Review: ‘On the Come Up,’ starring Jamila C. Gray, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Lil Yachty, Sanaa Lathan and Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jamila C. Gray, Justin Martin and Mike Epps star in “On the Come Up” (Photo by Erika Doss/Paramount+)

“On the Come Up”

Directed by Sanaa Lathan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional inner-city U.S. neighborhood of Garden Heights and briefly in Atlanta, the dramatic film “On the Come Up” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old girl, who’s an aspiring rapper involved in rap battles, has to decide if she will follow her manager’s advice to present a false image of herself as a “gangster rapper,” in order to become popular and get a record deal.

Culture Audience: “On the Come Up” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of hip-hop culture and coming-of-age stories where teenagers try to define their identities.

Michael Cooper Jr. and Jamila C. Gray in “On the Come Up” (Photo by Erika Doss/Paramount+)

Based on Angie Thomas’ 2019 bestselling novel of the same name, “On the Come Up” is a fairly entertaining but predictable drama about a 16-year-old inner-city girl who wants to become a rapper and gets involved in her local rap battle scene. There are better movies about aspiring rappers who do rap battles, but at least “On the Come Up” centers on a rare female perspective that’s refreshing from the cliché machismo in rap. The movie’s appealing performances overcome some flawed film editing.

“On the Come Up” is the feature-film directorial debut of Sanaa Lathan, who helmed the movie with a lot of heart, but the movie needed some technical finesse. Some of the scenes are choppily edited, so that instead of appearing seamless, the scene transitions look abrupt and don’t flow well with the story. However, the movie (whose adapted screenplay was written by Kay Oyegun) excels when it comes to the correct casting choices, since all of the cast members give believable performances. “On the Come Up” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The protagonist of “On the Come Up” is 16-year-old Brianna “Bri” Jackson (played by Jamila C. Gray, making an impressive feature-film debut), a talented writer who wants to pursue a career as a rapper. She lives in an unnamed U.S. state in the South in an inner-city neighborhood called Garden Heights. Bri is polite but outspoken and not afraid to stand up for herself.

Bri and her older brother Trey (played by Titus Makin) spent much of their childhood in foster care, because their single mother Jada “Jay” Jackson (played by Lathan) abandoned them and was a heroin addict for many years. Jay has now been clean and sober for the past three years and has regained custody of Bri, but Jay is struggling financially. Trey, who is now in his early 20s, quit a master’s degree program to get a job to help with the family finances. He currently works at a low-paying job at a restaurant called Sal’s.

Bri’s father was a semi-famous rapper called Lawless, who died when she was a very young child, so Bri never got to know him. His cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. Jay met Lawless (whose real name was Lawrence) when she was hired to be a “video vixen” in one of his music videos. Lawless was the type of rapper who was on his way to becoming a big star, but he never quite reached those heights and therefore never became wealthy.

In Garden Heights though, Lawless is kind of a legend in the neighborhood. Garden Heights even has a street mural dedicated to Lawless that Bri often passes when she’s walking down that street. As an aspiring rapper, Bri feels that she’s living in the shadow of her deceased father, but she’s also proud of being his daughter. That’s why her chosen rap name is Lil Law. Even though rap is a big part of her life, Bri has a geeky side to her, because she’s a self-described “Star Wars nerd.”

Bri is currently a student Helen McCoy High School, which has a racial integration program, where low-income kids (who are usually African American and Latin) are bused to the school, which has a large population of middle-class white students. To make some money, Bri sells candy to some of her classmates. Her two best friends are also her schoolmates: laid-back Malik (played by Michael Cooper Jr.) and gossipy Sonny (played by Miles Gutierrez-Riley), who is very caught up in social media and viral videos that are trending.

Jay’s younger sister Patricia, who’s nicknamed Aunt Pooh (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), supports Bri’s dreams to become a famous rapper, and has volunteered to become Bri’s manager. Aunt Poo is also struggling financially, so she sees Bri as a potentially big ticket to a better life as the manager of a rich and successful rapper. Aunt Poo is inexperienced as an artist manager, but she tries to make up for that inexperience with a lot of sassy bravado and street smarts.

In Garden Heights, people gather on a regular basis for rap battles, which are set up like boxing matches. But instead of throwing punches, the opponents in the ring throw insults at each other in impromptu rap lyrics. The winner (whoever gets the louder cheers from the audience) receives a three-figure cash prize, usually $500. A local radio DJ named DJ Hype (played by Mike Epps) is the main emcee for these rap battles in Garden Heights. Bri compares getting in this rap battle ring to being like “‘The Hunger Games’ of hip-hop.”

Bri’s very first rap battle is a disaster for her, because she’s too nervous and freezes up when it’s her turn to speak. Unfortunately, some people in the audience took videos of this embarrassing moment. The videos go viral. Instead of being defeated by this setback, Bri is determined to win in her next rap battle.

Her opponent in this next battle is an up-and-coming rapper in his late teens or early 20s named Milez (played by Justin Martin), who is the son of a smooth-talking, successful music manager named Supreme (played by Cliff “Method Man” Smith). Supreme is at the rap battle that has Bri and Milez facing off with each other. It just so happens that Supreme has an indirect connection to Bri, because he used to be the manager of her late father, Lawless.

The outcome of the rap battle between Bri and Milez won’t be revealed in this review (it’s easy to guess), but it’s enough to say that Supreme is so impressed with Bri’s rapping skills, he offers to become her manager. Supreme tells Bri that he can take her career to the next level by getting her a record deal and making her a star. Bri accepts Supreme’s offer. Where does that leave Aunt Poo? Feeling rejected and bitter.

Meanwhile, “On the Come Up” has a subplot about law enforcement brutality by security officers at Helen McCoy High School. One day, Bri is walking in a school hallway, when two security officials named Officer Long (played by Malachi Malik) and Officer Tate (played by Cuyle Carvin) approach Bri and demand to see what’s in her backpack. Bri exercises her right to refuse, since these security officers don’t have a warrant or any reason to search her personal belongings.

Officer Long (who is African American) and Officer Tate (who is white) immediately escalate the situation. Officer Long, who is the more aggressive one, ends up tackling Bri in the hallway, and he places handcuffs on her. It’s unlawful brutality (especially since Bri is unarmed), but the school sides with the security officers and gives Bri a two-week suspension.

There are racial overtones to the unfair way that Bri was treated. In a meeting with the school’s Principal Rhodes (played by L.A. Winters), who is white, the principal talks to Bri and her mother Jay in a condescending manner. The principal, who seems to have a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude toward Bri, says that teachers have been complaining that Bri is disruptive in class. These are vague accusations that the principal never backs up with evidence.

When Bri tells Principal Rhodes that the school’s security officers target African American and Latino students more by than the white students. the principal is dismissive of this complaint. Bri finds out Officer Long felt he had a right to search Bri’s backpack because of rumors that Bri is a drug dealer. Bri vehemently denies that she’s involved with drugs (she’s telling the truth), and she says that she only sells candy out of her backpack. The principal shows a racial bias by seeming skeptical of Bri, but Principal Rhodes offers to do an investigation.

Jay is outraged that Bri has gotten suspended when Bri didn’t do anything wrong. Malik and Sonny want to have student protests against law enforcement brutality, and they want to start a viral video campaign showing Bri getting unlawfully manhandled by Officer Long. Bri refuses, because she thinks getting involved in protests will damage her rap career. During her two-week suspension, Bri’s career progresses, and she begins to wonder if going back to high school is really necessary when she could start being a full-time rapper.

Bri ends up making some money by winning rap battles. The money (which Bri gives to her mother) comes in handy, because Jay has recently been laid off from her church job due to budget cuts. Jay is having a hard time finding a new job. Things have gotten so bad, the apartment’s electricity has been turned off due to non-payment of this ultility bill.

Supreme dazzles Bri with big promises and sets up her very first recording session after he whisks away Bri, Malik, Sonny and Miles to a trip to Atlanta. During this trip, Bri meets an up-and-coming rapper named Infamous Millz (played by Lil Yachty), who is also from Garden Heights. And two romances develop between the young people in the story. One romance is more predictable than the other.

Bri’s blossoming rap career comes at a high price though: Supreme has convinced her to create a fake image of being a gangster rapper. Bri doesn’t carry guns, is not involved with crime, and has never been arrested. However, Supreme tells Bri that most people who buy rap music are suburban white kids, and the only way to become a successful rap artist is to make the type of music that will scare these kids’ parents. Needless to say, Bri’s family members and friends think she’s making a big mistake by not being her authentic self as an artist. Lathan and Gray have some well-acted scenes together when Jay and Bri have some disagreements with each other.

“On the Come Up” has some realism in how the music business works when it comes to rap, but the movie definitely takes a glossy view of how much sexism is ingrained in rap, a music genre that’s dominated by black male artists. There’s only one scene in the movie that shows a female rapper other than Bri. It’s when Bri and a young woman named Latrondra (played by Samantha Peel)—who uses the rap name Mystique and looks like a Nicki Minaj wannabe—do a spontaneous rap battle against each other in a parking lot. Latrondra/Mystique is never seen or heard from again in the movie.

Bri also doesn’t struggle much before she signs with an influential and experienced manager. As an attractive underage teenager, Bri would definitely be a target for predatory people in the music business. However, “On the Come Up” presents a very sheltered version of the harassment and discrimination that Bri would face as a teenage girl who wants to become a rapper. She gets a few snide and sexist comments, but that’s about it.

Because “On the Come Up” is rated PG-13 (suitable for people ages 13 and up) by the Motion Picture Association of America, the language in the movie is very tame compared to the langauge of hip-hop culture in real life. Therefore, the lyrics in the rap battle are sometimes a little corny. For uncensored and more adult-oriented lyrics in a rap battle movie, check out the 2017 drama “Bodied,” or for a more mainstream option, the Oscar-winning 2002 drama “8 Mile,” starring Eminem in a semi-autobiographical role.

Much of what holds “On the Come Up” together is the winning performance of Gray. Even with Bri’s realistic flaws, viewers will constantly be rooting for Bri to succeed. It’s a typical underdog story in many ways, but “On the Come Up” presents a unique and engaging story of a female rapper—the type of artist who rarely gets to be the star protagonist in a feature film.

Paramount Players/Paramount Pictures released “On the Come Up” in U.S. cinemas and on Paramount+ on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Sidney,’ starring Sidney Poitier

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Sidney”

Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Sidney” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and one person of Middle Eastern heritage), including actor/filmmaker/humanitarian Sidney Poitier, from the entertainment industry and from Poitier’s family, who all discuss Poitier’s life and legacy.

Culture Clash: Poitier, who broke many racial barriers in his long and esteemed career, experienced poverty in his childhood, racism from white people, and accusations of being a “sellout” from some members of the African American community.

Culture Audience: “Sidney” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Poitier and real stories of people who became icons after experiencing many hardships.

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The admirable documentary “Sidney” follows a very traditional format, but in telling the story of the extraordinary Sidney Poitier, it’s no ordinary biography. Poitier’s participation gives this documentary a heartfelt resonance that’s unparalleled. It’s the last major sit-down interview that he did before he died. He passed away at the age of 94, on January 6, 2022.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sidney” is a documentary that includes the participation and perspectives of several members of Poitier’s family, including all six of his daughters and the two women who were his wives. Some journalists and historians weigh in with their opinions, but the documentary is mostly a star-studded movie of entertainers who were influenced or affected by Poitier in some way. “Sidney” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the celebrity talking heads in the documentary is Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the producers of “Sidney.” She talks openly about how important Poitier was to her as a mentor during her own rise to fame as a TV talk show host and later as the owner of a media empire. Toward the end of the film, Winfrey begins crying when she says how much she misses Poitier. It’s a moment where viewers will have a hard time not getting tearful too.

Most people watching “Sidney” will already know something about Poitier before seeing this movie. His 2000 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” covers a lot of the same topics that’s covered in “Sidney.” But to see him talk about his life story and experiences in what no one knew at the time would be his last major interview brings an special poignancy to this documentary.

Born in Miami, on February 20, 1927, Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas, his parents’ native country. He was the youngest of seven children born to famers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. “I wasn’t expected to live,” Poitier says of his birth. “I was born two months premature.”

Poitier says that he was so sickly at birth, his father brought a shoe box into the birth room because the family thought that baby Sidney would have to be buried in the box. Sidney’s frantic mother took newborn Sidney to different places in the neighborhood to find anyone who could help save his life. Evelyn found a female soothsayer who said she couldn’t give any medical help, but she predicted that Sidney would be find and he would grow up to be an influential person who would find fame and fortune.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy and it was far from glamorous. In 1942, at the age of 15, his father Reginald had Sidney move to Miami and live with an aunt and uncle, because Sidney had a friend who was a juvenile delinquent, and Reginald feared that Sidney would fall in with a bad crowd. Little did Sidney know that he would be facing a different type of damage to his innocence.

In Miami, Sidney went through major culture shock and racism that drastically changed his perspective of the world. “Within a few months, I began to switch my whole view of life,” Sidney says of moving from the Bahamas to Miami. He got a part-time job as a delivery boy, and he tells a story of not understanding why a white woman who got one of his deliveries demanded that he only go to the back of the house to make the delivery. Later, when he heard that members of the Ku Klux Klan were looking for him because of this incident, he got so unnerved that he decided to leave town.

But even that attempted trip was fraught with danger, because he was harassed and stalked by white police officers, who didn’t want to see a black male having the freedom to travel wherever he wanted. Needless to say, when Sidney heard that black people had better work opportunities in New York City, he soon relocated to New York City, where he discovered his love of acting.

Life in New York City was a very difficult challenge too. For a while, Sidney was homeless and had to sleep in a public bathrooms. He got a job as a dishwasher while also taking acting classes, which he says he was like being in useful therapy, where he could pour all of his emotions into fictional characters. He read books and listened to radio stars (especially Norman Brokenshire) to learn how to speak with an American accent.

His motivation to become a great actor came from being rejected by audiences at the American Negro Theater because, as a black man, he was expected to sing, dance and be funny. Sidney wanted to be a serious dramatic actor. One of the American Negro Theater officials told Sidney that he should just give up acting altogether. We all know what happened after that Sidney got that horrible advice. It’s an excellent example of how someone can turn failure and discouragement into a triumph.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Sidney’s guiding principles were to do work that would make his parents proud. That’s why, throughout his career, he rejected doing roles that were demeaning to black people. He made his film debut as a doctor in the 1950 drama “No Way Out.” And the rest is history.

The year 1950 was also the year that Sidney married his first wife, Juanita Hardy Poitier. The couple had four daughters together: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. During the marriage, Sidney had a nine-year on-again/off-again affair with actress Diahann Carroll (who died of cancer in 2019), his co-star in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” Poitier and Carroll later co-starred in 1961’s “Paris Blues.” Sidney and Juanita’s marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1965. Sidney describes this period of time of his life as one of career highs but personal lows. He also expresses remorse about how his marital infidelity and divorce hurt his family.

The documentary gives chronological highlights of his career in movies and in theater. For his role in 1958’s prisoner escapee drama “The Defiant Ones” (co-starring Tony Curtis) Poitier became the first black person to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the movie’s ending was somewhat controversial among black people, because some critics thought it was pandering to a what’s now known as a “magical Negro” stereotype.

For his role in 1963’s “Lilies in the Field,” Sidney became the first black person to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. It was a role that was originally turned down by Poitier’s longtime friend Harry Belafonte, who was busy with a music career. Belafonte also thought that the “Lilies in a Field” role (a black man who’s a nomadic worker befriends a group of white German nuns) was too corny and subservient. Belafonte does not do an on-camera interview for this documentary, but he can be heard in a few voiceover comments.

In 1967, Sidney was a bona fide superstar as the lead actor in critically acclaimed hit movies “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All were groundbreaking in different ways in depicting race relations in cinema. And the fact that they were box-office successes are indications that times were changing, and the world was ready to see these types of movies.

For his “In the Heat of the Night” role, Sidney played a confident police detective named Virgil Tibbs, who demanded respect from everyone around him. There’s a famous scene in the movie where Virgil is slapped in the face by a racist white man for no good reason. In response, Virgil slaps the man in the face. At the time, it was rare for a movie to show a black man defending himself from this type of racist hate.

In “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney played a schoolteacher in East London who has to be the instructor for unruly white teenagers. It was another on-screen rarity at the time to see a black man in charge of white children. And in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Sidney had the role of a doctor who gets engaged to a white woman after a whirlwind romance, and she brings him home to introduce him to her shocked parents for the first time.

The documentary repeatedly mentions that for every accolade and trailblazing accomplishment that Sidney received, there were critics who thought that he wasn’t being “black enough.” Winfrey, who’s gotten the same type of criticism, remembers meeting Sidney after she became famous and was very in awe of meeting him. She says she asked him how he dealt with the “not black enough” criticism, and he gave her advice that she never forgot: He told her that as long as she was doing what felt right in her heart, that’s all that mattered.

Sidney and Belafonte, who were as close as brothers, were at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement. However, the two friends had occasional estrangements over various issues. One of these issues was that Sidney tended to be more politically conservative than Belafonte when it came to the support of Black Power groups that advocated for preparing for a race war and all the violence associated with war, especially after the devastating 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In his senior years, Sidney became an ambassador representing the Bahamas.

The documentary mentions that by the early 1970s, the Black Power movement and blaxploitation movies made Sidney seem like a somewhat a has-been and outdated movie star to some people. He began to shift his attention more to directing and producing movies. His feature-film directorial debut was the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. It’s mentioned in the documentary that as a filmmaker, Sidney practiced what he preached in the civil rights movement and gave plenty of jobs to people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera.

The 1970s decade was also period of change in his personal life: Sidney and Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus fell in love while co-starring in the 1969 movie “The Lost Man.” In the “Sidney” documentary, Shimkus Poitier says she never heard of Sidney until she got the role in the movie, whose love story plot mirrored their own romance. The couple had daughters Anika and Sydney Tamiia, and then wed in 1976, and remained married until Sidney’s death.

In the documentary, Sidney says that his second marriage also gave him a second chance to be a better husband and father. His daughters from his first marriage became part of his blended family. Sydney Tamiia (who is now known as Sidney Poitier Heartstrong) mentions that her parents made sure that she and her sister Anika grew up with other interracial families, with Quincy Jones and his interracial family being close friends with the Poitier family.

Jones is one of numerous stars who have joyous and insightful things to say about Poitier. Other entertainment celebrities who are interviewed include Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Louis Gossett Jr., Katharine Houghton and Lulu. Also interviewed are civil rights activist/former politican Andrew Young, writer/historian Greg Tate, civil rights activist Rev. Willie Blue, journalist/historian Nelson George and University of Memphis history professor Aram Goudsouzian, who wrote the 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.”

All of these interviewees have wonderful things to say and are often very witty when saying these things. That is not too surprising. However, what will stay with viewers the most is that they wouldn’t be saying those things if Sidney had not had such an exemplary life. His impact is immeasurable and goes far beyond the entertainment industry. He’s an unforgettable role model of hope, dignity and progress in striving for a better world.

Apple Studios released “Sidney” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on September 23, 2022.

2022 Toronto International Film Festival Awards: winners announced

September 18, 2022

The following is a press release from the Toronto International Film Festival:

The Toronto International Film Festival has announced its award recipients for the 47th edition of the Festival, which concluded last evening with the Closing Night screening of Mary Harron’s Dalíland at the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall.

“2022 brought an exceptional selection of films that excited festival audiences around the world,” said Cameron Bailey, TIFF CEO. “Our lineup showcased beloved auteurs alongside fresh voices in filmmaking, including numerous women powerhouses. TIFF welcomed guests, press, industry, international stars, and directors back to the city and into cinemas. The sweeping range in cinematic storytelling from around the world is a testament to the uniqueness of the films that are being made. We’re so grateful and proud of this year’s Festival.”

PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD

For the 45th year, the People’s Choice Awards distinguish the audience’s top title at the Festival as voted by the viewing public. All films in TIFF’s Official Selection were eligible.

TIFF 2022 People’s Choice Award winner is
The Fabelmans
dir. Steven Spielberg

The first runner-up is Women Talking dir. Sarah Polley
The second runner-up is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery dir. Rian Johnson

TIFF 2022 People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award winner
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
dir. Eric Appel

The first runner-up is Pearl dir. Ti West
The second runner-up is The Blackening dir. Tim Story

TIFF 2022 People’s Choice Documentary Award winner
Black Ice
dir. Hubert Davis

The first runner-up is Maya and the Wave dir. Stephanie Johnes
The second runner-up is 752 is not a Number dir. Babak Payami

IMDbPro SHORT CUTS AWARDS

The 2022 IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards are for Best Film, Best Canadian Film, and the Share Her Journey Award for best film by a woman. Each winning film will receive a bursary of $10,000 CAD and a one-year membership to IMDbPro, the essential resource for entertainment industry professionals, to help them continue achieving success in their careers. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, IMDbPro empowers entertainment professionals to discover new talent and projects and has an ongoing commitment to supporting and collaboratively working with organizations that create greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the entertainment industry, including TIFF’s Share Her Journey campaign. IMDbPro also supported the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance presented by IMDbPro, which was presented to Brendan Fraser for his outstanding performance in The Whale at the TIFF Tribute Awards gala fundraiser on September 11, 2022.

“As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of IMDbPro, we are honoured to present four TIFF Awards that so perfectly align with our mission to help entertainment industry professionals launch and grow their careers and our commitment to highlighting diverse artists and inclusive storytelling,” said Col Needham, Founder & CEO of IMDb. “We congratulate these Award recipients and all professionals whose work was featured at TIFF, and look forward to watching their careers continue to grow following this breakthrough moment.”

The winners of the three awards are:

IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Film:
Snow in September
dir. Lkhagvadulam (Dulmaa) Purev-Ochir

Jury’s statement: “Told through a bold and sophisticated lens, this tense yet poignant portrayal follows a young man’s shift from wide-eyed boy to yearning pursuer. The jury is pleased to present the IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Short Film to Snow in September directed by Mongolia’s Lkhagvadulam (Dulmaa) Purev-Ochir.”

Honourable Mention:
For its wildly entertaining and incredibly realized portrait of a flight attendant’s personal crisis, the jury is very pleased to present an honourable mention for the IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Short Film to Airhostess-737 by director Thanasis Neofotistos. Centred on Lena Papaligoura’s impressive performance, the film is an unhinged, compelling, and memorable tragicomedy.

IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Film:
Simo
dir. Aziz Zoromba
Jury’s statement: “Featuring convincing, natural performances and tight direction, the film astutely plays off of narrative conventions to deliver an unexpectedly tender take on growing up in an all-male immigrant family. The jury is delighted to give the IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Short to Aziz Zoromba for Simo.”

Honourable Mention:
For its intensely taut and pulsating tale following an aging delivery driver’s movement through a gritty, desperate night in the city, the jury is pleased to present an honourable mention for the IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Film to Same Old by director Lloyd Lee Choi.

IMDbPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award:
Nanitic
dir. Carol Nguyen (2022 TIFF Filmmaker Lab)
Jury’s statement: “With skill, precision, and sensitivity, this film stood out for its delicate and assured portrayal of love and sacrifice within a multi-generational household. The jury is thrilled to give the IMDbPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award to Carol Nguyen for Nanitic.”

The 2022 jurors for the IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards are Sally Lee, Thyrone Tommy, and Lisa Haller.

NETPAC AWARD

The 2022 NETPAC jury members include: Ida Yoshinaga and Diana Ashimova. TIFF is delighted to announce that the 2022 NETPAC Jury has selected Sweet As, dir. Jub Clerc as this year’s NETPAC winner.

The 2022 NETPAC jury released the following statement: “A model road film in all aspects with great locations and a strong cast, Jub Clerc’s Sweet As convincingly tells the story of an Indigenous girl on a youth-therapy bus tour — dealing with family, friendship, inspiration and self-identity.”

FIPRESCI PRIZE

The 2022 FIPRESCI jury members include: Andrew Kendall, Marriska Fernandes, Márcio Sallem, Andrea Crozzoli, and Max Borg. The jury is delighted to announce Basil Khalil’s A Gaza Weekend as this year’s FIPRESCI winner.

The 2022 FIPRESCI jury released the following statement: “For its empathy and intelligence in capturing the zeitgeist, and with its daring approach to contemporary satire and world cinema, we award Basil Khalil’s A Gaza Weekend the 2022 FIPRESCI Prize. Basil Khalil’s direction finds space for the more sorrowful, more tender moments of interpersonal crises even as he deftly escalates the bawdy humour on display, capturing the nature of survival as very serious and very funny business for these characters.”

AMPLIFY VOICES AWARDS PRESENTED BY CANADA GOOSE

Canada Goose embraces diversity in all its forms and definitions, including technique and passion that transports storytelling to the screen. This year, Canada Goose presents the Amplify Voices Awards to the three best feature films by under-represented filmmakers. All feature films in Official Selection by emerging filmmakers who are Black or Indigenous or persons of colour and Canadian, were eligible for these awards, and the three winners will receive a cash prize of $10,000 each, made possible by Canada Goose.

The three Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose winners are:

Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film:
To Kill a Tiger
dir. Nisha Pahuja
Jury’s statement: “It’s not easy to film love. In Nisha Pahuja’s To Kill a Tiger, a father defends his daughter, and together they change a village, a country and, maybe, the world.”

Special Mention for Best Canadian Feature Film:
Viking
dir. Stéphane Lafleur
Jury’s statement: “The jury would like to acknowledge Stéphane Lafleur’s brilliant satire, Viking, exploring the intersection of technology and ego.”

Amplify Voices Award:
Leonor Will Never Die
dir. Martika Ramirez Escobar
Jury’s statement: “Leonor Will Never Die, for its original voice, made by a fearless filmmaker who knows how to bring the fun and an incredible lead performance. This film is truly one of one.”

Amplify Voices Award:
While We Watched
dir. Vinay Shukla
Jury’s statement: “While We Watched is a compelling, urgent film that collapses our differences. It is a wake-up call to how perilous and fragile the relationship between a free press and democracy is everywhere.”

Special Mention for Best Feature from an Emerging BIPOC Filmmaker:
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On
dir. Madison Thomas
Jury’s statement: The jury would also like to give special mention to Madison Thomas’s Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, because “everyone should know about Buffy Sainte-Marie.”

The 2022 jurors for the Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose are Ann Marie Fleming, Anne Emond, Nathan Morlando, Jennifer Holness, Albert Shin, and Luisa Alvarez Restrepo.

SHAWN MENDES FOUNDATION CHANGEMAKER AWARD

Presented by the Shawn Mendes Foundation, the 2022 Changemaker Award is awarded to a Festival film that tackles issues of social change, and comes with a $10,000 cash prize. The winning film was selected by TIFF’s Next Wave Committee, a group of young film lovers who recognize cinema’s power to transform the world. The Shawn Mendes Foundation will also be making an annual contribution in support of TIFF Next Wave, helping TIFF deliver key initiatives to elevate young voices.

The 2022 jurors for the Changemaker Award are members of TIFF’s Next Wave Committee: Naiya Forrester, Arjun Persaud, Norah Daudi, Honora Murphy, Ellie Tripp, Celina Tang, Simona Williams, Faven Tesfamichael, Tara Sidhu, Keertan Somasundaram, Maggie Kane, and Dev Desai.

The 2022 Changemaker Award is presented to Luis De Filippis’ Something You Said Last Night. Director De Filippis (2018 TIFF Filmmaker Lab, 2020 TIFF Talent Accelerator) offered this statement: “It is an honour to have Something You Said Last Night be acknowledged by the next generation of filmmakers. Thank you to the Next Wave Committee for seeing this story. I am so excited to watch you lead our industry in the coming years. Thank you to the team behind this film who supported, and believed, and put their all into it, even on the bad days — which there were a few. It’s hard not to ignore the building tide of new voices this year at TIFF, and I am so happy to see our stories finally being told and celebrated — a new wave is coming.”

TIFF’s Next Wave Committee provided this statement: “The TIFF Next Wave Committee announces Luis De Filippis as the 2022 Shawn Mendes Foundation Changemaker Award recipient for her debut feature Something You Said Last Night, an honest, immersive, and intensely relatable portrayal of an Italian Canadian family on a summer vacation. Ren (Carmen Madonia, 2022 TIFF Rising Stars) is a character unlike any other we’ve seen. She is talented, she is struggling, she is flawed, she is loved, she is passionate, and she is accepted. She is all of these things, and she is also a young trans woman finding her place in the world. Created with queer and trans creators in front and behind the camera, Something You Said Last Night finds its power in the complex, imperfect truth of humans and our relationships with family. With her film, Luis De Filippis is changing the game — giving a voice to trans people along the way, and creating a future where queer representation exists beyond the one-dimensional stories and characters we’ve seen over and over again. We hope the visibility and recognition of this award will help more young people see and be inspired by the film like we were, and support De Filippis in her development and journey as a filmmaker.”

PLATFORM PRIZE

Named after Jia Zhang-ke’s trailblazing second feature, Platform is the Toronto International Film Festival’s competitive programme championing bold directorial visions. Platform was curated by Anita Lee, Chief Programming Officer; and Robyn Citizen, Director, Festival Programming and TIFF Cinematheque. The Platform Prize Jury members for 2022 are Patricia Rozema (Jury Chair), Iram Haq, and Chaitanya Tamhane and they are delighted to announce that their selection is Riceboy Sleeps, dir. Anthony Shim.

The Platform jury provided this statement: “The 2022 TIFF Platform Jury announces the unanimous choice for the Platform Prize — Riceboy Sleeps, written and directed by Anthony Shim for its deeply moving story and precisely-observed characters as they navigate racism, dislocation, family, and love. It balances social realism with pure poetry. Plus, it’s very funny. The leads Choi Seung-yoon (2022 TIFF Rising Stars), Ethan Hwang, and Dohyun Noel Hwang deserve top honours. Riceboy Sleeps touches on, in a most accessible way, some of humanity’s biggest challenges — how to merge cultures without erasing individuals, how to grow up whole in fragmented families, and how to defend ourselves from internalizing the subtle and not so subtle discriminations of the privileged.”

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About TIFF
TIFF is a not-for-profit cultural organization whose mission is to transform the way people see the world through film. An international leader in film culture, TIFF projects include the annual Toronto International Film Festival in September; TIFF Bell Lightbox, which features five cinemas, learning and entertainment facilities; and innovative national distribution program Film Circuit. The organization generates an annual economic impact of $200 million CAD. TIFF Bell Lightbox is generously supported by contributors including Founding Sponsor Bell, the Province of Ontario, the Government of Canada, the City of Toronto, the Reitman family (Ivan Reitman, Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels), The Daniels Corporation and RBC. For more information, visit tiff.net.

TIFF is generously supported by Lead Sponsor Bell, Major Sponsors RBC, Visa and BVLGARI and Major Supporters the Government of Canada, the Government of Ontario, Telefilm Canada, and the City of Toronto.

TIFF is grateful for the generous support of the 2022 festival from the Government of Canada through FedDev Ontario and Telefilm Canada.

TIFF is grateful to Canada Goose for their generous support of the Amplify Voices Awards.TIFF is grateful to IMDbPro for their generous support of IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards for Best Film, Best Canadian Film, and the Share Her Journey Award for best film by a woman.TIFF Short Cuts Programme is made possible through the generous sponsorship of TikTok, and supported by the Ontario Arts Council and the City of Toronto.

Review: ‘The Woman King,’ starring Viola Davis

September 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cast members of “The Woman King.” Pictured in front row, from left to right: Lashana Lynch, Viola Davis and Sheila Atim. Pictured in second row, from left to right: Sisipho Mbopa, Lone Motsomi and Chioma Umeala (Photo by Ilze Kitshoff/TriStar Pictures)

“The Woman King” (2022)

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Culture Representation: Taking place in the mid-1800s in West Africa, the action film “The Woman King” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and royalty.

Culture Clash: General Nanisca leads an all-female group of warriors in the African kingdom of Dahomey, as they battle against the slave trade and the rival Oyo Empire. 

Culture Audience: “The Woman King” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Viola Davis and military action movies that are told from a female perspective.

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu in “The Woman King” (Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures)

“The Woman King” is sometimes cluttered and uneven, but the movie’s compelling performances, gripping action and inspiring personal stories can keep most viewers interested. Viola Davis is the movie’s title character and should have been in more scenes. Instead, at least half of the movie is about a rookie military recruit, who starts out as an underestimated newcomer and overcomes challenges, on and off the battlefield. “The Woman King” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens, “The Woman King” is inspired by true events that happened in West Africa in the mid-1800s. Davis (who is one of the producers of “The Woman King”) portrays General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors protecting the African kingdom of Dahomey.

These women have a fearsome and bold reputation that is so widespread, when they arrive as visitors in a village, people are afraid look at them. Some of these warrior women’s exploits are exaggerated in stories told among villagers, while other exploits are not exaggerated, including the warriors’ participation in vicious killings. For example, the movie shows how the women specifically train themselves on how to murder people by chopping off their heads.

King Ghezo (played by John Boyega), the reigning leader of Dahomey, is part of the kingdom’s dwindling male population. Dahomey has been in a longtime feud with the Oyo Empire, which is also in West Africa. The on-again-/off-again warfare between Dahomey and Oyo has resulted in Dahomey being forced to give up male residents to Oyo, which has been selling these men in the growing slave trade.

Needless to say, the slave traders (the African traitors and the white male buyers) are the story’s biggest villains. Leading the group of white slave traders is Santo Ferreira (played by Hero Fiennes Tiffin), a Brazilian aristocrat who tries to convince King Ghezo to start profiting from the slave trade by selling slaves directly to Santo and his colleagues. King Ghezo needs the money, and the movie ultimately shows whether or not he makes the decision to sell out his own people. Someone who does sell his own people with no hesitation is Oba Ade (played by Jimmy Odukoya) from the Oya Empire.

Meanwhile, in Dahomey, a 19-year-old woman named Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedu) defiantly refuses to marry an older, wealthy man whom her father has chosen for her. This would-be husband immediately shows that he’s abusive when he punches Nawi for not being submissive to him. Nawi defends herself by pushing this abuser down to the ground. He’s shocked that she won’t let him get away with abusing her.

Nawi tells her father that she doesn’t want to have a husband and that she wants to be a soldier. And so, Nawi’s father decides he’s going “punish” her by making her enlist in the toughest military unit around: the Agojie army. Nawi arrives as very physically unprepared and insecure new recruit. She tries to hide her insecurity by acting like she knows more than she really does.

Nanisca gives the responsibility of training Nawi to Nanisca’s right-hand woman Izogie (played by Lashana Lynch), who is as fearless as Nanisca and very loyal to her. Another member of this military unit is Amenza (played by Sheila Atim), who has known Nanisca the longest and is Nanisca’s closest confidante. Amenza is compassionate as well as tough. Lynch and Atim are entirely believable in these supporting roles.

Nawi doesn’t make a good impression on the Agojie leaders because she often acts like an entitled brat. In one of the first conversations that Nawi and Nanisca have with each other, Nanisca comments that Nawi looks a lot younger than 19. Nawi says to Nanisca, “You look like an old woman to me.”

The movie has the expected scenes of inexperienced recruit Nawi making mistakes and failing in some physical challenges during the training process. She’s laughed at and taunted by some of the other trainees, but she doesn’t experience any extreme military hazing. It should come as no surprise that Nawi eventually improves (in her attitude and physical skills) and then excels. Mbedu is quite good in depicting Nawi’s metamorphosis.

Izogie ends up relating to Nawi because they both came from dysfunctional families. Izogie, who knows about Nawi’s abusive father, confides in Nawi one day by saying that Izogie experienced the pain of having an abusive mother. Izogie comments to Nawi about the Agojie warriors: “You have a new family now.”

Meanwhile, Brazilian slave trader Santo has a servant named Malik (played by Jordan Bulger), whose biracial identity often tests his loyalty. (Malik’s mother was an enslaved black woman, and his father was white.) Malik often has to choose between his white employer and the black people with whom Malik identifies with more. Malik and Santo are about the same age, and they grew up together, with Malik always having the role of Santo’s servant.

Malik and Nawi become attracted to each other, but their possible romance is hindered by Nawi’s doubts about how involved Malik is in the slave trade. Malik repeatedly tells Nawi that he’s not a slave trader, but she questions his honesty, considering that he works for a slave trader. To bring some playfull sexiness into the movie, there’s a scene where Nawi takes away Malik’s clothes as a prank when he’s skinny dipping by himself near a waterfall.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this movie called “The Woman King,” not “The Woman Rookie”? One of the frustrating aspects of “The Woman King” is that the Nanisca isn’t in the movie as much as she should be. Nanisca is not exactly sidelined, because Davis is such a powerhouse performer, she makes the most of her screen time, even with her facial expressions. However, a huge part of the story is about Nawi’s personal dramas.

The movie becomes a little bit of a soap opera when something from Nanisca’s past comes back to haunt her. It’s a secret that Nawi finds out about in a way that shakes Nawi to her inner core. Very few people know about this secret. And, at first, Nawi doesn’t quite believe this secret until she sees proof.

“The Woman King” can be commended for showing some of the realistic ups and downs that military groups have with each other and with the governments that they serve. Nanisca has some tension with King Ghezo’s opinionated wife (played by Jayme Lawson), who thinks that Nanisca is too radical. It irritates King Ghezo’s wife when he takes Nanisca’s advice.

The power struggle between Nanisca and King Ghezo’s wife doesn’t become a major showdown though, because the king always treats his spouse as more or less a trophy wife. It’s very obvious from the beginning of the movie that King Ghezo has more respect for Nanisca than his wife, when it comes to leadership skills and camaraderie. Doesn’t the title of this movie say it all?

“The Woman King” has some intense battle scenes and depictions of enslavement that might be too hard to watch for very sensitive viewers. The battle scenes show how even though many of these women might be physically smaller than their male opponents, the female warriors have trained to outwit their opponents with strategic fight moves. The movie also makes a point of how the women pay respect to their fallen comrades using their African religious traditions.

Although “The Woman King” has a well-developed story arc for Nawi, the development of the Nanisca character sometimes fall short of what many viewers might expect. Nanisca gives a little bit of background information about herself, including her secret that affects Nawi. Even with this big secret revealed, Nanisca still remains stoic and somewhat mysterious by the end of the movie.

Viewers never really find out what Nanisca’s interests are outside of this army of female warriors and the army’s duties to protect Dahomey, but that could be the point: Nanisca’s life revolves around this group. It’s testament to Davis’ immense talent that she conveys enough of a personality with Nanisca to show that this extraordinary warrior is not a hollow character but has lived a life of pain and hard-fought survival that she doesn’t easily reveal to others.

TriStar Pictures will release “The Woman King” in U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘The Wheel’ (2022), starring Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray

August 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray in “The Wheel” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“The Wheel” (2022)

Directed by Steve Pink

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the dramatic film “The Wheel” has a racially diverse cast of characters (Native American, white, Asian and multiracial) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple, contemplating divorce after eight years of marriage, will decide if they will split up or stay together during a getaway retreat.

Culture Audience: “The Wheel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in authentic-looking relationship dramas with characters who are neurotic.

Nelson Lee and Bethany Anne Lind in “The Wheel” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“The Wheel” thinly stretches the “will they or won’t they break up” dilemma for the movie’s central married couple, until the movie’s very last scene, which is the best part of the film. This relationship drama is mostly well-acted but very repetitive. Despite its shortcomings, “The Wheel” at least realistically depicts people and relationships as sometimes messy and flawed.

Directed by Steve Pink and written by Trent Atkinson, “The Wheel” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie’s title could be inspired by the pivotal last scene, which takes place when the two spouses have an emotionally charged conversation on a Ferris wheel. However, the title of “The Wheel” could also refer to the seemingly endless cycle of dysfunction and anguish that can happen if people fail to communicate properly in relationships.

That’s why this question is presented throughout the film: “Will anyone in this couple want to stay in this marriage, which keeps going around in circles of arguments and misunderstandings?” The movie’s opening scene shows married couple Albee (played by Amber Midthunder) and Walker (played by Taylor Gray) having just such an argument.

Albee and Walker, who are both about 24 years old, live in California, where the movie was filmed on location in Angelus Oaks and Malibu. Albee is an aspiring actress, while Walker’s job is not stated in the movie. Walker and Albee later tell someone that they got married at age 16, and have been married for eight years.

Why did they get married so young? Walker and Albee, who are both originally from Texas, both grew up fast in the foster-care system. They no doubt married each other to feel like they could have some kind of stable family life that they didn’t have as foster kids.

And now, the marriage of Albee and Walker has reached a critical point. The movie’s opening scene shows Albee telling Walker that she’s irritated by him when they are somewhere outdoors. Walker says he doesn’t know why she’s angry with him, but that he’s sorry for whatever he did.

This apology just makes Albee even more upset, because she thinks Walker should know what made her angry in the first place. Albee doesn’t want to explain it all to Walker. She thinks part of the problem is that he’s completely unaware of what he did to offend her. The argument continues when Albee and Walker are seated at a table in a diner.

Eventually, Albee and Walker call a tentative truce in this argument. However, this argument is an indication of how Albee and Walker interact with each other for most of the movie. Albee expects Walker to read her mind and know instinctively how to make her happy. Walker wants to make Albee happy, but she doesn’t express to him that she loves him as much as he loves her.

Walker is an optimist about love and wants to save the marriage. Albee is a pessimist and is more reluctant to stay married to Walker, but she’s also afraid of being alone and getting hurt by divorce. Albee gives Walker the impression that she’s possibly fallen out of love with him, while he’s still in love with Albee and wants to bring back the romantic passion in their marriage.

Eventually, Albee and Walker decide to go to a getaway retreat, by renting a cabin in the woods. Before taking this trip, Walker and Albee agree that they will decide the fate of their marriage during this retreat. They also vow to be completely honest with each other, regardless if what they have to say is good or bad. Walker has recently bought a relationship self-help book, and he wants to use the book’s advice with Albee during this trip.

Albee and Walker have rented the cabin through Airbnb. The cabin’s Airbnb hosts are an engaged couple in their 30s named Carly (played by Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (played by Nelson Lee), who are staying at a nearby cabin and at first seem to have an idyllic relationship. Soon after Walker and Albee arrive at the cabin, they both meet Carly, who welcomes Albee and Walker in a friendly manner. However, Carly can’t help but notice the tension between Walker (who is polite to Carly) and Albee (who is standoffish to Carly) as soon as Carly meets them.

Carly mentions that she hopes that Albee and Carly will find the cabin ambience to be romantic during the couple’s stay, but Albee comes right out and tells Carly that Albee and Walker have taken this getaway trip to decide if their marriage is worth saving. It’s an awkward moment, but it sparks curiosity in Carly to try to help Albee and Walker. Carly takes it upon herself throughout most of the story to be an unofficial relationship counselor to these two strangers.

Albee is immediately annoyed when she finds out that the cabin has no WiFi service, and she can’t get a signal on her cell phone. She goes outside and is elated when she’s able to get a phone signal. Walker can’t help but notice that Albee has been excitedly communicating with someone by text when she begins using her phone. It’s eventually revealed who this mystery person is.

On the first night that Albee and Walker stay at the cabin, she smokes a marijuana joint in a sauna and seems skeptical when Walker says, “If we can get through these last few months, we can get through anything.” Albee asks, “We’ll be okay though, right?” Walker senses Albee’s lack of interest in talking about their relationship in a meaningful way, so Walker leaves the room without answering the question.

Later, Albee rebuffs Walker’s advances to be sexually intimate. She tells a dejected Walker, “I’m not there. Sorry.” Walker says, “That’s okay. Sleep tight.” The movie keeps showing over and over that Walker wants to offer love, respect and passion to Albee, but she keeps rejecting him at every turn.

Carly has noticed this imbalance in the relationship too. On the first night that Albee and Walker are in the cabin, Carly tells Ben what was her first impression of Albee and Walker. Carly says that Walker seems nice, but Carly thinks that Albee is the kind of woman who thinks she’s too good for her partner. And so, when Ben meets Albee and Walker later, Ben already has a negative impression of Albee.

Albee (who is often rude and sarcastic to people) and Ben (who is laid-back and equally sarcastic) end up clashing with each other and insulting each other. Carly tries to be a peacemaker in arguments between Albee and Walker. And there are several arguments and sullen silences between Albee and Walker in this movie. After a while, these marital spats and refusals to talk to each other get a little tiresome. About halfway through this 83-minute movie, you’ll probably wish that Albee and Walker would just make up their minds already if they’re going to stay together or go their separate ways.

And why is Carly so personally invested in these two strangers and so ready to meddle in their marriage? It turns out that Carly and Ben are having some relationship issues too. Carly is excited to make wedding plans. As for Ben? Not so much. Carly thinks it has to do with men typically not being as heavily involved in wedding planning as women are.

After a while, it becomes obvious that Carly wants to be like an unofficial relationship counselor to Albee and Walker because Carly feels that she’s losing control of her own relationship. Carly is a die-hard romantic who thinks she can “fix” things in relationships if she just shows enough compassion. She even goes as far as asking Ben to surprise Albee and Walker by offering them a portable table of breakfast food so that Albee and Walker can eat breakfast in bed. He reluctantly goes along with the idea.

Ben feels almost the exact opposite way as Carly does in dealing with Albee and Walker. Ben thinks that he and Carly should mind their own business when it comes to Albee and Walker’s marriage, and Albee and Walker are better off figuring things out on their own. Ben also believes some relationships are doomed, no matter how much counseling is done. And he thinks Albee is very annoying, because Ben says that Albee reminds him of the women he used to date for the past 20 years in previous bad relationships.

As the couple struggling with the decision to break up or stay together, Midthunder and Gray give riveting performances, although at times there’s a little bit of overacting between the two of them. Lind and Lee, as the less-volatile couple Carly and Ben, are adequate in their roles, with Lee’s acting skills being a little stitled and wooden in a few scenes. Pink’s direction of “The Wheel” builds up enough tension for viewers to be curious about what will happen to these couples, but the movie tends to drag in some areas. Expect to see multiple scenes of pouting Albee and melancholy Walker staring off into space during the moments when they’ve decided to stop talking to each other.

Carly and Ben serve as a counterpoint to Albee and Walker, because both couples are unraveling in their own ways. Carly and Ben are lot quieter about their problems than Albee and Walker are, because Albee and Walker put their marital discord on public display. Albee (who is fickle, abrasive and often very selfish) will undoubtedly be considered the character in the movie who’s the most difficult to like, but “The Wheel” isn’t about making all of the characters “likable.”

People who are like Albee are usually very emotionally damaged for any number of reasons. The movie skillfully shows that people who are like Albee have such low self-esteem, they don’t think they deserve love. And when someone offers true love to these deeply insecure people, they often want to push that person away, or hurt that person first, in order to avoid getting hurt. In many respects, “The Wheel” is a fascinating portrait of love, patience and forgiveness. It’s also about having the courage to navigate relationship minefields, as well as having the courage to walk away when a relationship isn’t worth saving.

Quiver Distribution released “The Wheel” on digital and VOD on July 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Benediction’ (2021), starring Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones and Ben Daniels

July 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in “Benediction” (Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Roadside Attractions)

“Benediction” (2021)

Directed by Terence Davies

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1910s to 1950s, primarily in England, the dramatic film “Benediction” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During World War I, British soldier Siegfried Sassoon becomes an anti-war objector and a poet, and for years he hides his homosexuality, including by getting married to a woman. 

Culture Audience: “Benediction” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true stories of British gay men in the 20th century.

Kate Phillips and Jack Lowden in “Benediction” (Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Roadside Attractions)

Well-acted but slightly long-winded, the British drama “Benediction” is a compelling biopic that shows how poet Siegfried Sassoon was not only bold and outspoken about his anti-war views, but he was also insecure and secretive about his homosexuality. The movie gives emotionally complex depictions of how fame cannot shield LGBTQ people from the bigotry that pressures LGBTQ people to sometimes lead double lives. “Benediction” is a 20th century period drama, but many of the movie’s issues about homophobia can still apply to many people today. Written and directed by Terence Davies, “Benediction” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

In real life, Siegfried Sassoon had turmoil not just about his sexuality but also about his religious faith and coming from a broken home. Born in Matfield, England, in 1886, Siegfried died in Heytsebury, England, at age 80 in 1967, just one week before he would have turned 81. His father Alfred was Jewish, and his mother Theresa was Catholic. Alfred was disowned from his family for marrying a non-Jewish woman.

When Siegfried was 4 years old, his parents separated. Siegfried (who was the middle of three sons) and his older brother Michael and younger brother Hamo were then raised by their mother, while their father would see them for visits. And then, Alfred died of tuberculosis in 1895, when Siegfried was 7 or 8 years old. Years later, tuberculosis would nearly kill the man who was considered to be the greatest love of Siegfried’s life.

“Benediction” would have benefited from some exploration of Siegfried’s childhood and family background, which undoubtedly shaped the person he became. It would certainly explain why Siegfried wasn’t afraid to go against society’s expectations as a military man who became an outspoken objector against war and against the British government. Siegfried lived during a time in the United Kingdom when it was very taboo for people to be in mixed-religion marriages and for married people to separate. Being treated like an “outsider” simply because of his parents’ marital situation no doubt affected Siegfried in ways that carried into his adulthood.

Instead of giving this backstory, “Benediction” shows Siegfried in two different phases of his life: when Siegfried was his 30s and 40s (played by Jack Lowden) and when Siegfried was in his 70s (played by Peter Capaldi), with the younger phase of Sisgfried’s life getting most of the screen time. This uneven timeline doesn’t ruin “Benediction,” but it does make it more obvious to viewers how the movie under-uses the talent of Capaldi.

“Benediction” opens in London in 1914. Siegfried and his younger brother Hamo (played by Thom Ashley) are visiting a tailor shop together. In 1914, Siegfried was an aspiring poet and a British Army soldier who would later become a second lieutenant and a decorated war hero for saving soldiers’ lives during combat. When Hamo goes off to serve in the British Army during World War I, Siegfried expresses regret at not saying goodbye to his brother. Hamo was tragically killed in the line of duty during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

By 1917, Siegfried became disillusioned about World War I and war in general. The movie shows him writing letters of protest to the United Kingdom government. A scene in “Benediction” shows him reading one of the letters, which says in part: “I believe that war upon which I entered in defense and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

As an example of Siegfried’s willingness to sacrifice his military career for his anti-war beliefs, he meets with an openly gay journalist/mentor named Robbie Ross (played by Simon Russell Beale), who comes from an influential political family, to find out what punishment Siegfried will be getting from the British government. In this meeting, Siegfried is fully expecting to hear that the British military is going to court martial Siegfried because of Siegfried’s public criticism of the British government’s stance on World War I. But to Siegfried’s dismay, Robbie tells Siegfried that Robbie enlisted the help of Edward Marsh, the principal private secretary of then-U.K. minister of munitions Winston Churchill, to get Siegfried honorably discharged from the military for medical reasons.

“You robbed me of my dignity!” Siegfried angrily says to Robbie about not getting court martialed. Robbie says, “Don’t be angry with me, Siegfried. My intentions were honorable.” Despite this argument, Robbie (who is 18 years older than Siegfried) and Siegfried remain friends. Robbie became a trusted advisor in Siegfried’s personal and professional lives. “Benediction” briefly mentions later in the movie that Robbie was also known for his close relationship with gay poet/writer Oscar Wilde, whom Robbie remained loyal to during Wilde’s imprisonment for being gay.

At the time, homosexuality was banned in the British military, and homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder. “Benediction” makes it look like although Siegfried might have been suspected of being gay in the military, he was punished more for speaking out against the British government. His military discharge included being sent to a psychiatric hospital for having “psychiatric problems.”

In a dramatic show of his disgust with the British military, Siegfried throws away his military card. At the hospital, he has therapy sessions with a sympathetic psychiatrist named Dr. Rivers (played by Ben Daniels), who says things to Siegfried such as: “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what you think you need.” It’s not said out loud, but it’s implied that Dr. Rivers is a closeted gay man too.

Over time, Siegfried begins to trust Dr. Rivers because he and the doctor are kindred spirits who both have a lot of mistrust of the British government. Siegfried witnesses some disturbing things in the hospital, such as a man screaming out on agony during a meltdown, but Dr. Rivers is able to calm Siegfried’s fears. During his stay in the psychiatric hospital, Siegfried befriends a fellow patient named Wilfred Owen (played by Matthew Tennyson), who is the editor of a poetry newsletter called The Hydra.

Siegfried and Wilfred become great admirers of each other’s poetry. Siegfried is particularly impressed with Wilfred’s poem “Disabled.” It looks like Siegfried and Wilfred are headed toward a romance. But that possibility is interrupted when a chief medical officer (played by Julian Sands) has an angry reaction to seeing Siegfried and Wilfred doing a tango dance together. What happens to Wilfred is shown in the movie.

“Benediction” spends a lot of time depicting the ups and downs of Siegfried’s love life. People closest to Siegfried knew he was gay, but he was still “in the closet” about his true sexuality to most people. “Benediction” implies that Siegfried probably would’ve been more open about his sexuality if there weren’t severe punishments for being gay in the United Kingdom at the time.

Despite hiding his sexual identity from many people, Siegfried had an active social life. The movie shows Siegfried, Robbie and their mutual friend Dorothy Brett (played by Georgina Rylance) being invited to a party by Lady Edith Oliver (played by Olivia Darnley), one of the high-society people who became acquainted with Siegfried because of his poetry. It’s at this party that Siegfried meets celebrated actor/composer Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Irvine), who is an openly gay playboy.

Siegfried falls for Ivor’s charms but quickly finds out that he’s one of many of Ivor’s lovers who get tossed aside and picked up again, according to Ivor’s whims. In fact, when Ivor and Siegfried hook up for the first time, Ivor’s actor boyfriend Glen Byam Shaw (played by Tom Blyth) walks in on them. Ivor cruelly tells Glen to leave the house keys as a way to break up with Glen in that moment

“Benediction” portrays Siegfried’s on-again/off-again relationship with Ivor as not so much of a romance but more like an addiction that Siegfried finds hard to quit. Ivor is up front with his lovers in telling them that he doesn’t believe in monogamy. And this is how Ivor describes his views about love: “The main drawback about love is that it descends all too quickly into possessiveness. It really is a bore.”

Ivor doesn’t like Siegfried’s friend/mentor Robbie. Siegfried’s mother Theresa (played by Geraldine James) doesn’t like Ivor. Theresa has this to say about Ivor: “He’s amusing but unpleasant.” Is it any wonder that Siegfried’s relationship with Ivor is doomed to fail?

In a scene that looks fabricated for a movie, Ivor’s ex-lover Glen happens to see Siegfried and Ivor break up at a restaurant. It should not come as a big surprise that after seeing this breakup, Glen immediately wants to get close to Siegfried. Glen offers to drive Siegfried to Kent so that Siegfried can visit his grandmother. During this trip, the two men get to know each other better in more ways than one. However, Glen eventually decides he’s going to marry an actress.

“Benediction” portrays aristocrat Stephen Tennant (played by Calam Lynch) as the biggest love of Siegfried’s life. However, Stephen and Siegfried’s love affair is plagued by mutual jealousy. Even when Ivor was no longer dating Siegfried, Ivor seems to still have some kind of hold over Siegfried. And it bothers Stephen immensely. Siegfried also gets jealous of the attention that Stephen gets from other men. This love affair also ends in heartbreak.

In his 40s, Siegfried strikes up a close friendship with a lively and outgoing socialite named Hester Gatty (played by Kate Phillips), despite Hester being 20 years younger than he is. Hester knows that Siegfried is gay. Siegfried also confides in Hester about problems in his love life.

And eventually, Hester proposes marriage to Siegfried, knowing that she will be his “beard,” to cover up the fact that he is gay. Siegfried and Hester get married in 1933, mainly because they want to start a family together. Their son (and only child) George was born in 1936.

Where does the story of older Siegfried fit into the movie? It’s told in the context of an emotionally unsettled Siegfried fighting depression and looking back on his life while deciding that he’s going to convert to Catholicism. Siegfried’s adult son George (played by Richard Goulding) is very skeptical about Siegfried being committed and sincere about being a Catholic. It leads to some father/son conflicts that aren’t very interesting, mainly because viewers never get to see what kind of father Siegfried was to George for most of George’s life.

As for older Hester (played by Gemma Jones), living in a fake marriage has taken a toll on her. The young Hester was hopefully optimistic that being married to her gay best friend would have a happy ending. The older Hester is somewhat bitter because she sees the reality that although she is happy with being a mother, she and Siegfried deprived themselves of living authentically and possibly being in a true romance with someone else. Hester also knows that this arranged marriage benefited Siegfried more than it benefited her.

However, that doesn’t mean Siegfried feels any more satisfied than Hester in how this marriage turned out to be a stagnant relationship. Siegfried and Hester just barely tolerate each other but feel obligated to stay together to keep up appearances during a time when divorce was still a big stigma for many people. Siegfried wanting to convert to Catholicism is an obvious indication that he doesn’t consider divorce to be an option for this unhappy marriage.

There’s not a bad performance in “Benediction,” with Lowden being an obvious standout for his portrayal of the complicated and somewhat unpredictable Siegfried. Irvine also gives a memorable supporting performance as heartbreaker Ivor, who seems to have love/hate relationships with most people in his life. Jones and Capaldi also give admirable and nuanced performances as the older Siegfried and older Hester in the limited screen time that they have.

In a movie about a famous poet, the writing should also be commendable. “Benediction” has snippets of Siegfried’s poetry, of course, but the movie delivers a lot of above-average and snappy dialogue from Davies’ original screenplay. In a scene where Siegfried finds out that Ivor is dating actor Bobby Andrews (played by Harry Lawtey) at the same time that Ivor has been dating Siegfried, Bobby quips: “If you want fidelity, Siegfried, buy a pet.” (In real life, this actor spelled his name as Bobbie Andrews.) Later, when Glen tells Siegfried that he’s marrying a woman, Glen cynically says: “Purity is like virginity. As soon as you touch it, it becomes corrupt.”

“Benediction” unquestionably has high-quality filmmaking, when it comes to the movie’s acting, production design and costume design. However, “Benediction” doesn’t quite have what it takes to win major awards for any aspects of its filmmaking. The biggest issue is that parts of the film tend to lumber and could have used better editing.

There’s also the problem of introducing Siegfried at a later stage of his life and yet not giving that period of his life enough screen time. The movie leaves out huge parts of Siegfried’s life after he married Hester. These omissions just bring up many questions that “Benediction” never answers.

“Benediction” also doesn’t adequately explain what motivated Siegfried to convert to Catholicism at this stage in his life. There are hints that he was ashamed of his sexuality and wanted to atone for it in a religion that condemns homosexuality, but that interior reasoning is never fully explored in the movie. And for a very manipulative reason (which won’t be revealed in this review), “Benediction” fabricates a story arc near the end of the film about Siegfried becoming a widower. In real life, Hester Sassoon died in 1973—six years after Siegfried’s death.

Viewers might also question if “Benediction” glosses over or ignores a lot of the abusive homophobia that Siegfried might have experienced in his personal life. Except for being put in a psychiatric institution (where “Benediction” shows he was treated pretty well and was lucky enough to have an understanding doctor), Siegfried was never imprisoned, tortured, bullied or fired for his sexuality, if you believe everything in this movie. It might be a testament to Siegfried having certain privileges (fame and high-society friends) that lesser-known and less-privileged gay men didn’t have as protection against homophobic cruelties.

Despite these narrative flaws, “Benediction” is worth seeing for a fascinating portrait of a highly talented artist, what he went through in leading a double life, and the price he and his loved ones had to pay as a result. Viewers who are inclined to think arthouse British period dramas can be too stuffy probably won’t like “Benediction” too much. But for people who enjoy or who are open to this type of entertainment, then “Benediction” is a biopic that will satisfy those cinematic tastes.

Roadside Attractions released “Benediction” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 20, 2022, and in Australia in 2021.

Review: ‘The Forgiven’ (2022), starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain

July 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in “The Forgiven” (Photo by Nick Wall/Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

“The Forgiven” (2022)

Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Some language in Arabic and Tamazight with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains area and the city of Tangier, the dramatic film “The Forgiven” features a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: While on vacation in Morocco, two unhappily married, upper-middle-class spouses (he’s British, she’s American) are involved in a drunk-driving car accident that kills a teenage boy, and they use their privilege to avoid being arrested for the crime but must face judgment from the boy’s father. 

Culture Audience: “The Forgiven” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, as well as to viewers who are interested in tension-filled movies about people who have conflicts with laws and customs in foreign countries.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Ismael Kanater, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Caleb Landry Jones and Mourad Zaoui in “The Forgiven” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

The dramatic film “The Forgiven” doesn’t flow as well as it should for a piercing look at spoiled and entitled people who use their privilege as a weapon and as a shield. However, the performances are worth watching to see how terrible people can be their own worst enemies. In other words, “The Forgiven” is not a “feel good” movie. Be prepared to witness a lot of self-absorbed and insufferable conduct from snobs and bigots who think a lot of “real world” rules and manners don’t apply to them unless they can get something out of it.

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, “The Forgiven” is based on Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel of the same name. The movie has the tremendous benefit of a talented cast that can turn some of the soap opera-ish dialogue and make it into something resembling a satire of the pompous characters who cause the most damage. Although the story is fictional, there are plenty of real-life examples of people who act this way. “The Forgiven” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The movie’s opening scene sets the tone for the unpleasantness to come. British oncologist David Henninger (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his American wife Jo Henninger (played by Jessica Chastain), who live in London, have arrived in Tangier, Morocco, to attend an Atlas Mountains party thrown by a wealthy gay couple whom David and Jo have known for an unnamed period of time. David and Jo have no children and have been married for 12 years. But it only takes a few minutes into the movie before their bickering starts.

David thinks Jo is a shrewish nag. Jo calls David a “high-functioning alcoholic.” He responds by saying that “high-functioning” cancels out “alcoholic.” David knows that Jo is correct because he really is an alcoholic. If David is awake, chances are he’s drinking alcohol. And his alcoholism is a direct cause of the car accident that results in a tragedy.

Later, it’s revealed in the movie that Jo is a children’s book author whose books have never been bestsellers. She also hasn’t written any books for the past eight years. It’s unknown if frustrations over her career and marriage have made Jo such a bitter person, or if Jo already had this type of personality before she married David. However, what’s obvious is that Jo and David are both deeply unhappy people—together and apart.

Before David and Jo arrive at their party destination, the movie shows a scene of two Moroccan teenage boys (who are about 15 or 16 years old) in a cliff area of Atlas Mountains. One of the boys is sniffing glue from a plastic bag. Viewers later find out that his name is Driss Taheri (played by Omar Ghazaoui) and that he and his friend Ismael (played by Aissam Taamart) sell fossil rocks as a way to make some money.

As Ismael hammers at some rocks to find fossils, Driss scolds Ismael for never leaving their village or never having ambitions to leave for bigger and better things. Ismael replies by saying that he doesn’t have the money to leave. Driss says there’s always a way to get money. Poverty in this community becomes a big issue later on in the story.

“The Forgiven” then shows David and Jo in their rental car going from Tangier on the way to the party in the High Atlas Mountains. It’s nighttime on a deserted road, and David is driving, although he probably shouldn’t be driving, because he’s more than likely well past the alcohol legal limit to drive. Jo and David get lost and are arguing some more when tragedy strikes: The car hits a teenage boy who suddenly appears in front of the car on the road. He is killed instantly.

Meanwhile, viewers see several people who are gathered for this house party. The party hosts are wealthy British real estate developer Richard Galloway (played by Matt Smith) and his American boyfriend Dally Margolis (played by Caleb Landry Jones), a very pretentious couple who threw this party mainly to show off some of their wealth. The home where Richard and Dally are having this multi-day party is big enough that most of the guests (including Jo and David) will be staying overnight on the property.

With the guests gathered in an outdoor patio area, Richard gives a speech bragging about all the fine delicacies and luxuries that the guests can see and enjoy during this soiree. He adds, “We hope you’ll find this place a vision of paradise, a place in which to receive the people we love.” It’s a very shallow speech because it’s questionable if anyone in this group of partiers really loves each other.

Richard then says, “And don’t forget the figs—typically representative of a woman’s vagina.” Dally, who is standing near Richard, giggles in response: “Or so we’ve been told.” This is the type of dialogue that’s in a lot of “The Forgiven.” It’s indicative of how some people who are rich when it comes to money and property can still lack class.

Other guests at the party also conduct themselves with an air of jaded superiority at being in this luxurious environment. Financial analyst Tom Day (played by Christopher Abbott) is a smirking and lecherous American, who tells Richard: “I’ve got three girlfriends. They all hate me.”

Cody (played by Abbey Lee), who is also American, is the requisite modelesque-looking “party girl” who’s often too intoxicated to comprehend where she is and what she’s doing. When Cody dances drunkenly near Tom, he tells her that his wife left him because she ran off with a hedge fund manager. Later in the movie, there’s a random and very out-of-place scene of Cody wandering around lost in the desert on the day after the party started.

French photographer Isabelle Péret (played by Marie-Josée Croze) takes photos at the party and has a mild flirtation with Tom when they have a conversation. Leila Tarki (played by Imane El Mechrafi) is an independent filmmaker whom Isabelle greatly admires. At the party, Isabelle points out Leila to Tom and describes Leila as “the Moroccan auteur. She’s the coolest.” Isabelle also mentions that Leila is in Morocco to raise funds for Leila’s new movie, which will be about nomads.

Maisy Joyce (played by Fiona O’Shaughnessy), whose occupation or social purpose is never stated, is a gossipy guest who makes low-key snarky comments about everyone she observes. When she meets Tom, she bluntly asks him: “Are you gay?” Tom replies, “No, but I fucked a man who is.” Tom is the type of person who doesn’t make it clear if he’s telling the truth or if he’s joking when he makes this type of statement.

Later, two other party guests show up: middle-aged playboy William Joyce (played by David McSavage) and Maribel (played by Briana Belle), one of William’s much-younger trophy girlfriends. All of these party guests, except for David and Jo, end up being backdrops to the drama that unfolds because of the car accident. It should come as no surprise that the party continues as planned, even though the dead boy’s body is temporarily brought to the house.

Richard gets a call from David during the party and hears the horrible news about the car accident and death. David and Jo are in a panic because they’re afraid of being arrested for the death of this child, whom they say has no identification. Richard reluctantly allows Jo and David to come over to the house, so they can talk about what to do next. The body of the boy has been put in their car.

Richard sends his most trusted employee Hamid (played by Mourad Zaoui) and some other servants to escort David and Jo back to the house. Hamid can speak Arabic and English, so he acts as the main translator in this story. He also advises the Westerners about Moroccan and Muslim customs and traditions.

Dally is very nervous and thinks that he and Richard shouldn’t get involved in this car accident case, but Richard thinks that the local police can be bribed if necessary. Richard and David are also alumni of the same elite university (which is unnamed in the movie), so Richard feels obligated to help David. Richard mentions this alumni connection on more than one occasion, such as when Richard repeats stories he heard about David being a notorious troublemaker at the school.

Richard tells some people that one of the stories he heard was that David went on top of a building to drop mice wearing miniature Nazi flags on some school officials. The mice died, of course. Whoever committed this disturbing act was never caught, but David was widely believed to be the culprit. It was apparently someone’s warped way telling these school officials that they act like Nazis. And if David was the culprit, it’s an example of how he’s been an awful person for a very long time.

Before the police are called about the car accident and death that David caused, Richard advises David and Jo to act as remorseful as possible to increase the chances that they won’t be charged with any crime. Jo is willing to take that advice, but David balks at the suggestion because he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. David blames the boy for being out in the road at night.

And it isn’t long before David’s story begins to morph into saying that the boy was probably trying to commit a carjacking. David and Jo, on separate occasions, also express fear that this car accident victim could have been an ISIS terrorist. It’s blatant racism, but racists like David and Jo don’t care.

The police arrive and take statements from David and Jo. The chief investigator is Captain Benihadd (played by Ben Affan), who quickly determines (within 15 minutes) that the death was an accident and that David and Jo won’t be arrested. David doesn’t get asked to take a sobriety test or any test that would detect the level of alcohol or drugs in his system. Viewers with enough common sense can easily see why David doesn’t get much scrutiny by police who want to be deferential to people who appear to be rich.

After it’s declared that David and Jo won’t be arrested, Richard’s relief turns to dismay when he finds out that because the morgue won’t be open until the next day, the body has to stay on Richard’s property until it can be transported to the morgue. As far as Richard is concerned, it puts a damper on the party. Richard, Dally and David aren’t as concerned about how this child victim belongs to a family who will eventually hear the devastating news about his death. Jo shows a little more compassion and guilt, but not enough to erase her racism, since she automatically makes the racist assumption that the boy who was killed could be a member of ISIS.

Even though the police didn’t find any identification for the boy, and none of the people who saw his body say they know him, he does have a name: Driss Taheri. David, Jo and the other people at Richard’s house who know about this death will eventually find out Driss’ name. But even after they find out his name, they often won’t say it, as if it’s easier to think of him as nameless and unwanted. Privately, David makes this callous remark to Jo, “I hate to say it, but the kid is a nobody.”

The next day, David is riding horses with Isabelle and Macy, as if they don’t have a care in the world. A few Moroccan boys suddenly appear and throw rocks at David before the boys run away. One of the rocks hits David on the head hard enough that he gets a bloody injury on his head, and he falls off of the horse. The injury is not serious enough for him to go to a hospital though.

David nastily complains to Jo that people in the community must have found out that he was the one who caused the death of a local child. David shows more of his racism and xenophobia when he says, “They’re insatiable gossips. It’s a function of being illiterate.” Jo sarcastically replies, “What a nice little facist you’ve become since being hit by a stone.”

The way that these self-centered partiers find out Driss’ identity is when his grieving and distraught father Adbdellah Taheri (played by Ismael Kanater) shows up the next day at Richard’s house to claim the body and to talk to the people responsible for Driss’ death. Driss was his only child. (Driss’ mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie.)

With Hamid acting as a translator, David finds out that Adbdellah wants some kind of payment from David to compensate for Driss’ tragic death. Adbdellah initially didn’t want any payment, but he changes his mind when he sees that David seems very cold and uncaring about killing Driss. David flatly refuses this demand for payment.

Adbdellah also insists that David accompany Adbdellah back to Adbdellah’s home in the Moroccan region of Tafilalt, to atone for the killing, out of respect for Muslim tradition. David reluctantly agrees to this request, even though he and Jo are paranoid that it could be a trap set by “ISIS terrorists.” David goes on this trip because he also thinks it will get Adbdellah to stop expecting money from David.

The rest of “The Forgiven” shows what happens during David’s “atonement” visit, what Jo does when David is away, and the aftermath of decisions and actions that are made. The movie has flashbacks to the moments immediately before and after Driss was struck by the car and killed. These flashbacks give a clearer picture of who David and Jo really are and how they responded to this crisis.

Fiennes and Chastain give skillful but not outstanding performances as snooty pessimists who are trapped in misery of their own making. It’s never really made clear how long David has been an alcoholic, but he doesn’t have any intention of getting rehab treatment for his addiction, even after causing someone’s death because David was driving drunk. As for Jo, she’s got her own issues, because she feels like a failure who has no purpose in life.

“The Forgiven” is not going to appeal to viewers who are expecting a movie where most of the people are “likable.” The movie holds up a mirror to people who want to project an image of being “glamorous” but they actually have very ugly personalities. There’s a certain point where the movie’s ending is easy to predict. Considering all the clues pointing to this ending, it doesn’t feel like a shock but like something that was bound to happen.

Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions released “The Forgiven” in select U.S. cinemas on July 1, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Official Competition,’ starring Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez

July 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz and Oscar Martínez in “Official Competition” (Photo by Manolo Pavon/IFC Films)

“Official Competition”

Directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Madrid, Spain, the comedy/drama film “Official Competition” features a cast of Spanish characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An eccentric filmmaker, who has been hired by a rich businessman to direct a movie, takes pleasure in playing mind games with the two famous actors whom she cast as co-stars in the movie. 

Culture Audience: “Official Competition” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas and films that have a satirical “movie within a movie” plot.

Oscar Martínez, Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas in “Official Competition” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

With a total running time of 115 minutes, “Official Competition” drags on for a little longer than it should, but this slightly offbeat comedy/drama has some sharp observations about how celebrities can be coddled and exploited in the movie industry. The movie shows in many acerbic ways how people will enable those with a certain level of fame and fortune to humiliate or bully others, in the name of creating “art.” There are no real heroes or villains in “Official Competition”—just a lot of very flawed and damaged people who have questionable (or no) boundaries.

Directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (who both co-wrote the screenplay with Andrés Duprat, Gastón’s older brother), “Official Competition” takes place in Madrid, but the themes in the movie are universal to wherever movies financed by wealthy people can be made. “Official Competition” made the rounds at several film festivals including the 2021 Venice International Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. In many ways, “Official Competition” is an incisive parody of rich people who think they can buy their way into artistic creativity and any accolades that come with it.

It’s why wealthy pharmaceutical tycoon Humberto Suárez (played by José Luis Gómez) decides to go into the movie business, shortly after his 80th birthday. Humberto wants his legacy to be more than just his success in the pharmaceutical industry. He wants the glamour and cachet of making a movie with famous filmmakers and celebrity actors.

After his 80th birthday party that was held at his company headquarters, Humberto asks a subordinate executive named Matías (played by Manolo Solo) how people perceive Humberto. Matías replies, “As a man who started from nothing, and today is a leader in the pharmaceutical industry, and feeds almost 10,000 families.”

Humberto says, “I’ll tell you how they see me: as a millionaire with an obscene fortune but without prestige … I want to be remembered differently.” Humberto contemplates either donating to the state a bridge named after himself, or financing a movie. He chooses to finance a movie.

Humberto decides to be a financial backer/producer for the latest movie of the artsiest filmmaker he can find. He wants someone who’s edgy enough to be considered innovative, but mainstream enough that this person is capable of winning prestigious awards. And the person whose name comes up immediately and whom he chooses is avant-garde filmmaker Lola Cuevas (played by Penélope Cruz), who is known for her extreme ways of rehearsing and making a movie.

Lola, who has been making movies since 1996, has a 2015 movie called “Haze,” which is considered her “masterpiece.” One of her quirks is that Lola doesn’t give interviews. Therefore, she doesn’t give a lot of public insight into her filmmaking process. By keeping an aura of mystery about herself, Lola has made herself more in demand to certain people who want to work with her.

Humberto meets with Lola, and he agrees to Lola’s demands that she have complete creative control over the movie. Lola hires the two actors who will be equal co-stars in the film that she’s writing and directing and which Humberto will be financing. These co-stars are Félix Rivero (played by Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (played by Oscar Martínez), who are opposites in many ways.

Félix, who is a restless bachelor playboy, is more caught up in being a movie star than in being a serious actor. And he has a filmography of commercial blockbusters to prove it. Iván, who’s been in a stable, longtime marriage, takes the craft of acting very seriously. Iván is famous for being in highly respected stage productions that don’t necessarily make a lot of money but they are often award-worthy. Iván also teaches a college course in acting to eager students who admire him. The only college-age people Félix wants to teach are the young women he takes as his lovers.

In Lola’s meeting with Humberto, she explains the plot of this movie, which is a story about a love triangle between two brothers and a woman who’s a sex worker. In this story, older brother Pedro is “rich and self-confident,” while younger brother Manuel is “dull and introverted.” The movie takes place in 1970, in a country town.

Manuel is driving a car with his parents as passengers. The car gets into a horrific accident that kills the parents, but Manuel survives. An embittered Pedro makes sure that Manuel goes to prison for this accident. (It’s never stated what the crime was in this car accident.) While Manuel is in prison, Pedro lives his life freely, and he starts a romance with a sex worker named Lucy.

Pedro has a successful foundry business, but people in the community are suspicious of how he’s actually made his fortune. Meanwhile, Manuel is released from prison, and he starts having an affair with Lucy. However, Pedro has more money than Manuel. And so, when Pedro proposes marriage to Lucy, she chooses to marry Pedro.

But there’s more drama in this love triangle, because Lucy finds out she’s pregnant. Manuel or Pedro could be the father. The brothers eventually reconcile, but Lola says that there’s more to the story. Viewers of Lola’s movie will have to find out if the child’s paternity is confirmed and what ultimately happens in this love triangle.

In Lola’s movie, Iván has the role of older brother Pedro, while Félix is cast as younger brother Manuel. The movie’s very first “table read” (where the actors sit at a table to read a script together, usually with the director in attendance) takes place in a conference room at the headquarters of Humberto’s company. Lola is at this table read with Iván and Félix as the only cast members in attendance. This table read is the first time that Iván and Félix meet each other and rehearse together.

As an example of their different personalities and styles of working, Iván has already prepared a complex psychological portrait of his Pedro character. By contrast, Félix has no such preparation, because he thinks that his Manuel character doesn’t really have a backstory. During this table read/rehearsal, Lola makes it clear to both of these actors that she has a very specific idea of how they should act out their lines of dialogue. She makes Iván and Félix repeat the dialogue with her suggestions on how to change their delivery until Lola thinks they get it right.

What follows is a series of mind games that Lola ends up playing on these two actors, whom she often pits against each other. And sometimes, she sets up situations where the two actors are pitted against her. “Official Competition” tends to be a little repetitive in showing how all three of these people irritate each other, but the performances remain compelling throughout the movie.

Cruz is the obvious standout, even if her portrayal of Lola sometimes veers into being a caricature of manipulative directors. However, considering some of the wild and true stories of extreme manipulation tactics that some directors have used on cast members in real life, what Lola does in the movie isn’t too far off the mark. The unpredictability of “Official Competition” is almost entirely dependent on the Lola character.

Banderas is perfectly fine in his role as an actor who balances doing big-budget blockbuster movies with “prestige” low-budget independent films. (It’s something that Banderas does in real life too.) Martínez gives the most realistic performance of the three “Official Competition” stars, because many “serious actors” are just like Iván: They think that acting on stage is the real test of an actor’s talent, and doing on-screen work is just filler to pay the bills.

One of Lola’s mind games is to make Iván and Félix rehearse under a giant boulder that is being held over their heads by a crane. It puts Iván and Félix on a nervous edge, but Lola insists that they will have a better rehearsal this way. But surprise! After the rehearsal, Lola reveals to Iván and Félix that the boulder was really made out of cardboard.

Another of Lola’s manipulations includes asking Iván and Félix to bring all of their awards to the rehearsal headquarters. She brings the awards that she has won too, including the Palme d’Or, the top prize for the Cannes Film Festival. During this meeting in a small auditorium, Lola asks Iván and Félix to talk about their awards and what these trophies mean to them.

And then, Lola tells Iván and Félix to sit in the audience chairs in the auditorium. An employee then encases Iván and Félix together in Saran wrap until only their eyes and noses are left uncovered. Having been rendered unable to move, Iván and Félix watch as Lola does something that enrages them, but they’re physically helpless and can’t do anything to stop her.

“Official Competition” shows a constant tug-of-war over power and control, not just for Lola’s movie but also for how the principals involved want to be perceived in life. The name of Lola’s movie is never mentioned in “Official Competition” because the name doesn’t have to be mentioned. The ego battles are not about Lola’s movie but are about the people at the center of the battles and how they choose to handle difficult situations.

“Official Competition” also has sly depictions of nepotism and how sexuality is used as a way to exert power and control. Humberto’s daughter Diana Suárez (played by Irene Escolar), who’s her 20s, has been cast in Lola’s movie in the role of Lucy, the woman in the love triangle with brothers Pedro and Manuel. Diana has very little experience as an actress, and she isn’t particularly talented, so it’s not hard to figure out why she got a co-starring role in this movie.

Lola is a control freak and probably resents being pressured into casting Diana in this role. And so, there’s a scene where Lola tries to exert her power and control in a way that makes Humberto feel very uncomfortable. It happens when Humberto has stopped by to watch rehearsals of the movie.

Lola has placed dozens of microphones on the rehearsal stage to amplify whatever sounds are being made on the stage. She tells Iván and Félix to each take turns passionately kissing Diana, since they are both portraying brothers in love with the same woman. Humberto doesn’t seem to have a problem watching two famous actors passionately kissing his daughter in these rehearsals, as the sounds of their smooching fill the auditorium.

But then, Lola (who is openly queer) tells Iván and Félix that they’re not getting the kissing scenes done in the way that she thinks meets her standards. Lola then steps in and tells them she’ll show them how she wants the kissing scenes done. And then, Lola begins passionately kissing Diana. The two women get so caught up in their makeout session, they begin rolling around on the floor while kissing. This spectacle makes Humberto very uncomfortable, and he quickly leaves the room—just the way Lola probably planned it.

Lola and Diana then being a real-life affair with each other. It’s questionable if this relationship is love or just lust. But the movie makes a point in showing how easy it is for directors to get sexually involved with cast members in consensual relationships. It just so happens that the director in this case is a woman in a male-dominated field, and this woman acts exactly how people act when they use their power as sexual enticement to their subordinates who want some type of career advancement.

Even though Iván and Félix know that Lola prefers to have women as lovers, that doesn’t stop these two actors from sexually flirting with Lola. Félix is more forward about his intentions, by kissing Lola sensually on the neck in an encounter in a dressing room. Meanwhile, Iván tries the tactic of attempting to give Lola a massage. It’s not said out loud, but viewers will get the impression from the way that Iván and Félix are acting with these flirtations that they’re not accustomed to taking orders from a female director, so they try to get some of their own masculine control with Lola by testing her sexual boundaries.

Lola also shows her insecurities in her relationship with Diana, who likes to do aerobic exercises and dancing on social media, sometimes while Lola is watching. When Lola is alone in her bedroom, she’s seen trying to imitate these exercises and dance moves. It’s an indication that Lola might be trying to keep up with the much-younger Diana.

“Official Competition” doesn’t give much insight into Lola’s personal history for viewers to find out if she’s going through a mid-life crisis or if she’s ever found true love. Lola is a loner whose only real constant companion is her assistant Julia (played by Nagore Aranburu), who has to be ready to accommodate Lola’s unusual requests and whims. Observant viewers will notice that Lola has a mostly female crew, which is an indication that outspoken feminist Lola practices what she preaches about female empowerment in the movie industry.

There’s an amusing scene near the beginning of the film, where Félix tells Iván that a woman has been standing outside the building, as if she’s waiting for someone to come outside. Félix makes a bet with Iván that this mystery woman is probably someone who’s dating Lola. As Félix and Iván walk outside and see the woman, Iván casually introduces the woman to Félix. The woman is actually Iván’s wife, Violeta (played by Pilar Castro), a well-known author of children’s books. An embarrassed Félix now knows he made a wrong assumption.

Making wrong assumptions about other people is the catalyst for much of the comedy and drama in “Official Competition.” In a profession (the movie industry) that is all about making people believe what they see on screen, “Official Competition” doesn’t always succeed in making some of these antics and tricks look believable. Where “Official Competition” fares best is in showing the infuriating or funny ways that people in this make-believe profession get caught up in fooling others and themselves.

IFC Films released “Official Competition” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2022. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is August 2, 2022. “Official Competition” was released in Spain on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Hold Your Fire,’ starring Harvey Schlossberg, Shu’aib Rahim and Jerry Riccio

July 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1973 photo of Shulab Abdur Raheem (now known as Shu’aib Rahim) in “Hold Your Fire” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Hold Your Fire”

Directed by Stefan Forbes

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hold Your Fire” features a group of African American and white people from the working-class and middle-class who were in some way connected to a kidnapping/hostage standoff that lasted from January 19 to January 21, 1973, in New York’s City’s Brooklyn borough.

Culture Clash: There was racial tension in this crisis because the hostage takers were four young African American men, almost all of the police officers were white, and there was disagreement among law enforcement on how to handle this crisis. 

Culture Audience: “Hold Your Fire” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching true crime documentaries that go deep in discussing racial issues and hostage negotiations tactics.

A 1973 photo of New York Police Department officers in “Hold Your Fire” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The compelling documentary “Hold Your Fire” has lessons that go beyond this chronicle of a notorious hostage crisis that happened in New York City in 1973. The movie shows how dangerous situations can be de-escalated with the correct communication. Directed by Stefan Forbes, “Hold Your Fire” takes the view that how this hostage crisis was handled was a turning point in getting the New York Police Department (NYPD) to rethink the “shoot first, ask questions later” automatic reaction to hostage takers. “Hold Your Fire” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and made the rounds at some other film festivals, including the 2021 edition of DOC NYC.

Almost everyone who’s interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” was directly affected in some way to this hostage-taking incident, which lasted from January 19 to January 21, 1973, in New York’s City’s Brooklyn borough. It all started when four African American men—ranging in ages from 22 to 26—went into a store called John and Al’s Sporting Goods, with the intention of robbing the store of firearms and ammunition. John and Al’s Sporting Goods was located in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, which in 1973 had a reputation for being a crime-ridden, low-income area. (Bushwick is still mostly working-class, but it has since been gentrified and “cleaned up” its “on the decline” image that it had in the 1970s.)

The four men who invaded the store were Sunni Muslims, who wanted the firearms and ammunition for what was later described as a “holy crusade” and for self-defense against recent attacks from Black Muslims. The robbers were Shulab Abdur Raheem (now known as Shu’aib Rahim), who was 24 years old at the time; Yusef Abdallah Almussadig (now known as Mussidiq), who was 23; Dawud A. Rahman, who was 22; and Salih Ali Abdullah, who was 26. Although all four men have been identified as being members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) when this crime happened, in “Hold Your Fire,” Rahim (who was the leader of the robbers) claims he was not a BLA member when this crime occurred.

Contrary to what perceptions might have been, these four men were not career criminals at the time of this robbery and hostage-taking crisis. Rahim was a transit toll-booth worker. Mussidiq was a carpenter. Rahman was a college student. Abdullah was a TV repairman. Rahim and Rahman are the only two of the four robbers interviewed in “Hold Your Fire.” The movie’s epilogue explains what happened to Mussidiq, Abdullah and a few other principal people involved in the hostage crisis.

During the robbery, things quickly spiraled out of control. The police were called to the crime scene; there were shootouts between the police and robbers; and the robbers initially refused to surrender. Instead, the robbers stayed in the store, where they took 11 people as hostages during the standoff. In “Hold Your Fire,” Rahman says he wanted to surrender immediately, but he was outvoted by his other three cohorts, who at first wanted to flee the scene, but then decided to take people hostage inside the store when they found out that many cops were surrounding the store.

Not everyone made it out of this crisis alive. NYPD officer Stephen R. Gilroy was killed during the shootouts. The NYPD, much of the media and the state of New York blamed the robbers for the death. All four men were convicted in New York Supreme Court of murdering Gilroy, kidnapping and armed robbery. But to this day, the bullet that killed Gilroy was never matched to any guns. Some people in the documentary speculate that Gilroy was killed by an accidental gunshot from someone in the NYPD and that the NYPD covered up the evidence.

Much of “Hold Your Fire” includes vivid memories of what happened inside the store and outside the store, from the people who were there during this hostage crisis. The people who were inside the store who are interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” include hostage takers Rahim and Rahman; hostage Rosemary Catalano, who was 16 years old in 1973; and Jerry Riccio, owner of John and Al’s Sporting Goods, who says the robbers’ first big mistake was trying to steal more firearms than the robbers could carry. The police officers who were outside of the store who are interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” (and who are all now retired) are Al Baker, former NYPD captain; Jack Cambria, former NYPD lieutenant/sergeant; Al Sheppard, former NYPD patrolman; and Brian Tuohy, former NYPD police officer, who was a 27-year-old rookie at the time.

In addition, “Hold Your Fire” has archival interviews with NYPD commissioner Ben Ward and NYPD Commissioner Patrick Murphy. A few academics and legal experts weigh in with their perspectives, such as criminal defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt and Dr. Antoinette “Toni” Collarini-Schlossberg, who is chair of the criminal justice division of St. John’s University in New York City. And there’s an interview with Alice Buckner, the daughter of the late Fonnie Bucker, who was one of the hostage victims. Alice says that as a result of the hostage trauma, Fonnie (who was pregnant at the time) had a nervous breakdown and a miscarriage shortly after she was released.

In interviews to promote “Hold Your Fire” and in the movie’s production notes, “Hold Your Fire” director Forbes says that the biggest hero of this crisis was Harvey Schlossberg, a NYPD officer who had a Ph.D. in psychology and who was the chief negotiator on behalf of the NYPD. Schlossberg is interviewed in “Hold Your Fire,” where he gives a step-by-step account of why he felt that the best tactic was for the NYPD to not storm into the store and shoot the robbers, which would have been standard procedure. Instead, the three-day standoff consisted of tense negotiations, which resulted in many of the hostages being released and no one else being killed before the robbers surrendered.

Schlossberg comments on his philosophy in resolving conflicts: “I believe in talking. Everything is resolvable by talking.” But as the documentary details, this tactic was very controversial in the heat of the moment. Schlossberg got a lot of pushback, complaints and threats from the NYPD, members of the media, loved ones of the hostage victims, and other people in the general public, who all thought that verbal negotiations would take too long to resolve the crisis. Many people thought that the robbers needed to be immediately killed by the police.

This standoff between the cops and the robbers happened just two years after the notorious Attica Correctional Facility crisis in Attica, New York. Attica’s male prisoners (mostly African American and Latino), who demanded more humane living conditions and better health care, took over the prison and held several prison employees hostage from September 9 to September 13, 1971. Negotiations fell apart, and then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state and local police (almost all who were white men) to employ war-like tactics to take back control of the prison. In the end, 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and employees were killed in the violent standoff.

“Hold Your Fire” doesn’t gloss over the racial context of the very divisive debate over how the hostage crisis should have been handled at John and Al’s Sporting Goods on those fateful three days in 1973. Rahim comments in the documentary: “New York City has always had a hard, ugly relationship between the police and the community of color. All my life, the police have been killing black people.”

Baker has this counter-remark: “I know for a fact that cops aren’t racist, yet there was this perception that cops were going to brutalize blacks. Police are seen as oppressors, corrupt, brutal.” Sheppard, who was one of the cops on the scene of this hostage crisis, says that the kidnappers/robbers were looking for a violent fight: “They want a physical confrontation.” As for kidnapping/robbery leader Rahim, Sheppard adds, “A guy like that needs his ass kicked.”

Rahim does not try to excuse his heinous actions that day, but he does say that he never intended for anyone to get killed during this robbery and kidnapping. In the documentary, Rahim also denies reports that he was heard saying about slain NYPD officer Gilroy: “I killed that pig.” In “Hold Your Fire,” Rahim comments on Gilroy’s death: “I don’t know what happened. But it don’t really matter at the end of the day, because none of that would’ve happened if we weren’t there.”

Store owner Riccio refutes the NYPD claim that the cops aimed high when shooting into the store. “The police department won’t admit to a lot of things they did,” Riccio comments. Mussidiq, whom Rahim describes as the “loose cannon” of the four robbers, ended up being shot during the standoff, but he survived his gunshot wounds.

As the leader of the robbers, Rahim gets the most scrutiny and is the only one of the four robbers whose background is talked about in-depth. Rahim describes his mother, Gloria Robinson, as his “mentor” but also as an “alcoholic.” During hostage negotiations, Robinson wanted to talk to her son, but Schlossberg advised against it. Schlossberg says in the documentary that it’s generally not a good idea to involve family members or other loved ones of hostage takers in the negotiation process. “If they had a healthy family, they wouldn’t be in here [taking people hostage],” Schlossberg explains.

Rahim gets the most emotional and remorseful in the documentary when talking about Fonnie Buckner, especially when thinking about how her hostage ordeal resulted in her pregnancy miscarriage. He says that Fonnie Buckner had a chance to be released with some other hostages during the standoff, but she refused. “She didn’t trust the police,” Rahim remembers. “She wanted to stay with us.”

In hindsight, Rahim says in the documentary that he has come to understand over the years that what he and his cohorts did during those three days caused lifelong damage: “People who are hurt, injured and suffer—even oppressed—can become blinded by their own hurt and destroy the lives of so many people who did you no harm. That’s the tragedy of it all: when the victim becomes that which they fear.”

It’s mentioned several times in “Hold Your Fire” that one of the barriers with the NYPD that Schlossberg had to face in this hostage negotiation was he did not fit the image of being a macho cop. Baker comments on Schlossberg: “He didn’t look like a cop. He didn’t act like a cop … He was seen as fruity. Not a back slapper, ‘Let’s go for a beer’ guy.”

Baker continues in describing Schlossberg as “socially incompetent, academic, quirky. He has the Jewish sense of humor. A consummate Jew. He was a genius oddball, psychobabble type of guy.” In an archival interview, then-NYPD commissioner Murphy says Schlossberg “was hated, a bookworm, not a warrior.” Another reason why Schlossberg didn’t have the respect of many NYPD officials: He was mainly a traffic cop, which is a position that’s considered the wimpiest and least-demanding position possible for a police officer.

Whatever negative opinions that many influential members of the NYPD had of Schlossberg at the time, he stayed the course in the negotiations. And many people believe that he helped save the lives of the people who didn’t die in this crisis. Sadly, Schlossberg passed away in 2021. He was 85.

In “Hold Your Fire,” Schlossberg says that law enforcement officers often have this mentality during a hostage crisis: “They all believe that if you give me the right gun with the right bullet, I can put everybody out. But I don’t think it works that easily. That’s a Hollywood thing.” There is no Hollywood fantasy in “Hold Your Fire,” which is a no-frills, raw and impactful documentary that effectively shows how the right negotiations can prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

IFC Films released “Hold Your Fire” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 20, 2022.

Review: ‘Beba,’ starring Rebeca Huntt

June 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rebeca Huntt in “Beba” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Beba”

Directed by Rebeca Huntt

Culture Representation: The documentary “Beba” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, Latino and white) in director Rebeca Huntt’s autobiographical account of her life experiences as a young person.

Culture Clash: Huntt, who identifies as an Afro-Latina, talks about the prejudices she’s experienced in white-dominated environments, violence in her family, and her own personal flaws that have led to negativity in her life. 

Culture Audience: “Beba” will appeal primarily to people interested in a very personal and introspective documentary that tackles issues of race relations, social classes, domestic violence and self-identity.

Rebeca Huntt in “Beba” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

What does it say about a filmmaker when the first feature film directed by the filmmaker is essentially a documentary where the filmmaker talks about herself and her life? This choice and the end results often depend on who’s telling the story and how it’s told. In the case of “Beba” (the feature-film debut of director Rebeca Huntt), this unconventional autobiographical documentary comes close to being self-indulgent, but Huntt’s ability to point out her troubling personal flaws makes it a candid and fascinating story.

“Beba” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, and made the rounds at several other film festivals, including the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival and the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. “Beba” is a non-traditional documentary because the format has Huntt’s voiceover narration, with the movie’s visuals consisting mostly of photos and archival video footage from her life, with only a few interviews done specifically for the documentary. The only people interviewed are a few of Huntt’s family members and one of her former professors at Bard College.

“Beba” gets its title because it’s one of the nicknames that Huntt has had since her childhood. She says her other nicknames are Beca and Bebe. In the documentary, Huntt says that she was born in New York City on May 9, 1990. New York City is where she grew up with her parents (Juan and Veronica) and her two older siblings (Juan Carlos and Raquel).

According to Rebeca, her working-class parents, who met each other in New York City in the 1970s, “sacrificed everything” so that the family could have the prestigious street address of Central Park West, where they lived in a small one-bedroom apartment that was rent-controlled. Rebeca says half-jokingly that she and her siblings were “the poorest kids on Central Park West.” Her parents had the choice to rent a larger apartment, but it was in a less-safe neighborhood where they didn’t want the family to live.

In one of the early scenes in “Beba,” she explains why she took a first-person narrative for this documentary: “You are now entering my universe. I am the lens, the subject, the authority. As the product of the new world, violence is in my DNA. I carry an ancient pain that I struggle to understand. I use it to hurt those closest to me.”

She continues, “Every one of us inherits the curses of our ancestors, but we may put an end to the cycle by constantly going to war with ourselves. I’m watching the curses of my family slowly kill us, so I’m going to war. And there will be casualties. This cannot be our legacy.”

Rebeca also describes herself as “brave, stubborn, narcissistic and chronically cruel. Existing is to hold space for all of this.” This narration takes place within the first five minutes of “Beba.” And at this point so early in the movie, viewers will either be turned off or intrigued to find out more about this filmmaker who’s doing an autobiography where she will reveal unflattering and messy things about her life.

Rebeca’s comment about “going to war” isn’t about political issues. It’s about personal issues and the conflicts she has with herself, her family and other people. She explains why her family history is intertwined with who she is.

Her father’s side of the family is black and has roots in the Dominican Republic. When her paternal grandfather told people he wanted move from the Dominican Republic to the United States, he was laughed at for this idea because he was “poor and black.” At this time, it was 1965, the year of the Dominican Civil War. Rebeca’s father Juan told her vivid memories of his experiences during this period of civil unrest. When people (especially men and boys) walked outside, they had to walk with their hands up, to show that they were unarmed.

Rebeca’s paternal grandfather wanted a better life for his family. And so, in 1966 or 1967, he brought his family of nine people to New York City, where they settled in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, which has a large percentage of residents who are African American or immigrants. Rebeca describes her paternal grandfather as “illiterate” who was just as likely to be seen carrying sugar cane as he would be likely to be seen carrying a belt to whip his kids to discipline them.

Later in the movie, she talks about how domestic violence seems be an inherited curse in her family. Rebeca comments on her father, “I know him better than anyone, yet I have no idea where my father’s mannerisms come from. When I’m angry, I remind him of his father.”

Her mother’s side of the family has roots in Venezuela. Rebeca says that her mother Veronica grew up in Venezuela and studied at Pace University in New York City to escape from Veronica’s “glamorous” mother who had schizophrenia. Veronica settled permanently in New York City after meeting and marrying Juan, and their children often spent summers in Venezuela.

Growing up with parents of two different races came with its share of identity issues. Rebeca says that when she was a child, she once got into a fight with a Jamaican boy who said that Rebeca was black, and Rebeca denied it, because her mother taught her to identify only as Latin. In a documentary interview, Rebeca’s mother Veronica admits, “I’m a Latin person, and I raised my kids as a Latin person, because I don’t know anything else. I don’t know about being an American, white or black.”

The documentary also hints that Veronica could have some mental illness, since it’s revealed that Veronica used to hit herself with a belt instead of disciplining her kids. Rebeca describes her father as the parent who would get violent with his kids when disciplining Rebeca and her siblings. Rebeca says multiple times in the documentary that this domestic violence is a family curse.

Rebeca also says that she and her siblings would sometimes get violent with each other and other members of the family. Rebeca describes how her older sister Raquel once took a machete from a closet and swung it at her parents. Raquel also “[handed] me my first [marijuana] joint at age 10, to apologize for choking me until I can’t breathe.” Later in the documentary, Rebeca describes an incident where Rebeca (as an adult) choked her own mother during a vicious argument.

And there are more family feuds and dysfunction detailed in the documentary. Rebeca says, “If I am Daddy’s girl, and Juan Carlos is Mama’s boy, my sister falls into a neglected dimension I don’t even try to understand.” Rebeca then goes on to describe that Raquel graduated from boarding school but skipped college to “hop trains with junkies.”

According to Rebeca, Raquel’s life experiences include “agoraphobia, disability checks, solitary confinement, destruction and pathological lies. Now, she has two daughters of her own who will inherit our curses.”

Rebeca’s older brother Juan Carlos is also described as troubled. She shares a story of how the family went to Disney World on her seventh birthday, and she got into an argument with Juan Carlos. It was the last time that their father spoke to Juan Carlos. For the documentary, Rebeca’s father Juan still refuses to talk about Juan Carlos.

Rebeca also says for a period of two years, she and Juan Carlos stopped talking to each other. And there were feuds that Rebeca had with her mother. She says that her mother called her a “snitch.” In response, Rebeca reveals what she did at the time: “I [made] sure to call her at work the next day to tell her that she’s garbage.”

These days, Rebeca says that she and Juan Carlos are on speaking terms. However, their conversations seem to be very superficial. Rebeca says, “Juan Carlos only talks to me when a new Jay-Z album is out.”

Toward the end of the documentary, Rebeca shares what she thinks she inherited from her family’s history. On her mother’s side, Rebeca thinks she inherited “passion, resilience and crippling delusion.” On her father’s side, Rebeca thinks she inherited “courage, ambition, abuse and rage.”

But at what point should people stop blaming their parents or ancestors and take responsibility for their own lives and their own actions? It’s an existential question that seems to be a major struggle for Rebeca. She seems to want to stop the cycle of domestic violence in her family. But in the documentary, she doesn’t really say what she’s doing about it. For example, she doesn’t mention if she’s chosen to seek help through therapy or other resources.

Rebeca describes her childhood summer vacations in Venezuela (where she stayed with her mother’s relatives) as being an oasis from all the chaos she experienced at home in America. These vacations inspired her to see more of the world when she was an adult. As she says in the documentary: “I backpacked the world in search of what Venezuela gave me: freedom, unconditional love and a room of my own.”

In another childhood story, Rebeca mentions a community garden in Manhattan where she and her sister Raquel would spend time as children, but the only other people she used to see there were white. When she was a child, she found crack vials in the garden and brought them to school for an art project. She didn’t know what the crack vials were, and she got in trouble for bringing this drug paraphernalia to school. It confused her at the time because she didn’t think she did anything wrong.

In another story about her childhood school experiences, Rebeca says that when she was in fifth grade, the students had a class assignment to come to school dressed as a hero. Rebeca chose Harriet Tubman and went to school in a Harriet Tubman costume, using makeup to “make fake whip marks and broccoli to recreate a plantation.” She also brought Ken dolls with her to represent slave masters, while she had Barbie dolls and Ken dolls depicted as enslaved people. Whatever “Beba” viewers make of this story, it seems to be Rebeca’s way of saying that she had a bit of an iconoclastic streak in her at an early age.

Throughout the movie, Rebeca discusses how her identity was shaped by growing up in a working-class family of color but spending most of her education and social life in environments with mostly white people from more privileged backgrounds. It goes without saying that people who have to navigate being in very different environments often have to present themselves in different ways in order to fit in whatever environment where they want acceptance. And it’s impossible to escape from racism, no matter where people go in life.

In high school, Rebeca says she began to discover herself and what she wanted to do with her life. She says that it was through Maya Angelou’s writings that she first found out that the Afro-Latin identity exists. Rebeca also remembers that in high school, “Shakespeare lights my brain on fire, and not even the bulletproof windows in my high school can contain it.”

The way that Rebeca talks about Shakespeare in that comment makes her sound pretentious, but at least she’s honest about her tendency to be pretentious. This truthful self-awareness will either make viewers want to keep watching “Beba” or want to stop watching it. For all of her admitted flaws, Rebeca seems willing to bare her life in ways where she will undoubtedly get criticism. Too often, directors who narrate documentaries about themselves aren’t willing to show the worst sides of themselves.

“Beba” also shows a perspective that isn’t seen too often in documentaries: What it’s like for an Afro-Latina from a working-class background to attend a mostly white university or college where many of the students come from affluent backgrounds. At Bard College, Rebeca was hanging out with children of millionaires.

The friends she met through Bard College included Rumer Willis (daughter of movie stars Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) and Lola Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke), who had very different childhoods from the childhood that Rebeca experienced. “Beba” includes some footage of Rebeca, Rumer Willis and Lola Kirke hanging out somewhere outdoors and doing an acoustic performance of a song called “Cocaine Blues.”

Later in the movie, there’s a staged recreation of Rebeca and some of her unidentified white friends have a heated discussion about race and white supremacist racism. The two white men in the room seem to be the most uncomfortable when Rebeca talks about white privilege. She also makes this comment: “There is nothing honorable about trying to assimilate into a system that is designed to destroy you.” Rebeca might want to sound like Malcolm X, but there’s nothing in the movie that shows she’s an activist for civil rights. Talking is one thing. Doing is another.

Rebeca doesn’t spend a lot of the documentary’s screen time on her college friends, but she does interview a Bard College professor who made an impact on her because she was one of the few African American professors who was part of the Bard College faculty. In the movie, this professor is only identified by her first name (Annie), and she says she remembers advising Rebeca on how to conduct herself as a Bard student. Annie says that she told Rebeca that college wasn’t a utopia but a reflection of how the real world is, so she suggested to Rebeca to stop wearing belly shirts to class and start showing up on time. Later, Rebeca says that she decided to study for a semester in Ghana, in part to get more in touch with her African ancestry.

Rebeca also reveals some details about her love life. She says she lost her virginity at age 17 to an “asshole” who is not named in the movie. Later, when she was in her 20s, she had a volatile love affair with a bipolar man named Michael, who was around the same age and grew up in New York City’s Bronx borough.

In “Beba,” Rebeca bravely exposes a lot of her personal failings, emotions and struggles. Her narration is admirable for being unapologetic and not trying to be crowd-pleasing or contrived to make as many people like her as possible. What’s missing in the documentary is any clear sense of why she wanted to become a filmmaker.

Who or what inspired her the most in the cinematic arts? What types of movies does she want to make? What types of movies does she like to watch? Does she think she’ll be in it for the long haul, or is filmmaking something she’s dabbling in until something else comes along that interests her? These are questions that are never really answered in this documentary, which gives the impression that Rebeca wanted to do a lot of venting about her family rather than present a completely well-rounded self-portrait.

Perhaps at the time she made this documentary, Rebeca was still figuring out what she wants to do with her life. If she decides to do another autobiographical documentary, it will be interesting to see how much time has passed and how much she might have changed. If “Beba” is any indication, she has many more compelling things to say as a filmmaker and as a person.

Neon released “Beba” in select U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on July 26, 2022.

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