to work. During a day when the employees are preparing for a wedding that will take place there, the head waiter (played by Frano Maskovic) takes Ana outside to berate her. Her pushes her up against the wall and yells at her: “Who do you think you are? Amateur!”

Ana goes into a back room for employees. The abusive co-worker follows her, goes into the room, and shuts the door. It’s not shown in the movie, but it’s implied that he has sexually assaulted Ana. This assault sends her into a spiral that’s the catalyst for what happens in the rest of the movie.

Before this assault happened, tension had already been brewing in the workplace on this day. The wedding’s bride and groom show up to check out the preparations. The groom (played by Hyoie O’Grady) is angry and impatient that things are running behind schedule. “Why aren’t you ready?” he yells at the workers.

The bride is a brunette named Marsha (played by Mia Goth), who’s upset and nervous. Marsha is comforted by an event hall employee named June (played by Juliette Lewis), who sees Marsha crying in the bathroom. “I know,” June tells Marsha. “It feels like a nightmare. That’s normal.”

Meanwhile, an ice swan has been prepared as part of the wedding decorations. When the abusive waiter orders Ana to bring the swan, she nervously drops it, and then she runs away. Ana goes into the kitchen and, in a dreamlike sequence, she crawls into the oven.

And the next thing you know, Ana (who’s still in her waitress outfit) is now on a very rocky island. She’s not alone though. Ana is woken up by Marsha, who is now a blonde. And then, Dimtri climbs out of the ocean, introduces himself as a pilot, and says that there’s a war going on. Ana doesn’t see him as her co-worker but as a total stranger, which is the first sign that she’s now in an alternate world. (“Mayday” was actually filmed in Croatia.)

Marsha then drives a motorcycle with Ana on the back. They go to a small inlet, where there’s an abandoned U-boat. Marsha and Ana go down the U-boat hatch, where they meet two other women who are also in their 20s: tough-talking Gert (played by Soko) and quiet Bea (played by Havana Rose Liu). “What brings you here?” Gert asks Ana. Ana replies, “I think I am bird watching.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Marsha is no longer the insecure bride that she was in the other world. On this island, she’s a fearless warrior who teaches Ana how to swim and how to shoot guns. What is this war about and why are they fighting this war?

It becomes obvious when the battle scenes begin, and the four women are fighting against a male-only battalion. These men do not have names, but when Marsha’s angry groom shows up on the opposing side an airman, and the sexual assaulter/head waiter shows up as the opposing side’s submarine captain, you know that these men are supposed to represent misogyny and toxic masculinity.

And in case it wasn’t made clear enough, this conversation between Ana and Marsha spells it out: Ana tells Marsha, “I’ve never been in a war.” Marsha replies, “You’ve been in a war your whole life. You just don’t know it.”

Later, when Marsha teaches Ana how to be a sniper, Marsha says: “Girls make excellent snipers. Snipers endure uncomfortable positions for hours.” Ana replies, “I’m good at that.” Marsha then says, “They know how to make themselves invisible.” Ana adds, “I’m good at that too.”

Most of “Mayday” consists of tediously staged battle scenes and more incoherence. The four women send out distress signals to an entity called the Victory, which promises assistance that never comes. (The distress signal is “May, Alpha, Yankee, Delta, Alpha, Yankee,” which spells out as the acronym MAYDAY.) The Victory is an obvious metaphor for gender-equality initiatives that haven’t been made into laws. (The Equal Rights Amendment is one example.) June shows up later on the island, but she doesn’t add much to the story.

The problem with a misguided movie like “Mayday” is that it makes feminism look like all men are supposed to be the enemy. It doesn’t take into account that there are plenty of good men in the world who treat people with respect. There are plenty of men in the world who believe in gender equality, even though most societies are steeped in giving preference to men when it comes to power and money.

Even if “Mayday” wanted to be a war movie about women versus men, a major problem is that all of the movie’s characters are written with no real personalities. War movies shouldn’t just be about the battle scenes. Viewers have to care about the people in the war, in order to care about who wins or who loses. “Mayday” doesn’t really bother to show who any of these “heroines” really are. They just spout forgettable and often idiotic dialogue.

The message of “Mayday” is obvious to anyone who’s paying attention. But the message is delivered in such a clumsily sanctimonious way, it’s a real turnoff. And the end of the movie is an uninspired disappointment. Simply put: “Mayday” is the type of movie that gives feminism a bad name.

Magnolia Pictures released “Mayday” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘The Blazing World’ (2021), starring Carlson Young, Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw

October 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Carlson Young in “The Blazing World” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Blazing World” (2021)

Directed by Carlson Young

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Gulf Coast state and an unnamed Northern state in the United States, the horror film “The Blazing World” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A college student, who is haunted by the childhood death of her identical twin sister, experiences nightmarish hallucinations in her attempt to contact her sister from the dead. 

Culture Audience: “The Blazing World” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching horror movies that are more style over substance.

Udo Kier in “The Blazing World” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Blazing World” takes the concept of grief as an ongoing nightmare and jumbles it up in an incoherent horror movie. The cinematography is impressive, but the movie ultimately over-indulges in a lot of nonsense. Texas-born actress Carlson Young makes her feature-film debut as a writer and director in “The Blazing World,” which is based on her short film of the same name. Young also stars in “The Blazing World,” which has a bold and colorful visual style, but the screenplay (which Young co-wrote with Pierce Brown) is problematic because of its vapid emptiness.

In “The Blazing World,” Young portrays Margaret Winter, a college student who is haunted by the death of her identical twin sister Elizabeth, nicknamed Lizzie, who died by drowning in the family’s swimming pool when the twins were 6 years old. This death is shown in the beginning of the movie in a visually striking and eerie scene that might lead viewers to believe that “The Blazing World” might have potential of being a memorable horror movie.

In this flashback, 6-year-old Margaret (played by Josie Fink) and Elizabeth (played Lillie Fink) are dressed in identical pink dresses and catching fireflies outside in their backyard of their parents’ plantation-styled mansion that’s in an unnamed Gulf Coast state in America. (“The Blazing World” was actually filmed in Texas.) Margaret and Elizabeth’s parents Tom Winter (played by Dermot Mulroney) and Alice Winter (played by Vinessa Shaw) have a troubled marriage. Tom is an alcoholic, and he’s abusive to Alice.

Tom and Alice begin arguing inside the house, while Margaret and Elizabeth are outside. Margaret goes to a nearby window to look in on this argument. She hasn’t left Elizabeth’s side for very long when she makes a horrifying discovery: Elizabeth somehow ended up in the swimming pool, and she drowned.

Margaret also witnessed another frightening thing that she’s never talked about to other people: While Elizabeth was lying face down in the pool, Margaret saw a sinister-looking elderly man (played by Udo Kier) standing next to a black hole portal that’s suspended in the air in the backyard. The man made a beckoning hand gesture, indicating that he wanted Margaret to come over to him. Margaret was too scared to move, but throughout the story and into her adulthood, she keeps seeing this man, who eventually reveals to her that his name is Lained.

Of course, the Winter family is devastated by Elizabeth’s tragic death. There are some brief flashbacks to when Elizabeth was still alive. But, for the most part, “The Blazing World” takes place about 15 years after the drowning. Margaret grows up to be a mostly sad woman who struggles with mental health issues.

The movie then flash-forwards to when Margaret is living on campus at an unnamed university in a Northern state. There’s no indication of what she’s studying as a college student. But what is very clear is that Margaret is obsessed with the idea of different worldly dimensions. She’s a devoted fan of a TV personality named Dr. Cruz (played by Liz Mikel), who spouts theories on her TV show about alternate realities existing and that the human brain is able to access astral and spiritual portals.

There’s a somewehat unnecessary scene where Margaret, who lives near Dr. Cruz, happens to see Dr. Cruz walking to her car. Margaret approaches Dr. Cruz and gushes like a star-struck fan when she meets her. Dr. Cruz cynically tells Margaret that she fits the demographic of Dr. Cruz’s typical audience member: “Middle-class, 20s, white female: our key demographic. You keep us alive, whether I feel good about it or not. I’m not going to complain about a captive audience.”

When Margaret asks Dr. Cruz if someone can be trapped in an astral portal and brought back, Dr. Cruz vaguely answers: “Sometimes, if we don’t like the answers the world gives us, we just keep looking.” Margaret insists that she’s not crazy. It’s an assertion that she has to keep telling herself and other people when she starts seeing things that are very weird.

One day, Margaret gets a call from her mother Alice, who tells Margaret that Alice and Tom have sold their family home and that they are moving out soon. The fact that this is news to Margaret indicates how long it’s been since she and Alice have spoken to each other. Alice invites Margaret to go back to the family home to pick out any items that she wants to keep.

If Alice sounds medicated when she calls, that’s because she probably is. She mentions to Margaret that if Margaret has some Ambien pills, then Margaret should bring the Ambien with her when she comes to visit. Viewers can infer that Alice has become a pill-popping addict.

Alice is eager to see Margaret, but Margaret is reluctant to go back to the family home because it brings back bad memories for her. However, Margaret does back to the family home, where her parents’ marriage is just as miserable as ever, and her father’s alcoholism has gotten worse. Margaret’s visit triggers events that set her down a path of hallucinations where she sees more of Lained lurking around and sometimes near the black hole portal.

In many of these visions, Lained tries to kill her, such as by strangling her while she’s in a bathtub. Expect to see numerous scenes of Margaret having these visions and then suddenly waking up, as if she had a nightmare. It becomes repetitive to the point of inducing viewer boredom. It should come as no surprise that Margaret becomes convinced that Elizabeth is trapped in a portal somewhere, which leads to the part of the movie where Margaret tries to find Elizabeth so she can reunite with her twin.

“Blazing World” also has a time-wasting subplot of Margaret having a reunion in real life with an ex-boyfriend named Blake (played by John Karna), who takes her on a date to a nightclub named The Woods, which has a forest-themed decor and is eerily deserted. Blake recently completed rehab for drug addiction and is happy to see Margaret back in town again. He also makes it obvious that he wouldn’t mind getting back together with her, but Margaret doesn’t see Blake as more than a possible hookup. When Margaret tries to confide in him about her hallucinations, he assumes that her hallucinations are drug-related.

Three other friends whom Margaret knew from high school show up at The Woods, because this trio is a band that’s performing at the club. They are lead singer Margot (played by Soko), bass player Rob (played by Breckyn Hager) and drummer Sean (played by Ace Anderson). Margot does a tarot card reading for Margaret and states the obvious: “You’ve had a huge emotional loss. And everything that comes after that is a chain reaction to that early trauma. Be careful. If you spend too much time in the spiritual realm, you might not be able to come back.”

“Blazing World” seems to have the right intentions, but more thought should have been put into developing characters in the movie that viewers can care about, in order for the terror to be more effective. The hallucinations in the story can be described as candy-coated psychedelia. There are lots of hues in hot pink, bright red and neon blue. However, this eye-catching imagery can’t make up for the weak story arc that’s clumsily structured.

None of “The Blazing World” actors does anything remarkable. Kier’s Lained character is the most memorable, but Kier has played so many creepy characters in movies, this performance is just another version of those characters. “The Blazing World” could have been a tour-de-force showcase for Young as an actor/writer/director for this movie. Unfortunately, the result is a movie that looks like a poorly conceived student film that had the budget to afford cinematography and visual effects that are better than the average student film.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Blazing World” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Little Fish’ (2021), starring Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell

March 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jack O’Connell and Olivia Cooke in “Little Fish” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Little Fish” (2021) 

Directed by Chad Hartigan

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle from 2020 to 2022, the sci-fi drama “Little Fish” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A British woman and her American husband struggle with fear and health issues during a global pandemic of the fictional disease Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA).

Culture Audience: “Little Fish” will appeal primarily to people interested in well-acted apocalyptic dramas that have romance and surprises.

Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell in “Little Fish” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Little Fish” is the type of plot-puzzle drama that appears to be straightforward in its intentions but turns out to be quite different from what was initially presented. The movie succeeds largely because of commendable acting from Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell, who play a newlywed couple struggling with a health crisis when one of them becomes afflicted with the fictional disease Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) during a global pandemic. Because the movie takes place primarily in 2022, with flashbacks to previous years, the parallels are eerily similar to the real-life COVID-19 pandemic, although “Little Fish” was written and filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic existed.

Written by Mattson Tomlin (who adapted the screenplay from Aja Gabel’s short story) and directed by Chad Hartigan, “Little Fish” is told from the point of view of a lively Brit named Emma (played by Cooke), who works as a veterinary technician in Seattle. The movie’s tone is fraught with anxiety because Emma starts to see signs that her worst fears are coming true: The two people she loves the most have become afflicted with NIA, a viral disease that causes dementia.

The movie is a series of scenes in non-chronological order, with the “present day” scenes taking place in 2022. Emma gives voiceover narration during much of the story, and there are many scenes where she is articulating her memories so that she can write them down for herself and her American husband Jude (played by O’Connell), a photographer who is slowly showing signs of having NIA. It’s an activity that she does with a heavy heart because she knows it might be a matter of time before Jude will forget who she is and everything about their relationship.

In addition, Emma’s mother, who lives in England, is also showing signs of NIA. Emma’s mother (whose name is not revealed) is never seen in the movie, but her voice is heard when Emma speaks to her on the phone or leaves a voice mail message for her. Emily Stott is the voice of Emma’s mother in the movie.

In the world of “Little Fish,” NIA does not have a vaccine or cure. And there doesn’t seem to be much knowledge about how it is spread, although people occasionally wear masks as a precaution. Because a lot of the movie takes place in flashbacks, viewers see in bits and pieces how Emma and Jude met and how their relationship evolved.

Emma and Jude met while she was sitting by herself on a deserted beach. She sees a dog nearby and asks the man walking near her if the dog is his. He says no. The way that Emma and Jude look at each other, there’s an obvious attraction. Emma is talkative, while Jude is a little bit more emotionally reserved.

Jude has a camera with him and asks if he can take her picture. She obliges, they talk, flirt a little, and they exchange numbers. There’s only one problem. Emma already has a boyfriend, but she doesn’t tell Jude that the first time that they meet.

Shortly after Jude and Emma meet each other at the beach, Emma is at a Halloween costume party. She’s dressed as Claude Bourgelat, the French doctor who was considered a pioneer of veterinary medicine in the 1700s. Emma looks bored at the party, and her boyfriend Tim (played by David Lennon), senses that she’s become emotionally distant. However, Emma insists that everything is just fine.

While at the party, Emma gets a call from Jude, who asks her to come over to his place because he’s feeling kind of lonely at his apartment. Emma doesn’t hesitate, so she ditches the Halloween party and goes to Jude’s place. Once he sees her, he immediately guesses that she’s dressed as Claude Bourgelat. It’s one of many indications of why Emma fell for Jude so quickly.

Jude and Emma then head to a nightclub, where she tells him that she has a boyfriend named Tim. When Jude asks Emma if she loves her boyfriend, she says no. Jude asks Emma why she’s with this boyfriend if she doesn’t love him. Emma tells Jude that it’s complicated. More than once Jude gets Tim’s name wrong (Jude calls him Tom), which could be a mental block or a deliberate attempt to show Emma that he’s so unconcerned about Tim that he can’t be bothered to remember Tim’s name.

While hanging out at the nightclub together, Jude and Emma’s attraction to each other continues to grow. They share a similar sense of humor, such as pointing out people in their sight and trying to guess what these people’s stories are. The movie doesn’t delve too much into Jude’s family background, but it’s implied he’s on how own, while Emma (who has a working-class northern England accent) only has her mother has her closest living relative.

During their flirtatious conversation at the nightclub, Jude asks Emma if she can kiss her. She says no because she has a boyfriend. Not long afterward, Emma says she has to leave, and then she surprises Jude by giving him a romantic kiss on the mouth.

Needless to say, Emma’s relationship with Tim doesn’t last. Jude and Emma’s romance quickly heats up, they end up moving in together, and then they get married. Emma mentions in the movie that their wedding was on October 14, 2021, which means that they were married for a year or less when Jude began showing signs of having NIA.

At first, Jude’s forgetfulness is about little things. For example, Emma and Jude have a dog named Blue. One day while riding together on a bus, Emma says it would be great if they could adopt another dog as a companion for Blue. Jude says no because they don’t have room in their apartment. They get into a minor argument about it, but Jude is firm in saying it’s not a good time for them to get a second dog.

But then, on another day not long after that argument, Jude mentions to Emma that they should think about adopting a second dog. Emma is shocked and reminds Jude that this has been an ongoing disagreement with them, with Jude being the one who was against the idea of getting a second dog. Jude tells Emma that he honestly can’t remember them disagreeing about this issue.

Emma and Jude never do get a second dog, because they have much the more pressing matter of how to deal with Jude’s disappearing memory. Jude shows other signs that his memory is slipping. He forgets where he lives and doesn’t think about looking at his driver’s license to get his home address. On another occasion, he’s very late for an important job to take photos of a wedding. And speaking of weddings, there’s a pivotal scene where Jude and Emma have very different memories of their wedding day.

While all of this is going on, Emma confides to her mother about her suspicions that Jude might have NIA. But to Emma’s horror, her mother starts to forget names and experiences too. And then, Emma gets a phone call from England and finds out how much her mother’s health is deteriorating. Emma has to decide if she should go to England to try to help her mother (who apparently has no other relatives to turn to) or stay in the U.S. to help Jude.

Emma and Jude’s closest friends are a couple named Ben Richards (played by Raúl Castillo) and Samantha (played by Soko), an alternative rock duo who are musical partners and love partners. Ben plays guitar and Samantha is the singer. Ben and Samantha knew Jude first, because Jude used to go on tour with them as the duo’s photographer.

As Jude reveals later in the story, during their touring days, Jude and Samantha got caught up in partying too much with alcohol and drugs, and they decided to “dry out” in Seattle, where Samantha’s parents live. By the time Jude met Emma, he had been clean and sober for a few years. In flashbacks, Samantha and Ben are shown to have a loving and harmonious relationship.

Unfortunately, things change when Ben’s mental state does downhill because he has NIA. At first, Ben’s forgetfulness shows up as not remembering the musical notes of his guitar strings, so Jude comes up with an idea to tattoo this information on Ben’s arms. But then, Ben’s memory loss results in a very disturbing incident that has Samantha questioning if she should continue to be in a relationship with Ben. And the dark turn in Samantha and Ben’s relationship has Emma worrying about how she and Jude need to prepare in case something similar happens to them.

Shortly after Jude began losing his memory, it’s in the news that the government is doing a clinical trial for a possible NIA vaccine. The clinical trial is open to people who show NIA symptoms. Emma immediately encourages Jude to apply for this clinical trial, but he’s reluctant, because he’s still somewhat in denial that he has NIA. How this issue is resolved is one of the turning points in the movie. There are a few scenes that also show how desperate people can become when they think there’s a chance that they or their loved ones have a chance to be cured of this terrible disease.

The heart of “Little Fish” is in the scenes that show Jude and Emma’s romance. They have a relationship that’s very realistic, such as an ease with one another in how they live as a couple, share emotional intimacy, and even how they handle disagreements. Despite their occasional conflicts, Emma and Jude are very much in love and committed to each other. And as NIA starts to take over their lives, the decisions they make are a direct result of their fear of losing each other.

The movie is titled “Little Fish” because of a scene in the movie where Jude proposes marriage to Emma. They are at a fish aquarium store when he pops the question, and she enthusiastically says yes. However, Jude tells her that he doesn’t have an engagement ring.

Emma is so happy that she doesn’t mind. She replies, “Then buy me a fish.” Later, Emma and Jude get matching tattoos of little fish on their respective right ankles to commemorate this special day. It should come as no surprise that there’s a scene in the movie where these tattoos are a way to see how much Jude remembers about his relationship with Emma.

“Little Fish” can be described as a sci-fi romantic drama, but there are parts of the movie that have the qualities of being an apocalyptic horror movie without all the bombastic “run for your lives” scenes that are usually in these types of apocalyptic movies. In “Little Fish,” the NIA horror sneaks up on people but shows up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

In one of the flashback scenes, Emma is at her job and signs paperwork for a stray dog that is turned in by a city employee named Frank (played by Toby Hargrave), who works for the city’s animal control department. Emma is a little surprised that Frank can’t remember her name. Observant viewers will not be surprised later in the movie when another driver named Annie (played by Angela Moore) shows up and tells Emma that she’s Frank’s replacement because he stopped showing up for work. The implication is that Frank has NIA.

The horror of NIA is exemplified in real life-or-death situations. While taking a tourist-type boat ride to get their mind off of their troubles, Emma and Jude witness a woman run hysterically toward them because the woman doesn’t remember her husband and thinks he’s a stranger trying to kidnap her. The woman on the boat is so distraught that she does something desperate and tragic.

And there are also missing-person flyers that start to become more prevalent as the NIA pandemic worsens. That’s because the disease has spread at such a rate that more people forget who they are, wander off, and go missing. It’s something that Emma fears might happen to Jack, her mother, and other people she know, including herself.

Cooke and O’Connell (who are both British in real life) have the type of natural chemistry with each other that give their performances considerable authenticity. Because Jude and Emma are a very believable couple, audiences will be rooting for Jude and Emma to somehow make it through this crisis against all odds. “Little Fish” director Hartigan and film editor Josh Crockett skillfully weave the story in such a way that viewers of “Little Fish” will be engrossed in putting all the flashbacks together to find out who Jude and Emma are. What makes this movie memorable is how these perceptions compare from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie.

IFC Films released “Little Fish” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 5, 2021.

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