Review: ‘In a Violent Nature,’ starring Ry Barrett, Andrea Pavlovic, Cameron Love, Reece Presley, Liam Leone, Charlotte Creaghan, Alexander Oliver and Lauren Taylor

May 30, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ry Barrett in “In a Violent Nature” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“In a Violent Nature”

Directed by Chris Nash

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of Ontario, Canada, the horror film “In a Violent Nature” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one multiracial person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A sinister murderer rises from the dead and goes on a killing spree in a remote wooded area. 

Culture Audience: “In a Violent Nature” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of slasher flicks that stick to a certain formula but offer a few interesting twists.

Ry Barrett and Charlotte Creaghan in “In a Violent Nature” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

People who watch “In a Violent Nature” should not expect anything groundbreaking in this slow-moving slasher flick. What makes the film unique are a few of the brutal kills and the subtle messaging about trying to deal with childhood trauma. This is not a movie for people who want a lot of information about the people who are the targets of the murder spree, because the movie is shown from the perspective of the supernatural killer.

Writer/director Chris Nash makes his feature-film directorial debut with “In a Violent Nature,” which takes place in an unnamed part of the Canadian province of Ontario, where the movie was filmed on location. “In a Violent Nature” had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. This low-budget movie has an over-used horror concept of a killer on the loose in a remote area. However, attentive viewers will notice—especially in the very last image shown in the film—something that further explains the killer’s motivation.

“In a Violent Nature” takes place in an isolated wooded area, where a group of seven young people (in their late teens/early 20s) have arrived to go camping. They are staying at a (horror cliché alert) cabin in the woods. The movie also has a relatively small number (11) of people in the cast, so don’t expect a complicated story.

There is almost no information about these young people (four males and three females), who are camping in the woods. However, it’s revealed that soon after arriving in the woods, they were at an abandoned tower, where they found a gold chain necklace with a small round pendant hanging from the shrubbery outside. One of the guys in the group took the necklace. The campers aren’t fully seen on screen until a little later in the story.

The names of the campers are Ehren (played by Sam Roulston), Aurora (played by Charlotte Creaghan), Brodie (played by Lea Rose Sebastianis), Kris (played by Andrea Pavlovic), Troy (played by Liam Leone), Colt (played by Cameron Love) and Evan (played by Alexander Oliver). Ehren is the one who’s the most likely to get teased by the other people. Aurora is the “alpha female” of the group. It’s later revealed that Aurora and Brodie have a mild flirtation with each other, and they’re not really sure where this flirtation is going to go.

What the campers don’t know, but will soon find out, is that the necklace they took has special significance to the killer who ends up on a deliberate rampage in these woods. The killer, whose name is later revealed as Johnny (played by Ry Barrett), is a hulking corpse that has been awakened from the dead after the necklace was taken. Johnny was buried at the tower, but he is seen clawing his way out from underneath the ground.

In the movie’s opening scene, when the necklace was taken, Ehren mentions that this camping area is known for a massacre of people called the White Pines Slaughter, which happened years ago. Ehren is surprised that other people in the group have never heard about this massacre, and he says that he thought the notoriety of this slaughter was the main reason why the other people in the group wanted to go camping in this area. On their first night in the woods, around a campfire, Ehren tells more details about the White Pines Slaughter.

About 60 years ago, the area used to be the site of a thriving workplace for lumberjacks and loggers employed by a company that is not named in this story. Johnny’s father owned and operated a store in the area. The lumberjacks and loggers used to cruelly tease Johnny as a child because he had learning disabilities.

One day, some of these bullies told Johnny that there were toys in the tower, but it was a lie. When Johnny arrived at the tower and found no toys, he fell from the tower and died. Johnny’s father blamed the bullies and attacked those he believed were guilty of causing Johnny’s death. The bullies killed Johnny’s father but covered up the crime to make it look like an accident.

Shortly afterward, the entire population in this lumberjack/logger site was massacred. The company whose employees were killed, as well as the local police, determined that the deaths were from mass poisoning, even though the deaths looked like they were caused by a human or animal. In the last third of the movie, an unnamed woman (played by Lauren Taylor, also known as Lauren-Marie Taylor) has more to say about the history of this dangerous wooded area.

All of this is supposed to give some explanation for why Johnny might have a deadly vendetta. But there’s a scene when Johnny goes into the home of a man named Chuck (played by Timothy Paul McCarthy) and sees a gold necklace that looks similar to the one that was at the tower. In this scene, viewers find out that the necklace at the tower was a gift from Johnny’s mother.

The necklace is supposed to be a “trigger” for why Johnny has come back from the dead. The ending of “In a Violent Nature” might be too vague or abrupt from some viewers. However, people watching the movie should pay attention to what happens to the necklace in the last third of the film and in the very last image, in order to fully understand. It will give further insight into what Johnny really wants.

“In a Violent Nature” has plenty of bloody gore, including one particular murder that most viewers will remember about this slow-burn film. (Hint: This murder involves someone’s head and stomach.) In other words, this is not a movie for people who easily get squeamish at the sight of blood and vicious dismemberments.

There’s nothing particularly special about any of the acting in the movie. If there are any survivors, it’s a horror movie stereotype. And there’s one particular scene where the victims do something incredibly stupid, knowing that the killer is right in front of them. But even with these flaws, “In a Violent Nature” has enough suspenseful moments in the last third of the film to leave a haunting impression.

IFC Films will release “In a Violent Nature” in U.S. cinemas on May 31, 2024, with a sneak preview in U.S. cinemas on May 29, 2024.

Review: ‘I Saw the TV Glow,’ starring Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Fred Durst and Danielle Deadwyler

May 3, 2024

by Carla Hay

Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in “I Saw the TV Glow” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“I Saw the TV Glow”

Directed by Jane Schoenbrun

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1996 to 2004, in an unnamed U.S. state, the dramatic film “I Saw the TV Glow” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lonely teenage boy befriends a teenage girl, who gets him hooked on a fantasy TV series starring young people battling a villain named Mr. Melancholy, and the show affects what happens to them as they get older. 

Culture Audience: “I Saw the TV Glow” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in watching symbolic-heavy movies about depression and queerness.

Ian Foreman in “I Saw the TV Glow” (Photo by Spencer Pazer/A24)

“I Saw the TV Glow” isn’t as scary as it seems, but it’s a very original film about obsessive escapism and denial of one’s true identity. The plot has more mystery than suspense. Viewers must be willing to interpret the movie’s LGBTQ symbolism. “I Saw the TV Glow” had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and later screened at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival and 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, “I Saw the TV Glow” explores themes about depression and queerness that are presented in ways that might be too abstract for viewers. “I Saw the TV Glow” has been described as a horror movie, but it’s really a psychological drama. There are a few brief horror-like images, in addition to one scene where someone has a mental breakdown. That does not make it a horror movie.

“I Saw the TV Glow,” which is told in chronological order, takes place from 1996 to 2004, in an unnamed U.S. state. (The movie was actually filmed in New Jersey.) “I Saw the TV Glow” begins by showing clips from a U.S. TV network called the Young Adult Network, which has a combination of original and acquired programming. One of the network’s more popular original shows is a weekly fantasy series called “The Pink Opaque,” which is set in America in whatever year that the show is on the air. “I Saw the TV Glow” pokes some fun at 1990s television, music and fashion in clips of “The Pink Opaque.”

It’s later explained in the movie that “The Pink Opaque” (and the show’s title characters) are two American teenage best friends named Isabel (played by Helena Howard) and Tara (played by Lindsey Jordan), who live in a typical suburban area but live secret lives where they battle a demonic force called Mr. Melancholy (played by Emma Portner), the show’s chief villain who gives Isabel and Tara an obstacle in each episode. Isabel is the more prominent person of this teenage duo. She is described as an “expert in demonology.”

In “I Saw the TV Glow,” the protagonist and narrator is shy and quiet Owen (played by Justice Smith), who narrates the movie in hindsight as an older teenager and as an adult. Sometimes, he talks directly to the camera during his narration. Sometimes, Owen’s narration is a voiceover. The movie also has captions spelled out in handwritten pink letters.

When Owen is first seen in the movie, he is a seventh grader (about 12 or 13 years old) and played by Ian Foreman. It’s during this period of time that Owen meets someone who will change his life. Seventh grader Owen is shown accompanying his mother Brenda (played by Danielle Deadwyler) to a polling place on Election Day. The polling station is in a gym of a local high school where Owen will be a student in two years. Brenda takes Owen into the voting booth with her and shows him how to vote.

It’s at this gym where Owen meets sarcastic Maddie Wilson (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine), who is a ninth grader (freshman), about 14 years old, at the high school. Maddie is sitting on the gym floor, reading a book about episodes of “The Pink Opaque.” Owen soon finds out that Maddie is an obsessive fan of “The Pink Opaque,” which airs on Tuesdays from 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the time zone where Maddie and Owen live.

Owen and Maddie start talking about “The Pink Opaque,” a show that Owen has not seen at this point because he’s not allowed to stay up past 10 p.m., especially on a school night. Owen (who is an only child) lives with his married parents in a stable, loving and middle-class home. His father Frank (played by Fred Durst) is not as close to Owen as Brenda is.

Maddie tells Owen that she and her best friend Amanda (also played by Portner) watch “The Pink Opaque” together at Maddie’s place. Maddie invites Owen to join them and suggests that Owen lie to his parents by saying he’s spending the night at a male friend’s house. Owen takes that advice and sneaks over to Maddie’s place to watch “The Pink Opaque” for the first time (in a basement room), as Maddie explains the complex world building that the show has. Maddie later tells Owen, “Sometimes, ‘The Pink Opaque’ feels more real than real life.”

Maddie’s parents are never shown in the movie. However, Maddie mentions that her parents “don’t give a crap” when she goes to bed. She also says that she has an abusive stepfather. When Owen spends the night at Maddie’s place for the first time, he has to sleep in the basement. Maddie tells Owen that Owen has to leave by dawn because if Maddie’s stepfather sees Owen there, “he’ll break my nose again.”

After Amanda has left for the night, Maddie also tells Owen that Maddie thinks Isabel from “The Pink Opaque” is “super-hot,” and Maddie “likes girls.” Owen doesn’t have any reaction to Maddie telling him that she’s a lesbian, but he does get confused when she asks him if he likes boys or girls. He tells her he doesn’t know but he knows he likes “The Pink Opaque.” When Owen is a teenager, he mentions “The Pink Opaque” to his father Frank, who replies, “Isn’t that a girl’s show?”

Owen explains in a voiceover that over the next two years, Maddie gave VHS tapes of “The Pink Opaque” episodes to Owen so he could watch the show without having to stay up past his bedtime. However, Owen and Maddie don’t become close friends until 1998, when Owen (played by Smith) is a freshman (about 14 years old) in the same high school where Maddie is now a junior (about 16 years old) and is now a loner at the school.

Maddie and Owen reconnect at her place to watch “The Pink Opaque” together. It’s during this reconnection that Owen finds out that Maddie and Amanda stopped being friends about two years earlier because Amanda told people that Maddie touched Amanda’s breast without Amanda’s consent. Maddie denies this sexual harassment happened but she was then shunned by many people because Maddie was “outed” as a lesbian. Maddie is still bitter over how the friendship ended and also seems angry that Amanda would rather spend time on the cheerleader squad than watch “The Pink Opaque.”

The rest of “I Saw the TV Glow” is about how Owen’s friendship with Maddie and how their fixation with “The Pink Opaque” affects their lives. Without giving away too much information, the movie is full of metaphors and symbolism of Owen’s self-discovery of his sexuality, even though he is not shown dating anyone in the movie. There’s a scene early on in the film of seventh grader Owen in an inflatable planetarium that has colors reminiscent of the LGBTQ Pride flag.

“I Can See the TV Glow” has some scenes that go on for a little too long. For example, there’s a nightclub sequence that starts to look like a music video because it shows the full song performance of rock band Sloppy Jane. Better editing was needed for this scene because it doesn’t fit the flow of a conversation that Owen and Maddie are having in a nearby room at the nightclub.

“I Saw the TV Glow” might get some comparisons to Schoenbrun’s 2022 feature-film debut “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” another psychological drama (with some horror elements) about a teenage loner who gets caught up in something on screen that becomes dangerous. “I Saw the TV Glow” obviously has a bigger production budget and a larger, more well-known cast than “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” However, “I Saw the TV Glow” has a more abstract plot than “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” Some viewers will be puzzled over what “I Saw the TV Glow” is trying to say.

In the role of Owen, Smith is once again doing a character who is whiny, insecure and often looking like he’s confused or about to cry. Owen is not a bad person, but he can be annoying. Lundy-Paine gives a better performance as Maddie, but there comes a point in the movie where Maddie’s personality becomes almost numb, so the movie loses a lot of Maddie’s initial spark and charisma. “I Saw the TV Glow” can be recommended to people who don’t mind watching offbeat movies with a unique vision and a heavily symbolic story about how secrets and lies can kill a soul.

A24 released “I Saw the TV Glow” in select U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024.

Review: ‘Stress Positions,’ starring John Early, Theda Hammel, Qaher Harhash, Amy Zimmer, Faheem Ali, Rebecca F. Wright, Davidson Obennebo and John Roberts

April 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Theda Hammel in “Stress Positions” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Stress Positions”

Directed by Theda Hammel

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the summer of 2020, the comedy film “Stress Positions” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people, Middle Eastern people and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gay man, who’s in the midst of a bitter divorce, is visited by his young adult nephew, who temporarily stays with him, as the nephew’s presence becomes a source of gossip and intrigue with the man’s best friend and other people in his social circle. 

Culture Audience: “Stress Positions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about the middle-class queer community in 2020s New York City, but this movie has a lot of unrealistic and silly dialogue.

Qaher Harhash in “Stress Positions” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Stress Positions” is the type of aimless and smug indie comedy that exists so the movie’s characters can aggravate each other and annoy viewers. The movie’s diverse LGBTQ representation deserves better than this incoherent story. It isn’t until the last 15 minutes that “Stress Positions” finally gets around to a part of the story that should have happened earlier. But by then, it’s too late to save this pretentious mess.

Written and directed by Theda Hammel, “Stress Positions” is Hammel’s feature-film directorial debut. She is also a co-star in the movie, where she portrays a gossipy and demanding transgender woman, who starts off as a supporting character and then turns into a co-lead character. (Hammel is a transgender woman in real life.) “Stress Positions” had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie is unfocused and confused about which character’s perspective has the story’s main point of view. One person narrates the first half of the movie, while another person narrates the second half of the movie. It gives the impression that Hammel’s screenplay writing was such a jumbled process, she didn’t bother to make the screenplay more cohesive because she also directed the movie. Maybe another writer/director could have salvaged this story into something that was more entertaining to watch, because the movie’s concept had potential to be made into a much better film than “Stress Positions.”

“Stress Positions” takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough in the summer of 2020, the period of time when COVID-19 infection rates were among the city’s highest of that year. The narrrator for the first half of the film is a transgender woman named Karla (played by Hammel), who says in the beginning of the movie that Terry Goon (played by John Early), who also lives in Brooklyn, is her best friend from college. Karla explains that Terry is a homemaker who’s in the middle of a bitter divorce from his husband Leo, who used to be Terry’s boss when Terry was an intern. (Leo’s occupation is not mentioned.)

Leo left Terry for another man and has been encouraging Terry to also find a new love. In the meantime, because Terry can’t afford his own place, he’s been staying in the former spouses’ apartment until the divorce is final. Karla also mentions in the voiceover that Terry has very limited work experience, because he quit his internship to become a homemaker in the longtime relationship that Terry had with Leo.

Terry is very high-strung, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the divorce have made him even more stressed-out and jumpy. Terry is so paranoid about getting infected with COVID-19, he sometimes wears a gas mask inside his house if he’s around people he doesn’t know are infected or not. Terry also makes an unexpected house guest wear a gas mask sometimes.

Terry’s unexpected house guest is his nephew Bahlul (played by Qaher Harhash), who has an American mother (Terry’s sister) and a Moroccan father. Bahlul was born in the United States but was raised in Morocco. Bahlul has done work as a model. He has arrived at Terry’s place with a broken left leg that was injured in a scooter accident. Therefore, Bahlul is mostly seen recovering in a bed, on a sofa or in a wheelchair.

Bahlul says his mother sent Bahlul to Terry’s place for a very good reason. As soon as Bahlul says this, you know exactly where this movie is going to go, since almost everyone in Terry’s socal circle is a member of the LGBTQ community. The only neighbors shown in this somewhat shabby walk-up apartment building are also queer. When Karla first meets Bahlul, he doesn’t say what his sexuality is, but she asks him if he’s ever dressed as a woman because he would make an attractive-looking woman.

Karla identifies as a transgender female lesbian. Her live-in girlfriend is a sarcastic and jaded author named Vanessa Ravel (played by Amy Zimmer), who is a politically active progressive feminist. Vanessa is somewhat self-conscious about originally being from suburban Larchmont, New York, because this suburb doesn’t fit her current image of being an urban hipster. Vanessa is also frustrated because she hasn’t been able to finish her second book. Vanessa’s first book is a novel called “Paulette,” whose title character was mainly inspired by Karla.

Karla has mixed feelings about the book. One the one hand, Karla brags to people that Vanessa wrote a book about her, and Karla sometimes autographs copies of “Paulette.” On the other hand, Karla feels resentment that Vanessa used her as the basis of the book, which apparently depicts Paulette as an unlikable character. Maybe the truth is a little to close for Karla’s comfort because Karla really is unlikable.

Karla is overly intrusive, rude, racist and xenophobic. Before Karla meets Bahlul and finds out that he is Terry’s nephew, she describes Bahlul as a “little brown kid” to Leo and wrongfully assumes that Bahlul is Terry’s lover. Whenever Karla meets people who aren’t white, Karla asks where they are from, because she expects them to give an answer that describes what their ethnicity is. If the person says that they are from somewhere in the United States, she asks the person where their family is from, to find out the family’s ethnicity or country of origin.

Karla does this type of interrogation when she meets a Grubhub delivery guy named Ronald (played by Faheem Ali), who delivers some Greek food to Karla one evening. Karla and Ronald strike up a flirtation. And it soon becomes clear that maybe Karla isn’t quite the “lesbian” that she says she is. Ronald’s bicycle becomes a pointless subplot in the movie.

The big “event” in “Stress Positions” is a Fourth of July barbecue party hosted by Terry in the apartment building’s tiny back courtyard. The movie doesn’t really explain how Terry goes from being so fearful of getting infected with COVID-19 that he wears a gas masks to Terry hosting an intimate gathering when COVID-19 infection rates are high, there’s no COVID-19 vaccine available at this point in time, and people won’t be wearing masks at this party. Two of the party guests are Terry’s obnoxious, cocaine-snorting, soon-to-be-ex-husband Leo (played by John Roberts) and Leo’s fiancé Hamadou (played by Davidson Obennebo), who politely asks Terry to sign the divorce papers so that they can all get on with their lives.

Terry (who has some slapstick scenes where he falls down more than once in the kitchen) is a stereotypical neurotic New Yorker. However, Terry’s story arc fades into the background as Karla and Bahlul (who is the narrator in the second half of the movie) have storylines that take over and dominate the movie. As Terry, Early clearly has the best comedic skills in the “Stress Positions” cast, so it’s a mistake that his talents are somewhat sidelined in the movie.

Bahlul talks mostly about his childhood in his tedious voiceovers, in which he comments on his mother almost as much as he talks about himself. (Bahlul is obviously a “mama’s boy.”) Even with all this talk, very little is revealed about who Bahlul is as a person, except when he tells Karla he’d like to write a book. Karla advises Bahlul to have more life experiences that he could put in a book.

“Stress Positions” has an irritating attitude that seems to say, “Showing a bunch of eccentric New York characters will be enough to make a good movie.” One of these eccentrics is Coco (played by Rebecca F. Wright), a mute upstairs neighbor who lives alone and appears to be a drag queen. Terry tells Ronald at one point in the story: “Coco’s not trans. She’s mentally ill.” Coco has only one pivotal scene in the film. Otherwise, she’s just in the movie to so a catty snob like Terry can make snide remarks about her.

“Stress Positions” will probably find a certain number of fans who automatically want to gush over anything that can be described as “quirky indie filmmaking,” while ignoring huge flaws in the filmmaking. (A lot of the movie has amateurish dialogue and unimpressive technical production.) The truth is that if you take away the underrepresented “diversity” in “Stress Positions,” it’s just another poorly made beginner film that is often dull. The identities of the characters are not reasons enough to care when their personalities and the story are so hollow.

Neon released “Stress Positions” in New York City on April 19, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on April 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Sasquatch Sunset,’ starring Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, Christophe Zajac-Denek and Nathan Zellner

April 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg and Christophe Zajac-Denek in “Sasquatch Sunset” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Sasquatch Sunset”

Directed by Davd Zellner and Nathan Zellner

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of the United States, the comedy/drama film “Sasquatch Sunset” features a group of Sasquatch characters that have human and primate characteristics.

Culture Clash: A family of four Sasquatches wander around a wooded area and get into various conflicts and predicaments.

Culture Audience: “Sasquatch Sunset” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in watching a movie that has nothing but actors pretending to be ape-like animals in a wooded area, with no real story in the movie.

Nathan Zellner in “Sasquatch Sunset” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

Overrated and vapid, “Sasquatch Sunset” looks like a self-indulgent student film for actors pretending to be Sasquatches. There’s no plot or imagination, just repetitive grunting and intentional gross-out scenes until the movie’s underwhelming ending. Perhaps the best thing about “Sasquatch Sunset” is the competent prosthetic makeup and hairstyling for the Sasquatch characters. (There are no human characters in this movie.) But those are just visual aesthetics that can’t make up for a weak story.

Directed by brothers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, “Sasquatch Sunset” was written by David Zellner. Nathan Zellner plays one of the movie’s four main Sasquatch characters, which do not have names. There are also no captions that translate what these Sasquatches are saying or thinking. It wouldn’t matter anyway because “Sasquatch Sunset” is so boring, these Sasquatches wouldn’t have anything memorable to say, even if they did speak a human language. (Sasquatches are fictional creatures that have human and primate characteristics. The legend of Bigfoot, which most people think is a hoax, is about a Sasquatch.)

“Sasquatch Sunset” takes place in an unnamed part of the United States but was actually filmed in Humboldt County, California. In 2024, “Sasquatch Sunset” screened at three of the most prominent film festivals in the world: the Sundance Film Festival (where “Sasquatch Sunset” had its world premiere), the Berlin International Film Festival and the SXSW Film and TV Festival. “Sasquatch Sunset” being at these festivals says more about the “Sasquatch Sunset” filmmakers’ film festival connections than it does about the quality of “Sasquatch Sunset.” Ari Aster (writer/director of “Hereditary,” “Midsommar” and “Beau Is Afraid”) is one of the executive producers of “Sasquatch Sunset,” and he has an almost cult-like fan base who thinks he can do no wrong.

Because “Sasquatch Sunset” has no plot or context, viewers are just left to watch a series of disjointed scenes showing the aimless lives of Sasquatches who live in this wooded area. There are several Sasquatches in the movie, but only four are at the center of this flimsy story. A young adult male Sasquatch (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and a young adult female Sasquatch (played by Riley Keough) are a “couple” with a male child Sasquatch (played by Christophe Zajac-Denek) and an older male relative (played by Nathan Zellner), whose biological relationship with the others is never clearly defined. This “senior” relative could be a grandfather or an uncle or a cousin. It doesn’t really matter because all of these characters are empty and become tiresome to watch after a while.

“Sasquatch Sunset” takes place in a year of the life of these Sasquatches, with the change of seasons indicated by captions on screen. If you think it’s fun to watch people pretending to be Sasquatches as they bang a tree with sticks, then this movie is for you. If you think it’s hilarious to watch the kid Sasquatch get his tongue stuck in a turtle, then this movie is for you. If you think it’s appealing to watch Sasquatches urinate, vomit, defecate, have sex, scratch and smell their crotches, throw feces, and commit attempted rape, then this movie is for you.

Viewers will learn nothing about the movie’s characters except that they exist in this wooded area. The female Sasquatch becomes pregnant and gives birth in a storyline that is very predictable and shallow. There are indications that humans lived in this area (an abandoned campsite and an abandoned building), but there’s no explanation for why there are no humans in the story. This movie did not need to have humans in it to make it a worthwhile watch. “Sasquatch Sunset” just needed to have something worth watching.

“Sasquatch Sunset” is an insult to aspiring and talented filmmakers who are looking for a big break because “Sasquatch Sunset” is proof that certain filmmakers who get preference in the industry can get funding to make crappy movies that get into prestigious film festivals, just because these filmmakers have the right connections and want to cultivate an image of having “indie cred” by making incoherent garbage. Meanwhile, these filmmakers are over-praised by certain people who think this praise makes them look like cool, or they’re just too afraid of being independent thinkers in a fawning group of ingratiators. Maybe “Sasquatch Sunset” will appeal to people who like to be “under the influence” of whatever substance when they watch movies, because this clouded judgment might overlook all the things that are wrong about this stupid and dull movie. “Sasquatch Sunset” is also an insult to viewers who can see through this sham and who know that this dreadful and sloppy movie is a waste of time for anyone looking for a good story.

Bleecker Street will release “Sasquatch Sunset” in select U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2024.

Review: ‘The Tuba Thieves,’ starring Nyeisha ‘Nyke’ Prince, Geovanny Marroquin, Russell Harvard and Warren ‘Wawa’ Snipe

April 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

Geovanny Marroquin (pictured at left) in “The Tuba Thieves” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“The Tuba Thieves”

Directed by Alison O’Daniel

Some language in American Sign Language with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Tuba Thieves” features a racially diverse group of people (African Americans, white, Latin and Asian) who are connected in some way to music or the deaf community.

Culture Clash: The experiences of deaf people are contrasted with those of people with hearing abilities.

Culture Audience: “The Tuba Thieves” will appeal primarily to people interested in stream-of-consciousness documentaries that don’t tell a cohesive story but just show a collection of moving images.

Manuel Castañeda in “The Tuba Thieves” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“The Tuba Thieves” has a misleading title and tries too hard to be an avant-garde documentary about deaf people. It’s really a pretentious, disjointed and tedious film that wants to fool people into thinking that it’s got something important to say. Don’t expect to learn very much about the people in the documentary, which has an unfocused collection of “slice of life” scenes awkwardly placed with re-enactments. “The Tuba Thieves” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including CPH:DOX and the Sydney Film Festival.

Directed by Alison O’Daniel, “The Tuba Thieves” has this logline: “From 2011
to 2013, tubas were stolen from Los Angeles high schools. This is not a story about
thieves or missing tubas. Instead, it asks what it means to listen.” What’s in this documentary are very boring scenes of some deaf people having dull conversations. Surely, their lives are more interesting than what ended up in this sloppily made film.

The deaf person who is most prominently featured in “The Tuba Thieves” is Nyeisha “Nyke” Prince, whose occupation is not mentioned in the documentary but she describes herself as a “fashion blogger, hair stylist and model” on her social media accounts. Prince is not seen doing any fashion blogging, hair styling or modeling in this weak and uninteresting film. Instead, she’s shown having forgettable conversations with other deaf people, including her lover Russell Harvard, who calls himself Nature Boy in the movie.

There are a few non-nudity scenes of Prince and Harvard in bed together. And then at one point, it’s shown that Prince has become pregnant during the making of the film, and she knows that the unborn child is a girl. The only real insight into Prince’s personality is when she has a conversation with an older friend named Warren “Wawa” Snipe and expresses her concerns about how good her mothering skills will be when she won’t be able to hear things, such as her baby crying.

Even less is revealed in the documentary about Geovanny Marroquin, who was a drum major at Centennial High School in Compton California, during the fall semester of 2011, when eight tubas were stolen. If you think it’s fascinating to see Marroquin get a palm reading or climbing out of a house window, then “The Tuba Thieves” is the movie for you. Marroquin says nothing in the documentary about his perspective of being a student at the school that had these thefts. Centennial High School band leader Manuel Castañeda is shown re-enacting finding out that the tubas have gone missing.

“The Tuba Thieves” has some scenes of journalist Sam Quinones, who covered the news about the tuba thefts in The Los Angeles Sentinel. In one of the scenes Quinones interview, Hector Aguirre and Erik Huerta, who were students at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, when four tubas were stolen during the winter break of 2011-2012. That’s about the extent of any “investigation” shown in the movie. Aguirre and Huerta have nothing meaningful to add to the story. Quinones is also seen doing an unrelated interview with Voces del Rancho members Mariano Fernandez and Edgar Rodriguez about Mexican singer Chalino Sánchez, who used tuba instruments in his songs and who became popular in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

“The Tuba Thieves” production notes describe the documentary’s re-enactment scenes: “In ‘The Tuba Thieves,’ Los Angeles life during the time of the tuba thefts is interrupted by unconventional reenactments of historic concerts: an irritated man leaves John Cage’s 1952 premiere of 4’33″ (where a pianist sat at a piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds without playing a note); punks and Deafies intermingle at the 1979 final punk show at
an infamous Deaf Club in San Francisco; and students tell how they organized a 1984 surprise Prince concert at the Deaf University Gallaudet.” In other words, “The Tuba Thieves” has meaningless filler.

Also in this meandering documentary are scenes of airplanes flying. Why? Just to have sounds of airplanes in the movie. There’s also hidden camera footage of wild animals (such as lions) in an area that appears to be the Hollywood Hills. Watching an entire documentary about these animals would be infinitely more entertaining and informative than the self-satisfied and empty tripe that’s in the “The Tuba Thieves.”

PBS released “The Tuba Thieves” in New York City on March 15, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cities, as of March 22, 2024. The movie will premiere on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Shayda,’ starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Osamah Sami, Mojean Aria, Jillian Nguyen, Rina Mousavi, Selina Zahednia and Leah Purcell

March 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Selina Zahednia in “Shayda” (Photo by Jane Zhang/Sony Pictures Classics)


Directed by Noora Niasari

Some language in Farsi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia in the late 1990s, in the dramatic film “Shayda” features a white and Arabic/Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: While living in Australia, an Iranian immigrant and her 6-year-old daughter stay at a shelter for domestic abuse survivors, as the mother worries for their safety and how her impending divorce from her estranged Iranian husband will affect her immigration visa issues.

Culture Audience: “Shayda” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of are interested in watching movies about issues related to immigration and domestic abuse.

Bev Killick in “Shayda” (Photo by Sarah Enticknap/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shayda” tells a nuanced and meaningful story of an Iranian immigrant woman raising her 6-year-old daughter, as they live in an Australian shelter for domestic violence survivors. The film shows in heart-wrenching details what coping with trauma looks like. There have been many movies about women and children seeking safety from domestic violence, but they are rarely told from the perspectives of immigrants living in a nation where they are not citizens.

Written and directed by Noora Niasari, “Shayda” is inspired by Niasari’s own childhood experiences in Australia of temporarily staying at a domestic violence shelter with her mother. “Shayda” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. “Shayda” was Australia’s official entry for Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards but didn’t make it on the Oscar shortlist to be nominated.

In “Shayda” (which takes place in Australia in the late 1990s), a woman named Shayda (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi) is seeking shelter from her abusive, estranged husband Hossein (played by Osamah Sami), who is also an Iranian immigrant. Hossein and Shadya moved to Australia because Hossein is a graduate student at an unnamed university. Shayda and Hossein’s 6-year-old daughter is Mona (played by Selina Zahednia), who is an inquisitive and obedient child who is a big fan of “The Lion King” movie.

Shayda wants to divorce Hossein, but the matter is complicated because the divorce has to be in Iran. Shayda wants to keep living in Australia after the divorce. Hossein wants to move back to Iran after he graduates from his university program. He also threatens Shayda by saying that she will be killed if she goes through with the divorce.

The movie has some scenes showing Shayda’s frustrations of doing depositions by phone for these divorce proceedings. (Remember, this story take place the late 1990s, when video streaming over the Internet was still very uncommon and not accessible to the average person.) She often has the sinking feeling that the attorneys and judge involved in the divorce are biased against her, because it’s considered to be scandalous in patriarchal Iran for a wife to divorce her husband.

The shelter is operated by a no-nonsense manager named Cathy (played by Bev Killick), who often has to instruct the frightened women at the shelter on what to do, in case their abusers come looking for them or try to violate child custody arrangements. There’s a scene where an unidentified person in a car is parked across the street from the shelter and seems to have the place under surveillance. Cathy goes outside to confront the driver, who quickly drives off. It’s implied that one of the women in the shelter is being stalked.

There are no flashback scenes in the movie of Shayda being abused, nor does she tell anyone the specifics of what Hossein did it her. It’s left up to viewers’ speculation how bad the abuse was. Throughout the movie, Shayda shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. She has trouble sleeping. And she’s very paranoid that Hossein is out to get her, to the point where she sometimes hallucinates that he is in the same room, when he isn’t even in the building.

Shayda also has a dilemma of how much she should shield Mona from the truth. There are hints that Mona doesn’t know exactly what’s going on with the divorce, because Mona sometimes complains to Shayda that she wants to go home. Shayda doesn’t want Mona to hate Hossein, but she doesn’t want Mona to completely trust hm either.

Hossein’s visitations with Mona are fraught with tension. Shayda doesn’t say it out loud, but she’s worried that Hossein will go somewhere with Mona and never come back. Understandably, Shayda gets very upset when Hossein in late in bringing back Monda during a visitation. Shayda doesn’t want to get too upset with Hossein because she doesn’t want to make their divorce proceedings worse. Shayda sees indications that Hossein has been spying on her, either by himself or by getting other people to do the spying for him

Shayda keeps mostly to herself and isn’t very sociable with the other women at the shelter. The other shelter residents include shy Lara (played by Eve Morey), extrovert Vi (played by Jillian Nguyen) and racist “wild child” Renee (played by Lucinda Armstrong Hall), a young single mother who expects Shayda to look after Renee’s toddler, as if Shayda is a servant. Shayda’s closest friend is another Iranian immigrant named Elly (played by Rina Mousavi), who is very concerned about how Shayda’s horrible domestic problems are affecting Shayda’s mental health.

Elly encourages a reluctant Shayda to go to nightclubs and parties with her to meet new people, have some fun, and take Shayda’s mind off of her troubles. It’s at one of these nightclubs that Shayda meets Farhad (played by Mojean Aria), an attractive cousin of Elly’s, who has recently arrived from Canada. Farhad and Shayda are immediately attracted to each other. But if Farhad and Shayda start dating each other, what will happen if jealous and possessive Hossein finds out?

“Shayda” shows in unflinching ways how even though Shayda is a very attentive mother to Mona, the stress and paranoia that Shayda is experiencing can negatively affect her parenting skills. There’s also the valid fear that any decision that Shayda makes regarding the new life that Shayda wants away from Hossein could make Shayda vulnerable to even more abuse from him and possibly murder. “Shayda” doesn’t try to oversimplify these very complicated issues.

The admirable performances of Ebrahimi and Zahednia as Shayda and Mona are at the heart of this tension-filled movie. The other cast members also play their roles quite well. The story takes place during Nowruz, the two-week celebration of the Persian New Year. However, the end of the movie shows in no uncertain terms that what Shayda and Mona experience in these two weeks will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Sony Pictures Classics released in select U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 1, 2024. “Shayda” was released in Australia on October 5, 2023.

Review: ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes,’ starring Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, An-Li Bogan, Drew Tarver, Michaela Watkins, Aisha Hinds, Rupert Friend and Nicole Byer

March 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Justice Smith and David Alan Grier in “The American Society of Magical Negroes” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“The American Society of Magical Negroes”

Directed by Kobi Libii

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles (and briefly in New York City), the comedy/drama film “The American Society of Magical Negroes” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and a few Asian and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A struggling artist is recruited to work for the secretive American Society of Magical Negroes, whose purpose is to make white people comfortable, in order to prevent black people from getting harassed and killed.

Culture Audience: “The American Society of Magical Negroes” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching inept and boring racial satires.

An-Li Bogan and Justice Smith in “The American Society of Magical Negroes” (Photo by Tobin Yelland/Focus Features)

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” could have been a clever and incisive comedy/drama about how racial stereotypes on screen can affect people in real life. Unfortunately, this dull and mishandled racial satire has bland characters, a weak story and stale jokes that repeatedly miss the mark. This terrible misfire also fails at spoofing romantic comedies.

Writer/director Kobi Libii makes his feature-film debut with “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” which had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” squanders the talent of its impressive cast by putting them in a movie that is as timid and insecure as its lead character. A movie poking fun at racial stereotypes needs to be bold and self-assured in what it has to say, instead of lazily filling up the story with derivative and unfunny scenes that have nothing interesting to say. Many of the movie’s cast members who are supposed to have chemistry with each other don’t have any believable chemistry, resulting in too many awkwardly acted scenes. That’s mostly the fault of the director and anyone else who made the casting decisions.

In “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” Aren Mbado (played by Justice Smith) is a 27-year-old struggling artist who is based in Los Angeles. Aren’s specialty is making sculptures out of yarn. The movie’s first scene shows Aren at an art gallery exhibiting his work. At this gallery event, there are hardly any buyers. The spectators don’t seem to understand Aren’s art. It doesn’t help that constantly stammering Aren has trouble articulating to people what his art is all about.

Aren (who is African American) experiences a racial microaggression when a white male attendee (played by James Welch) mistakenly assumes that Aren is a waiter, not the artist whose art is on display. Gallery owner Andrea (played by Gillian Vigman) notices this insult and tells Aren, “If you don’t stick up for your art, I can’t do it for you.” Because the exhibit is a sales flop, Andrea also threatens to cancel Aren’s exhibit before the end of its scheduled run. Aren begs Andrea not to cancel because he says he spent more than $3,000 on yarn and can’t afford any more.

Aren (who is a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design) didn’t think his life would turn out this way. Aren is nearly broke, and he has no other job prospects. He doesn’t want to do work that doesn’t involve his artistic skills. Someone who is quietly observing Aren at the gallery is a bartender, who is also African American. The bartender will eventually introduce himself to Aren and reveal why he has been watching Aren.

After leaving the event, Aren goes to an outdoor ATM in a dark alley and sees he only has $17.31 in his bank account, which is below the minimum ATM withdrawal of $20. A young white woman named Lacey (played by Mia Ford) walks up to the ATM to make a transaction, but she’s having trouble using her ATM card. She asks Aren to help her. It turns into a very clumsily written scene of Lacey loudly accusing Aren of trying to steal her ATM card.

Just at that moment, two young white men named Brad (played by Eric Lutz) and Ryan (played by Kees DeVos) happen to be walking by and they come to the “rescue” of Lacey, as Aren vehemently denies that he was doing anything wrong. It’s supposed to be the movie’s way of showing a “Karen” incident, where a white woman wrongfully accuses a person of color (usually someone black) of a crime, and the white woman is automatically believed.

Just as it looks like there might be an altercation and police might be called, someone comes to Aren’s rescue: the bartender from the gallery event. He had been secretly following Aren and now is able to smooth-talk Lacey, Brad and Ryan, by showing them it was all a misunderstanding. As a way to placate them, this mysterious stranger starts talking about how great the neighborhood is and recommends that they go to his favorite barbecue restaurant nearby. Lacey, Brad and Ryan then amicably leave.

Aren thanks the stranger, who then reveals who he is and why he is there. He says his name is Roger (played by David Alan Grier), and he is a recruiter for the American Society of Magical Negroes, a secret group of black people whose purpose is to make white people comfortable and less likely to cause harm to black people. As Roger says to Aren, the “most dangerous animal” on Earth is “a white person who is uncomfortable,” especially around black people. Roger also says that “officially,” the society is a “client services industry.” But “unofficially, we’re saving the damn world.”

Roger tells Aren that Aren seems to have the qualities to be an ideal member of the American Society of Magical Negroes. Aren has to go through a vetting process first. Aren is very skeptical about what Roger is saying, until Roger teleports them to the headquarters of the American Society of Magical Negroes, which looks a lot like an African American version of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the “Harry Potter” book/movie series.

In real life, the term “magical Negro” was invented by filmmaker Spike Lee as a way to describe a black character whose main purpose is to help and uplift the central white character in a story. This “magical Negro” usually has extraordinary abilities that are implemented to make the white protagonist’s life better. Some examples include the characters played by Will Smith in 2000’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and 2005’s “Hitch”; Whoopi Goldberg in 1990’s “Ghost”; and Michael Clarke Duncan in 1999’s “The Green Mile.”

At the American Society of Magical Negroes, the recruits are told that their white clients don’t know and aren’t supposed to know that they are clients. The recruits are taught what a “magical Negro” is supposed to do and are shown hologram-like examples, which are usually not-very-funny scenes of black men being subservient and fawning to white men. Oddly, and with no explanation, the movie has multiple scenes of black men grabbing white men’s crotches in these “magical Negro” scenes. There’s also a magical amulet that is used to gauge the level of “white tears” that a white person has, in order to determine how likely the white person will cause a racist incident that will make the white person look sympathetic.

The main teacher for these classes is a stern instructor named Gabbard (played by Aisha Hinds), while the society’s president is a wizard-like character named Dede Booker (played by Nicole Byer), who looks and acts like a low-rent fortune teller. Gabbard says of white people: “The happier they are, the safer we are.” Roger tells Aren: “White discomfort is your nemesis.” The number-one rule for the American Society of Magical Negroes is to keep the client happy.

One of the reasons why “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is so poorly written is that it never really shows why Aren is an ideal candidate for this group. The opening scene at the gallery is supposed to be the movie’s questionable “proof” that Aren would be perfect for this “magical Negro” job. But all the scene really shows is that Aren is a sad sack who’s terrible at selling his art. Nothing about Aren’s family background or social life is shown or explained, except a brief mention that his father is black and his mother is white.

The recruits for “The American Society of Magical Negroes” are told that if at any time, they show negative emotions to the white people who are assigned to them, then they will be expelled from the society and lose their magical powers. It’s supposed to mean that these expelled people will be more vulnerable to getting racist harm from white people. Dede tells the recruits that black people who aren’t part of the American Society of Magical Negroes will have a shorter life expectancy. It’s a faulty concept from the start, because racist harm can happen under a variety of circumstances, no matter how nice people are to the racists who want to harm them.

During a break from these training sessions, Aren goes to a coffee shop, where he accidently bumps into a woman in her 20s, and her coffee spills all over her clothes. They exchange banter in a “meet cute” conversation, where Aren tries to deny that he’s flirting with her, and they both try to act like they aren’t immediately attracted to each other, even though it’s obvious that they are. And then, Aren suddenly leaves without getting her name. You know where all of this is going, of course.

Aren needs the money that this “magical Negro” job is offering, so he agrees to be part of the tryout process, with Roger as Aren’s wryly observing mentor. One of these tests involves (not surprisingly) a white male cop named Officer Miller (played by Tim Baltz), who feels easily threatened in the presence of black men. It leads to some moronic, time-wasting scenes where Officer Miller needs help with masculine confidence, including being able to gain entrance into an exclusive, trendy nightclub.

When Aren passes the necessary tests, he becomes an official member of the Society of Magical Negroes. Aren is then assigned his first client: a design engineer named Jason (played by Drew Tarver) at a social media company called Meetbox, which is obviously a parody of Facebook. Aren magically gets a job at Meetbox as a graphic designer who happens to have his desk workspace right next to Jason’s desk workspace.

Almost everyone at Meetbox doesn’t seem like a real person but is portrayed in the movie as a stereotype. Jason is a tech dweeb with mediocre talent and almost no charisma, but the movie makes several un-subtle points that Jason is perceived as better than he really is, just because Jason is a white male. Jason has an attractive co-worker named Lizzie (played by An-Li Bogan), who just happens to be the same woman who met Aren at the coffee shop. More awkward conversations ensue.

The founder/CEO of Meetbox is an egotistical Brit named Mick (played by Rupert Friend), while the immediate supervisor of Lizzie, Jason and Aren is prickly Linda Masterson (played by Michaela Watkins), who cares more about being a sycophant to Mick than being a good boss. Meetbox gets embroiled in a racial scandal when people in Ghana get rejected from joining Meetbox because Meetbox’s facial recognition technology gives preference to white people. The movie never explains why only Ghana has this problem, as if black people only live in Ghana.

Several situations occur that show how Jason is unaware of how his white male privilege gives him advantages. Jason feels entitled to being thought of as superior to a more talented co-worker such as Lizzie, who wants the same job promotion that Jason wants. The movie shows that Linda is part of the problem too, since she uses coded terms such as Jason is a “better fit” than Lizzie to give an important presentation for an idea that came from Lizzie. Jason has no qualms about being unfairly chosen to lead this presentation.

Not surprisingly, Jason shows a romantic interest in Lizzie. Much of the movie is about a love triangle where “magical Negro” Aren isn’t supposed to let Jason know that he’s also interested in dating Lizzie. It all becomes so tiresome and tedious, because a lot of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios have no wit or charm.

Lizzie’s racial identity is not mentioned in the movie, except for Jason calling Lizzie “ethnic.” However, actress Bogan’s ethnicity in the movie’s production notes is described as Taiwanese/Irish. If “The American Society of Magical Negroes” really wanted to have more edge to its limp satire, it would’ve made the Lizzie character unambiguously white, in order to increase the racial tension between Aren and Jason.

It should come as no surprise that “The American Society of Magical Negroes” makes Jason a racist who doesn’t think that he’s racist. You can do a countdown to the “big racial confrontation” scene where someone goes on a rant about racism, as white people in the room get uncomfortable and try to deny racism. This scene falls flat, because Aren still ends up being sheepish and apologetic.

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” then goes off the rails into fantasy with teleporting scenes, as it seems to forget all about the movie’s original concept, and then takes a silly detour into wrapping up the conflicts over the love triangle. The performances in the movie aren’t terrible, but they aren’t impressive either, mainly because the writing and directing are so substandard. A “twist” at the end is an underwhelming commentary on sexist stereotypes. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” wants to tell some hard truths about racism, but the movie’s approach is woefully inadequate and lacking in credibility.

Focus Features released “The American Society of Magical Negroes” in U.S. cinemas on March 15, 2024.

Review: ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ (2024), starring Kristen Stewart, Katy O’Brian, Jena Malone, Anna Baryshnikov, Dave Franco and Ed Harris

March 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart in “Love Lies Bleeding” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Love Lies Bleeding” (2024)

Directed by Rose Glass

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in New Mexico (and briefly in Las Vegas), the dramatic film “Love Lies Bleeding” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A gym employee and an aspiring professional bodybuilder meet, fall in love, and get involve in deadly criminal activities. 

Culture Audience: “Love Lies Bleeding” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Kristen Stewart and intense movies about outlaw lovers.

Ed Harris in “Love Lies Bleeding” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Gritty and suspenseful, “Love Lies Bleeding” is a rollercoaster ride of a crime drama that has unexpected moments of fantasy and horror, along with a co-dependent love story between two women. The outcome of this love story is intended to be as impactful as the results of all the murder and mayhem that take place in this intense thriller. It’s a well-acted and artfully made film about desperation, revenge and the lengths that people will go to in order to fulfill ambitions or protect loved ones.

Directed by Rose Glass, “Love Lies Bleeding” was co-written by Glass and Weronika Tofilska. The movie had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. “Love Lies Bleeding” is the second feature film from Glass, who made her feature-film directorial debut with the 2020 horror movie “Saint Maud,” a story about a fanatically religious and mentally ill woman.

There are some elements in “Love Lies Bleeding” that are similar to “Saint Maud,” particularly when twisted horror-like hallucinations of a main character seem to come to life. However, both movies are very different from each other overall. “Love Lies Bleeding” is not for people who are easily offended by bloody gore or explicit sexual content. “Love Lies Bleeding” is an above-average noir thriller that brings some unique twists to what’s usually seen in movies about outlaw lovers.

“Love Lies Bleeding” takes place in 1988, mostly in an unnamed small city in New Mexico, where the movie was filmed. The movie’s opening scene is at a grungy local fitness studio called Crater Gym, where gym employee Louise “Lou” Langston (played by Kristen Stewart) does menial tasks, such as attending to customers and doing janitorial duties. A co-worker named Daisy (played by Anna Baryshnikov) has an obvious crush on Lou and tries to get Lou to go on a date with her, but Lou politely rejects Daisy’s advances.

Lou, who is in her early 30s, is an introverted loner who is a chronic smoker and lives with a cat. She’s the type of person who will listen to anti-smoking audio recordings, perhaps as a way to try to quit smoking or as an ironic way of rebelling against what the recordings are saying. During the course of the movie, more of Lou’s background and her family are revealed.

Lou’s father Lou Langston (played by Ed Harris), also known as Lou Sr., is a scummy and ruthless crime lord who lives in a mansion and owns a gun club as a way to launder money. Lou’s mother has been missing for the past 12 years. Lou won’t come right out and admit it, but she’s pretty sure that her mother is dead, and she suspects her father had something to do with this disappearance. Lou is estranged from her father for this reason and many other reasons.

Lou is closest to her older sister Beth (played by Jena Malone), a married mother of three sons. Lou despises Beth’s husband JJ (played by Dave Franco), because JJ is very abusive (physically and emotionally) to Beth, who won’t get help for this problem out of fear and loyalty to JJ. JJ works at Lou Sr.’s gun club and is involved in Lou Sr.’s criminal activities.

One day, a stranger comes to town who will capture Lou’s attention and Lou’s heart. Her name is Jackie (played by Katy O’Brian), an aspiring professional bodybuilder, who has arrived from Oklahoma. Jackie, who is also in her 30s, is passing through New Mexico on the way to a bodybuilder competition in Las Vegas. She visits Crater Gym to work out. And it’s at Crater Gym where Lou first sees Jackie and has an instant attraction to her.

Before Lou and Jackie meet, Jackie has a sexual hookup with JJ in his car because she heard that JJ works at a gun club and hopes that he can help her get a job there. Sure enough, after their sexual encounter, when Jackie asks JJ if there are any job openings where he works, he gives her a business card and says yes and tells her that he’ll put in a good word for her. At the gun club, JJ introduces Jackie to Lou Sr., who hires her as a waitress, because she says she doesn’t like being around guns.

Shortly after Lou and Jackie meet and flirt with each other at the gym, they become lovers. Jackie soon shows herself to be a skilled hustler, because she charms Lou into letting Jackie temporarily live with Lou until Jackie goes to Las Vegas. Lou is not happy at all when she finds out that Jackie is working at the gun club. She comes right out and tells Lou that Lou’s father is a “psycho,” but she says that Jackie is free to work wherever she wants.

Jackie tells Lou a little bit about her background. Jackie says she was adopted at age 13, and she used to be a “fat kid,” who was bullied. Jackie also hints that she is estranged from her family when she says she doesn’t really have anyone who supports her bodybuilder dreams—a fact confirmed in a later scene when Jackie calls her adoptive mother. More details eventually emerge about Jackie’s troubled past.

Lou finds out that Jackie and JJ hooked up after JJ tells Lou about it during an argument that he has with Lou. When Lou angrily confronts Jackie about it, Jackie (who says she is bisexual) admits to hooking up with JJ. Jackie is able to smooth things over with Lou, because Jackie says that the sex with JJ was meaningless and only happened because she used JJ to get a job. Jackie also reminds Lou that she hooked up with JJ before Jackie met Lou.

Even though Lou is a quiet introvert and Jackie is a talkative extrovert, they both know without saying it out loud that they are both emotionally damaged from family problems. It’s a big reason why they are attracted to each other but also why they develop a dangerous co-dependent relationship. Soon after they become lovers, Lou offers Jackie free steroids, which Jackie is reluctant to take, but she gives in to Lou’s pressure to let Lou inject Jackie with the steroids. Jackie then becomes hooked on using steroids.

It’s hinted that Jackie’s steroid abuse could be the cause of Jackie’s hallucinations where her muscles become abnormally enlarged and she sees herself as turning into the size of the Incredible Hulk. There are other hallucinations she has that are pure grotesque horror. But observant viewers will notice that Jackie’s steroid abuse might not be the only reason for her delusions, as she appears to have some type of undiagnosed mental illness.

It’s enough to say that Jackie and Lou get caught up in murder and desperate cover-ups. Even before this happened, Lou was already on edge because two FBI agents working together—one named William O’Riley (played by Orion Carrington) and one named Dave (played by Matthew Blood-Smyth)—have her under surveillance. FBI agent O’Riley approaches Lou at the gym to question her about her father and her mother. Lou says she no longer speaks to her father and has no information about where her mother is.

“Love Lies Bleeding” has a lot of familiar storytelling about crime, betrayals and revenge. However, it’s not very often that these stories are told in movies from the perspectives of queer women characters, one of whom happens to be a bodybuilder. Lou and Jackie go to many extremes out of an underlying desperation and unhappiness that they have about their lives. There are clues about this discontent throughout the movie, such as when Lou seems to enviously admire Jackie for traveling to Las Vegas by herself, because Lou has never been anywhere outside of her small city. Jackie has convinced herself that becoming a rich and famous bodybuilder will make her own life happy and fulfilled.

Stewart has made a career out of playing fidgety and insecure characters. She gives one of her better performances as this type of character in “Love Lies Bleeding.” O’Brian has the harder and more complex role as Jackie, who will keep viewers guessing about how “good” or “bad” Jackie really is. Harris, Franco and Malone handle their roles capably, although their respective characters in “Love Lies Bleeding” are not very well-developed. Baryshnikov doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she skillfully portrays Daisy, who is not as ditsy as she first appears to be.

“Love Lies Bleeding” has a few things that require suspension of disbelief. For example, if Lou Sr. is such a powerful crime lord, then there would be more than just two FBI agents snooping around. But this factual flaw can be overlooked because “Love Lies Bleeding” is a low-budget movie and the story is focused more on the relationship between Lou and Jackie than on any law enforcement investigating any crimes. “Love Lies Bleeding” doesn’t pass judgment on all the awful and cruel things that happen in the movie, but instead invites viewers to ponder if all of this destruction is worth it in the name of love.

A24 released “Love Lies Bleeding” in select U.S. cinemas on March 8, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 15, 2024.

Review: ‘Sometimes I Think About Dying’ (2024), starring Daisy Ridley, Dave Merheje, Parvesh Cheena and Marcia DeBonis

January 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Daisy Ridley in “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” (2024)

Directed by Rachel Lambert

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon, the dramatic film “Sometimes I Thing About Dying” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A very introverted woman with an almost non-existent social life has to decide how much she will open herself up to love when a co-worker begins courting her.

Culture Audience: “Sometimes I Think About Dying” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Daisy Ridley and low-key, independent films that have observations about loneliness and personality disorders.

Dave Merheje and Daisy Ridley in “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” is a unique portrait of social anxiety and depression. This quiet and slow-paced drama won’t appeal to everyone. However, viewers with the patience to watch the entire movie will see an interesting awakening in the painfully shy protagonist, who has to learn to get out of her head and experience more of life.

Directed by Rachel Lambert, “Sometimes I Think About Dying” is based on the 2019 short film of the same name. Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Kevin Armento and Katy Wright-Mead wrote the screenplays for both movies, but Horowitz directed the short film. The feature-length version of “Sometimes I Think About Dying” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The movie was filmed in Oregon and the city of Longview, Washington.

In the feature-length “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Oregon), the central character is Fran Larsen (played by Daisy Ridley), a depressed introvert whose life is a bland routine. Fran, who is in her late 20s, works at her office for a small business called CB Port Authority. Fran does administrative work (whatever she does in her job, she uses a lot of spreadsheets) in a non-descript cubicle. There are less than 15 people who work in this office. After her work shift, Fran usually just goes home to her modest house and doesn’t communicate with anyone.

Fran has a secret interior life where she thinks about scenarios in which she is dying or is already dead. The movie is punctuated with glimpses of these morbid fantasies. In one scenario, a snake is on the floor in the office, with Fran’s back to the snake, as if she’s unaware that the snake could pounce at any moment. In another scenario, Fran is a corpse on a beach. In another scenario, she’s dead in a wooded area.

Fran is very shy and keeps mostly to herself at work. In the beginning of the movie, a co-worker named Carol (played by Marcia DeBonis) is retiring, so the co-workers have gathered in the break room for Carol’s going-away party. Carol gives away some of her office supplies and says in a gloating voice, “I’m going on a cruise!” In a retirement greeting card signed by all the co-workers, Fran’s written message inside the card is a very basic “Happy retirement.”

Other people who work in the office are cheerful supervisor Isobel (played by Megan Stalter), nerdy Sean (played by Sean Tarjyoto), eccentric Doug (played by Jeb Berrier), self-assured Garrett (played by Parvesh Cheena) and eager intern Sophie (played by Brittany O’Grady). After Carol now longer works at the company, the dynamics in the office change with the arrival of Robert (played by Dave Merheje), who is Carol’s replacement.

Robert, who is in his late 30s or early 40s, seems to be almost immediately attracted to Fran, who is slow to pick up the social cues that Robert wants to start a conversation to get to know her better. In text messages, Robert asks Fran some questions about office supplies. He confesses that he’s never had a job before. Most people would be curious to know why, but Fran doesn’t ask.

Eventually, Robert establishes a little bit of rapport with Fran when they find out that they both like cottage cheese. Fran shows she can be nitpicky when she corrects Robert and says that cottage cheese is technically not cheese. “It’s a curd. I Googled it,” she states matter-of-factly.

Robert asks Fran out on a date. She says yes. Robert and Fran see a movie and then have dinner on this first date. Over dinner at a restaurant, Robert says he’s a big fan of movies, and he liked the film that they saw. Fran admits she didn’t like the film.

The waitress who serves them at the restaurant is named Amelia. She invites Robert and Fran to a small get-together that she has on Saturdays. It turns out to be a murder mystery game, which is somewhat ironic because Fran spends a lot of time thinking about herself dying in gruesome ways.

It’s very difficult for Fran to open up about herself to anyone. The most that she will tell Robert is that she grew up in Hawaii, she likes to cook, and she’s never been in love. Meanwhile, Robert tells her that he’s been divorced twice and that he hasn’t figured out marriage yet.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” doesn’t have a big, sweeping plot. There are several scenes in the movie that show how isolated Fran is when she’s at home. And even when she’s with people (such as in her office job), she still seems very alone because she’s lost in her thoughts and not sociable. She’s not rude, but she doesn’t seek out people’s company, and she rarely initiates conversations with other people.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” does not follow a predictable formula that’s usually in movies about lonely single people, so this film will simply be too boring for some viewers. However, Ridley gives a very good depiction of how people who feel invisible (by choice or by circumstance) often behave. This is not a typical story where someone is going to swoop in and “rescue” Fran from her social anxiety. Instead, the movie excels at showing in nuanced ways how human connections can be terrifying to people who are also afraid to confront their own insecurities.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Sometimes I Think About Dying” in select U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Eileen’ (2023), starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland and Owen Teague

December 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie in “Eileen” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Eileen” (2023)

Directed by William Oldroyd

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1964 in an unnamed city in Massachusetts, the dramatic film “Eileen” (based on the 2015 novel of the same film) features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A shy administrative assistant at a juvenile detention center becomes enamored with a newly hired psychiatrist at the same job, and the two women do their own kind of pushback on what society expects from women. 

Culture Audience: “Eileen” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, the book on which the movie is based, and movies about repression and mental illness that take an unexpected turn.

Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway in “Eileen” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Much like the movie’s namesake, “Eileen” appears to be going one way and then goes in a very different direction. The cast members’ intriguing performances are the main reason to watch this psychological drama, which takes a very dark turn near the end. The movie is weakened by a vague ending that doesn’t give the closure and answers that were given in the book.

Directed by William Oldroyd, “Eileen” is based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel of the same name. Moshfegh and Luke Goebel co-wrote the adapted screenplay for “Eileen.” The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

“Eileen” takes place during a bitterly cold winter in 1964, in an unnamed Massachusetts city not far from Boston. (“Eileen” was actually filmed in New York and New Jersey.) Eileen Dunlop (played by Thomasin McKenzie) is a 24-year-old bachelorette, who lives a dreary existence with her alcoholic, widower father Jim Dunlop (played by Shea Whigham), who is a former police chief. In addition to his alcoholism, there are indications that Jim has an undiagnosed mental illness.

Jim is verbally and physically abusive to Eileen, who is miserable living with her father, but she can’t afford to move out of the house. Eileen doesn’t report the abuse because she knows that Jim still has friends in the local police force. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Eileen has a co-dependent, love/hate relationship with her father. She hates his abuse, but she also wants to feel needed, because he depends on her to take care of him.

Eileen has an older sister named Joanne, who is married and hasn’t come by to visit in quite some time. Jim tells Eileen in no uncertain terms that Joanne is his favorite child. During one of Jim’s many drunken rants, he tells Eileen that he wishes that Eileen were as organized as Joanne is. There are hints that Jim probably sexually abused Joanne as a child, which would explain why Joanne is keeping her distance from him as an adult.

For the past three or four years, Eileen has been working as a secretary/administrative assistant at Moorehead, a boys’ juvenile detention center, which is essentially a prison. It’s mentioned at one point in the movie that Eileen is a college dropout. At her job, Eileen isn’t very well-liked by the other secretaries in the office, because she’s quiet and keeps mostly to herself. Mrs. Murray (played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan) and Mrs. Stevens (played by Tonye Patano) are the two of the nosy co-workers who speak in gossipy and condescending tones to Eileen.

The beginning of the movie shows that Eileen is very introverted, but she’s not as prim and proper as she appears to the outside world. Eileen is kind of a kinky voyeur: She puts ice down her underwear after watching a couple’s makeout session in a nearby parked car. Eileen’s love life is non-existent, but she has vivid sexual fantasies about having sex with a Moorehead guard named Randy (played by Owen Teague), who’s about the same age as Eileen.

However, someone else on the job arouses Eileen’s sexual interest even more than Randy. Her name is Rebecca St. John (played by Anne Hathaway), who is Moorehead’s newly hired prison psychologist. Eileen is entranced with Rebecca from the moment that she meets this new co-worker. Rebecca, who is originally from New York City, looks and acts more like a glamorous movie star than a psychologist.

At one point, Rebecca tells Eileen that although she’s had plenty of boyfriends, she’s never been married. Rebecca says her dating relationships are “just for fun” and never last. Rebecca comes across as a progressive (she believes that psychedelic drugs should be used as therapy) and independent (she say she loves living by herself), which is the opposite of the conservative and stifling lifestyle that Eileen feels she is being pressured to live.

Eileen is infatuated with Rebecca’s sophisticated ways and seems to be fascinated with everything that Rebecca does. Rebecca notices this admiration and makes an effort to befriend Eileen, who is very flattered by the attention and the compliments that she gets from Rebecca. It’s obvious that Eileen wants her relationship with Rebecca to be more than a friendship, but does Rebecca feels the same way?

One day, Eileen notices Rebecca having a counseling session with an inmate named Lee Polk (played by Sam Nivola) and his mother, who is identified in the movie only as Mrs. Polk (played by Marin Ireland). Lee is in prison for murdering his father by stabbing him to death in the father’s bed. The father was a police officer who worked in the same police department as Eileen’s father Jim.

Eileen can see the counseling session through glass windows, but she can’t hear what’s being said behind closed doors. However, Eileen knows that the session ended badly because Mrs. Polk storms out and shouts, “Filthy, nasty boy!” Meanwhile, Lee smirks in reaction to seeing his mother upset.

Shortly after the session ends, Rebecca asks Eileen if she thinks Mrs. Polk is an angry woman. Eileen doesn’t know enough about Mrs. Polk to give an opinion either way. However, Eileen tells Rebecca that she thinks Lee is intelligent and that he doesn’t seem like the type to be a cold-blooded murderer.

A turning point in Eileen’s relationship with Rebecca happens when Rebecca asks Eileen to go with her to a local bar. Rebecca says it’s because she’s new to the area and wants to meet more new people. But as far as Eileen is concerned (based on how excitedly she gets ready for this meet-up), Rebecca has asked her on a date. At the bar, Rebecca will only dance with Eileen and literally shoves a man away who tries to cut in on Rebecca and Eileen dancing together.

One of the strengths of “Eileen” is how all of the principal cast members make their characters very believable. Even when not much is happening in certain scenes, the performances of McKenzie and Hathaway make viewers wonder what Eileen and Rebecca might be really thinking, compared to what they’re saying out loud. That’s an example of the compelling acting in this movie.

Viewers who don’t know what’s in the “Eileen” book or don’t know what happens in the last third of the movie probably won’t see the plot twist coming. The “Eileen” book is told from the perspective of a middle-aged Eileen looking back on her life. The “Eileen” movie does not give that retrospective context and therefore brings up questions that remain unanswered by the end of the film. However, the movie has an impeccable buildup to its most suspenseful moments, even if the ending won’t be as satisfying as some viewers hope it will be.

Neon released “Eileen” in select U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

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