Review: ‘Problemista,’ starring Tilda Swinton, Julio Torres, RZA, Greta Lee, Catalina Saavedra, James Scully and the voice of Isabella Rossellini

March 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in “Problemista” (Photo by Jon Pack/A24)

“Problemista”

Directed by Julia Torres

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and in Maine, the comedy/drama film “Problemista” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latin, white, African American and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Cartisano, who died of a heart attack in 2019, at the age of 63, was sued several times and had many allegations that his camps illegally abused the children who were forced to be there. 

Culture Audience: “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that show how abuse and exploitation are excused or covered up, but some questions remain unanswered by the end of the movie.

RZA and Greta Lee in “Problemista” (Photo by Jon Pack/A24)

“Problemista” has enough quirky charm to keep most viewers interested in what will happen next. It’s a unique comedy/drama about an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador, his immigration issues in New York City, and his eccentric artist boss. It’s not a spectacularly great movie, but it has entertaining and memorable moments for viewers who are interested in watching slightly weird independent films about artistic people. “Problemista” has some sci-fi elements that come to the forefront near the end of the movie.

Written and directed by Julio Torres, “Problemista” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. Torres also stars in the movie as protagonist Alejandro Martinez, who was born and raised in El Salvador, by his single mother Dolores (played by Catalina Saavedra). Now in his 20s, Alejandro has been living in New York City, and working at low-paying jobs while trying to fulfill his goal of becoming a toy designer. His dream job would be to work at Hasbro, the company known for numerous popular toy brands, including G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony and Mr. Potato Head.

Isabella Rossellini is the movie’s unnamed voiceover narrator, who explains in the beginning of the film: “This is the story of Alejandro. His mother was an artist. And he was a project. She gave him everything, so he wished for everything. “Problemista” has occasional flashbacks to Alejandro’s childhood in El Salvador, with the flashbacks looking like Alejandro lived in a whimsical, playground-like fantasy land. In these flashbacks, Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel has the role of Alejandro as a boy.

Alejandro’s fantastical childhood memories are in stark contrast to his current realities: He lives in a small, drab apartment and is struggling to pay his bills with a job he doesn’t like. In the beginning of the movie, Alejandro gets a low-level job at a company called Freeze Corp., which is in the business of freezing the bodies of people who want to be unfrozen and resurrected in the future. Alejandro soon gets fired from Freeze Corp. for accidentally unplugging a backup generator.

Alejando is in the United States on a work visa, which means he can legally stay in the U.S. if he has an employer as a sponsor. He seeks guidance from an immigration attorney named Khalil (played by Laith Nakli), who has his own law practice. Khalil has some grim news for Alejandro: If Alejandro doesn’t find a work sponsor in one month, then Alejandro will be in danger of being deported. In the meantime, Alejandro has to find a way to make some fast cash because his rent and other bills are due.

It just so happens that a demanding, fast-talking and quick-tempered artist named Elizabeth Ascencio (played by Tilda Swinton) is looking for a freelance assistant. Elizabeth crossed paths with Alejandro because her husband Bobby (who is a painter artist) is a customer of Freeze Corp., a company that Elizabeth does not like. And so, when she hears that Alejandro was fired from Freeze Corp., Elizabeth hires Alejandro to be her assistant.

Elizabeth is unpleasantly neurotic, argumentative and difficult. A great deal of the movie is about the uneasy work relationship that Alejandro and Elizabeth have with each other. Alejandro has a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude about the job, such as when he pretends to Elizabeth that he knows how to use FileMaker Pro software on a computer, and he has to go to certain lengths to cover up this lie.

Bobby (who makes paintings of eggs) wants to do a gallery exhibit called “13 Eggs.” Elizabeth tells Alejando that she will be Alejandro’s work sponsor if Alejandro successfully helps her pitch this exhibit to a gallery. And so, there’s a long stretch of the movie where Alejandro has to track down all of Bobby’s paintings (some of which were given away or sold) for this exhibit.

Elizabeth and Bobby (who have homes in New York City and Maine) have an unconventional marriage, not just because of their age difference (she’s about 10 years older than he is) but also because they also have an open marriage and they don’t spend a lot of time together. She tells Alejandro that she and Bobby fell in love with each other because they are both people “who feel misunderstood.” Even though Bobby and Elizabeth have an open marriage, there are still jealousy issues. Elizabeth doesn’t like that Bobby has gotten very close to a woman named Dalia Park (played by Greta Lee), who is one of Bobby’s most promising students.

“Problemista” also shows some of Alejandro’s life when he’s not working. He gets a roommate named Bingham (played by James Scully), who likes to party. Alejandro doesn’t have a love interest in the movie, but it’s shown that he is gay or queer. Alejandro can’t get paid for his assistant job until Elizabeth officially becomes his work sponsor. When he runs low on money, he resorts to a desperate way to make some cash.

One of the movie’s quirks is showing fantasy sequences involving a character named Craigslist (played by Larry Owens), who appears to Alejandro in hallucinations that make Craigslist look like he’s in a disco nightclub or drag-queen ballroom. Craigslist gives advice and pep talks to Alejandro when Alejandro is feeling doubt and fear. Even though Alejandro is in his 20s, Alejandro often looks and acts like an insecure teenager. He has tendency to dress like a high school student, including wearing a backpack. He shuffles when he walks, and he often stammers in conversations with people.

“Problemista” has some pacing and tonal issues when the movie has an awkward balance of comedy and drama. The story also gets a little repetitive in showing Elizabeth’s negative outbursts and ranting. However, the performances in the movie (especially from Torres and Swinton) are compelling. And “Problemista” shows with compassion and some grittiness what it looks like to be a lonely immigrant with visa problems in America. It’s a life that is often lived in quiet desperation but gets to live out loud in a movie like “Problemista.”

A24 released “Problemista” in select U.S. cinemas on March 1, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 8, 2024.

Review: ‘The Killer’ (2023), starring Michael Fassbender, Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley, Sophie Charlotte, Sala Baker and Tilda Swinton

October 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Michael Fassbender in “The Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Killer” (2023)

Directed by David Fincher

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Europe, and the Dominican Republic, the dramatic film “The Killer” (based on the French graphic novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An assassin goes on a revenge mission to find and kill the people who brutally attacked his live-in girlfriend during a home invasion. 

Culture Audience: “The Killer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker David Fincher, star Michael Fassbender, and taut thrillers about assassins.

Michael Fassbender in “The Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Killer” isn’t the best work from the stars and filmmakers of this somewhat predictable drama about an assassin who goes on a personal vendetta. However, the movie’s performances are above-average. The voiceover narration will get mixed reactions. Some viewers will find this constant narration to be a very annoying distraction, while other viewers won’t mind or will think the narration is one of the best aspects of the movie. “The Killer” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival.

Directed by David Fincher and written by Andrew Kevin Walker, “The Killer” is based on the 2018 French graphic novel of the same name, written by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and illustrated by Luc Jacamon. The movie plays out very much like a graphic novel, with listed chapters and simple dialogue. In the movie, the real name of the title character (played by Michael Fassbender) is never revealed. For the purposes of this review, this assassin will be referred to by the name is he has in the movie’s end credits: The Killer.

The Killer is an American who uses aliases that are the names of famous characters from American TV series. It’s an example of the movie’s wry comedy that the people he encounters don’t notice or don’t even know that the name he has is the same as a TV character. Among the fake names that he uses are Felix Unger and Oscar Madison (“The Odd Couple”), Archibald Bunker (“All in the Family”), Sam Malone (“Cheers”) and Lou Grant (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant”).

Nothing is revealed about The Killer’s personal background before he became a murderer for hire. All that is really known is that The Killer is an elite assassin who is hired by wealthy people. He is considered among the “best of the best” because he’s very meticulous, he has a reputation for never making mistakes, and he has never been caught. But his error-free track record is about to change.

From the movie’s opening scene, viewers get a load of The Killer’s innermost thoughts through voiceover narration. These inner thoughts do not let up for the entire movie. It’s in contrast to the fact that The Killer doesn’t have a lot of scenes where he’s actually talking out loud. He spends a lot of time by himself and talks to people only when necessary.

The movie’s first 10 minutes show The Killer doing what is part of his assassin job: stalking his target and waiting for the right moment to commit the murder. This preparation requires discipline and the ability to tolerate waiting in one place for a long period of time. As The Killer explains in the beginning of the movie: “It’s amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing.” He adds that if you can’t endure boredom, “this work is not for you.”

Well, there’s a lot more to being an assassin than the ability to endure boredom. It takes a certain lack of humanity to kill people for money. The Killer has this to say about his deadly job: “Popeye the Sailor said it best: ‘I am what I am.'” He then says, as if to justify that he’s just a cog in the wheel of sin and corruption: “I’m not exceptional. I’m just a part.” This particular statement carries weight, considering what he says at the very end of the movie.

The Killer says other things to indicate that he’s extremely jaded and emotionally disconnected from a lot of things. For example, he utters, “Luck isn’t real, nor is karma, nor is justice.” But then, he contradicts himself and says that people should consider themselves lucky if they never meet him.

In order to stalk his victims, The Killer has to stay at places close to where he can observe the target and the target’s routines. The Killer quips, “I used to book a lot through Airbnb. Not anymore. Those [Airbnb] Superhosts love their nanny cams.”

In the beginning of “The Killer,” he is shown in Paris at a high-rise hotel that is directly across from a stately home where he can clearly see inside the home. The home is where his target is and where The Killer is setting up his sniper gun to commit the murder. Inside the home, the target is a middle-aged man (played by Endre Hules) enjoying the company of a dominatrix (played by Monique Ganderton), who is just about to start their session.

The Killer takes aim and fires. And he shoots and kills the wrong person: the dominatrix. The middle-aged man reacts with shock. In a nearby room, a few servants hear the gunshot, go into the room, see the dead woman, and panic ensues. As soon as The Killer sees the mistake that he’s made, he quickly leaves the hotel and drives away, as police cars driving in the opposite direction toward the murder scene. Before he leaves the scene, The Killer says in a voiceover, “WWJWBD: What would John Wilkes Booth do?”

Shortly after this botched assassination, The Killer is in a phone conversation with a man named Claybourne (played by Arliss Howard), who hired The Killer for this murder. The client is furious with The Killer, who is shocked and embarrassed about this colossal mistake. It’s the first time The Killer has bungled an assassin job by murdering the wrong person. Claybourne hisses at The Killer that it’s too late to get another chance to kill the target: “The window of opportunity has closed.”

The Killer knows there will be severe consequences to him for this mistake. On a hunch, he rushes back to his home hideout in the Dominican Republic. The place has all the signs that a violent home invasion has recently taken place. Windows are shattered by gun bullets, indicating a forced entry. Items inside the home are smashed, shot up, or in other forms of disarray. There’s blood on the floor and walls. And his live-in girlfriend Magdala (played by Sophie Charlotte) is missing.

The Killer finds out that Magdala is in a local hospital. She’s been brutally attacked and is temporarily in a coma. Magdala’s brother Marcus (played by Emiliano Pernía) is also at the hospital. Marcus says to The Killer about the home invaders: “They came for you.” When Magdala regains consciousness, she tells The Killer that the two people who attacked her (a man and a woman) were not disguised and she can describe them.

Just like her brother Marcus, Magadala also seems to know what The Killer does for money and that the home invasion had something to do with The Killer’s deadly job. “I didn’t tell them anything,” she says to The Killer, as if she wants to assure him that she will stay loyal to him. The Killer knows this assault is revenge for his botched assassination. He feels guilty about it but he mostly feels very angry.

The rest of “The Killer” shows him on a vendetta to find the people who attacked Magdala and murder them. He has to use detective skills to find these attackers because he doesn’t have much information at the beginning of his investigation. His revenge mission takes him to different parts of North America and Europe. (“The Killer” was filmed in Paris, Illinois and the Dominican Republic.)

Some of the memorable people he encounters along the way are an international trade attorney named Edward Hodges (played by Charles Parnell); Edward’s administrative assistant Dolores (played by Kerry O’Malley); and nameless characters described in the movie’s end credits only as The Expert (played by Tilda Swinton) and The Brute (played by Sala Baker). During his revenge scheme, viewers will hear more of The Killer’s inner thoughts.

A life motto that The Killer keeps repeating are these sentences: “Forbid empathy. Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability.” One of the main concepts of The Killer is that he thought he could separate his personal feelings and his personal life from his job, but the attack on Magdala was a rude awakening on how his job could dangerously spill over into his personal life. And therefore, his perception of empathy as a “weakness” starts to change.

The Killer previously murdered people for money as a business transaction. Now, he’s on a murderous rampage for emotional reasons and pure revenge. The movie doesn’t try to have any moralistic preaching about which type of murder is more “noble” than the other. The movie hinges on Fassbender’s capable and somewhat fascinating performance, where he has to go from cold-blooded and aloof to someone who is so fired up with thoughts of revenge for a loved one, it becomes his obsession.

Even with all the good acting in “The Killer,” after a while, there are formulaic plot developments. It’s the type of movie that can be suspenseful yet have almost no surprises. Because the intentions of The Killer are very transparent, the only mystery is how he is going to find the elusive home invaders.

“The Killer” is very much a “focus on the present day” movie, since almost nothing is told about The Killer’s past or what might happen to him in the future. For example, the movie doesn’t put a lot of thought into what might happen if The Killer murders the home invaders, and people then try to get revenge him for those murders. Fincher’s directing of “The Killer” is efficient but not particularly imaginative. There’s plenty of physical violence in this movie, but the real story of “The Killer” is mostly about violence of the mind.

Netflix released “The Killer” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023. The movie will premiere on Netflix on November 10, 2023.

Review: ‘Asteroid City,’ starring Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston and Edward Norton

June 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in “Asteroid City” (Photo courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features)

“Asteroid City”

Directed by Wes Anderson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1955, in the U.S. Southwest and in New York City, the comedy film “Asteroid City” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Told as a stage play within a TV show, “Asteroid City” tells the story of how a small town reacts to a visit from an outer-space alien.

Culture Audience: “Asteroid City” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson and comedies with intentionally quirky characters and sometimes bizarre scenarios.

Scarlett Johansson in “Asteroid City” (Photo courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features)

“Asteroid City” is exactly what you think a Wes Anderson movie is about how people react to seeing an outer-space alien. The comedy is hit or miss. Anderson’s recent movies seem like they’re competing with each other to have the most celebrity cameos. “Asteroid City” (which was directed by Anderson) had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Anderson co-wrote the “Asteroid City” screenplay with Roman Coppola, who is a cousin of Jason Schwartzman, one of the stars of the film.

“Asteroid City,” which is set in 1955, is told as a play within a TV show. All it means is that it’s an excuse to add more stars to the already star-studded cast. Overstuffing the movie with famous cast members can actually be detriment when most of these characters remain underdeveloped. And it will just lead to disappointment for the fans of the cast members (many of whom could easily headline films on their own) when they find out that the screen time of many of these celebrities is barely enough to be in a short film.

The constant parade of stars also seems like showboating from Anderson and the other “Asteroid City” filmmakers, as if to prove that all of these famous people are so in awe of Anderson, they’d be willing to do even the tiniest role in one of his movies. It certainly might explain why Margot Robbie has an utterly useless role as an unnamed actress/wife in “Asteroid City,” where all she does in the movie is talk for a few minutes in a forgettable conversation. “Asteroid City” makes good use of its principal cast members, but gets bogged down by all the distracting celebrity cameos.

The movie begins with black-and-white footage of a nameless TV host (played by Bryan Cranston) explaining that viewers will be getting a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a play called “Asteroid City.” The play is written in New York City by playwright Conrad Earp (played by Edward Norton), while the ensemble cast is led by Jones Hall (played Schwartzman) and Mercedes Ford (played by Scarlett Johansson). This behind-the-scenes footage is in black and white (as it would be in television in 1955), but the scenes with the play are in bright Technicolor-inspired lighting that would have been standard with movies released in 1955.

Schubert Green (played by Adrien Brody) is the play’s director. Polly (played by Hong Chau) is Schubert’s assistant. Saltzburg Keitel (played by Willem Dafoe) has a classroom that is used as rehearsal space for the play. All three of these characters are seen in short interludes and don’t add much to the overall story.

Asteroid City is in an unnamed state in the U.S. Southwest. In the “Asteroid City” play, a war photographer named Augustine “Augie” Steenbeck (also played by Schwartzman) is a recent widower. He is on a road trip by car to Asteroid City, a very small Southwestern town (population: 87), where the biggest attractions are a large meteor crater and a celestial observatory nearby. Augie is traveling with his 14-year-old son Woodrow Steenbeck (played by Jake Ryan) and triplet daughters Andromeda (played by Ella Faris), Pandora (played by Gracie Faris) and Cassiopeia (played by Willan Faris), who are about 7 or 8 years old.

The Steenbeck family is going to Asteroid City for the weekend celebration of Asteroid Day, commemorating September 27, 3007 B.C., when the Arid Plains meteorite crashed on Earth. Woodrow is also set to get a prize as one of the five winners of the Junior Stargazer Space Cadet Awards, given to young people who are aspiring astronomers. However, Augie’s car breaks down in Asteroid City. A unnamed, bumbling mechanic (played by Matt Dillon) is the nearest person who can fix the car.

After Augie finds out that he and his children are stuck in Asteroid City, Augie calls his stern father-in-law Stanley Zak (played by Tom Hanks) to ask Stanley to pick up the kids because “the car exploded.” Stanley is reluctant to come to the rescue of his stranded son-in-law and grandchildren because Stanley thinks that Augie needs to take responsibility for the kids. Stanley is annoyed that Augie has not told the children that the children’s mother (who was Stanley’s daughter) died three weeks ago.

It’s mentioned in the movie that she died from a unnamed illness. Eventually, Augie awkwardly tells the children about their mother’s death. He also tells them that she has been cremated. Her ashes are in a plastic bowl that Augie has with him. And as soon as cremated ashes of a loved one are shown in a comedy, you just know that something is going to happen to those ashes in a comedic part of the plot.

Meanwhile, this small town is about to get a much bigger temporary population when more visitors arrive. These other guests include famous actress Midge Campbell (played by Johansson), who (by her own admission) is vain and selfish. She is in Asteroid City because her teenage daughter Dinah (played by Grace Edwards) is one of the recpients of the Junior Stargazer Space Cadet Award. It’s mentioned that Midge has two younger children from her marriage to her second ex-husband

Also in Asteroid City is country musician Montana (played by Rupert Friend) and his band. Montana dresses like a cowboy and seems to be attracted to a schoolteacher in her 20s named June (played by Maya Hawke), who has arriveed by school bus with a class of 10 students, who are each 8 years old. Montana and June, like many of these supporting characters, have no real bearing on the outcome of the story.

Other visitors to Asteroid City who are very extraneous characters include egotistical businessman JJ (played by Liev Schrieber) and his mild-mannered teenage son Clifford (played by Aristou Meehan), who only seem to be in the movie to show that Augie and Woodward aren’t the only characters in “Asteroid City” who have father/son tensions. Clifford is one of the award recipients.

Other unnecessary characters are Sandy (played by Hope Davis) and her teenage daughter Shelly (played by Sophia Lillis), who are only memorable for wearing matching Girl Scout-type uniforms. Shelly is also one of the award recipients. It makes no difference to the movie’s story if there were three, four or five teens getting these awards.

Another parent-teen duo in “Asteroid City” are scientist Roger (played by Stephen Park) and his overachieving son Ricky (played by Ethan Josh Lee), who has somewhat of a rivalry with Woodrow about who knows the most about astronomy. Ricky is actually essential to the plot, since he makes a certain decision regarding the outer-space alien. Ricky’s decision has an effect on other plot developments. Meanwhile, Woodrow and Dinah have a growing attraction to each other.

Steve Carell is in the movie for less than five minutes as the manager of Asteroid City’s only motel. The observatory is run by Dr. Hickenlooper (played Tilda Swinton), who us the expected eccentric character that Swinton always to plays in Anderson’s movies. A crater meteorite that’s the size of a softball is one of the prized possessions on display at the observatory.

A very by-the-book military officer named General Grif Gibson (played by Jeffrey Wright) is in Asteroid City to lead the Asteroid Day festivities, which includes a tour of the observatory, a picnic supper, the viewing of the Astronomical Ellipses, and the awarding of the annual Hickenlooper Scholarship. General Gibson has a trusted, unnamed aide-de-camp (played by Tony Revolori), who is just a rehash of the “eager young man” roles that Revolori has played in other Wes Anderson movies.

The first half of “Asteroid City” is a string of vignettes where the characters are quirky and often blurt out things in a tactless way that’s supposed to be amusing. Augie and Midge are the most “no filter” of these characters. And so, it should come as no surprise that they become attracted to each other. It’s just like a Wes Anderson movie for two single parents to be attracted to each other at the same time the parents’ two teenage kids are attracted to each other.

“Asteroid City” doesn’t get really interesting or amusing until the arrival of the space alien, which is filmed like it would be for a stage production. The reactions to this space alien are the movie’s commentaries on greed and exploitation in society. There’s nothing wrong with any of the performances by the cast members. But it says a lot that “Asteroid City,” which is filled with talented people (many of whom are Oscar winners and Oscar nominees), doesn’t have an Oscar-worthy performance in the bunch. The movie’s production design is impeccable, but “Asteroid City” is a comedy that’s more enamored with the setup of jokes rather than the jokes themselves.

Focus Features released “Asteroid City” in select U.S. cinemas on June 16, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on June 23, 2023.

Review: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,’ starring the voices of Gregory Mann, David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Ron Perlman, Tilda Swinton, Finn Wolfhard and Cate Blanchett

December 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

Culture Representation: Taking place in World War II-era Italy in the 1940s (and briefly in 1916), the animated film “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” features cast of human characters (all white Italians) and magical creatures representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly wood carver/carpenter makes a puppet boy that comes alive and then goes on a quest to become a human being. 

Culture Audience: “Pinocchio” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and the original 1940 “Pinocchio” movie and are interested in seeing a unique retelling of this classic story.

Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor) in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a stellar example of how to do a highly creative movie remake that maintains the spirit of the original while making imaginative revisions. It’s destined to be a classic in stop-motion animation. The movie takes a while to get to the action-adventure part of the story, so be prepared for a lot of very talkative scenes in the first half of the film. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is such a visual treat that lets viewers get to know the characters in a meaningful way, the leisurely pace in the movie’s first half is not too much of a detriment to the film overall.

Oscar-winning filmmaker del Toro had been trying to make a stop-motion animation version of “Pinocchio” since 2002, when the Jim Henson Company acquired the rights to make Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s fairy tale “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (whose animation is inspired by illustrator Gris Grimly’s interpretation of Pinocchio) is directed by del Toro and Mark Gustafson, with the movie’s adapted screenplay written by del Toro and Patrick McHale. The book was famously made into Disney’s 1940 musical animated film “Pinocchio.” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” keeps the gist of the story (an Italian wooden puppet named Pinocchio that wants to become a human boy) and brings it into the 20th century.

It’s not a political movie or a preachy film, but “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is primarily set during World War II, when Italy was under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. A such, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has themes about the horrors of war and how people can become puppets under an oppressive government. The movie keeps the original story’s meaningful messages about family love, coping with death and self-acceptance. There are touches of comedy in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” but people should not expect a perky musical. The movie’s overall tone is dramatic.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” begins with a flashback to 1916, in an unnamed part of Italy, where a kind and amiable wood carver/carpenter named Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) lives happily with his son Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann), who’s 10 years old. Geppetto is a single parent. Carlo’s mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie. The movie’s intermittent narrator is a nomadic cricket named Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who has settled in Geppetto’s home workshop to write a memoir about his extensive travels.

One day, Carlo finds a pine cone and gives it to Geppetto so that Geppetto can plant the pine cone, with the expectation that it will grow into a tree. Carlo gives this gift to Geppetto on the day that he accompanies Geppetto to a carpenter job at the local church, where Geppetto is restoring a giant statue of Jesus Christ on a crucifix. Suddenly, military airplanes appear in the sky, and a bomb is dropped on the church. Geppetto escapes, but Carlo is killed instantly.

About 25 years later, Geppetto is a very lonely elderly man, who is still grieving heavily over the death of Carlo. He sometimes gets drunk to try to cope with his emotional pain. The pine cone that Carlo gave to him all those years ago has now grown into a pine tree. In a drunken rage, Carlo cuts down the tree and makes a wooden boy puppet out of the tree, as a tribute to Carlo. Sebastian observes it all.

One night, the benevolent Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) visits the workshop, and finds out from Sebastian that the puppet was made so that Geppetto wouldn’t be lonely and to remind Gepetto of his son Carlo. (The Wood Sprite is called the Blue Fairy in other versions of “Pinocchio.”) The Wood Sprite brings the boy puppet to life, and names the puppet Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann), while Sebastian witnesses this magical spell. The Wood Sprite calls herself a “guardian” on Earth. She tells Sebastian: “I care for little things, the forgotten things, the lost ones.” And she asks Sebastian to help her look after Pinocchio.

At first, Geppetto is frightened by the sight of Pinocchio being alive, but he eventually loves Pinocchio like a son. One day, Pinocchio follows Geppetto to church, where the parishioners treat Pinocchio with fear and suspicion. The churchgoers think that this talking puppet is demonic, but Geppetto assures them that Pinocchio is just a puppet. Still, Pinocchio is treated like an outcast in the village from then onwards.

The church’s priest (voiced by Burn Gorman) and the village’s podesta (voiced by Ron Perlman), who represent the village’s top authority figures, order Geppetto to send Pinocchio to school, so that Pinocchio can learn the rules and laws of this Italian society. Viewers will have to overlook that most of the main characters have British accents in the English-language version of this movie. Because most of movie’s voice actors do not have Italian accents, it’s one of the few details that “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” gets wrong, but most viewers won’t notice or care.

The very stern podesta has a son named Candlewick (voiced by Finn Wolfhard), who often lives in fear of his domineering father and tries hard to please his father. The podesta is quick to judge others harshly and is eager to dole out punishment to anyone he thinks doesn’t follow his orders. Candlewick and Pinocchio are around the same age, in terms of emotional maturity level, and their relationship at first consists of Candlewick being a bully to naïve Pinocchio.

For example, Candlewick plays a mean-spirited prank on Pinocchio by suggesting that Pinocchio move closer to a fire to get warmer. As a result, Pinocchio’s legs get partially burned off, but Geppetto compassionately makes new and improved legs for Pinocchio. Candlewick and Pinocchio eventually become friends in a poignant storyline where they find out they have more in common than Candlewick thought. Pinocchio also wants to please Geppetto like a dutiful son. These father-son issues are recurring themes in the movie’s story.

Pinocchio doesn’t go to school as planned, and he ends up being lured into working at a carnival as the star act. The carnival is led by greedy and unscrupulous Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz), who is cruel and abusive to his loyal and sweet-natured monkey Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett). The rest of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has faithful renditions of the original story while adding very different new plotlines to the movie.

Sebastian the cricket (who is a purple instead of the traditional green) is not an ever-present sidekick with Pinocchio. In this movie, Pinocchio actually spends more time with Candlewick. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” also has a character called Death (also voiced by Swinton), who is the sister of the Wood Sprite. Both sisters are blue magical creatures that talk without moving their mouths. The character of Death has a lot to do with some of the main changes to the story.

There are some pleasant original songs performed in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” but none that will become iconic such as “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Disney’s 1940 version of “Pinocchio.” Alexandre Desplat, who wrote the terrific musical score for “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” collaborated with Roeban Katz on the movie’s original songs “My Son” (performed by Bradley) and the Mann-performed “Fatherland March,” “Big Baby Il Duce March” and “Ciao Papa.” It certainly would have been easier (and lazier) to try to replicate the Disney songs from 1940’s “Pinocchio,” so the filmmakers of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” deserve some credit for not relying on the same old type of tunes.

The voice cast in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is top-notch and delivers the expected emotions on a very entertaining level. John Turturro has a supporting role as a doctor, while Tim Blake Nelson voices the four Black Rabbits that encounter Pinocchio. Mann’s high-pitched British voice is perfectly fine, but might be a little bit of a distraction for people who think Pinocchio should’ve sounded more Italian or southern European in this movie.

Waltz has played many villainous characters, so his interpretation of Count Volpe has the expected amount of sleaze and smarminess. Blanchett’s voice work is the biggest surprise because many people would never guess she’s the wordless voice of a monkey in this movie. McGregor’s distinctive voice seems underused, since the cricket character isn’t as prominently featured in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” compared to other “Pinocchio” movies. However, Sebastian gets a big scene in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” where his strong-willed and opinionated personality is expressed in full force when scolding Geppetto for not appreciating Pinocchio.

As for the movie’s visuals, the animation is striking, gorgeous and often emotionally rousing. It is stop-motion animation that represents the best of what could be done creatively and technically when this movie was made. The ending of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a major departure from the original book and 1940’s “Pinocchio,” but the conclusion is handled in a way that’s of a much higher quality than Disney’s inferior 2022 remake of “Pinocchio.”

Fantasy films of del Toro often walk the line between whimsy and melancholy in telling stories of life and death. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is no different and is, without question, one of del Toro’s most impressive movies. Some people looking for more action sequences in this movie might be disappointed, but “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has much more to offer than being a superficial joy ride.

Netflix released “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” in select U.S. cinemas on November 9, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘The Eternal Daughter,’ starring Tilda Swinton

December 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tilda Swinton in “The Eternal Daughter” (Photo by Sandro Kopp/A24)

“The Eternal Daughter”

Directed by Joanna Hogg

Culture Representation: Taking place in Wales, the dramatic film “The Eternal Daughter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person and one person of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A screenwriter, who has writer’s block, checks into an isolated hotel with her mother, where memories and family secrets affect their stay at the hotel. 

Culture Audience: “The Eternal Daughter” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tilda Swinton, filmmaker Joanna Hogg and movies with plots that blur the lines between fantasy and reality.

Carly-Sophia Davies and Tilda Swinton in “The Eternal Daughter” (Photo by Sandro Kopp/A24)

Tilda Swinton is in yet another artsy film that has quirky and neurotic characters. “The Eternal Daughter” takes place at a mysterious hotel. You’re either going to be fully on board with this type of movie, or you’re not. “The Eternal Daughter” made the rounds at several film festivals in 2022, including the Venice International Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

Written and directed by Joanna Hogg, “The Eternal Daughter” has a story enigma that’s very easy to solve. It’s the type of movie where viewers should be up for a ride where a lot of weird things happen. You can figure out early on what’s the root of the problem, and then just watch as Swinton delivers a compelling performance. Swinton has two roles in “The Eternal Daughter,” which is an automatic clue that can answer many questions put forth in the movie.

In “The Eternal Daughter” Swinton has the dual roles of screenwriter Julie Hart and Julie’s elderly mother Rosalind Hart. Julie is working on a movie about herself and her mother. They check into a stately old Moel Famau. hotel, which is a converted country mansion in Wales. (“The Eternal Daughter” was actually filmed at Souton Hall, a 15-bedroom Georgian estate, built in 1714, in Wales.) The purpose of this mother-daughter trip is so Julie and Rosalind can talk about Rosalind’s memories that Julie might use in her screenplay.

The atmosphere is ominous and tense from the moment that Julie and Rosalind arrive at the hotel on a very foggy night. Rosalind’s spaniel dog Louis is also with them. (The dog belongs to Swinton in real life.) The Julie character is supposed to be a version of “The Eternal Daughter” writer/director Hogg. Julie is the same character who was portrayed in her early 20s in Hogg’s 2019 film “The Souvenir” and 2021 film “The Souvenir Part II,” which both had Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in the starring role of young-adult Julie.

The hotel receptionist (played by Carly-Sophia Davies), who doesn’t have a name in “The Eternal Daughter,” tells Julie (who made the hotel reservation) that they have no record of her reservation, and the hotel is already booked up. Julie is understandably upset, and there’s some haggling back and forth before the receptionist finds a room for Julie and Rosalind. As far as Julie is concerned, this trip has gotten off to a very bad start.

The rest of “Eternal Daughter” involves a series of unnerving incidents and encounters that alarm and confuse Julie. At this very depressing hotel that doesn’t seem to know the meaning of well-lit rooms, Rosalind immediately notices she hasn’t seen any other hotel guests. Where are the other guests?

When Julie and Rosalind dine in the hotel’s small restaurant, the hotel receptionist is also their server at the restaurant. It’s another indication that this hotel isn’t as busy as the receptionist wants to say that it is. Why did the receptionist say that the hotel was booked up, when it obviously is not? The only other employee who’s seen at the hotel is a friendly groundskeeper/maintenance worker (played by Joseph Mydell), who also doesn’t have a name in the movie.

During the night, Julie’s sleep is interrupted by the sound of loud banging. When she tells the hotel receptionist about it, she’s assured that this matter will be resolved. But the banging continues. Is this a haunted hotel? If you’re thinking that “The Eternal Daughter” is Hogg’s version of “The Shining,” it’s not.

It’s enough to say that “The Eternal Daughter” is not a horror movie, so viewers should not watch “The Eternal Daughter” with expectations that it will be a scary film. “The Eternal Daughter” is a psychological drama that keeps viewers guessing about what might be real and what might be someone’s imagination. And whose reality is the truth?

“The Eternal Daughter” is sometimes bogged down by some very mundane conversations that Julie and Rosalind have about their family. These discussions are meant to make an increasingly agitated Julie feel a sense of normalcy in this hotel that she thinks is not normal at all. Julie is also feeling a lot of anxiety because she has writer’s block.

People who are looking for an elaborate mystery or non-stop suspense might be disappointed in “The Eternal Daughter.” The movie is really a showcase for how Swinton can convincingly play these two characters who have very different personalities. Julie is restless and on edge, while Rosalind is calmer and more passive. “The Eternal Daughter” is ultimately an intriguing statement on how family memories can shape people’s lives and how important it is to value the people who can share these memories.

A24 released “The Eternal Daughter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 2, 2022.

Review: ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing,’ starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton

August 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in “Three Thousand Years of Longing” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

“Three Thousand Years of Longing”

Directed by George Miller

Some language in Hellenic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Turkey, the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, the fantasy film “Three Thousand Years of Longing” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Asian) as human beings and magical beings representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A Djinn (also known as a genie) is set free from a bottle by a loner middle-aged divorcée from the United Kingdom, and he tells her stories of how he was trapped inside the bottle at various times over 3,000 years. 

Culture Audience: “Three Thousand Years of Longing” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, filmmaker George Miller and adult-oriented fantasy movies.

Tilda Swinton in “Three Thousand Years of Longing” (Photo by Elise Lockwood/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is not as weird and edgy as the movie’s trailer would suggest. It’s a sometimes-rambling yet visually striking adult-oriented fairy tale about a genie and the stories he tells to the scholarly divorcée who frees him from a bottle. The film is not a masterpiece, but it’s entertaining enough for people who can engage with a fantasy movie that’s more about storytelling than about fast-paced action scenes.

Directed by George Miller (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Augusta Gore), “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is based on A. S. Byatt’s 1994 novel “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.” Although the movie is narrated by British scholar Alithea Binnie (played by Tilda Swinton), viewers will learn a lot more about the electromagnetic genie called the Djinn (played by Idris Elba) whom Alithea accidentally releases from a bottle. That’s because almost the entire movie is about the Djinn telling Alithea about three major times in his life that he was imprisoned in a bottle.

In the beginning of the movie, she says in a voiceover: “My name is Alithea. My story is true. You’re more likely to believe me if I tell you it’s a fairy tale.” Swinton is quite good in the role of Alithea, but she’s portrayed many uptight and quirky British women before in other movies, her work in “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is just more of the same, but not as quick-tempered and unhinged as some of her other eccentric characters in other films.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” opens with Alithea (who lives in London) arriving in Istanbul, Turkey, for a storytelling conference. (“Three Thousand Years of Longing” was actually filmed in Australia, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.) In addition to being a scholar, Alithea is an enthusiast of fantasy storytelling. Ever since she was a child, she had an active imagination and kept journals of her fantasy writings and illustrations.

A flashback in the movie shows how Alithea at about 10 or 11 years old (played by Alyla Browne) as a social outcast at her all-girls boarding school. During her childhood, Alithea had an imaginary male creature friend named Enzo (played by Abel Bond) that she wrote about and drew in her journals. Alithea could see and hear Enzo but no one else could. Enzo would often comfort her when she was feeling lonely and sad. Don’t expect to find out anything about Alithea’s family, except to know that she has no siblings.

Now in her late 50s or early 60s, Alithea is now a professor of narratology who has been divorced since she was in her 30s. She’s still a loner who writes and draws in journals what comes up in her vivid imagination. Alithea also still sees visions of various magical creatures that look real to her, but no one else can see them.

For example, when she arrives at the airport, she sees a short, odd-looking man who tries to help her carry her suitcase, but she refuses, and he disappears into the crowd. When Alithea tells a male professor colleague (who’s sharing a car ride with her) about this strange experience, she describes the unusual man as “hot to the touch” and “musky.” Alithea’s colleague suggests that she might have seen a ghost.

Alithea is one of the speakers at the conference, where she says that stories about mythical gods have been a part of human hstory for ages. (In the background on the conference stage is a collage portrait of comic book superheroes, to illustrate her point.) During her speech, Alithea sees in the audience a vision of ghost-like elderly man wearing all white in an ancient royal outfit, including a crown.

Suddenly, this mystery spirit lunges at Alithea. And the next thing she knows, she’s being woken up by people on the conference stage because she’s been told that she fainted. Alithea has no memory of passing out. And she insists that she’s feeling perfectly fine.

In her hotel room, Alithea takes out a blue-and-white stripped bottle that looks like a perfume bottle. A brief flashback show that she purchased the bottle at trinket shop in an Instanbul bazaar. The bottle had burn marks on it, but that just makes her more interested in buying. “I like it,” she tells the shop owner. “I’m sure it has an interesting story.”

Alithea takes a toothbrush to try to rub off some of the burn marks. And that’s when the Djinn come out of the bottle, in clouds of purple smoke. At first, the Djinn appears in giant form, but eventually, he shrinks himself down to the form of a human. He begins speaking to her in Hellelnic (a language that Alithea knows), btu then eventually spends the rest oft he time talking to Alithea in her native English language. Alithea is convinced that that the Djinn is part of her imagination, but the more he talks to her, the more she’s convinced that he’s real.

The Djinn essentially says that he’s been trapped in the bottle for nearly 200 years. And in order for him to gain eternal freedom, he tells Alithea that he must grant three wishes to her. There are some caveats to these wishes. She cannot wish for eternal wishes or anything that would end suffering. Her wishes must also be heartfelt and sincere, not taken as a joke, in order for the wishes to really come true.

Alithea insists to the Djinn that she’s perfectly content with her life and doesn’t have any wishes. She has no loved ones and is happy with her job. Alithea only opens up about her her past experiences with love and heartbreak when she briefly tells him about her lonely childhood and her divorce. It’s the only glimpse into Alithea’s personal life.

Alithea was married to her college sweetheart Jack (played by Peter Bertoni, in a flashback scene) for a period of time that appears to be less than 10 years. Alithea and Peter had many things in common, and she thought that they were soul mates. At one point, Alithea got pregnant and was far-enough along in the pregnancy that she knew she was going to have a boy. Alithea and Jack were going to name the child Enzo.

All of this information can be deduced from a brief flash of a pregnancy test vial showing a positive test result. Alithea had kept this pregnancy test vial as a memento in a scrapbook and had written the name Enzo on the vial. When Alithea tells the Djinn about her marriage, she never goes into details about happened to this pregnancy.

However, it’s implied that she had a miscarriage, since the child is never seen in the flashbacks. Alithea says that she and Jack eventually drifted apart (with the implication that the loss of the child was a big reason why), and they got divorced. Jack eventually married a younger woman named Emmaline Porter (played by Lianne Mackessey), and Alithea has seen the happy couple together in London on at least one occasion.

The Djinn has his own stories of loss and heartbreak to tell. His first story of being imprisoned in the bottle is about when he was the servant/lover of Africa’s Queen of Sheba (played by Aamito Lagum), who did not love the Djinn in the way that the Djinn loved her. A love triangle developed when a visiting king named Solomon (played by Nicolas Mouawad) began courting the queen. You can easily guess how this love triangle ended.

The Djinn’s second story of being “incarcerated” in a bottle takes place in the 1530s, during the rule of Turkey’s Ottomon Empire. The story begins with a destitute and enslaved young woman named Ezgi (played Pia Thunderbolt) releasing the Djinn from a bottle. The Djinn grants Ezgi’s wish to marry Prince Mustafa (played by Matteo Bocelli), who is next in line to inherit the kingdom.

However, a power struggle breaks out between Prince Mustafa, his younger brother Ibrahim (played by Jack Braddy) and their father Sultan Suleiman (played by Lachy Hulme). Ibrahim has a sexual fetish for plus-sized women. One of the women in Ibrahim’s harem plays a role in Djinn’s fate.

The Djinn’s third story is supposed to be the most impactful, but it’s the most underdeveloped and seems too rushed in the movie. In this story (which takes place in the mid-19th century in Turkey), the Djinn talks about Zefir (played by Burcu Gölgedar), a woman whom Djinn describes as perhaps the greatest love of his life. The Djinn says that he loved Zefir more than he loved the Queen of Sheba.

At the age of 12 years old, Zefir was forced to marry a Turkish merchant, whose name is not mentioned in the movie. This merchant is old enough to be Zefir’s grandfather. Zefir is the merchant’s third wife in his harem. His other two wives, who are close to the merchant’s age, are very jealous of Zefir and treat her like an outsider. A lonely Zefir eventually finds the bottle where the Djin was kept and frees him.

All three of the Djinn stories involve a woman freeing him from a bottle and some kind of power struggle that ensues. Djinn describes himself in his relationships as loyal and accommodating. And he is that way with Alithea too, but only after she begins to trust him. He can be impatient with Alithea when she’s indecisive about if or when she wants to make a wish.

Because the movie reveals up front that Djinn’s three stories are about how he got trapped in a bottle on three separate occasions, viewers aleady know that each story will not end well for the Djinn. And therefore, the movie’s only real question that needs to be answered is: “What will Ailthea’s wish for, if she chooses to make any or all of the three wishes?”

Alithea thinks that all stories about wishes are “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tales, so she’s afraid of making any wish that could be a big mistake. Through the Djinn’s stories, she starts to understand that life can be a very dull existence if risks aren’t taken. Alithea also learns that it’s not always selfish to ask for what you want.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” has the look of an ambitious fantasy film, but thankfully is only 108 minutes long. The visual effects and cinematography are well-done, and the acting is perfectly fine from all involved. However, the movie is not without its flaws.

The three stories are unevenly paced to the importance each story has to the Djinn’s life. The second story that takes place during the Ottoman Empire should have been shortened and the time used to expand more on the third story about the Djinn’s relationship with Zefir. There’s not much in the movie to show why Djinn considers his relationship with Zefir to be a great love affair.

Zefir and the Djinn are not shown connecting on any emotional level. The Djinn essentially does what Zefir wants, including making himself disappear, especially when her husband is around. And, as previously mentioned, Alithea remains a bit of a mystery throughout the entire. The only other insight into Alithea’s personal life is when she returns to London and shows disgust for the racial and ethnic bigotry expressed by two nosy, elderly women who live in the house next door.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is not going to appeal to people who are expecting any comedic moments. It’s a brooding movie that’s not overly intense or gory, but it’s far from being lighthearted and whimsical. It’s probably one of the most serious-minded gene movies you’ll ever see, Viewers might get some enjoyment out of the acting and the storytelling format of the movie, which has a timeless message about valuing love, no matter where and when someone exists.

United Artists Releasing/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Three Thousand Years of Longing” in U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2022. The movie is set for release in Australia on September 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Memoria’ (2021), starring Tilda Swinton

January 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Memoria” (2021)

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Some language in Spanish and Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, the dramatic film “Memoria” features a predominantly white and Latino cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A Scottish woman, who’s visiting her sister in Bogotá, Colombia, tries to find out why she is hearing mysterious “sonic boom” sounds that no one else seems to hear.

Culture Audience: “Memoria” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, star Tilda Swinton and abstract movies about memories.

Tilda Swinton and Juan Pablo Urrego in “Memoria” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Here’s some advice to anyone who watches “Memoria,” written and directed by writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Watch this movie if you think there’s no chance that you’ll fall asleep. Weerasethakul is known for his slow-paced and meditative films that aren’t traditionally structured in three acts. Instead, his movies flow in a dream-like pace that might bore viewers looking for a more straightforward and obvious approach to storytelling. “Memoria,” which screened at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Jury Prize) and 2021 New York Film Festival, is Weerasethakul’s first movie that’s not in the Thai language.

Despite having a pace that can induce drowsiness, “Memoria” is worth a look for anyone interested in a densely layered story about how memories affect the way that people live their lives. There’s also a sci-fi/mystery element that adds a level of intrigue to the movie. With a total running time of 136 minutes, “Memoria” requires patience and a certain amount of curiosity to see how the movie is going to end. “Memoria” was selected as Colombia’s Best International Feature Film category entry for the 2022 Academy Awards, but the movie didn’t make the shortlist.

The central character in “Memoria” is Scottish botanist Jessica Holland, whose specialty is orchids. Jessica lives in Medellín, Colombia, and has gone to Bogotá, Colombia, to visit her sister Karen Holland (played by Agnes Brekke), who is in a hospital because of an unnamed respiratory illness. During one of Jessica’s visits to Karen in the hospital, Karen confides to Jessica that she’s been having dreams about a dog that she rescued that’s in Karen’s home. Karen says half-jokingly, “The dog has put a curse on me.”

Jessica asks Karen if Karen wants Jessica to check on the dog. It’s somewhat of an odd question to ask, because Karen has two people who live with her: Her partner Juan Ospina (played by Daniel Giménez Cacho), who’s a college professor, and their son Mateo Ospina (played by Jerónimo Barón), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Eventually, Karen recovers from her illness and is released from the hospital.

The movie’s opening scene shows that strange things are happening around Jessica. She wakes up suddenly in a dark room, as if she was startled by a nightmare. Outside a run-down building that’s a billiards hall, several cars parked outside have their alarms start to operate at the same time. And then, when Jessica arrives in Bogotá, she hears a loud thumping noise, similar to a brief sonic boom, at random times and in random places.

Hearing this mysterious noise has caused Jessica to have trouble sleeping. It becomes so disruptive to her life that she becomes consumed with finding out what is causing the noise, which no one else around her seems to hear. Is Jessica mentally ill or does this noise really exist outside of her mind?

Jessica’s quest to solve this mystery leads her to a variety of people and places. Some of these encounters appear to be more random than others. The movie doesn’t show it in obvious ways, but all these encounters are somehow connected.

Through a mutual friend, Jessica is put in touch with a sound engineer named Hernán Bedoya (played by Juan Pablo Urrego), who is asked to try to find the sound that Jessica keeps hearing. Jessica visits Hernán at his studio, where he has a library of sounds and sound effects that he plays for Jessica to find the sound that best matches the sonic thump that she keeps hearing. At one point during these sessions, Jessica describes this mystery sound as “like a rumble from the core of the earth.”

Jessica’s encounters also include a meeting with an archeologist named Agnes Cerkinsky (played by Jeanne Balibar), who shows Jessica some bones in a science lab. Agnes tells Jessica that the bones are about 6,000 years old, and she asks Jessica to guess the gender of the person whose bones are on the table. Jessica incorrectly guesses that it was a man. Agnes tells Jessica that the bones are actually of a young girl, whose skull has a hole drilled into it to it, which was probably an ancient ritual to release evil spirits.

Jessica also ends up in a jungle spending time with a middle-aged man named Hernán (played by Elkin Díaz), who is scaling a fish when they first meet. Somehow, Jessica gives him some of her Xanax pills. Hernán passes out and appears to be dead. But then, Hernán regains consciousness. Jessica asks him how heaven is. He says, “Fine.” Jessica tells Hernán that she’s sorry for giving him the pills.

And it gets weirder. There’s a dream sequence of Jessica hiding underneath a bed with other people. She describes the dream later by saying, “They searched for us all night.” Later, the Hernán from the jungle tells Jessica that he can read memories, and he makes this comment: “I’m like a hard disk. She’s like an antenna.”

“Memoria” has several scenes meant to confuse viewers on whether or not Jessica is delusional. When she goes back to sound engineer Hernán’s studio after her first visit, she’s told that no one of that name and description has ever worked at the studio. Observant viewers will remember that sound engineer Hernán told Jessica in their conversation that he’s in a band called the Death of Delusion Ensemble.

Another scene where Jessica appears to be delusional is when she has dinner with Agnes, Mateo and Juan. During the dinner conversation, Jessica mentions someone whom she says died the previous year. However, Agnes and Mateo insist that Jessica is wrong and the person she’s talking about is still alive. Jessica reacts with disbelief because she’s sure she’s correct.

Jessica also visits a psychologist named Dr. Constanza (played by Constanza Gutiérrez) to tell him about her problem with this mysterious noise. Dr. Constanza advises her that in high elevations, people sometimes can hear a “pop”-sounding noise. “It’s not a pop,” Jessica says to Dr. Constanza about the sound that she keeps hearing.

“Memoria” is not the type of movie that will be remembered for its acting. The cast members give capable performances, but this movie doesn’t really have any big personalities and snappy banter where the cast members can flex their acting talent. The main attraction in “Memoria” is to try to figure out what the movie is trying to say with this mystery of the thumping noise.

“Memoria” eventually reveals why Jessica keeps hearing this noise and how it’s connected to the overall story. There are clues along the way, but they are often subtle or obscure. If there are viewers who prefer movies that reveal clues in more obvious and literal ways, then those viewers probably won’t like “Memoria” very much. But for anyone who’s up for the challenge of watching a surreal and slow-paced mystery with some observations of humanity and Colombian history, then “Memoria” might be an interesting and unique viewing experience.

Neon is releasing “Memoria” in the U.S. in one movie theater per city in a cinema tour of the movie, beginning in New York City on December 26, 2021. Sovereign Films released “Memoria” in several cinemas in the United Kingdom and Ireland on January 14, 2022. The filmmakers have announced that “Memoria” is being released only in cinemas.

Review: ‘The Souvenir Part II,’ starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton and Richard Ayoade

November 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir Part II” (Photo by Josh Barrett/A24)

“The Souvenir Part II”

Directed by Joanna Hogg

Culture Representation: Taking place in the mid-1980s in England (primarily in London and briefly in Norfolk), the dramatic film “The Souvenir Part II” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this sequel to “The Souvenir,” a film student struggles with completing her first short film while trying to mend her broken heart after a relationship with a former boyfriend ended badly in “The Souvenir.”

Culture Audience: “The Souvenir Part II” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Joanna Hogg and arthouse British coming-of-age films that have keen observations and dry wit.

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton in “The Souvenir Part II” (Photo by Sandro Kopp/A24)

If filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical “The Souvenir” depicted a dark storm in her life, then “The Souvenir Part II” is like the sun peeking more optimistically through the clouds. It’s a rare sequel that’s better than the original movie. “The Souvenir” (released in 2019) was a dour and depressing story of a young film student caught up in a toxic relationship with a heroin-addicted older man. “The Souvenir Part II” shows with imaginative charm how the young protagonist picks up the pieces of her broken heart and finds her identity as a beginner filmmaker.

British filmmaker Hogg wrote and directed both movies with a combination of a sharply objective viewpoint and an intimate subjective perspective. That hard-to-achieve mix makes “The Souvenir Part II” a universally relatable tale for anyone who decides to pursue a passion, and yet it’s a deeply personal reminsicence of a specific era and place for Hogg. “The Souvenir Part II” picks up not long after “The Souvenir” ended. “The Souvenir” was about depression and degradation, while “The Souvenir” is about recovery from this type of damage and emerging stronger than before.

In “The Souvenir Part II,” it’s still the mid-1980s, and film student Julie Harte (played by Honor Swinton Byrne) is trying to recover from the destructive romance that she had with a heroin addict named Anthony (played by Tom Burke), a charismatic, intelligent but ultimately disturbed con artist/thief from a vaguely privileged background. The end of “The Souvenir” showed how Julie and Anthony’s relationship was destroyed to the point of no return. It was an exhausting relationship in which Anthony (who was about 10 years older than Julie) used her, emotionally manipulated her, betrayed her, and ultimately broke her heart.

But it was also the first time that Julie fell deeply in love. And she’s still trying to get over Anthony. In the meantime, Julie has been focusing on her school studies. She attends the fictional Raynham Film and Television School in London. As a requirement for her upcoming graduation, she has to complete a short film that she’s writing and directing. Julie is also getting “real world” experience as a part-time production assistant on a film set.

Julie comes from a well-to-do family. Her mother Rosalind Harte (played by Tilda Swinton, who is Swinton Byrne’s real life-mother) supports Julie in her quest to become a filmmaker. Julie’s father William Harte (played by James Spencer Ashworth) is much more skeptical of Julie’s filmmaker goals. Swinton and Ashworth were also in “The Souvenir” as Julie’s parents. In “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie still seeks their approval and needs their financial support, but she has become more independent and determined not to let naysayers distract her from her artistic vision and her ambition.

When Julie visits her parents at their home in Norfolk, England, she gripes to them about getting criticism from a film instructor, who thinks that Julie’s student film thesis is too unfocused. William gives this unsympathetic response: “Sounds typical for art school.” In the same conversation, William asks Julie if she would consider working on the family farm instead of pursuing what he thinks is a foolish dream of becoming a filmmaker. Based on these family dynamics, it should come as no surprise that Julie asks her mother, not her father, for the money that Julie needs to finish her student film.

Julie’s part-time production assistant job is essentially an internship. She’s doing PA work for a lavish period musical about young people in their 20s. The movie’s leading man is Jim (played by Charlie Heaton), a roguish actor who suggestively gives Julie the eye when they’re working on the film set. The movie’s director is egotistical and demanding Patrick (played by Richard Ayoade, in a hilarious, scene-stealing performance), who reprises his role as Julie’s friend from “The Souvenir.”

It’s Patrick who suggests to Julie that she make her student film a tribute to Anthony to help her through her grieving process. (Mild spoiler alert: Anthony died of a heroin overdose at the end of “The Souvenir.” Anthony’s death is mentioned in “The Souvenir Part II” trailer, so it’s not really spoiler information.) Julie takes Patrick’s advice and ends up doing a very artsy/avant-garde movie version of her relationship with Anthony. The title of Julie’s movie is revealed toward the end of “The Souvenir Part II.” (The title is exactly what you might think it is.)

In “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie has a group of peers (some film students, some not) whom she bounces ideas off of for her student film, even if they give her advice that she doesn’t think is compatible with what she has in mind. What they all have in common is a passion for movies. These supporting characters include Jaygann Ayeh as Marland; Alice McMillan as Elisa; Harris Dickinson as Pete (who plays the Anthony-inspired character in Julie’s film); and Joe Alwyn as the unnamed editor of Julie’s film.

It’s not much of a surprise when Jim shows up unannounced at Julie’s door one day. She lets him in, and they hook up. But in an effort to make this movie very much from a female perpsective, viewers find out more than maybe some people might want to know about Julie’s menstrual cycle. In an early scene in “The Souvenir Part II,” Julie announces that her menstrual period is late. When she and Jim have their sexual tryst, let’s just say that her time of the month arrives, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Jim is just a fling because Julie (even though she doesn’t really want to admit it to a lot of people) is still somewhat in love with Anthony. There’s a very realistic scene of her secretly meeting with someone from Anthony’s druggie past in order to try and get some answers on what kind of life he was leading when he would disappear on his drug binges. This “investigation” is a big sign that Julie is having a difficult time moving on from Anthony.

In the production notes for “The Souvenir Part II,” Hogg says that she wanted the movie to be about Julie’s expressions of the five stages of grief. (These five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.) In “The Souvenir,” Julia’s life, energy and spirit revolved around Anthony. In “The Souvenir Part II,” she experiences the five stages of grief. The end result is that her life, energy and spirit begin to blossom into who she is as an artist and as a person.

It’s not an easy journey, because there are pitfalls (some self-made, others created by other people) along the way. However, Julie’s emotional scars end up becoming her armor when things get tough for her. Swinton Byrne gives a thoroughly believable and captivating performance as Julie, while Hogg’s attention to 1980s-era details manages to feel both retro and timeless.

Truth be told, “The Souvenir” is a movie that’s a little too enamored with its own mopiness, just like a pouty teenager who thinks it’s uncool to smile. “The Souvenir Part II” is a triumphant “coming into adulthood” film that finds a more emotionally mature Julie finally understanding that happiness isn’t always guaranteed in life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find joy in discovering who you are and not be afraid to show it.

A24 released “The Souvenir Part II” in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021. Picturehouse will release “The Souvenir Part II” in U.K. cinemas on January 21, 2022.

Review: ‘The French Dispatch,’ starring Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet and Jeffrey Wright

October 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in “The French Dispatch” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“The French Dispatch”

Directed by Wes Anderson

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, the comedy film “The French Dispatch” features predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After the American editor of The French Dispatch magazine dies, his staffers gather to put together the magazine’s final issues, with four stories coming to life in the movie.

Culture Audience: “The French Dispatch” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson and of arthouse movies that have well-known actors doing quirky comedy.

Lyna Khoudri, Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet in “The French Dispatch” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

At times, “The French Dispatch” seems like an overstuffed clown car where filmmaker Wes Anderson tried to fit in as many famous actors as possible in this movie. This star-studded cast elevates the material, which is good but not outstanding. Anderson’s style of filmmaking is an acquired taste that isn’t meant to be for all moviegoers. He fills his movies with retro-looking set designs, vibrant cinematography and snappy dialogue from eccentric characters. “The French Dispatch,” written and directed by Anderson, takes an anthology approach that doesn’t always work well, but the fascinating parts make up for the parts that are downright boring.

The movie revolves around a fictional magazine called The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (also known as The French Dispatch), which is a widely circulated American magazine based in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France. The French Dispatch was founded in 1925. The movie opens in 1975, when the French Dispatch editor/owner Arthur Howitzer Jr. (played by Bill Murray), an American originally from Kansas, has died in the magazine’s offices. The employees have gathered to work on his obituary and reminisce about him and the magazine’s history.

Arthur appears in flashbacks throughout the movie. In one of the flashbacks, Arthur has told his top-ranking staffers that he has put a clause in his will which requires that The French Dispatch will stop publishing after he dies. The staffers are melancholy and a bit disturbed when they hear about this decision. Arthur is loved and respected by his employees, so they oblige his request. Therefore, they know that the French Dispatch issue that will have Arthur’s obituary will also be the magazine’s final issue.

The French Dispatch is a magazine that is known for its collection of stories. In “The French Dispatch” movie, four of these stories come to life and are told in anthology form, with each story told by someone from the magazine’s staff. Some scenes are in color, and other scenes in black and white. Anderson says in the movie’s production notes that The French Dispatch was inspired by his love for The New Yorker magazine. That’s all you need to know to predict if you think this movie will be delightful or pretentious.

The French Dispatch staffers are mostly Americans. They including copy editor Alumna (played by Elisabeth Moss), cartoonist Hermès Jones (played by Jason Schwartzman), an unnamed story editor (played by Fisher Stevens), an unnamed legal advisor (played by Griffin Dunne), an unnamed proofreader (Anjelica Bette Fellini) and an unnamed writer (played by Wally Wolodarsky). All of these aforementioned staffers don’t have in-depth personalities as much as they have the type of quirky reaction conversations and stagy facial expressions that people have come to expect from characters in a Wes Anderson movie. A running joke in “The French Dispatch” is how obsessive Alumna and proofreader are about things such as comma placement.

The staffers who get more screen time and more insight into their personalities are the four staffers who tell their stories. The first story is told in travelogue form by Herbsaint Sazerac (played by Owen Wilson), whose title is cycling reporter. Herbsaint travels by bicycle to various parts of the city. He has a penchant for going to the seedier neighborhoods to report what’s going on there and the history of how certain locations have changed over the years. During his travels, he visits three other French Dispatch writers who tell their stories. They are J.K.L. Berensen (played by Tilda Swinton), who is the magazine’s flamboyant art critic; Lucinda Krementz (played by Frances McDormand), a secretive essayist who likes to work alone; and Roebuck Wright (played by Jeffrey Wright), a lonely and brilliant writer with a typographic memory.

J.K.L.’s story is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” which is about the how a “criminally insane” painter named Moses Rosenthaler (played by Benicio del Toro as a middle-aged man and by Tony Revolori as a young man) is discovered and exploited while Moses is in prison for murder. One of the paintings that first gets attention for Moses is a nude portrait of a prison guard named Simone (played by Léa Seydoux), who is his muse and his lover. Moses has a makeshift art studio in prison for these intimate painting sessions, which he is able to do because Simone gives him a lot of leeway and protection from being punished.

An unscrupulous art dealer named Julian Cadazio (played by Adrien Brody), along with his equally corrupt and greedy uncles Nick (played by Bob Balaban) and Joe (played by Henry Winkler), find out about Moses’ talent and are eager to make huge profits off of Moses’ work. These art vultures figure that they can take advantage of Moses because he’s in prison. Julian, Nick and Joe get a tizzy over how much money they can make off of Moses, who is a mercurial and unpredictable artist. Imagine these art dealers’ panic when Moses decides he’s going to stop painting until he feels like painting again. There’s also a Kansas art collector named Upshur “Maw” Clampette (played by Lois Smith) who comes into the mix as a potential buyer.

“The Concrete Masterpiece” is the movie’s highlight because it adeptly weaves the absurd with harsh realism. Swinton is a hilarious standout in her scenes, because J.K.L. is quite the raconteur. She delivers her story as a speaking engagement in front of an auditorium filled with unnamed art people. It’s like a pompous lecture and bawdy stand-up comedy routine rolled into one. You almost wish that Anderson would make an entire movie about J.K.L. Berensen.

Lucinda’s story is “Revisions to a Manifesto,” which chronicles a youthful uprising in the French town of Ennui, when young people stage a labor strike that shuts down the entire country. At the center of this youthful rebellion are two lovers named Zeffirelli (played by Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (played by Lyna Khoudri). Zefferelli (a college student) is the sensitive and romantic one in this relationship, while Juliette has a tendency to be aloof and no-nonsense. Although “Revisions to a Manifesto” has some visually compelling scenes depicting the strikes and protests, the overall tone of this story falls a little flat. Chalamet’s performance is very affected, while McDormand is doing what she usually does when she portrays a repressed character.

Roebuck’s story “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” which is a tale of kidnapping and other criminal activities. The story starts off being about a famous chef named Nescaffier (played by Stephen Park), who is hired to serve Ennui-sur-Blasé’s police commissioner (played by Mathieu Amalric), who is just named The Commissaire in the story. But then, the story becomes about The Comissaire’s son/crime-solving protégé Gigi (played by Winsen Ait Hellal), who gets kidnapped by some thugs, led by someone named The Chauffeur (played by Edward Norton). The kidnappers say that Gigi will be murdered unless a recently arrested accountant named Albert (played by Willem Dafoe), nicknamed The Abacus, is set free from jail.

“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” ends up being too convoluted and somewhat sloppily executed. Liev Schreiber has a small role as a Dick Cavett-type TV talk show host who interviews Roebuck on the show. There’s some whimsical animation in this part of the movie. But ultimately, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is a story about a lot of people running around and making threats with no real sense of danger.

Although it’s admirable that Anderson was able to attract so many famous actors in this movie, after a while it seems like stunt casting that can become distracting. Viewers who watch “The French Dispatch” will wonder which famous person is going to show up next. Some well-known actors who make cameos in “The French Dispatch” include Christoph Waltz, Saoirse Ronan and Rupert Friend. Anjelica Huston is the movie’s voiceover narrator.

“The French Dispatch” can almost become a game of Spot the Celebrities, since there are so many of them in this movie. That being said, there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. However, the movie would’ve benefited from taking a chance on casting lesser-known but talented actors in some of the prominent speaking roles, in order to make the film a more immersive viewing experience instead of it coming across as an all-star parade.

Despite its flaws, there’s no doubt that “The French Dispatch” is a highly creative film that has Anderson’s unique vision and artistic flair. He has a love of language and a knack for keeping viewers guessing on what will happen next in his movies. And these bold risks in filmmaking are better than not taking any risks at all.

Searchlight Pictures released “The French Dispatch” in U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021.

Review: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield,’ starring Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar and Morfydd Clark

August 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dev Patel in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Searchlight Pictures)

“The Personal History of David Copperfield”

Directed by Armando Iannucci

Culture Representation: Taking place in Victorian-era England, the comedy/drama “The Personal History of David Copperfield” has a racially diverse cast (Asian, white and black) portraying the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An upwardly mobile young man named David Copperfield reflects on his life, which includes a rough childhood and discrimination over his social class. 

Culture Audience: “The Personal History of David Copperfield will appeal primarily to fans of the Charles Dickens book, on which the movie is based, as well to people who like modern twists on classic stories.

Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Rosalind Eleazar in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Searchlight Pictures)

Writer/director Armando Iannucci brings his brand of sly and witty humor to his movie adaptation “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (based on Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel “David Copperfield”) and updates the film to have a multiracial cast in a way that is neither self-congratulatory nor self-conscious. The essence of the story, which is set in Victorian-era England, remains the same in the movie as it is in the book. But this unusual and inspired casting is one of the film’s more modern takes on the “David Copperfield” story. Let’s face it: Most filmmakers casting a movie version of “David Copperfield” would follow the predictable convention and stick to casting only white people in the main roles to reflect how the characters are described in the novel.

In “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” the title character (played by Dev Patel in the movie) looks back on his life and describes how he felt during crucial points in his journey from childhood to adulthood. That flashback concept remains intact in the movie, without an over-reliance on voiceover narration. Instead, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” has fun playing with time and space, by having the adult David appearing in the flashback scenes with the child version of David (played by Jairaj Varsani), as if the adult David has gone back in time and can see his younger self.

People who’ve read the book already know how the story is going to end. But for anyone unfamiliar with the book, the movie creates a world that is both whimsical and bleak, depending on which part of David’s life that viewers are experiencing through his memories. Some of the characters border on parody, but that’s because the movie is meant to be a snappy satire on the rigid social class system that causes much of David’s worst misery throughout his life.

The movie portrays David’s dysfunctional childhood, in which he bounces from one home to another, and he experiences many insecurities over his identity and social acceptance. David was born into a family that didn’t fully accept him as a child. This rejection is demonstrated in the movie’s opening scene that shows his mother Clara (played by Morfydd Clark) giving birth to him in Blunderstone, Suffolk, and her husband’s domineering, unmarried sister Betsey Trotwood (played by Tilda Swinton) leaving in an angry huff when she finds out that the baby is a boy, not a girl. In an Oedipal twist in this movie’s casting, actress Clark, who plays David’s mother Clara, also plays someone who becomes one of David’s love interests when he’s an adult: ditsy Dora Spendlow, who treats her Maltese dog like an inseparable child.

David’s mother Clara becomes a widow when he’s still a baby, which is a slight departure from the book, when Clara became a widow before David was born. Even though Clara has help from an optimistic maid named Clara Peggotty, also known as Peggotty (played by Daisy May Cooper), David’s mother wants a more stable home for her child (whom she calls Davy), so she sends him away more than once to live with another family.

The first time he’s sent away, it’s to live in Yarmouth with Peggotty’s brother Daniel Pegotty (played by Paul Whitehouse), a fisherman who lives in an upside-down boat parked on the sand. Daniel lives with three other people: two teenage orphans named Ham (played by Anthony Welsh) and Emily (played by Aimée Kelly) and an elderly woman named Mrs. Gummidge (played by Rosaleen Linehan). Ham and Emily become fast friends with David. It’s one of the happiest times in David’s childhood, as he finds complete acceptance in this family, which calls him Master Copperfield.

When his mother sends for David to come back to live with her, he finds out that his mother has married a cruel tyrant named Edward Murdstone (played by Darren Boyd), who has an equally horrible sister named Jane Murdstone (played Gwendoline Christie), and the siblings both treat young David as if he’s a wretched nuisance. Jane is so hateful toward David that she calls him “it,” while Edward get physically abusive if David doesn’t obey his orders.

During an incident in which Edward begins to beat up David because David couldn’t show that he had completed his education lessons, David bites Edward’s hand and almost gets away from him. David mother’s Clara just passively does nothing but cry while her son is being beaten. Soon after this incident, David is, in his words, “banished to London,” where he is forced to work in a wine bottling factory that is partially owned by the Murdstone family.

David finds out that his boss knows about the abuse incident in which David bit Edward Murdstone’s hand in self-defense, because when David defies his boss’ orders, David is forced to wear a sign on the job that says, “He bites.” It’s another way that David is humiliated and made to feel like an outsider. David is also given a different first name at almost every place he lives, which also adds to his insecurities over his identity and sense of not really belonging anywhere.

A series of incidents lead David to some more homes until he reaches adulthood. He lives for a period of time with debt-ridden married father Mr. Wilkins Micawber (played by Peter Capaldi), who rescues David from a street altercation. Estranged aunt Betsey Trotwood then lets David live with her, on the condition that David change his first name to Trotwood. David is also sent to live in a boarding school, where he meets James Steerforth (played by Aneurin Barnard), a popular and privileged older student who insists on calling David the nickname Daisy. It’s an obvious way for Steerforth to show his dominance and emasculate David, who greatly admires Steerforth and wants to be accepted into Steerforth’s clique.

While living with his aunt Betsey, David meets some other people who have a major impact on his life. They include the eccentric Mr. Dick (played by Hugh Laurie), who has deep admiration for Betsey; an alcoholic lawyer named Mr. Wickfield (played by Benedict Wong); Mr. Wickfield’s daughter Agnes (played by Rosalind Eleazar), who becomes a close friend/adviser to David; Uriah Heep (played by Ben Whishaw), Mr. Wickfield’s nervous-tempered clerk; and the aforementioned Dora Spendlow, whom David becomes infatuated with immediately upon meeting her.

After being treated as an inconvenience for most of his childhood, David starts to gain confidence and a sense of his true self. He develops an unexpected friendship with Mr. Dick, who seems like an antisocial grouch (and who is probably mentally ill, since Mr. Dick hears voices no one else can hear) until David makes a kite and he flies the kite with Mr. Dick. This carefree activity lifts Mr. Dick’s spirits and he begins to trust and open up to David.

And as David becomes more educated at the boarding school, his job prospects improve. He decides to become a proctor because Dora’s father is a proctor. David becomes so enamored with Dora that all he can think about is eventually marrying her. There’s an amusing montage in the movie demonstrating David’s amorous obsession for Dora, by showing that he imagines seeing Dora in the faces of several people in his life.

Although “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is nearly two hours long (116 minutes, to be exact), the movie has a brisk and energetic pace that Iannucci is known for, as seen in his previous films 2009’s “In the Loop” and 2017’s “The Death of Stalin.” Characters are often quirky and/or sarcastic, with Swinton (as Betsey Trotwood) and Laurie (as Mr. Dick), standing out as the kookiest personalities of the bunch. Their eccentric nature is ironic because Betsey and Mr. Dick are not the more sympathetic characters, but they are the ones who set David on a path to having a stable home life. Patel and Whishaw also do quite well in their respective roles, as their personalities go through a metamorphosis.

The movie’s production design by Cristina Casali and the cinematography by Zac Nicholson wonderfully bring to life David’s memories that are a reflection of his emotions and maturity level at the time of his memories. The brightly colored Boat of Peggotty house from his childhood is shown as almost like a fantasy playhouse on the inside. The bottle factory is dark and oppressive. And the scenery around David becomes warmer and more sophisticated as he starts to grow up and becomes more educated, independent and self-assured.

On the surface, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” doesn’t seem to have much appeal to people who have no interest in seeing a movie that takes place in 1800s England. However, much of the themes and social commentary in the story remain relevant to modern audiences. And if people want to see a witty version of a Dickens classic in a movie that doesn’t follow all the predictable ways of telling the story, then “The Personal History of David Copperfield” delivers this experience in a frequently amusing way.

Searchlight Pictures released “The Personal History of David Copperfield” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in January 2020.

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