Review: ‘Soft & Quiet,’ starring Stefanie Estes, Dana Millican, Olivia Luccardi, Eleanore Pienta, Melissa Paulo, Cissy Ly and Jon Beavers

March 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Olivia Luccardi, Dana Millican, Stefanie Estes, Rebekah Wiggins, Eleanore Pienta and Nina E. Jordan in “Soft & Quiet” (Photo by Greta Zozula)

“Soft & Quiet”

Directed by Beth de Araújo

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Soft & Quiet” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with two Asians and one Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: White supremacist women gather to form a racist hate group, and some of them plot to get revenge on two Asian women in a crime that spirals out of control.

Culture Audience: “Soft & Quiet” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that have accurate depictions of racist hate crimes and the people who commit them.

Stefanie Estes in “Soft & Quiet” (Photo by Greta Zozula)

Even though this movie’s title is “Soft & Quiet,” the movie’s message is meant to sound a very loud and urgent alarm. It’s a brutally realistic and disturbing depiction of female white supremacists who try to look harmless, but whose toxic bigotry can erupt into vicious hate crimes. Most movies (fiction and non-fiction) about white supremacists often focus on male racists, because male racists tend to be more visible to the public, such as when men are the majority of attendees at hate rallies. “Soft & Quiet” writer/director Beth de Araújo exposes the equally dangerous and often more covert insidiousness of women who identify as white supremacists and who will do whatever it takes to oppress and violate people who aren’t white.

Although the characters in this movie are fictional, they represent exactly how many hate-filled racists actually think and act in the real world. “Soft & Quiet” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. It would be foolish to dismiss “Soft & Quiet” as being overly dramatic or an “only in a movie” story. Anyone can look up real-life hate crimes to see that what happens in this movie has happened in one form or another in real life—and the crimes are often much worse than what’s in a movie. And those are just the crimes that were reported. There are unknown numbers of unreported crimes that will never be made public.

People who watch “Soft & Quiet” without knowing anything about the movie beforehand might think from the film’s first 15 minutes that it’s just a lightweight story about some suburban women getting together to form a support group in a church. That’s the intention of the movie: to make people aware that racists who have these hateful beliefs often give the appearance of being inoffensive, law-abiding citizens. It’s that false sense of “unthreatening normalcy” that acts as a façade for many racists who are hiding in plain sight and who intend to violate other people’s civil rights, based on their race.

“Soft & Quiet,” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, begins with a scene in an unnamed primary school restroom, where a schoolteacher in her 30s named Emily (played by Stefanie Estes) is in a toilet stall and looking at the result of a pregnancy test. Emily bursts into tears when she sees the result of the test. Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Emily and her husband have been unsuccessfully trying to start a family. This latest pregnancy test shows that she’s not pregnant.

Emily gathers her composure as she walks out of the restroom. School sessions have ended for the day, and Emily sees a cleaning employee named Maria (played by Jovita Molina), who’s doing her job on the premises. Emily apparently is a teacher of first graders or second graders, because one of her students is a boy named Daniel (played by Jayden Leavitt), who’s about 7 or 8 years old.

Daniel is waiting outside by himself because his mother is late in picking him up. Emily expresses some concern about this child being alone, but she’s more concerned about telling Daniel to scold Maria to not mop any floors until after Daniel leaves. Emily says it’s because Daniel could slip and hurt himself on a wet floor. When Daniel’s mother arrives, Emily makes sure to tell her that she was looking out for Daniel and that this school employee could’ve put Daniel’s life in danger. Daniel’s mother expresses gratitude to Emily for being so conscientious.

Emily is not saying these things out of the kindness of her heart. The movie shows in subtle ways, which become more obvious when Emily’s true racist nature is revealed, that Emily wanted Daniel to put this Latina employee “in her place,” because Emily firmly believes in white supremacy. Throughout the movie, there are several references to the white supremacist women being preoccupied with feeling that their race is “endangered” in America.

After she leaves the school, Emily goes to a local church, where she has gathered a group of five other women (ranging in ages from late 20s to late 30s) for a meeting. At first, the women exchange small talk. But then, Emily unwraps the cherry pie that she brought to the meeting. The pie has a Nazi swastika carved in the center. All of the women laugh with glee and amusement when they see this hateful and disgusting symbol.

That’s because the women who have gathered for this meeting want to form a group called Daughters of Aryan Unity. A few of the women already know each other, while others do not. The women sit in a circle and introduce themselves, beginning with Emily, and they all express much of their racial hostility and resentments. Many of their vile comments are what you would expect from bigots who think that people who are white, Christian, heterosexual and cisgender are superior to everyone else.

Here are brief descriptions of the other members of the group:

Kim (played by Dana Millican), a married mother of two children, is the owner/manager of a local convenience store. Kim has a journalism degree and a brittle, no-nonsense attitude. She offers to be in charge of the group’s planned newsletter. Kim immediately shows her anti-Semitism when she complains about Jews owning banks and controlling the mainstream media. Emily and Kim have known each other for years.

Leslie (played by Olivia Luccardi) has recently moved to the area. She’s a bachelorette who later reveals that she’s an ex-con and comes from a “shitty family.” Leslie was invited to this meeting by Kim, because Leslie works at the same convenience store. Leslie thinks of Kim as her mentor. It should come as no surprise, considering Leslie’s criminal background, that Leslie ends up being the biggest loose cannon in the group.

Marjorie (played by Eleanore Pienta) is a retail store employee, who’s angry that a female co-worker of Colombian heritage got a job promotion that Marjorie wanted. Even though Marjorie admits that her supervisor told Marjorie that the promoted employee has “better leadership skills” than Marjorie does, Marjorie still thinks that Marjorie was entitled to the promotion because she’s been a store employee longer and because she is a white American. Marjorie, who dismisses any of the promoted co-worker’s job qualifications, says that the co-worker only got promoted because of “diversity and because she’s brown.”

Nora (played by Nina E. Jordan), a lifelong member of the Ku Klux Klan, says that her father was a KKK chapter president in Valentine, Nebraska. Nora, who is married and pregnant with her fifth child, believes that people of different races are better-off being separated from each other. She has this to say about race mixing: “I’m here to talk common sense. Multiculturism doesn’t work.”

Alice (played by Rebekah Wiggins), an awkward loner, says that she’s a married homemaker who spends “a lot of time by myself and in my thoughts.” Even if this group has beliefs that unite them, the “mean girls” element is still there. After the meeting, a few of the women single out Alice behind her back because they think Alice is a misfit who might not be compatible with the other women.

Emily leads the discussions and makes these remarks: “We are here to support each other during this multicultural warfare. I have been brainwashed to feel shame for my heritage, to feel guilty for the prosperity our husbands, our fathers, our brothers created in the Western world and that everyone else benefited from.” In her racist speech, Emily ignores historical facts about the United States, where white supremacy caused genocide of indigenous people, enslavement of black people, and other racist human-rights violations that resulted in white people benefiting and prospering the most from this racism.

When talking about the proposed newsletter, Emily makes a comment that best sums up why these types of female white supremacists are so sneaky: “We have to be careful with the first issue [of the newsletter]. We want to engage the mainstream. We can’t come on too strong, okay? Soft on the outside, so vigorous ideas can be digested more easily. We are the best secret weapon that no one checks at the door because we tread quietly.”

Not everyone is welcoming of this group’s racist beliefs. Something happens that abruptly breaks up the meeting: The church pastor, who is in the building, apparently overheard this discussion, and that’s how he found out that Emily was hosting a white supremacist meeting. The pastor takes Emily aside privately, expresses his disapproval, and tells her that if she and her group leave immediately and never come back, he won’t report them. Emily ends the meeting, but she doesn’t tell the other members of the group that they have been kicked out by the church pastor.

Not long after this church expulsion, something happens that changes the course of the story. Emily, her husband Craig (played by Jon Beavers) and Marjorie happen to be in the convenience store where Kim and Leslie are working. The store is about to close when two sisters in their 20s go in the store. Kim announces that the store is closed, but the older and more assertive sister, whose name is Anne (played Melissa Paulo), says she just needs to quickly buy a bottle of wine. The younger sister’s name is Lily (played by Cissy Ly), who is quieter than Anne and is more likely to want to avoid confrontations.

Anne and Lily both happen to be Asian. And when they go in the store, they are the only people of color who are there. What happens next triggers a series of events that turn “Soft & Quiet” from a conversation-driven movie into a gripping portrayal of heinous and irreversible actions. It’s enough to say, without revealing too many details, that the white supremacists instigate a physical altercation at the store, and then they impulsively hatch a vengeful plot that targets Anne and Lily.

It’s important for viewers to notice that when the members of this white supremacist group commit the crimes that they commit, they are always thinking about how they can use their privileges as white women to get away with the crimes. There are subtle and not-so-subtle references to how they think because they are white women, they are more likely to be believed than people who aren’t white. They also engage in a lot of ego posturing about how they are the “good people,” while their victims and targets of their hate are the “bad people.” And during one particularly harrowing scene, Kim mentions that she knows plenty of cops who can protect her and other members of this racist group if they do something wrong.

All of the cast members in the movie give authentic portrayals of their characters, which is why “Soft & Quiet” will touch a lot of nerves in viewers who might see people they know in these characters. Emily has a respectable job as a teacher of very young and impressionable kids, but it masks her dark side that she only shows to certain people. Estes gives a chilling but effective performance as someone who presents herself as one way to most of the world but is actually another way in reality.

Luccardi’s unhinged portrayal of Leslie represents the type of white supremacist who doesn’t really care about hiding hate. Leslie is the only one in this movie who mentions anything about her background. She’s the only one in this group who has a criminal record. But the point of “Soft & Quiet” isn’t to blame family upbringings or over-explain backstories for why these women turned out the way that they did. The point of the movie is to show viewers that this is how a lot of racists are behind closed doors.

“Soft & Quiet” is an impressive feature-film debut from writer/director de Araújo, who shows great skill in how the movie unpeels the layers of racist hate. The movie also succeeds in how it credibly transitions from camaraderie-filled discussions to a maelstrom of terror and violence. The film’s compelling cinematography (by Greta Zozula), music (by Miles Ross) and editing (by Lindsay Armstrong) will engulf viewers in this tension-filled environment.

“Soft & Quiet” is not an easy film to watch. It’s meant to make people uncomfortable. It might make people angry or sad. The violence and hatred unleashed by the movie’s racist characters might be triggering for some viewers who’ve experienced these types of crimes. Some viewers might be so turned-off or upset, they might not be able to finish watching the movie. Regardless of what people think of “Soft & Quiet,” the movie serves its purpose if it makes people more aware and less in denial about the racists who live among us and how poisonous these bigots can be.

UPDATE: Momentum Pictures will release “Soft & Quiet” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 4, 2022.

Review: ‘The Cellar’ (2022), starring Elisha Cuthbert, Eoin Macken, Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady and Abby Fitz

March 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady and Elisha Cuthbert in “The Cellar” (Photo by Martin Maguire/RLJE Films/Shudder)

“The Cellar” (2022)

Directed by Brendan Muldowney

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland, the horror film “The Cellar” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple and their two children move into a house that has a history of being haunted and where previous residents have mysteriously disappeared. 

Culture Audience: “The Cellar” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching formulaic horror movies that don’t do anything truly unique.

Eoin Macken and Abby Fitz in “The Cellar” (Photo by Martin Maguire/RLJE Films/Shudder)

“The Cellar” succeeds in creating a spooky atmosphere, but it fails to rise above countless other haunted house stories, because of the movie’s weak screenplay, mediocre acting and dull pacing. “The Cellar” is too generic to be a memorable horror film. There are so many overused concepts in “The Cellar” that are in better haunted house movies, you can really do a checklist of all the ideas that are recycled in “The Cellar.”

Written and directed by Brendan Muldowney, “The Cellar” is based on his short film “The Ten Steps.” It’s yet another story about a family moving into a house with very dark secrets that the family won’t discover until it’s too late. And the people living in the house stay much longer than most people would in real life, just so the terror in the movie can be stretched out in repetitive scenes. “The Cellar” had its world premiere on the same date at the 2022 editions of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival and FrightFest Glasgow.

The family at the center of “The Cellar” are spouses Keira Woods (played by Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian Woods (played by Eoin Macken) and their children Ellie Woods (played by Abby Fitz) and Steven Woods (played by Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady). Ellie, who’s about 16 or 17 years old, is a stereotypical pouty teen. Her idea of rebelling is reading books on anarchy and getting an ankle tattoo of the anarchy symbol. Steven, who’s about 10 or 11 years old, is a stereotypical adorable tyke with the expected wide-eyed, open-mouthed, shocked reactions when the terror in the house begins to happen.

The Woods family’s new home is a drab and shabby mansion in an unnamed city in Ireland. (The movie was actually filmed on location in Roscommon, Ireland.) And as haunted houses typically are in horror movies, this house is in an isolated wooded area. The family members are all natives of Ireland, except for Keira, who’s either Canadian or American. (Cuthbert is Canadian in real life.)

“The Cellar” opens with the Woods family’s first day and night in the house. Brian and Steven are already there, while Keira and Ellie arrive separately by car. Ellie is already sulking because she didn’t want to move away from her friends. Upon seeing the house for the first time, Ellie says, “Holy shit. It’s so ugly!”

Why is this the first time that Ellie is seeing this house? It’s because Brian and Keira bought the house at an extremely low price at an auction. And they later find out the hard way that this bargain was too good to be true. And yes, “The Cellar” is another haunted house movie where the new residents didn’t bother to find out any background information about the house before buying it. The house still has furnishings and decorations left behind by the previous owner.

“The Cellar” doesn’t waste any time in showing that the house’s cellar is a place where sinister things happen. Within minutes of being in the house for the first time, Ellie goes in the cellar and declares to Keira, who’s near the door: “It’s filthy!” Keira replies, “I like to think of it as character.” And sure enough, Ellie mysteriously gets locked in the cellar, she freaks out, and then manages to escape. “I’m not staying in this house!” Ellie wails.

But of course, Ellie does stay in the house. After all, where else is she going to go in a hackneyed horror movie? All of the house’s rooms are predictably dark, as if everyone who’s lived there couldn’t be bothered to get a proper lamp or lighting that can illuminate more than certain corners of a room.

Ellie gets even more irritated with her parents when she finds out she has to look after Steven like a babysitter on their first night in the house. That’s because Keira and Brian, who are independent TV producers, have to work late because of an important pitch meeting related to their business. Keira tells Ellie that they need to sell this pitch in order for the family to financially survive.

Meanwhile, back in the mansion that doesn’t know the meaning of full-wattage light bulbs, Ellie is bitterly complaining to her boyfriend on the phone about how she much she dislikes her new home and how it’s unfair that she and Brian have to be in this creepy house alone on their first night there. The boyfriend listens to Ellie gripe about how much she misses him and their friends, and he suggests that he stay with her, even though Ellie’s parents wouldn’t let her do that. Ellie tells him why her parents are working late and says, “I hope they go bust, and we have to sell this house!”

Keira and Brian are independent TV producers who are trying to launch a reality show geared to teenagers called “Natural Selection,” where a young actress will pretend to be a popular vlogger. The pitch meeting takes place in a darkly lit conference room (everything in this movie is darkly lit or in tones of gray), where Keira and Brian are trying to sell this show to TV executives. There are vague mentions about viewer voting based on the physical appearances of the reality show’s cast members. It sounds like a horrible idea.

While Keira and Brian are in this meeting, the electricity suddenly goes out in their house. And what a coincidence: The circuit breaker is in the cellar. Guess who has to be the one to go back to the dreaded cellar to figure out what’s going on with the circuit breaker? Ellie calls Keira to tell her about this electricty outage. Keira excuses herself from the meeting and tells Ellie that she has to be the one to fix the electricity problem by finding the circuit breaker.

Ellie is in a near-panic because she’s scared and reluctant to go back to the cellar. During this phone conversation, Keira instructs Ellie on how to find the circuit breaker in the cellar. And because this movie is filled with as many horror clichés as possible, Ellie is holding a lit candle in the cellar, instead of a more practical flashlight or a smartphone light.

Keira guides Ellie by telling her how many steps she needs to take to get to the circuit breaker. To help calm down Ellie, Keira tells Ellie to count out loud how many steps she’s taking for this walkthrough. During this counting out loud, the phone disconnects. Keira calls back and gets no answer. And when Keira and Brian get home, they find out to their shock that Ellie has disappeared.

A police investigator named Detective Brophy (played by Andrew Bennett) is called to the scene. Keira and Brian aren’t completely alarmed because they tell the detective that Ellie has run away before, and she’ll probably come back in a few days. A small search team looks though the woods to no avail. Keira puts up some missing-person flyers around the area. Meanwhile, “The Cellar” is so poorly written, it never shows Keira or Brian contacting any of Ellie’s friends to find out if these friends have seen her, which would be one of the first things that parents of a missing child would do.

The rest of “The Cellar” gets a bit monotonous, as Keira discovers strange symbols in the house and tries to find out what they all mean. Eventually, the search for Ellie becomes less of a priority in the movie than Keira playing detective to find out the history of the house and to get more information about the previous residents. Ellie contacts the auction manager, who says that the house was previously owned by an elderly woman whom he never met because her attorney was his main contact for the auction.

Because clues are easily given to Keira throughout the movie, she notices that the house has a portrait painting of a university mathematician named John Fetherston, the deceased patriarch of the family that previously lived there. She goes on a quest to find out this family’s background. The answers she gets are utterly predictable.

During this investigation that takes up a lot of Keira’s time, the movie never bothers again to address Keira and Brian’s job predicament that has made them financially desperate. As the days go by, and Ellie remains missing, these parents of a missing child don’t have realistic conversations about this family crisis of a child’s disappearance. It’s why “The Cellar” mishandles the separate terror of a family who has a missing child.

Instead, the movie puts more emphasis on the banal horror trope of a woman being perceived as mentally ill if she suspects what’s going on has to do with the supernatural. Brian questions Keira’s mental health when she divulges some of her theories about why the house might be haunted. Keira also begins to believe that Ellie didn’t run away but that Ellie was abducted—and not necessarily by a human being.

Meanwhile, more stereotypical haunted house hijinks ensue. Doors mysteriously open on their own. Objects get moved with no explanation. Steven gets locked in a room on one occasion, even though no one else appears to be there. The house’s electricity malfunctions again. It all just leads to a conclusion that would only be surprising to people who fell asleep during the movie’s boring middle section. The movie’s last scene is actually one of the few highlights of “The Cellar,” but it’s too little, too late.

One of the more commendable aspects of “The Cellar” is composer Stephen McKeon’s effectively haunting score. This music is sometimes used in over-the-top ways, but it does bring a consistent level of invoking the right moods for each scene. The production design for “The Cellar” is also noteworthy, although nothing in this movie is going to win any awards. The movie’s visual effects are adequate and not gruesome, for viewers who don’t like seeing bloody gore. Still, most of the movie’s “jump scares” just aren’t very scary, and they lack originality.

Unfortunately, the quality of “The Cellar” is lowered by Cuthbert’s stiff performance. She’s never really believable as a mother who’s frantically worried about her missing child. And in scenes where she should be conveying more emotion, Cuthbert just delivers her lines flatly. All the other cast members are in underwritten and underdeveloped roles, with nothing particularly special about their acting. “The Cellar” isn’t the worst horror movie ever, but it doesn’t have the spark, personality or creative imagination to make it stand out from other horror movies with the same ideas.

RLJE Films will release “The Cellar” in select U.S. cinemas on April 15, 2022, the same date that the movie premieres on Shudder.

Review: ‘Deadstream,’ starring Joseph Winter and Melanie Stone

March 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Joseph Winter in “Deadstream” (Photo by Jared Cook)


Directed by Joseph Winter and Vanessa Winter

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Utah, the horror movie “Deadstream” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A controversial Internet prankster does a livestream event from a haunted house, and he experiences unexpected terror.

Culture Audience: “Deadstream” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching poorly made horror movies with an extremely annoying main character.

Joseph Winter in “Deadstream” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

“Deadstream” is dead on arrival with its bungled attempt at taking the over-used concept of a haunted house and blending it with the tech concept of Internet livestreaming. It’s the type of idiotic horror flick where the obnoxious main character hides in a van to avoid being killed by an attacker, but then he keeps screaming loudly, thereby exposing his hiding place. In fact, throughout this movie, viewers will wish that the dimwitted, motormouth main character of “Deadstream” would just shut up and go away.

Written and directed by husband-and-wife duo Joseph Winter and Vanessa Winter, “Deadstream” could have been a better movie on so many levels. The movie’s plot—horror during a livestream, set in one location—is not completely original but it has a lot of potential for some genuine scares and compelling characters. Unfortunately, “Deadstream” is ruined by a whiny-voiced protagonist whose non-stop annoying chatter is the equivalent of verbal diarrhea.

It’s one of those movies where you can immediately tell, without even looking at the film credits, that the irritating and off-putting main character is the movie’s director. How can you tell? Because the acting is horrible, and everything about this character (and this movie) is extremely self-indulgent with no real self-awareness of how bad everything is, which is usually a sign that if the director is an actor, then he cast himself as the star of the movie.

Unfortunately, in “Deadstream,” viewers are stuck with this insufferable main character, who is in every scene of this dull, unimaginative and sloppily made film. His name is Shawn Ruddy (played by Joseph Winter), a Utah-based cretin who makes his living as a controversial Internet personality. Shawn, who is in his 30s, films himself doing extreme pranks and stunts, and he puts those videos online.

Shawn’s entire act is to do things where he says he’s facing his greatest fears. “Deadstream” is filmed almost entirely as if it’s a livestream of what happens to Shawn in the movie. Although “Deadstream” takes place in an unnamed city in Utah, the movie was actually filmed in Spanish Fork, Utah. “Deadstream” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

What Shawn has done in his quest for more Internet fame has gotten him banned and/or de-monetized from several social media platforms. Some of his pranks and stunts include intentionally provoking a police officer (there’s brief flashback footage of Shawn picking a fight with a cop in uniform and being chased by the cop), as well as some other tacky and dumb things that aren’t shown in the movie but are mentioned, such as smuggling himself across the U.S./Mexico border, so he could ridicule undocumented Mexican immigrants. Another of Shawn’s controversial stunts was paying a homeless man to fight Shawn, and then beating up the homeless man.

The movie obviously wants to be a spoof of the real-life Internet jerks who do these tasteless and often-illegal stunts, but the comedy in “Deadstream” falls very flat. The biggest problem with this movie’s failed attempt at satire is that “Deadstream” has nothing clever or funny to say about this subculture of people who seek fame and fortune on the Internet by putting themselves and other people in harm’s way. The beginning of the movie shows Shawn trying to redeem himself by announcing to his audience that he will do a stunt where he won’t hurt other people.

Shawn is now livestreaming on a website called, which is one of the last places on the Internet that will host his shenanigans. It’s never mentioned in the movie how many Internet followers Shawn has, but he has a devoted group of people who still want to see his mindless antics. Shawn announces to his audience one day: “I’m mortally terrified of ghosts. For my next livestream event, I will be spending one night alone in a haunted house.”

An unnamed sponsor is paying Shawn to do this livestream. Under the terms of the sponsor contract, Shawn has to be the only person in the house during this livestream. And if he sees or hears anything unusual, he has to check it out. If he breaks these rules, he won’t get paid. However, one of these rules gets broken, in order to service what happens in most of the movie.

The first third of “Deadstream” is a monotonous slog of Shawn talking on camera while he’s in the haunted house, explaining the house’s history, and showing viewers each room in the house. In between, he makes wisecracks that aren’t funny at all. The small, abandoned house, which is nicknamed Death Manor, is in an isolated wooded area. The house is dirty, damaged, and has been boarded up since the 1950s.

When Shawn first arrives at Death Manor (which he calls “the most haunted house in the world”), he shows his livestream audience that he’s serious about not leaving in case he gets scared. On camera, he removes his car’s spark plugs and throws them into the woods. The history of Death Manor is that it was built in 1880 by a wealthy Mormon pioneer, who built the house for his adult daughter named Mildred Pratt, who was a poet and a social outcast.

As a young woman, Mildred had a long-distance love affair with a book publisher named Lars Jorgensen, who was based in Boston. Lars proposed marriage to Mildred, and she accepted his proposal. But tragically, two days before Mildred was going to travel to Boston to be with Lars, he died in an accident. Distraught over Lars’ death, Mildred committed suicide in the house. Over the years, several other people, including five children, have mysteriously died in the house, with the legend being that Mildred is the ghost who’s haunting the house and causing these deaths.

One of the men who died in the house wrote about a recurring dream of seeing a ghost in the house, with the ghost saying, “The pond water is still.” The movie wastes some time with Shawn showing his audience some archival clips of paranormal investigators who spent time in the house. None of this is really spoiler information, because most of the movie’s “horror” is about whether or not Shawn will encounter Mildred or other ghosts.

One of this livestream event’s rules is broken when a woman in her 20s named Chrissy (played by Melanie Stone) unexpectedly shows up and says that she’s a major fan of Shawn, and she wants to hang out with him at this house and possibly help him. Shawn wants Chrissy to leave because his sponsor contract says that he has to spend the night alone in the house. However, several viewers demand that Chrissy stay in the house because they think she looks sexy.

Shawn takes a viewer vote over whether or not Chrissy can stay in the haunted house with him, and the vast majority of viewers vote for Chrissy to stay. Shawn says on camera that the sponsor can make an exception to the rule since Chrissy being in the house is what the majority of Shawn’s audience wanted. Chrissy is very much a fawning “fangirl” who seems to have a big crush on Shawn. Some of the viewers commenting online also notice that Chrissy is a lot braver than Shawn in this haunted house. Of course, this wouldn’t be a horror movie if things didn’t go terribly wrong, and some dangerous madness ensues.

One of the missed opportunities in “Deadstream” is how inconsistently it shows Shawn’s engagement with his live audience. There are some viewer comments shown on screen, and Shawn occasionally responds directly to some of these comments. But then, there are other scenes where the comments should be on the computer screen, but they’re not. Some of the comments say exactly what “Deadstream” viewers will be thinking, when they talk about how boring everything is.

Shawn wears or holds a camera that can show the audience what he’s seeing. He also wears a helmet with built-in flashlight, since the house has no electricity or other lighting. In addition to having a computer tablet and a laptop computer, Shawn has a camera with a ‘”selfie” angle. Expect to see a lot of close-ups of Shawn’s face in “Deadstream,” which has many scenes that were obviously inspired other horror movies about people who film themselves during a ghost investigation, such as 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” and 2009’s “Paranormal Activity.”

Shawn does a lot of talking at the camera, but he’s so self-absorbed that he doesn’t interact with the audience as much as he should, even though audience interaction is one of the main purposes of a livestream. When a lot of the mayhem starts, Shawn is obviously preoccupied with what’s in front of him, but “Deadstream” doesn’t really show a lot of live-reaction terrified comments from people in Shawn’s audience, who are supposed to be witnessing the horror in real time.

Instead, there are parts of the movie where Shawn occasionally logs on to video messages to get advice or knowledge from people in the audience. These parts of the movie look awkward and don’t transition well in the already-erratic flow of the story. There are parts of the movie involving poems and spell chants that are very bottom-of-the-barrel silly with no creativity.

In fact, there are huge sections of “Deadstream” that seem to want viewers to forget that everything is happening in front of people in a live audience. That’s because the movie clumsily handles the scenes where Shawn repeatedly screams for help. Shawn apparently didn’t bring a phone with him. And even if he did, it’s unlikely he would get a signal, because that hindrance is typical in horror movies with people stuck in isolated areas.

One of the movie’s biggest plot holes is that it never explains where Shawn is getting his WiFi service in this remote, wooded area and in an abandoned house with no electricity. Because of this plot hole, the entire concept of the movie falls apart. “Deadstream” comes across as a movie where the filmmakers think viewers are too stupid to see this obvious plot hole.

Sometimes, plot holes can be overlooked in a horror movie if it really delivers on some genuinely scary moments. Unfortunately, “Deadstream” falls short of this basic standard. The movie has too much of Shawn’s incessant yakking, moronic shrieking and self-centered posturing, but not enough action, which doesn’t really kick in until the last third of the film. The visual effects and makeup for the supernatural entities are creepy, but not terrifying. “Deadstream,” much like its dreadful main character, ultimately wears out its welcome long before the movie is over.

Shudder will premiere “Deadstream” on October 6, 2022.

Review: ‘Sissy,’ starring Aisha Dee, Hannah Barlow, Lucy Barrett, Emily De Margheriti, Daniel Monks and Yerin Ha

March 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Aisha Dee in “Sissy” (Photo by Steve Arnold)


Directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes

Culture Representation: Taking place in Canberra, Australia, the horror movie “Sissy” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and one Asian) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A social media influencer is invited to a weekend getaway party by a former childhood friend, and bitter emotions lead to murder and mayhem.

Culture Audience: “Sissy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that have a satirical tone.

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Yerin Ha, Daniel Monks, Emily De Margheriti, Hannah Barlow and Lucy Barrett in “Sissy” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

The darkly comedic horror film “Sissy” sarcastically combines bloody gore with incisive commentary about friendships, bullying and social media culture. It’s a movie that might start off seeming to be one way, but some clever twists and turns take viewers on a bumpy and unpredictable ride. The scares aren’t so much in the violent and gruesome deaths but in the horror of how easily people can be manipulated into thinking certain ways about other people, based on contrived and superficial images. “Sissy” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

“Sissy” is written and directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes, who previously teamed up for the 2017 comedy/drama feature film “For Now.” Barlow is also an actress in “For Now,” as she is in “Sissy.” The title character in “Sissy” (which takes place in Canberra, Australia) is named Cecilia (played by Aisha Dee), but her childhood nickname was Sissy. This childhood is shown in several flashbacks depicted through Cecilia’s memories and home videos that she has kept over the years.

The flashbacks show Cecilia/Sissy when she was 12 years old (played by Amelia Lule) and hanging out with her best friend at the time: Emma (played by Camille Cumpston), who is the same age. The two girls are seen doing what adolescent best friends often do: They dance together to pop songs, they talk about their hopes and dreams, and they pledge to be best friends forever. In one of the flashbacks, Emma tells Cecilia/Sissy: “Let’s make a pact: No matter what happens, we end up in the nursing home together. You’re the only person I want to poop my pants with.”

The movie opens 12 years after these home videos were made. Cecilia and Emma (played by Barlow) haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. Cecilia is now making a living as a social media influencer who gives New Age positive self-help and self-esteem advice on videos that she puts online. Using the social media name Sincerely Cecilia, she currently has about 200,000 followers on social media, where she talks a lot about meditation and creating “safe spaces.”

One day, Cecilia is in a drugstore pharmacy when she randomly sees Emma. Cecilia seems alarmed and backs away, as if she doesn’t want to Emma to see her. But Emma does see Cecilia, and Emma is very happy to see her. Emma and Cecilia give each other updates on what they’ve been doing with their lives.

Cecilia is uncomfortable and a little bit guarded during this conversation, but Emma doesn’t notice this discomfort at all. In fact, Emma seems to be very impressed with Cecilia being an “influencer” with a six-figure following on social media. Emma is also eager to have Cecilia back in her life, so she impulsively invites Cecilia to the engagement party that’s she’s having to celebrate her impending marriage to her fiancée Fran (played by Lucy Barrett). Cecilia reluctantly accepts the invitation.

At this festive party, which is held at a nightclub, Cecilia meets Fran, who is very friendly and tells Cecilia that Emma talks a lot about her. Cecilia doesn’t know anyone else at the party except for Emma, whose many friends in attendance include gossipy Jamie (played by Daniel Monks) and talkative Tracey (played by Yerin Ha). After some initial hesitation, Cecilia ends up having a fairly good time at the party, even though a drunken Emma pulled Cecilia on stage and forced her to sing karaoke with her, and Emma vomited on Cecilia. It’s one of the many comedic moments in the movie.

Emma and Cecilia’s reunion goes well enough that Emma insists that Cecilia come along to a weekend getaway trip that Emma is having with a small group of friends at a remote house in a wooded area. On this trip are Emma, Cecilia, Fran, Jamie and Tracey, who travel in one car to the vacation house. Another guest is already at the house when they arrive. And she’s not happy to see Cecilia at all. In fact, she’s absolutely furious about it.

Her name is Alexandra “Alex” Kutis (played by Emily De Margheriti), who knew Emma and Cecilia in their childhoods. (In the childhood flashback scenes, Alex is played by April Blasdall.) Through a series of events, viewers find out why there’s bad blood between Alex and Cecilia. It’s enough to say that in their childhoods, Alex was a rival to Cecilia to be Emma’s closest friend.

That rivalry opens up old emotional wounds, because Alex is now in Emma’s life as a close friend. On Alex’s social media, she describes Emma as her “best friend.” At this getaway trip, Cecilia is treated like an outsider, since she barely knows anyone in the group except for Emma and Alex. Emma’s friends are very superficial and catty, as they talk about people on social media and are preoccupied with watching a tacky reality dating show called “Paradise Lust.”

Alex delights in making Cecilia as uncomfortable as possible on this trip. For example, Alex smirks when telling Cecilia that Cecilia has to sleep on the couch because Emma didn’t tell Cecilia would be on this trip, and there are no more beds available. Alex also deliberately calls Cecilia her former childhood nickname “Sissy” numerous times, even though Cecilia politely corrects her and tells her that she no longer goes by the name Sissy, which has painful memories for Cecilia.

During a group dinner, Alex’s hostility toward Cecilia is on full display, when Alex belittles Cecilia for being a “public figure” who’s “profiting from people’s pain.” This remark comes after Tracey rudely asks Cecilia how much money she makes from being a social media influencer. Emma tries to keep the peace and says that it’s no one’s business how much money Cecilia makes. Meanwhile, Cecilia is visibly embarrassed by this barrage of disrespectful judgments about who she is from people she’s just met.

Alex also questions the ethics of anyone who gives self-help advice for a living but who’s not a trained and qualified professional in psychology. Even though Cecilia tells everyone that she’s upfront with her audience that she’s not a trained professional, Alex and eventually Jamie attempt to demean Cecilia to make her feel unworthy of her accomplishments. And to make Cecilia feel even more insecure, Alex mentions that Fran is studying to get her doctorate in psychology. Alex snipes to Cecilia, “Fran is helping real people with real problems.”

The story behind the shared history of Cecilia, Emma and Alex unfolds in layers to reveal why there’s so much resentment, jealousy and other negative feels that come out and affect what happens on this trip. The dialogue in this movie is both satirical and authentic when it comes to the psychological warfare that people can play on each other. All of the actors portray their roles with just enough parody to show viewers that “Sissy” is not a movie that’s taking itself too seriously.

“Sissy” has fun playing with some horror movie stereotypes, such as “terror in the woods” and a dimwitted cop who is called to the scene when the mayhem is in full swing. This cop’s name is Constable Martindale (played by Shaun Martindale), and he embodies the typical horror movie cop who arrives alone and has to make quick decisions on how to handle some chaos. The movie is also a hilariously brutal send-up of how people use social media in the worst ways.

As a low-budget movie, “Sissy” makes very good use of cinematography (by Steve Arnold) to convey certain moods. Certain pivotal scenes are bathed in an eerie crimson red. And the color pink is a constant presence in the movie, to conjure up the childhood friendship of Cecilia/Sissy and Emma as a reminder of not only their happy memories but also what went wrong to cause their long estrangement.

Before going on the getaway trip, Cecilia looks back on a childhood video of her and Emma where they were wearing pink wigs, so Cecilia decides to dye her hair pink. It’s a symbolic of how Cecilia wishes she could go back to this happy time in her life. “Sissy” also has an original score (by Kenneth Lambl) that also skillfully goes back and forth between whimsical and ominous, to reflect these contrasting moods in the movie.

But all of these elements really wouldn’t work as well without the performances of the cast members and the direction of the film, which get the tone of a satirical horror film just right. The heart of the movie (as well as the terror) is really about the cauldron of emotions stirred up when Cecilia, Emma and Alex are all on this unsettling trip together. Dee, Barlow and De Margheriti give the movie’s best performances as this trio of women coming to terms with their past. And because Cecilia is the most complex of these characters, Dee has the standout performance.

“Sissy” is not for viewers who are easily disturbed by seeing bloody violence in movies. However, for people who can tolerate this type of content, “Sissy” offers more than the usual horror movie clichés. It’s easy for horror movies to stage bloody death scenes that are messy. But what “Sissy” accomplishes is much harder: It shows in intriguing and sometimes uncomfortably funny ways how life, relationships and people’s inner psyches can be messy too.

UPDATE: Shudder and AMC+ will premiere “Sissy” on September 30, 2022.

2022 South by Southwest: What to expect at this year’s SXSW Event

February 2, 2022

Updated March 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lizzo (Photo courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA)

For the first time, South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals will be held as a hybrid event (in-person and online) for the 2022 edition of the event, which takes place from March 11 to March 20 in Austin, Texas. After being cancelled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and going completely online in 2021, SXSW is following safety protocols to offer this hybrid experience for SXSW attendees in 2022. SXSW is arguably the best-known event in the U.S. that combines music, film, interactive and convergence programming.

Here are some of the anticipated highlights of the festival:

Updated February 15, 2022

The lineup of SXSW keynote speakers includes:

  • Grammy-winning artist Lizzo
  • Grammy-winning artist Beck
  • Author Neal Stephenson
  • Filmmaker/immersive artist Celine Tricart
  • President of Beggars Group U.S. Nabil Ayers with journalist Andy Langer
  • MediaLink founder and CEO of Michael E. Kassan and founder and Candle Media founder/co-CEO chairman of DAZN Group/Smash Ventures co-founder/managing director Kevin Mayer with Variety co-editor-in-chief Cynthia Littleton
  • Rappler CEO Maria Ressa
  • Grammy Award-nominated artist Michelle Zauner

Featured speakers include:

  • The women of Peacock’s critically acclaimed comedy series Girls5eva, for a panel that will include songwriter Sara Bareilles; Tony Award-winning actress and Grammy Award-winning singer Renée Elise Goldsberry; author/actress Busy Philipps; Emmy-winning writer Paula Pell; and Emmy winning screenwriter/showrunner Meredith Scardino.
  • Music artists and “Omoiyari” director​ Kishi Bashi
  • Graphic designer and Beeple director Laurie Segall
  • Director of OPTIV Federal Services Nycki Brooks; former Associate Vice Chancellor for Cybersecurity Initiatives at the Texas A&M University System Dr. Stephen Cambone; CEO and a board member of Optiv Federal Services Kevin Lynch; and the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Chief Data Officer David Spirk.
  • Founder and President of Deborah Brosnan & Associates Dr. Deborah Brosnan with entrepreneur John Paul DeJoria.
  • Investigative writer and producer Nile Cappello; Campfire Studios founder/CEO of Campfire Studios Ross Dinerstein; author/TV personality Chrissy Teigen; and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marina Zenovich discuss their investigation into the Remnant Fellowship Church, including a first look at Part Two of their HBO Max docuseries The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin.
  • Candid CEO Ann Mei Chang
  • Professor/media host Scott Galloway
  • Treefort founder & CEO of Kelly Garner and Academy Award-nominated actor and screenwriter Ethan Hawke talk about their forthcoming Audible Original scripted series “FISHPRIEST”
  • United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland
  • Center for Humane Technology co-founder/president Tristan Harris
  • Advocate, data scientist and algorithmic product manager Frances Haugen
  • Universal Filmed Entertainment Group (UFEG) chairman Donna Langley with CNN media reporter Frank Pallotta
  • Actor, director and Slate investigative reporter Ben McKenzie; labor and technology reporter for Motherboard Edward Ongweso; and technology and national security staff writer for The New Republic Jacob Silverman
  • Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Vivek Murthy
  • “Queer Eye” star/author Jonathan Van Ness with writer, poet and comedian ALOK
  • American Airlines chairman/CEO Doug Parker with MRO and Business Aviation executive editor Lee Ann Shay
  • Built It Productions founder/Tinkercast co-founder Guy Raz with UTA partner and head of Audio Oren Rosenbaum
  • House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff with CNN Anchor and Chief National Affairs Analyst Kasie Hunt
  • Creator and unofficial “Queen of Clubhouse” Swan Sit
  • FaZe Clan CEO/co-owner Lee Trink
  • Variety Intelligence Platform president/chief media analyst of Andrew Wallenstein with Variety Intelligence Platform senior media analyst at Gavin Bridge
  • New Breath Foundation president/founder Eddy Zheng
  • Princeton University professor of African American Studies/author Ruha Benjamin, activist/sister of Breonna Taylor Ju’Niyah Palmer, YESUNIVERSE founder/CEO Lady Pheønix, multimedia artist Sutu and activist and partner of Breonna Taylor Kenneth Walker
  • U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg
  • Benchmark General partner Bill Gurley
  • Actress/director Gillian Jacobs (appearing virtually) with actor/comedian Joel McHale (appearing virtually)
  • Texas politician Beto O’Rourke in conversation with The Texas Tribune CEO and co-founder Evan Smith
  • Author/podcaster Priya Parker
  • Gravity Payments founder Dan Price
  • Lucid CEO/CTO  Peter Rawlinson
  • Autodidactic singer, songwriter, director and composer Sevdaliza and Deputy CEO of Sensorium Sasha TityanAko

Featured Sessions

Mark Cuban (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images via ABC)

Descriptions courtesy of SXSW:

Accidental Entrepreneurs: Embracing Imperfection to Unlock Scale: Originally an idea written on an Austin napkin in 2018, Bala has changed the ultra-serious, exclusionary nature of the fitness industry – a sea of lookalike brands running the same playbook; one defined by unreasonable expectations and the heartache of falling short – through beautiful, functional fitness equipment. In this session, lifelong entrepreneur and co-founder of Fireside Mark Cuban, co-founder of Bala Maximilian Kislevitz, co-founder of Bala Natalie Holloway and digital creator and relationship and advice expert Tinx will discuss an unexpected, borderline absurd approach to launching and scaling a fitness brand.

Anthem: A Conversation with Noah Hawley: Award-winning showrunner, filmmaker and bestselling novelist Noah Hawley (creator of FX’s “Fargo” and “Legion”) speaks with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, about Hawley’s sixth and newest novel “Anthem,” a thoughtful and entertaining cultural commentary for the real world we live in that examines a plethora of ongoing issues ranging from political divisions to climate change — all in Hawley’s uniquely incisive voice.

Bridging into the Metaverse: 5 Top Considerations for Brands: By answering questions such as is the metaverse a fad, how should your brand approach the metaverse and how should brands protect – and represent – their IP in the metaverse, co-founder and COO of The Sandbox Sébastien Borget will share his insights into the emerging best practices and top considerations for brands as they bridge into the metaverse.

Bringing The Umbrella Academy to Life: In this session, join writer, showrunner and executive producer Steve Blackman, director and executive producer Jeff King, producer and senior VFX supervisor Everett Burrell, and COO of DigitalFilm Tree Nancy Jundi, with senior VFX artist Carlo Vega, and game engine producer Andrea Aniceto-Chavez as they unpack one of Netflix’s biggest hits, taking you through time, epic battles and the emotional journeys of family.

Exploring the Mysteries of Undone: A Look Inside Season 2: Join us for a conversation with the cast and creative team of Prime Video’s groundbreaking, critically acclaimed series Undone ahead of its long-awaited second season. Series stars Rosa SalazarAngelique Cabral, and Constance Marie will be joined by co-creator/showrunner Kate Purdy and director/executive producer Hisko Hulsing to explore the nuances of marrying complex family dynamics and themes of mental health with genre defying spectacle brought to life through its unique style and process – giving fans their first insights into how the upcoming season will expand in surprising new directions.

The Future of News is NOW: As consumers of news have been changing their viewing habits in transformative ways, join NBC News President Noah Oppenheim, MSNBC President Rashida Jones, “TODAY All Day’s” Al Roker, NBC News NOW Anchor Tom Llamas and Peacock’s “The Choice” from MSNBC Host Symone Sanders for a discussion on how the News Group’s three distinct streaming networks have found early success connecting with viewers in the rapidly growing digital space while continuing to provide compelling content for traditional television services. 

GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM!: In this session, journalist, writer, lawyer, award-winning playwright, TV host, and consultant for the U.S. State Department Wajahat Ali teaches those of us who allegedly come from “shithole countries” how to survive and thrive in a country where you’re seen as both “us” and “them,” how to fight back, how to make sure there’s enough spices in the chicken and enough halal meat and how to defeat both Thanos and white supremacy with the ethnic Avengers and do it with a smile on your face. 

​​How will Artificial Intelligence Change the Future of Film and Television?: Technological advancements such as CGI and digital cameras have played a major role in how we shape cinema, but what’s the next big revolution for this industry? In this session, Assistant Professor in the Department of EECS at the University of California at Berkeley Angjoo Kanazawa, actor, producer and co-founder and President of Wonder Dynamics Tye Sheridan and award-winning filmmaker, visual effects supervisor, entrepreneur, and co-founder and CEO of Wonder Dynamics Nikola Todorovic will explore how years of scientific research in Computer Vision, Robotics and Autonomous Vehicle Perception can be applied to Film and Television production and discuss how AI will revolutionize the future of storytelling. 

Impact of “Instagram Syndrome” on Entrepreneurs’ Mental Health: Young innovators are suffering from “Instagram Syndrome” – the idea that everyone has hustled their way to a fully funded company and a matching lifestyle by age 30. But this curated perfect reality couldn’t be further from the truth. In this session, get real advice from writer, artist and cartoonist Gemma Correll, founder of Sprout Pharmaceuticals and The Pink Ceiling Cindy Eckert, co-founder and CEO of LivePerson Rob LoCascio and acclaimed author, speaker and life coach Tim Storey as they discuss perhaps the most important aspect of the entrepreneurship journey: the massive mental toll inflicted on leaders and explore how we can better prepare them for the struggles and path ahead.

Less Talk, More Tools for an Inclusive Workforce: You have a limited budget, a short timeframe, and a high level of pressure to support the changing needs of your company. With the world changing daily, the need to ensure people aren’t left behind is even more critical. During this panel, founder and Managing Partner of Backstage Capital Arlan Hamilton ​​and co-founder and CEO of Future for Us and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leader at Amazon Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno will share tools that can help you scale inclusive solutions fast and without breaking the bank while focusing on how we can all move forward together within the societal impacts of the evolving workplace.

Move Over NFTs. Here Come the DAOs: The latest crypto concept to seize investors’ imagination are DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations.) DAOs have suddenly rocketed to prominence as investor pools, charitable organizations and community projects embrace them to reduce administrative waste and curb middlemen’s control over resource allocation. In this session, Chief Content Officer of CoinDesk Michael Casey, founder of Big Green and the Big Green DAO charity Kimbal Musk, artist & activist Nadya Tolokonnikova and Friends with Benefits Mayor Alex Zhang will be honing in on the application of DAOs to social activism, where they could enable groups of people who share similar values and ideals to collectively organize around the pursuit of their shared objectives without the risk of capture by special interests. 

Navigating a New Era of the Digital Media Business: As digital-first media consumption begins to plateau, media companies have had to reassess business models to remain profitable and competitive in an increasingly crowded landscape. In this session, join founder and Managing Partner of Precursor Ventures Charles Hudson, co-founder and CEO of URL Media S. Mitra Kalita, co-founder and CEO of Axios Jim VandeHei and President of Vox Media Pam Wasserstein for a discussion on the evolving digital media business, from VC and paywalls to subscriptions and sponsorships, and what it all means for companies and consumers alike.

Podcast and the Art of Adaptation: In this session, international bestselling crime fiction writer and essayist James Ellroy (author of American TabloidLA ConfidentialThe Black Dahlia) and Chief Creative Officer of Audio Up Jimmy Jellinek will focus on their shared experiences adapting American Tabloid, with Ellroy discussing his experience taking his work and turning it into audio entertainment and Jellinek discussing his experience creating award winning, scripted podcasts.

Predicting the Future of Entertainment with Fireside: In this session, lifelong entrepreneur and co-founder of Fireside Mark Cuban, co-founder and CEO of Fireside Falon Fatemi and founder and CEO of the Emmy Award-nominated digital media brand, What’s Trending Shira Lazar will discuss how Fireside’s first-of-its-kind participatory entertainment technology is being utilized to invent entirely new show formats, along with to the rapid rise of web3 entertainment and the possibilities it unlocks for the future of the entertainment business. 

Public Health – Tech is Coming for You: The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated how a century of complacency had left us with antiquated indoor health security measures — ones that were expensive, inequitable, unsustainable, and ripe for disruption. During this panel, Associate Professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Joseph G. Allen, Chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Mayo Clinic Dr. Elie F. Berbari, founding President & CEO of the Center for Active Design Joanna Frank and co-founder and CEO of R-Zero Grant Morgan will meet to discuss how COVID-19 accelerated the technology and innovation to deliver healthier buildings – which is driving the delivery of more equitable, effective and sustainable human and planetary health.

Reinvigorating Science and Technology for the Future of U.S. Innovation: The state of the U.S. research and innovation ecosystem is at a critical inflection point. With an urgent need for rapid advances that address societal challenges such as human health, climate change, sustainable agriculture and food production, equitable access to education and more, the U.S. faces the risk of falling behind unprecedented global competition if we do not take action now. In this session, Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan will share his passion and excitement for the future of the research and innovation ecosystem, describe how the NSF has fueled major technological innovations and supported generations of scientists and engineers who have paid dividends for our economy and national defense, discuss how we will grow and evolve into the 21st century and drive scientific progress, improve technology transfer from lab to market and invest in research infrastructure as well as STEM opportunities for all Americans and speak to the personal inspiration behind his dedication to building pathways into STEM education and careers for everyone who has the drive and passion to learn.

That Sounds Funny: A Conversation with Bob Odenkirk and Audible: As audiences worldwide seek out new and innovative content created ‘for your ears,’ Head of Audible Studios Zola Mashariki joins Emmy Award-winning comedy writer, producer, actor, and director Bob Odenkirk and comedy writer Nate Odenkirk for a discussion about making comedy for audio and how the format pushes the boundaries of storytelling.

“The Boys” are Back! Inside Prime Video’s Hit Series: Ahead of the highly-anticipated third season of the Emmy Award-nominated series, join actors Karl UrbanLaz AlonsoKaren FukuharaJessie T. UsherChace CrawfordJensen Ackles and executive producer Eric Kripke as they dive into the intersections of superhero and celebrity culture, the zeitgeist shattering epic moments that redefined the genre, and offer up insights on how The Boys has navigated key moments of cultural inflection while subverting expectations.

We Don’t Have Time — Act on Climate Now: Join United States President of We Don’t Have Time Dr. Sweta Chakraborty and the creatives behind #dontchooseextinction — the campaign that urges world leaders to end all fossil fuel subsidies — UNDP Goodwill Ambassador and actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, United Nations Development Programme Global Chief Creative Officer Boaz Paldi and Co-Founder & CEO of Mindpool Mik Thobo-Carlsen as they discuss how everyone has a role to play in confronting the climate crisis and how we can utilize the power of social media to hold leaders accountable for their actions. 

Welcome to Your Digital Afterlife: A conversation with multi-hyphenate, creator, writer and Executive Producer of the Prime Video series UploadGreg Daniels (The OfficeParks and Recreation) and futurist and an award-winning author Amy Webb in which they discuss the concept and genesis of Greg Daniels’ Prime Video sci-fi, comedy Upload, near-future technology featured in both Season One and the upcoming Season Two and their opinion on the metaverse’s impact on society.

What’s Your Life’s Soundtrack? How Music Creates the Score to Our Lives: Everyone knows the feeling. A song comes on, and it can transport you back to a moment in time, a special memory. Today, more than 6 million Americans are losing these moments to Alzheimer’s, and this number is projected to skyrocket to nearly 13 million by 2050. In this session, join frontman and founding member of WALK THE MOON Nicholas Petricca and the President of the Alzheimer’s Association Dr. Joanne Pike as they discuss The Alzheimer’s Association’s award-winning platform, Music Moments, a digital storytelling series featuring moments we never want to lose, signifying to people impacted by Alzheimer’s and all other dementia that they are not alone.

Announced on March 2, 2022:

“Kids in the Hall” stars Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald and Bruce McCulloch in “Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks” (Photo by Laura Bombier)

A Conversation with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on the State of the American Workforce: Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh sits down with Politico’s Daniel Lippman to discuss worker empowerment, job growth, unionization, the “Great Resignation” and getting Americans back to work. Leading into the second year of President Biden’s term, Walsh will discuss how the administration is tackling the most pressing economic issues affecting America as the country emerges from the pandemic.

Art & Climate: A Conversation with Brian Eno & Beatie Wolfe: In this session, English musician, record producer, visual artist and theorist Brian Eno (appearing virtually) and “musical weirdo and visionary” Beatie Wolfe will discuss how art can play a vital role in response to the climate emergency, with Brian sharing his music industry charity EarthPercent and Beatie sharing ‘From Green to Red,’ an environmental protest piece built using 800,000 years of NASA data to visualize rising CO2 levels.

Birds Aren’t Real: How a Satirical Community Takes Flight: In this session, performance artist, filmmaker and founder of Birds Aren’t Real Peter McIndoe will answer questions such as how is decentralized community formed on the internet, what do people see in something like Birds Aren’t Real and what can be accomplished when these people come together?

The Bold Jump to Streaming News: With the rise of streaming, the opportunities to break news and share engaging stories are more plentiful than ever before. In this session moderated by The Hollywood Reporter writer J. Clara Chan, hear CNN+ host and podcast host Rex Chapman; CNN+ anchor, correspondent and podcast host Audie Cornish; CNN anchor and Chief National Affairs Analyst Kasie Hunt; cook, writer and author of the New York Times bestseller, NOTHING FANCY Alison Roman talk about why they decided to make the jump into streaming with CNN+, a new platform set to debut this spring.

Changing the Future of Food: All around the world, the hunger-solution NGO World Central Kitchen has sped to crisis locations to help with the most urgent of human needs: Feeding communities who suddenly find themselves with no access to food. In this session, join Imagine Documentaries co-president Sara Bernstein with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard and World Central Kitchen CEO Nate Mook for a behind-the-scenes look at their upcoming film WE FEED PEOPLE (World Premiering at SXSW 2022), featuring the work of renowned chef and humanitarian José Andrés.

Citizen by CNN Presents: How America Works: A conversation with CNN anchor Poppy Harlow and U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. Resignations, unionization, hustle culture, essential workers and the gig economy – buzz words that pack a punch. COVID-19 fundamentally changed the American workforce. But moving forward, who and what works?

​​Dreamers Never Die: The Enduring Power of Metal: 50 years since its inception, Heavy Metal’s founders and fans rabidly continue to live the lifestyle even as they themselves turn gray. In this session, musician and singer Sebastian Bach, longtime bassist for the groundbreaking heavy metal outfit Black Sabbath Geezer Butler, President and Owner of Niji Management, Inc. Wendy Dio and host of the rock talk show Trunk Nation on SiriusXM Volume Eddie Trunk answer questions such as why has this music connected so powerfully with people and what does it mean to live an entire life by the values found in the world’s most extreme genre of music?

Gamers: The New Icons of Pop Culture & Fashion: Over the last few years there’s been explosive growth in the video game industry and its influence in youth culture. Games are overtaking music as the most important impact on youth culture, and gamers are experiencing similar name recognition as major athletes and musicians. In this session, co-founder and Chief Gaming Officer at the Kansas City Pioneers LJ Browne, VP of Marketing at FaZe Clan Taav Cooperman, gaming content creator and producer TravelDanielle and co-founder and CEO of Gamers First Kenny Vaccaro discuss how innovative video content platforms like Twitch and TikTok allow gamers to grow their fan bases in a way that’s just as influential as celebrities.

How to Win in the Future of Gaming: Technology and gaming companies are coming together like never before, innovating to level up the action in new ways and keep you on the leaderboard. In this session, join Co-CEO ESL Gaming Craig Levine; Qualcomm Incorporated CMO Don McGuire; and producer, writer and host Kate Yeager as they discuss the metaverse, esports and the future of new and premium gaming experiences.

The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks: In this session, founding members of The Kids in the Hall Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson reflect on the group’s influential legacy and their experiences creating some of the most pivotal sketch comedy of all time. They will also discuss the new two-part Amazon Original documentary The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks (produced by Blue Ant Studios), which makes its world premiere at SXSW, and the upcoming Kids in the Hall reboot for Prime Video.

Making Virtual Storytelling and Activism Personal: Neuroscience shows that storytelling can affect brain chemistry, moving us to be more empathetic, generous— and eager to take action.  In this session, Executive Director at Avow Aimee Arrambide, award-winning stereographer, cameraman and XR filmmaker Tom C. Hall, caregiver, intersectional feminist activist, storyteller and subject of The Choice Kristen Herring, Texas House of Representatives member Donna Howard and co-founder of Infinite Frame Media, XR director and producer Joanne Popinska, Ph.D. discuss The Choice, a virtual reality experience that uses personal storytelling and volumetric VR filmmaking to offer a new perspective on reproductive rights, and how personal storytelling such as this can influence cultural and policy change.

A Movement So New It Hasn’t Been Named: In this session, Last Prisoner Project founder Steve DeAngelo and entrepreneur, producer, director and Badass Vegan author John Lewis will discuss things such as the interconnections between the rise of plant-based diets, plant-based medicine/consciousness, and plant-based industry, how cattle, petroleum and other extractive industries accelerate global warming and how the use of hemp based raw materials and consumption of plant based foods reduce it, how the rediscovery of plant based consciousness has opened minds and set the table for plant based diets and more. All while answering the question, do these interconnections point the way to a better future for humankind?

Music & The Movement with Nathaniel Rateliff: Music has been a crucial component of social movements throughout history. A thoughtful partnership of musicians, organizers and activists can build a coalition that persuades audiences to action. In this session, cultural organizer and the executive director of The Marigold Project Kari Nott, musician and founder of The Marigold Project Nathaniel Rateliff and co-executive director of Highlander Research & Education Center Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson will discuss the careful considerations and thoughtful relationships that must be in place in order to build long-lasting, impactful justice movements.

One Year Later: How NFTs Are Changing The World: In this session, CEO of Blockparty Vladislav Ginzburg, VP of Strategic Partnerships at Dapper Labs Ridhima Ahuja Kahn, co-founder and CEO of nft now Matt Medved and founder and Partner of Raised In Space Shara Senderoff will reunite one year after their SXSW 2021 panel to talk about bridging the gap between digital and physical NFTs, the rise of ‘NFT-commerce’ and how the rise of NFTs has forever changed our world.

The Power of Finding Your Sound: How do brands stay top of mind without visual real estate? Chief Marketing & Communications Officer for Mastercard and President of the company’s healthcare business Raja Rajamannar has the answer: Engage consumers through the power of music. In this session, be one of the first to feel the beat of Mastercard’s new album and be ready to experience a priceless musical surprise with a special guest, as Raja reveals the brand’s next journey into sound.

Pulling Off Everything Everywhere All At Once: In this session, film producer Allison Rose Carter, the filmmaking duo collectively known as “Daniels” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, film producer Jon Read and film producer Jonathan Wang discuss just how absurdly challenging the comically ambitious screenplay for Everything Everywhere All at Once was to produce and the badasses behind the scenes who saved the day, kept it fun and pulled off the impossible.

Ride into the Metaverse: How Cars Expand Storytelling & Entertainment: Storytelling takes you on a journey, the same way cars do. Through the emergence of the Metaverse, its ramp up and the phenomenal pace of technological advancements in web3 (and blockchain), we’re experiencing new media and experience formats that will change the face of entertainment. In this session, Partner at Lewis Silkin LLP Cliff Fluet, director, producer and screenwriter Joe Russo (appearing virtually) and CEO of holoride Nils Wollny will take you on a ride through the Metaverse as they discuss how storytelling will turn into storyliving through the power of motion and location aware content.

Sound of Change: Patria y Vida and Cuba’s uprising: For over six decades, the slogan of the Cuban revolution, penned by Fidel Castro, was “Patria o Muerte” – Homeland or Death. But in the past year, the motto was turned on its head with protesters clamoring for “Patria y Vida,” the title of the subversive song performed by Black Cuban artists that reside in and out of the island. In this session, Billboard VP Latin Industry Lead Leila Cobo with world-renowned and influential artist Beatriz Luengo and Latin Grammy-winning singer and producer Yotuel Romero speak of “Patria y Vida’s” journey from indie release to agent of change that fueled the biggest anti-government protests in Cuba’s history.

​​It Starts on TikTok: Discovering Your Audience: This session will discuss how TikTok creates space in the creator economy for artists to own their narratives, with singer-songwriter Sadie Jean chatting with US Head of Music and Content at TikTok Corey Sheridan about their success on the community-driven video platform and its impact on her artistry.

Talent in Web3: Charting a course to mass adoption: With deep, emotional connections between content creators and fans, community is the bedrock of entertainment. As the digital arena continues to evolve and further empower artists to build and grow their brands (and followings) locally and globally, President of Blockchain Creative Labs and Chief Information Security Officer of FOX Corporation Melody Hildebrandt, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Producer of FOX Sports Eric Shanks and Head of Digital Assets at UTA Lesley Silverman will come together to discuss how Web3 will bring artists even closer to fans in new and meaningful ways.

Ted Lasso Strikes Back: Season 2 of Ted Lasso hits a little different – it’s the Empire Strikes Back nod that, as Jason Sudeikis shared with Jimmy Fallon, “starts in the cold and ends in a little chillier place than where we started. Everybody’s gotta go in their cave and meet a little green man.” In this session, you’ll hear from Ted Lasso stars Brett Goldstein (appearing virtually) and Brendan Hunt (appearing virtually), COO of DigitalFilm Tree Nancy Jundi, Supervising Producer of Ted Lasso Kip Kroeger and Editor of Ted Lasso Melissa Brown McCoy as they unwind some of the ethos, intention and deep connection with fans.

Welcome to the NFT Renaissance: Why It Matters for Creators: NFT’s are the beginning of how blockchain will reshape and rebalance the creator economy; bringing about an unprecedented age of opportunity for creators to monetize their art and build passionate, global, fan bases. In this session, join Solana co-founder Raj Gokal as he delves into a discussion about this new age of ownership for creators and how Solana is powering the future of NFT’s. 

Podcast Stage (presented by Shure with supporting sponsor Backtracks) 

Jon Favreau (Photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Company/Image Group LA)

Lineup: Open to all badgeholders, the SXSW Podcast Stage presented by Shure with supporting sponsor Backtracks hosts podcasts as diverse and varied as the live audience in attendance.

The Daily Show Presents: Being a Black Journalist in America: Join Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. and guests for a live recording of The Daily Show’s Beyond the Scenes podcast. Roy will sit down with veteran Black reporters to discuss the underrepresentation of Black journalists in America’s newsrooms, how this lack of representation shapes the media’s narrative on race, and the winding, eye-opening journeys taken by the panelists.

The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz: Chidi Ahanotu? That’s how we’re fixing everything?” Those were the show’s first words nearly 20 years ago, and The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz has been sharing a uniquely Miami perspective on all things sports, pop culture and more ever since. Now, with their newfound “freedumb” from ESPN at Meadowlark Media, Dan, Stugotz and the rest of the family’s cast of characters continue to push the boundaries of sports coverage with their combination of serious commentary cloaked in unending laughter. Dan Le Batard will travel to SXSW for the first time this year, where he’ll offer his authentic perspective on a wide range of topics. As the Le Batard and Friends Network continues to expand, you’ll find a number of spin-off podcasts with new and diverse voices. 

Deadline – Scene 2 Seen PodcastDeadline Hollywood’s Associate Editor Valerie Complex will talk to the women behind the devastating documentary Aftershock. Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis LeeAftershock chronicles the rise in maternal deaths of Black women. 

Foundering: The Amazon Story LIVE!: Foundering is a serialized podcast from the journalists at Bloomberg Technology. The new season paints an unvarnished picture of Amazon’s unprecedented growth and its billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, revealing the most important business story of our time. Host Brad Stone and executive producer Shawn Wen present a deeply-reported, sound-rich story of how a retail upstart became one of the most powerful and feared entities in the global economy. Stone also probes the evolution of Bezos himself—who started as a geeky technologist totally devoted to building Amazon, but who transformed to become a fit, disciplined billionaire with global ambitions; who ruled Amazon with an iron fist, even as he found his personal life splashed over the tabloids.

Gen Z on the Power of Authentic Voices: With a rise in novel perspectives and values in policy, tech and impact, society is beginning to take on a new definition of innovation. By using these perspectives, we constantly develop frameworks to serve diverse groups and bring out authentic voices. But how can we leverage our ever-evolving culture to continue driving innovation forwards? Attend this live episode with the co-hosts of The Boss Ladies Podcast to understand how we can integrate the values of DEI and human-centric impact to spur the next generation of equitable change and dynamic innovation.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter Live with Scott Feinberg: An exclusive recording of THR’s Award Chatter Live with senior awards analyst Scott Feinberg who will sit down with the award winning and Texas native filmmaker, Richard Linklater.

ICYMI Live Show: Join Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher twice a week as they gaze deep into the online abyss—and tell you what’s gazing back.

Limitless: Upgrade Your Brain & Learn Faster: Every day — we’re sprinting to catch up. New technology. New people. New ideas, fast changes, endless updates… In our business, industry and even our daily personal life. Join brain performance expert and The New York Times best-selling author Jim Kwik to upgrade the most important technology and greatest creative wealth building asset you have – your mind. Kwik will share research, practical advice and proven tools from his recent book, Limitless: Upgrade Your Brain, Learn Anything Faster, and Unlock Your Exceptional Life. During this talk, learn how to fuel your productivity, tap into boundless motivation, eliminate mental fog, sharpen your focus and even boost your memory to better remember all the ideas and individuals you meet at SXSW. This is a session you will never forget!

A Little Bit Culty Podcast Live: Is this the golden era of cult shows? As cult whistleblowers turned podcasters documented in the critically-acclaimed HBO series “The Vow,” Sarah and Nippy have a lot to say about their experience, and burning questions to ask other survivors, experts and advocates. This panel will be a live podcast recording of A Little Bit Culty that explores the relationship between storytelling, survivorship and the expanding content cultiverse. Joined by Amanda Montell (linguist and ‘Cultish’ author) and Sarah Berman (VICE investigative journalist and ‘Don’t Call it a Cult’ author), Sarah and Nippy will cover the ways and means of extreme beliefs, cultic abuse and unpack how prime time cult storytelling can impact both real-life survivors and big-time scoundrels.

Make It Up As We Go Season 2: This session will include conversations with the cast of the upcoming and critically acclaimed Audio Up scripted-musical podcast, Make It Up As We Go season 2. Series star and co-creator Scarlett Burke will be joined by Audio Up founder & CEO Jared Gutstadt and Grammy Award Winning songwriter Liz Rose, who has written original music for the new podcast series. Each conversation will lead into song performances from Burke, Gutstadt and Rose, all of which will be original music from the podcast.

Offline with Jon Favreau: Step away from the Twitter-fueled news cycle with Crooked Media’s Offline with Jon Favreau. In his newest show, the Pod Save America co-host offers a chance to hear smarter, lighter conversations about all the ways that our extremely online existence is shaping our politics, culture and the ways we live, work and interact with one another.

The Passion Economy: In this session, three humble, hilarious and honest individuals get real on money and how to find the nexus of profitability and passion. Join Jason Blumer, a brilliant accountant who teaches creative entrepreneurs how to organize businesses to scale, co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money and New Yorker economist and author of The Passion Economy, published by Knopf Adam Davidson and Meghan Phillips, a design and marketing studio owner who guides clients on how to convey their passion behind their products and services to audiences as they hit the podcast stage to discuss the rigor needed to pursue your passion in the value economy and the importance of masterful storytelling. 

Ride the Omnibus: Crafting a Culture of Accessibility: Ride the Omnibus is a podcast parked at the intersection of pop culture and social justice, and regularly features and reports on marginalized voices in film and entertainment. The IATSE strike reverberated throughout the film industry, and was a response to working conditions that are not sustainable or accessible. If we want authentic stories from underrepresented voices, we need to change our practice on a structural level to allow previously excluded workers into the process at every level. In this panel/podcast, we will discuss how we can create balance in the production process that allows a fairer division of labor, increased productivity, access to all and above all, better storytelling.

Wellness In Gaming: How Creators Adapt & Inspire Over the years, the gaming world has grown exponentially, with the mainstream finally catching on. Faze Clan members have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Ninja has been in Hollywood movies. But all of that success is due to their insane drive or “grind” online, usually at the expense of their health. In order to fight burnout, many have started to take their health more seriously, going through amazing physical transformations and bringing their audiences along. As well as connecting with top-tier athletes who have also enjoy the occasional video game. 

X-Ray Vision with Jason Concepcion: From the minds of Emmy-award winner Jason Concepcion and Crooked Media comes X-Ray Vision. Join Concepcion and Eisner-winning journalist/co-host Rosie Knight as they take a journey through the zeitgeist-iest (patent pending) of film, TV and comics, with fandom knowledge and one-of-a-kind analysis.

Music Performances

There are normally about 2,000 artists who perform at SXSW every year. However, due to nightclub closures, the performance lineup has been reduced for 2022. Some of the announced artists who will be performing include Aeon Station, ANAVITÓRIA, BLACKSTARKIDS, CHAII, Claire Rousay, Delta Spirit, DUMA, Ezra Furman, HOODLUM, Horsegirl, James McMurtry, Maxo Kream, MC Yallah, Monaleo, Poppy Ajudha, Priya Ragu, Surfbort, TEKE::TEKE, Vitreous Humor, W.I.T.C.H. (We Intend to Cause Havoc), Y2K92 and Yard Act.

Other music artists set to perform are A-Wall, Alex The Astronaut, Angélica Garcia, bbymutha, Black Lips, Charlie Hickey, Circuit Des Yeux, Desire, The Dream Syndicate, exociety (Rav / Kill Bill: The Rapper / Airospace / Scuare), Glüme, Isla De Caras, Jerry Paper, Jess Williamson, Joesef, Just Mustard, KT Tunstall, Little Quirks, Los Bitchos, Memes, Moor Mother, Nova Twins, Phebe Starr, SELF ESTEEM, Shamir, Snapped Ankles, Steam Down, Sunflower Bean, Susto, Sweeping Promises, Tisakorean and Tuyo.

Also in the music showcase lineup are Albi X, Attalie, Bairi, Balming Tiger, Big Joanie, Cartel Madras, Cassandra Jenkins, Chris Patrick, CIFIKA, Coogie, Cymande, Hannah Jadagu, IAN SWEET, Jackie Venson, Jon Dee Graham, Kalpee, Kosha Dillz, La Doña, LAUNDRY DAY, Madison McFerrin, Miki Ratsula, Miro Shot, Moonchild Sanelly, Papazian, Pillow Queens, Pom Pom Squad, Sloppy Jane, Thee Phantom & The Illharmonic Orchestra, Ural Thomas and the Pain, Virgen Maria, Wet Leg, William Harries Graham and Wolf Eyes. Virtual-only SXSW Online-exclusive performances include Shonen Knife, Elephant Gym, Fake Gentle, Mong Tong, Olivia Tsao, Sorry Youth and more.

Showcases and presenters include Italians Do It Better, Luminelle Recordings, Gorilla Vs Bear, Domino Recording Company, Qobuz, City Slang, Bushwig, Initiative Musik, POP Montreal, M for Montreal, Sounds from Spain, Traffic Music, Devil In The Woods, Atomic Music Group, Music from Ireland, End of the Trail Creative, Fierce Panda Records, LICKS Magazine, The Color Agent, Exploding in Sound, Care Free Black Girl, Chicken Ranch Records and Modern Sky UK British Music Embassy, American Dreams, The Legendary SOB.’s, Nyege Nyege Tapes, Fire Records, Rolling Loud, The Anniversary Group, High Road Touring, Jazz re:freshed Outernational, Move Forward Music, Kill Rock Stars, Cosmica Artists + Records, Ernest Jenning Record Co., New West Records, Rocky Road Touring, Polyvinyl Records, Double Double Whammy, Keeled Scales, Park the Van, Don Giovanni Records, Nine Mile Records and Touring, Focus Wales

Other showcases and presenters include Audiofemme, Bandsintown, Bad Vibrations, Balming Tiger, Bayonet Records, Bella Union, Black Fret, Break Out West, British Underground, DIY Magazine, Double Denim Management, Empire Agency, Empire Distribution, EQ Austin, Father/Daughter Records, Field Booking Agency, Fire Talk Records, Futuristic Femmes, Gold Diggers, Island Wave, KUTX – The Breaks, The Line of Best Fit, Marca Ùnica, Motown Records, Music Finland, Negative Gain, NNA Tapes, Northern Spy Records, Paper Bag Records, Punk Black, RapTV, Rhythm Section International, Run for Cover Records, Side Door, Space Agency, Wide Awake Festival, The Windmill Brixton, WOMEX and Zone 6 Management.

Movie and TV Premieres

Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (Photo courtesy of A24)

According to a SXSW press release, the 2022 SXSW Film Festival will have 99 features, including 76 world premieres, four International Premieres, four North American Premieres, two U.S. Premieres and 13 Texas Premieres. There are also 111 short films, including 24 music videos, 11 episodic premieres, six episodic pilots, 29 XR Experience projects (formerly Virtual Cinema) and 19 title design competition entries.

World premieres at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival include:

  • Opening-night-film “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (sci-fi/action) directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert; starring Michelle Yeoh.
  • “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies” (comedy/horror), directed by Halina Reijn; starring Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova and Pete Davidson.
  • “The Lost City” (comedy), directed by Adam and Aaron Nee; starring Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum and Daniel Radcliffe.
  • “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (comedy), directed by Tom Gormican; starring Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal and Sharon Horgan.
  • “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood” (animation), directed by Richard Linklater; starring the voices of Jack Black and Zachary Levi.
  • “The Cow” (drama), directed by Eli Horowitz; starring Winona Ryder, Dermot Mulroney and John Gallagher Jr.
  • “Spin Me Round” (comedy), directed by Jeff Baena; starring Alison Brie, Alessandro Nivola, Aubrey Plaza and Molly Shannon.
  • “X” (horror), directed by Ti West; starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson and Brittany Snow.
  • “Seriously Red” (drama), directed by Gracie Otto; starring Rose Byrne, Krew Boylan and Bobby Cannavale.
  • “The Return of Tanya Tucker” (documentary), directed by Kathlyn Horan; starring Tanya Tucker.
  • “Dio: Dreamers Never Die” (documentary), directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton; starring Ronnie James Dio.
  • “Sheryl” (documentary), directed by Amy Scott; starring Sheryl Crow.
  • “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” (documentary), directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West; starring Gabby Giffords.

TV shows that will have episodes premiering at SXSW 2022 include the Season 3 premiere episode of FX’s “Atlanta”; “Brené Brown: Atlas of the Heart,” directed by Paul Dugdale; “DMZ,” directed by Ava DuVernay; “The Last Movie Stars,” directed by Ethan Hawke; “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” directed by Alex Kurtzman; “Shining Girls,” directed by Michelle MacLaren; “WeCrashed,” directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficcara; and an untitled Magic Johnson documentary series, directed by Rick Famuyiwa.

Comedy Festival

The lineup for the SXSW Comedy Festival was also announced this week and the participants include Anthony Atamanuik, Doug Benson, Matt Besser, Byron Bowers, Camilla Cleese, John Cleese, Jim Gaffigan, Vanessa Gonzalez, Punkie Johnson, Mitra Jouhari, Bruce McCulloch, Bonnie McFarlane, Sean Patton, Yamaneika Saunders, Dulcé Sloan, Nick Thune, Liza Treyger, Ricky Velez, Rich Vos, and many more. To see the full SXSW Comedy Festival lineup visit

Review: ‘Under the Volcano’ (2021), starring The Police, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Buffett, Nick Rhodes, Verdine White, Chris Kimsey and Giles Martin

May 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

George Martin at AIR Studios Montserrat in “Under the Volcano” (Photo by Martyn Goddard/Universal Pictures Content Group)

“Under the Volcano” (2021)

Directed by Gracie Otto

Culture Representation: In the documentary “Under the Volcano,” a predominantly white group of people (with some black people), who are connected in some way to the now-shuttered AIR Studios Montserrat, discuss this famous recording studio that operated in Montserrat from 1979 to 1989.

Culture Clash: People who recorded albums at AIR Studios Montserrat had various reactions to the laid-back, “isolated from the modern world” atmosphere of Montserrat.

Culture Audience: “Under the Volcano” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in hearing behind-the-scenes stories about the making of some the 1980s’ biggest pop albums at this very unique recording studio.

The Police recording their 1981 “Ghost in the Machine” album at AIR Studios Montserrat in “Under the Volcano.” Pictured from left to right: Stewart Copeland, Sting and Andy Summers. (Photo courtesy of A&M Records/Universal Music Group)

The nostalgic music documentary “Under the Volcano” takes viewers back to a bygone era of recording studios. It’s a comprehensive history of AIR Studios Montserrat, which operated from 1979 to 1989. The recording studio, which was in an isolated part of the Caribbean island Montserrat, hosted some of the biggest names in rock and pop music.

And the documentary is a wistful rememberance of how AIR Studios Montserrat started as a dream music nirvana for celebrated producer George Martin, who founded the studio that was tragically destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Martin died in 2016, at the age of 90, but his widow Jane Martin and their son Giles Martin are interviewed in “Under the Volcano.” The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

Directed in a traditional and engaging manner by Gracie Otto, “Under the Volcano” uses the expected format of mixing archival footage with new interviews conducted for the documentary. The documentary has a lot more photographs than video footage showing what it was like to be at AIR Studios Montserrat. And that’s probably because before digital cameras existed, it was a lot more costly for artists to film behind-the-scenes footage. And it was a lot less common than it is now for artists to film themselves at work in the recording studio.

“Under the Volcano” has a very good representation of many of the famous artists who recorded albums at AIR Studios Montserrat. (AIR is an acronym for Associated Independent Recording.) Some of interviewees include all three former members of The Police; former Dire Straits members Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher; Jimmy Buffett; Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes; former Ultravox frontman Midge Ure; Deep Purple members Tony Iommi and Roger Glover; Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White; musician Ray Cooper; and America singer Gerry Buckley.

However, some of the biggest AIR Studios Montserrat alumni and their perspectives are noticeably absent from the movie—chiefly, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. Viewers of “Under the Volcano” will have to settle for people talking about these superstars in the documentary, instead of hearing these legendary artists’ first-hand accounts of their experiences at AIR Studios Montserrat. For example, stories about John’s recording sessions at the studio are primarily told by two musicians from his band: drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone.

Not having these superstar artists in the documentary doesn’t lower the overall quality of the movie, but there are times when the documentary feels a little incomplete without these points of view. The “Under the Volcano” filmmakers undoubtedly made their best efforts to include these artists in the documentary. But, for whatever reasons, these legends weren’t available to be interviewed.

Fortunately, “Under the Volcano” included other important perspectives besides those of the recording artists. Several people who worked behind the scenes with the artists at AIR Studio Montserrat are also interviewed. They include music producers Chris Kimsey, Chris Thomas, Neil Dorfsman and Ian Little, as well as sound balance engineer Michael Paul Stavrou.

Some of the former longtime AIR Studios Montserrat employees are also interviewed, such as chief technical engineer/general manager Malcolm Atkin; managing director Yve Robinson; managing director Dave Harries; chef George “Tappy” Morgan; housekeeper Minetta Allen Francis; and studio managers Steve Jackson, Lloyd Oliver and Desmond Riley. And for the perspectives of people in the local Montserrat music industry, the documentary includes commentary from the late musician Justin “Hero” Cassell (who died in 2010) and radio DJ Rose Willock.

George Martin (who is best known for being the producer of the Beatles) came up with the idea to have a recording studio in a remote island location after he fell in love with Montserrat and wanted to do something radically different with his career. By 1979, he had been closely associated with famous London recording studios Abbey Road Studios (formerly known as EMI Recording Studios) and AIR Studios London, a recording facility that George Martin founded in 1965. And he wanted a change of scenery that was more laid-back than what professional musicians were used to experiencing at big-city recording studios.

According to George’s son Giles Martin, “I think my father was tired of the confines of a very rigid company structure … And he wanted a place that was more artist-friendly. Abbey Road obviously created great music, but the fridge was locked at night. They [people working late at night at Abbey Road] had to break in to get milk for their cups of tea. Even the loo [Britlish slang for toilet] roll had [the name] Abbey Road on it, so you wouldn’t steal it. It was like a very proper English factory.”

It’s mentioned in the documentary that George Martin originally thought his dream recording studio in the Caribbean would be on a large boat. But he quickly scrapped that idea when he found out how noisy the boat engines would be and would thereby ruin the any audio recordings. He decided on a remote location in Montserrat that had an element of danger to it because the recording studo was situated right in the shadow of a volcano.

The idea was that the recording studio would also have its own living quarters—like a recording studio resort—so the people working on the albums didn’t have far to go to eat, sleep and party. Furthermore, Jane Martin says, “George was looking for something that wasn’t in the middle of London … And his plan was that there would be a lack of hangers-on. It would just be [the artists] and their families.”

Giles Martin says of his father George: “He was a mad visionary, in a lot of ways. I think he liked the idea of pushing boundaries. So, if you think about what he did with the Beatles in the ’60s, he pushed the boundaries in the recording studio.”

Here’s how some of the musicians who recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat describe the atmosphere:

Dire Straits leader Knopfler says, “Going to Montserrat was like going into a dream. It’s always different. Reality is always different from what you think it would be … It didn’t have the sophistication that you’d feel straight away if you went to Antigua … It was far more innocent, far more quiet.”

The Police frontman Sting comments, “I love the idea of wilderness on the edge of civilization. I think the volcano itself is a presiding spirit over the island. It definitely gives you the sense that you’re living on the edge of something seismic … There’s definitely a mystique about the island. “Ultravox founder Ure says, “You felt as though you were in a time warp. This little island had a heart that you could feel.”

Air Studios Montserrat’s former managing director Robinson says of Montserrat: “They used to call it the hidden gem of the Caribbean and the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Montserrat was colonized by the Irish. And that’s why the island was so different, because it’s really a friendly place. It’s got a magic about it.”

Four years after AIR Studios Montserrat opened in 1979, Montserrat experienced another musical claim to fame when local musician Arrow had an international hit with the 1983 soca song “Hot Hot Hot,” which was later covered by several artists (including Buster Poindexter’s 1987 version) and has since become a staple song at wedding receptions and other parties. Although the most famous artists who recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat performed pop and rock music, many of the arists were influenced by soca and the laid-back atmosphere of the culture in Montserrat.

The Police recorded their 1981 album “Ghost in the Machine” and their 1983 best-selling blockbuster album “Synchronicity” at AIR Studios Montserrat. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the biggest hit single from “Ghost in the Machine,” has a Caribbean rhythm, and the song became the first Top 5 hit single in the U.S. for the Police. The music video for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was filmed entirely in Montserrat, including footage of the band in the AIR recording studio.

Dire Straits’ Knopfler says that the band’s biggest hit album, 1985’s “Brothers in Arms,” has two songs in particular that were directly influenced by the Montserrat vibe: “So Far Away” and “Walk of Life.” John Silcott, a local Montserrat technician who worked at AIR Studios Montserrat at the time, says he’s the Johnny who’s namechecked in “Walk of Life.” (Stay until the end credits of “Under the Volcano” for a cute moment of Silcott dancing to “Walk of Life.”) It’s also mentioned that “Brothers in Arms” (which includes Dire Straits’ biggest hit single “Money for Nothing”) was one of the first albums digitally recorded in its entirety, specifically for the CD format, which was new at the time.

“Under the Volcano” is geared for an audience that’s not too concerned about hearing a lot of technical recording studio jargon. Therefore, the documentary doesn’t have much talk about the studio equipment used at AIR Studios Montserrat. However, producer Neil Dorfsman comments, “Part of AIR’s fame was these three incredible-sounding Neve consoles—and they had one at AIR Montserrat.” According to a 2019 Globe and Mail article, this Neve console still works.

Other notable albums recorded partially or entirely at AIR Studios Montserrat include Elton John’s “Jump Up!” (1982); “Too Low for Zero” (1983) and “Breaking Hearts” (1984); Earth Wind & Fire’s “Faces” (1980); Duran Duran’s “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” (1983); and the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” (1989). Not surprisingly, many of the hit songs from some these albums are featured in “Under the Volcano,” such as John’s “I’m Still Standing” from “Two Low for Zero” and “Sad Songs Say So Much” from “Breaking Hearts,” as well as The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” from the “Synchronicity” album, the biggest hit song and album recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat.

The Police drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers remember that the process of recording “Ghost in the Machine” and “Synchronicity” was at times uncomfortable because Copeland and lead singer Sting famously had personality clashes with each other. Copeland says that he had to record his drum parts for “Ghost in the Machine” in a separate room that was not close to the main recording studio, so that isolation felt strange to him, and he never got used to it.

McCartney sought refuge at AIR Studios Montserrat a few weeks after the December 1980 murder of former Beatles member John Lennon. A grieving McCartney ended up recording parts of his 1982 album “Tug of War” album there, as well as parts of his 1983 album “Pipes of Peace.” McCartney and Wonder’s chart-topping 1982 duet “Ebony and Ivory” (which was on the “Tug of War” album) was also recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat.

The documentary includes a story of a raucously fun, impromptu jam session that Wonder played for some very lucky people at a local pub. Some audio of that performance is included in the documentary. The sound quality isn’t the greatest, but it’s easy to hear how electrifiying and special that atmosphere must have been.

It’s also mentioned that many other musicians (such as McCartney, Dire Straits and Buffett, to name a few) often did private jam sessions at Montserrat, where local people would sometimes be invited. As a longtime radio DJ in the Montserrat, Willock says that these famous musicians felt like they could let loose in this relatively remote area, because the locals weren’t as star-struck by famous musicians as much as the locals were star-struck by famous athletes.

Flamboyant piano man John is fondly remembered in the documentary as one of the most beloved artists at AIR Studios Montserrat because he treated the staff so well and liked to cheer people up. Former studio employee Riley calls John “very generous,” and says that it wasn’t unusual for John to pay for an “open bar for everyone.” Riley adds, “When guys are down, he brings them up.”

Of course, being a rock star in the 1980s was synonymous with heavy partying. The documentary doesn’t reveal any stories that are scandalous or salacious, although it’s hinted that the recording studio’s staff had to be accommodating to whatever party whims their studio’s clients wanted. And because this is a laudatory documentary about the recording studio, there are no #MeToo or gender discrimination stories about this very male-dominated environment.

Sure, the filmmakers could have asked the people who were interviewed for tabloid-like stories, but it’s highly unlikely that the people who were at the recording studio back then would do an on-camera “tell all” for a documentary. It’s something that people would more likely talk about for a book or feature article. Instead, the documentary has people raving about things like the delicious meals prepared for them by AIR recording studio chef Morgan, who says, “That was the best job I ever had in my entire life.”

The closest thing to an epic partying story that’s told in “Under the Volcano” is that John’s song “I’m Still Standing” was inspired by him being surrounded by other people in the recording studio who had passed out from too much partying. John looked around, laughed, and said the immortal words, “Well, I’m still standing.” His lyricist songwriting partner Bernie Taupin decided to use that line as a jump-off point to finish the song’s lyrics.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s White remembers how welcoming the local people were in Montserrat. He says that women dropped their fruit-cutting machetes and applauded when the band’s instrument cases showed up at the airport. “We hadn’t even gotten there yet! And it was beautiful.” He adds, “For us, the biggest thing was just the whole experience of going there.”

And speaking of weapons with blades being thrown, producer Kimsey laughs when he tells a story of how Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards didn’t take too kindly to music manager Peter Mensch (who was a consultant on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour) suggesting how the band should do a musical arrangement of the song “Mixed Emotions.” In reaction to Mensch’s suggestion, Richards threw a knife at Mensch. Needless to say, the Rolling Stones didn’t take Mensch’s advice on how to write and record the song.

Buffett, who has made a career out of the “tropical party” lifestyle, remembers what it was like to for him and his fellow American band members to experience some culture shock at the pubs in Montserrat when they first started getting to know the area. “There was a bit of a colonial aspect of things that did not fare well with the American band,” Buffett comments.

Buffett says that one of the things that irritated him and his band was the Montserrat pub custom of ordering drinks, one at a time, by writing down an order on paper. After being told by AIR Studios Montserrat manager Denny Bridges that it was just the way things were done, Buffett remembers saying in response, “Well, why don’t I just buy the whole fucking bar?”

Despite these inconveniences, Buffett says he has overall good memories of spending time in Montserrat, where he states, “I lived on my boat, off and on there, for 20 years.” Buffett recorded his 1979 album “Volcano” at AIR Studios Montserrat. The album’s title was inspired by the volcano located near the studio.

Buffett comments on recording in Montserrat: “It was a lovely working environment because you didn’t leave, I would say, the reign of creativity. You were constantly involved in the creation of the community, as opposed to being in Nashville. To me, there are two ways to go into the studio: You can go and look for perfection, or you can capture the magic.”

Because tranquil Montserrat was not a big tourist attraction, visiting musicians often had to adjust to living without some of their usual creature comforts. Some musicians used it as an opportunity to spend more time outdoors for athletic activities. Sting has happy memories about being taught windsurfing by a local named Danny Sweeney, whom Sting calls “a very brilliant man … The people who taught me things are my heroes.”

Not all of the musicians were comfortable being in Montserrat for a long period of time. Duran Duran’s Rhodes admits he got bored with being on the island, in contrast to Duran Duran lead singer Simon LeBon, who loved spending time swimming and sailing in the ocean. Rhodes comments that after a while, he was ready to leave Montserrat when Duran Duran was recording part of the band’s album “Seven and the Ragged Tiger.”

The album’s first two singles (“Union of the Snake” and “New Moon on Monday”) were recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat. Rhodes believes that the band made the right decision to continue recording the album elsewhere that was better suited for the dance-oriented pop/rock music that Duran Duran was making at the time. “I’m not sure we were in the right head space to make the kind of record that might have been a little more chilled,” says Rhodes of recording in Montserrat. “We wanted to make something full of energy.”

Rhodes also says that Montserrat wasn’t ideal for anyone who missed the hustle and bustle of a big city. There were also safety issues of having a recording studio in a relatively isolated area. Rhodes comments, “It was really brave of them [to build the studio there], because if something went really wrong, the closest port of call was Miami.”

And there was always the possible threat of a volcano eruption, which did indeed happen in 1995, causing massive destruction to Montserrat, six years after AIR Studios closed down on the island because of Hurricane Hugo. Elton John drummer Olsson comments on his AIR Studios Montserrat experiences, “I remember thinking a few times: ‘What if the volcano goes off?'” Earth, Wind & Fire’s White quips: “I’m from Chicago. We don’t do volcanos.”

Today, AIR Studios Montserrat is a broken-down shell of its former self, and it’s off-limits to the public. The documentary includes footage of what the former recording studio looks like now: a series of run-down and empty rooms, with some parts of the building reduced to rubble. The damage caused by Hurricane Hugo and the volcano eruption were enough to make the location of AIR Studios Montserrat completely inhabitable, even if the structure was rebuilt.

Cooper says, “When the volcano went off, that was a pinnacle point of change—a point when nothing was ever going to be quite the same again in the way that we recorded, in the way, in the way that music was dealt with— those magical moments were going to be no longer.”

However, the music, memories and legacy of AIR Studios Montserrat live on in many ways. “Under the Volcano” is a solid tribute to this influential hub of creativity. And the movie will bring a lot of joy to anyone who’s a fan of rock and pop music from the 1980s.

UPDATE: Universal Pictures Content Group will release “Under the Volcano” on digital and VOD on August 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Subjects of Desire,’ starring Ryann Richardson, Alex Germain, Seraiah Nicole, India.Arie, Amanda Parris, Cheryl Thompson and Carolyn West

April 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Contestants in the 2018 Miss Black America Pageant, including Alex Germain (far left) and Ryann Richardson (far right), in “Subjects of Desire” (Photo courtesy of Hungry Eyes Media)

“Subjects of Desire”

Directed by Jennifer Holness

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S. and Canada, the documentary film “Subjects of Desire” features a predominantly black group of women discussing the intersection between beauty standards and what it means to be a black female.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that black beauty characteristics are often co-opted when white people benefit from cultural appropriation, but the same characteristics are used against black people, who are subjected to racist ideas of what is considered “beautiful.”

Culture Audience: “Subjects of Desire” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an impactful and honest examination of how racism plays a role in how black females are perceived in American society.

Contestants in the 2018 Miss Black America Pageant, including Ryann Richardson (second from left) and Alex Germain (front row, in pink), in “Subjects of Desire” (Photo courtesy of Hungry Eyes Media)

The empowering statement “Black is beautiful” first emerged in the 1950s. And since then, a lot has occurred in civil rights for black people in the United States. However, the insightful documentary “Subjects of Desire” shows how black women feel about the still-prevalent and damaging racism in how black females are treated and perceived by beauty standards in American society. Astutely directed by Jennifer Holness and narrated by Garvia Bailey, “Subjects of Desire” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

Grammy-winning singer India.Arie talks about the impact of her breakthrough 2001 hit “Video,” a song about how she accepts how she looks, even though she’s doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a light-skinned video vixen. “That song taught me a lot about people. The whole time I was writing it, I thought, ‘This is how I want people to understand who I am.’ And then [the song] came out, and people were telling me, ‘That’s how I felt!'”

“Subjects of Desire” has the 2018 Miss Black America beauty pageant (the event’s 50th anniversary) as a central focus of the documentary. The movie includes footage of behind-the-scenes pageant preparations, as well as interviews with several of the contestants. However, the documentary also gives a cultural overview of how systemic racism affects people’s perceptions of what is considered “beautiful” or “desirable” in society. Only black women are interviewed in this documentary, so that their voices are heard and not drowned out by people who haven’t lived the experience of being a black woman their entire lives.

The only exception is an interviewee who has lived her life as a white woman and as a black woman: controversial activist/artist Rachel Dolezal, a woman who is biologically white/Caucasian, but she began self-identifying as black around the time that she wanted to have Afro-centric jobs. Dolezal, who was born in 1977, used to be the president of Spokane, Washington’s chapter of the NAACP, and she taught Africana studies at Eastern Washington University. The controversy over her race made headlines when she admitted in 2015 that she was born to white parents and lived as a white female until sometime in the mid-2000s, when she began living as a black woman.

In 2002, when Dolezal was still living as a white woman, she unsuccessfully sued her alma mater Howard University (a historically black-majority school) for racial discrimination, by claiming the university denied her a job, a scholarship and other opportunities as a white woman. Dolezal doesn’t talk about that lawsuit in the “Subjects of Desire” documentary, but she does complain about being misunderstood, and she compares her situation to experiences of transgender people. “I get a lot of hate from different groups,” she claims. “I cancelled my white privilege.”

Dolezal’s presence in this documentary doesn’t take up too much screen time (only about 10 to 15 minutes in a 103-minute film), and she doesn’t say anything new that she didn’t already say in her 2018 Netflix documentary “The Rachel Divide.” Dolezal seems to have been included in “Subjects of Desire” as part of a necessary but uncomfortable topic discussed in the documentary: White people co-opting aspects of black beauty culture for their own self-benefit. Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kylie Jenner are frequently mentioned in the documentary as celebrities who are guilty of excessive appropriation of black culture to get attention for themselves.

“Subjects of Desire” does an excellent job of explaining the current dichotomy in beauty standards for women in American society, where many white women try to look more “black” and many women of color try to look more “white.” On the one hand, physical characteristics that are usually attributed to women of African biological heritage—darker skin, fuller lips, a more pronounced rear end—have become desired characteristics in how numerous women alter their physical appearance through tanning, lip fillers and butt implants.

African-styled braids or Afro-Caribbean-styled dreadlocks are other Afro-centric beauty characteristics that have been co-opted by people who are not of African descent. Even the hair perms that were popular in the 1970s were based on a desire to have hair resembling black people’s natural hair. It’s pointed out in the documentary that the rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960 and 1970s coincided with the rise in popularity of these hairstyles until they became more accepted in mainstream society.

On the other hand, several people in the documentary point out that black women and women of color are often treated better based on how close to “white” they can look. Skin bleaching, having straight hair (through chemical treatments or hair weaves), having blonde hair and wearing blue or green contact lenses are all mentioned as examples of how black women alter their appearances to try to look more “white.” The natural hair movement (the practice of black people wearing their hair unprocessed and not straightened) has popularity that goes up and goes down. But what hasn’t changed is the fact that how a black woman wears her hair can determine what types of employment or other opportunities that she gets or is prevented from having.

“Subjects of Desire” has footage of a group of black teenage girls (of various skin tones) who discuss how beauty standards, particularly when it comes to hair and skin color, affect their self-esteem and any sense of power that they might have. The girls give some real and raw insight into how acutely aware they are that how they wear their hair will affect how a lot of people will treat them or perceive them. And the “white preference” bias doesn’t just come from white people. It also comes from many people of color who’ve internalized the racist belief that anything to do with non-white culture is inferior to white culture.

Although there are people of many different races, beauty standards in the United States are often seen in terms of black and white. Broadcaster/author Amanda Parris explains: “Because of racism, that [beauty] binary also included the binary of black and white. And that led to black women being on one end, and white women being on the other.”

Because the Internet has provided larger mass communication than ever before, today’s young people have grown up more accustomed to cultural differences than previous generations. And therefore, society’s views of beauty are more intertwined with race and political issues than ever before. The rise of Instagram, YouTube and other social media—where everyday people can become their own influencers instead of leaving everything to the usual elite gatekeepers—have also caused a massive shift in who gets to define what is “beautiful.”

“Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal” author Heather Widdows, a professor of global ethics at the University of Birmingham in Alabama, comments on this cultural change: “Appearances were becoming more and more dominant in young women’s lives. And this was an issue of justice too. Beauty has become an ethical ideal.”

However, old stereotypes remain. Dr. Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University and the author of “Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture,” has this to say about the racism that still exists in beauty ideals: “In beauty culture, black has to be minimized as much as possible, or exoticized in a certain way, so that you really see the difference.”

Thompson says that this racism has been taught for generations because of the United States’ shameful history with slavery and how that has affected people’s perceptions of white women and black women: “Getting married was kind of difficult [for black people] during slavery, so we’re already seen as ‘immoral’ and not holding the sanctity of womanhood … The history of black womanhood and white womanhood, it is so overlayed with labor and issues of purity and domesticity.”

Lighter-skinned black women in the slavery era were more likely to be chosen to work in the home, while darker-skinned black women were more likely to do the hardest labor outside. The repercussions of white slave owners enacting this favoritism based on skin color (also known as colorism) can still be seen and experienced today. Several people who comment in the documentary point out that black people who rise to the very top levels of high-profile professions tend to be lighter-skinned than the average black person.

Beauty pageants have come a long way in being more diverse and inclusive, when it comes to race. Black women weren’t allowed to compete in the Miss America Pageant until the 1950s, but the pageant didn’t have its first black contestant until 1971. It’s why the Miss Black America Pageant (founded by the black entrepreneur J. Morris Anderson) launched in 1968.

“Subjects of Desire” mentions that 2018 was a historic year for black women in beauty pageants: For the first time in beauty pageant history, Miss Universe, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA were all black females in the same year. However, the Miss Black America contestants interviewed in the documentary say that these breakthroughs don’t mean that they do not experience the same racist prejudices inside and outside the beauty pageant circuit.

Miss Black America 2018 winner Ryann Richardson says that she learned early on in her beauty pageant experiences to put on makeup that would tone down her African-looking ethnicity, such as contouring her nose to look thinner. She makes no apologies for it and explains: “It was a means to an end. I never believed that I needed to look that way to be beautiful, to be Ryann, to be great to be excellent. But I did it to win.”

Richardson acknowledges that even though some judges still might prefer black contestants to look as “white” as possible, black women in beauty pageants are now given more freedom to wear their hair in different ways, compared to the hair restrictions that black beauty contestants had to adhere to in previous generations. Richardson adds, “I am a product of what Miss Black America inspired [by launching] in 1968, so it’s really interesting and really cool to think that 50 years later … I could be part of that Miss Black America legacy.”

Other contestants from the Miss Black America 2018 pageant who are interviewed in the documentary are first runner-up Alex Germain and second runner-up Seraiah Nicole. Just like the other contestants interviewed in the documentary, they both say that the best way a contestant can approach being part of a beauty pageant isn’t to see who’s judged as more “beautiful” than others but to build confidence and appreciation for an individual’s unique qualities. A beauty pageant is supposed to be a learning experience on how contestants, whether they win or lose, want to present themselves to the world.

Germain reveals another motivation for her to enter the world of beauty pageants: “I needed to feel as though I mattered and my voice mattered.” She remembers experiencing racist bullying when she was a child, when some boys from her school lined up and made monkey noises at her.

Germain comments on these painful memories and any racism she still experiences: “I had to be strong in myself and let those voices go … There are times when it still gets to me. You have to be your biggest motivator.” She adds, “You see the shifts in the North American beauty standards, but on the backs of black women.”

Like it or not, perceptions of beauty also spill over into how people judge other people’s personalities and intelligence without even knowing them. For black women, the stereotyping goes back to slavery and is often perpetuated by images in the media and in entertainment. “Subjects of Beauty” mentions three main stereotypes of black women, with video clips and photos used as examples:

  • Mammy: Nurturing, subservient (usually to white people) and sometimes sassy. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is usually a maid, housekeeper, nanny or some other type of servant.
  • Jezebel: Sexually promiscuous, usually dressed in revealing clothing and obsessed with being perceived as sexy. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is often a singer, actress, model, stripper, prostitute or other sex worker.
  • Sapphire: Quick-tempered, usually hostile and often a bully. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is the “angry black woman.”

Dr. Carolyn West, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, comments on these stereotypical images that don’t apply to all black women: “The Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes are deeply rooted in history. They haven’t gone away. They’ve just changed and morphed into different stereotypes.”

In “Subjects of Desire,” it’s pointed out that the Mammy physical stereotype (as illustrated by the controversial Aunt Jemima logo) is historically inaccurate because photos from the slavery days show that the house servants who helped take care of the kids were usually young and thin, not middle-aged and overweight. “Subjects of Desire” director Holness wrote the script used in the movie’s voiceover narration, which mentions that the Aunt Jemima brand “wasn’t just selling pancakes. They were selling the Mammy fantasy.”

The voiceover continues: “The de-eroticization of Mammy meant the white wife and, by extension, the white family [were safe]. But in truth, the Mammy was re-imagined to hide an extensive history of sexual violence and rape against black women.” The Jezebel stereotype was created to justify this sexual violence. The documentary mentions that it wasn’t until 1959, with the Betty Jean Owens case in Florida, that white men in the U.S. were given life sentences for raping a black woman.

And the Sapphire stereotype comes with a whole other set of issues. If a black woman is confident and asserts herself in the same way that men are frequently allowed to do, she is labeled “difficult.” Men can yell and scream on the job, but if a black woman does the same thing, she’s labeled a “problem” and is more likely to be fired because of it.

Simply put: The “angry black woman” stereotype has worse repercussions than the “angry white man” stereotype. In the documentary, black actress/singer Jully Black recalls the heated debate that she and white TV journalist Jeanne Beker had during the 2018 Canada Reads event (which is televised in Canada) as an example. In a clip shown in the documentary, Beker was quick to try to label her as an angry black woman on the attack, even though Black was being calm, articulate and reasonable.

“Subjects of Desire” asserts that white women also benefit from white supremacy when it comes to what is considered “attractive” in American society. A woman’s physical appearance can determine how she’s perceived and how much agency she has in public settings. White women can cry on the job, but if a black woman does it, she’s more likely to be labeled “out of control” and “unprofessional.” Crimes against white females are given higher priorities in media coverage than crimes against non-white females. And there’s no need to rehash obvious statistics of how black women are rarely allowed to advance to the top levels of an organization.

And that’s why representation matters. When people see only one race dominating as the gatekeepers of an industry, it creates a vicious cycle of racism where people think other races are not capable of doing just as well or better than the dominant race. And when it comes to female beauty standards, the general consensus in “Subjects of Desire” is that there’s been some progress in racial representation in front of the camera, but not enough progress behind the camera with people who make the major business decisions.

Thompson comments, “There’s a quote by [American feminist] Peggy Phelan: ‘If representation equaled power, then white women should feel like the most powerful people in the world, because that is actually the [beauty] image you see the most. White women are everywhere.'”

India.Arie says, “We all feel insecure about something. We live in this world that tells us that somebody is perfect, and you’re not.” The documentary mentions the Black Girl Magic movement, created by CaShawn Thompson in 2013, as a big leap forward in celebrating black female beauty. Black Girl Magic includes mentorships and other programs intended to help black females embrace themselves for who they are and not believe the racist lies that people are superior or inferior because of skin color.

If there’s any takeaway from this documentary, it’s that real change can only come when people push for it and stop supporting the people and practices that demean one race in order to elevate another. Cosmetics, hairstyles, clothing and plastic surgery are all personal choices. However, they shouldn’t come at the expense of people feeling devalued because of their race.

Germain says in the documentary: “The eyelashes, the lipstick—that doesn’t mean anything. I think when people see a pretty girl, you think they don’t have issues. But when you don’t love yourself, you don’t love anything.” And that’s why self-respect and healthy self-care are probably the biggest beauty assets of all.

UPDATE: Starz will premiere “Subjects of Desire” on February 18, 2022.

Review: ‘Jakob’s Wife,’ starring Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden and Bonnie Aarons

April 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Barbara Crampton in “Jakob’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder)

“Jakob’s Wife”

Directed by Travis Stevens

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Jakob’s Wife” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and one Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A minister’s housewife, who’s bored with her marriage, becomes a vampire. 

Culture Audience: “Jakob’s Wife” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that mix bloody gore with campy comedy.

Larry Fessenden in “Jakob’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder)

“Jakob’s Wife” is a memorable vampire flick that serves up a hilariously enjoyable blend of campy horror and gruesome chills, with a dash of female empowerment. The movie isn’t for people who hate the sight of blood. (It’s a vampire movie for adults. What do you expect?) But for people who can handle all the over-the-top gory mayhem in the story, then “Jakob’s Wife” might be your bloody cup of tea.

There are many predictable routes that a vampire movie can take. “Jakob’s Wife” takes some of those routes (for example, the title character’s transformation into a vampire follows the usual conventions of blood lust), but then the movie takes some unexpected and wacky detours. “Jakob’s Wife” director Travis Stevens, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Kathy Charles and Mark Steensland, revels in the movie’s low-budget aura and makes sure that viewers know that this movie is not taking itself seriously at all. “Jakob’s Wife” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The title character of “Jakob’s Wife” is Anne Fedder (played by Barbara Crampton), the dutiful spouse of a minister named Jakob Fedder (played by Larry Fessenden), her husband of about 30 years. Anne and Jakob, who do not have children, live in an unnamed small town in the United States. They are Christian, but their specific religion is not mentioned in the movie.

The movie’s opening scene takes place during a church service that Jakob is conducting. He tells the parishioners during his sermon that men should respect their wives because it’s a reflection of how husband feel about themselves. “He who loves his wife loves himself,” intones Jakob.

Jakob is not secretly a hypocrite who abuses his wife. He loves Anne and he treats her very well. Anne hasn’t fallen completely out of love with Jakob, but their marriage has become boring to her. It’s implied that their sexual intimacy has decreased significantly. Jakob is devoted to his work at the church, while Anne spends her days doing workout routines and gardening.

In the movie’s opening scene at the church service, one of the parishioners approaches Jakob and tells him, “It was a beautiful service.” Her name is Amelia Humphries (played by Nyisha Bell), and she’s about 16 to 18 years old. Anne notices that Amelia’s mother Lucy, who is a regular churchgoer, is not with with Amelia.

Anne asks Amelia where her mother is, and Amelia says with some sadness and embarrassment that her mother couldn’t be there because Lucy started drinking again. Amelia adds, “I’m praying for her happiness.” Anne and Jakob express their sympathies.

While Amelia is walking home at night by herself, she’s startled to see some rats crawling around at her feet. She quickly walks away but not long after that, someone with vampire-type hands grabs her from behind. It won’t be the last time that viewers see Amelia.

Not long afterward, Amelia is reported missing. Anne and Jakob have dinner at their house with Jakob’s brother Bob (played by Mark Kelly) and Bob’s wife Carol (played by Sarah Lind). The topic of Amelia’s disappearance comes up in the conversation.

Everyone except Anne seems to think that it’s likely that Amelia ran away. Anne is skeptical of that theory because she thinks Amelia was too close to her mother Lucy to suddenly abandon her. Of course, viewers who know that “Jakob’s Wife” is a vampire movie can easily predict what happened to Amelia.

Over this family dinner, the discussion also includes Anne’s involvement in a construction project that she thinks will be good for their town. She’s apparently part of the town’s Historical Society, which had to approve this project because it’s being built on historical land. The project will be an abandoned mill that is going to be turned into a retail space.

Anne comments that the Historical Society thinks the new retail space will provide tourism and jobs. Jakob is leery of the project because he doesn’t think that anything commercial should be built on this historical land. But there’s probably another reason why Jakob is uneasy about this construction job.

It just so happens that the interior designer for the space is an ex-boyfriend of Anne’s named Tom Lewis (played by Robert Russler), and they haven’t seen each other in years. Jakob calls Tom an “old flame” of Anne’s, while she downplays the relationship that she had with Tom, by saying that they were “just kids” when she and Tom dated each other.

Anne and Tom have agreed to meet for dinner at a restaurant to discuss the construction project. Judging by the way Anne gets ready for the dinner, she wants to look very attractive for this meeting and she might have some unresolved has feelings for Tom. When Anne and Tom see each other again, they can’t help but notice they’ve still got chemistry with each other.

It soon becomes clear that Tom had a “bad boy” reputation when he dated Anne. She comments to him that he was “uncontrollable” in those days. Meanwhile, Tom says to Anne about how she’s changed since he last saw her.

“You a church mouse?” Tom declares with surprise. “What happened to the adventurous Anne who wanted to travel to exotic places?” Anne replies, “You make plans for things and then life happens. It was around the time that you left town that my mother died, and Jakob was there for me.”

Anne continues, “He offered me comfort—and so did the church. They were both steady when I needed support. Make no mistake—we have a good life. I’m happy.” Tom seems to accept that explanation.

But on another day, when Anne and Tom are at the abandoned mill where the new construction will take place, it’s revealed that this was also a place where Anne and Tom had romantic trysts when they were dating each other. Tom brings it up and Anne says she hasn’t forgotten. It should come as no surprise that Anne and Tom start kissing each other.

What happens next at this abandoned mill leads to Anne becoming a vampire. Will Anne have an extramarital affair with Tom? Will Jakob find out that she’s a vampire? And how will Anne satisfy her cravings for blood? All of those questions are answered in the movie.

Anne finds out early during her turning into a vampire that animal blood won’t work for her. There’s a comical scene of her going to the butcher section of a grocery store and asking the butcher (played by Skeeta Jenkins) if she could just buy the blood from the meat. When she gets home and drinks the blood like someone would drink wine or martinis, she discovers that the animal blood actually makes her sick. And yes, there’s a nauseating scene where she vomits up blood like a garden hose on full blast.

People who watch “Jakob’s Wife” should know that the movie is very enthusiastic about showing a lot of blood and bile gushing from bodies of humans and animals. This isn’t the type of vampire movie where a vampire gives neck bites with the minimum amount of blood drainage. No, in “Jakob’s Wife,” the people who get bitten by a vampire have enough blood spewing out of them to fill buckets.

The movie gets chillingly creative in a scene where Anne visits her dentist Dr. Meda (played by Monica L. Henry) for a routine checkup. The doctor notices that Anne has new teeth (that look like baby fangs) growing inside her back teeth. And when an automatic teeth-cleaning device is put on Anne’s mouth, it leads to one of the more horrifying yet intentionally hilarious scenes in the movie.

There’s a lot of crude dialogue that’s also meant to comedic. It’s enough to say that Anne isn’t the only vampire in the story. During an attack by one of the other vampires, this bloodsucker growls to the intended victim: “I’m going to tongue fuck a hole in your head until I puke blood!”

And later, a bratty neighborhood girl (played by Armani Desirae), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, sees Anne acting suspiciously in Anne’s front yard. The girl refuses to leave because she says she wants to learn a new curse word. Anne tells the girl, “Fuck off!” And the girl replies, “I already know that one!” It’s an example of some of the off-the-wall humor in the movie.

Early on in the movie, Jakob scolds two teenagers who are smoking a joint on the hood of his car that’s parked outside the church. One of the teens, whose name is Oscar (played by Omar Salazar) angrily talks back to Jakob, while Oscar’s female friend Eli (Angelie Simone, also known as Angelie Denizard) tries to calm him down and de-escalate the situation. Jakob ends up confiscating the marijuana joint, which shows up later in one of the movie’s comedic scenes.

Where there’s a vampire plague, there’s also a vampire leader. And in “Jakob’s Wife,” that leader is called The Master (played by Bonnie Aarons), who looks like an androgynous Nosferatu type of vampire. The way this creature looks isn’t fully revealed until a certain point in the movie. The Master keeps appearing near Anne and Jakob’s house and ends up having a big moment in the movie that’s one of the highlights of the film.

The cast members of “Jakob’s Wife” lean into their roles with gusto. All of the characters are well-cast, and Crampton’s performance sets the right level of tongue-in-cheek tone (or bite-in-neck tone, as it were) that makes the movie so entertaining to watch. (Crampton is one of the movie’s producers.) And even when there are some horror movie tropes, such as take-charge Sheriff Mike Hess (played Jay DeVon Johnson) and his bumbling Deputy Colton (played by C.M. Punk), there’s enough satire for viewers to know that everyone is in on the joke.

What also makes “Jakob’s Wife” better than the average horror film is that the movie’s characters aren’t complete stereotypes. Jakob isn’t as dull and uptight as people might think he is on first impression. Anne doesn’t become an evil vampire, because she’s someone who struggles with having to adjust to this drastic change in her life.

The movie’s musical score by Tara Busch doesn’t conform to the expected norms of a horror movie that’s about a middle-aged woman who becomes a vampire. Normally, a movie like this would have the usual Gothic scary music or have soundtrack cues using songs that were popular during this middle-aged woman’s youth. Instead, “Jakob’s Wife” is heavy with interludes of modern electronica music that sounds spooky at the same time. It’s almost as if to conjure up images that this minister’s wife could end up at an underground dance club now that she’s a vampire. It should come as no surprise that Anne’s lusty side is awakened, as she takes full control of her sexuality during her metamorphosis.

Underneath all the blood spatter and violent mayhem, “Jakob’s Wife” also has a message of finding one’s identity in the strangest of circumstances. Is it bizarre that a woman finally figures out how to be a strong and independent person only after she becomes a vampire? This movie doesn’t seem to think it’s so far-fetched, and in fact celebrates this transformation. And if the new Anne could change the title of the movie, she’d change it from “Jakob’s Wife” to “Anne the Vampire Warrior.”

RLJE Films and Shudder released “Jakob’s Wife” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on April 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Hysterical’ (2021), starring Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Nikki Glaser, Iliza Shlesinger, Marina Franklin, Judy Gold and Sherri Shepherd

April 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser and Jessica Kirson in “Hysterical” (Photo courtesy of FX)

“Hysterical” (2021)

Directed by Andrea Nevins

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, New York City and various other U.S. cities, the documentary “Hysterical” features a group of well-known North American female stand-up comedians (who are mostly white, with a few African Americans, one Asian and one Latina) discussing their lives and careers.

Culture Clash: All of the women say that rampant sexism is the biggest problem with “gatekeepers” in stand-up comedy.

Culture Audience: “Hysterical” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a candid look at what it’s like to be a female stand-up comedian.

Marina Franklin in “Hysterical” (Photo courtesy of FX)

It’s no secret that stand-up comedy is a male-dominated business where men get paid much more than women overall, and men get the vast majority of jobs available at venues and media outlets that book stand-up comedians. And whenever there’s a documentary about stand-up comedians, women are also usually in the minority. The admirably insightful documentary film “Hysterical” puts women front and center, by having the entire movie be about well-known female stand-up comedians telling their stories through interviews, performances and some footage that follows them as they hang out with other comedians.

The comedians interviewed in the documentary represent multiple generations. There are those who started in stand-up comedy in the 1980s (Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Judy Gold and Wendy Liebman); the 1990s (Sherri Shepherd, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin, Bonnie McFarlane, Jessica Kirson and Lisa Lampanelli); the 2000s (Nikki Glaser, Carmen Lynch, Iliza Shlesinger and Fortune Feimster); and the 2010s (Kelly Bachman). They are all very different from each other but share a lot of similarities in their struggles and triumphs as female stand-up comedians. “Hysterical,” directed by Andrea Nevins, had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The documentary is raw, real and, of course, funny. But it also presents a brutally honest look at how society’s stereotypes of how women should act in public are entrenched in the sexism that withholds opportunities from female stand-up comedians and gives these opportunities to men instead. The movie also gives first-hand accounts about the dangerous realities of being a female stand-up comedian, whether it’s staying in unsafe areas while on tour, dealing with sexual harassment, or defending themselves from physically aggressive audience members and colleagues. These female comedians are not expecting pity when they tell their stories, but it’s clear that they want people to understand what they’ve been through to get to where they are.

Think about how people generally react when women curse out loud, compared to how people react when men say the same curse words, and you have an idea of how this double standard affects the careers of female stand-up comedians. Male comedians with an “angry” persona are generally more accepted than female comedians with an “angry” persona, which is why so many female stand-up comedians often smile during their stand-up act, even when they’re saying the angriest things. And because working stand-up comedians have to frequently travel, female stand-up comedians are judged more harshly if they’re parents away from home on tour, compared to male stand-up comedians who are parents away from home on tour.

“Hysterical” is a perfect title for this documentary because it has a double meaning: Hysterical can mean “hilarious,” or it can mean the word’s original definition of “someone losing control of their emotions or sanity,” which was a trait that was originally (and unfairly) attributed to women in the days when this word was invented. (For example, the word “hysterectomy” is related to the word “hysterical.”) “Hilarious” and “crazy” are how most female comedians are described at some point if they want to be considered successful.

The “crazy” label is one that many of these comedians wear with a badge of honor when it suits them, but they also know it can come at a price. All of the women in the documentary say, in one way or another, that being a stand-up comedian is a line of work that you have to be a little crazy to want to do. It’s a profession where people of any gender constantly get rejections, low pay (or no pay) at the bottom of the career ladder, and exploitation from all kinds of people. However, the women in the documentary say they know (because they’ve have experienced it) that whatever negativity that the comedy industry can throw at people, women get it worse overall then men do.

Just like their male counterparts, female comedians were often bullied as kids, they come from dysfunctional families, and/or they’ve suffered some type of past trauma. Depression, addiction and divorce are very common among stand-up comedians. But the women in this documentary say that women are more likely to be stigmatized for these issues than men are, simply because there are too many people who expect more perfection from women than they expect from men.

Over and over, the women share eerily similar stories of feeling inadequate or feeling like misfits in their childhood and adolescence. (Almost all come from middle-class or working-class families.) Being funny gave these comedians a sense of purpose and an identity. And laughter from telling jokes helped these comedians feel accepted in some way.

Liebman says she has a history of being clinically depressed, and comments on her family dynamics: “It gave me an identity to be the funny one.” Kirson says that her parents had a very unhappy marriage, her father was very tough on her, and she was often bullied by boys. “I was not a happy kid,” she remembers.

Glaser, a recovering anorexic/bulimic who describes having lifelong insecurities about her physical appearance, says her decision to become a comedian came early in her childhood: “I realized I wasn’t as pretty as my sister, and the pretty girls were the ones getting the roles in the plays.” Instead of trying to be a glamorous actress like other girls were doing, Glaser decided to become a comedian first. In the documentary, Glaser admits that she still feels insecure when comparing herself to her sister.

Feinstein says that she got bad grades in her childhood due to a learning disability. At 17, she moved to New York City and ended up pursuing stand-up comedy as a career. Shlesinger describes her childhood as growing up with a single mother in a Dallas suburb where they were Jews in a very Christian environment.

McFarlane, a Canadian who grew up on an Alberta farm with no running water, remembers that she felt out-of-place in her own family: “To my family, I was a very strange person. I liked things they didn’t like. I found humor in things they didn’t find funny.”

Lampanelli, who has retired from stand-up comedy, says that she grew up with an emotionally abusive mother: “My mother was a big yeller. She had a lot of rage … And I think I was that middle child who could make mom laugh to diffuse the tension in the house. I, as a comic, was doing jokes to shut everybody up before they got to me.” Lampanelli is shown in the documentary hanging out pleasantly with her mother, so it seems they’re in a good place now with their relationship.

Bachman found fame in 2019 through a viral video of her performing at the New York City club Downtime and did some ad-libbed heckling at someone she didn’t expect to be in the audience: disgraced entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was at the show the year before he went on trial and was convicted of rape. In “Hysterical,” Bachman says that she’s a rape survivor, and seeing Weinstein triggered her to make comments directed at him.

While Bachman was on stage during that show, she mentioned being a rape survivor, called Weinstein “the elephant in the room,” and then said about him being at the club: “I didn’t know we had to bring our own mace and rape whistles.” At first, she got some boos from male-sounding people, while one unidentified man in the audience shouted at Bachman to “shut up.” But Bachman continued by saying “fuck you” to all rapists. Anyone who disapproved of what she was saying was drowned out by mostly female cheers from the audience.

Bachman’s rebuke of Weinstein and all other rapists got a lot of media attention and was widely praised by other comedians. In the “Hysterical” documentary, Glaser comments on this defining moment for Bachman: “That was fearless. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.” Griffin, who is no stranger to controversy, says with admiration about Bachman’s takedown of Weinstein and rapists: “That was nothing less than an act of civil disobedience.”

Just like some of the other comedians in the documentary, Bachman says comedy is a form of therapy for her: “Everyone in [my] family has touched trauma. It’s not something we talk about, so we chose to laugh at funerals, we choose to laugh when somebody is getting divorced. Someone has the job to make things funny. We look to that person, and it helps. And I made the choice to be that person in my family.”

Women of color have the added burden of dealing with racism. Franklin, Shepherd and Lynch (who is a Latina) all tell stories about experiencing racist bullying when they were children and other racism when they became adults. Lynch, who spent part of her childhood in Spain before her family moved to the U.S. , says she was often ridiculed because of her Spanish accent when she talked.

Franklin says of the racism she experienced in her childhood, “Back then, you had to learn how to live with it. And one of the ways I did was by being funny.” Shepherd comments on her career: “As a black woman, I had to fight for a spot. I really, really had to prove that I was funny.”

Cho repeats some of her well-known stories of how her Korean American heritage and her body size were used as reasons to demean her. A low point for her was when TV executives pressured her to lose a dangerous amount of weight when she starred on the 1994-1995 sitcom “All-American Girl.” Cho says of her experiences with being body-shamed: “I have achieved more peace in my body as I’ve gotten older, but it took a long time to get there.” She has also experienced a lot of prejudice from people who think all Asian women are supposed to be quiet and submissive.

Although female entertainers are often expected to look as attractive as possible, Cho says that female comedians have a double-edged sword because people often have this attitude about women in comedy: “Don’t be too pretty. A beautiful woman is a threat.” Glaser adds, “You can be very pretty and funny. The only requirement is that you feel ugly on the inside.”

Feimster, who identifies as a lesbian, also talks about what it’s like to be a female comedian who proudly doesn’t fit into a stereotypical mold of female gender conformity or body size. She admits there have been many times when she’s been insecure about it, but ultimately, her differences make her stand out from many other female stand-up comics. Much of her stand-up comedy act talks about these issues.

Gold, another openly lesbian comedian, says that the bullying and awkwardness that she experienced in her youth had a lot to do with her tall height (she’s 6’3″) and being a “tomboy” as a child. And when she started to become taller than most of her peers, she turned any insecurities about her height into eventual jokes that made their way into her stand-up comedy act.

Feimster also echoes what many people interviewed in the documentary say about their comedy material coming from a place of emotional “damage.” She laughs when she explains why women want to become stand-up comedians: “There’s probably a lot of us that’s filling some sort of void.”

Kirson says something similar in this comment: “I say this on stage: No matter how much you clap, you’ll never fill the hole. We’re just trying to fill this hole and get attention that we’ve always wanted and can’t get.”

Don’t mistake “Hysterical” for a non-stop whinefest. It’s not. The comedians also frequently say what they love about doing stand-up. That type of passion is what keeps them going in their toughest times. And there’s quite a bit of laugh-out-loud footage of all of the comedians doing what they do on stage as examples of why they’ve achieved a certain level of fame.

All of the comedians, in one way or another, say that doing stand-up comedy is not something they chose but something that chose them. For Shepherd, stand-up comedy is about “the joy I get from getting on stage and being able to take people on a journey to a place where they can forget what they’re going through.” Feinstein says what she gets out of stand-up: “I have control. I’m a storyteller. I get to tell my tale.”

Feimster comments, “The beauty of comedy is I have a voice, I have a microphone, and I can go out and do my thing.” Later in the documentary, Feimster says, “I was a cautious kid, so it’s weird that I ended up in this job that has such a lack of stability, and you’re having to take risks all the time.”

Cho adds, “It’s mostly people’s biggest fear to get up in front of others and try to make them laugh. But, for me, when I was very different and very young, I also had to convince people that I had something important to say.”

Franklin comments, “The best experience on stage is when the whole room is with you, and you feel like you’re truly sharing a story that you can connect with.” Shlesinger says that stand-up comedy has a unique rhythm like no other form of entertainment: “It’s almost melodic. It’s almost like singing, like you can just riff and knowing that you can take them [the audience] anywhere.” Lynch says, “The very first time I performed on stage was for two minutes. And right then, I felt like I’d just married and had a baby.”

Speaking of marriage and children, the documentary fortunately doesn’t seem preoccupied about asking details about what type of family planning these women might or might not have. It’s a line of questioning that female entertainers are asked a lot more than male entertainers. Shepherd and McFarlane talk briefly about the challenges of raising kids while being a traveling stand-up comedian. (McFarlane takes her daughter Rayna Lynn, who was born in 2007, on the road with her.)

The documentary also mentions the hazards of being an up-and-coming stand-up comedian who doesn’t have the luxury of security guards or other people as protection against crazy audience members, stalkers or other potential dangers to safety. Many female stand-up comedians travel alone from city to city. And sometimes, promoters will put them in the same hotel room or condo with other comedians (almost always male) whom the women do not know.

Franklin is shown having a conversation with a male comedian friend and telling him about a bad experience she had where she stayed at a hotel on his enthusiastic recommendation, but the hotel and the surrounding area turned out to be very unsafe. The more she described the unsafe conditions, the more the male comedian began to understand that from his perspective as a man, the place wasn’t so bad. But from a female perspective, it was not a good place to be alone.

Sexual harassment and/or sexual assault seem to be experienced by the majority of female stand-up comedians in relation to their job. Most of the women don’t go into details, but some of the women describe the derogatory comments, sexual groping without consent and other unwanted touching that they’ve experienced as stand-up comedians. The general attitude is that these degrading experiences come with the territory, but more women now are more likely to report misconduct than they were in the past.

The movie makes a passing mention of how female comedians are often put in tricky #MeToo situations by people who can later claim that their offensive comments or actions were “just a joke” that a comedian should be able to take. Some of the women interviewed in the documentary hint that they feel pressure to be like “one of the guys” and have “thick skin” when sexual degradation is in their presence. The documentary should have asked this question: Is a woman who has a lot of sexually explicit raunchiness in her stand-up comedy act more likely to be considered “fair game” to be targeted for sexually explicit offensiveness?

If the offender is a comedian, the documentary could have used more exploration of the complicated issue of how comedy is used as an excuse to justify offensive things that aren’t illegal. There also should have been some discussion of “cancel culture” and how far back in someone’s life should offensive comments or actions be used to “cancel” that person. There are no easy answers, but the documentary could have asked more of these questions to get the perspectives of these female comedians, many of whom have a lot of sexually explicit content in their comedy acts.

Being a stand-up comedian, regardless of gender, is hard on a stand-up comedian’s love life. Almost all of the women talk about their love lives as part of their stand-up comedy act. And there’s an appreciation for how far things have changed from the days when it was scandalous for female stand-up comedians to talk about sex. However, gender double standards remain. Comedians vary when it comes to how raunchy or politically outspoken they want to be in their stand-up comedy acts.

The documentary mentions the 2017 controversy over Griffin posing for a photo while holding up a fake, bloodied head of Donald Trump, who was president of the U.S. at the time. The backlash was swift and far-reaching: Griffin was blacklisted from performing in most of the U.S., and she was put on a government watch list. Griffin’s 2019 documentary: “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story” chronicled this controversy and her comeback tour outside the United States. In “Hysterical,” Griffin doesn’t really say anything new that she didn’t already say in her own documentary about this subject.

“Hysterical” has a compilation of footage of male entertainers (such as the rock band Gwar) who depicted the beheading or mutilation of Trump as part of their stage acts but never got the type of backlash and career damage that Griffin did. Glaser says of the Griffin controversy: “It was all so much bullshit. She got so railroaded.” Cho adds, “They would never treat a male comedian that way.”

Even with gender double standards, many of the comedians in “Hysterical” say that stand-up comedy is still a form of entertainment where people have true freedom of expression. (However, comedians still face career consequences if their material is considered too offensive.) Glaser comments, “I used to feel like ‘ugh,’ when comedians would pat themselves on the back and say that we are the last bastions of free speech. It’s like we kind of are. When someone tells me I can’t talk about something, I want to do it more.”

“Hysterical” has a brief overview of influential female stand-up comedians over the years. Moms Mabley, Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields, Bella Barth, Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers are all mentioned as being pioneers in their own ways. Franklin mentions Wanda Sykes as being a personal inspiration to her when Franklin started out in stand-up comedy.

But for many of the women interviewed in this documentary, being a stand-up comedian was not something they were taught to believe was a realistic career choice for a woman. Shlesinger is the only one in the documentary who says that it never occurred to her that she couldn’t be a stand-up comedian because she was a woman. And almost all female stand-up comedians have had plenty of naysayers in their lives who told them that they shouldn’t be stand-up comedians.

On average, women tend to have shorter careers in stand-up comedy than men do, because they’re more likely to experience age discrimination and more likely to stop touring for family-related reasons. But regardless of where a female stand-up comedian is in her career, she’s more likely to lose out on job opportunities to men. And this gender discrimination causes a lot of women to get discouraged and give up.

A large part of this self-doubt and insecurity comes from long-held sexist practices of booking women in only one or two slots in a stand-up comedy lineup where men get not only the majority of the slots but also the best (headlining) slots in most cases. It’s mentioned repeatedly in the documentary that female stand-up comedians have been so accustomed to these limited opportunities, it was hard to for them to feel camaraderie with female comedians because they saw each other as competition.

Griffin says of women trying to get booked into a lineup of comedians: “There was a time when it seemed like there really was only room for one.” McFarlane agrees: “It was hard to like another woman [comedian] because you felt threatened because only one person is going to get the job.”

That’s not to say that stand-up comedy is any less cutthroat for women. Nor does it mean that women are not immune to jealous rivalries. But nowadays, female comedians say they’re much more likely to reach out and support other female comedians. More venues and promoters are becoming open to booking more than just one woman in a comedy lineup. And a few places sometimes host all-female comedy lineups.

The female comedians in the documentary say that things have gradually improved as there’s slowly been progress in job opportunities for women in comedy. However, it’s up to women to join forces and create supportive networks for each other, which is something that male comedians have been informally doing for years. Franklin comments, “I never understood sexism until I got into the comedy scene.”

Shlesinger adds, “Men have always gotten to do things first, whether it’s owning property or freedom of speech or anything fun. By sheer numbers, men have been doing comedy for longer [than women have].” The general consensus that the female comedians have is that the best way to change the outdated mindset that men should always dominate in comedy is for the public to vote with their wallets and by making more requests for diverse lineups of talented comedians.

In the “Hysterical” documentary, Kirson mentions New York City venues such as Comedy Cellar and The Stand and Los Angeles venues such as The Comedy Store and The Improv as having welcoming communities for comedians of any gender: “There are certain clubs were people really become family and close and hang out.”

Feinstein, Glaser and Kirson are shown hanging out together at Comedy Cellar. There’s also some footage of Franklin spending time at Comedy Cellar with some comedian friends, including Jeff Ross. The documentary includes archival footage of comedians Amy Schumer, Glaser and Bridget Everett in a car and speaking words of support and encouragement to Griffin during Griffin’s scandal.

The support for each other isn’t all just lip service. Liebman produces a show for up-and-coming comedians called Locally Grown Comedy at the Los Angeles-area nightclub Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. The documentary includes footage from one of these shows. Liebman says that she personally looks out for young talent whom she can mentor, especially women, since she knows how much harder it is for women than men to break into stand-up comedy.

Some of the women in the documentary believe that the #MeToo movement is a major factor in this shift toward more female comedians having more solidarity with each other than in previous decades. Bachman says, “Once you stand up to power, the narrative changes.” Women in stand-up comedy are also starting to verbally push back, on stage and off, on certain people trying to dictate what beauty standards are, since these beauty standards can affect how people are treated in society.

One of the best and most emotionally touching parts of the documentary is how it covers Franklin’s journey in going public with having breast cancer. There’s footage of Franklin telling some of her comedian friends about it and revealing that she’s going to go on stage and try out some jokes about her cancer for the first time. After the friends get over the shock of Franklin having cancer and see her performance (which got a standing ovation from the audience), Franklin is shown being somewhat overwhelmed by all the love and support. And fortunately, she is now in remission from the cancer.

The women in “Hysterical” expose a lot of insecurities about themselves on stage and in the documentary. But they also show a lot more strength than they might give themselves credit for, because not too many people would have the courage to turn their personal pain into something that will make people laugh. By allowing these comedians to tell their stories, without “gatekeepers” (agents, managers, comedy promoters, talent bookers) and other talking heads interrupting and drowning out their voices, director Nevins gives each woman the chance to shine in her own way in the documentary. It’s a film that’s worth watching by anyone who enjoys talented stand-up comedians and people who speak their own truths unapologetically.

FX premiered “Hysterical” on April 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Witch Hunt” (2021), starring Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Abigail Cowen, Echo Campbell and Christian Carmago

March 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Gideon Adlon and Abigail Cowen in “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Witch Hunt” (2021) 

Directed by Elle Callahan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional California city of Thirteen Palms, the horror film “Witch Hunt” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl is conflicted over her mother illegally hiding witches in their home to prevent the witches from being arrested, deported or murdered by government officials.

Culture Audience: “Witch Hunt” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies about witches and with teenage main characters, but the movie isn’t very scary and squanders the story concept with a rushed and disjointed ending.

Christian Carmago and Elizabeth Mitchell in “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Witch Hunt” has a very interesting concept that would have resulted in an outstanding horror film if it had been handled in better ways. The concept is that in the United States, witchcraft is illegal, and a teenage girl has mixed feelings about her mother being part of an underground network that hides witches who are targeted for arrests, deportations or executions. It starts out as an intriguing horror movie with timely allegories about immigrant controversies in the U.S., but then it monotonously slides into a disappointing hodgepodge of ideas ripped off from other movies. “Witch Hunt” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The performances in “Witch Hunt” are far better than the movie’s plot, which tries to be edgy with social commentary and feminist sensibilities. But “Witch Hunt” ultimately becomes a watered-down “cat and mouse” game with baffling inconsistencies, weak horror tropes and characters making nonsensical decisions. And a character in “Witch Hunt” obnoxiously reveals (without spoiler alerts) the ending of the Oscar-winning 1991 classic thriller “Thelma & Louise,” which has a surprise ending that shouldn’t be revealed to viewers who don’t know how “Thelma & Louise” ends and who haven’t asked for this spoiler information.

Written and directed by Elle Callahan, “Witch Hunt” opens with a red-haired woman in a hangman’s noose who’s being burned at the stake in front of a courthouse somewhere on the East Coast in the United States. A small crowd has gathered to watch this horrific spectacle. A man dressed in a government uniform lights the fire.

In the crowd, the woman’s daughter (who’s about 12 or 13 years old and also a redhead) cries out, “Mom!” Meanwhile, before the woman perishes in the fire, she calls out several times, “Christ!” The visual effects in this scene are somewhat cheesy, but it could be more easily forgiven if too many other scenes weren’t such a letdown.

It’s later revealed in the story that the woman who was burned at the stake was convicted of practicing witchcraft, which is a crime punishable by death in the United States. The Bureau of Witchcraft Investigations (BWI) is in charge of finding and arresting witches. Only women and girls in this story are targeted for being witches. And almost all the witches happen to have red hair. It’s a pretty big plot hole, because if most of the witches in this story have red hair, then that would make it easier for the authorities to find them.

After this scene of a witch burning at the stake, the movie then cuts to three months later in the fictional Southern California city of Thirteen Palms. (“Witch Hunt” was actually filmed in Los Angeles.) Some mean girls are harassing a student in a high-school classroom during a U.S. history class. Two of the girls throw a wadded-up note at a redhead girl named Abby (played by Sydney Wilder). When she opens the note, she sees the words “Witch Bitch” surrounded in flames. Why the animosity toward Abby?

The “mean girls” clique consists of group leader Jen (played by Lulu Antariksa), who is stuck-up and vindictive; Kelly (played by Bella Shepard), who is spoiled and conceited; and Sofie (played by Anna Grace Barlow), who is shallow and somewhat empty-headed. It turns out that Abby has caught the eye of Jen’s ex-boyfriend Paul, who broke up with Jen three months earlier. When Jen sees Paul and Abby flirting in the school hallway, Jen tells cattily tells the other mean girls that Abby is a “slut” and practically snarls, “What does he see in her?”

Another teenager who hangs out with this snooty clique but who doesn’t bully other people is Claire Goode (played by Gideon Adlon), who is a free thinker and isn’t afraid to question out loud some of the government’s policies for witches. One of the policies that’s on an upcoming voter ballot is Proposition 6. A “yes” vote for Proposition 6 is in favor of allowing the California government to deport the children of convicted witches to Mexico, where witches are legal and are given asylum. The proposition came about because many people believe that being a witch is a biologically inherited trait, not just practicing a set of beliefs.

In the United States in this movie, there’s literally a witch hunt going on and deep-seated hatred against witches. During a school break, Claire, Jen, Kelly and Sofie watch a viral news video of a witch being caught by a mob at the U.S./Mexico border. “Witch Hunt” doesn’t get too graphic with its violence (this movie is clearly aiming for an audience that includes a lot of underage teenagers), but based on what’s shown, it’s implied that the witch was probably tortured and possibly killed by the mob.

Claire seems to be conflicted about how witches are being treated in this society. On the one hand, Claire believes that witches are criminals. On the other hand, she doesn’t believe that they should be tortured and killed just because they’re witches. Based on what Claire tells her friends and her mother, she thinks that witches should be locked up or deported.

There’s a reason why Claire has mixed feelings about witches. Her widowed mother Martha (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) has been hiding witches in a secret section of their home. The witches are smuggled in large wooden crate boxes by people in an underground network that are pretending to deliver office-sized bottled water dispensers in the boxes. Claire tells her mother to stop helping witches because it’s illegal and dangerous, but Martha ignores this request.

Martha handles the intake of the smuggled witches, but Claire knows everything that’s going on and is worried that they will get caught. Martha’s ally in the underground network is a man named Jacob Gordon (played by Treva Etienne), who transports the crate boxes to and from the Goode family home. He also takes empty water dispensers from the home, to make it look like he’s collecting bottles for recycling.

Claire has identical twin brothers named Corey (played by Cameron Crovetti) and George (played by Nicholas Crovetti), who are about 8 or 9 years old. They are examples of the many underdeveloped and ultimately useless characters in the movie. The twins add almost nothing to the plot. And the “mean girls” clique also ends up not being a very important plot device for the movie.

During the course of the movie, three witches are shown as those who’ve been smuggled into the Goode family home. The first witch is Gina (played by Ashley Bell), who appears to be in her 30s. Gina speaks in a strange language and has a palm-sized blue butterfly as some kind of magical creature. It’s implied throughout the story that Claire is irritated that these smuggled witches are taking up space in the home, as well as taking up her mother’s time and energy. Gina is eventually smuggled out of the home, and her fate is shown in the movie.

After Gina leaves, two other witches are smuggled into the home: Fiona (played by Abigail Cowen) is about 17 or 18 years old and her sister Shae (played by Echo Campbell), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Fiona and Shae are hiding because they are orphans whose mother was executed for being a witch. It should come as no surprise to viewers (and it’s not spoiler information) that Fiona and Shae’s mother was the same woman who was shown burned at the stake at the beginning of the movie.

Fiona and Shae would be directly affected by Proposition 6, which looks like it’s going to get voted into law, since the majority of the population hates witches. Claire ends up becoming friendly with Fiona, but Claire is a little creeped out by Shae. One night, Claire wakes up in the middle of the night and is startled to find Shae staring at her, as if Shae is in a trance. Fiona makes an apology on behalf of Shae and explains that Shae is a sleepwalker.

Claire’s quick friendship with Fiona isn’t adequately explained, since the movie makes a big deal of showing how Claire is prejudiced against witches, and it’s the main reason why there’s friction between Claire and her mother Martha. One minute, Claire is calling witches “criminals.” The next minute, Claire is hanging out with Fiona as if they’ve been best friends forever. It’s quite an abrupt about-face that doesn’t ring true.

Of course, a movie like this has a chief villain who is fanatical in his intent to hunt down witches. His name is Detective Hawthorne (played by Christian Carmago), who’s from the BWI. He doesn’t hesitate to commit police brutality to get what he wants.

Detective Hawthorne uses some kind of magical thermal pocketwatch to detect a witch’s presence. If the watch detects low air pressure, then that means a witch was recently there or recently did witchcraft there. It’s not a very clever detective tool for this story, because witches could be smart enough to cover their tracks by manipulating the air pressure.

Unfortunately, Detective Hawthorne is written as a very one-dimensional, predictable character. There’s no suspense or backstory for him. And so, viewers just get Detective Hawthorne being a very hollow antagonist right through the inevitable showdown toward the end of the film.

“Witch Hunt” attempts to draw parallels between bigotry toward witches and real-life bigotry toward undocumented immigrants who pass through the U.S./Mexico border. The hatred of witches is shown in ways that are overtly violent. For example, Claire and other students are out in the schoolyard when they witness a witch getting shot for trying to escape from a Border Patrol detention bus that was passing by the school.

The witch hatred is so out-of-control, attempted murder is allowed to test if people are witches. There’s a scene where BWI officials are at Claire’s high school to try to kill female students who are suspected witches. They strap the girls to wheelchairs, throw them in the school swimming pool, and see if any of them can escape from the wheelchairs during a certain period of time. If any of them can escape, that’s “proof” she’s a witch.

If any of them can’t escape and might die by drowning before the wheelchairs are pulled out of the water, the attitude is, “Oh well, too bad if someone dies.” It’s another terrible plot hole, because it doesn’t take into account that parents of innocent children would be outraged by this type of violence inflicted on their children at school. And not to mention that a school would be sued for these barbaric tactics.

The bigotry against witches and suspected witches also comes out in hate-filled conversations from seemingly “pleasant” neighbors. A nosy neighbor named Cynthia (played by Deborah May) comes over to the Goode home and tells Martha that she heard that someone in their neighborhood was caught smuggling witches over the border. Martha pretends to agree with the bigotry of Cynthia, who says about the witches: “I don’t understand why the Mexicans are giving them asylum. They’re not refugees! They’re criminals!”

But for every scene that adds a touch of realism, there are two or three scenes that are dull or illogical. For example, in one scene, Kelly from the “mean girls” clique is shown trying to buy a ticket at a movie theater, but she’s barred from entry because the employee at the box office tells Kelly that her name is on a list of suspected witches. Claire sits on a bench nearby and watches as Kelly angrily denies that she’s a witch.

First of all, considering all the murderous violence against witches in this witch hunt, it’s kind of bizarre that there’s an entire scene showing that this society punishes suspected witches by not letting them go to the movies. If you think about it, witches who are persecuted in life-or-death situations are supposed to have bigger problems than not being able to go see a movie. And it doesn’t make sense that the government would go to all that trouble to ban witches from movie theaters, when there are other types of banishment that are much worse that could’ve been shown in this movie.

The scene is also illogical because even if movie theaters had a list of names of suspected witches, it doesn’t explain how people could get around that blacklist by paying cash or by using someone else’s bank card to buy tickets. Does that mean that people in this society have to show a photo ID every time they go to the movies and there’s a master list of blacklisted people that all movie theaters have? It’s never fully explained and it’s just a poorly conceived scene overall.

And in another illogical scene, Claire and Fiona sneak out and go to a bar that serves alcohol, even though there’s no explanation in the movie for why these obviously underage girls were allowed in the bar. And why would Fiona agree to this if she’s supposed to be in hiding? In this bar scene, Claire is surprised to discover that Fiona has never seen the movie “Thelma & Louise,” starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as two best friends who go on the run from the law after one of them kills a man who attempted to rape the other friend.

This is the scene in “Witch Hunt” where Claire blabs the whole plot of “Thelma & Louise,” including the surprise ending. (Viewers of “Witch Hunt” will find out later why Claire gave away all this spoiler information.) But what’s really ridiculous about this scene is that Fiona decides to do some attention-grabbing magic tricks in the bar, such as levitating liquid in a glass. Why go to a bar to do these tricks when they could’ve done all of that in a private location?

And then, the witchcraft is taken up several notches. Fiona suspends time and gets several bar stools to levitate up to the ceiling. Fiona then allows the bar stools to suddenly drop, just as she lets time to start again, while the bar patrons react in shock as they see the chairs fall from the ceiling to the ground. (These tricks are shown in the “Witch Hunt” trailer.) Claire and Fiona quickly run out of the bar, as if they just played a prank.

Of course, as gimmicky as these witch tricks are in the movie, it actually makes no sense for a witch who’s supposed to be in hiding to pull these kinds of stunts in front of people in a public place. Fiona might be a stranger to people in the bar, but Claire is more recognizable in the community. It doesn’t take long for word to spread that Claire is hanging out with a witch. And you know what that means when Detective Hawthorne finds out.

“Witch Hunt” has some scenes that are supposed to be spooky but just come across as a little bit amateurish, considering all the high-quality scares that are in plenty of other horror movies. Coincidence or not, Adlon was also in 2020’s “The Craft: Legacy,” another not-very-scary witch movie that had problems with its screenplay and direction. As the main character in “Witch Hunt,” Adlon’s acting is perfectly adequate, but Claire’s personality isn’t very memorable.

There are long stretches of “Witch Hunt” that are boring, while the last 15 minutes are rushed to cram in the climactic showdown and a last-minute explanation for something that was obvious throughout the film. And one of the worst things about “Witch Hunt” is when Martha makes a decision toward the end that’s completely contradictory to her purpose in the movie. Children might enjoy this movie more than adults who want a compelling and believable story. Ultimately, “Witch Hunt” panders to people who don’t have enough life experience to notice the big plot holes in the film.

UPDATE: Momentum Pictures will release “Witch Hunt” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 1, 2021.

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