Review: ‘Janet Planet,’ starring Julianne Nicholson, Zoe Ziegler, Elias Koteas, Will Patton and Sophie Okonedo

July 2, 2024

by Carla Hay

Zoe Ziegler and Julianne Nicholson in “Janet Planet” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Janet Planet”

Directed by Annie Baker

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1991, in western Massachusetts, the dramatic film “Janet Planet” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 11-year-old girl and her single mother have various uncomfortable adjustments as the girl learns to be more independent and not as tolerant of the people who come in and out of her mother’s life.

Culture Audience: “Janet Planet” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Julianne Nicholson and don’t mind watching a slow-paced but well-acted movie about mother-daughter relationships.

Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler in “Janet Planet” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Thoughtful and with nuanced performances, “Janet Planet” can be recommended to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced “slice of life” movies. This realistic drama shows the gradual shift in a mother-daughter relationship. Usually movies with this sort of topic has a lot of melodrama or plot developments that are often seen in soap operas. “Janet Planet” isn’t that type of movie. Rather, it shows how relationships can change during when life is mundane and uneventful.

“Janet Planet” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Annie Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and screened at other festivals, including the 2023 New York Film Festival and the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival. “Janet Planet” takes place during the summer of 1991, in rural western Massachusetts.

The movie’s opening scene shows 11-year-old Lacy (played by Zoe Ziegler) calling her single mother on a pay phone while Lacy is at summer camp. Lacy wants to go home and makes an alarming statement when she tells her mother: “I’m going to kill myself if you don’t get me.” By the time that Lucy’s mother Janet (played by Julianne Nicholson) arrives to pick up Lacy, Lacy has changed her mind and wants to stay at the camp.

However, Janet has another reason for Lacy to come home: Janet’s live-in boyfriend Wayne (played by Will Patton), who’s about 15 to 20 years older than Janet, has had a motorcycle accident and is recovering at home. Lacy actually doesn’t need to be at home, but because Janet insists that Lacy come home, it’s an indication that Janet wants Lacy there for emotional support. Lacy’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.

Lacy doesn’t want to introduce Janet to the other people at camp, which is the first sign that things are somewhat tense between Lacy and Janet. Lacy tells Janet that she wants to stay at camp. But Janet says, “I already convinced them to give me part of the deposit back.”

Lacy, by her own admission, is an introverted loner who has a hard time making friends with people. She likes to read and draw in her spare time. Lacy also takes piano lessons from a an elderly woman named Davina (played by Mary Shultz), who is kind and patient. Lacy is not rude but she doesn’t have a “cute and cuddly” personality either. “Janet Planet” is about how Lacy stops blindly worshipping her mother and sees Janet for the flawed human being that she is.

Janet is a self-employed licensed acupuncturist who has a home office. The name of her business is Janet Planet. Unlike Lacy, who has a very independent personality, Janet constantly craves approval and companionship. It’s one of the reasons why Janet lets people into her life who might not be good for her. At one point in the movie, Janet makes a comment that she’s not beautiful but she can get people to fall in love with her.

Janet and Lacy have the type of household where when they have meals at the same table as other people, there is little or no conversation. When Janet and Lacy (who often sleep in the same bed together) have any heart-to-heart talks, Janet gets uncomfortable if Lacy says things that Janet doesn’t want to hear. Janet gives the impression that she’d rather not hear about any angst that Lacy might be feeling.

Here’s an example of one of their conversations: Lacy tells Janet, “You know what’s funny? Every moment in my life is hell.” Janet replies, “I don’t like it when you say things like that. You seem pretty happy.” Lacy says, “It’s hell. I don’t think it will last though.” Janet admits, “I’m actually pretty unhappy too.”

“Janet Planet” is divided into three chapters, with each chapter focusing on how a different person enters the lives of Janet and Lacy and how each person’s presence affects Janet and Lacy. The first chapter is about Wayne’s effect on this small family. The second chapter is about Janet reconnecting with a long-lost friend named Regina (played by Sophie Okonedo), an actress in a puppet theater collective that has a hippie lifestyle. The third chapter is about Janet spending time with Avi (played by Elias Koteas), the cult-like leader of the puppet theater collective.

Wayne is sullen and keeps mostly to himself, but he has a nasty temper that affects his relationship with Janet. Wayne also seems to have mental health issues because he is seen wandering around aimlessly on the front lawn at night. Regina is friendly and quirky and doesn’t talk down Lacy. Regina needs a place to stay, so Janet lets Regina temporarily live in the household. Avi, who is Regina’s ex-lover, thinks of himself as an intellectual philosopher, but everything about him seems like he’s a con artist. It isn’t long before Avi makes it known to Janet that he’s interested in getting romantically involved with her.

“Janet Planet” doesn’t always have clear resolutions for the dilemmas and conflicts presented in the story because people tend to drift in and out of Janet’s life without necessarily having closure. Lacy is not shown bonding with anyone her age except for a day when Wayne’s daughter Sequoia (played by Edie Moon Kearns) spends time with Wayne, Janet and Lacy at a shopping mall. Wayne has a visitation rights arrangement with Sequoia’s mother, who is briefly heard but not seen in the movie when Sequoia leaves for this visit and her mother says some words of greeting in a friendly tone. Lacy and Sequoia get along with each other almost immediately and have some fun inventing their own language.

After this get-together, Lacy asks Wayne why Sequoia doesn’t live part-time with him. Wayne refuses to answer the question and gets upset, which obviously means that it’s a sore subject for him. Very little is mentioned about Wayne’s family history except that Wayne has grandchildren and he has a 20-year-old son named Eric, who “lives in California and Iraq,” according to Wayne. Wayne’s grandchildren and Eric are not seen in the movie. It can be presumed by Wayne’s statement that Eric is in the military and is stationed in Iraq.

One of the best things about “Janet Planet” is the talented performance by Ziegler, who makes her feature-film debut in “Janet Planet.” This movie is named after Janet, but it’s through Lacy’s perspective that the story has its heart and soul. Ziegler’s performance is very natural and never once looks like she’s trying too hard to be a good actress. “Janet Planet” doesn’t have any grand, sweeping statements about life but it does offer some pointed observations about the time in everyone’s life when a child begins to see parenthood in less idealistic ways.

A24 released “Janet Planet” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on June 28, 2024.

Review: ‘Tuesday’ (2024), starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lola Petticrew, Leah Harvey and Arinzé Kene

June 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

Lola Petticrew and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Tuesday” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24) (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

“Tuesday” (2024)

Directed by Daina O. Pusić

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the dramatic film “Tuesday” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 15-year-old girl (who has an unnamed terminal illness) and her worried mother have interactions with death, which manifests itself as a talking macaw that can willingly change the size of its body. 

Culture Audience: “Tuesday” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Julia Louis-Dreyfus and offbeat movies about confronting mortality.

Lola Petticrew and Death (voiced by Arinzé Kene) in “Tuesday” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

The morbid drama “Tuesday” is best appreciated by viewers who can tolerate surrealistic movies about death. It’s a unique story about a mother and daughter interacting with death, which is embodied as a talking macaw. The concept is creative but alienating. The people who will dislike this movie will really hate it, while others will either like or love this movie. It’s a flawed but interesting film. The cast members’ performances might keep viewer interest if people still want to watch the movie after seeing how death is portrayed in the story.

“Tuesday” is the feature-film directorial debut of writer/director Daina O. Pusić, also known as Daina Oniunas-Pusić. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and then made the rounds at other film festivals, such as the 2023 BFI London Film Festival and the 2024 Miami Film Festival. Before writing and directing “Tuesday,” Pusić wrote and directed short films.

The opening sequence in “Tuesday” shows Death (an orange macaw) taking the lives of several people in various locations. “Tuesday” takes place in an unnamed city in England, where the movie was filmed on location.) Death can change its size by choice. In the movie, Death’s sizes range from being as small as a thimble to as large as a tall building. The character of Death is a combination of computer-generated imagery and visual effects for a live actor performance. In the scenes where Death is human-sized or larger, Death is portrayed by actor Arinzé Kene.

Death has a deep, gravelly voice that can be off-putting to some viewers. When Death is ready to take someone’s life, Death gives that someone a very tight embrace. Some of the dying people welcome death, while others don’t want death anywhere near them. Some are shocked and frightened by seeing Death, while others are not surprised and are much more accepting.

These contrasting attitudes toward Death can be seen in the mother and daughter who are the people at the center of the story. Zora (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is an American single mother, who lives with her 15-year-old daughter Tuesday (played by Lola Petticrew), who has an unnamed terminal illness. Tuesday’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie. It’s also never explained why Zora is living in England, but it can be presumed she’s lived in England for several years because Tuesday has an English accent.

Tuesday uses an oxygen tank and a wheelchair. She also has a compassionate home care nurse named Billie (played by Leah Harvey), who visits the household on a regular basis. An early scene in the movie takes place in a taxidermy shop, where Zora is selling some unusual taxidermy figures: rats dressed as Catholic bishops. Zora says these items are her daughter’s but Zora is selling them without her daughter’s knowledge. It’s later revealed that Zora has been secretly selling things in the household because she lost her job and doesn’t want to tell Tuesday.

Tuesday is the first person in the household to see Death. Instead of being alarmed, Tuesday tells Death a story. Death laughs and shrinks to the size of a thimble. It’s the beginning of a unusual acquaintance that develops between Tuesday and Death. Tuesday is lonely (at one point, she mentions later that her friends abandoned her because of her illness), so she enjoys talking to Death.

When it comes to Tuesday’s terminal illness, Zora is much less accepting of it than Tuesday. Whereas Tuesday seems to be quietly peparing to die, Zora is angrily defiant and doesn’t want to consider that Tuesday is running out of time to be alive. The movie does not mention how long Tuesday has had this terminal illness or the medical diagnosis for Tuesday’s life expectancy. Zora believes that she and Tuesday can successfully fight this disease together.

Needless to say, Zora’s first encounters with Death are very hostile. It leads to some disturbing scenes where Zora tries to get rid of Death. (Sensitive viewers, be warned: These scenes show some animal cruelty.) And then, Zora does something truly bizarre that will either further alienate viewers of this movie or will make viewers curious to see what will result from Zora’s extreme actions.

“Tuesday” might have been better as a short film, since much of the movie gets repetitive, with pacing that drags. The movie’s marketing is somewhat misleading because Zora is not in the film as much as the movie’s trailer and poster suggests. There’s a huge chunk of the movie where Zora is not seen at all. Most of the conversations that Death has are with Tuesday.

Billie is an underdeveloped character. Don’t expect to learn much about her or anyone else in the movie who isn’t Zora, Tuesday or Death. Billie is the supporting character who gets the most screen time. All the other supporting characters pass through the story in cameo roles.

“Tuesday” has flashes of droll comedy, but the movie’s overall tone is gloomy and weird. Tuesday is an intelligent teenager who’s a little eccentric. Her personality is at the heart of the film. There are times that Tuesday wants to die, which is very unsettling to Zora, who says out loud that it’s unnatural for a parent to outlive a child.

“Tuesday” takes a bold risk of not following the usual movie stereotype of making Zora a saintly mother of an ailing child. Zora is often impatient and rude. As the story goes on, it becomes clearer that Zora’s bad attitude has a lot to do with being under financial pressure to take care of Tuesday while Zora is unemployed and dreading a future without Tuesday.

What saves “Tuesday” from being too abstract and too enamored with its fantastical elements is the fact that the film’s story is grounded in an authentic depiction of a mother-daughter relationship. The movie is an unusual portrayal of stages of grief when it comes to death. “Tuesday” is memorable for its talking bird, but what will stay with viewers the most is what the movie has to say about humanity.

A24 released “Tuesday” in select U.S. cinemas on June 7, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on July 14, 2024.

Review: ‘Wildcat’ (2024), starring Maya Hawke, Rafael Casal, Philip Ettinger, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn and Laura Linney

May 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Maya Hawke in “Wildcat” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Wildcat” (2024)

Directed by Ethan Hawke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia and in New York, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the biopic drama film “Wildcat” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Young author Flannery O’Connor struggles with various issues, including writer’s block, sexism, lupus, a domineering mother, and religion, specifically Catholicism. 

Culture Audience: “Wildcat” will appeal primarily to fans of O’Connor, filmmaker Ethan Hawke and slow-paced and uneven biopics.

Maya Hawke in “Wildcat” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Wildcat” wants to be an edgy and experimental biopic of author Flannery O’Connor, but it’s just a pile-on of overly pretentious rambling that’s trying too hard to look clever. Everything in this drab drama looks phony and forced, not natural or organic. This is the type of pompous movie that gets into major film festivals mainly because the director is famous. “Wildcat” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, and later screened at other festivals that year, such as the Toronto International Film Festival, the Zurich Film Festival and the Stockholm International Film Festival.

Ethan Hawke directed “Wildcat,” which he co-wrote with Shelby Gaines. “Wildcat” (starring Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) is based on some of O’Connor’s short stories. (For the purposes of this review, the real O’Connor will be referred to as O’Connor, while the Flannery O’Connor character in the movie will be referred to as Flannery.) “Wildcat” (which takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s) is a mixture of realism and surrealism. In several scenes, O’Connor’s short stories come to life as she’s writing them, with Maya Hawke portraying not only O’Connor but also the protagonists of these short stories.

It’s an ambitious concept for a movie that only works in short spurts and then gets muddled and meanders for long stretches. Parts of “Wildcat” look better-suited for a stage play (especially in poorly lit scenes were people just talk in rooms), while other parts of the movie fit better in a cinematic format. For example, Flannery is fascinated with peacocks, and one of the best shots in the film involves a visual image of Flannery with peacock feathers unfurling behind her, like an art installation. But artsy visuals and self-indulgent monologues (of which this movie has plenty) cannot turn “Wildcat” into a very good movie.

People who are not familiar with O’Connor might be rolling their eyes at how O’Connor in “Wildcat” is depicted with every checklist cliché of an artist who died young. (At the age of 39, she died of lupus in 1964). Flannery in “Wildcat” is a moody and insecure loner, with a “tortured soul.” She puts her writing above everything else in her life. And then, she’s frustrated that her personal relationships are unfulfilling or downright disastrous.

“Wildcat” opens with a scene that might confuse some viewers. It’s a fictional trailer for a fictional 1964 movie called “Star Drake,” based on one of Flannery’s semi-autobiographical short stories. Flannery is supposed to be imagining this movie trailer in her head. “Wildcat” depicts many fantasies imagined by Flannery. In this imaginary “Star Drake” movie trailer, the movie’s plot is described as “the outspoken story of an indiscreet woman.”

Flannery portrays the title character of “Star Drake,” who is a young writer who temporarily stays with a middle-aged couple and causes havoc in their lives as a femme fatale. It’s no doubt partially inspired by O’Connor’s real-life 1949 experience of temporarily living with classic book translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally Fitzgerald in Ridgefield, Connecticut, although O’Connor’s real-life visit wasn’t as dramatic as it’s portrayed in “Star Drake.”

Throughout “Wildcat,” the movie switches back and forth between Flannery’s “real life” and the “fantasies” inspired by her short stories. An early scene in “Wildcat” takes place in 1950, when Flannery (who spent most of her life living in her home state of Georgia) has a tense meeting in New York City with her book publisher John Selby (played by Alessandro Nivola), who admittedly doesn’t understand the eccentric Flannery and her writing style. (“Wildcat” was actually filmed in Kentucky.)

John thinks Flannery’s angst-filled short stories aren’t very ladylike. He tells her that she doesn’t have to write like “she’s picking a fight” with readers. John also suggests that Flannery give him an outline of what she’s writing before she turns in the draft. However, Flannery explains that she doesn’t do outlines. She just writes what comes to her.

“Wildcat” doesn’t want to dwell on harsh realities of being a female author in a male-dominated field in this particular time period. Flannery, for all of her “struggling artist” posturing, is never really seen struggling with harmful sexism or poverty in “Wildcat.” The way it looks in “Wildcat,” the people who are Flannery’s biggest obstacles in life are women: herself and her domineering mother.

Flannery has an encouraging mentor is Robert “Cal” Lowell (played by Philip Ettinger), a bachelor who isn’t much older than she is and is a great admirer of Flannery’s work. Flannery gets accepted into a writer’s workshop at an unnamed university. Cal is Flannery’s writing instructor for this workshop, where Flannery is one of only a few female students.

This part of the movie seems inspired by O’Connor’s real-life stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. The character of Cal seems to be based on a combination of the real-life Paul Engle, who was the workshop leader. In “Wildcat,” Flannery and Cal they seem to be attracted to each other for more than just professional reasons.

Some of the dialogue in “Wildcat” is cringeworthy. In a scene taking place at train station, Cal says to Flannery: “I love you, Flannery. That’s not a [marriage] proposal. You know me. I’ve got a lot of eggs to fry.” Flannery responds, “You let me know when you’re done with breakfast then.”

Flannery’s relationship with her widowed mother Regina (played by Laura Linney) is the source of most of Flannery’s conflicts in the movie. Regina is a conservative Catholic who is overbearing and racist. Flannery (who is an only child) moves back home to Georgia to live with Regina and Regina’s gossipy sister Duchess (played by Christine Dye), who becomes Flannery’s closest confidante.

Flannery’s father died of lupus when Flannery was a child. His death is barely mentioned in the movie. In real life, O’Connor’s father Edward, who was a real-estate agent, died in 1937, when she was 8 years old. “Wildcat” never really explores how this tragic death affected Flannery.

Flannery seems to take pride in being an oddball non-conformist, but she also seems conflicted over it. She likes to dress in men’s clothing (much to the dismay of her mother Regina), but the female heroines in her stories are often ultra-feminine and vulnerable. Flannery openly scoffs at and questions the concept of religion, but she sometimes wonders if being a devout Catholic would make her life better. (Liam Neeson as a cameo as a Catholic priest named Father Flynn, who counsels Flannery when she’s at a low point in her life.)

Flannery has lupus, which is a diagnosis that she doesn’t discover until later in the movie. By then, “Wildcat” viewers will see depictions of various characters in Flannery’s short stories. In these short stories that play out in her head and on screen, Flannery usually imagines herself in the role of a young woman who is sexually repressed and/or sexually inexperienced, including Sarah Ruth Cates from “Parker’s Back,” LucyNell Crater from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Mary Grace from “Revelation” and Joy “Hulga” Hopewell from “Good Country People.”

Each of these imaginary heroines is usually controlled and manipulated by an older woman, who is a mother or maternal figure to the heroine—and obviously representative of Regina. In “Wildcat,” Linney also has several roles in the movie, including the roles of Mrs. Crater, Mrs. Turpin and Mrs. Hopewell. Predictably, these bossy characters are argumentative and difficult.

“Wildcat” also has depictions of various love interests of the heroines from these short stories. Obadiah Elihue “O.E.” Parker (played by Rafael Casal) is the tattooed and gun-toting rebel from O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” Tom R. Shiftlet (played by Steve Zahn) is the homeless con man from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” who agrees to marry naïve LucyNell Crater, after Mrs. Crater sells LucyNell into this marriage with cash and the use of Mrs. Crater’s car as a “dowry.” Manley Pointer (played by Cooper Hoffman) is the conniving Bible salesman from “Good Country People.”

Maya Hawke certainly has an admirable acting range that she gets to show in “Wildcat.” Linney is always a pro at what she does. And the rest of the “Wildcat” cast members do reasonably well in their roles. The problem is that you never forget that they are acting in a way that comes across as showboating instead of truly embodying the characters.

The movie’s cinematography consists of mostly of shades of blues and grays, as if to reflect the story’s depressive mood. “Wildcat” doesn’t really have a lot that’s important to say about Flannery O’Connor and her life experiences. Instead, this lethargic movie depicts her as a fever dream of disjointed fantasies that she thinks about when she wants to escape the uncomfortable realities of her life.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Wildcat” in select U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024.

Review: ‘Carol Doda Topless at the Condor,’ starring Carol Doda

March 24, 2024

by Carla Hay

Carol Doda in “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Picturehouse)

“Carol Doda Topless at the Condor”

Directed by Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans and Asians) who are former associates or social commentators who discuss the life of Carol Doda, America’s first famous topless dancer.

Culture Clash: Doda’s nudity work caused controversy, got her arrested a few times, and sparked social change and debate over female nudity in a workplace setting.

Culture Audience: “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries about controversial people and social changes that happened in the United States in the 1960s.

Carol Doda (on piano) with George & Teddy (pictured at right) in “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Examiner/Picturehouse)

“Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” is a fascinating but somewhat formulaic documentary that tells the story of Carol Doda, America’s first famous topless dancer. The movie looks at both sides of the debate over whether or not she was a feminist icon. “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” could have used better film editing and more research, since there are big gaps in her life that are missing or inadequately explained in the documentary. However, it’s an overall entertaining documentary to watch as a time-capsule aspect of the 1960s sexual revolution.

Directed by Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker, “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” is based partially on the 2018 non-fiction book “Three Nights at the Condor: A Coal Miner’s Son, Carol Doda, and the Topless Revolution,” written by Benita Mattioli, wife of original Condor nightclub co-owner Pete Mattioli, who are both interviewed in the documentary. One of the documentary’s producers is Lars Ulrich, drummer for the San Francisco-based rock band Metallica, which got its start in San Francisco’s 1980s nightclub scene in the same area where Doda found fame two decades earlier.

“Carol Doda Topless at the Condor,” which had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, is a typical mix of archival footage and interviews that were filmed exclusively for the documentary. It’s a celebrity biographical documentary that focuses almost entirely on the “fame” period of time in the celebrity’s life. Most of the people interviewed are those who used to work with Doda during the height of her fame in the 1960s.

The documentary has very little information about Doda before she became famous. It’s mentioned several times by people interviewed in the documentary that Doda was deliberately secretive about what her life was like before she became a dancer. However, if this documentary’s filmmakers attempted to find out more about Doda’s pre-fame life, none of that information ended up in the documentary.

Most of the documentary’s scant pre-fame information about Doda (who was born in 1937 and died in 2015) comes from interviews with her former accountant/business manager Jim Barbic and her cousin Dina Moore. “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” vaguely mentions that Doda moved to San Francisco as a teenager to become a famous entertainer, but leaves out details, such as she was born in Vallejo, California, and she dropped out of high school and started working as a cocktail waitress when she was 14.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that Doda’s parents (whose names and occupations are never mentioned in the movie) split up when she was 3 years old. Doda lived for a while with her mother, who is described as an abusive alcoholic. Doda was eventually sent to live at a Catholic school. Nothing is told in the documentary about her school years and what she was like back then.

Sometime in her 20s, Doda was married, divorced, and had two children (a son and a daughter), but she lost custody of the children. After she became famous, she often pretended that she was never a mother and avoided answering questions about if she was ever married. According to Moore, Doda’s ex-husband (whose name is not mentioned in the documentary) was abusive to Doda, who was left with longtime trauma from this abuse.

So much of Doda’s personal history isn’t explored at all in the documentary. Why did she lose custody of her children? Where are her children now? Who inspired her to become an entertainer? Did she get any early encouragement or discouragement to become an entertainer when she was a child? Did her personality change from her school days to when she became an entertainer? Don’t expect this documentary to answer any of those questions.

What “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” does instead is focus on her notorious antics that made her famous and have been described as trailblazing for exotic dancers. Whether or not she was a trailblazing feminist is open to debate. Doda certainly can be credited for leading the way in 1964 to make topless female dancing a big business in San Francisco, which was the first city in the United States to make it legal for businesses to have topless female workers. The businesses were often allowed to do it if the toplessness was labeled as entertainment for adults.

“Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” begins by describing how a San Francisco street named Broadway (in the city’s North Beach district) was the epicenter of San Francisco’s most popular nightclubs. In 1964, the Condor nightclub was co-owned by Gino Del Prete and Pete Mattioli. “Gino was wild and unpredictable,” says former Condor bartender Charlie Farrugia. By contrast, Pete Mattioli is described as the responsible and level-headed Condor business partner.

Doda started off as a cocktail waitress and then became a go-go dancer at the Condor. In 1964, R&B duo George & Teddy was one of the Condor’s biggest attractions. Doda began dancing The Swim (a 1960s dance craze where dancers mimicked swimming) on a piano during George & Teddy’s performances. And so, she became part of the George & Teddy act, every time George & Eddy performed at the Condor. The piano eventually was elevated and lowered from the ceiling, so Doda could make a dramatic entrance and exit on the piano.

Around the same time, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich invented the monokini: a topless swimsuit for women. If a bikini covered a female’s top and bottom, the monokini (held up by very thin straps) was designed to only cover a women’s bottom. Needless to say, in 1964, a monokini was considered edgy and controversial. Cultural critic/author Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., comments in the documentary. “The monokini, for me, really unlocks a deeper level of what Carol Doda was about and what she achieved.”

With the help of publicist David “Davey” Rosenberg (who died in 1986, at the age of 49), Doda decided to make a name for herself as America’s first famous topless dancer. On June 19, 1964, she wore a monokini while dancing. The Republican National Convention was happening in San Francisco at the same time as this milestone in the counterculture movement. Doda’s topless performance was an immediate hit and quickly led to sold-out performances with topless Doda as the headliner.

The topless women craze soon spread to other businesses in San Francisco, such as having topless waitresses, topless female sales clerks in retail stores and topless female shoe shiners. Because a business such as shoe shining is often conducted outdoors, San Francisco’s city officials began getting complaints about topless women being in public where children could see them. It led to a growing backlash against businesses that had topless women as part of the business.

In 1965, police took action when Doda, Del Prete, Pete Mattioli and several other topless dancers at the Condor were arrested for public indecency but were acquitted in a trial, because the prosecution could not prove there was a general consensus in the community that topless dancing was considered lewd and lascivious. The arrest brought even more fame to Doda, who was often described as a pioneer for female sexual liberation. Doda and other female Condor dancers were arrested again on public indecency charges in 1967, but the case never went to trial.

Always wanting to outdo herself, Doda then began dancing completely nude (and so did other dancers at the Condor) in 1969. By then, it was commonplace for semi-nude or completely nude dancers to be at adults-only clubs in many other American cities. Doda’s work at the Condor is considered to be the vanguard in making it legal to have nude dancing in these types of nightclubs in the United States. In 1972, California passed a law prohibiting bottomless nude dancing in businesses that served alcohol, which essentially ended Doda’s bottomless nude dancing career in California.

Part of Doda’s image was having large breasts, which she got through silicone injections. Her bra size went from 34B to 44DD. Her former accountant/business manager Barbic says that he warned Doda about the health risks of these silicone injections. “She kind of didn’t care,” Barbic comments in the documentary. “She was more interested in being an entertainer. And, of course, [Davey] Rosenberg was pushing her to do this.” Doda’s joking sexual double entendres and sarcastic wit in interviews, along with her “blonde bombshell” image, often got her compared to Mae West.

Several people in the documentary describe Doda as appearing to be very happy and extroverted when she was performing or doing interviews, but “the rest of the time, she was lonely and sad,” says Judy Mamou, a former Condor dancer, who claims to be the Condor’s second topless dancer. Judy Mamou (whose stage name was Tara) and her musician husband Jimi Mamou are interviewed in the documentary, which goes off on distracting tangents to give details about Judy’s topless act, her health problems from her silicone breast implants, and the racism that the couple experienced because of their interracial marriage.

Judy Mamou gets a lot of screen time in this documentary, but even she admits she barely knew anything about Doda’s personal life, because she says that she and Doda usually only talked about work when they were hanging out together. Marsha McGovern, another former topless dancer, says about Doda: “She wasn’t open about her past at all. She never talked about her family.”

Phil Derdevanis, a former bartender at the Condor, says that in the 19 years he worked at the Condor, he never saw any of Doda’s family members. Jerry Martini, a former saxophonist for Sly and the Family Stone, seems to have only superficial knowledge of Doda, because he says in the documentary: “Carol Doda was friends with everybody.” Apparently, those friendships weren’t very deep, because she didn’t open about her private life to many people who describe themselves as her friends.

Squid B. Vicious, a musician, says he was an underage kid who was at the Condor on the night that Doda first went topless, because his father worked there as a musician. Vicious says he has a vivid memory of all the commotion that was caused by Doda’s performance (he says he did not see the actual performance), and he didn’t fully understand the impact of the performance until he was much older.

And what exactly is that impact? To its credit, “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” doesn’t shy away from discussing the pros and cons of this impact. Science journalist/author Florence Williams comments: “On the one hand, Carol Doda took the male gaze and twisted it to her own benefit. And she did well by that.”

Williams continues, “But what she couldn’t have anticipated is the legacy she would leave on women who then felt they needed to live up to this male gaze, which had been enhanced and exaggerated by the presence of these very large breasts. It’s a very particular lens through which to see beauty and through which to see sexuality, which ultimately has been very limiting and has led to some serious body dysmorphia in women to follow.”

Martin (who is Doda’s biggest cheerleader in the documentary) and former topless dancer Mary Ann Schildknect both claim that the type of nude dancing image that Doda had is empowering for women who want to express themselves in that way. Schildknect says when she moved to San Francisco as a young adult in the late 1960s, one of her goals was to fulfill her fantasy of being a stripper. She admits that most women do not consider being a stripper to be a dream job.

Schildknect says of the judgment she received from other people for being a topless dancer: “People would say, ‘Oh, that’s such a demeaning thing you’re doing.’ Well, if I’m not doing it, somebody else [will], and look at the money I’m making. What’s the big deal? It was great. Here I am, a woman. Give me your money.”

But, by Schildknect’s own admission, being a topless dancer wasn’t as liberating as it might have sounded. When all was said and done, the mostly male club owners (not the dancers) were the ones getting rich from the dancers’ work. In addition, there was a lot of discrimination going on: Small-breasted women found it difficult to get work as topless dancers, which is why many topless dancers have breast implants. In addition, Schildknect says that black women weren’t hired for these types of dancer jobs in major clubs until the 1980s.

Author/sociologist of culture Sarah Thornton, Ph.D., adds this perspective: “Topless clubs are a reflection of a patriarchal society. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t individual women who may very well find a very strong sense of empowerment for themselves in that environment.” Polly Mazza, who was a dancer/waitress at the Condor, says in the documentary that that being a dancer at the Condor didn’t feel like exploitation. “It felt like a job.”

For all the talk about Doda being a symbol of female empowerment, the documentary has plenty of details that Doda wasn’t as empowered as she wanted to be. She had many disputes with the Condor owners about being underpaid. Doda was also rejected when she tried to get an ownership stake in the Condor.

Doda quit the Condor several times in the 1970s and 1980s. She would go back to the Condor when her other career ventures flopped or job opportunities dried up in other areas. Eventually, she had to retire from dancing because she was considered too old for the job.

Her various other career ventures included acting, singing and hosting. She dabbled in doing phone sex for a job. She also started her own skin care line and clothing retail store. None of these jobs gave her long-lasting financial security. The documentary makes it clear that Doda (who was admittedly not very good when it came to handling her business matters) had financial struggles through her middle age and elder years.

Doda’s fake breasts—which were big reasons why she made money and why she became famous—weren’t exactly a great investment either. Her silicone implants leaked and caused her major health problems for the rest of her life. The way it’s described in the documentary, she probably would’ve lived longer if not for these health problems.

After being unhappy for so many years in her personal life, Doda had a 10-year romance with widower retiree Jay North—a former restaurant manager, photographer and journalist—who died in 2010, at the age of 77. Very little is revealed in the documentary about this part of Doda’s life. Charles North, Jay North’s son, is seen in a brief interview clip saying that his father and Doda were happy together and very devoted to each other. Doda’s cousin Moore says that Jay North was “the love of her [Doda’s] life.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include former Condor bartenders George Faulkner and John Burton; Art Thanash, former owner of Roaring 20s, a rival nightclub to the Condor; former dancers Judy Mac and Pamela Rose; Doda’s friend Jeff Valkanoff; music historian Mike Boone; nightclub owner Jay Nelson; and attorney Rick Morse, who says that Doda had a passionate fling with Frank Sinatra in the 1960s.

Doda never lost her love of performing and remained an entertainer through the last year of her life. The movie ends with footage of her in 2015, performing “All of Me” at a small nightclub when she in very ill health and had lost most of her hearing abilities. Regardless of what people might think of Doda and how she influenced sexual liberation in the 1960s, there’s no denying that she had a zest for life that affected many people.

Picturehouse released “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” in select U.S. cinemas on March 22, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024.

Review: ‘They Shot the Piano Player,’ starring the voice of Jeff Goldblum

March 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

A scene from “They Shot the Piano Player” (Image by Javier Mariscal/Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player”

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal

Some language in Portuguese and Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 2000s (with re-enacted flashbacks to the 1960s and 1970s), the animated docudrama film “They Shot the Piano Player” features a predominantly Latin cast of characters (with a few white people and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: American music journalist Jeff Harris (a fictional stand-in for “They Shot the Piano Player” director Fernando Trueba), investigates the mysterious 1976 disappearance of Brazilian piano player Tenório Jr., who was an highly respected musician in the Bossa Nova musical movement.

Culture Audience: “They Shot the Piano Player” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching unusual documentaries about Brazilian music or true crime cases.

Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) in “They Shot the Piano Player” (Image by Javier Mariscal/Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player” mostly succeeds in its intention to be an unconventional documentary, but much of the story gets bogged down in repetitiveness. Overall, this animated film is watchable for people interested in Brazilian music or true crime. It’s a hybrid of a fictional narrator telling a true story, with audio recordings of real interviews featured in the documentary.

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, “They Shot the Piano Player” was written by Trueba. After screening as a work in progress at the 2023 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, “They Shot the Piano Player” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. The movie then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

In the production notes for “They Shot the Piano Player,” Trueba (who is a Spanish filmmaker) says that sometime around 2019, he discovered the talent of Brazilian pianist Tenório Jr. while listening to a Brazilian album from the 1960s. Trueba became fascinated with finding out more about Tenório after discovering that Tenório (whose full name was Franciso Tenório Jr.) had vanished while on tour in Argentina in 1976, when Tenório was 35. Trueba went to Brazil and Argentina to interview family members, friends and associates of Tenório to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Tenório. Many of the resulting interviews are featured in “They Shot the Piano Player.”

“They Shot the Piano Player” creates a fictional narrative around these real interviews. In the movie, which takes place in the 2000s, the person doing the interviewing is a fictional New York City-based journalist named Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), whose quest to find out the truth begins when he writes an article in The New Yorker about Bossa Nova, the music genre that combines Brazilian music and jazz. Bossa Nova, which originated in Brazil in the late 1950s, flourished in Brazil and in other countries.

As a result of this article in The New Yorker, Jeff gets a book publishing deal to write a nonfiction book about the history of Bossa Nova. While listening to a 1960s Brazilian Bossa Nova album, Jeff discovers Tenório Jr. when he hears a piano solo on the album. Jeff is intrigued to find out that Tenório Jr. hasn’t been featured on any musical recordings in more than 30 years. Jeff (who only speaks English) wants to know why, so he travels to Brazil to interview people. Jeff is sometimes accompanied by his Brazilian friend João (a fictional character, voiced by Tony Ramos), who is a tour guide/language interprerter of sorts during these trips.

Through a series of interviews, Jeff finds out that in 1976, Tenório disappeared in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, during a tour as a band member with singer Vinicius de Moraes and guitarist/singer Toquinho. Jeff then becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of what happened to Tenório, so he travels back and forth between Brazil and Argentina to get answers. (It’s not that much of a mystery, since the title of the movie says it all.) Tenório’s disappearance happened around the same time of the 1976 coup d’état that ousted Isabel Perón as president of Argentina, so it’s not much of a surprise that this political turmoil (and the thousands of innocent people who were victims of it) are part of this story.

Most people who knew Tenório tell Jeff that it was widely believed that Tenório was murdered in Buenos Aires in 1976. But who murdered him and why? Those questions are answered by some people who are interviewed in the movie and an archival interview that Jeff hears. The interviews also reveal what type of person Tenório was by the surviving people who knew him best. Jeff also visits several of the places where Tenório used to go, such as recording studios and nightclubs.

Jeff’s book editor Jessica (a fictional character, voiced by Roberta Wallach) sees how enthusiastic Jeff has become about solving the mystery, so she tells Jeff that instead of writing a book about the history of Bossa Nova, he should instead write a book about what happened to Tenório Jr. “They Shot the Piano Player” actually begins in 2009, after the book is published, and Jeff is doing a book reading at The Strand bookstore in New York City. The rest of the movie is a flashback to Jeff tellng the story about his journey in writing the book.

Through stories and descriptions from interviews, a portrait of Tenório emerges as a highly respected and talented musician who was passionate about music, who didn’t really care about becoming rich and famous, and who had a messy personal life. At the time of his disappearance, married man Tenório had a mistress and a pregnant wife, who was expecting their fifth child. His mistress Malena Barretto (who is interviewed in the movie) was staying with Tenório at a hotel in Buenos Aires on the night of Tenório’s disappearance. She had been feeling sick at the time, so he left the hotel to find a pharmacy to get some medicine for her. That was the last time she saw him.

“They Shot the Piano Player” is packed with several interesting interviews, but after a while, many of them say the same things over and over about how talented and sweet-natured Tenório was. The movie could have used better editing in reducing some of this repetitiveness. There are also some extraneous scenes that look like nothing but travelogue footage.

Most of the people interviewed are musicians who knew Tenório, such as Toquinho, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Ben Shank, Caeton Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Jorge “Negro” Gonzales, Ian Muniz, João Donato, Laércio de Freitas, Raymundo Bittencourt, music producer Roberto Menescal and sound engineer Umberto Candardi. Family members interviewed include Tenório’s widow Carmen Magalhäes, his sister Vitoria Tenório and his uncle Manuel Tenório.

Also interviewed are several of Tenório Jr.’s friends in the Rio de Janeiro’s arts community, including Alberto Campana, the owner of Bottle’s Bar and Little, the nightclub where Tenório Jr. got his first big break; poet Ferrreira Gullar, who says that a psychic named Mrs. Haydée told Tenório Jr.’s father that Tenório Jr. was murdered; and family members and associates of de Moraes, such as his ex-wife Marta Santamaría, ex-brother-in-law Carlos Santamaría and friend Elena Goñio. Experts who weigh in with interview include Agrentina’s National Memory Archive coordinator Judith Said, human rights lawyer Luiz Eduardo, filmmaker/university professor Rogério Lima and journalists John Rowles, Nano Herrar and Horatio Verbitsky.

The animation is eye-catching and looks like painting art come to life. However, some people might not like the animation style that’s in this movie. The scenes where Jeff is visiting nightclubs to watch performances are enjoyable. And his investigation will keep viewers interested. It’s especially impactful when Jeff finds out what reportedly happened on the last day of Tenório’s life.

There are pros and cons to Goldblum’s constant narration in this movie. On the one hand, he gives a very good voice performance that remains engaging throughout the film. On the other hand, Goldblum has such a distinctive and famous voice, a lot of vewers might find his celebrity voice distracting. You never forget that you’re listening to Goldblum, which makes it harder to believe the narration is from a character named Jeff Harris.

Despite these narrative flaws, “They Shot the Piano Player” is a very good history lesson about Bossa Nova and about a fairly obscure and underrated Bossa Nova musician. The movie also tells a tragic story of someone who died simply because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “They Shot the Piano Player” doesn’t make any statements about all the political turmoil in South America, but it tells a compelling human story about someone affected by this turmoil who left an influential legacy in Brazilian music.

Sony Pictures Classics released “They Shot the Piano Player” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with a wider release in U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Perfect Days’ (2023), starring Kôji Yakusho

February 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kôji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” (2023)

Directed by Wim Wenders

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tokyo, the dramatic film “Perfect Days” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly sanitation worker, who is a quiet loner, spends his days and nights trying to live a harmonious existence when he’s with other people, but he sometimes battles loneliness and being misunderstood. 

Culture Audience: “Perfect Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a “slice of life” movie that focuses on a specific individual.

Arisa Nakano and Kôji Yakusho in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” is a “slice of life” movie about an elderly sanitation worker who is a quiet loner. Viewer appreciation will rest entirely on whether or not this person is worth watching. For most people, the answer is “yes.” However, because “Perfect Days” is a slow-paced movie, it won’t have much appeal to viewers with short attention spans or those who have no interest in seeing this insularly focused movie about this type of person.

Directed by Wim Wenders (who co-wrote the “Perfect Days” screenplay with Takuma Takasaki), “Perfect Days” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where star Kôji Yakusho won the prize for Best Actor. The movie then made the rounds at numerous film festivals in 2023, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “Perfect Days” was nominated for Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards.

Yakusho, who stars as “Perfect Days” protagonist Hirayama, gives the type of performance where he has to do a lot of acting with his facial expressions and body language, since Hirayama doesn’t talk at all for a great deal of the film. When he does talk, he does so sparingly, without saying his inner feelings out loud. It’s the type of performance that will make viewers want to know more about Hirayama—not in a way where the movie feels incomplete, but in a way that indicates there’s a lot more to Hirayama than he shows to the people he sees on a regular basis.

“Perfect Days” shows what amounts to about two weeks of Hirayama’s life. He works for a company called The Tokyo Toilet, and his job is to clean outdoor public toilets in Tokyo, where he lives. He is very responsible, prompt and thorough in his work. It doesn’t take long for viewers to see that Hirayama likes to keep his life uncomplicated and is happy with finding comfort in life’s simple pleasures.

Very little is known about Hirayama before this story takes place. What were his hopes and dreams when he was younger? Has he been married? Does he have children? What types of jobs did he have before his current job? Don’t expect answers to these questions, although because Hirayama lives alone and doesn’t mention having any children, it can be assumed that he’s a bachelor with no children.

A few things become apparent about Hirayama from his interactions with people. He’s kind, he’s generous, and he likes his daily routines. He has a pattern that he sticks to of going to his job, a local park for lunch, his favorite cafe and bar when he’s not working, and then going home. He likes listening to classic rock, reading, and taking outdoor photos. He keeps his photos neatly filed in boxes labeled according to the months that the photos were taken.

Hirayama shows his generosity by lending a co-worker in his 20s named Takashi (played by Tokio Emoto) some money so that Takashi can court a girlfriend named Aya (played by Aoi Yamada), whom Takashi wants desperately to impress. Takashi gets the money by whining to Hirayama that the Tokyo Toilet job doesn’t pay Takashi enough money to take Aya out on the dates that he thinks Aya deserves. At first, Takashi tried to persuade Hirayama to sell off a large part of Hirayama’s music collection (he has mostly cassettes and vinyl albums) to get the money, but Hirayama decides to just give Takashi the wanted cash instead. Takashi shows up late for work sometimes. When Hirayama has to pick up the slack for Takashi’s flakiness, Hirayama does so without complaining.

Music is a big part of “Perfect Days,” since Hirayama listens to classic rock from the 1960s and 1970s for enjoyment, and it becomes a way that he bonds with certain people in the movie. Patti Smith’s breakthrough 1975 album “Horses” is prominently featured in the story. Other music heard in the movie’s soundtrack (which is the soundtrack to Hirayama’s life) are songs such as Lou Reed’s plaintive 1972 ballad “Perfect Day,” Van Morrison’s classic 1967 love song “Brown Eyed Girl” and the Kinks’ 1966 jaunty hit “Sunny Afternoon.” There’s a scene in the movie where Aya asks Hirayama if she can find “Horses” on Spotify. He’s never heard of Spotify before and think it’s a physical retail store, because he doesn’t fully understand the concept of a digital streaming service.

A turning point in the story comes with the unexpected visit of Hirayama’s teenage niece Niko (played by Arisa Nakano), who shows up at Hirayama’s home because she’s having problems with her mother, who is Hirayama’s younger sister. This visit is a catalyst for Hirayama to look at his life from Niko’s perspective, and it opens up some old emotional wounds and certain feelings in Hirayama. “Perfect Days” is not a perfect movie, but it’s a wonderful example of a contemplative movie about someone who usually isn’t the main character of a movie and is the type of person who is often overlooked or forgotten in real life.

Neon released “Perfect Days” in New York City on November 10, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024. The movie was released in Japan and other countries in 2023.

Review: ‘Saltburn,’ starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver and Archie Madekwe

November 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Barry Keoghan in “Saltburn” (Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

“Saltburn”

Directed by Emerald Fennell

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, mostly in 2006, the comedy/drama film “Saltburn” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A mysterious Oxford University student becomes infatuated with his rich male classmate, who invites him to spend the summer with him at his family’s sprawling estate, where mind games and chaos ensue. 

Culture Audience: “Saltburn” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and movies that skewer the upper class of society.

Jacob Elordi in “Saltburn” (Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

“Saltburn” seems inspired by “Brideshead Revisited” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with a touch of “Absolutely Fabulous. “Although not as great as these inspirations, “Saltburn” has memorable performances and eye-catching scenes. The ending has a major plot hole. This plot hole might be easily overlooked during the sequence of events that are meant to shock viewers, but it’s a plot hole that nearly ruins what could have been a completely believable conclusion. Hint: “Saltburn” ignores the fact that coroners exist.

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, “Saltburn” is her second feature film as a writer/director, following her 2020 feature-film directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman,” which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. “Saltburn” has many recycled plot points from other movies, so “Saltburn” is not really all that original, but it does have some scenes that are fairly unique. “Saltburn” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival.

“Saltburn” (which takes place mostly in 2006) begins by showing the arrival of a new student at Oxford University in England: Oliver Quick (played by Barry Keoghan) has joined the graduating Class of 2006 sometime in December 2005, close to the Christmas holiday season. Oliver is a loner who is the type of overachieving student who will read every book on a professor’s recommended list, even though he doesn’t have to do all that work.

One of the first people Oliver meets at Oxford is one of his roommates: Michael Gavey (played by Ewan Mitchell), who wants to be Oliver’s friend and is even nerdier and more socially awkward than Oliver is. Michael is the type of dork who will bark out demands that Oliver prove his knowledge of answers to random questions that Michael verbally throws at him. Michael likes to feel intellectually superior to almost everyone, even though he secretly craves acceptance from the popular students in the school.

The most popular clique in the class is led by a wealthy heartthrob named Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi), who uses his good looks and charm to get whatever he wants. The Catton family’s opulent and sprawling estate is called Saltburn. The other students in Felix’s clique are also affluent and/or come from prominent families.

The opening scene of “Saltburn” shows Oliver saying, “I wasn’t in love with him. I loved him, of course, Everyone loved him … I protected him … But was I in love with him?” Before he answers that question, the movie shows Oliver’s arrival at Oxford.

The “him” in Oliver’s opening monologue is Felix, of course. Oliver seems instantly infatuated with Felix the moment that he sees Felix. Oliver admires Felix from afar, until one day, Oliver is riding his bike on campus, when he sees Felix looking dejected as Felix is sitting near a tree-lined bikeway path. Oliver stops and asks Felix what’s wrong. Felix says that his bicycle has a flat tire.

Felix explains that he’s already late for a class, which is too far away for him to walk in order not to miss most of the class session. Oliver generously lets Felix borrow Oliver’s bike. A grateful Felix later invites Oliver to hang out with Felix and his inner circle at a local pub. It’s the beginning of a friendship between Felix and Oliver, who quickly shuns Michael after Oliver is accepted into Felix’s clique. Michael isn’t too happy about this rejection and later makes some hilarious cutting remarks to Oliver about Oliver’s social climbing.

Someone who also isn’t happy about Oliver joining the group is Felix’s American cousin Farleigh Start (played by Archie Madekwe), who sees Oliver as a socially inferior interloper. Farleigh already had a grudge against Oliver, who embarrassed Farleigh in front of one of their teachers named Professor Ware (played Reece Shearsmith), when Oliver showed he knew more than Farleigh about the topic of discussion.

However, Farleigh still has some clout with the professor, who confesses that Farleigh’s mother (a famous actress named Fredrika Start, who’s never seen in the movie) was his crush when he and Fredrika were students at Oxford. People who watch “Saltburn” shouldn’t miss the first 15 minutes of the movie, which quickly explains the backstories of Farleigh and Oliver, who end up having a rivalry over Felix’s attention.

Farleigh’s mother moved to the United States, where Farleigh was born and raised. She had some kind of mental breakdown and has financial problems, so she sent Farleigh to live at Saltburn, because her brother is Sir James Catton (played by Richard E. Grant), who is Felix’s father. Farleigh’s father is not in Farleigh’s life. It’s mentioned Farleigh has been expelled from many schools for getting sexually involved with male teachers. Farleigh feels a lot of resentment and shame for having to ask his uncle James for money.

As for Oliver, the word has gotten around to many students at the school that he’s on a scholarship. Oliver tells people that he is an only child, and his estranged parents are heavily involved in drugs. According to Oliver, his father is a drug dealer who’s been in and out of prison. His mother is a drug addict and an alcoholic. Oliver hints that he experienced a lot of abuse and trauma in his childhood. Oliver makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with his parents.

“Saltburn” breezes by the academic year to show the graduation of Oxford’s Class of 2006. With no immediate plans after graduation, Felix invites Oliver to stay for the summer with the Catton family at Saltburn. The best parts of the movie take place at Saltburn, which is not only a playground for the family’s indulgences but also a prison of bottled-up resentments, sexual manipulation, and psychological warfare. Oliver gets swept up in it all.

The other members of the Catton family at Saltburn are Felix’s self-centered and vapid mother Elspeth Catton (played by Rosamund Pike) and Felix’s jaded and insecure late-teens sister Venetia Catton (played by Alison Oliver), who have some of the best lines in the movie. Elspeth is the type of person who will smile and pretend that her insults are compliments. Venetia, who has an eating disorder, is both rebellious and needy.

All of the Catton family members don’t do much at Saltburn except smoke, drink, eat lavish meals, lounge around, and have parties. When the younger members of the family play tennis, they wear tuxedos and party clothes. The family has a longtime butler named Duncan (played by Paul Rhys), whose “stiff upper lip” mannerisms suggest that he’s heard and seen a lot of unmentionable things at Saltburn, but he is loyally discreet.

Carey Mulligan (the star of “Promising Young Woman”) has a small supporting role in “Saltburn” as Elspeth’s tattooed friend Pamela, who is staying at Saltburn after getting out of drug rehab. Pamela has overstayed her welcome, but Elspeth won’t come right out and tell Pamela to leave. The snappy rapport between redhead Pamela and blonde Elspeth will remind “Absolutely Fabulous” sitcom fans of the rapport between “Absolutely Fabulous” substance-abusing fashionista friends Edina “Eddie” Monsoon (the redhead) and Patricia “Patsy” Stone (the blonde).

“Saltburn” unpeels the layers of Oliver, who at first seems in awe and somewhat overwhelmed to be in the presence of the Catton family’s wealth. Slowly but surely, it’s revealed that there’s a lot more to Oliver than what he first appeared to be. And there are some things he does in the movie (especially those involving bodily fluids) that are intended to make viewers uncomfortable.

Keoghan gives a fascinating performance as Oliver, who is quite the chameleon. Madekwe is compelling in his depiction of the very snarky Farleigh, Oliver’s main adversary. Pike and Oliver are also standouts for their portrayals of a mother and daughter who are caught between smug vanity and crippling self-doubt. Look beneath the physically attractive surfaces of Elspeth and Venetia, and you’ll see two women who hate that their worth is defined by how they look and how much wealth they have.

Elordi is also quite good in his role as Felix, who is shallow but is a less-toxic member of the Catton family. “Saltburn” plays with viewers’ expectations of whether or not ladies’ man Felix will acknowledge Oliver’s obvious infatuation with Felix. And if so, what will be done about it? And what if Oliver gets rejected?

“Saltburn” has some stunning cinematography (by Linus Sandgren) that alternates between bright hues of idyllic luxury and the shadowy darkness of secrets and decadence. The movie’s production design and costume design are also noteworthy. “Saltburn” has some intense emotional scenes that are well-acted with clever dialogue.

Where “Saltburn” stumbles the most is in the last 20 minutes of the movie, which will be divisive to viewers. The concluding part of “Saltburn” is very suspenseful, but when answers to mysteries are finally revealed, they are rushed through the story and just create more questions that the movie never bothers to answer. Still, there’s no denying that the cast members’ performances are worth watching. And the movie’s flaws are outnumbered by the areas where “Saltburn” excels.

Amazon MGM Studios released “Saltburn” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023. Prime Video will premiere “Saltburn” on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘The Holdovers,’ starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa

October 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (Photo by Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

“The Holdovers”

Directed by Alexander Payne

Culture Representation: Taking place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971, the comedy/drama film “The Holdovers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A professor, a student and a cook (who all are associated with an elite boarding school for boys) form an unlikely bond over their loneliness and personal problems during a Christmas holiday break.

Culture Audience: “The Holdovers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Alexander Payne, star Paul Giamatti and above-average movies about unique characters who are find themselves spending time together under unexpected circumstances.

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (Photo by Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

Filled with acerbic wit and superb talent, “The Holdovers” is an engaging comedy/drama about finding personal connections with unexpected people. It’s more than a Christmas movie. It’s an authentic portrait of humanity. “The Holdovers” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and then had its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it came in second place for TIFF’s top prize of the People’s Choice Award.

Directed by Alexander Payne and written by David Hemingson, “The Holdovers” takes place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971. (The movie was filmed on location in Massachusetts.) “The Holdovers” is a very impressive feature-film debut for screenwriter Hemingson, whose previous experience has been in television, with credits that include the TV series “Whiskey Cavalier” and “Kitchen Confidential.” “The Holdovers” was originally conceived as a pilot (test episode) for a potential TV series.

In “The Holdovers,” the three characters at the center of the story all have a connection to an elite boarding school for boys called Barton Academy, which is located in an unnamed suburb of Boston. Adjunct professor of ancient history Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), a longtime Barton Academy faculty member, is grouchy, strict and very demanding. Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa), a 17-year-old student, excels in Paul’s class, but Angus is a moody and rebellious loner who is often rude and sarcastic to people. Mary Lamb (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the chief chook at Barton Academy, is sassy but compassionate and generous.

Through a series of circumstances, this unlikely trio of misfits find themselves alone for the Christmas holiday season at Barton Academy, while almost everyone else has gone away on vacation. The people who are left behind at Barton Academy during this vacation period have the unflattering nickame of “the holdovers.” It’s considered a stigma to be stuck on campus during this holiday break, because the assumption is that people in this situation don’t have any loved ones or friends who want to be with them for the holiday season.

Paul, Angus and Mary find out that they are all in emotional pain, in different and similar ways. Paul is a very cynical bachelor with a troubled past. Paul lives alone, has never been married, and he has no children. Angus (who is an only child) feels abandoned and neglected by his mother Judy Clotfelter (played by Gillian Vigman), who would rather spend this holiday season on a honeymoon with her new husband Stanley Clotfelter (played by Tate Donovan).

Mary is a single mother who is grieving over the recent death of her college-age son (and only child) Curtis, a Barton Academy alum who was drafted into the Vietnam War and died in combat. Curtis’ father Harold, who was Mary’s fiancé, died in a shipyard job accident when Curtis was very young. Harold and Curtis both died before they were the age of 25. Mary doesn’t want a lot of people to see her suffering, so she’s been somewhat avoiding her loved ones, including her boyfriend Danny (played by Naheem Garcia) and her sister Peggy (played by Juanita Pearl), who lives in Boston.

“The Holdovers” has sharp writing, directing and acting throughout the movie, but it takes a while before the movie gets to the best scenes. The first third of “The Holdovers” is a series of scenes establishing the personalities of the three main characters, while the last two-thirds of the movie unpeel some of the layers of their lives, thereby revealing flaws, secrets and emotional damage that they’ve experienced. As already shown in the trailer for “The Holdovers,” there’s a point in the story where Angus and Paul spend time alone together, and Paul starts to feel like a fatherly mentor to Angus.

Giamatti has played many curmudgeonly and jaded characters before (including in Payne’s Oscar-winning 2004 dramedy “Sideways”), but Giamatti’s performance in “The Holdovers” is probably the best of the bunch. Sessa makes a very admirable feature-film debut as the complicated Angus. Randolph gives a performance that is both amusing and heartbreaking.

The first third of the movie shows these three characters within the context of how they want to present themselves to other people in Barton Academy culture. But as more Barton Academy people go away for the holidays, the vulnerabilities of Paul, Angus and Mary start to become more apparent. And these three characters become more open among themselves in showing these vulnerabilities.

There are some interesting side characters in “The Holdovers,” but their impact on the story isn’t as powerful as the relationship that evolves between Paul, Angus and Mary. Barton Academy employee Miss Lydia Crane (played by Carrie Preston) is one of the few people at the school who likes unpopular Paul. She invites Paul and Angus to her home for a crowded holiday party, where Paul and Angus start to see different sides to each other.

Paul’s boss Dr. Hardy Woodrup (played by Andrew Garman), who is Barton Academy’s headmaster, is often frustrated with stubborn and ill-tempered Paul, who is harsh and tactless in the way he communicates. However, Paul prides himself on having high ethical standards: He is the type of professor who doesn’t give special treatment to his students, based on the clout and income of the students’ parents. An early scene in the movie shows Hardy and Paul having a tense conversation, where Hardy says he disagrees with Paul’s past decision to flunk a student son of a senator, who is one of the school’s biggest donors.

Angus has a contentious or aloof attitude toward his fellow students. The student he clashes with the most is a racist bully named Teddy Kountze (played by Brady Hepner), who is a spoiled and entitled rich kid. Other student characters who are featured in “The Holdovers” include a long-haired star athlete named Jason Smith (played by Michael Provost), an amiable introvert named Alex Ollerman (played by Ian Dolley) and a quiet immigrant named Ye-Joon Park (played by Jim Kaplan). Alex is a holdover because his parents are Mormon missionaries who are busy traveling. Ye-Joon is a holdover because is parents are in Korea, and they think he is too young to travel by himself to Korea.

“The Holdovers” is filmed as if it’s a time capsule from the early 1970s (the opening title card sequence is a tribute to this era of cinema), but the themes explored in this gem of a film are timeless. It’s the type of story that doesn’t need to be made into a TV series, as it was originally conceived. The conclusion of this film is just right the way that it is.

Focus Features will release “The Holdovers” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on November 28, 2023. Peacock will premiere “The Holdovers” on December 29, 2023.

Review: ‘The Zone of Interest,’ starring Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller

October 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Christian Friedel in “The Zone of Interest” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Zone of Interest”

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

German, Polish and Yiddish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Poland, in 1943, the dramatic film “The Zone of Interest” (based loosely on the novel of the same name) features an all-white group of people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Auschwitz concentration camp commandant/Nazi official Rudolf Höss and his family live with casual indifference near the concentration camp, where about 990,000 Jewish people were murdered during his reign of terror.

Culture Audience: “The Zone of Interest” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of filmmaker Jonathan Glazer and people who are interested in unconventional Holocaust movies.

Sandra Hüller (pictured at right) in “The Zone of Interest” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Most Holocaust movies are shown from the perspectives of the victims or the rescuers. “The Zone of Interest” is told from the perspective of a Nazi leader who thought his job of committing genocide on Jewish people was perfectly normal. It’s a different type of Holocaust movie because it shows with unflinching clarity how the shameful horrors of the Holocaust were casually accepted by Nazi families, such as those of commandant Rudolf Höss. Concentration camps were treated like factories.

Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix Award (which is the equivalent of second place) and the FIPRESCI Prize. “The Zone of Interest” has since made the rounds at other films in 2023, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. “The Zone of Interest” is loosely based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name.

The title refers to the term “used by the Nazi SS to describe the 40-square-kilometer area immediately surrounding the Auschwitz concentration camp on the outskirts of Oświęcim, Poland,” according to the production notes for “The Zone of Interest.” Approximately 990,000 Jewish people died in Auschwitz, which existed from 1940 to 1945. In real life, Höss was the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz from 1940 to 1943 and from 1944 to 1945. He was eventually convicted of war crimes in 1947, the year that he died at age 45 by an execution hanging.

“The Zone of Interest” takes place in 1943, before Rudolf (played by Christian Friedel) is transferred to another concentration camp. On the surface, “The Zone of Interest” looks like it’s just about the mundane activities of a family. But the movie intends to show how deceptively “normal” people who commit heinous crimes can look, especially when they are surrounded by family members. An early scene in the movie shows Rudolf having a carefree picnic with members of his family near a lake.

Rudolf’s family members who are shown in the movie include his moody wife Hedwig Höss (played by Sandra Hüller), who is kind and loving to her children but rude and demeaning to the family’s housekeepers. Rudolf and Hedwig have five children, ranging in ages from infancy to about 14 years old. They are son Claus Höss (played by Johann Karthaus); son Hans Höss (played by Luis Noah Witte); daughter Inge-Brigit Höss (played by Nele Ahrensmeier); daughter Heideraud Höss (played by Lili Falk) and baby daughter Annagret Höss (played by Anastazja Drobniak, Cecylia Pękala and Kalman Wilson).

Later, Hedwig’s mother Lina Hensel (played by Imogen Kogge) comes to visit. Hedwig tells Lina in a bragging tone of voice, “Rudi says I’m the queen of Auschwitz.” It’s one of a few scenes in the movie where the Nazi followers show their antisemitism like a badge of honor. A cliché movie would have had the Nazis constantly spewing verbal hatred of Jewish people. “The Zone of Interest” more accurately shows that evil bigots don’t often say their most heinous prejudicial thoughts out loud several times a day.

Most of the “The Zone of Interest” takes place in the medium-sized home of the Höss family, where they live close to the death camp known as Auschwitz. The movie was filmed in the same vicinity where the real Auschwitz existed. Rudolf and Hedwig have no problem with the idea that their family is living near a place dedicated to torturing and murdering innocent people. There’s a disturbing scene where the Höss house is shown in a wide shot on a very sunny day that looks perfect—except in the background are the unmistakable smoke fumes of gas chambers being operated at Auschwitz.

The Jewish victims of these atrocities are never seen on screen in “The Zone of Interest.” It’s the movie’s way of saying that when these Nazi perpetrators were at home, Jewish people were “out of sight, out of mind.” However, Rudolf can’t help but take remnants of his work into his home. In one scene, he’s hunched over a bathroom sink as he blows black ash out of his nose into the sink. In another bathroom scene, he carefully washes his penis out of view of his family, with the obvious implication that he committed the type of rape that leaves damning stains.

Another scene shows a close-up of Rudolf standing up at work with only his body in the screen frame. But in the background are the harrowing sounds of people screaming and gunshots. It’s left up to “The Zone of Interest” viewers to speculate what type of crimes against humanity were being committed out of view. Much of “The Zone of Interest” is filmed as if it’s a cinéma vérité-styled documentary about a “typical” family in Poland at this time.

During another scene in the movie, Hedwig is talking at a kitchen table with a few visiting female friends, who are engaging in some gossip. In the next room, Rudolf and some of his SS colleagues are seated at table with their own conversation that is much more sinister: They are discussing the best way to engineer and place gas chamber equipment.

The Nazi men also talk about gas chamber procedures: “burn, cool, unload, reload.” They discuss it as if they’re talking about a regular assembly line routine at a factory, not burning people to death, letting their dead bodies cool off, dumping the bodies, and then bringing in more innocent people to murder in a gas chamber. The Höss family dog is treated with more kindness and respect than these hateful bigots ever had for the Jewish people they slaughtered.

There’s another scene where Rudolf makes a phone call to berate someone into making sure that the lilac bushes at Auschwitz get special care. He makes a threat to say that anyone who makes the lilac bushes “bleed” will be punished. (In other words: “Don’t get any blood on the lilac bushes.”) The Höss family home has a beautiful backyard garden, where the flowers get more care than the people who are starved, tortured and murdered in Auschwitz. It’s another example of how Jewish people’s lives are disregarded by Adolf Hitler devotees such as Rudolf and Hedwig.

Many movies about the Holocaust would want to recreate these disgusting crimes. However, “The Zone of Interest” effectively shakes people up into remembering that the Holocaust was allowed to continue for as long as it did because it was considered a “normal” way of life for many non-Jewish people who chose to look the other way if they didn’t directly participate in this antisemitic genocide. It’s the movie’s reminder that the Holocaust didn’t happen suddenly but in increments. Jewish people were targeted, their rights were gradually taken away, and then they were left vulnerable to being harmed in the Holocaust.

Not everyone in the movie sides overtly sides with the Nazis. The Höss children seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that they are living next to an antisemitic murder facility, although it’s implied that their parents are teaching these children to hate Jewish people. The Höss family has two housekeepers in their late teens or early 20s: meek and passive Marta (played by Martyna Poznańska) gets most of Hedwig’s wrath, while sturdy and reliable Aniela (played by Zuzanna Kobiela) is quietly rebellious and secretly helps feed the starving Jewish people at the concentration camp.

At night, Aniela rides her bicycle to the concentration camp to drop off apples in the dirt where the laborers will find them. She also drops apples into the underground bunker prisons where many of the captured people are being held. Aniela knows which areas to go where she won’t be seen by the soldiers keeping guard. When she’s doing these secretive activities, the movie shows her in night vision-type lighting, as if she’s under secret surveillance by a camera with night vision.

Rudolf and Hedwig talk about things that seem ordinary and typical for people in a middle-class household. Hedwig mentions that she’d like him to take her to a spa in Italy. Rudolf is seen reading a children’s book to one of his daughters in bed. It’s not exactly the movie saying, “Nazis: They’re just like us,” but it’s the movie’s way of letting viewers know that people who believe in this extreme bigotry don’t look like monsters on the outside. They could be the harmless-looking people next door.

In a scene toward the end of movie, Rudolf is standing alone near a stairwell of a government building when he dry heaves and spits on the ground. It’s a scene reminiscent of near the end of the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing,” in which former death squad leader Anwar Congo, who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 to 1966, begins uncontrollably dry wretching, as if he’s overwhelmed by the memories of what his atrocities looked like and smelled like. In “The Zone of Interest,” a present-day scene at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum shows some of the devastating museum displays that have evidence of the many lives lost in the Holocaust.

Friedel and Hüller give capable performances, but “The Zone of Interest” doesn’t have big, showoff acting for a reason: The point of the movie is not to be about scene-stealing dramatics or to have cartoonish villains. It’s about showing how extraordinary cruelty can be condoned in plain sight and be rendered “ordinary” by the people who enable it to happen.

A24 will release “The Zone of Interest” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Poor Things,’ starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, Ramy Youssef and Jerrod Carmichael

October 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

“Poor Things”

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Culture Representation: Taking place in Europe and in Egypt, sometime in the 1890s, the fantasy/comedy/drama “Poor Things” (based on the novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A pregnant woman who committed suicide is re-animated from the dead by a scientist, who transplants her unborn child’s brain into her head, and she goes on journey of self-identity and exploring her sexuality, while most of the men she knows try to control her. 

Culture Audience: “Poor Things” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Yorgos Lanthimos and star Emma Stone, as well as anyone interested in watching offbeat, sexually explicit and very artistic portrayals of human relationships.

Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe in “Poor Things” (Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures)

Bold and uncompromising in its vision, “Poor Things” is cinematic art at its finest. Emma Stone gives a tour-de-force performance in this enthralling and sometimes amusing story about power, control and independence in gender dynamics and female sexuality. Make no mistake: This movie is not for everyone. “Poor Things” isn’t appropriate viewing for people who are too young to watch or are easily offended by full-frontal nudity (male and female) in sex scenes. Many of the movie’s themes about personal freedoms versus society’s restrictions are meant to be thought-provoking, but some viewers won’t like the dark comedy or the way these themes are explored in sometimes unconventional ways.

“Poor Things” is the second movie collaboration between director/producer Yorgos Lanthimos, actress Stone and screenwriter Tony McNamara, after they previously collaborated on 2018’s “The Favourite.” Unlike “The Favourite,” which has an original screenplay, “Poor Things” is adapted from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name. “Poor Things” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, where the movie won the festival’s highest prize: the Golden Lion, which is the equivalent of Best Picture for the festival. “Poor Things” had its North American premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and has made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival and the Zurich Film Festival.

The “Poor Things” movie takes the book’s original setting of Scotland and relocates it to London. The movie’s story is told in chapters, according to whichever city the protagonist happens to be at the time. This protagonist is Bella Baxter (played by Stone, one of the producers of “Poor Things”), a woman with a mysterious past and living in a re-animated body whose age does not match the much-younger brain that she has in her head. Viewers of “Poor Things” are taken on a journey of Bella’s transformation as her brain and cognitive abilities begin developing and maturing.

The movie’s opening scene shows Bella jumping off of a bridge to commit suicide. It’s later revealed that Bella was pregnant when she jumped off of the bridge. A deeply troubled and controlling scientist named Godwin Baxter (played by Willem Dafoe) has rescued her and brought her back to his secretive lab in his isolated London mansion. He decides he will re-animate this mystery woman and transplant the brain of her unborn baby into her head. Godwin (who wants to be called God) gives this re-animated woman the name Bella. The movie shows whether or not Bella ever finds out about her re-animated origins.

Bella’s intelligence and knowledge develop at a rapid pace, but she still starts off with the maturity and brain power of an infant child. The infancy stage of her brain is not shown in the movie. When viewers first see Bella eating at a dinner table, she has the body of a woman but the mannerisms of a human who’s about 2 or 3 years old. She can eat, sit up, and stand on her own, but her body movements are often uncoordinated. She eats food with her hands when most people would use utensils to eat the same food. Her vocabulary is also very simple.

Godwin has no interest in teaching Bella a lot of society’s norms and etiquette, because he intends to never let Bella far from his sight. Godwin knows that what he is dong with Bella is a highly unethical and illegal scientific experiment, so he wants to keep Bella a secret at all costs. (Godwin does other transplants of body parts on animals, as evidenced by the pets on his property, such as a goat with a duck’s head and a chicken with a pug dog’s head.) As Bella’s brain matures, she becomes more curious about the outside world, but Godwin forbids her from going into the populated part of the city. At first, Bella views Godwin as a protective parental figure, but then she starts to feel resentment and rebel against his domineering control of her life.

Bella doesn’t have basic manners that people are taught when they become old enough to speak. Her “no filter” dialogue and actions are supposed to be among the movie’s funniest or the most uncomfortable moments. Bella has “grown up” watching Godwin do autopsies on people, so she develops a fascination with the human body. Later, Bella shows inclinations that she wants to become a medical examiner.

When she discovers masturbation by inserting objects into her vagina, it awakens Bella’s sexuality and becomes the catalyst for many things that occur during the rest of the movie. Because she has not been taught what is right or wrong when it comes to sexual acts, Bella grabs the crotch (out of curiosity) of Godwin’s loyal housekeeper Mrs. Prim (played by Vicki Pepperdine) in front of Godwin, who at least has the decency to tell Bella that she can’t grab people’s crotches without their consent.

Mrs. Prim is one of the few people who know Godwin’s secret about Bella. Godwin soon lets someone else in on his secret: a village doctor named Max McCandles (played by Ramy Youssef), who is hired by Godwin to be his research assistant/protégé and is sworn to secrecy about this job. Max is a polite gentleman who is immediately awestruck and infatuated with Bella. Max treats her with kindness and respect.

Before Max acts on his romantic feelings for Bella, he asks Godwin if Godwin has a sexual interest in Bella. Godwin assures him that he sees himself only as a father figure to Bella. Godwin also confesses to Max that Godwin is sexually impotent and has a traumatic past of being sexually abused by Godwin’s father. Godwin also has severe facial scars that look like his face had been slashed. Godwin says his father was the one who mutilated him.

In his own twisted way, Godwin wants to create a perfect family by keeping them confined to his mansion. And so, he encourages Max to court Bella and gives Max his blessing to propose marriage to Bella—on one big condition: Max can’t leave the mansion either after he marries Bella. Max agrees to this demand.

During this tender and sometimes awkward courtship, a brash and arrogant visitor comes into the household and throws these marriage plans into disarray. He is an attorney named Duncan Wedderburn (played by Mark Ruffalo), who has come to visit because he has the legal contract that Max must sign for Max’s marriage to Bella. At this point, Bella doesn’t fully understand what love is about, but she understands lustful sexual desire and how it can often be a way that some people manipulate others.

Duncan, who is a playboy bachelor, finds Bella to be very attractive and makes lecherous sexual advances on her. He also loves to brag about what a great lover he is. When he finds out that Bella is yearning to explore the outside world, Duncan promises to whisk her away on an adventure trip through Europe, beginning with Lisbon, Portugal. Despite the objections of Godwin and the heartbreak of Max, she eagerly accepts Duncan’s offer and goes away with Duncan.

During this trip, Duncan and Bella have a sexual relationship, but it’s not a relationship based on mutual respect. Duncan treats Bella like a sexual plaything, while she acts like a student who’s eager to learn. And even though Bella wanted to escape the possessive control of Godwin, she finds out too late that Duncan is even more possessive than Godwin. Duncan flies into jealous rages if he thinks that Bella might be sexually interested in other men.

Bella’s journey also takes her to a cruise ship going to Alexandria, Egypt, where she experiences more attempts by Duncan to control her life. During this cruise ship excursion, Bella meets a middle-aged wealthy woman named Martha Von Kurtzroc (played by Hanna Schygulla) and her platonic younger companion Harry Astley (played by Jerrod Carmichael), who give Bella a new, open-minded perspective that women and men can be friends with no sex involved. Martha tells Bella that she’s been celibate for 20 years and is content with having a life with no sex, which is a mind-blowing concept to Bella, who has been led to believe by Duncan that a woman’s primary purpose in life is to sexually pleasure men.

That doesn’t mean that Bella is willing to give up sex, because she likes sex a lot and wants to learn as much about sex as she can. But by coming into contact with a more diverse group of people with various lifestyles, Bella becomes more aware that she has many more options than she ever thought she had. One thing that hasn’t changed about Bella is her innate resistance to being confined and being told what to do with her life.

When Bella and Duncan are in Paris, she makes a life-changing decision that is an assertion of who Bella wants to be as a person capable of being in control of her own life. In Paris, she meets and befriends a heavily tattooed brothel madam named Swiney (played by Kathryn Hunter) and a brothel sex worker named Toinette (played by Suzy Bemba), who pass no judgments on any of Bella’s life decisions. Paris is where Bella truly blossoms. She is no longer trapped in a childlike or teenage mindset but expressing herself as a fully formed adult in her intelligence and emotional maturity.

Back in London, Godwin has moved on to finding another young dead woman to re-animate and control. He names her Felicity (played by Margaret Qualley), but this time, Godwin purposely wants to keep her passive, so he gives Felicity a brain where she probably won’t be able to think as independently as Bella can think. Max is still Godwin’s assistant, because Max is pining over Bella and hopes she will return to London and possibly get back together with him. Meanwhile, a military general named Alfred “Alfie” Blessington (played Christopher Abbott) shows up in the last third of the movie and causes yet another major change in Bella’s life.

“Poor Things” is truly a visual feast filled with a potpourri of great acting. Stone takes on the role of Bella with pure gusto that never gets overly hammy but looks organic and genuine to the Bella character. Aside from the physical demands of this role, the emotional arc that Stone shows in Bella’s evolution is absolutely exceptional. Ruffalo, Dafoe and Youssef also give high-quality performances, while Newton makes a memorable impact in the short amount of screen time that she has the movie.

“Poor Things” will get inevitable comparisons to “Frankenstein,” but the biggest difference in each story’s re-animated character is that Dr. Frankenstein’s creation never has a brain that develops beyond a child-like level. Frankenstein’s monster also never has to deal with the minefield of sexual demands and discrimination that Bella experiences, simply because she’s a female. Even though “Poor Things” is not a horror story like “Frankenstein” is, “Poor Things” holds up a gilded mirror to society to show a different type of horror story: The problem of people trying to control and dictate what women do with their own bodies and with their own lives is not oppression that is stuck in the 1890s but is still very much going on today, with no end in sight.

Aside from the gender issues about sexuality, “Poor Things” has astute observations about gender issues and financial freedom. There comes a point in time when Bella finds out that men aren’t the only people who can choose what to do to make money. Bella also makes a big decision in Alexandria when she is confronted with the harsh realities of poverty and income inequality.

In “Poor Things,” the stunning cinematography by Robbie Ryan (who uses a lot of “fish eye” lens camera work), exquisite production design by Shona Heath and James Price, and the gorgeous costume design by Holly Waddington all give the movie the look of a fantastical Gothic Revival alternate universe that takes place in the 1890s but with touches of modern flair. It’s a world that sometimes looks like a picture book come to life. The movie bursts with sumptuous hues and settings that evoke an “Alice in Wonderland” for adults.

However, Bella’s story is not presented as a typical female-oriented fairy tale where her ultimate goal in life is to find someone to be her soul mate/love partner. She begins to understand that she doesn’t have to be dishonest about herself in order to please others. And if she happens to find true love, it’s only worth it when mutual respect is part of the relationship. “Poor Things” is a work of fiction, but it shows the realities of how society can be both vulgar and civil, how life can be filled with pleasure and pain. It’s a cinematic experience like no other and has cemented itself as one of the best movies ever made by this talented principal cast, crew and other filmmakers.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Poor Things” in U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

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