Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, mostly in 1944, the animated film “The Boy and the Heron” features a cast of Japanese human and animal characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.
Culture Clash: A lonely adolescent boy, who’s grieving over the accidental death of his mother, befriends a half-heron/half-man, who leads the boy to fantastical world inside a mysterious tower, where he encounters past versions of various people and a power-hungry group of parakeets.
Culture Audience: “The Boy and the Heron” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and time-traveling anime movies that can be enjoyed by various generations.
“The Boy and the Heron” artfully blends heavy issues of grief with the escapism of a thrilling adventure. It’s a beautifully told and moving story that is as much about being a legacy to departed loved ones as it is about establishing one’s own identity. “The Boy and the Heron” had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “The Boy and the Heron” is inspired by but not connected to Genzaburō Yoshin’s 1937 novel “How Do You Live?,” which is the Japanese title of the movie. “The Boy and the Heron” has elements of Miyazaki’s childhood in the movie, which has an original screenplay. Miyazaki (who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for 2001’s “Spirited Away”) has been synonymous with among the best of what Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has to offer. “The Boy and the Heron” ends a 10-year gap between Miyazaki’s movies. His previous movie was 2013’s Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises.”
“The Boy and the Heron” begins with a tragedy. In 1943, in Tokyo during the Pacific War, 12-year-old Mahito Maki is woken up from his sleep to the sound of chaos. His businessman father Shoichi Maki tells him that the hospital where Mahito’s mother Himi works is on fire. The hospital and the fire can be seen from the Maki family home. Mahito (who is an only child at this point) wants to go with his father to the hospital to help save Maki, but Shoichi insists that Mahito stay at home. Unfortunately, Maki does not survive the fire. It’s implied that the fire was caused by a bomb during this war.
The following year, 13-year-old Mahito and Shoichi move to Grey Heron Mansion, in an unnamed city in the countryside. Shoichi, who owns an ammunition factory near the estate, is now married to Himi’s younger sister Natsuko, who is described as a look-alike to Himi. The first time that Mahito meets Natsuko, he finds out that she is pregnant with his younger sibling. It’s a lot to take in for introverted Mahito, who is deep in grief over his mother’s death.
The mansion has seven elderly maids, who dote on Mahito and often work together in a pack. The maids’ names are Kiriko, Aiko, Izumi, Eriko, Utako, Oyuki, and Kazuko. Kiriko is the unofficial leader of the maids. She is often stoic and less talkative than the other maids in the group. Natsuko and all of the maids treat Mahito with kindness. Shoichi is a caring father, but he is very preoccupied with his work.
One day, Mahito notices that a grey heron has flown up to him, as if to try to get his attention. Mahito is told that his grey heron has lived on the property for quite some time. The grey heron will visit Mahito more times over the next several days.
Shortly after moving to this new home, Mahito goes exploring in the estate’s wooded area. He finds a tower that is somewhat sealed off, but Mahito finds a way to peek inside. He’s later told by Natsuko that the tower was built by her granduncle, who had a mental breakdown and disappeared. However, this granduncle left behind a book of his writings. Natsuko also tells Mahito that when Himi was a child, Himi disappeared for a year, but reappeared a year later with no memory of having been gone.
Quiet and shy Mahito has a hard time making friends with other students at his school. The students mostly ignore him or give him hostile stares. Out of frustration and to get out of going to school, Mahito hits himself on the head with a rock. It causes him to bleed profusely. Mahito tells people that he fell down, but his father Shoichi doesn’t believe Mahito. Shoichi thinks that Mahito was assaulted by a bully and is determined to find out who it is.
While Mahito is recovering from his injuries, he gets an unusual visit from the grey heron, who flies to Mahito’s window and squawks, “Mahito, save me!” The heron tells Mahito that Mahito’s mother is still alive and living in the tower. Around the same time, Natsuko goes missing. Through a series of events, Mahito, the heron and Kiriko find themselves trapped in the tower, which is actually a magical place inside that has past versions of some of the people whom Mahito knows.
The grey heron also reveals himself to be half-pelican, half-man, who can wear the pelican part of his body like a costume. It’s best not to go into further details in this review, but it’s enough to say that the story in “The Boy and the Heron” also features pelicans, a parakeet kingdom, and beings called warawara that look like white-colored stars and have a purpose that’s connected to life forces. Some of the scenes in this movie are visually stunning and very immersive.
The voices of “The Boy and the Heron” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Soma Santoki as Mahito, Masaki Suda as the Grey Heron, Takuya Kimura as Soichi, Yoshino Kimura as Natsuko, Kô Shibasaki as Kiriko, Aimyon as Himi, Jun Kunimura as the Parakeet King and Kaoru Kobayashi as a wise old pelican. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Luca Padovan as Mahito, Robert Pattinson as the Grey Heron, Christian Bale as Soichi, Gemma Chan as Natsuko, Florence Pugh as Kiriko, Karen Fukuhara as Himi, Dave Bautista as the Parakeet King and Willem Dafoe as a wise old pelican.
“The Boy and the Heron” explores themes of life, death, and what it might mean to change one’s destiny by going back in time and possibly doing things differently. There are also some sociopolitical observations about how much control people should give leaders over who lives and who dies, as well as some obvious (but not preachy) commentary about the dangers of damaging the environment. There’s a point in the story where Mahito has to decide how much he is going to make his grief control a big decision that he has to make.
The movie has some well-animated and suspenseful action scenes and gives each of the main characters a distinct personality. The voice actors also give very good but not outstanding performances. With so many animated movies stuck in a formulaic rut, “The Boy and the Heron” can be a viable option for people looking for a well-made and entertaining animated film that also has meaningful messages about humanity’s connections to other creatures, the environment, and the life cycles that are unique to all.
GKIDS released “The Boy and the Heron” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on July 14, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2011, mostly in American Samoa, the comedy/drama film “Next Goal Wins” (based on real events) features Asian/Pacific Islander and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A hard-drinking and volatile soccer coach is exiled to work with the American Samoa National Team, which hasn’t scored a goal in years.
Culture Audience: “Next Goal Wins” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Taika Waititi, star Michael Fassbender, and “against-all-odds” sports movies that are very corny.
“Next Goal Wins” should’ve been a creative and exciting sports movie, considering the uniqueness of this true story. Instead, it overuses tiresome clichés of a grumpy outsider training a ragtag team. The dull comedy and ethnic stereotypes are cringeworthy. “Next Goal Wins” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by Taika Waititi (who co-wrote the subpar “Next Goal Wins” screenplay with Iain Morris), “Next Goal Wins” is based on a true story of how Dutch-born soccer coach Thomas Rongen transformed the American Samoa National Team from being on a losing streak of never scoring a goal in games for years to being a team capable of scoring goals and winning games. This story was also the subject of the 2014 documentary “Next Goal Wins.”
The scripted version of “Next Goal Wins” (which takes place in 2011) follows every single formula that has been done so many times already in similar movies, except the sports team in “Next Goal Wins” happens to have a transgender player. Waititi does occasional voiceover narration that’s supposed to sound folksy and whimsical, but it just comes across as annoying and unnecessary. Waititi also has a cameo role in the movie as an American Samoan priest.
In the beginning of “Next Goal Wins,” there’s a flashback to 2001, as the narrator explains that the American Samoa National Team experienced a humiliating 31-0 loss in a FIFA World Cup qualification match against Australia. Archival footage shows some of this match, as the narrator says the obvious: The American Samoan team is bad at playing soccer. The team hasn’t scored a goal in the 10 years since then.
“Next Goal Wins” then fast-forwards to 2011. The head of the American Samoa Football Federation is cheerful and friendly Tavita (played by Oscar Kightley), but he doesn’t have the respect of the team. How do we know they don’t respect him? While he was asleep, they used a marker pen to draw breasts on his face. Tavita has these markings on his face for a few days. It’s supposed to be a funny sight gag in the movie, but it just looks stupid.
Tavita’s wife Ruth (played by Rachel House) is fed up with the team never being able to win a game. At the spouses’ home, she tells Tavita what needs to happen to find a better coach for the team: “You have to go off-island.” Tavita and Ruth have a young adult son named Daru (played Beulah Koale), who is on the team and who dislikes this idea of finding a new coach from outside of American Samoa. “It’s treason!” Daru exclaims.
Ruth yells, “We’re getting a real coach!” And besides, Ruth tells Tavita and Daru, she’s already placed an ad to get a new coach for the team. The team has a coach named Ace (played by David Fane), who will be demoted to assistant coach when the American Samoa Football Federation finds a head coach who can “save” the American Samoa National Team.
Meanwhile, on the mainland United States, abrasive soccer coach Thomas Rongen (played by Michael Fassbender) is facing a four-person panel from the American Soccer Federation telling him that he’s been fired from his most recent team. Thomas still gets a chance to work for the American Soccer Federation, but he’s told that he’s being exiled to work with the losing-streak American Samoa National Team. Not surprisingly, Thomas is angry and insulted.
Making matters worse, two of the people who’ve made this decision are Thomas’ estranged wife Gail (played by Elisabeth Moss) and her current boyfriend Alex Magnussen (played by Will Arnett), the smug leader of the American Soccer Federation. (This love triangle scenario did not happen in real life.) Rhys Darby has a small and inconsequential role as another American Soccer Federation panelist named Rhys Marlin. Darby seems to be in this movie only because he’s a friend of Waititi, a fellow New Zealander comedian.
Also different from real life: The Thomas Rongen in this movie isn’t a native of the Netherlands. Instead of having a Dutch accent in this movie, Thomas Rongen has an Irish accent, because Fassbender has an Irish accent in real life. In this “Next Goal Wins” movie, Thomas is a stereotypical down-on-his luck coach with a drinking problem who hates having to work with a losing team.
The scenes of Thomas getting culture shock in American Samoa are unimaginative and boring. Thomas gets annoyed that every person who gives him a car ride in American Samoa is laid-back and won’t drive faster than 20 miles per hour. Thomas thinks it’s ridiculous that people in American Samoa want to work less hours than what he’s accustomed to on the mainland.
Thomas doesn’t understand the local tradition of “curfew time,” when people stop everything during certain times of the day to pray and meditate. Thomas becomes enraged when the team members tell him that they don’t want to practice on Sundays, for religious reasons. That’s why it looks so phony later in the movie when Thomas (who acts like he’s allergic to religion for most of “Next Goal Wins”) actually gets baptized in a body of water, with several members of the team in attendance.
As for the team members, only a few have memorable personalities. Daru is the team’s rebellious “bad boy” and is one of the team’s worst players. Jaiyah (played by Kaimana) is a transitioning transgender woman, whose name in her previous life was Johnny. Rambo (played by Semu Filipo) is a goofy and bumbling police officer, who somehow gets recruited to the team after he pulls Thomas over for erratic speeding on the road.
Other team members include Jonah (played by Chris Alosio), a promising young striker; Pisa (played by Lehi Falepapalangi), a large-sized goalie; and Samson (played by Hio Pelesasa), a long-haired midfielder. There’s a very hokey segment of the movie where Thomas and Jaiyah work together to track down former team members in attempts to convince them to play for the team again. The most notable of these former members is Smiley (played by Ioane Goodhue), a goalie who was on the team during the embarrassing 2001 FIFA loss and is the closest thing that the team had to a star player.
At first, Thomas clashes with Jaiyah the most because Thomas doesn’t understand what being transgender means. Jaiyah and Thomas get into a physical brawl after Thomas taunts Jaiyah by calling her by her dead name Johnny, even though Thomas knew how offensive that would be to Jaiyah. But in a sappy movie like “Next Goal Wins,” you just know there will come a time when the coach and player who started off as enemies will find a way to become friends.
The movie’s approach to soccer is incredibly simple-minded. Thomas announces to the team that his strategy is for them to work on “strength and discipline,” which he compares to being like “cheese and pepper.” The practice scenes are jumbled and filmed in a lazy way.
The team has a young fan named Armani (played by Armani Makaiwa), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. The movie treats him like a mindless mascot, because Armani doesn’t say anything in the movie, which never bothers to explain why this mute child has all this time to spend with the team. Shouldn’t he be in school? Where are his parents?
There’s also a very misleading subplot about Thomas constantly listening to voice mail messages from his teenage daughter Nicole (voiced by Kaitlyn Dever), who is always asking why Thomas won’t communicate with her. Why won’t he call her back? The answer, which is revealed near the end of the movie, is completely manipulative.
“Next Goal Wins” repeatedly shows that Thomas wants to get back together with his estranged wife Gail, but it never mentions why they broke up in the first place. The separation from Gail is supposed to make Thomas look lovelorn and sympathetic. But it doesn’t work, because he’s such a relentless jerk for most of the movie, until he goes through a sudden personality change after making a big speech.
“Next Goal Wins” has some heartfelt and well-acted scenes with Thomas and Jaiyah, but how they end up befriending each other looks too forced and contrived. The racial issues that were hinted at in the beginning of the movie, when Daru objected to hiring a non-Samoan coach, are warped to fit a “white savior” narrative, when “Next Goal Wins” becomes about Thomas and how he’s uncomfortable with Samoan culture. The movie treats the Samoans as all having to accommodate Thomas and eventually be willing to tolerate Thomas’ insults and tirades.
Outstanding sports movies about athletic teams make viewers feel like they know several members of the team, not just a few. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with “Next Goal Wins,” which makes most of the team members utterly generic side characters. The Samoan team members in “Next Goal Wins” are portrayed as helpless dolts who need a rejected and rude coach of European heritage to make them into a winning team. It’s ethnic condescension at its worst. “Next Goal Wins” might have worked as a satire of sports movie stereotypes, but the movie’s comedy and overall filmmaking are as limp as a deflated soccer ball.
Searchlight Pictures released “Next Goal Wins” in U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the sci-fi comedy/drama film “Dream Scenario” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos, Asians and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An insecure college professor finds out that he’s appearing in the dreams of millions of people around the world, and he experiences the positives and negatives of fame.
Culture Audience: “Dream Scenario” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and movies that take satirical looks at how public images and fame can be used and exploited.
“Dream Scenario” offers interesting ideas about fame and the power of perception versus reality. Although the ending of this satirical comedy/drama is a little too rushed, there’s enough in the movie to keep viewers guessing on what will happen next. It’s a big concept for “Dream Scenario,” which sometimes bites off more than it can chew on this concept.
Written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, “Dream Scenario” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. “Dream Scenario” has some plot elements that were science fiction at the time this movie was filmed and released in the early 2020s, but some of the fictional technology shown in the movie could very well become a reality. That futuristic possibility is what holds this movie together in its intention to be provocative as well as entertaining, because some parts of “Dream Scenario” start to wear thin and almost fall apart.
The protagonist of “Dream Scenario” (which takes place in unnamed U.S. cities) is Paul Matthews (played by Nicolas Cage) a nerdy and insecure professor who teaches biology at the fictional Osler University. “Dream Scenario” was actually filmed in Toronto. Paul (who has a background in ocean biology) and his wife Janet (played by Julianne Nicholson) have been married for 15 years and have two teenage daughters: Hannah Matthews (played by Jessica Clement) is about 15 or 16, and Sophie Matthews (played by Lily Bird) is about 13 or 14.
One day, Sophie tells Paul that he was in one of her recent dreams, where he stood by while objects crashed from the sky into their swimming pool and Sophie floated in the air. The opening scene of “Dream Scenario” shows this particular dream. Paul doesn’t think too much about it, but he thinks it’s curious that Sophie says that Paul has been dreaming about him frequently. He also wonders out loud why he was just a passive bystander in the dream.
Later that day, Paul has lunch with a former graduate school classmate named Sheila Harper (played by Paula Boudreau), who tells Paul that she’s about to publish a research about ant intelligence or “antelligence” that will be published in a magazine called Nature. (Sheila’s research paper is titled “Antelligence Theory.”) The problem for Paul is that this research sounds a lot like his ideas that he talked about with Sheila when they were grad students, but she had no interest in those ideas at the time.
Paul is miffed and a little jealous that Sheila is now getting a research paper published for ideas that he thinks she “stole” from him. Sheila believes that she doesn’t have to give Paul any credit, because she genuinely developed an interest in the research paper’s topic. Their conversation has some tension. Paul and Sheila don’t seem interested in seeing each other again after this somewhat uncomfortable encounter.
Not too long after that lunch meeting, Paul and Janet go to see a play. After the play is over, another audience member sees Paul in the hallway and gives him a warm hello. Her name is Claire (played by Marnie McPhail), who used to date Paul years ago. It’s the first time that Janet has met Claire. Paul tells Janet right away that Claire is an ex-girlfriend.
Claire has something unusual to tell Paul: She has been dreaming about him. In her dreams, she is in danger while he is just a bystander observer. Claire invites Paul to lunch to discuss it further. During their lunch meeting, Claire says she writes for a pyschology online publication called New Inquiry, and she wants to do an article about her dreams about Paul, who willingly gives her permission to write about him.
Soon after this article is published, Paul starts getting hundreds of social media messages from strangers , who all say that Paul is in their dreams too. This is how Paul finds out that Claire’s article included a link to his social media accounts. Paul then becomes a media sensation, as the numbers of people who dream about him grow into the millions, including many people he knows, such as his students and friends. Paul is overwhelmed but flattered by all the attention.
One person who hasn’t been dreaming about Paul is Janet. When he asks Janet what her dream/fantasy about him would be, Janet says she sometimes has a fantasy that she is in danger somewhere, and Paul comes to her rescue, wearing a Halloween costume that Paul had years ago: a replica of the oversized suit that singer David Byrne wore in the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert documentary “Stop Making Sense.”
Paul’s fame attracts a mentally ill man named Tristan (played by Jim Armstrong), who breaks into the Matthews home at night while carrying a knife and threatening to kill everyone in the house. The intruder is apprehended without resistance. Paul and Janet later find out from an investigator that the intruder was having a “manic” episode and meant no harm. Still, the investigator advises Paul and Janet to beef up their security, such as getting alarms and learning self-defense.
Janet is worried about what Paul’s fame will do to him and their family, but Paul wants to cash in his fame while he still has it. He has a meeting with a trendy start-up marketing agency called Thoughts, which is led by Trent (played by Michael Cera) and Mary (played by Kate Berlant), who are smarmy entrepreneurs willing to say and do anything to make money. The executives at Thoughts initiated the contact with Paul, who is ignorant about marketing and advertising.
Paul has to go out of town to meet these executives for the first time at Thoughts headquarters. The first person he meets in the office is Molly (played by Dylan Gelula), the assistant of Trent and Mary. Molly sits in on the meeting. Paul tells Trent and Mary that the first thing he wants Thoughts to do for him is help Paul get a book deal. However, Trent and Mary are more interested in signing up Paul to do advertising for Sprite. Trent and Mary are eventually able to convince a reluctant Paul to go along with their plans.
“Dream Scenario” takes a few unexpected turns which are hit and miss for this story. It’s enough to say that whatever Paul does in people’s dreams greatly affect their perception of who he is in real life. Something changes when Paul finds out that Sheila is getting praise and media attention for her research paper. And then, things get ugly when people start having violent nightmares about Paul.
“Dream Scenario” cleverly lampoons the fickle nature of fame and how people think they “know” a celebrity they’ve never met. The movie features several sequences of how Paul appears to people in their dreams. Many of these sequences are amusing, but some are very menacing and are meant to be unsettling. When things start to go very wrong for Paul, he gets some sympathy and advice from Osler University dean Brett (played by Tim Meadows) and Matthews family friend Richard (played by Dylan Baker), but their friendship limits are tested as Paul’s life starts to get out of control.
Cage (who is one of the producers of “Dream Scenario”) gives a wide-ranging and very watchable performance, because Paul goes through some extreme experiences. “Dream Scenario” is a dark comedy that takes an “ordinary” person and puts that person in extraordinary circumstances. The supporting cast members are also quite good in their roles, but this movie rises or falls mainly on Cage’s talent of being realistically comedic in absurd situations. Some viewers might not like how the movie ends, but the last scene in the movie is entirely consistent with the bittersweet message that “Dream Scenario” is trying to convey about how people use reality and fantasy in their lives, for better or worse.
A24 will release “Dream Scenario” in select U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971, the comedy/drama film “The Holdovers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A professor, a student and a cook (who all are associated with an elite boarding school for boys) form an unlikely bond over their loneliness and personal problems during a Christmas holiday break.
Culture Audience: “The Holdovers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Alexander Payne, star Paul Giamatti and above-average movies about unique characters who are find themselves spending time together under unexpected circumstances.
Filled with acerbic wit and superb talent, “The Holdovers” is an engaging comedy/drama about finding personal connections with unexpected people. It’s more than a Christmas movie. It’s an authentic portrait of humanity. “The Holdovers” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and then had its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it came in second place for TIFF’s top prize of the People’s Choice Award.
Directed by Alexander Payne and written by David Hemingson, “The Holdovers” takes place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971. (The movie was filmed on location in Massachusetts.) “The Holdovers” is a very impressive feature-film debut for screenwriter Hemingson, whose previous experience has been in television, with credits that include the TV series “Whiskey Cavalier” and “Kitchen Confidential.” “The Holdovers” was originally conceived as a pilot (test episode) for a potential TV series.
In “The Holdovers,” the three characters at the center of the story all have a connection to an elite boarding school for boys called Barton Academy, which is located in an unnamed suburb of Boston. Adjunct professor of ancient history Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), a longtime Barton Academy faculty member, is grouchy, strict and very demanding. Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa), a 17-year-old student, excels in Paul’s class, but Angus is a moody and rebellious loner who is often rude and sarcastic to people. Mary Lamb (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the chief chook at Barton Academy, is sassy but compassionate and generous.
Through a series of circumstances, this unlikely trio of misfits find themselves alone for the Christmas holiday season at Barton Academy, while almost everyone else has gone away on vacation. The people who are left behind at Barton Academy during this vacation period have the unflattering nickame of “the holdovers.” It’s considered a stigma to be stuck on campus during this holiday break, because the assumption is that people in this situation don’t have any loved ones or friends who want to be with them for the holiday season.
Paul, Angus and Mary find out that they are all in emotional pain, in different and similar ways. Paul is a very cynical bachelor with a troubled past. Paul lives alone, has never been married, and he has no children. Angus (who is an only child) feels abandoned and neglected by his mother Judy Clotfelter (played by Gillian Vigman), who would rather spend this holiday season on a honeymoon with her new husband Stanley Clotfelter (played by Tate Donovan).
Mary is a single mother who is grieving over the recent death of her college-age son (and only child) Curtis, a Barton Academy alum who was drafted into the Vietnam War and died in combat. Curtis’ father Harold, who was Mary’s fiancé, died in a shipyard job accident when Curtis was very young. Harold and Curtis both died before they were the age of 25. Mary doesn’t want a lot of people to see her suffering, so she’s been somewhat avoiding her loved ones, including her boyfriend Danny (played by Naheem Garcia) and her sister Peggy (played by Juanita Pearl), who lives in Boston.
“The Holdovers” has sharp writing, directing and acting throughout the movie, but it takes a while before the movie gets to the best scenes. The first third of “The Holdovers” is a series of scenes establishing the personalities of the three main characters, while the last two-thirds of the movie unpeel some of the layers of their lives, thereby revealing flaws, secrets and emotional damage that they’ve experienced. As already shown in the trailer for “The Holdovers,” there’s a point in the story where Angus and Paul spend time alone together, and Paul starts to feel like a fatherly mentor to Angus.
Giamatti has played many curmudgeonly and jaded characters before (including in Payne’s Oscar-winning 2004 dramedy “Sideways”), but Giamatti’s performance in “The Holdovers” is probably the best of the bunch. Sessa makes a very admirable feature-film debut as the complicated Angus. Randolph gives a performance that is both amusing and heartbreaking.
The first third of the movie shows these three characters within the context of how they want to present themselves to other people in Barton Academy culture. But as more Barton Academy people go away for the holidays, the vulnerabilities of Paul, Angus and Mary start to become more apparent. And these three characters become more open among themselves in showing these vulnerabilities.
There are some interesting side characters in “The Holdovers,” but their impact on the story isn’t as powerful as the relationship that evolves between Paul, Angus and Mary. Barton Academy employee Miss Lydia Crane (played by Carrie Preston) is one of the few people at the school who likes unpopular Paul. She invites Paul and Angus to her home for a crowded holiday party, where Paul and Angus start to see different sides to each other.
Paul’s boss Dr. Hardy Woodrup (played by Andrew Garman), who is Barton Academy’s headmaster, is often frustrated with stubborn and ill-tempered Paul, who is harsh and tactless in the way he communicates. However, Paul prides himself on having high ethical standards: He is the type of professor who doesn’t give special treatment to his students, based on the clout and income of the students’ parents. An early scene in the movie shows Hardy and Paul having a tense conversation, where Hardy says he disagrees with Paul’s past decision to flunk a student son of a senator, who is one of the school’s biggest donors.
Angus has a contentious or aloof attitude toward his fellow students. The student he clashes with the most is a racist bully named Teddy Kountze (played by Brady Hepner), who is a spoiled and entitled rich kid. Other student characters who are featured in “The Holdovers” include a long-haired star athlete named Jason Smith (played by Michael Provost), an amiable introvert named Alex Ollerman (played by Ian Dolley) and a quiet immigrant named Ye-Joon Park (played by Jim Kaplan). Alex is a holdover because his parents are Mormon missionaries who are busy traveling. Ye-Joon is a holdover because is parents are in Korea, and they think he is too young to travel by himself to Korea.
“The Holdovers” is filmed as if it’s a time capsule from the early 1970s (the opening title card sequence is a tribute to this era of cinema), but the themes explored in this gem of a film are timeless. It’s the type of story that doesn’t need to be made into a TV series, as it was originally conceived. The conclusion of this film is just right the way that it is.
Focus Features will release “The Holdovers” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the musical comedy film “Dicks: The Musical” (based on the stage show “Fucking Identical Twins”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people, Latin people and Asians) portraying the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two sexist and egotistical salesmen, who are rivals at the same company, find out that they’re identical twins, and they go on a quest to reunite their divorced parents, one of whom is living life as a gay person.
Culture Audience: “Dicks: The Musical” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the stage production on which this movie is based; the movie’s headlining stars; and comedy musicals that don’t have much to offer but gimmicky raunchiness.
“Dicks: The Musical” isn’t as clever and funny as it thinks it is. A better movie would have been about Megan Thee Stallion’s scene-stealing Gloria Masters character. The film makes a terrible pivot into glorifying the crime of incest. Incest is never okay. Worst of all, this abrupt change into an incest story is unnecessary and reeks of a desperate way to create shock value as a gimmick, not because it makes sense to the story.
Directed by Larry Charles, “Dicks: The Musical” is based on the stage show “Fucking Identical Twins,” which was the original title of the movie before it was changed to a title that’s more marketable and less offensive. Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson (two alumni of the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade) are the writers and title characters of “Fucking Identical Twins,” which started out as an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch. Sharp and Jackson are also the writers and stars of “Dicks: The Musical.”
You can tell that “Dicks: The Musical” is based on a comedy sketch, because the very flimsy and simplistic plot gets repetitive and dull in too many sections, in order to fill up the time for a feature-length movie. There are only a few standout musical moments. Most of the songs are trite and forgettable. Jackson, Sharp and Karl Saint Lucy co-wrote the songs, with Marius de Vries (the producer of the movie’s soundtrack) also sharing co-songwriting credit on some of the tunes. “Dicks: The Musical” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
The identical twins at the center of the story are Craig Tittle (played by Sharp) and Trevor Brock (played by Jackson), two hard-driving, very competitive and extremely rude salesmen. In the very beginning of the movie, bachelors Craig and Trevor have known each other for a while but have no idea that they are brothers. The “joke” is that Craig and Trevor don’t look identical at all.
Craig (the uptight brother) and Trevor (the flamboyant brother) work for the same vacuum company and are fierce rivals at their job, which rewards the employee with the highest sales revenue. Craig and Trevor also happen to live next door to each other in New York City. The story is narrated by God (played by Bowen Yang), who is portrayed as a sarcastic gossipper who sees and knows everything.
Trevor and Craig both consider themselves to be politically conservative “alpha males” who are the best at everything they do. They are also homophobic and sexist, because they think heterosexual, cisgender men are superior to everyone else. How awful are Craig and Trevor? They’re nasty to pregnant women and don’t hesitate to do things like push a pregnant woman out of the way if she’s hailing the same taxi.
Craig was raised by a single father. Trevor was raised by a single mother. Through a series of events, Craig and Trevor find out that they are long-lost identical twins whose parents divorced when Craig and Trevor were too young to remember their parents being married. Craig and Trevor’s parents cut each other out of their lives completely after the divorce and did not make themselves known to whichever twin son wasn’t in their custody. Craig and Trevor were raised to be believe that whichever parent raised them was widowed.
Trevor and Craig think there’s a social stigma if their parents are divorced. Craig and Trevor agree to temporarily put aside their brotherly feuding, in order to reunite their parents, with the hope that their parents will remarry. (The filmmakers of “Dicks: The Musical” openly acknowledge that “The Parent Trap” is an inspiration for this part of the story.) Craig and Trevor decide to disguise themselves as each other when they visit whichever parent didn’t raise them.
When Craig (disguised as Trevor) meets his mother Evelyn (played by Megan Mullally) for the first time, he finds out that she’s a lisping eccentric who lives alone and doesn’t have a vagina, because the vagina has separated from her body and can fly like a bird. (Evelyn’s flying vagina is used as a sight gag multiple times in the movie.) When Trevor (disguised as Craig) meets his father Harris (played by Nathan Lane) for the first time, he finds out that Harris has been living alone as a gay man.
Harris has two pet creatures in a cage called the Sewer Boys, who are about the size of squirrels and are described in the movie’s production notes as coming from “the bowels of New York’s septic system” and looking like “rat demons.” The Sewer Boys (who can stand up and have human-like hands) don’t speak human languages but mostly grunt, mumble and hiss. One is named Backpack (voiced by Tom Kenny), and the other is named Whisper (voiced by Frank Todaro), but their personalities are indistinguishable from each other.
Just like a bird parent, Harris feeds the Sewer Boys with food that he chews in his mouth and spits into their mouths. (Harris usually misses the mouth target.) It’s a sight gag that’s over-used and yet another example of how this movie runs ideas into the ground with too much repetition. The rest of “Dicks: The Musical” is an occasionally hyper but mostly empty tottering of weak nonsense, where each scene tries to outdo the previous scene by becoming increasingly bizarre. The problem is that not much of it is very amusing.
Gloria is the vulgar-talking, crude-thinking, ultra-feminist supervisor of Craig and Trevor. She likes to pit employees aganst each other and only cares about two things in her job: bossing people around (sometimes with physical violence) and making as much money as possible for the company with her sales team. One of the few highlights of “Dicks: The Musical” is Gloria’s solo musical number “Out Alpha the Alpha,” which is hilarious in its filthy adult language as much as it is well-choreographed.
Gloria and God are two of the most interesting characters in the movie, but they get less than 15 minutes of screen time each in this 86-minute movie. Evelyn and Harris are also much more entertaining than their sons Craig and Trevor. Mullally and Lane portray these parental characters with a lot of gusto, but the dialogue and songs written for them become irritating after a while. (Mullally’s husband Nick Offerman has a cameo in the movie as a politically conservative activist named Steve Chaney.) Viewers are mostly stuck watching the witless and boring antics of one-dimensional Craig and Trevor, as they occasionally warble mediocre musical songs.
“Dicks: The Musical” is clearly a case of two guys who created hollow characters for themselves and then surrounded these characters with silly distractions that they want to pass off as a “movie plot” and fool people into thinking that it’s “edgy” comedy. Foul language or provocative topics can be part of comedy that pushes boundaries. But when a movie tries to push the idea (such as in the horrendous closing song “All Love Is Love”) that something is wrong with you if you don’t celebrate incest and bestiality, then it has crossed the point of no return into being pretentious garbage.
A24 released “Dicks: The Musical” in select U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 20, 2023. A sing-along version of “Dicks: The Musical” will have a one-week release in U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on November 10, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place 1995, in Mississippi, Florida, and Canada, the dramatic film “The Burial” (based on The New Yorker’s 1999 article of the same title) features a white and African American cast of characters portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A hotshot attorney, whose specialty is personal injury, is persuaded to take a contract litigation case for a small business owner of a funeral company who is suing a corporate giant for reneging on a deal to buy part of the business.
Culture Audience: “The Burial” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Jamie Foxx, courtroom dramas, and movies about underdogs battling against corporate bullies.
Taking place in 1995, “The Burial” is just like great courtroom drama movies of the 1990s. Jamie Foxx shines in this true story about a flashy and persistent attorney representing a small business owner who’s suing a corporate giant in the funeral industry. Although “The Burial” is based on real events, a few minor details were changed for movie. The overall story (the names of the real people are in the movie) and the outcome of the trial are depicted in the film accurately. It’s the type of story where the outcome would be hard to believe if it didn’t happen in real life.
Directed by Maggie Betts, “The Burial” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Betts co-wrote “The Burial” screenplay with Doug Wright, which they adapted from The New Yorker’s 1999 article “The Burial,” written by Jonathan Harr. It’s a classic story of an underdog taking on a seemingly impossible challenge and … well, you can probably figure out the rest if you know why this story was made into a movie.
That doesn’t mean “The Burial” is dull. Far from it. There’s enough comedy to balance out the most serious moments, while the movie’s screenplay and direction can hold viewers’ interest—especially viewers who are inclined to like dramas about legal cases. And the acting performances are well above-average from this very talented ensemble cast.
“The Burial” also takes viewers behind the scenes to show how trial attorneys on the same legal team not only have opponents in a courtroom, but they also sometimes have major conflicts with people on the same team. Beyond the actual legal case, “The Burial” also has realistic observations and depictions of race relations as well as the corrupt methods of corporate sharks. The movie has classic themes of underestimated people who don’t give up, even when faced with seemingly impossible obstacles.
The opening scene of “The Burial” begins not in a courtroom but in a church: Calvary of Love Baptist Church in Indiantown, Florida, to be exact. Confident attorney Willie E. Gary (played by Foxx) is a guest speaker because the church’s pastor Albert, who is Willie’s brother, asked Willie to be the guest speaker. Willie is a natural showman who gives passionate and rousing speeches, which is one of the reasons why he’s a successful attorney who thrives in the courtroom. It’s mentioned later in the movie that Willie hasn’t lost a case in 12 years.
During his speech at the church, Willie declares what makes churches with a mostly black congregation different from other churches: “In Black Church, they don’t say, ‘I fit the description.’ In Black Church, they don’t judge me because of the color of my skin. In Black Church, they don’t call me out my name. And if they do call me out my name, do you know what they call me? They call me a child of God!”
Meanwhile, in an entirely different setting, in Biloxi, Mississippi, a large family birthday party is happening at the home of businessman Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe (played by Tommy Lee Jones), who is celebrating his 75th birthday. Jerry and his loyal and loving wife Annette O’Keefe (played by Pamela Reed) have 13 children and 24 grandchildren. It looks like most if not all of these descendants are at this party.
Jerry and Annette have a private conversation while observing their family members from afar, with Jerry proudly saying of their descendants: “Not one felony in the whole damn bunch.” This seemingly blissful family event is a happy moment for Jerry, but he’s been experiencing some tough financial times that he hasn’t disclosed yet to Annette.
Jerry is the leader and sole owner of the family-owned Bradley-O’Keefe funeral business that he inherited from his father. The business, which has been in Jerry’s family for about 100 years, has eight funeral homes and one insurance company throughout Southern Mississippi. The burial insurance company is the most profitable entity of the business and keeps the funeral homes operating when the funeral homes are experiencing a decline in finances. Jerry plans to keep the business owned by his family.
As part of Mississippi state law, in order to keep his business license, Jerry has to maintain a minimum bank balance for his business. (The amount is not mentioned in the movie.) Recently, the bank balance for Bradley-O’Keefe has reached below that minimum. And so, Jerry has had visits from state licensing board officials, who warn Jerry that his license could be suspended if he doesn’t bring up the bank balance to at least the minimum amount.
Jerry has a meeting with his longtime trusted attorney Mike Allred (played by Alan Ruck) about this financial predicament. Mike, who has been Jerry’s attorney for almost 30 years, suggests that Jerry sell off part of the Bradley-O’Keefe business in order to get the cash that Jerry needs. Jerry vehemently disagrees because he made a promise to himself to never sell any part of the business.
But when Mike tells Jerry about a wealthy Canadian businessman named Ray Loewen (played by Bill Camp) who would be willing to buy three of Jerry’s funeral homes at more than their fair market value, Jerry agrees to go to Vancouver to have an in-person meeting with Ray. At this time in 1995, Ray is the president/CEO of the Loewen Group, which has been buying up funeral homes across Canada and the United States. By 1995, the Loewen Group owned more than 1,000 funeral homes and had a market value of about $3 billion. Ray is the chief shareholder of the Loewen Group.
“The Burial” adeptly shows how two very different men—Willie Gary and Jerry O’Keefe—living in two different U.S. states, and living very different lifestyles, crossed paths and ended up working together on a landmark business case. When Jerry and Mike go to Vancouver, they are accompanied by Hal Dockins (played by Mamoudou Athie), a young and eager-to-impress attorney who is a friend of one of Jerry’s sons. Jerry has hired Hal to tag along and learn what he can from Mike.
Mike immediately has a condescending attitude toward Hal because he thinks this neophyte can’t possibly be helpful to Jerry. However, time and time again, Hal proves to be much smarter than Mike in almost every way. Mike gives Jerry bad advice, while Hal is the one who has insight and ideas that prove to be crucial to this case. There is more than a little racial condescension that Mike shows to Hal when interacting with him. Things are revealed in the movie that show why Mike’s racial prejudice is real.
The business meeting with Ray takes place on Ray’s yacht. Ray’s conversation shows he has the personality of greedy sociopath. Jerry is concerned about Ray’s callous attitude about the grieving people who are the customers of the funeral business. Ray tells Jerry that the real customers are the dead people who need funerals. Ray openly tells Jerry that he’s only investing in the funeral business to wait for what Ray calls The Golden Era of Death: the years when Baby Boomers (the large population of people born between 1946 and 1964) start dying, which will lead to an increase in demand for funeral businesses.
Despite his reservations about doing the deal, Jerry needs the money and agrees to a contract where Jerry will sell three of his funeral homes to Ray, on the condition that Ray not own or operate any burial insurance business in Southern Mississippi. Ray, who did not sign his part of the contract, postpones closing the deal for months. Hal correctly figures out that this is Ray’s way of making a cash-strapped Bradley-O’Keefe go out of business, thereby giving Ray the opportunity to swoop in and buy all of Bradley-O’Keefe.
Jerry is so angry and insulted that he decides to sue Ray and the Loewen Group for breach of contract. Mike thinks it’s a bad idea, but Jerry files the lawsuit anyway. Mike is not really skilled as a trial attorney, so he doesn’t want the case to go to trial. However, Jerry does not want to settle the lawsuit out of court. Who will be the trial lawyer for Jerry?
Hal happens to sees Willie featured on the TV interview series “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” where Willie’s success and wealth (including his own private jet) are on full display. Willie and his wife Gloria Gary (played Amanda Warren) are presented as a luxury-loving couple with a strong and healthy marriage. Hal comes up with the unorthodox idea to hire Willie, based on what Hal sees of Willie on TV. The big problem is that Willie’s specialty is handling personal injury cases, not contract litigation cases.
Mike and Jerry are skeptical that Willie is the right lawyer for the job. Hal convinces them to watch Willie work his magic in a courtroom setting. And so, the three of them travel to Florida to sit in a courtroom and watch Willie represent a plaintiff in a personal injury case. During his closing arguments, Willie wins over a jury in a case where Willie is representing a plaintiff named Clovis Tubbs, who was hit by a Finch & Co. Food Servies truck while suicidal Clovis was deliberately riding the wrong way on his bicycle. Willie works the courtroom like a preacher works a church full of devoted followers.
Hal convinces Willie to meet with him and Jerry at Willie’s office. Willie flatly turns down Jerry’s offer to hire him for Jerry’s lawsuit, which was filed in a low-income, predominantly African American city in Florida. Willie says one of the reasons he doesn’t want to take the case is because he doesn’t do contract litigation cases. The other reason, as Willie bluntly tells Jerry: Willie has never had a white person as a client. Willie’s “yes man” colleague Reggie Douglas (played by Dorian Missick), who is in the room during this meeting, echoes Willie’s statements.
Jerry seems to accept this rejection, but Hal is not easily defeated. While Jerry waits outside, Hal spontaneously goes back to Willie’s office by himself for one last chance to convince Willie to represent Jerry in this case. Hal lists a number of reasons why, including Jerry’s war hero status that makes Jerry a sympathetic client. Most of these reasons aren’t enough to convince Willie to take the case.
But what sticks with Willie is what Hal has to say about how this case could change the legal community’s perception of Willie as being a “glorified ambulance chaser.” And what really seals the deal is when Hal tells Willie that winning this case could make Willie as famous as Johnnie Cochran, who was famously representing O.J. Simpson at the time in Simpson’s murder trial. It’s a “one-two punch” argument that scores a knockout for Hal. Obviously, it’s not spoiler information to say that Willie decides to become Jerry’s attorney for the case.
The rest of “The Burial” involves some twists and turns and highs and lows for both sides of this lawsuit. Mike and Willie immediately clash over who will be the lead attorney. It leads to some hard feelings when Jerry decides Willie should be the lead attorney, since Willie is more skilled at trial/courtroom work. Mike is the attorney who keeps pushing for Jerry to settle the lawsuit.
Willie’s Florida-based team includes Reggie, Al Jones (played by Tywayne Wheatt) and Dashaan Williams (played by Keith Jefferson), who have to spend a lot of time in Mississippi to prepare for the case. (“The Burial” was actually filmed in Louisiana.) The racial tensions are obvious, since everyone on Willie’s team is African American, while everyone on Mike’s team is white. Hal is somewhere in the middle and is often the voice of reason when Mike and Willie inevitably have conflicts with each other.
How is Jerry paying for all of these lawyers? As he tells a shocked Annette (who is the type of wife who lets her spouse handle all the household finances), Jerry took out a third mortgage on their house without consulting her in advance. She gets upset, but there’s nothing she can do about it, because Jerry has a pattern of telling her these things after he’s already made decisions that are out of her control.
In the courtroom, the Loewen Group is represented by an all-African American team of attorneys, led by Mame Downes (played by Jurneee Smollett), a Harvard-educated lawyer who has the nickname The Python because of her cross-examination style. In a meeting with Jerry’s legal team, Willie quips when he finds out about this nickname: “Okay, Miss Python. I’m a boa constrictor.”
Also on the team of the Loewen Group attorneys are Howard Phifer (president of the Washington, D.C. Bar Association); business litigation expert Richard Mayfield (played by Doug Spearman); and former Mississippi Supreme Court justice Walter Bell (played by Gralen Bryant Banks), who are essentially side characters who don’t say much in the movie. Mame becomes Willie’s chief opponent in this courtroom battle. She gets the most screen time and the best lines of dialogue out of all the Loewen Group’s defense attorneys in this case.
The issues of racism, the abuse of power and economic exploitation are constantly mentioned and shown in the movie because they are intertwined with the facts of the case. Jerry is initially very naïve in thinking that race shouldn’t and doesn’t matter in this case, even though most of the jury will be African American. Hal tactfully tries to educate Jerry about racism issues that a 75-year-old upper-middle-class white man in America usually doesn’t have to experience on an everyday basis.
“The Burial” has a few courtroom scenes that look exaggerated for a movie, especially when people break out into applause, as if it’s a concert, not a courtroom. No self-respecting judge would let a courtroom get that out of control. The movie’s Judge Graves (played by Lance E. Nichols) is secondary to the back-and-forth sparring between the attorneys. After all, “The Burial” has Willie as the co-lead protagonist.
A key insight into Willie’s personality is when he tells Jerry and his legal team at one point in the movie: “I’d rather have somebody blow my head off than lose a case.” As cocky and brash as Willie can be, he also learns some lessons in humility. Jerry also has his stubborn ways that are tested when most people in his life advise him to do one thing, but he does the opposite. The lawsuit puts a strain on the marriage of Jerry and Annette, who thinks that Jerry’s determination to win the case has become an obsession they can’t afford.
Despite all the conflicts shown in “The Burial,” some of the highlights of the movie include the camaraderie on Willie’s team. There’s a scene on Willie’s private jet where Willie introduces Jerry to the music of R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!, whose 1990 hit “Feels Good” is played on the plane. This song is used later in one of the movie’s funnier scenes. Although the case is a serious matter, “The Burial” has touches of comedy that are well-acted and look organic, not forced, thanks to the talented cast members.
Willie is obviously the movie’s most flamboyant and charismatic character. However, rather than making him a parody of a successful attorney with a huge ego, Foxx brings depth and realistic humanity to this character. Underneath his arrogant persona, Willie is still dealing with painful issues.
There are a few scenes in the movie when Willie tells people about his memories of growing up poor and helping his sharecropper father work in the fields when Willie was 8 years old. In another scene, Willie tells Jerry about experiencing a racism incident that motivated Willie to become an attorney. And even with all of his success, Willie mentions a few things that remind him that he will never escape racism.
Smollett is one of the movie’s strong points as the tough and calculating Mame, while Jones gives a solid performance as Jerry, even though Jones has played many “cranky old men” roles already. Athie gives a low-key but meaningful performance as the even-tempered and self-assured Hal, the most underrated hero of this movie. Hal does not seek to get much of the credit that he deserves. The real Willie Gary has a brief cameo as a character called Mr. G.
Viewers of “The Burial” who don’t know the real-life outcome of the case will be more inclined to get swept up in the suspense when there are certain pitfalls experienced by certain people in the case. Betts’ direction gives “The Burial” the right pacing and tone in this well-cast drama that’s not just about a legal case. “The Burial” is also a lesson in how staying true to one’s own values can be more valuable than a high-priced team of attorneys in a lawsuit.
Amazon Studios released “The Burial” in select U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023. Prime Video premiered the movie on October 13, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Poland, in 1943, the dramatic film “The Zone of Interest” (based loosely on the novel of the same name) features an all-white group of people representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Auschwitz concentration camp commandant/Nazi official Rudolf Höss and his family live with casual indifference near the concentration camp, where about 990,000 Jewish people were murdered during his reign of terror.
Culture Audience: “The Zone of Interest” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of filmmaker Jonathan Glazer and people who are interested in unconventional Holocaust movies.
Most Holocaust movies are shown from the perspectives of the victims or the rescuers. “The Zone of Interest” is told from the perspective of a Nazi leader who thought his job of committing genocide on Jewish people was perfectly normal. It’s a different type of Holocaust movie because it shows with unflinching clarity how the shameful horrors of the Holocaust were casually accepted by Nazi families, such as those of commandant Rudolf Höss. Concentration camps were treated like factories.
Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix Award (which is the equivalent of second place) and the FIPRESCI Prize. “The Zone of Interest” has since made the rounds at other films in 2023, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. “The Zone of Interest” is loosely based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name.
The title refers to the term “used by the Nazi SS to describe the 40-square-kilometer area immediately surrounding the Auschwitz concentration camp on the outskirts of Oświęcim, Poland,” according to the production notes for “The Zone of Interest.” Approximately 990,000 Jewish people died in Auschwitz, which existed from 1940 to 1945. In real life, Höss was the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz from 1940 to 1943 and from 1944 to 1945. He was eventually convicted of war crimes in 1947, the year that he died at age 45 by an execution hanging.
“The Zone of Interest” takes place in 1943, before Rudolf (played by Christian Friedel) is transferred to another concentration camp. On the surface, “The Zone of Interest” looks like it’s just about the mundane activities of a family. But the movie intends to show how deceptively “normal” people who commit heinous crimes can look, especially when they are surrounded by family members. An early scene in the movie shows Rudolf having a carefree picnic with members of his family near a lake.
Rudolf’s family members who are shown in the movie include his moody wife Hedwig Höss (played by Sandra Hüller), who is kind and loving to her children but rude and demeaning to the family’s housekeepers. Rudolf and Hedwig have five children, ranging in ages from infancy to about 14 years old. They are son Claus Höss (played by Johann Karthaus); son Hans Höss (played by Luis Noah Witte); daughter Inge-Brigit Höss (played by Nele Ahrensmeier); daughter Heideraud Höss (played by Lili Falk) and baby daughter Annagret Höss (played by Anastazja Drobniak, Cecylia Pękala and Kalman Wilson).
Later, Hedwig’s mother Lina Hensel (played by Imogen Kogge) comes to visit. Hedwig tells Lina in a bragging tone of voice, “Rudi says I’m the queen of Auschwitz.” It’s one of a few scenes in the movie where the Nazi followers show their antisemitism like a badge of honor. A cliché movie would have had the Nazis constantly spewing verbal hatred of Jewish people. “The Zone of Interest” more accurately shows that evil bigots don’t often say their most heinous prejudicial thoughts out loud several times a day.
Most of the “The Zone of Interest” takes place in the medium-sized home of the Höss family, where they live close to the death camp known as Auschwitz. The movie was filmed in the same vicinity where the real Auschwitz existed. Rudolf and Hedwig have no problem with the idea that their family is living near a place dedicated to torturing and murdering innocent people. There’s a disturbing scene where the Höss house is shown in a wide shot on a very sunny day that looks perfect—except in the background are the unmistakable smoke fumes of gas chambers being operated at Auschwitz.
The Jewish victims of these atrocities are never seen on screen in “The Zone of Interest.” It’s the movie’s way of saying that when these Nazi perpetrators were at home, Jewish people were “out of sight, out of mind.” However, Rudolf can’t help but take remnants of his work into his home. In one scene, he’s hunched over a bathroom sink as he blows black ash out of his nose into the sink. In another bathroom scene, he carefully washes his penis out of view of his family, with the obvious implication that he committed the type of rape that leaves damning stains.
Another scene shows a close-up of Rudolf standing up at work with only his body in the screen frame. But in the background are the harrowing sounds of people screaming and gunshots. It’s left up to “The Zone of Interest” viewers to speculate what type of crimes against humanity were being committed out of view. Much of “The Zone of Interest” is filmed as if it’s a cinéma vérité-styled documentary about a “typical” family in Poland at this time.
During another scene in the movie, Hedwig is talking at a kitchen table with a few visiting female friends, who are engaging in some gossip. In the next room, Rudolf and some of his SS colleagues are seated at table with their own conversation that is much more sinister: They are discussing the best way to engineer and place gas chamber equipment.
The Nazi men also talk about gas chamber procedures: “burn, cool, unload, reload.” They discuss it as if they’re talking about a regular assembly line routine at a factory, not burning people to death, letting their dead bodies cool off, dumping the bodies, and then bringing in more innocent people to murder in a gas chamber. The Höss family dog is treated with more kindness and respect than these hateful bigots ever had for the Jewish people they slaughtered.
There’s another scene where Rudolf makes a phone call to berate someone into making sure that the lilac bushes at Auschwitz get special care. He makes a threat to say that anyone who makes the lilac bushes “bleed” will be punished. (In other words: “Don’t get any blood on the lilac bushes.”) The Höss family home has a beautiful backyard garden, where the flowers get more care than the people who are starved, tortured and murdered in Auschwitz. It’s another example of how Jewish people’s lives are disregarded by Adolf Hitler devotees such as Rudolf and Hedwig.
Many movies about the Holocaust would want to recreate these disgusting crimes. However, “The Zone of Interest” effectively shakes people up into remembering that the Holocaust was allowed to continue for as long as it did because it was considered a “normal” way of life for many non-Jewish people who chose to look the other way if they didn’t directly participate in this antisemitic genocide. It’s the movie’s reminder that the Holocaust didn’t happen suddenly but in increments. Jewish people were targeted, their rights were gradually taken away, and then they were left vulnerable to being harmed in the Holocaust.
Not everyone in the movie sides overtly sides with the Nazis. The Höss children seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that they are living next to an antisemitic murder facility, although it’s implied that their parents are teaching these children to hate Jewish people. The Höss family has two housekeepers in their late teens or early 20s: meek and passive Marta (played by Martyna Poznańska) gets most of Hedwig’s wrath, while sturdy and reliable Aniela (played by Zuzanna Kobiela) is quietly rebellious and secretly helps feed the starving Jewish people at the concentration camp.
At night, Aniela rides her bicycle to the concentration camp to drop off apples in the dirt where the laborers will find them. She also drops apples into the underground bunker prisons where many of the captured people are being held. Aniela knows which areas to go where she won’t be seen by the soldiers keeping guard. When she’s doing these secretive activities, the movie shows her in night vision-type lighting, as if she’s under secret surveillance by a camera with night vision.
Rudolf and Hedwig talk about things that seem ordinary and typical for people in a middle-class household. Hedwig mentions that she’d like him to take her to a spa in Italy. Rudolf is seen reading a children’s book to one of his daughters in bed. It’s not exactly the movie saying, “Nazis: They’re just like us,” but it’s the movie’s way of letting viewers know that people who believe in this extreme bigotry don’t look like monsters on the outside. They could be the harmless-looking people next door.
In a scene toward the end of movie, Rudolf is standing alone near a stairwell of a government building when he dry heaves and spits on the ground. It’s a scene reminiscent of near the end of the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing,” in which former death squad leader Anwar Congo, who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 to 1966, begins uncontrollably dry wretching, as if he’s overwhelmed by the memories of what his atrocities looked like and smelled like. In “The Zone of Interest,” a present-day scene at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum shows some of the devastating museum displays that have evidence of the many lives lost in the Holocaust.
Friedel and Hüller give capable performances, but “The Zone of Interest” doesn’t have big, showoff acting for a reason: The point of the movie is not to be about scene-stealing dramatics or to have cartoonish villains. It’s about showing how extraordinary cruelty can be condoned in plain sight and be rendered “ordinary” by the people who enable it to happen.
A24 will release “The Zone of Interest” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in South Australia, the dramatic film “The Royal Hotel” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Aboriginal people and one Asian) portraying the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two young female tourists from Canada take a live-in bartending job at a shabby and sordid pub in a remote, male-dominated mining town, and they experience various levels of danger and harassment.
Culture Audience: “The Royal Hotel” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Julia Garner and movies about subtle and not-so-subtle sexual tensions and power-based dynamics between men and women.
“The Royal Hotel” is a realistic observation of how two female friends can have very different reactions to being in the same male-dominated environment. Despite a few story flaws, the movie accurately shows how people try to dismiss harassment as “joking.” “The Royal Hotel” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
Written and directed by Kitty Green, “The Royal Hotel” touches on many of the same themes that are in Green’s 2020 film “The Assistant.” Both movies are about how women navigate in an enviroment where men have almost all of the power, and most of the men in that environment abuse that power through misogynistic harassment or violence. Julia Garner stars in both movies.
“The Assistant” is based partially on real-life experiences of administrative assistants of Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced entertainment mogul who became a convicted and imprisoned rapist. “The Royal Hotel” is also inspired by real events: The movie is based on the 2017 Australian documentary “Hotel Coolgardie,” which is about two young Scandanavian women who became trapped in a remote mining town in Australia.
That’s what happens to Canadian tourists Hanna (played by Garner) and Liv (played by Jessica Henwick), who are best friends leading a nomadic existence. Hanna (the responsible and cautious friend) and Liv (the free-spirited and spontaneous friend) aren’t really on vacation, but they don’t have any immediate plans to go back to Canada. They both like to party, but Hanna doesn’t drink alcohol. It’s later revealed that Hanna’s mother abused alcohol when Hanna was a child.
In the beginning of the movie, Hanna and Liv are partying at a nightclub somewhere in Australia when Liv discovers (after her credit card is declined) that they have run out of money. Hanna and Liv are in a work/travel program that helps people find temporary jobs in places where they are visiting. It’s never made clear in the movie how long Hanna and Liv have been living this way.
At an office appointment, an unnamed woman (played by Bree Bai), who works for this program, informs Liv and Hanna that the only immediate job opening available is a bartending gig at a pub in a converted hotel in a remote mining town in Australia. This office worker tells Liv and Hanna that the job, which includes free lodging for the pub employees, involves a lot of “male attention,” because most of the people who live in this area are men. The office employee describes the job as something that attracts a lot of young women. She tries to make it sound like it would be adventurous to work there.
From the beginning, Hanna feels uneasy about this job offer and is reluctant to take the job because she thinks it might be dangerous. Liv doesn’t have any of those concerns and asks out of curiosity about this remote location: “Will there be kangaroos?” Because they are desperate for money, Hanna and Liv accept this job offer. It’s a decision that they will later regret.
Because Hanna and Liv can’t afford to have their own car in their current circumstances, the pub’s manager Carol (played by Ursula Yovich) gives a car ride to Hanna and Liv to this unnamed, desolate town in South Australia. (“The Royal Hotel” was filmed on location in South Australia.) At first, Carol has a gruff and unfriendly attitude toward the two pals. The pub is located in a shabby place that used to be known as the Royal Hotel. Hanna and Liv plan to live and work there for only a few weeks to make enough money to go back to their carefree lifestyle of partying while traveling.
Hanna and Liv will be replacing two other young women: Jules (played by Alex Malone) and Cassie (played by Kate Cheel), who are close friends and originally from Great Britain. Jules and Cassie are “party girls” too, but Jules is more talkative and more extroverted than Cassie. Hanna and Liv first meet Jules and Cassie in the living room of the messy suite area where Hanna and Liv will be staying. Cassie and Jules are startled out of a drunken stupor when Hanna and Liv arrive. Jules laughs when Hanna and Liv asks if this place has WiFi, because there is no WiFi service in this area. Cell phone service is also spotty and rare.
During the course of the movie, Hanna and Liv are targets of hostile sexism from men who are used to getting away with it. However, Hanna and Liv react differently. Hanna thinks it’s offensive and often isn’t afraid to say so. Liv makes excuses and says it’s just part of the “culture” where they are. “The Royal Hotel” has many examples of how women can often be unwitting or deliberate allies and enablers to sexists who want to treat women as inferior to men, thereby helping perpetuate this vicious cycle.
The warning signs about this awful job are obvious from the beginning, when Hanna and Liv first meet Billy (played by Hugo Weaving), the disheveled owner of this struggling business. The shower that Hanna and Liv have to use isn’t working properly, so Billy (who is in his 60s) angrily storms into the room to fix it, and he strikes up a conversation with his two new employees. During this conversation, Hanna mentions that she can speak some Spanish and Portuguese. In response, Billy calls Hanna a “smart cunt,” in a tone of voice that makes it clear that he thinks Hanna is being uppity. Hanna is so shocked by this insult from her new boss, she doesn’t say anything to him about it.
Hanna and Liv know nothing about bartending, so Billy has to train them. Hanna figures out very quickly that she and Liv (and the other young female employees before them) were only hired to be objectified by horny male customers. Liv knows it too, but she doesn’t seem to care, because she thinks they can have a good time anyway. Liv often scolds Hanna for being too “uptight” over the increasingly alarming and hostile actions that the two women get from some of the customers. Liv convinces Hanna to stay just a few weeks so they can make enough money to go to Australia’s Bondi Beach.
The pub’s customers consist mostly of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The vast majority of them work in a nearby mine. One of the rare women in the pub is a regular customer named Glenda (played by Barbara Lowing), who is about the same age as Billy. Glenda, who is often drunk, craves attention from the men in the pub, where the atmosphere (not surprisingly) is often rowdy and vulgar. Glenda has an outdated and harmful attitude that men should be allowed to get away with sexual harassment just because they’re men.
On the last night before Cassie and Jess leave the area, they both get very drunk and dance on the pub’s countertop, much to the delight of the male customers. At one point, Cassie and Jess (who are both wearing skirts) lift up their clothes to flash their naked private parts on their upper and lower bodies. The two women don’t want to be groped in their private parts and have to fight off the men who try to commit this sexual assault, which is excused as “drunken antics.” Liv smirks when she quips to a horrified Hanna: “That will be us in a few weeks.”
One of the young male customers named Matty (played by Toby Wallace) plays a prank on Liv by telling her that he wants a drink called Dickens Cider. Liv says she’s never heard of that drink. It takes Liv (who’s not as street smart as she thinks she is) a few minutes to figure out that Dickens Cider is not a real drink but a pun for “dick inside her.” Liv laughs off the joke, while Hanna doesn’t think it’s so funny.
It soon becomes apparent that Matty is attracted to Hanna. In an effort to impress Hanna (who rebuffs his advances), Matty eventually says he’s sorry for his crude prank. Matty can see that Hanna is repulsed by a lot of what she sees in the pub, so he quickly switches gears and tries to give the impression that he’s the “nice guy” in the group. Meanwhile, another young customer named Teeth (played by James Frecheville), who is often teased by the men for being socially awkward, develops a crush on Liv.
And in a sleazy place like this pub, there’s always at least one creep who gives the impression that he’s just one drink away from committing rape. In this pub, this cretin is Dolly (played by Daniel Henshall), a hate-filled loner who likes to bully and harass people for no reason. Dolly will get no sympathy from “The Royal Hotel” viewers when they see what he does.
It would be very easy for any outside observer to say, “Why don’t Hanna and Liv just leave?” It’s not that simple. Hanna and Liv have no money and no means of transportation (the nearest public transportation is too far away to walk), so unless they can find someone in this land of strangers to drive them out of this hellish place for free, they’re out of luck. Carol won’t help because she needs Hanna and Liv to stay as bartenders for the pub.
All Hanna and Liv have to do is get paid and then use the money to leave, right? Wrong. After a while, Hanna and Liv find out that Billy is an alcoholic who hasn’t been paying anyone to whom he owes money. A local vendor named Tommy (played by Baykali Ganambarr), who delivers food and drinks to the pub, hasn’t been paid by Billy for the past three months. Billy owes Tommy $4,300. And eventually, Hanna and Liv see that Billy has no intention of paying them either.
Billy isn’t doing anything to help his failing business. There’s a scene where the phone rings in the nearly empty pub. Billy picks up the phone, and without even finding out who’s calling and why, he rudely shouts, “We’re busy!” And then he abruptly hangs up the phone. Through conversations, it’s revealed that Billy inherited and ruined this once-thriving family business, which was started by his paternal grandfather.
And where is Carol during all of this mess? Carol, who is Billy’s lover, keeps mostly to herself in the small trailer where they live next to the pub. It’s never really explained why Billy and Carol live in a trailer when there are plenty of rooms in this former hotel. However, considering how run-down the place is and how some of the equipment keeps malfunctioning (with unreliable Billy being the only repair person), it can be assumed that most of the rooms in this place are uninhabitable. Carol has a no-nonsense attitude and isn’t as terrible as she first appears to be.
Unfortunately, the trailer for “The Royal Hotel” shows too much of what happens in the movie, even if these spoiler details are just brief glimpses in a quick-cutting montage. Viewers will probably enjoy “The Royal Hotel” more if they haven’t seen the movie’s trailer first. Regardless of how much people know about this movie before seeing it, the acting throughout is above-average and makes this movie worth watching.
Garner and Henwick give riveting performances as two friends who find their loyalties to each other tested by their contrasting attitudes toward misogynistic sexism. The movie also has very authentic depictions of how sexual harassers and horrible bosses often test the boundaries of what they can get away with and go further past those boundaries if they aren’t stopped. Hanna (who is obviously the story’s hero) finds out that she has more courage and inner strength than she originally thought she did.
“The Royal Hotel” is not without its flaws. In the last third of the movie, someone suddenly makes an appearance that doesn’t really ring true. It looks a little too contrived. The movie also doesn’t do a very good job of explaining Liv’s background and why she puts up with so much blatant and unacceptable harassment. There’s a slight hint that Liv is running away from something traumatic when she’s asked by a customer how she ended up in this remote place, and Liv replies that it’s because it’s far away from where she used to live.
Hanna’s background is also vague. The only information that viewers will learn about her past is that she grew up with a mother who was probably an alcoholic (even though Hanna denies that her mother’s drinking problem was that serious), and Hanna studied business and marketing while she was in college. It’s also never really made clear how long Hanna and Liv have been friends. However, Hanna and Liv certainly find out what kind of friendship they have in these tough circumstances.
Overall, “The Royal Hotel” is a capably written and skillfully directed movie that shows how victims can be trapped in horrendous situations where the people who could help them are the same people who don’t want the trapped victims to leave. The movie also serves as a warning that abuse is abuse and should not be dismissed as “gray areas” or “blurred lines.” “The Royal Hotel” can keep viewers guessing about what will happen next, but by the end of the movie, there should be no uncertainty about who and what caused the worst problems.
Neon will release “The Royal Hotel” in select U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Ukraine and in Poland in early 2022, the documentary film “In the Rearview” features a nearly all-white group of people (with one black person) who were affected by the Russian invasion war of Ukraine.
Culture Clash: “In the Rearview” director Maciek Hamela, who is from Poland, documented the van rides that he gave to refugees escaping from Ukraine to Poland.
Culture Audience: “In the Rearview” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching a documentary about what it was like to evacuate from Ukraine during the Russian invasion that began in 2022.
The compelling documentary “In the Rearview” offers a glimpse into what some Ukrainian refugees were experiencing during the Russian invasion in 2022, while riding in a rescue van crossing the border into Poland. The film is intimate and sometimes very raw. It’s filmed in cinéma vérité style, in every sense of the word: There are no interviews, no re-enactments and no follow-ups to see what happened to the people in the documentary. “In the Rearview” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“In the Rearview” is the feature-film directorial debut of Maciek Hamela, a Polish citizen who volunteered to drive a van of Ukrainian refugees from Ukraine to Poland when the Russian invasion began in February 2022. About a month after Hamela began doing these rescue missions, he started filming these trips at the end of March 2022. Most of the documentary’s footage shows the passengers inside the van, with the camera facing the passengers. Hamela has said in interviews that all filming was done by human camera operators—not a fixed or hidden camera on a dashboard (also known as a dash cam)—so that the participants knew that they were being filmed at the time.
There are several documentaries that chronicle the horrors of war. In the case of the Russian-Ukrainian war, documentaries about this war tend to focus on the people who are stuck or left behind in the war zone, or the documentaries have discussions of the politics that led to this war. “In the Rearview” has a unique perspective, because it’s about the transition period when war refugees know that they are leaving for a safer place, but there’s still a lot of anxiety and fear of what’s ahead.
It goes without saying that the refugees have had to leave almost all of their possessions behind in their abandoned homes. What causes much more agony is that many of the refugees have been involuntarily separated from loved ones or know that their loved ones have died. The people who have been separated from their loved ones often don’t know where their loved ones are. And if they do know where their loved ones are, communication sometimes isn’t possible for long stretches of time, because the war-torn areas often have no electricity or Internet service. Adding to the pain is the fact that some of the refugees need medical help that they won’t be able to get until they’re safely out of Ukraine.
All of these issues weigh heavily on the refugee passengers who are featured in the documentary. They are not identified by name while they are shown in the van. However, the names of the participants are listed in the end credits of “In the Rearview.” Hamela can be heard and briefly seen during these trips, as he has conversations with the people who are temporarily in his care during this terrible time in the refugees’ lives. Unlike some documentarians, Hamela doesn’t want to make himself the center of the attention during filming. He comes across as compassionate, humble and someone who deeply cares about the safety of these refugees.
Many of the passengers who are in the documentary are groups of families. A few of the refugees are traveling alone. Many are deep in thought and don’t say anything. They look like they’re too much in shock to speak. Some of the refugees are talkative, as if they want to unload some of the burdens they’re feeling.
People of many different generations are featured. The children under the age of 8 are often too young to fully understand what’s happening, but they know something is very wrong. In one of the documentary’s segments, a family with three generations of people, including two married grandparents, are in the van. The grandmother says, “We only left because of the kids.” She later gets teary-eyed when she talks about the family’s 9-year-old cow named Beauty that the family had to leave behind.
Another family has brought the family’s 5-month-old cat (a male with black and white fur), and is shown keeping the cat safe by having it tucked into a basket during the evacuation. The wife in the family says she no longer dreams when she sleeps. She says it’s because at night, she is constantly hearing explosions.
During another ride, a woman in her late 20s or early 30s is a pregnant surrogate, who wonders aloud what will happen after she gives birth. The woman who was supposed to raise this unborn child is apparently missing and is possibly dead. The pregnant surrogate, who is accompanied by her own mother during this van ride, seems to want to take her mind off of this dire situation by talking about her goal to one day open a bakery/sweets shop where people can test the pastries before eating.
The hellish experiences of the war are discussed in a few of the conversations. A girl who’s about 13 or 14 years old talks about witnessing a rape that happened as a direct result of the war. During another van ride, a woman in her 30s talks about how her father’s fingers had to be amputated because of injuries he got while trying to rescue her mother.
In a family of five people, identified in the end credits as having the surname Lichko, the family’s stressed-out patriarch Kirill Lichko describes how his house was bombed while his family members were inside. “I don’t know how they survived,” he says of his family members, with a mixture of relief and apprehension. Kirill has a 5-year-old daughter named Sofia Lichko, who is intelligent and polite. The members of this family were able to escape with their identification, so Sofia demonstrates how she was taught to show her ID form if she’s asked to show her ID.
The van is also a makeshift ambulance that doesn’t have medical supplies but is able to accommodate people who are not able to sit up. One of the more memorable refugees in the documentary is an injured college student, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is traveling alone and has injuries that require medical attention, so she is seen lying down in pain as she tells her story.
The Congolese immigrant says she came to Ukraine to study the oil industry and has been living in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv for the past 10 years. She has a sister who lives in Ternopil, Ukraine, because her sister came to Ukraine to study economics. This Congolese immigrant says the oil industry doesn’t interest her.
She also mentions that during her time in Ukraine, she opened a shop that sold African imports, but the business failed. Despite all of the uncertainty over her future, she is certain that she will come back to live in Ukraine, which she says is like a second homeland for her. She says she will return to Ukraine “when things calm down.”
These rescue trips across the border are also fraught with tension when the van is stopped by soldiers at the border. The documentary doesn’t show anyone being turned away, but you get the feeling that Hamela would’ve just found another way to get the refugees across the border. The evacuations filmed in this documentary happened early enough in the war for the refugees to be let across the border much easier than if they tried to evacuate when things got worse during the war.
“In the Rearview” is very much a no-frills “snapshot” documentary, where viewers are just given glimspses into the lives of the people who are featured. There are a few questions that remain unanswered, such as: “How did Hamela deal with a shortage of gas fuel in the Ukraine?” “Where did he drop off people who had nowhere to go?” “How far was he willing to go to drive people to help them find their missing loved ones?” Although “In the Rearview” does not answer these questions, viewers will have a clear sense of the vulnerable emotions of these refugees who were filmed during a very tumultuous and dangerous time in their lives.
Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, from 2020 to 2021, the comedy/drama film “Dumb Money” (based on true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Keith Gill, an insurance analyst and amateur stock-market adviser, becomes an Internet sensation with a cult-like following under his online alias Roaring Kitty, when he becomes a passionate advocate of buying stocks in the video game retail company GameStop, leading to a massive upheaval in the billionaire-owned hedge funds that want GameStop to fail.
Culture Audience: “Dumb Money” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and stories about financial underdogs who take on corporate giants.
The slick comedy/drama “Dumb Money” takes a little too long to get to the best parts of this story of financial underdogs versus billionaire corporate bullies, but it’s still a mostly entertaining ride with a talented cast. Some of the characters are very underdeveloped, while other characters are unnecessary distractions. People who are interested in finance and computer technology will enjoy and understand “Dumb Money” the most. “Dumb Money” might get compared to 2015’s “The Big Short” and 2010’s “The Social Network,” but “Dumb Money” isn’t as outstanding as those two Oscar-winning films.
Directed by Craig Gillespie, “Dumb Money” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. This “Dumb Money” feature film is not to be confused with filmmaker Ryan Garry’s 2021 short narrative film “Dumb Money,” which is based on the same subject matter of the GameStop stock phenomenon that disrupted Wall Street’s stock market. From 2021 to 2023, there have been at least seven documentaries about the same subject. The “Dumb Money” short film has an entirely different cast and crew from the “Dumb Money” feature film. Gillespie (the director of 2017’s “I, Tonya” and an executive producer/director of 2022’s “Pam & Tommy” miniseries) has a style that blends intense drama and satirical comedy, even when based on true stories.
The “Dumb Money” feature film’s screenplay—which was co-written by former Wall Street Journal reporters Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo—is based on Ben Mezrich’s 2021 non-fiction book “The Anti-Social Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees.” Mezrich also wrote the 2009 nonfiction book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal,” which was adapted into Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Social Network.” Identical twin brothers Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss, who famously sued Facebook to get more of Facebook’s profits (as depicted in “The Social Network”), are two of the executive producers of the “Dumb Money” feature film.
If “The Social Network” and filmmaker Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” are mentioned in comparison to “Dumb Money,” that’s because “Dumb Money” has many similarities in how it approaches a complex story of financial wheeling and dealing with many players on different levels. The overarching theme of all three of these movies is that greedy corporate types are villains who don’t hesitate to crush the hopes, dreams and finances of “underdogs” who dare to challenge them. The title of “Dumb Money” comes from the term that arrogant rich people in the financial sector use for non-wealthy people who invest in the stock market. A more polite term used for non-wealthy investors are “retail investors.”
The “Dumb Money” feature film is based on the true story of a phenomenon that happened from 2020 to 2021, when the video game retailer GameStop suddenly went from being on the verge of going out of business to became a red-hot stock investment, because a surge of working-class and middle-class people who decided to invest in GameStop stock. This massive interest in GameStop stock was based largely on the advice of an Internet media personality using the alias Roaring Kitty. It also caused a panic among wealthy Wall Street investors who did not know how to handle this unexpected grass-roots movement.
In real life, Roaring Kitty was a middle-class, self-described computer geek in his 30s named Paul Gill (played by Paul Dano), whose day job at the time was working as an analyst/financial educator for insurance corporation MassMutual. He did his stock-market videos and Internet chatting on his own time at his home. Because of the unexpected success of GameStop stock, many billionaire-owned hedge funds that were betting on GameStop stock to fail (a practice known as “shorting” or “short-selling” a stock) experienced financial meltdowns. “Dumb Money” is an occasionally convoluted play-by-play of what happened during this stock-market war that led to a U.S. Congressional hearing and federal investigations.
The movie’s principal characters have the same names as the real people, while some of the supporting characters are fabricated and are partially based on real people. (For the purposes of this review, the real people will be referred to by their last names, while the characters in the movie will be referred to by their first names.) Many of Gill’s real-life quirks are also portrayed in the movie. He liked to wear headbands (especially a red hedband) and T-shirts with kittens on the front of the shirts.
In the “Dumb Money” feature film, Keith is living in Brockton, Massachusetts, with his supportive wife Caroline Gill (played by Shailene Woodley) and their infant daughter (played by Leyla Eden and Mason Eden), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. (“Dumb Money” was actually filmed in New Jersey.) Keith has invested the couple’s entire life savings ($33,000) in GameStop. Most people who know about this investment think that Keith has made a reckless and foolish decision. Caroline is skeptical and nervous about the decision. But ultimately, she stands by Keith’s firm belief that GameStop investing could make them enough money, possibly millions of dollars, for them to retire early.
The movie shows that Keith’s online persona as Roaring Kitty (which he used on online platforms such as YouTube and on a Reddit subforum called WallStreetBets) didn’t start out being popular. In the beginning he had a very small audience, many of whom ridiculed him. However, his enthusiasm for GameStop was infectious. Over time, his following grew to thousands of enthusiastic fans who eagerly listened to Keith’s stock-market advice. In order to legally protect himself, Keith had disclaimers about how he was not a licensed stock broker, and his information about GameStop was for entertainment purposes only.
Keith’s other immediate family members, who all live nearby, are mother Elaine Gill (played by Kate Burton), a retired registered nurse; father Steve Gill (played by Clancy Brown), a retired truck driver; and Keith’s younger brother Kevin (played by Pete Davdison), a stoner who has trouble holding on to a steady job. In the movie, Kevin is working in a low-paying job as a food delivery person and is living with his parents. Kevin’s only purpose in the movie is to be comic relief, since he’s not involved in any of Keith’s stock-market shenanigans. Keith’s parents don’t find out about what Keith is doing in the stock market until he tells them some big news.
The Gill family is grieving over the death of Elaine’s and Steve’s other child: Sarah Elizabeth Gill, who died of COVID-19 in 2020, at the age of 43. Keith doesn’t like to talk about Sarah’s death, but there are a few scenes in the movie that show how her death has had a profound effect on him. It’s implied that Keith’s grief over his sister’s death is the fuel behind Keith’s willingness to risk his entire fortune and reputation on GameStop stock. Many people who experience the loss of a loved one often react with extreme “you only live once” decisions.
And because the movie’s story takes place during the height of the COVD-19 pandemic, there are several verbal and non-verbal references to the pandemic in “Dumb Money.” Observant viewers will notice that in the movie, the characters who tend to wear COVID-19 masks are either required to wear the masks as part of their jobs or are in precarious financial situations where they can’t afford to miss out on work if they get infected with COVID-19. There’s also an underlying implication that people being in COVID-19 quarantines or lockdowns resulted in more people spending time at home online, which might be one of the plausible reasons why the GameStop stock phenomenon happened so quickly.
“Dumb Money” opens with a scene taking place in 2020, showing one of the “villains” of the story panicking because he sees that GameStop stock is on the rise. Gabe Plotkin (played by Seth Rogen), the CEO of hedge fund Melvin Capital, is at his mansion in California, when he calls his fellow billionaire crony Ken Griffin (played by Nick Offerman), who’s relaxing at a Four Seasons Resort in Florida. During the conversation, Gabe tries not to show how frightened he is by this upward trend in GameStop stock, while he puts on a front in assuring Ken that Gabe has everything under control. Gabe wants to get Ken’s reaction to the rise in GameStop stock value. Ken doesn’t seem too worried at all. Viewers will later find out why.
The movie then does a flashback to three months earlier, when GameStop’s stock was valued at only $3.85 per share. Keith is shown doing his Roaring Kitty activities on the Internet, while other characters are introduced as eventual followers of Keith/Roaring Kitty. Every time a stock market player is shown on camera, the movie has a caption next to that person’s head that shows the person’s net worth at the time they are shown on screen. All of Keith’s followers who are depicted in “Dumb Money” are fictional versions of real people and are portrayed as having financial struggles before investing in GameStop.
In the city of Pittbsurgh, Jenny (played by America Ferrera) is a divorced mother of two sons, who look like they’re about 8 to 10 years old. It’s briefly mentioned in the movie that Jenny’s ex-husband abandoned the family. Jenny is financially broke (when she’s first seen in the movie, her net worth is a deficit of more than $5,000) and works as a nurse at Pittsburgh Presbyterian Hospital. She becomes obsessed with Roaring Kitty’s videos, and eventually invests in GameStop. Jenny gets repeated warnings and admonishments from her sassy, openly gay best friend/co-worker Chris (played by Larry Owens), who thinks she’s making a big mistake with this investment. Chris frequently advises Jenny to sell all of her GameStop stock.
In the city of Detroit, Marcos Garcia (played by Anthony Ramos) is a low-paid and under-appreciated cashier at a GameStop store. Marcos is also financially broke. His net worth is only $136 when he’s first seen in the story, and he’s denied a request to get an advance on his next paycheck. Marcos’ boss Brad (played by Dane DeHaan) treats Marcos in a condescending and dismissive manner, especially after he finds out that Marcos has invested in GameStop.
At the University of Texas in Austin, two students meet during a drinking game at a party and eventually become lovers. Their names are Harmony Williams (played by Talia Ryder) and Riri (played by Myha’la Herrold), whose sexual chemistry with each other can be seen as soon as Riri is told to put her hand down Harmony’s pants because of a dare during the drinking game. During this first conversation, Harmony tells Riri that she’s thinking about investing in GameStop stock because Harmony has become a fan of Roaring Kitty. Eventually, Harmony and Riri (who each has thousands of dollars in student-loan debt) invest their money in GameStop stock. Harmony has a scowling, unnamed roommate (played by Andrea Simons), whose annoyance with this romance is used as an occasional joke in the movie.
All of these financial underdogs express various levels of anger and motivation to fight back against what they believe to be a rigged stock market that was designed to make the rich get richer, and non-wealthy people to be at a disadvantage. After Harmony and Riri become intimate partners, Harmony tells Riri that her father used to be the general manager of a Costco-like retailer called Shopco, but he lost his job, his pension and much of his life savings. Harmony says it’s because he was a victim of a corporate raiding firm that bought Shopco to purposely bankrupt the company, in order to benefit the people who were short-selling Shopco stock.
Real-life billionaire investor Steve Cohen (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) is another player in the GameStop stock-market war depicted in “Dumb Money,” although this character is shown intermittently and doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as billionaires Gabe and Ken. Gabe is portayed as a tone-deaf partier who likes to spend lavishly and doesn’t really think about all the lives he’s ruining by short-selling stock. Ken is depicted as a cold manipulator who is very much aware of the lives he’s ruining, but he just doesn’t care.
And in this billionaire clique, it’s very much portrayed as a “boys’ club.” The only woman connected to this clique who has a significant speaking role (and it’s still a small role) is Gabe’s wife Yaara Plotkin (played by Olivia Thirlby), a “trophy wife” type. The only purpose she’s given in this movie is to worry about whether or not Gabe is making enough money so that she can maintain the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. There are no female stockbrokers or female hedge fund leaders who are depicted as characters in this movie.
Two other characters who have pivotal roles in the GameStop stock-market war are the co-founders of the Robinhood app: Vlad Tenev (played by Sebastian Stan) and Baiju Bhatt (played by Rushi Kota), who marketed Robinhood as an app where ordinary people could buy and sell stocks for free. In the movie, Robinhood users include Jenny, Marcos, Harmony and Riri. Vlad and Baiji, who are both in their 30s, are “tech bro” stereotypes of being arrogant big talkers of start-up companies. Vlad is portrayed as the more corrupt person in this greedy and ambitious duo.
The first half of “Dumb Money” clips along at a fairly uneven pace where characters are quickly introduced, and then the movie slows down to show aspects of each character’s personal lives. “Dumb Money’ spends way too much time on Kevin, who didn’t need as much screen time as he gets, considering he had no part in the GameStop stock war. Keith was a star track runner in high school, so “Dumb Money” has multiple scenes of Keith jogging on a residential street or running on a local school’s track (sometimes with Kevin) as a way to relieve stress.
The second half of the movie is an improvement, as it gets into the conflicts created during the GameStop stock war. Still, there might be some “Dumb Money” viewers who will feel disconnected because of the movie’s first half, which can be perceived as a blur of people talking stock market jargon and Internet slang. If you’re the type of person who could care less about the intersections of technology and commerce, and if you will probably never read a Wall Street Journal article or Reddit forum in your life, then “Dumb Money” is not the movie for you.
Dano is an actor who can be counted on to deliver top-notch performances in his projects. He has made a career out of doing characters who are eccentric outsiders, so he’s not doing anything that’s very new or groundbreaking in “Dumb Money.” Still, Dano’s portrayal of Keith holds this movie together, when some scenes tend to be a little pointless (for example, there’s a scene where Jenny somewhat flirts with a guy she meets at a gas station) or completely unnecessary (any scene that shows what Kevin does when he’s not with Keith). The character of Caroline isn’t given much to do but be a stereotypical “worried wife” character.
For all of its flaws, “Dumb Money” still has enough that’s enjoyable to watch, regardless of how much viewers know about what happened in real life. A lot of the credit should go to the “Dumb Money” cast members, who admirably do as much as they can with the dialogue that they have, even if some of their characters are very underwritten. Toward the end of the movie, before the inevitable epilogue with updates of what happened in real life, there’s some archival footage of the real-life people who were involved in this stock-market war. Some of what they said was recreated in “Dumb Money,” which might be a based on a true story, but it’s not immersive enough to make you forget that you’re watching actors saying scripted lines on screen.
Columbia Pictures will release “Dumb Money” in select U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on September 22, 2023, and September 29, 2023.