Review: ‘Swan Song’ (2021), starring Mahershala Ali

January 1, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mahershala Ali in “Swan Song” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Swan Song” (2021)

Directed by Benjamin Cleary

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi drama film “Swan Song” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with a some white people, Asians and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A graphic designer, who is dying from an unnamed illness, keeps it a secret from his family and secretly arranges for a clone to replace him. 

Culture Audience: “Swan Song” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Mahershala Ali and will appeal to people who are interested in to seeing well-acted, emotionally heavy movies about how people might prepare for death.

Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in “Swan Song” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The sci-fi drama “Swan Song” is a somber and slow-paced film that viewers have to be in the right frame of mind to see. It’s a very well-acted film that handles its subject matter with sensitivity, but it should be avoided if you’re not in the mood to see a movie about terminal illness and death. The second half of the movie is much better than the first half, which has some pacing issues and takes a little long to get to the heart of the story. “Swan Song” viewers also must have patience with movies that tell stories in a non-linear, non-chronological way.

Written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, “Swan Song” does a lot with the relatively small number of people in the cast. The movie is set in an unspecified year in the future, in an unnamed U.S. city. A graphic designer named Cameron has recently found out that he’s dying from an illness, which is also not named in the movie. The only clue to what this illness might be is that it causes deterioration of the brain.

Cameron is married to a loving and loyal wife named Poppy (played by Naomie Harris), a British immigrant who works as a school teacher for children with learning disabilities. Poppy uses music therapy for her students and composes and sings a lot of the music for this therapy. Cameron and Poppy have a bright and energetic son named Cory (played by Dax Rey), who is 8 years old.

Cameron is the more introverted spouse in the marriage, while Poppy is more of an extrovert. These personality differences are reflected in what Cameron and Poppy chose for their respective careers. When the movie does show Cameron do anything related to his graphic designer job, he’s by himself, with any outside communication done electronically.

Because a great deal of “Swan Song” is shown in flashbacks (including the movie’s opening scene), this is not a movie that people should watch while being distracted by other things. There are subtle clues that can be picked up when people watch this movie with their full attention. These nuances can lead to greater appreciation of “Swan Song,” which might bore some viewers who are expecting more action.

Cameron hasn’t told his family that he doesn’t have much longer to live. That’s because he’s secretly decided to sign up for a relatively new scientific experiment from a company called Arra, which lets terminally ill people agree to have replacement clones made of themselves. (In this story, a human clone is sometimes called a “regeneration.”) As part of the contract with Arra, the terminally ill people who agree to be replaced by clones have to keep this decision a secret from everyone they know except for Arra employees.

Cameron’s clone is temporarily named Jack (also played by Ali), who not only has a replica of Cameron’s DNA but he also has a full transfer of Cameron’s memories, including subconscious memories. The only physical difference between Cameron and his clone is that the clone is given a small mole on the inside of his hand, so that the Arra staffers can tell the difference between the real Cameron and his clone. Clones are able to mimic human emotions, based on the clone’s implanted memories.

There’s a transition period when the terminally ill person and the assigned clone get to know each other. After this transition period, the clone officially replaces the terminally ill person when the clone starts to live its replacement’s life, and the clone’s memory of being a clone is permanently erased. The terminally ill person than lives at Arra headquarters until death comes.

“Swan Song” goes back and forth between Cameron’s ambivalence over wanting a clone to take over his life and flashbacks to what Cameron’s life was like before he knew that he was dying. In order to prepare for the clone to take over his life, Cameron has to spend time at Arra’s headquarters, which are designed to look like an upscale retreat. Cameron tells Poppy that he’s away on business to explain his absence from home.

Dr. Jo Scott (played by Glenn Close) leads Arra’s cloning project, and she’s determined to make it a success. She has only two human subordinates working with her: a technician named Rafa (played by Lee Shorten) and a psychologist/head technician named Dalton (played by Adam Beach). As Dr. Scott explains to Cameron, the rest of the staffing duties are done by artificial intelligence technology that she says can do the work of abut 50 humans.

Dr. Scott also tells Cameron, when he asks, that he’s only the third human who’s going through Arra’s clone replacement process. She has no ethical qualms about human cloning. “It’ll be as common as heart transplants, in a few years,” Dr. Scott confidently predicts to Cameron. Dr. Scott also keeps a tight reign on Arra’s secret cloning. When Cameron says he wants to tell his family about it, she’s quick to remind him that he signed a contract and that he will “lose the opportunity” if he tells anyone that he arranged to have a replacement clone.

During his stay at Arra headquarters, Cameron meets another terminally ill person named Kate (played by Awkwafina), whose clone has been out in the world for about 42 days when Cameron and Kate first meet. Dr. Scott says that Cameron should also meet Kate’s clone, so that Cameron can see how it’s nearly impossible to tell a clone from a real human being. Cameron goes to Kate’s job (she’s a real estate agent), where he meets Kate’s clone and Kate’s daughter Sammy (played by Mikayla Lagman), who’s about 10 or 11 years old. Sammy has no idea that Kate has been replaced by a clone. The experience of meeting a clone in the real world somewhat unnerves Cameron, who starts to doubt if he made the right decision.

Kate also has mixed emotions about seeing how her family and other loved ones were easily fooled into believing the clone is the real Kate. On the one hand, Kate says that “my guilt faded pretty quick” after she saw how her family wouldn’t have to worry if they knew the truth about Kate being terminally ill. On the other hand, it’s unsettling and sad for Kate to see a clone take over her life while Kate is still alive. Cameron will also go through the same mixed feelings, which Ali conveys with as much skill as a great actor can have when depicting an introvert.

There are additional reasons for why Cameron wants to keep his cloning decision a secret from his loved ones. Poppy is two months pregnant with their second child. And a few years earlier, Poppy’s twin brother Andre (played by Nyasha Hatendi) died in a motorcycle accident. Poppy went into a deep depression, where she could barely leave the house “for a better part of a year,” as Cameron tells Kate.

Poppy is in therapy over her grief. By contrast, Cameron has never been in therapy. Cameron doesn’t want to add to Poppy’s grief by telling her that he’s dying. Cameron also doesn’t want their unborn child and Cory to grow up without a father. Cameron’s own family history is barely mentioned, except when he tells Dr. Scott that his parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and he was raised by his mother. It might explain any extra motivation that Cameron has to make sure that his children have a father in their lives.

Before Cameron found out that he was terminally ill, he and Poppy hit somewhat of a rough patch in their marriage, where they seemed to be drifting apart. In a private conversation between Poppy and Cameron, she tells him that’s she convinced that her unexpected pregnancy with their second child is a sign that the child will be good for their marriage. Cameron seems to agree, but his terminal illness diagnosis has permanently altered those plans, because it’s very likely that Cameron won’t live to see the birth of this child.

Flashbacks show how Cameron and Poppy met: They were both commuter train passengers sharing the same table. They both ordered the same chocolate bar, but when Poppy started eating the chocolate, Cameron mistakenly thought that she was eating his chocolate bar, but they ended up sharing it anyway. It became an endearing joke between them.

Other flashbacks show their courtship, marriage, parenthood, and how Andre was a close member of their family. (Ace LeVere portrays Cory at age 2. Aiden Adejuwon plays Cory at age 5.) One of these flashbacks is of a conversation between Cameron, Poppy and Andre, where Andre talks about the news that human cloning experiments were happening. Cameron seems turned-off by the idea and says that he wouldn’t want a human clone of himself. He obviously changed his mind after getting diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Ali and Harris, who co-starred in the Oscar-winning 2016 film “Moonlight,” have good chemistry together and make a believable couple. Some viewers might feel that not enough of Cameron and Poppy’s relationship is shown, since the vast majority of the relationship is presented in flashback snippets. Harris’ role as Poppy does feel a little underwritten, since she’s mostly depicted as a cheerful and upbeat wife. The depression she had over Andre’s death is not really shown, even though this depression no doubt caused some of strain in her marriage to Cameron.

“Swan Song” is also a little uneven in explaining Arra’s cloning procedures. There are some questionable decisions in the process that no self-respecting psychologist/psychiatrist would recommend. For example, terminally ill humans are allowed to see how their clones interact with loved ones as the humans’ replacements. The clones are equipped with contact lenses that are linked to live video monitors that can be watched at Arra headquarters by the scientists and the human who’s being replaced. If there are no problems in the trial run, the clone’s memory is then erased about being a clone, and the clone will then move on to living life as the human’s replacement.

“Swan Song” doesn’t do a very adequate job of explaining why these scientists would want terminally ill people to see clones completely replacing these humans without the humans’ loved ones knowing, when the psychological effects would be too risky. Some terminally ill people might feel comforted at seeing their replacement clones take over their lives. However, most terminally ill people would probably feel disturbed by seeing a clone living the life that the humans want to have.

After Jack the clone (before he officially becomes Cameron) is sent to live with Poppy and Cory for this trial run, Cameron sees how Jack is interacting with his family. Cameron reacts exactly how you would expect him to react. It leads to a certain confrontation that affects Cameron’s decisions for the rest of the story.

“Swan Song” (whose futuristic cinematography is awash in a lot of gray and blue) doesn’t hit its best stride until the last 20 minutes of the movie, when Cameron makes a pivotal decision that affects his journey. Ali has his most impactful “Swan Song” scenes in this last part of the movie. Cameron is not a naturally expressive person, so he keeps a lot of his emotions bottled inside until he can no longer ignore his feelings. “Swan Song” might be set in the future, but it effectively shows how issues about humanity and the fragility of life are timeless.

Apple TV+ released “Swan Song” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on December 17, 2021.

2021 AFI Fest: ‘Bruised,’ ‘Swan Song,’ ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’ among the world premieres

September 28, 2021

The following is a press release from AFI:

Halle Berry in “Bruised” (Photo by John Baer/Netflix)

AFI announced that FEST 2021 will include the World Premieres of Academy Award® winner Halle Berry’s directorial debut “Bruised” from Netflix and Academy Award®  winner Benjamin Cleary’s feature directorial debut “Swan Song” from Apple Original Films. Both World Premieres will screen at the film festival in-person at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre on Saturday, November 13 and Friday, November 12, respectively.

“Bruised” stars Berry as a washed-up MMA fighter who struggles for redemption as both an athlete and a mother. “Swan Song” stars two-time Oscar® winner Mahershala Ali as a man diagnosed with a terminal illness who is presented with an alternative solution by his doctor, portrayed by eight-time Oscar® nominee Glenn Close, to shield his family from grief. The film also stars Oscar® nominee Naomie Harris, BAFTA Award nominee Awkwafina and Adam Beach.

“Now more than ever it is important to lift up and shine a light on new voices and new stories that inspire empathy,” said Sarah Harris, Director of Programming at AFI Festivals. “Halle Berry and Benjamin Cleary are vital artists whose visions we are proud to celebrate at AFI FEST.”

The films join the previously announced titles which include Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard,” starring Will Smith. AFI FEST 2021 film festival takes place from November 10–14 in Los Angeles.

This year’s hybrid festival will feature both in-person screenings and events, as well as virtual screenings, showcasing transformative stories from groundbreaking artists. With health and safety being top priority, AFI FEST 2021 film festival will require all festival-goers who attend in-person events and/or screenings to be fully vaccinated. Tickets and passes will be available soon on FEST.AFI.com. AFI Members receive exclusive discounts and benefits to the festival. To become an AFI member, visit AFI.com/join/.

BECOME A MEMBER

ABOUT THE FILMS

In “Bruised,” Jackie Justice (Halle Berry) is a mixed martial arts fighter who leaves the sport in disgrace.  Down on her luck and simmering with rage and regret years after her fight, she’s coaxed into a brutal underground fight by her manager and boyfriend Desi (Adan Canto) and grabs the attention of a fight league promoter (Shamier Anderson) who promises Jackie a life back in the octagon. But the road to redemption becomes unexpectedly personal when Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.), the son she gave up as an infant, shows up at her doorstep. The film marks the directorial debut of Academy Award®  winner Halle Berry and also stars Adriane Lenox, Sheila Atim, Valentina Shevchenko and Stephen McKinley Henderson in a triumphant story of a fighter who reclaims her power, in and out of the ring, when everyone has counted her out. The film is helmed by Berry from an original screenplay written by Michelle Rosenfarb, and produced by Thunder Road Pictures, Entertainment 360 and Romulus Entertainment.

“Swan Song” is set in the near future and told through the eyes of Cameron (two-time Academy Award® winner Mahershala Ali), a loving husband and father diagnosed with a terminal illness who is presented with an alternative solution by his doctor (eight-time Academy Award® nominee Glenn Close) to shield his family from grief. As Cam grapples with whether or not to alter his family’s fate, he learns more about life and love than he ever imagined. Academy Award® nominee Naomie Harris, BAFTA winner Awkwafina and Adam Beach also star in the ensemble cast. The film is helmed by Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Benjamin Cleary (“Stutterer”), from an original screenplay written by Cleary and produced by Anonymous Content and Concordia Studio. Producers are Adam Shulman (“Defending Jacob”) and Jacob Perlin (“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary”) on behalf of Anonymous Content; Jonathan King (“Stillwater,” “Dark Waters”) on behalf of Concordia Studio; Rebecca Bourke (“Wave”); Mahershala Ali and Mimi Valdés (“Hidden Figures”) through Know Wonder.

Learn more about AFI’s annual film festival at FEST.AFI.com.

Review: ‘Swan Song’ (2021), starring Udo Kier

September 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Udo Kier in “Swan Song” (Photo by Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures)

“Swan Song” (2021)

Directed by Todd Stephens

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sandusky, Ohio, the comedy/drama film “Swan Song” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An openly gay and retired hair stylist, who has financial problems and health issues, reluctantly agrees to do the funeral hair of a deceased estranged female client (it was her dying wish), and he encounters various obstacles when he decides to walk several miles to the funeral home. 

Culture Audience: “Swan Song” will appeal primarily to people who are Udo Kier fans and anyone interested in tragicomedies that have themes of aging, LGBTQ people, and reconciling with the past.

Jennifer Coolidge and Udo Kier in “Swan Song” (Photo by Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures)

“Swan Song” (written and directed by Todd Stephens) skillfully mixes tragedy and comedy and serves it up in the delightfully sassy performance of Udo Kier. In the movie, he memorably portrays a retired hair stylist who is full of verve and defiance, despite possibly being near the end of his own life. Kier’s Pat Pitsenbarger character in the movie has serious health problems, he’s broke, and he’s all alone in the world. Pat (who was born in 1943) can be cranky and difficult, but it’s almost impossible not to be charmed by him in some way because he’s just so honest and unapologetic about who he is.

Pat (just like Kier in real life) is a German immigrant living in the United States. Pat currently lives in a nursing home in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s not stated in the movie how long Pat has been in America, but it’s at least been since the 1970s or 1980s, since he shares several memories of being part of the gay nightclub scene in America back then. Pat is still haunted by the death of his longtime love David James, a florist/landscaper who passed away of AIDS in 1995, at the age of 52. (Eric Eisenbrey portrays David in the movie’s flashbacks.)

Pat is living in a nursing home because even though he and David shared a house together, the house was in David’s name. And when David died, Pat found out that David did not have a will, and Pat had no legal right to the house as David’s domestic partner. Instead, all of David’s possessions went to David’s next of kin: a nephew who sold the house and everything in it. (The laws have since changed in several U.S. states to give rights to same-sex domestic partners when someone in the relationship is ill or deceased.)

It was around the time of David’s death that Pat’s career began to fall apart. He owned a beauty salon in Sandusky that was very successful, because the salon’s clients included all the high-society ladies in the Sandusky area. However, an employee of his named Dee Dee Dale (played by Jennifer Coolidge) betrayed Pat by opening up her own beauty salon across the street, and she lured away many of his top clients. Pat’s salon eventually went out of business, and he is still extremely bitter about it.

All of this background information isn’t revealed right away in the movie, but it explains why Pat is a curmudgeonly loner at the nursing home. His nursing home expenses are paid for by his government benefits. The only person at the nursing home whom he seem to enjoy being around is a mute, wheelchair-using resident named Gertie (played by Annie Kitral), whose long hair he loves to style on a regular basis. Pat recently had a stroke, but that doesn’t stop him from smoking cigarettes. His favorite cigarette brand is More, which is a throwback to when the brand was popular in the 1970s.

One day, Pat gets a visit from an attorney named Mr. Shanrock (played by Tom Bloom), who represents someone from Pat’s past: an actress named Rita Parker Sloan (played by Linda Evans), who was around Pat’s age and who used to be Pat’s client. However, Pat and Rita stopped speaking to each other years ago when Rita became Dee Dee’s client. Mr. Shanrock has arrived at the nursing home to tell Pat that Rita has died and she had a specific request in her will: Rita wanted Pat to be the one to do her hair and makeup for her funeral.

Rita wasn’t a superstar actress, but she was well-known enough to be considered one of Sandusky’s most famous residents. The local media outlets have reported her death as big news. And so, this funeral will be a fairly high-profile event. Pat is very surprised to hear that Rita’s dying wish was for him to do her funeral hair and makeup.

Mr. Shanrock shows Pat an obituary photo of Rita in her heyday that’s in the local newspaper and asks, “Perhaps you can recreate the same hairstyle?” Pat deadpans, “Split ends and all?” Pat immediately says no to the request, even after Mr. Shanrock offers a fee of $25,000.

Mr. Shanrock then tries to appeal to any sentimentality that Pat might have, by saying: “Let bygones be bygones, Patrick. It’s not healthy to hold a grudge. You would deny a great woman her dying wish?” Pat is unmoved and says flatly, “Bury her with bad hair.”

After Mr. Shanrock leaves in disappointment, Pat takes out a hat box that is filled with his personal mementos. He looks through photos of David and other items from Pat’s past. This trip down memory lane seems to have softened his attitude toward his falling out with Rita, because he changes his mind and decides that he’s going to do Rita’s funeral hair and makeup after all.

The problem is that Pat (who doesn’t have a car) is so broke, he can’t even afford to take a taxi or rideshare to the funeral home. He’s too proud to ask anyone he knows for a free ride. And he doesn’t have the money to get the specific high-end beauty salon products that he wants. So, what’s a financially strapped but determined retired hair stylist to do in these circumstances? If you’re Pat Pitsenbarger, you decide to walk to the funeral home by yourself—even though it’s several miles away and it’s very hot outside.

Before he leaves for the funeral home, a nursing home assistant named Shaundell (played by Roshon Thomas) confiscates his box of cigarettes and scolds Pat by saying: “Sometimes, I think you want to have another stroke.” However, Pat has another box of More cigarettes secretly stashed away. He puts several loose cigarettes in the fanny pack that he wears during the trip. Pat is seen frequently puffing on his smokes throughout the movie.

The rest of “Swan Song” chronicles Pat’s journey to the funeral home, including some of the people he meets along the way. He tries to pull off some hilarious schemes in an attempt to get some cash to buy beauty products or to get a free ride from a stranger. At one point, Pat stands at the side of a road and holds up a sign that says “Free Beauty Tips.”

During his journey, which is mostly on foot, Pat has flashbacks of happier times. And sometimes, he has fantasies about being the star of a drag queen show. Fans of campy 1970s fashion will have a feast for their eyes, since Pat is seen in various flamboyant outfits, including one where he’s wearing a chandelier on his head.

One of the people whom Pat meets is Rita’s nephew Dustin (played by Michael Urie), who gives Pat a very different perspective of what Rita thought of Pat during their estrangement. Pat also sees Mr. Shanrock again, and there’s some haggling over how Pat is going to be paid for his services. And, of course, Pat inevitably sees Dee Dee again when it seems like her salon is the only one in town to have the products that Pat wants.

“Swan Song” doesn’t have over-the-top slapstick comedy. The movie is grounded in realism and has a bittersweet poignancy as viewers see Pat experiencing some of the joys and pains of his life. He was someone who made a living making his clients feel good about themselves. It’s a joy that he gave and which he comes to realize has been missing from his life for too long. There’s a standout scene toward the end of the movie where Pat is on the receiving end of this joy.

Thanks to writer/director Stephens’ witty screenplay and well-paced direction, “Swan Song” is as emotionally authentic as it is entertaining. However, Kier’s droll and touching performance makes this movie a fascinating jaunt for movie fans who adore unique and compelling protagonists. “Swan Song” is also a love letter to the LGBTQ community and loved ones left behind in the AIDS crisis. “Swan Song” isn’t just about what Pat discovers on his journey. Viewers will find out that this protagonist might appear to have a hardened heart, but underneath he has a very tender and loving soul.

Magnolia Pictures released “Swan Song” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021, and on digital and VOD on August 13, 2021.

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