Review: ‘Hatching,’ starring Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä, Jani Volanen, Oiva Ollila and Reino Nordin

May 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Siiri Solalinna in “Hatching” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Hatching”

Directed by Hanna Bergholm

Finnish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of Finland, the horror flick “Hatching” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old girl brings home and secretly hides a mysterious bird’s egg, which grows, hatches, and lets loose a terrifying and deadly creature. 

Culture Audience: “Hatching” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching suspenseful horror movies that use gory images as symbols of repressed feelings that affect relationships.

Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä, Jani Volanen and Oiva Ollila in “Hatching” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Hatching” is a thoroughly absorbing horror movie that uses the hatching of a mysterious egg as a representation of childhood angst and inner demons. In its uniquely gruesome way, “Hatching” offers astute observations of adolescent rebellion in a dysfunctional home. It’s a very impressive feature-film debut from director Hanna Bergholm. “Hatching,” which was written by Ilja Rautsi, had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Most of what happens in “Hatching” (which takes place in unnamed parts of in Finland but was filmed in Latvia) is spoiler information that would give away too many surprises in the movie. However, it’s enough to say that “Hatching” doesn’t waste time in showing that something sinister is about to happen in the home of 12-year-old Finnish girl Tinja (played by Siiri Solalinna), who lives with her parents and her younger brother. It’s a family that, on the surface, appears to be happy, loving and “perfect.” But not everything is what it first appears to be in “Hatching.”

“Hatching” opens with a scene that shows a familiar activity in this household: Tinja’s status-conscious mother (played by Sophia Heikkilä), who does not have a name in the movie, is making another video for her social media blog called “Lovely Everyday Life.” It’s a stereotypical “mommy blog,” where a mother tries to project that she has a picture-perfect life with her husband and children. Even when she’s at home, Tinja’s mother dresses as if she’s about to do a photo shoot for an article about how glamorous mothers are supposed to look.

Tinja’s mother has gathered her unnamed husband (played by Jani Volanen), Tinja and Tinja’s younger brother Matias (played by Oiva Ollila), who’s about 9 or 10 years old, into the house’s living room to film another video showing how “happy” they all are in this family. It’s never stated what the source of the family’s income is, but they have a well-kept, middle-class home. The names of Tinja’s mother and Tinja’s father seem to be deliberately unmentioned, as a way to show they could be like any other parents.

Viewers will immediately notice that Tinja and her mother physically resemble each other (they’re both pretty with long, blonde hair), while Tinja’s father and Matias have a similar physical appearance of wearing glasses and looking a little nerdy. However, the parents’ personalities are not similar to their look alike children. Unlike her extroverted and talkative mother, Tinja is shy and introverted. Matias is outspoken and inquisitive, unlike his father, who is passive and doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Different scenes in the movie show that Tinja’s mother is much more attentive to Tinja than to Matias.

The family’s video session is suddenly interrupted by a thumping sound on a nearby window. Tinja goes to the window to find out the cause of the noise. When Tinja opens the window, a large black bird suddenly flies into the house and starts frantically flapping everywhere in the room, causing several glass items to shatter. The family members try to capture the bird, but it makes the chaos worse, because in chasing after the bird, the family members cause other items in the room to break too. The biggest item that breaks is a glass chandelier, which is destroyed when the bird flies into it, and the hanging chandelier crashes to the ground.

Eventually, the bird is captured. In front of her family members, Tinja’s mother holds the bird in a blanket and snaps its neck to kill it. She kills the bird with no hesitation and with a hint of sadistic pleasure, as if she’s smugly happy to get revenge on this animal that caused damage to her picture-perfect home. Tinja then puts the bird in a trash bin in the family yard. As she walks away, Tinja does not see the bird twitch, as if it’s still alive. And you know what that means in a horror movie.

Not long after this incident, Tinja is out walking in the nearby woods at night because she heard strange noises coming from the woods. She sees a large black bird on the ground. This bird is severely wounded for unknown reasons and is barely alive. To put the bird out of its misery, Tinja kills it with a rock.

And not far from the bird, Tinja finds a small egg, which she takes home and hides underneath her bed pillow. The egg quickly grows into the size of a very large watermelon. Observant viewers will notice that the egg gets bigger every time that Tinja experiences something that makes her very anxious.

Tinja is a gymnast who is being pressured by her mother to win important competitions. Tinja’s mother often watches Tinja during Tinja’s gym practices. When she is practicing gymnastics moves, Tinja generally does well, but she has a tendency to falter when she gets very nervous. And her mother makes her nervous. Tinja’s female gymnastics coach (played by Saija Lentonen) is tough but not abusive. Tinja’s closest friend in her gymnastics class is Reeta (played by Ida Määttänen), who is friendly and outgoing.

Tinja’s mother is the type of parent who will demand that her child keep practicing until everything is perfect. One day, after all the other gymnastics students have left because the practice session is over, Tinja’s mother insists that Tinja can’t leave until she perfects the gym move that Tinja had been practicing. The coach tells Tinja’s mother that it won’t be necessary, since the practice session has ended for the day, but Tinja’s mother persists until Tinja does what is expected of her.

On another occasion, Tinja’s ultra-competitive mother puts on a fake smile when she asks Reetta if she plans to enter the qualifying round of an upcoming competition. When Reetta says yes, Tinja’s mother then makes a point of telling Reetta in front of Tinja that Reetta will have to work extra-hard to defeat Tinja. It puts Tinja in an awkward position of reminding Tinja that she will be competing against Reetta, who is her closest friend. Reetta is not as intense about the competition as Tinja’s mother wants Tinja to be, but since this is a horror movie, you just know that Reetta is not going to go unscathed in this story.

As much as Tinja’s mother is obsessed with projecting the image of “perfection,” she is far from perfect. Tinja finds out one day when she comes home from gym practice alone. repairman named Tero (played by Reino Nordin) is in the living room with Tinja’s mother because he is replacing the broken chandelier. Tero is younger and better-looking than Tinja’s father.

At first, Tero and Tinja’s mother don’t see that Tinja has seen them in the room. Tinja is shocked when she sees her mother slowly rubbing Tero’s leg. And then Tinja’s mother and Tero kiss like lovers, but they quickly stop kissing when they see that Tinja has witnessed this act of infidelity. A little later, Tinja’s mother goes into Tinja’s room to explain what Tinja saw.

“Sometimes, adults have these special friends,” Tinja’s mother says. Tinja asks, “What about Dad?” Her mother replies, “Dad is Dad. You know what he’s like. How about we keep this between us?” Tinja’s mother then says that she’s going away for a few days, implying that it’s probably going to be a tryst with Tero.

Tinja tries to pretend that she’s okay with finding out about her mother’s infidelity, but deep down, it really bothers her. And this burden is made worse because her mother expects her to keep it a secret. However, there’s a point in the movie where Tinja’s father lets it be known to Tinja that he knows that his wife is having an affair with Tero, but Tinja’s father prefers to keep quiet about it because he loves his wife and wants to stay married to her.

Around the time that Tinja finds out about her mother’s extramarital affair, the egg gets larger and eventually hatches. And what comes out of the egg ends up wreaking havoc on people inside and outside the home. It’s enough to say that Tinja ends up naming the creature Alli.

“Hatching” is one of those movies that could have turned out looking tacky and amateurish if it had the wrong cast members and the wrong director. That’s because some parts of the screenplay needed better explanations. For example, the scene where Tinja discovers the egg looks too random and not that believable. What 12-year-old kid is going to walk alone in the woods, in the dead of night, just because of hearing some bird squawking?

There’s another part of the story where Reetta is walking alone at night in an isolated area. That scene also looks a little too fake and contrived. However, those are minor flaws when most of the movie is filmed in a way that makes it believable that Tinja has grown both fond of and afraid of this creature that hatched from the egg.

“Hatching” also makes a point of showing that although it would be easy to assume that this creature is the movie’s villain, Tinja’s self-absorbed mother also does a lot of damage too. In addition to pressuring Tinja to be perfect, Tinja’s mother has inappropriate and hurtful conversations with Tinja about Tero.

At one point, Tinja’s mother tells Tinja: “I think I’m in love. Tero is the best thing that ever happened to me. This is the first time in my life I feel like I really love someone. I have to see where it takes me.” How do you think that would make any child feel to hear a parent say that about someone else?

As good as the cast members are in their roles, this movie really stands out because of Solalinna and her stunning feature-film debut in “Hatching.” As Tinja, she portrays a wide range of emotions with authenticity, along with showing the angst of a child who has to present different sides of herself to the world, in order to keep certain secrets. More than a typical horror movie, “Hatching” shows how destructive this secrecy can be.

Bergholm brings the right amount of pacing to the movie, although at times there’s some unnecessary repetition over how close the creature comes to being discovered in Tinja’s room. The movie’s visual effects are not award-worthy, but they get the job done well in fulfilling a certain purpose. With “Hatching,” the filmmakers and cast members seem to understand that the best horror movies aren’t always about what’s seen on screen but how what happens in the story makes viewers feel. “Hatching” shows in alarming details how the pressure on girls to be “perfect” can be its own kind of horror story.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Hatching” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland,’ starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella and Bill Moseley

April 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sofia Boutella and Nicolas Cage in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

Directed by Sion Sono

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, in the fictional city called Samurai Town and in a fictional area called Ghostland, the action film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” features a cast of predominantly white and Asian characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A mysterious man is forced to find a ruthless leader’s enslaved concubine, who has escaped. 

Culture Audience: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and anyone who likes action movies that have more style than substance.

Bill Moseley (center) in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” has impressive production design and cinematography, but this visually stylish action flick is too much of an incoherent mess in all other areas to be a truly enjoyable experience. Nicolas Cage’s die-hard fans, who automatically praise everything he does, will probably like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” just because he’s in the movie, in spite of the film’s very obvious failings. Unfortunately, the “Prisoners of the Ghostland” story just too cliché, but the filmmakers try to distract from this unoriginality by cluttering up the movie with predictable fight scenes and some bizarre characters.

Directed by Sion Sono, “Prisoners of the Ghostland”(which takes place in fictional areas of Japan) is essentially a post-apocalyptic film that blends elements of Western movies and samurai movies. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) has the over-used “male hero who has to save a woman” concept as the basis for the protagonist’s main mission in this story. Maybe it’s a joke or maybe the filmmakers were just too lazy to come up with a name for the protagonist (played by Cage), but he doesn’t have a name in the movie. He’s listed in the film credits as Hero.

The Hero character is not exactly an upstanding, morally righteous person. He’s in prison for a bank robbery where he and his partner in crime, named Psycho (played by Nick Cassavetes), murdered several innocent bystanders. (This bank robbery is shown in a very bloody flashback.)

Psycho was in a prison transport vehicle that crashed into a truck carrying nuclear waste, which caused a massive explosion, leading to much of the area becoming a wasteland disaster area. (“Prisoners of the Ghostland” was filmed in Japan and Los Angeles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

A corrupt and twisted leader named Governor (played by Bill Moseley) has created a settlement community called Samurai Town, which is a combination of a modern Japanese city and American Old West village. As such, people in Samurai Town either dress in traditional Japanese clothing or cowboy/cowgirl gear. The Governor keeps women as sex slaves, whom he calls his “granddaughters.”

One of the enslaved women has escaped. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella), and the Governor lets Hero out of prison to force Hero to find Bernice and bring her back to the Governor. As part of this mercenary task, the Governor forces Hero to wear a black leather outfit that is rigged with a detonator. The bomb on the suit will go off if Hero does not return Bernice in two days.

There are voice recognition buttons on the outfit’s sleeves, so that Bernice can speak into these devices to confirm that she is with Hero. Electro-chargers have been placed around Hero’s neck and testicles that will detonate if he tries to take off this outfit before the task is completed. Instead of taking the black Toyota Celica that has been offered to him, Hero instead decides to leave on a bicycle.

The Governor has a samurai bodyguard/enforcer named Yasujiro (played by Tak Sakaguchi), who catches up to Hero and tells him to use the car, and Hero obliges. However, Hero ends up crashing the car and is carried into a bombed-out area called Ghostland, which can be best be described as a rebellious steampunk community. The leader of the Ghostland tribe is the demented Enoch (played by Charles Glover), who knows that Bernice is there, but he’s doesn’t want to let her go.

You know where this story is headed, of course. The rest of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just a series of one obstacle after another for Hero, who gets into a lot of fights along the way. And did we mention that there are also some zombies in this post-apocalyptic world? (How unoriginal and unnecessary.)

Unfortunately, none of the uneven acting in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” elevates this shoddily told story. The dialogue in this movie is simply atrocious. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” tries every hard to be perceived as a zany action movie, but there’s no wit, charm or unpredictability to this story. For an action flick, it’s got dreadfully sluggish pacing in too many areas.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” also has a lot of characters that are either too bland or so wacky that they’re trying too hard and are therefore annoying. Cage is just doing another version of the angsty loner type that he has already done in many of his other films. The villains are hollow. And most of the supporting characters—including Bernice’s friends Stella (played by Lorena Kotô), Nancy (played by Canon Nawata) and Susie (played by Yuzuka Nakaya)—are underwritten and underdeveloped.

It seems like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” was made with the idea that it will be a cult classic that will inspire other movies, similar to what director George Miller’s 1979 post-apocalyptic action classic “Mad Max” ended up doing for sci-fi action cinema in a “wasteland” setting. However, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” doesn’t have enough meaningful characters to care about to see again in spinoffs or sequels. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just an empty exercise from filmmakers who think that all you need to make a good action movie are memorable set designs, a well-known actor as a headliner, and a variety of fight scenes. That’s not enough to save “Prisoners of the Ghostland” from being a disappointing mishmash of superficial self-indulgence and amateurish storytelling.

RLJE Films released “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Navalny,’ starring Alexei Navalny

April 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alexei Navalny in “Navalny” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Navalny”

Directed by Daniel Roher

Some language in Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2021, in Russia, Germany and Austria, the documentary film “Navalny” features an all-white group of political workers, journalists, investigators and family members who are connected in some way to Russian activist/politician Alexei Navalny.

Culture Clash: Navalny, who has been an outspoken critic/opponent of Russian president Valdimir Putin, launches an investigation to find out who poisoned Navalny in 2020, and he returns from exile to Russia, knowing that he is certain to be imprisoned. 

Culture Audience: “Navalny” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about international politics, corruption and charismatic public figures.

Alexei Navalny and Maria Pevchikh in “Navalny” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Although the story of Russian political activist Alexei Navalny has been widely reported in the news, the documentary “Navalny” is a wild and intriguing look at what went on behind the scenes when he tried to find out who poisoned him in 2020. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Daniel Rohrer, “Navalny” (which was filmed from 2018 to 2021) gives an up-close-and-personal view of Navalny and people in his inner circle, through interviews and other candid footage. It’s not only an enthralling story of an aspiring Russian politician but it’s also a gripping exposé of a Russian government’s response to outspoken critics. “Navalny” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award and the Festival Favorite Award.

Navalny (who founded the Russian-based group Anti-Corruption Foundation) has no shortage of passion for the causes that he believes in, but he also has no shortage of ego. There are moments when he acts like he’s a rock star of Russian politics. While the Vladimir Putin-led Russian government portrays Navalny as a traitorous villain, and others see Navalny as a heroic martyr, what emerges in this documentary is a portrait of someone is who neither as dastardly nor as noble as some of the labels that have been thrust upon him. He comes across as shrewd, charismatic and hungry for power so that he can carry out what he says is his agenda: bringing true democracy and more equality to the people of Russia, especially the underprivileged.

These platitudes are often given by people who want to be in political leadership roles. But Navalny—an attorney who has never held an elected political office in the Russian federal government—claims that he really is interested in politics for all the right reasons. At the time this documentary was filmed, he was the leader of the Russia of the Future party. Navalny’s past attempts to run for various political offices have been interrupted by his numerous arrests. The documentary briefly mentions the controversy of his past association with anti-immigrant, white Russian national groups, whom Navalny now denounces. He says his past alignment with these bigoted groups was to open a dialogue with them.

As a political opponent to Russian president Putin, Navalny became very popular, as evidenced by his ability to draw huge crowds and by gaining millions of followers on social media. But a plane flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20, 2020, changed all of that momentum, when Navalny was poisoned with Novichok and nearly died while on that plane, which made an emergency landing in Omsk so he could get medical treatment. An investigation determined that Navalny had been poisoned in Novosibirsk, Russia, before he boarded the plane.

In the documentary, Navalny says that before this attempted murder happened to him, he thought that the more famous he became, the safer he would be from any dangerous attack because it would be made more public. “I was wrong,” he deadpans in the movie. In the beginning of the documentary, director Roher can be heard asking Navalny, “If you were killed, what message would you like to leave behind for the Russian people?” Navalny replies, “Oh, come on, Daniel. No way. It’s like a movie for the case of my death. Let it be movie No. 2. Let’s make a thriller out of this movie.”

Indeed, this documentary has many twists and turns into Navalny’s personal investigation into who poisoned him. This attempted murder was a crime that he always suspected was ordered by Putin. What was revealed in this investigation has already been reported, but seeing it unfold in this documentary is nothing short of fascinating.

Along the way, various people are featured in the documentary who are close to Navalny, including Navalny’s loyal wife Yulia Navalny and daughter Dasha Navalny, who was in her late teens at the time this documentary was filmed. Dasha comments on the poisoning of her father: “It was surreal. It was like [something in] a book.”

Later in the documentary, Dasha says of the burden that her father’s notoriety has placed on the family: “Since I was 13 years old, I’ve thought about what I would do if my dad was killed.” The movie also shows Yulia’s successful efforts to get her husband out of the hospital where he was taken after being poisoned, because the hospital had “more police and government agents than doctors.” He was safely transferred to a hospital in Germany.

“Navalny” gives an insightful look at the employees in Alexei Navalny’s trusted inner circle. Press secretary Kira Yarmysh is often the voice of reason among some of the chaos. Chief of staff Leonid Volkov is the steadfast right-hand man who carries out the leader’s commands but also has to make split-second decisions on his own. Maria Pevchikh, the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s chief investigator, is fiercely protective of her boss and sometimes combative. During the investigation, Pevchikh has to compromise and reluctantly agrees not share certain information with Alexei Navalny, so as not to taint his bias as a victim.

Also crucial to the investigation is a group based in Vienna, Austria, called Bellingcat, led by chief investigator Christo Grozev, who calls Bellingcat a bunch of “data nerds.” It was through Bellingcat’s sleuthing using technology (and some good old-fashioned phone calls) that essential clues were uncovered. The documentary also includes a few journalists (such as CNN’s Tim Lister and Der Spiegel’s Fidelius Schmid) who also investigated the poisoning.

“Navalny” is essential viewing for anyone interested in international politics. Viewers who see this movie can expect to go through a rollercoaster of emotions. And although the investigation does yield answers, “Navalny” is the type of documentary that concludes with a very “to be continued” tone, because events in Alexei Navalny’s life and in Russian politics are still making history.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Fathom Events will release “Navalny” in U.S. cinemas for a limited engagement on April 11 and April 12, 2022. CNN and CNN+ will premiere “Navalny” on April 24, 2022. HBO Max will premiere the movie on May 26, 2022.

Review: ‘Lucy and Desi,’ starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

March 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in “Lucy and Desi” (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress/Amazon Content Services)

“Lucy and Desi”

Directed by Amy Poehler

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Lucy and Desi” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos), representing the middle-class and wealthy, discussing the lives and legacy of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the power couple who redefined television in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Ball and Arnaz broke barriers for women and Latinos in charge of TV productions, while the couple struggled with several marital issues that resulted in their divorce. 

Culture Audience: Besides obviously appealing to fans of “I Love Lucy” (the TV comedy series that made Ball and Arnaz household names), “Lucy and Desi” will appeal primarily to people interested in stores about celebrity couples or chronicles of TV history from the 1950s and 1960s.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in “Lucy and Desi” (Photo courtesy of Bettmann/Amazon Content Services)

The documentary “Lucy and Desi” plays it safe in telling the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. However, the movie’s treasure trove of audio and video archives make it worth watching for anyone interested in TV history and this fascinating power couple. It’s perhaps fitting that “Lucy and Desi” was directed by Amy Poehler, a comedic actress whose life has some similarities to Ball’s, by becoming an executive producer in television and having a high-profile divorce from another comedic entertainer. “Lucy and Desi” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

One of the biggest challenges that documentarians have when doing biographies of famous people is getting exclusive access, whether it’s access to certain interviews, places or archives. There’s often a non-monetary price to be paid when given that access: In exchange for that access, there’s usually an explicit or non-explicit agreement that the documentarians won’t put any scandalous “dirt” on the celebrity in the documentary. It might compromise the integrity of the documentary, depending on how “whitewashed” the documentary becomes.

“Lucy and Desi” puts just enough information about Ball and Arnaz’s behind-the-scenes problems to not be a complete “whitewash,” but the information is not new or insightful. Instead, the movie gives a lot of the narrative over to the eldest child of Ball and Arnaz: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, who gets the most screen time out of all the people interviewed for this documentary. Arnaz Luckinbill gives the impression that she never got over her parents’ divorce and that she wished that her parents had gotten back together.

Ball and Arnaz were married to each other from 1940 to 1960. Arnaz died in 1986, at the age of 69. Ball died in 1989, at the age of 77. At the time of their deaths, they were both married to their respective second spouses: Edith Hirsch (whom Arnaz married in 1963) and Gary Morton (whom Ball married in 1961). Even after their divorce, Ball and Arnaz continued to work together because they co-founded and shared Desilu Productions, which became one of the most powerful independent TV studios in Hollywood history.

In the beginning of the documentary, Arnaz Luckinbill comments on her family archives (audio, video and photos) that are featured in the documentary: “Underneath all of this painful stuff and disappointment, at the core it’s all about unconditional love. I find now that I’m much more forgiving when looking back on this. A lot of it is much clearer to me now.”

It’s worth noting that Arnaz Luckinbill opened up the family archives before when she produced the 1993 made-for-TV documentary “Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie,” which was televised in the U.S. on NBC. In that particular documentary, she and her brother Desi Arnaz Jr. reminisced about their parents while commenting on the footage shown in the film. At times, “Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie” resembles a family therapy session. Writer/director/former actor Laurence Luckinbill, who married Arnaz Luckinbill in 1980, was a writer of that documentary.

The Poehler-directed “Lucy and Desi” documentary opens up the film to commentaries from more people, but they do nothing but praise Ball and Arnaz. Carol Burnett says about Ball: “She was fearless in her comedy.” Bette Midler gushes about Ball: “You saw someone who was so beautiful, but she wasn’t afraid to look ugly, which we almost never saw women do.” Charo makes this statement about Arnaz: “He was the king of Latin music.”

Because Ball was the more famous person in this couple, her pre-fame personal story is told first. Die-hard fans will not learn anything new, but the documentary dutifully gives a summary of how Ball started her entertainment career in New York City, where she moved at the age of 14 to enroll in John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts and was expected to earn money for the family as a professional entertainer.

Born in Jamestown, New York, Ball came from a troubled family background. Her father Henry Durrell “Had” Ball died of typhoid fever when she was 3 years old. The family (including Lucille’s younger brother Fred Ball) moved around a lot in her childhood. By the time Lucille became a teenager, she had lived in New York state, New Jersey, Montana and Michigan.

Her mother Désirée Evelyn “DeDe” Ball married second husband Edward Peterson four years after the death of her first husband. When Lucille was a child, she and her brother sometimes lived with their mother’s parents and later Peterson’s parents. Not having a true sense of home security had profound effects on Lucille, but it also toughened her and prepared her for the harsh realities and erratic nature of showbiz.

Ball’s younger brother Fred says in an archival interview that his mother Dede was very “commanding and authoritative,” and that Lucille had those personality traits too. In 1927, when Lucille was 16, her maternal grandfather was sued when Fred’s girlfriend at the time accidentally shot and paralyzed a neighborhood boy. As the adult who was in charge of supervising Fred and his visiting girlfriend (who were both underage teenagers at the time), the grandfather was held liable for the shooting, and the family’s finances were destroyed.

Lucille’s relocation to New York City was partially motivated by her family expecting her showbiz earning to help the family financially. She became a showgirl (the documentary has an archival audio where she says she “was a dud” as a showgirl), then briefly a model (under the name Diane Belmont) and then a theater actress. She soon got an opportunity to be in movies and moved to Los Angeles. Lucille says in an archival interview: “I loved Hollywood. I had no thought of ever going back.”

But it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. For years, Lucille was stuck in bit parts or in forgettable supporting roles in mostly B-movies. Her first movie role was an uncredited part in 1933’s “Roman Scandals.” She studied acting under the tutelage of RKO Talent’s Lela Rogers, the influential manager/mother of actress/dancer Ginger Rogers. When the movie roles weren’t getting Lucille very far, she turned to doing radio serials. Her radio career set her on the path to the phenomenon of “I Love Lucy.”

Arnaz (who was born and raised in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba) came from a more privileged background than his future first wife. He was born into a multi-generational family of influential politicians and business executives, including having a maternal grandfather who was an executive at rum company Bacardi. But when the Cuban Revolution happened in 1933, when Arnaz was 14, his family lost their fortune.

He fled to Miami as a refugee and became a musician performing a mix of Latin music and big band music. He eventually led the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, which became a well-known music group in the United States. In 1939, Arnaz was cast as the star of the Broadway musical “Too Many Girls.” After “I Love Lucy” became a hit, Arnaz changed the name of his band to the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra, named after his Ricky Ricardo character on the show.

Arnaz and Lucille had something else in common besides their families losing their fortunes: They both had domineering mothers. Arnaz’s mother Dolores “Lolita” De Acha was as demanding of Lucille as she was of her son, according to a comment that Lucille makes in the documentary. After Arnaz and Lucille became rich and famous, they both took care of their respective mothers for the rest of their lives.

It’s already well-known that Lucille and Arnaz met on the set of the 1940 movie “Too Many Girls,” where Arnaz reprised his starring role from the Broadway show. The couple had a quickie courtship and eloped on November 30, 1940. Ten years later, Lucille was starring in and producing a comedy radio show called “My Favorite Husband,” which was loosely based on her marriage.

Television executives offered her a starring role in a TV series version of “My Favorite Husband,” and she accepted the offer on the condition that Arnaz play her husband on the show. It would be the first time that a Latino became a star in an American TV series. The show was called “I Love Lucy,” which had the couple portraying the characters of Lucy Ricardo and Ricky Ricardo. In the United States, “I Love Lucy” premiered on CBS on October 15, 1951. And the rest is history. (The documentary includes some footage from an unaired pilot episode of “I Love Lucy.”)

Not only did the couple star in “I Love Lucy,” but they were also executive producers of the show, at a time when it was rare for women and people of color to be executive producers of TV shows. Arnaz and Lucille also broke barriers for women and people of color in television when they co-founded Desilu Productions in 1950. In addition to producing all TV series starring Lucille Ball from 1950 to 1967 (the year that Desilu shuttered), Desilu produced a long list of hit shows in the 1950s and 1960s, including “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Our Miss Brooks” and “The Ann Sothern Show.” “I Love Lucy” is credited with being the first TV series turn reruns/repeat episodes into a lucrative way to make money.

“I Love Lucy” famously became the first American scripted TV show to depict a woman’s pregnancy, at the insistence of the couple, because Lucille was pregnant in real life at the time with son Desi Arnaz Jr. Her childbirth was written into show, and the 1953 episode about the birth of Ricky Ricardo Jr., also known as Little Ricky, became a ratings bonanza. Arnaz Jr. played Little Ricky on “I Love Lucy,” until the show ended in 1957. Arnaz Jr. appears briefly in the “Lucy and Desi” documentary and makes this comment: “I was in the public eye before I could even communicate.”

Arnaz’s impact on Latino representation on American television cannot be underestimated. The documentary interviews Cuban playwright/professor Eduardo Machado, who remembers being a child in California’s San Fernando Valley and learning to speak English because he saw Arnaz on TV. Machado comments, “Desi brought sophistication where Latinos are hardly seen as sophisticated.” Spanish musician/band leader Xavier Cugat also comments on how influential Arnaz was in breaking barriers for Latinos in a white-dominated entertainment industry.

The role of women in positions of power on television also changed because of “I Love Lucy” and Desilu Productions. Emmy-winning TV showrunner/creator Norman Lear comments in the documentary: “‘I Love Lucy’ did a lot for helping Americans understand that just because a guy was male, that doesn’t mean he was the dominant character. Women could be the dominant character too.”

The documentary mentions Lucille’s reputation for being a tough taskmaster, but only puts a positive spin on it. National Comedy Center executive director Journey Gunderson comments, “There’s such a disparate focus on how hard-nosed she could be. But think about how many times she must’ve been ‘mansplained’ to on the set.”

National Comedy Center director of archives and research Lauren LaPlaca says about Lucille Ball’s legacy: “I don’t like when people call her work ‘effortless’ … She really built her success … It’s pretty clear that she had a scientific approach to what generates a laugh.”

The 2021 dramatic film “Being the Ricardos” (starring Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, in Oscar-nominated performances) focused on a week in the life of the couple while dealing with three main issues that were in real life spread out over a period of years. “Being the Ricardos” includes the controversy over Lucille being branded a Communist in the media because she once filled out a voter registration form and listed herself as a member of the Communist Party. This controversy came during the U.S. government’s Communist witch hunt known as the Red Scare, which ruined the lives and careers of many people who were labeled Communists. “Being the Ricardos” also depicted the battles that the couple had with executives at CBS’s then-parent company Westinghouse and “I Love Lucy” chief sponsoring company Philip Morris about the pregnancy storyline. And the couple fought with each other over ongoing media reports that Arnaz was an unfaithful husband.

Another issue brought up in “Being the Ricardos,” which is a subplot in the movie, is the nature of the relationships between Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their “I Love Lucy” co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played the Ricardos’ best friends/neighbors Ethel Mertz and Fred Mertz. The “Lucy and Desi” documentary doesn’t dwell too much on any behind-the-scenes drama between these four stars. Gregg Oppenheimer, son of “I Love Lucy” head writer Jess Oppenheimer, repeats a well-known story that Vance thought that Frawley was too old to portray her husband, and Frawley (who was 22 years older than Vance) was offended when he found out that Vance felt that way. (In “Being the Ricardos,” Vance is played by Nina Arianda, while Frawley is played by J.K. Simmons, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the movie.)

“Lucy and Desi” avoids detailing any infidelity that contributed to the demise of the Ball/Arnaz marriage. And the Communist issue is barely given a mention, with Arnaz Luckinbill only making this comment how her parents dealt with the Communist controversy: “She was scared. My father took charge.” (In real life, the FBI cleared Lucille of suspicion of being a Communist when it was determined that she was never an active member of the Communist Party.) As for the pregnancy storyline, everyone knows who won that battle and how everything turned out.

What the documentary does detail is how the pressures of showbiz led to the breakdown of the marriage. Several people in the documentary, including Arnaz Luckinbill, describe it this way: Lucille wasn’t as interested in the business side of Desilu as Arnaz was, and he eventually scaled back on being a musician/actor to focus on running Desilu. However, because Lucille was more famous than he was, many people perceived Lucille as being more powerful, which caused jealousy and resentment from Arnaz, who also became an alcoholic and began spending less time with his family at home.

This alcohol addiction took a toll until Arnaz couldn’t really function in his job, and Lucille had to take over his duties at Desilu, which she resented because she didn’t really like the “office executive” parts of the job. Even though Arnaz’s productivity declined in the final years of Desilu, he’s praised in the documentary for being an underrated TV visionary who was able to bring out the best in people. David Daniels, son of original “I Love Lucy” director Marc Daniels, comments: “Desi was a collaborator in the supreme sense of the word—and that’s where you get the best stuff.”

Arnaz Luckinbill says of her parents’ troubled marriage: “He hurt her by his actions. She hurt him by her words.” According to the documentary, Arnaz was the one who wanted to end the marriage, but Lucille was the one who filed for divorce first. Arnaz Luckinbill comments, “The hard edge softened the minute they got divorced, but they did love one another.” She also shares a touching story of what happened when her parents talked for the last time when Arnaz was on his deathbed: They both said, “I love you” several times to each other during this last goodbye.

“Lucy and Desi” is capably directed and edited in a traditional documentary style. There’s nothing really substandard about the documentary, but it gives the impression that a lot more could have been in the movie but was left out because it would be unflattering to the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz legacy. For die-hard fans, the “Lucy and Desi” documentary can be considered entertaining but a tad redundant, considering the plethora of biographies in many formats that have exhaustively covered this legacy. “Lucy and Desi” is ultimately a tribute-styled summary that will only be truly revelatory to people who know little to nothing about this legendary couple who changed television forever.

Prime Video premiered “Lucy and Desi” on March 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Fresh’ (2022), starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan

March 1, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones in “Fresh” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)

“Fresh” (2022)

Directed by Mimi Cave

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Fresh” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A woman in her 20s thinks that she’s dating her dream guy, but when he kidnaps her and holds her captive in an isolated house in the woods, she finds out that he has terrible secrets. 

Culture Audience: “Fresh” will appeal primarily to people interested in suspenseful “women in peril” movies with unusually ghastly surprises.

Jojo T. Gibbs in “Fresh” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)

The horror film “Fresh” is effectively terrifying and nauseating when the movie’s gruesome surprise is revealed. What will disturb many viewers the most is that it’s not just a contrived plot twist for a movie but something that could happen in real life. Because so much of what happens in “Fresh” is considered “spoiler information,” it’s best if viewers don’t know about this shocking plot development before seeing the movie. It’s enough to say that “Fresh” is definitely one of the more memorable horror movies that people can see in any given year.

“Fresh” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, so what happens in the movie was already leaked online by people who saw “Fresh” almost two months before the movie was set to premiere on Hulu in the United States. (Outside the U.S., “Fresh” is available on other Disney-owned streaming platforms.) Directed by Mimi Cave and written by Lauryn Kahn, “Fresh” has all the elements of what could have been a formulaic film about a young woman held captive by someone she thought was a “nice guy.” However, thanks to above-average performances from the cast members and a taut thriller of a story that’s well-directed, “Fresh” is anything but an ordinary horror film.

The movie’s protagonist is Noa (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones), who’s in her early-to-mid-20s, single, and looking for love, although she’s the first person to admit that she hates dating. Noa lives in an unnamed U.S. city that’s not on the East Coast, because on her first date with the man who will become her sadistic captor, Noa says that she’s originally from the East Coast. Noa is an only child. Her father is dead, and she’s estranged from her mother, whose whereabouts are unknown to Noa. This is information that she also tells on the first date with the man who will be her kidnapper.

Not much else is revealed in the movie about Noa’s life, except that she lives alone. Her sassy best friend (and apparently only friend) is named Mollie (played by Jojo T. Gibbs), who is openly queer or bisexual. Noa and Mollie met about seven years ago, when Noa moved to the area where they live now. Noa and Mollie also used to be co-workers, but it’s never revealed what Noa does for a living. Mollie currently works in an unspecified office job, where she’s seen using her computer to do some Internet sleuthing after Noa goes missing.

“Fresh” opens with a scene showing Noa on a bad date at a low-priced restaurant. It’s a casual date, so she’s wearing a sweater and jeans. Her date is a boorish egomaniac named Chad (played by Brett Dier), who gives Noa a sexist lecture about what she’s wearing on the date.

Chad tells Noa: “The women in our parents’ generation, they just cared more about how they dressed and how they looked. They were more into femininity. Nowadays, I feel like girls wear oversized everything, like it’s a blanket. I think you would look good in a dress—not that you don’t look good in a sweater.”

And to top off this date, Chad asks Noa for the leftovers on her plate, so that he can take this unfinished meal home with him. Needless to say, there’s no second date between Noa and Chad. When she tells him at the end of the date that she doesn’t think that they’re compatible, he calls her a “stuck-up bitch” before he walks away.

On a day after this bad date, Noa and Mollie are doing boxing exercises in a gym while Noa tells Mollie about this unpleasant dating experience. Mollie and Noa talk about a dating app called Puzzle Piece, but Noa has become cynical about online dating. Noa is also a homebody type, so going to bars or nightclubs to meet people isn’t really her thing. Mollie thinks that Noa is being too fearful and that Noa should take more risks when it comes to dating.

Noa is in a lovelorn state of mind when she goes shopping at a grocery store and she unexpectedly meets a handsome man named Steve (played by Sebastian Stan), who strikes up a conversation with her about grapes. Steve, who’s about 10 to 15 years older than Noa, has a somewhat awkward flirtation with her. She’s charmed by his apparent down-to-earth and self-deprecating nature, so when Steve asks for Noa’s phone number, she gives it to him without hesitation.

Steve doesn’t waste time in contacting Noa for a date. Their first date is at a mid-scale restaurant/bar. A bartender who works there is named Paul (played by Dayo Okeniyi), and he happens to be an ex-boyfriend of Mollie’s. During Noa’s first date with Steve, she tells Steve a little bit about her background, which is how he finds out that Noa lives alone and doesn’t have her parents in her life. Steve says that he’s a doctor who’s originally from Texas. “I work in reconstructive surgery,” he adds. Steve also mentions that his father is still alive, but his mother is dead.

When Steve mentions that he’s not on any social media, Noa says flirtatiously, “How am I supposed to stalk you now?” Steve quips, “You’ll just have to do it in person, the old-fashioned way.” At one point in the conversation, Noa blurts out to Steve: “I hate dating! People who believe in true love are fucking idiots!” With that comment, Noa reveals that she actually feels hurt and vulnerable when it comes to love. Steve is charming and attentive to Noa. He says all the right things and makes her feel attractive.

Although it’s not unusual for people to talk about their backgrounds on a first date, in hindsight, Noa could certainly be considered an ideal target for a kidnapper because of what she revealed to Steve on their first date: She lives alone, she’s an only child whose parents are not in her life, she doesn’t have a lot of close friends, and she doesn’t appear to have a job that requires her to work in-person with other people. It’s exactly the type of “profile” of someone who might not have a lot of people searching for that person if that person is kidnapped.

It isn’t long before Noa and Steve become lovers. Their relationship happens so quickly, Noa doesn’t have time to introduce Steve to Mollie, but she does tell Mollie about him. Soon after Noa and Steve have begun dating each other, he invites her to a weekend getaway at a place that Steve says will be a romantic surprise.

At this point, Noa and Steve have only known each other for about two weeks or less. It would be easy to judge and say that it’s too soon to go away for getaway trip with a lover you’ve known for less than two weeks. But there are plenty of real-life examples of couples who’ve moved in together after knowing each other for a very short period of time. “Fresh” realistically shows how easy it is for people to get caught up in quickie romances if the people in the relationship feel trust and have a mutual “connection” with each other.

Noa knows that things are moving very fast with Steve. Mollie expresses some concern too, but Noa sees no reason not to trust Steve, so she accepts his invitation to go on the trip, which they will take in Steve’s car. Steve tells her that they should spend the night at his place before they leave for their getaway destination in the morning. When Steve picks Noa up in his car to take her on this trip, she has no idea of what’s in store for her.

“Fresh” is yet another horror movie where the terror takes place in a remote wooded area. Steve’s getaway house is at a place called Cottage Grove. And because this is a horror movie, Noa soon finds out that she can’t get cell phone service in this isolated area. Not long after arriving at Cottage Grove, Steve hands Noa a drink. And the next thing that Noa knows, she has woken up alone in a room, with her right hand handcuffed to a bed.

Noa eventually finds out why Steve kidnapped her. The rest of the movie shows what Noa does to try to escape and if other people are involved in Steve’s sordid secret life. As this depraved kidnapper, Stan gives a chilling performance of someone with a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality. Edgar-Jones is equally riveting as the trapped heroine who has to use her wits to try to escape from this horrible situation.

“Fresh” also has another heroine: Noa’s best friend Mollie, who actively does everything she can to find Noa when Noa goes missing. Mollie doesn’t have a lot of information about Steve, so her search for Noa is very difficult during the period of time when adults can’t be declared missing with law enforcement until 48 hours after the missing people were last seen. “Fresh” shows a lot of cruelty, but the friendship between Noa and Mollie is really at the heart of the film.

And as gory and unsettling as “Fresh” can be, the movie has some dark satire that brings some twisted comedy to this otherwise very grim horror story. The movie uses 1980s pop hits, such as Animotion’s “Obsession” and Peter Cetera’s “Restless Heart,” in scenes to juxtapose this nostalgic pop music with the current torture that is being inflicted in those scenes. There’s also a memorable scene where Noa dances with Steve, in an effort to let his guard down and make him completely trust her. “Fresh” is Cave’s feature-film directorial debut. And even though there are some predictable elements to “Fresh,” it’s an impressive first feature film and an indication that Cave is a talented filmmaker to watch.

Hulu will premiere “Fresh” on March 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Utama,’ starring José Calcina, Luisa Quispe and Santos Choque

February 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Luisa Quispe and José Calcina in “Utama” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Utama”

Directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the highlands of Bolivia, the dramatic film “Utama” features a Latino and indigenous cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly married couple, who are dealing with a water drought in their rural area and the husband’s health problems, are visited by their city-dwelling grandson, who tries to convince them to move to the city.

Culture Audience: “Utama” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in meditative movies about family relationships and aging.

A scene from “Utama” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Utama” tells a simple yet effective story that draws parallels between stages of family life and stages in weather conditions. This drama’s slow pacing isn’t going to appeal to all viewers, but it’s a peek into rural Bolivia that can be entrancing. The movie’s cast members also bring such authenticity to their roles, “Utama” could be mistaken for a documentary.

Written and directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi, “Utama” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. The movie doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, so viewers should know in advance that there are long stretches of the movie where no one speaks at all. “Utama” has a relatively small number of people in its cast. The movie revolves around three of these characters.

Virginio (played by José Calcina) and his wife Sisa (played by Luisa Quispe) are a happily married, elderly couple living their senior years in their humble ranch abode somewhere in the highlands of Bolivia. Virginio is a llama rancher who spends his days herding and taking care of the llamas. Sisa maintains the house and is responsible for gathering food and water.

They’ve gotten used to their low-key, routine life, except for two big disruptions: A water drought has plagued the area for several months. And, more recently, Virginio has been having a respiratory problem that includes a persistent hacking cough and difficulty breathing. Virginio insists that he feels fine, even though it’s obvious that something is definitely wrong with his health.

One day, Virginio and Sisa get a surprise visit from their grandson Clever (played by Santos Choque), who is in his early 20s. Clever’s father is the estranged son of Virginio and Sisa. The son’s name is never mentioned. The son appears to be the only child of Virginio and Sisa, because there’s no mention of them having any other children.

Throughout the movie, there are hints that Virginio stopped talking to this son years ago, for reasons that aren’t fully explained in the movie. However, what is clear is that Virginio thinks of this son as the “black sheep” of the family. And Virginio’s opinion of Clever isn’t much better. By contrast, Sisa treats Clever in a loving and welcoming way, but Virginio is the dominant and very stubborn spouse in this household.

The biggest flaw in “Utama” is that it tends to be repetitive with any of these three scenarios:

  • Virginio insults and argues with Clever, who reacts by denying whatever accusations Virginio throws his way.
  • Sisa worries and complains about the drought.
  • Virginio coughs and wheezes in an increasingly alarming manner, but he denies that anything is wrong with his health.

As soon as Clever arrives, Virginio accuses Clever of being sent by Clever’s father. Virginio thinks that Clever was sent as punishment for something that Clever did, and that there’s some kind of hidden agenda for this visit. Clever admits that his relationship with his father isn’t going so well, because Clever says that he’d rather stay away from home, so that he doesn’t fight with his father. However, Clever denies that his father sent Clever to visit Virginio and Sisa.

As a peace offering and gifts, Clever has brought some food, which Virginio is not impressed with because he thinks it’s some kind of bribe. And when Clever suggests that Virginio and Sisa move to the city, where they can get access to better health care, Virginio angrily says that he will never move. Sisa seems to want to go along with whatever Virginio decides.

Virginio gruffly says in response to Clever’s suggestion to move to the city: “We’re fine!” Clever replies: “But there [in the city], you could be so much better.” When Clever mentions that Clever’s father thinks it’s a good idea for Virginio and Clever to move to the city, Virginio snaps back: “Your father has no say in this matter!”

More than once, Virginio calls Clever a “brat” or “spoiled.” He thinks Virginio is a pampered city boy, so he demands that Virginio help him with the llama herding and other ranch duties. Clever reluctantly follows Virginio’s orders. Virginio and Clever argue around the dining table, and Clever usually says some version of “I don’t understand you, Grandpa!” When Virginio gets too insulting toward Clever for Sisa’s comfort, she tells Virginio to stop being so harsh to Clever.

Because of the drought, Sisa has to walk a longer distance than usual to get water. The closest place where she and other people in the area go is a small stream in a desert area. “Utama” has multiple scenes of Virginio, Sisa and Clever doing everyday, mundane tasks. Clever has not said how long he plans to stay, but Virginio is convinced that Clever’s father is using Clever as a messenger to try to persuade Virginio and Sisa to move to the city.

The movie places so much emphasis on the drought and on Virginio’s declining health, it’s very easy to predict how “Utama” is going to end. Before that happens, the movie shows if the strained relationship between Virginio and Clever ends up changing. And although Virginio has a low opinion of Clever’s father, Clever says his father left the area because he didn’t want to be around Virginio anymore. It will make viewers wonder who’s mostly to blame for this father and son having such a bitter falling out.

One of the best aspects of “Utama” is how the cinematography (by Barbara Alvarez) impressively captures Bolivian life in the highlands. There’s a simplicity to this life that’s devoid of urban stresses but brings difficulties in other ways. Clever’s cell phone is the only modern device seen in the movie, which shows a rural lifestyle that has existed for centuries.

Most of all, “Utama” is a compelling snapshot of a specific family’s perspectives and definitions of loyalty and home. It’s an interesting presentation of the dilemma that some people face, when the have to choose between clinging to old traditions or embracing new ways of living. Not everyone watching “Utama” can relate to this rural ranch lifestyle, but most viewers can find some emotional connection to the movie’s characters, who are trying to get through life in the best way that they can, even if not everyone around them agrees with their choices.

Review: ‘Watcher’ (2022), starring Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman and Burn Gorman

February 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Maika Monroe in “Watcher” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Watcher” (2022) 

Directed by Chloe Okuno

Some language in Romanian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Bucharest, Romania, the horror movie “Watcher” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a young married couple moves from New York City to Bucharest, the wife begins to suspect that a man in a nearby apartment building has been stalking her.

Culture Audience: “Watcher” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that take their time to build suspense, even if the movie’s ending is entirely formulaic.

“Watcher” succeeds more often than not when it comes to immersing viewers into a tension-filled stalker mystery. The cast members’ believable performances elevate the movie’s repetitive tendencies and predictable ending. As far as horror movies go, “Watcher” is slightly better-than-average, but it’s not outstanding.

“Watcher” is the feature-film directorial debut of Chloe Okuno, who previously directed the “Storm Drain” segment for the 2021 anthology horror film “V/H/S/94.” Okuno co-wrote the “Watcher” screenplay with Zack Ford. It’s a movie with a very straightforward, easy-to-follow story—even if it recycles the over-used horror concept of a pretty young woman who thinks she’s being harassed by a “fill-in-the-blank” attacker, but she has a hard time getting anyone else to be believe her. “Watcher” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

There are no ghosts in “Watcher,” but the movie’s protagonist, whose name is Julia (played by Maika Monroe), feels haunted by her own feelings of inadequacy of being unemployed in a country where she can’t really speak the language. Julia (who’s in her late 20s) and her husband Francis (played by Karl Glusman), who’s in his early-to-mid-30s, have recently moved from New York City to Bucharest, Romania, because of his job. Francis is a businessman who works for an unnamed company. The movie never mentions any further specifics about what Francis does for a living.

Francis, who grew up in the United States, feels comfortable living in Bucharest because his mother is Romanian, so he’s fairly fluent in the language. By contrast, Julia knows only a few words in Romanian and is starting to learn the language. She feels ill-at-ease about not being able to communicate in the way that she was accustomed to when she lived in the United States. There are enough people who speak English in Romania that Julia can get by on speaking English in most places, but she still feels like an “outsider.”

The language barrier isn’t the only thing that makes Julia feels insecure. When she was living in New York, she was an aspiring actress, but things didn’t work out for her, and she’s now given up on her dream to be an actress. In Bucharest, her employment prospects are also very slim. Her immigration status is unclear, since she doesn’t have a work visa. So, for now, Julia is a homemaker with a lot of time on her hands. Luckily, Francis makes enough money to support the both of them.

Soon after moving into their high-rise Bucharest apartment, Julia and Francis get the first inkling that something might be wrong. On their first night in their new home, Julia notices that a man in the high-rise apartment building across from theirs is looking directly into their apartment and staring at her while she’s alone. Julia can only partially see the man’s face, because the room he’s in is fairly dark, and his face is somewhat obscured by shadows. The man (played by Burn Gorman), who appears to be in his 40s, is of average height and build.

It unnerves Julia that this man might be spying on her, but there’s not much she can do because they’ve just moved into the apartment and haven’t had time to install drapes or blinds on all the windows facing this other building. Julia tells Francis that they might have a neighbor who’s a voyeur, but he tells her not to jump to conclusions. He also thinks that this mystery man is probably curious to see the new residents of this apartment.

Soon after Julia and Francis have moved into the apartment, they have a small dinner party with one of Francis’ male co-workers and his wife. It’s during this dinner that Julia and Francis first hear about a serial killer who hasn’t been caught and has been targeting young women in the area. The unknown serial killer beheads the murder victims and has been nicknamed The Spider in the media. You know where this movie is going as soon as you find out that the movie has a serial killer on the loose.

Julia then meets the neighbor who lives alone in the apartment unit next door. Her name is Irina (played by Madalina Anea), who’s about five or six years older than Julia. Irina asks Julia if she can hear any noises coming from Irina’s apartment. Irina seems relieved when Julia says no. However, Julia’s first impression of how soundproof the apartment walls are might not be a correct impression.

Not long after Julia and Irina meet for the first time, another creepy incident happens to Julia. She’s watching an Audrey Hepburn film by herself at movie theater. There are only a few other people in the room, but she notices that a man has decided to sit directly behind her, even though there are plenty of other seats that he could’ve taken.

Julia can sense that the man is staring at her, but she’s so frightened that she doesn’t turn around to get a good look at this stranger. The theater is pretty dark anyway. Instead of moving to another seat, Julia quickly leaves the theater before the end of the Hepburn movie.

And then another incident happens. But this time, it’s at a grocery store, and Julia can clearly see the man who appears to be following her. Julia is pretty sure that it’s the same man who was staring at her from the apartment building across from hers. Julia and the man don’t say anything to each other, but he noticeably follows her in the grocery aisles, keeping enough of a distance away to not invade her personal space.

Julia impulsively hides in a stock room at the grocery store, in order to get this man to lose track of where she is. However, a store employee named Sebastian (played by Stefan Iancu) sees Julia in the stock room and tells her to leave this employees-only room. He doesn’t know much English, so he doesn’t understand her explanation of why she was in the stock room.

When a terrified Julia gets home, she tells Francis about this stalking incident and asks him to go back with her to the store, so they can look at surveillance footage to prove that the man was stalking her. Francis thinks Julia might be overreacting, but he accommodates her request. They find store employee Sebastian, and Francis explains to him in Romanian what happened to Julia and why they need to look at the surveillance footage.

The footage does show the man looking at Julia in the store and appearing to follow her. Julia exclaims, “See! He’s staring at me!” Francis is still skeptical: “Maybe. Or he’s staring at the woman who’s staring at him.” Because no crimes were committed, there’s nothing more that can be done about this incident.

After Julia has this scare at the grocery store, Irina invites Julia to hang out with her in Irina’s apartment for a drink. During their conversation, Irina tells Julia a little bit about herself: She studied ballet in London, but her dream of becoming a professional ballerina was crushed when she injured her knee.

Julia mentions that she once thought that she’d be an actress, but she’s has given up on pursuing that dream. Because Julia and Irina have a similar experience of not having their dream career in the arts, it establishes a rapport between them. It seems like Julia might have found her first friend in Romania.

During this get-together, Irina’s ex-boyfriend Cristian (played by Daniel Nuta) shows up and bangs on the door. Irina doesn’t want to see him, so she tells him to go away. When he leaves, Irina shows Julia the gun that Cristian gave to her. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that gun is going to be used. “Watcher” is not subtle at all when it comes to foreshadowing.

The rest of “Watcher” is about more stalker incidents experienced by an increasingly terrified Julia, who turns to law enforcement for help but also decides to do her own investigating. Meanwhile, because many of these incidents are a “he said/she said” situation, what Julia experiences is a little hard to prove. Far from being a supportive husband, Francis questions Julia’s credibility. And eventually, he questions her mental stability.

Yes, it’s another horror movie where the woman who’s the “target” is not believed and is perceived as mentally unbalanced by certain people. However, where “Watcher” is most effective is in creating a growing sense of dread that something terrible really is going to happen. The movie also keeps viewers guessing until the last 30 minutes if the mystery man in the apartment building is just a stalker, or if he could be the notorious Spider serial killer too.

Monroe has been in other horror movies before where she’s played the “female in peril” leading role—most notably, 2014’s critically acclaimed “It Follows.” Therefore, she’s definitely got the skills to make her Julie character in “Watcher” look authentic and relatable. Glusman’s Francis character isn’t very interesting and isn’t in the movie as much as some viewers might think he is, mainly because Francis is at his job during a lot of the moments that Julia experiences terror.

However, what makes this movie work so well (in addition to Monroe’s acting) is Gorman’s ominous performance as the stalker. (The stalker’s real name is eventually revealed in the movie.) One of the best scenes in “Watcher” is when Julia sees him looking out his window, but she can’t be entirely sure if he’s staring at her. As a test, she gives him a slow wave. And he gives a slow wave too. It’s a moment that will give chills to viewers. The rest of the movie’s cast members give serviceable performances.

The movie’s last 15 minutes stretch some bounds of credibility and could have been handled better. And the way that the serial killer is revealed is sloppily edited, because the serial killer suddenly disappears from sight in a moving subway car when a certain person finds out the killer’s identity. Despite these flaws, “Watcher” is an overall solid horror thriller that doesn’t really do anything particularly inventive, but there’s enough to the story to keep viewers in suspense.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight will release “Watcher” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. Shudder will have the exclusive North American streaming premiere of the movie. Focus Features will release “Watcher” outside of North America. The movie’s release dates on Shudder and outside North America are to be announced.

Review: ‘The Worst Person in the World,’ starring Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie and Herbert Nordrum

February 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Herbert Nordrum and Renate Reinsve in “The Worst Person in the World” (Photo by Verdens Verste Menneske/Oslo Pictures/Neon)

“The Worst Person in the World”

Directed by Joachim Trier

Norwegian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Norwegian cities of Oslo and Hønefoss, the comedy/drama film “The Worst Person in the World” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Over a period of about four years, a restless woman in her late 20s to early 30s is torn between two very different men who are her love interests.

Culture Audience: “The Worst Person in the World” will appeal mainly to people who like quirky European films with social commentaries on how women navigate society’s pressures and expectations when it comes to love, committed relationships, and if or when to have children.

Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie in “The Worst Person in the World” (Photo by Kasper Tuxen/Oslo Pictures/Neon)

“The Worst Person in the World” centers on a female protagonist who actually isn’t a horrible and cruel person, but she often makes selfish and impulsive choices that hurt other people, including herself. It’s a sometimes-funny, sometimes-melancholy story about a free-spirited but complicated and insecure young woman who’s awkwardly trying to figure out who she is and what she wants in life. Some of this 127-minute movie tends to wander a bit too much, but the cast members’ intriguing performances and some bold filmmaker choices make “The Worst Person in the World” a fascinating film to experience.

Directed by Joachim Trier, “The Worst Person in the World” is Norway’s entry for the 2022 Academy Awards, where the movie was nominated for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay. Trier co-wrote the movie’s richly layered screenplay with Eskil Vogt. “The Worst Person in the World” made the rounds at several prestigious film festivals, including the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, the 2021 New York Film Festival and the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The central character in “The Worst Person in the World” is Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), who turns 30 years old during the course of this movie’s story, which takes place over a period of about four years. Julie lives in Oslo, Norway, and it’s clear within the first 10 minutes of the film that’s she’s intelligent but very fickle. The movie (which has a prologue, 12 chapters and an epilogue) has occasional voiceover narration by an unidentified woman, who tells Julie’s story as an observer who knows Julie’s thoughts. Ine Janssen is the actress providing the voiceover narration.

Viewers first see Julie as a 29-year-old college student, who switches her major from biology to psychology to photography. All of these changes seem to happen within the space of a year. The narrator comments that Julie’s sudden switch in majors happened because “She felt trapped in the role of a model student.” It’s unclear if Julie ever graduates, because she is never shown in college again. She makes money working as a sales clerk/cashier at a bookstore called Norli, which is located on the university campus.

There’s a montage of Julie seeming to enjoy her part-time work as a photographer (she mostly does fashion-oriented portraits) and having meaningless flings with some of her male models. She’s on a date with one of these models at a nightclub/bar when she meets a man who will become her live-in boyfriend. Julie doesn’t think twice about ignoring her date when she finds herself attracted to another man.

The man who charms Julie is Aksel Willmann (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), a well-known artist whose specialty is adult-oriented graphic novels that he creates. Aksel, who’s 15 years older than Julie, is the proverbial life of the party who attracts attention almost everywhere he goes. Aksel’s most famous graphic novel character is a randy and rude cat called Bobcat, who is the star of Aksel’s successful “Bobcat” graphic novel series. Viewers later find out that Aksel uses Bobcat to be crude and sexist through a fictional character, in ways that Aksel wouldn’t be able to get away with in real life.

Aksel and Julie have an immediate attraction and flirtation at the party. It isn’t long before they hook up, and then she moves into his place. Shortly after becoming a couple, Julie finds out that the age difference between her and Aksel could be a problem. She doesn’t want to have children at this point in her life, but Aksel is ready to start a family. Not only does Julie feel that she’s not ready to become a mother, she’s also pretty certain that she never wants to have kids.

Julie and Aksel have some disagreements over this family planning issue, with Julie and Aksel both coming to a stalemate about how the other partner is handling the issue. Julie thinks Aksel is being overbearing and trying to bend Julie’s will into what Aksel wants. Aksel thinks Julie is making weak excuses because he tells her that no one is ever really ready to have kids, and people just figure out parenting as they go along.

There are other issues in Julie and Aksel’s relationship: Julie also doesn’t fit in very well with Aksel’s circle of friends, who are mostly in his age group. During get-togethers with Aksel’s friends, Julie often feels left out of the conversations. Askel’s friends are very sophisticated when it comes to art and literature. Julie often feels that her taste in the same things don’t really match the tastes of Aksel and his friends.

She also feels somewhat inadequate around Aksel and his friends because she has less life experience and can’t relate to some things that people in Aksel’s generation can relate to with each other. For example, Axsel can remember a time when the Internet and cell phones didn’t exist. He wistfully says that tangible objects are becoming less important to people’s memories, as technology has made more things go digital.

At a house party hosted by two of Aksel’s friends—a married couple named William (played by August Wilhelm Méd Brenner) and Karianne (played by Helene Bjørneby)—Julie gets interrogated by Karianne about when Julie plans to have a career and children. William mildly scolds Karianne for being so intrusive, but it’s a question that Julie tends to get from people in a way that makes her feel like they’re silently judging her for not saying that she’s looking forward to becoming a mother.

At the same time, Julie is judgmental too, because she seems to have a little disdain for people who think being a parent is the greatest thing that could ever happen to them. Over the course of the movie, Julie shows a pattern of being afraid of anything that would require a long-term commitment, whether it’s marriage, parenting, or sticking to one career choice. Some viewers might interpret it as being commitment-phobic, while Julie would describe as it wanting her freedom.

During a book launch party for Aksel, the discontent in his relationship with Julie becomes obvious. While Aksel is being fawned over by partygoers, Julie feels like an ignored and underappreciated sidekick. She spontaneously walks out of the party and wanders on the street until she impulsively walks in uninvited to a wedding reception where she doesn’t know anyone. It’s at this wedding reception that she meets Eivind (played by Herbert Nordrum), who’s about the same age as Julie. Eivind, who is at this wedding reception by himself, quietly observes Julie mingling with people at the party before he and Julie begin talking to each other.

As an example of the mischievous side of Julie’s personality, she strikes up a conversation with two women at the party and lies to them by saying that she’s a doctor. One of the women gushes about how happy she is to be a mother and how she loves to cuddle with her children. Julie then tells her that cuddling with kids can turn them into drug addicts. She lies and says there is medical research to prove it. When the woman expresses skepticism about this research, Julie insists that it’s true. Eivind watches this conversation with some amusement.

Julie and Eivind end up meeting each other and immediately begin flirting with each other. Eivind tells her that he overheard parts of the conversations that she was having, so he thinks that Julie really is a doctor. She doesn’t tell him the truth about what she really does for a living, but Julie does confess to Eivind that she doesn’t know anyone at this wedding reception. She tells him she crashed this party on a whim and that she has a live-in boyfriend.

Eivind tells Julie that he’s romantically involved with someone too, but he doesn’t go into details. He also says that he hates infidelity, because he’s been hurt by it before. However, because Eivind and Julie feel a noticeable attraction to each other, Eivind suggests that they can do things together that are “not cheating.”

This flirtation leads to one of the more memorable scenes in the movie, where Julie and Eivind play games with each other, by pushing the boundaries of intimacy without kissing or doing anything sexual. Julie starts off by telling Eivind, “Let me smell your sweat.” And he lets her. Julie and Eivind are both drinking alcohol during the party, so it explains why their inhibitions are lowered.

And during the party, they both go into a bathroom together and watch each other urinate. They have a laugh over it and laugh even more when Julie farts during this bathroom encounter. Later, when they’re both outside, Julie blows cigarette smoke in Eivind’s mouth. At the end of the night, Julie and Eivind part ways without telling each other any more personal information.

One day, Julie is working at the bookstore, when she’s shocked to see Eivind in the store. He’s there with his live-in girlfriend Sunniva (played by Maria Grazia Di Meo), who’s a yoga instructor looking for a specific yoga book, which she asks Julie to find in the store for her. Julie is at the cash register when Sunniva buys this book. It’s how Eivind finds out what Julie really does for a living.

Immediately after Eivind and Sunniva leave the store, he comes back by himself. Eivind tells Julie that he pretended to Sunniva that he left his sunglasses in the store, but that he really just wanted to come back to tell Julie that he can’t stop thinking about her, ever since they met at the wedding reception. Eivind tells Julie that he works as a server at bakery cafe called Apent Bakeri, and he invites her to come by and see him anytime that she wants. The rest of the movie follows Julie’s journey as she makes a decision on whether or not to choose to be with Aksel or with Eivind.

There’s also a subplot about how Julie’s family background has affected a lot of the insecurities she has about love, marriage and raising a family. Her parents are divorced and split up when Julie was a child. Julie has a tension-filled relationship with her father Harald (played by Vidar Sandem), who lives in the suburb of Hønefoss with his current wife Eva (played by Marianne Krogh) and their teenage daughter Nathalie (played by Sofia Schandy Bloch), a tennis player who competes in tournaments. Julie is annoyed that her father never wants to visit her, and she always has to visit him if she wants to see him. He also tends to forget Julie’s birthday. Julie has a polite but distant relationship with her stepmother and half-sister.

On her 30th birthday, Julie has a small get-together with Aksel, her mother Kathrine (played by Anna Dworak) and Kathrine’s mother Åse (played by Thea Stabell) at Kathrine’s home. It’s during this birthday scene that the movie has a montage (with voiceover narration) of family photos with the narrator listing what Julie’s mother, maternal grandmother and their mothers from previous generations were doing at age 30. The purpose of this montage is to show how Julie’s life at age 30 compares to the women on her mother’s side of the family in previous generations.

At this milestone age, Julie’s mother was divorced for two years and working as an accountant at a publishing house. Julie’s maternal grandmother was an actress who played Rebecca West in “Rosmer Sholm” at the National Theatre. Julie’s great-grandmother was a widow with four children. Julie’s great-great-grandmother was married and the mother of seven kids, two of whom died of tuberculosis. Julie’s great-great-great-grandmother had six kids and was in a loveless marriage.

With life expectancies getting longer in each generation, and with more planned parenthood options in a post-feminism world, women are feeling less pressure to get married and have kids by age 30. But the montage clearly shows that Julie hasn’t had many of the life experiences that other women in her family had by the time they reached 30 years old. Julie is still struggling with finding out what she thinks her purpose in life should be.

Because it isn’t entirely clear what career Julie wants to have, she dabbles in some writing. There’s a “chapter” in the movie called “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” which is also the name of a personal essay that Julie writes. She reads this sexually explicit essay to Axsel, and he’s very impressed. He tells her that she’s a very good writer. Julie ends up getting the essay published on a media website, where the essay goes viral.

But this moment of self-confidence is fleeting. Julie wonders if she’s letting life pass her by. And she worries that when she’s in a relationship, she will end up feeling pressured to do things that she doesn’t really want to do. During the scene where Julie and Aksel disagree about if or when she should start having kids, Julie says with frustration in her voice: “I feel like a spectator in my own life! I feel like I’m playing a supporting role in my own life!”

The movie has some unexpected whimsical moments too. During a turning point in Julie’s love life, she makes a decision that leads to a fantasy-like sequence that shows her being able to stop all movement by turning on the light switch in her kitchen. She walks through the streets of Oslo as everything around her is frozen in motion. It’s her way of making time stop to make a fantasy of hers come true.

After she fulfills her fantasy, she goes back to her home, switches off the kitchen light, and life goes on as if no one else knows that they were frozen in time. But Julie knows. And she knows what she did, which leads her to tell other people about the decision that she confirmed for herself when she fulfilled her fantasy. The light switch can be seen as symbolic of Julie having a moment of clarity in her life, illuminating what she wants to do, and giving herself permission to do it.

Most of the movie’s comedic scenes have to do with some of the witty banter that Julie exchanges with people. But there’s a laugh-out-loud funny scene where she takes psychedelic mushrooms during a house party and has inevitable hallucinations. It’s a peek into Julie’s subconscious mind. Not all of it is light-hearted, since there are a few images in this hallucination that some viewers might find vulgar and nauseating.

It’s easy to see why Reinsve won the Best Actress prize for “Worst Person in the World” at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Julie is full of contradictions, and that’s not easy to portray in an acting performance. Julie is unpredictable in many ways, but she’s predictable when it comes to feeling uncomfortable with stability that she thinks is boring. She wants to be seen as an independent woman, but she deliberately puts herself in situations where she is in a co-dependent, “arrested development” emotional state when it comes to her love life and career.

The two men who are the focus of Julie’s affections are also very different from each other. Aksel is self-assured with a successful career, but does he really accept Julie for who she is? Eivind is socially insecure with a dead-end job, but does he emotionally have what it takes to hold fickle Julie’s interest? These are some of the dilemmas faced by Julie, who has to come to terms with how much she wants a relationship to define her happiness, when she often struggles with her own self-esteem issues. Nordrum as Eivind and Lie as Aksel are very good in their roles, but their characters are not as complicated as Julie.

This movie is called “The Worst Person in the World” not because Julie is the worst person in the world, but she often thinks that she’s the worst person in the world when she knowingly does things to hurt people. The last third of the movie has the most tearjerking parts of the story. The movie’s ending might not be what a lot of viewers are expecting, but it’s a conclusion that’s an example of how “The Worst Person in the World” defies conventions in movies about self-identity and love relationships. Julie’s life is often messy by her own design, but it’s a mess that’s compelling to watch, no matter how everything turns out.

Neon released “The Worst Person in the World” in select U.S. cinemas on February 4, 2022. The movie was released in Norway and other countries in 2021.

Review: ‘You Won’t Be Alone,’ starring Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Félix Maritaud, Carloto Cotta and Noomi Rapace

February 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jasmina Avramovica and Noomi Rapace in “You Won’t Be Alone” (Photo by Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)

“You Won’t Be Alone”

Directed by Goran Stolevski

Macedonian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed rural part of Macedonia in the 19th century, the horror film “You Won’t Be Alone” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman, who was cursed as a baby by an evil witch, wanders around taking different forms of life, while the evil witch keeps showing up to make sure that the woman remains unhappy and unable to experience love.

Culture Audience: “You Won’t Be Alone” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in artsy, European horror movies that aren’t always obvious and straightforward in their messaging.

Sara Klimoska and Anamaria Marinca in “You Won’t Be Alone” (Photo by Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)

Combining artsy existentialism and bloody horror doesn’t sound like a good match, but somehow “You Won’t Be Alone” does it well enough for viewers who have patience for a slow-paced movie with an impactful ending. Getting to that ending can be too much of a slog for people who don’t care for movies with a language that’s foreign to most viewers, or movies that have imagery and scenes that are almost like pieces to a puzzle. This “slow burn” film has tension, but it will not satisfy people looking for an action-packed thriller. For everyone else who wants to take on the challenge of watching “You Won’t Be Alone,” be prepared for a ride that’s like a ponderous fever dream about witchcraft. “You Won’t Be Alone” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Written and directed by Goran Stolevski, “You Won’t Be Alone” takes place in an unnamed rural part of Macedonia in the 19th century. (The movie was actually filmed in Serbia.) The story is about a cursed female who wanders around the area and is able to shapeshift/transform into anything or anyone she kills. She was cursed as a baby by an evil witch, who shows up from time to time to make sure that this cursed female remains unhappy and unable to stay in one place for too long.

The opening of “You Won’t Be Alone” shows how this curse happened. A woman named Yoana (played by Kamka Tocinovski) lives on a farm, and she has a baby daughter named Nevena. Inside a barn, Yoana is in distress because she and Nevena are in the presence of a witch called Maria (played by Anamaria Marinca), also known as Old Maid Maria. Maria looks like a stereotypical witch hag: Her hair is straggly and in patches on her head. She’s hunched over, and her face looks like it has severe burn scars.

“Have mercy,” Yoana begs Maria. “On my blood, I beg of you! Children are a burden. You don’t want the nuisance.” Maria hisses in response: “Are you a fool, woman? As if I want a child. A bit of blood is all. A fresh-born’s.”

Yoana pleads with Maria: “I’ll bring you other babies! Leave me my Nevena. It’s a daughter you want?” Maria replies, “Spend my one witching spit? On this runt?” Yoana continues to beg Maria not to curse Nevena as a baby and wait until Nevena is 16. This desperate mother takes a knife and cuts the inside of her own left forearm to offer the witch some blood.

However, Maria remains unmoved. “I think not,” Maria says. And then, Maria puts some blood on the baby’s mouth to enact the curse. Yoana is so ashamed of what has happened that she decides to pretend to everyone that Nevena has died. She runs outside and screams that a wolf has stolen her baby.

In actuality, Yoana has secretly hidden baby Nevena in a cave, where Yoana takes care of her. The movie then fast-forwards to a teenage Nevena (played by Sara Klimoska), who’s about 16 years old. She has been mute since being cursed by the witch, but Nevena’s inner thoughts can be heard in a voiceover. Nevena has never been outside of the cave until the Maria the witch comes back to pay a visit.

Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Maria kills Yoana in the cave. And it’s the first time that Nevena sees how shapeshifting can work. Maria forces Nevena to go outside of the cave with her and begins to teach her how kill, shapeshift, and eventually live on her own. Maria is often cruel and impatient with Nevena, who is initially very reluctant to kill animals for food until she is taught by Maria that killing animals for food is a way to survive.

Nevena finds out that because of the curse, she is now a witch with the power to shapeshift into anyone or anything that she kills. In human form, Nevena has long dark nails that look like talons. Nevena can also self-heal from injuries and doesn’t feel pain. Nevena discovers she has these abilities when Maria burns her as a test. However, even when Nevena transforms into another human, she still doesn’t have the ability to talk.

The rest of “You Won’t Be Alone” follows Nevena’s journey as she encounters other people and how they react to each other. Not everyone makes it out alive. And not everyone Nevena transforms into is a female or a human. Maria shows up from time to time because she doesn’t want Nevena to become too comfortable or happy.

One the people whom Nevena encounters during this often-bizarre story is a mother named Basilka (played by Noomi Rapace), who has recently given birth to a baby. Basilka is in a miserable marriage to a man who physically and emotionally abuses her, but Basilka is treated kindly by her mother-in-law (played by Jasmina Avramovica). Nevena becomes a part of Basilka’s world which consists of other women who are degraded and abused by their husbands, but they women find comfort in each other’s friendships.

Through observations of people around her, Nevena learns to imitate human emotions and what reactions and actions are considered appropriate and acceptable. She doesn’t pick up social cues right away, which leads to some awkward moments. Maria notices that the men in this farming community like to make the women cry. Since viewers can hear Nevena’s thoughts, she has a name for tears that come from crying: “eye water.”

She also makes this observation about people in Basilka’s world: “When a man is in the room, you are not a woman. You are the stew, the bread. Your place—it is inside his palm.” And she has this to say about the camaraderie that the women find with each other: “When the women [are] in the room, your mouth, it never stops opening … You are the looking glass … To the man, you are the water.”

Later on in the movie, which spans over several years, other characters play key roles in Nevena’s journey as a cursed witch. There’s a handsome ladies’ man named Boris (played by Carloto Cotta); a girl named Biliana (played by Anastasija Karanovich); and a boy named Yovan (played by Danilo Savic). As adults, Biliana (played by Alice Englert) and Yovan (played by Félix Maritaud) have life-changing transitions that affect Nevena.

“You Won’t Be Alone” is a movie that is not brimming with dialogue, but the cast members give admirable performances in expressing emotions in this very oppressive world. There are long stretches of the movie that are atmospheric shots where viewers are invited to soak up the scenery. However, amid the lush greenery of the forests and fields there’s bloody brutality, as well as the always-lurking threat that Maria will suddenly appear. Most of “You Won’t Be Alone” is very bleak, but the movie has a powerful message that doesn’t really emerge until the last 10 minutes. Because of this gripping conclusion, viewers who are patient enough to stick with the movie until the end will appreciate the story the most.

Focus Features will release “You Won’t Be Alone” in select U.S. cinemas on April 1, 2022. UPDATE: Peacock will premiere “You Won’t Be Alone” on May 16, 2022.

Review: ‘Master’ (2022), starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam and Amber Gray

February 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Regina Hall and Amber Gray in “Master” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Content Services)

“Master” (2022)

Directed by Mariama Diallo

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ancaster, Massachusetts, the horror film “Master” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy who are connected in some way to a prestigious university.

Culture Clash: A college professor, who is the first African American leader of a co-ed dormitory, finds herself getting involved in the problems of another African American woman, who is a first-year undergraduate student and might be the target of a curse that has haunted the college campus.

Culture Audience: “Master” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in horror movies that have social commentary about race relations in America.

Zoe Renee in “Master” (Photo by Linda Kallerus/Amazon Content Services)

“Master” has similar racism themes that were explored in filmmaker Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie “Get Out,” an impactful story about an African American man who goes with his white girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time and experiences terror that he did not expect. Instead of an upscale suburban house that’s the setting for the horror in “Get Out,” the horror in “Master” takes place on an upscale college campus and through the perspectives of African American women. In many ways, “Master” skillfully depicts the parallels between supernatural horror and realistic racism, but other parts of the movie needed improvement in resolving certain characters’ storylines.

Some viewers might find the ending of “Master” to be underwhelming or unsatisfying. However, the movie delivers enough suspense-filled scenes to be an entertaining thriller, especially for people who prefer horror movies that don’t have a lot a bloody gore. “Master” also has the benefit of a talented ensemble cast convincingly portraying the characters that are sometimes underdeveloped in the movie’s compelling but flawed screenplay. “Master” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Written and directed by Mariama Diallo, “Master” takes place almost entirely on the campus of the fictional Ancaster College in Ancaster, Massachusetts. Ancaster College is a prestigious institution that is one of the oldest colleges in the United States. The college campus was built on the land where a woman named Margaret Millett was hanged for witchcraft on December 3, 1694. And you know what that means for a horror movie.

“Master,” which is set in the present day, opens with the arrival of a freshman undergraduate student named Jasmine Moore (played by Zoe Renee), who immediately catches the attention of the other students. Why? For starters, she’s one of the few African American students on campus. Secondly, Jasmine has been assigned a dorm room (Room 302) that has a notorious and sinister reputation for being haunted. Jasmine is living in a co-ed dormitory called Belleville House. Not far from Belleville House is the site where suspected witch Margaret Millett was hanged.

Jasmine finds out later why the room is said to be cursed. But on her move-in day, she has no idea that there’s anything wrong with the room. She gets a hint though, when she tells some students that she’s in Room 302 at Belleville, and they react by telling her that she has “the room.” The tone in their voices indicates that “the room” means that Jasmine is either going to be the target of danger or the target of some cruel pranks.

Jasmine’s roommate is a spoiled and jaded student named Amelia (played by Talia Ryder), who is also in her first year at Ancaster College. The college has recently appointed a new “house master” for Belleville: Gail Bishop (played by Regina Hall), a tenured professor who is the first black person to become an Ancaster College house master. Gail is also an alum of Ancaster College, so she is accustomed to being in this predominantly white environment. However, based on the fact that it’s taken this long for Ancaster College to appoint a black person to a house master position, this elite institution isn’t as progressive as some of its politically liberal officials would like to think it is.

The use of the word “master” for the title of a house leader is also very outdated, since it conjures up images and attitudes of what it meant to be a “master” of a house when slavery was legal in the United States. According to the production notes for “Master,” when writer/director Diallo was an undergraduate at Yale University, the word “master” was still used at the university as the title for a dormitory house leader. Yale stopped using the word “master” for this house leader title in 2016, after students protested over the slavery connotations of the term.

In the “Master” production notes, Diallo describes an experience that she had years after she graduated from Yale, when she saw a former “master” of a Yale house where she used to live: “I was so excited to see him that I called out hello, addressing him as Master. He looked hugely uncomfortable because we were in earshot of a ton of people … Anyway, we went on to have a lovely conversation. But as soon as I walked away, I told myself I had to make a film about it because it really threw into relief how bizarre that term, that relationship is. And I knew I wanted to call it ‘Master’ because of the multiple layers of meaning.”

In “Master,” Gail thinks of herself as an approachable, qualified and inspirational leader. At her first meeting with the students living in Belleville House, she reminds them how privileged they are to be Ancaster College students: “Two U.S. presidents and an army of senators count this school as their alma mater,” she declares proudly. She adds, “I am more than a professor. I am a confidante, an ally, a friend.”

She also makes a statement where she might be psychologically projecting how she feels about Ancaster College: “My last fact: You will never go back home again. When you head to your hometowns over break, it will be as visitors … All I can say to you now is, ‘Welcome home.'” Gail’s comment assumes that everyone will feel at home on the Ancaster College campus—or at least at Belleville House, which she’s been tasked to lead. Gail will soon find out how wrong she was with this assumption.

The movie makes a point of showing that Gail’s life revolves around her work. There are clues that even though she’s been given this “master” position, things won’t go smoothly for her. She’s had to move into the “master” living quarters near Belleville. She lives alone and doesn’t have much of a personal life.

Gail is not particularly close to anyone at work, she doesn’t seem to have any friends outside of work, and she doesn’t mention having any love interests. Gail is an only child, and her only family appears to be her mother, who lives far away. This lack of a nearby support system adds to the isolation Gail feels when things start to go wrong.

In an early scene in the movie, Gail tries to open the door to the house where she’s recently moved, but the lock is jammed. As she walks away in frustration, the door mysteriously opens on its own. It can be interpreted as a sign of a ghostly presence. However, if viewers look at “Master” as a way of showing how institutions and people can be haunted by racism (which is Diallo’s overall message of this movie), the eerie incident with the locked door is a symbolic way of showing Gail might have been invited into the elite echelon of house masters, but she’s still going to face some barriers.

One of the best things about “Master” is the way it accurately shows racism in its many forms. People who are racist or have unconscious racist biases often don’t think they are racists. But their racism comes out in subtle ways, such as when they immediately ask a black person why they are in a place that happens to be populated with mostly white people—as if the black person has to justify a reason to exist in that place. Meanwhile, white people in the same place aren’t given the same type of scrutiny.

Another form of racism is automatically assuming that a black student at a prestigious university got there because of an athletic scholarship, Affirmative Action/tokenism, or because they’re related to a celebrity. People who have this type of racism find it hard to believe that a black person can get into a prestigious university based on intellectual merit, such as excellent academics and being a well-rounded student—the same reasons why many people automatically assume white students are at prestigious universities.

Jasmine experiences some of this subtle racism when she interacts with Amelia and Amelia’s campus friends, who are all white. Amelia and her friends don’t really exclude Jasmine, but they make it clear that they don’t want Jasmine to be their close friend without even getting to know her first. On the first night that Jasmine and Amelia hang out with some other first-year female students at Ancaster College, Jasmine finds out that Amelia already knows some of these students because they were in the same network of elite high schools. By contrast, Jasmine (who is quiet and reserved) doesn’t know anyone at Ancaster College when she arrives there.

The teens play the drinking game Never Have I Ever. And it soon becomes obvious to Jasmine that Amelia and her friends are more sexually experienced than Jasmine is, since one of the challenges in this drinking game is “Never have I ever been part of the Mile High Club.” As Amelia and her friends brag about their partying antics during high-priced vacations, Jasmine looks a little uncomfortable. She gives the impression that she’s the bookish type.

And so, when the drinking challenge is “Never have I ever pissed on myself,” Jasmine seems relieved that she has a “wild” story to share too. She’s the only one in the group who admits that she’s urinated on herself. Jasmine explains it happened once when she was sleepwalking. The other teens look horrified and a little disgusted with Jasmine’s story, even though it’s hard to believe (considering all their drunken partying) that no one else in the group ever urinated on themselves.

Jasmine experiences racism one evening when she goes back to her dorm room and finds Amelia hanging out with some of Amelia’s male and female friends. Jasmine is the only person of color in the room. The other people look at Jasmine as if she’s intruding (even though it’s her room too), and they invite her to join the conversation, with a hint of reluctance. A guy named Tyler (played by Will Hochman) immediately zeroes in on Jasmine to question what she’s doing at Ancaster College.

Tyler asks sarcastically, “Who are you? Beyoncé?” He then rattles off some names of other famous black female entertainers, such as Nicki Minaj and Lizzo. Even though he says it in a joking manner, his racist condescension is obvious. Jasmine tries to laugh off Tyler’s backhanded insult disguised as a joke, but viewers can see that it bothers Jasmine, and she’s hurt.

There are three main reasons why Tyler’s “joking around” is racially offensive. First, Tyler doesn’t see Jasmine as being intellectually worthy of being at Ancaster College, so he questions why she’s there, and then compares her to entertainers as a reason for why she’s at this elite college. He doesn’t question why the white students are there. Second, Tyler lists only black female entertainers who use sexuality to sell their images, so he immediately tries to put Jasmine in a sexual context, which is a racial stereotype that many people have of black women. Third, even though Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Lizzo look nothing alike, racists often think people of another race all look alike.

It’s at this get-together that Jasmine first hears about why the Belleville House dorm room she’s living in is reportedly haunted: A female student died there in the 1960s. Somehow, the legend of Margaret Millett got entangled in the story of this death, because there’s a story that Room 302 is cursed by this suspected witch. According to the story, the witch will show herself to a freshman student at 3:33 a.m. and take that student to hell.

Jasmine then starts to have nightmares, and she senses that a shadowy figure is following her on campus. It should come as no surprise that Jasmine goes to a library to do research about the student who died in the room. Jasmine finds out that the student who died in the room was an 18-year-old named Louisa Weeks, who was found dead of suicide by hanging in the room on December 4, 1965. Louisa was also the first black student at Ancaster College.

Gail starts to experience some strange things too. As a tradition, house masters get their portrait painted, and the painting is hung with the portraits of the other past and present house masters at Ancaster College. After she gets her portrait painted, Gail finds maggots and flies coming out of the painting. The movie’s jump scares aren’t very original, but “Master” keeps people in suspense about what will happen next.

Gail also experiences how race and racism affect the power structure and barriers in her own career at Ancaster College. At a faculty party, two white colleagues—Diandra (played by Talia Balsam) and Brian (played by Bruce Altman)—congratulate Gail on being named Ancaster College’s first black person to become a house master. Diandra’s and Brian’s titles aren’t mentioned in the movie, but they have more seniority and more power than Gail at Ancaster College.

In a racially insensitive remark, Diandra and Brian compare Gail to Barack Obama and laugh because they think it’s a clever joke. The way that Diandra and Brian go on and on about Gail breaking this racial barrier at Ancaster College, it’s clear that Brian and Diandra think it’s more important to congratulate themselves for looking “progressive” in being among the decision makers for Gail to get the house master job, instead of giving validation to Gail that she earned this position on her own merits, not because she was a “token” black hire.

In another scene, Diandra dictates over the phone to Gail about how Gail should write a speech for an upcoming event attended by numerous Ancaster College donors. It will be the first big event where Gail is formally introduced to donors as the college’s latest house master. Diandra wants the speech to be worded in such a way where Gail will sound like a subservient black employee who’s grateful to the Ancaster College “powers that be” for appointing her as the first black person in this position. Gail has to tactfully steer Diandra away from that verbiage and let Gail write a speech where Gail’s accomplishments and goals are the focus, not her race.

“Get Out” brilliantly lampoons this type of racial condescension from white people who want to project a “progressive liberal” image, but who secretly think people who aren’t white are inferior. “Master” doesn’t blend these issues with horror as well as “Get Out” does, but “Master” does show a black female perspective that was lacking in “Get Out.” Because women of color have to deal with racism and sexism, “Master” adeptly depicts how this double-edged sword of bigotry can be used against accomplished black women whose capabilities and intelligence are constantly questioned or underestimated.

Gail and Jasmine both experience racist micro-aggressions throughout the movie. When Jasmine goes to an on-campus party by herself, a white guy at the front door won’t let her in, and he says that the party is “at capacity.” Meanwhile, white students are seen going into the party with no one stopping them. Jasmine is allowed entry into the party only after one of Amelia’s friends named Katie (played by Noa Fisher) sees Jasmine and tells the racist at the door that Jasmine is with her.

After getting racist comments from Tyler, Jasmine changes her hairstyle from natural curls to straightened hair. She also stops dressing in casual street wear and starts to dress more like a preppy student, as if she wants to assimilate more into the so-called white elitist culture at Ancaster College. Observant viewers will also notice how Jasmine goes back to her original way of dressing and wearing her hair as she grows more disillusioned with Ancaster College.

“Master” also effectively shows that even among black people, allyship isn’t always guaranteed. A “blink and you’ll miss it” moment comes early on in the movie, when Jasmine is in a school cafeteria, and a black female cafeteria worker (played by Angela Grovey) gives Jasmine a very dirty look without saying a word to Jasmine. It’s indicative of the resentment that some working-class black people might have of other black people they assume are too “uppity” and “trying to be white” if they’re accepted into a predominantly white and elite institution.

And there’s an outspoken Ancaster College professor named Liv Beckman (played by Amber Gray), who wears her hair in African-styled braids. Liv constantly talks about race and considers herself to be a progressive social justice warrior. Liv has very different relationships with Gail (who is a colleague/peer) and Jasmine (who is a student) because of the power structure involved.

At the faculty party shown early on in the movie, Gail and and Liv have a private conversation outside, where Liv comments to Gail about how there are very few black women who are part of Ancaster College’s faculty: “Us sisters are an endangered species.” Liv invites Gail to go on a weekend getaway trip with her to Boston. Gail politely declines the offer. But eventually, Liv and Gail start to become friends and go on a short getaway trip together.

This friendship might cloud Gail’s judgment when she’s part of a committee evaluating whether or not Liv will get tenure at Ancaster College. Diandra, who is also on the committee, is skeptical that Liv is qualified for tenure, while Gail seems to vacillate over whether or not to support Liv in these committee discussions. This subplot of “will Liv get tenure or not” makes the movie a little clunky and distracting from the main plot.

Liv is extremely friendly to Gail, but the same can’t be said of how Liv treats Jasmine, who is one of Liv’s students in an English literature class. Liv gives the class an assignment to do a critical race analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter,” which is about a woman who is publicly shamed for committing adultery. The challenge of this assignment is that all the characters in “The Scarlet Letter” are white; therefore, the book isn’t really about relations between different races.

In a classroom discussion of this assignment, Liv dismisses Jasmine’s ideas. But then, when a white British student named Cressida (played by Ella Hunt) essentially says the same things that Jasmine said just a few minutes earlier, Liv profusely praises Cressida for her comments. In a private student-teacher meeting between Liv and Jasmine, Liv tells Jasmine that she thinks Jasmine has trouble adjusting to the demanding nature of the class because Jasmine might be overwhelmed at being in a predominantly white environment.

Liv then continues to be dismissive of Jasmine, by assuming that Jasmine grew up in a predominantly black and poor area. In other words, Liv thinks that Jasmine is a “charity case” student. But then, when Jasmine tells her that she actually grew up in the (predominantly white) city of Tacoma, Washington, and Jasmine was president of her school class, Liv seems shocked and a little embarrassed that she made racist assumptions about Jasmine.

It doesn’t improve the relationship between Jasmine and Liv though. In fact, it seems to make to things worse. Jasmine confides in Gail about it, but Gail tries to stay neutral, since Liv has become Gail’s friend. However, Jasmine really begins to suspect that Liv is unfairly targeting her when Liv gives Jasmine the failing grade of “F” on her “Scarlet Letter” assignment, while Cressida gets a “B+” grade. Jasmine is so upset about it, that she files a formal dispute with the school’s administration.

Around the same time, Jasmine and Amelia start having conflicts with each other. Their relationship started off as cordial, but things eventually go downhill. There’s somewhat of a love triangle introduced in the story when Amelia tells Jasmine that she’s attracted to Tyler, but Amelia and Tyler are just “hanging out” and not officially dating. But then, something happens to reveal that Jasmine is attracted to Tyler too. Even though Tyler racially insulted Jasmine when they first met, her attraction to him is an indication that a part of her wants to fit in with this clique, even if the guy she wants to date probably sees her as inferior to him because of her race.

“Master” puts these types of subplots into the story in ways that make the movie a little cluttered. But there are some mystery elements that will keep people intrigued, including a couple of scenes where someone named Esther Bickert (played by Mary Catherine Wright) calls Gail on the phone to try to talk to Gail about her daughter Liz, who is at Ancaster College. Gail doesn’t know anyone named Liz Bickert, so she tells this mystery caller to contact the school’s directory department.

Meanwhile, Jasmine continues to have nightmares and appears to be sleepwalking. On more than one occasion, Jasmine wakes up from these nightmares in her room, with an alarmed Amelia telling Jasmine how Jasmine was acting strangely before Jasmine woke up. The nightmares get worse, of course. And so does the tension between Jasmine and Amelia, who starts to think that Jasmine is crazy.

One of the more surprising elements to “Master” is a plot twist that’s intriguingly dropped in the movie and then left to dangle unresolved. This plot twist was clearly inspired by a real-life controversial former professor. It’s a sudden turn in the movie’s story that could have been handled better, in terms of how certain characters react to this plot twist. Considering what the consequences would be if this shocking revelation happened in real life (and it has happened in real life), this plot twist just opens up more questions that the movie never answers.

Despite some of the clumsily plotted aspects of “Master,” the movie never gets too boring. “Master” seems a little torn in how much to focus on Gail and how much to focus on Jasmine. In the end, Gail is really the main protagonist, because she’s the title character. Gail has stronger and more emotional ties to Ancaster College than Jasmine does. It’s why Gail’s journey in this story is more fascinating than Jasmine’s journey. Gail has to rethink her longtime loyalty to a college that isn’t exactly the “safe space” that she thought it was.

All of the cast members give admirable but not outstanding performances. Hall (who is an executive producer of “Master”), Renee and Gray bring emotional authenticity to their roles that give “Master” the credibility that it has in depicting how life can be for black women at predominantly white academic institutions. The movie might help viewers better understand how racism can still be condoned and perpetuated, even by well-meaning white people who politically identify as liberals.

Most of the movie’s best scenes aren’t with the jump scares but in moments that show the similarities between racism and a horror story. There’s a scene where Gail is comforting Jasmine, who has become convinced that she’s being tormented by a ghost. “You can’t get away from it, Jasmine,” Gail says, “Believe me, I know.” Jasmine might be talking about a ghost, but Gail is talking about racism. Viewers might like or dislike the story in “Master,” but the main takeaway from the film is that racism is like a hateful ghost that haunts everyone, whether people want to admit or not.

Amazon Studios will release “Master” in select U.S. cinemas and on Prime Video on March 18, 2022.

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