Review: ‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,’ starring the voices of Lana Condor, Annie Murphy, Toni Collette, Sam Richardson, Will Forte, Colman Domingo and Jane Fonda

June 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chelsea Van Der Zee (voiced by Annie Murphy) and Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken”

Directed by Kirk DeMicco

Culture Representation: Taking place in the U.S. city of Oceanside, the animated film “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” features a cast of characters depicting humans, krakens and mermaids.

Culture Clash: A female teenage Kraken, whose family has been hiding its kraken identity from humans, uncovers an ancient legacy when a rival new student enrolls in her school. 

Culture Audience: “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” will appeal primarily to people who want to see reliably entertaining animated films with simple messages about self-confidence and being yourself.

Pictured from left to right: Trevin (voiced by Eduardo Franco), Margot (foreground, voiced by Liza Koshy), Bliss (voiced by Ramona Young), Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) and Connor (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White) in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” does what it’s supposed to do as a family-oriented animated film. The story and visuals are appealing, but improvement was needed in world building and explaining various characters’ backstories much earlier in the movie. If you don’t know what a kraken is and have no interest in finding out, then skip this movie. Everyone else will at least be mildly entertained by this animated movie that is adequate but not a classic.

Directed by Kirk DeMicco, “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” has an over-used story of a teenage girl trying to fit in at her school while having a crush on a boy whom she wants to date. However, the movie should be commended for at least taking a unique and darking approach of making a kraken family at the center of the story. It’s something that no animated film from a major Hollywood studio has ever done before. Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi wrote the screenplay for “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,” with additional screenplay material written by DeMicco, Meghan Malloy and Michael McCullers.

A kraken is a giant mythical sea monster whose origins are off of the coast of Norway. In “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,” 16-year-old Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) and her family are living “under the radar” in the U.S. city of Oceanside, by having the appearance of humans and trying fit in as human beings. What’s kind of silly about the movie is that the members of this kraken family all have blue skin, which makes it obvious that they’re not human. It would look worse in a live-action film, but in an animated film, there’s more room for suspension of disbelief.

Ruby is intelligent and compassionate, but she insecure about her physical appearance, and she has a slightly goofy personality. Her overprotective mother Agatha Gillman (voiced by Toni Collette) is a successful real-estate agent who dominates the household and is the main parental disciplinarian. Ruby’s laid-back father Arthur Gillman (voiced by Colman Domingo) is much more lenient and understanding of Ruby’s curiosity. Also in the household is Ruby’s 7-year-old brother Sam Gillman (voiced by Blue Chapman), who has the “cute kid” role in the movie.

Agatha and Arthur know that their family is “different,” but they have instilled the attitude in their children that they must blend in with humans as much as possible. Agatha’s number-one rule for her children (especially Ruby) s that they must never go inside or near a large body of water. Needless to say, Agatha is horrified and disapproving when Ruby says she’s interested in studying marine biology for a possible career.

Ruby attends Oceanside High School, where she has a small circle of three friends who are all considered “misfits,” just like Ruby. Margot (voiced by Liza Koshy), who is queer or a lesbian, loves musical theater and is the most talkative and outspoken of the friends. Trevin (voiced by Eduardo Franco), the quietest of the group, is addicted to playing hand-held video games. Bliss (voiced by Ramona Young) is moody, sarcastic, and dresses like a nerdy Goth.

Ruby prides herself on being a “mathlete”—someone who excels at math and at being an athlete. She has a big crush on a fellow student whom she’s tutoring in math. His name is Connor (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who is a free-spirited skateboarder. The school’s prom is coming up. Ruby, Connor, and Ruby’s friends all think the concept of a prom is a “post-colonial patriarchal construct” that they think is very uncool.

However, Margot ends up changing her mind about boycotting the school’s prom when her girl crush asks Margo to be her prom date. Trevin and Bliss then want to go to the school’s prom too. Feeling left out, Ruby decides she wants to also attend the prom, with Connor as her date. Ruby tries to work up the courage to ask Connor, who’s attracted to her, but Ruby isn’t seeing the obvious signs of this attraction.

The added allure for Ruby to go to the prom is that it will be an act of rebellion against her mother. As soon as Agatha found out that the prom will take place in a building that’s near the ocean, she forbade Ruby from going. Margot, Trevin and Bliss convince Ruby that she shouldn’t be so afraid of getting her mother’s disapproval for something that should be a fun and positive experience for Ruby. These three pals tells Ruby that she should lie to Agatha about where she is going on the prom night and go to the prom instead.

Shortly before Ruby decides she’s going to ask Connor to be her prom date, he accidentally falls into the ocean and almost drowns. Ruby dives in to rescues him. And that’s when Ruby finds out that she can turn into a giant kraken. She’s horrified and now knows why her mother Agatha forbade her to go into any large body of water. Connor is unconscious and doesn’t see who rescued him. After a short stay in a hospital, he is released.

Meanwhile, there’s a new student at Oceanside High School: a confident, physically attractive redhead named Chelsea Van Der Zee (played by Annie Murphy), who witnessed this rescue and knows that Ruby wants to keep Ruby’s kraken identity a secret. And so, Chelsea takes credit for rescuing Connor. People believe Chelsea’s fabricated “hero” story, and she immediately becomes popular. As already shown in the “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” trailers, Chelsea has a secret identity too: She’s really a mermaid.

There are more Gillman family secrets that are revealed to Ruby, including a longtime feud between mermaids and krakens. Agatha’s bold and confident mother, whose only name in the movie is Grandmamah (voiced by Jane Fonda), comes from a long line of kraken warrior queens. Grandmamah is estranged from Agatha, who refused to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Ruby also finds out that 15 years earlier, there was a Battle of the Tridents, where mermaids were defeated and went into hiding. There’s an all-powerful trident that mermaids and krakens have been battling over for several generations. When Ruby decides she’s going to embrace her kraken heritage and asks Grandmamah to mentor her, you can easily guess what the movie’s big showdown will be.

Other featured characters in this movie includes a local tour guide Gordon Lighthouse (voiced by Will Forte), who has a boat and who believes that krakens are very dangerous for people. Brill voiced by Sam Richardson) is Agatha’s younger brother, who is earnest and dorky. He’s the type who wears Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals with socks. Brill ends up getting involved in some of Ruby’s adventures.

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” has some explanations about kraken and mermaid lore in the middle of the movie, when those explanations should have been earlier in the film. The characters of Ruby, Agatha and Grandmamah have well-defined personalities, but some other characters (such as Sam and Bliss) don’t do much except take up space. Other characters (such as “cool love interest” Connor, “mean girl” Chelsea and “meddling neighbor” Gordon) are the types of characters that have been in many other types of scripted entertainment.

Some viewers might compare “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” to the 2022 Oscar-nominated Pixar movie “Turning Red” because there are some striking similarities. “Turning Red” is a much better movie overall, but “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” isn’t an intentional ripoff. “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” was in development for years prior to it getting made, so any similarities to “Turning Red” are coincidental.

Everything in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” is just fine or average, but not so terrible that it feels like a complete waste of time to watch it. There’s a jumbled explanation of the Battle of the Tridents, but it’s not so confusing that viewers will feel lost. At the very least, anyone who watches “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” will see a teenage heroine who is very different from the usual teenage heroines in other animated films.

Universal Pictures will release “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” in U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2023.

Review: ‘Mafia Mamma,’ starring Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci

April 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Monica Bellucci and Toni Collette in “Mafia Mamma” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Mafia Mamma”

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy and briefly in the Los Angeles area, the comedy/drama film “Mafia Mamma” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An “empty nester” Italian American mother finds out that her recently deceased grandfather in Italy was a Mafia boss whose dying wish was for her to take over the family’s Mafia business in Italy. 

Culture Audience: “Mafia Mamma” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci, as well as anyone to doesn’t mind watching idiotic movies about the Italian Mafia.

Toni Collette and Giulio Corso in “Mafia Mamma” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Mafia Mamma” is an irritating mix of crude comedy and cloying drama failing on every single level. The filmmakers want to fool viewers into thinking that Toni Collette’s shrill and mindless Kristin character is supposed to exemplify “female empowerment.” Collette can usually be counted on to give good performances in even her worst movies. However, Collette (who is one of the producers of “Mafia Mamma”) does nothing but embarrass herself in this moronic and schlocky mess. The rest of the “Mafia Mamma” cast members give equally atrocious or forgettable performances, made worse by the misguided direction and awful screenplay.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, “Mafia Mamma” was written by J. Michael Feldman and Debbie Jhoon, as if it were a stale and outdated movie from the 1980s. It’s the type of comedy/drama that Goldie Hawn might have made back then, when movie audiences were more receptive to seeing someone act like a ditzy blonde who’s thrown into uncomfortable situations while she shrieks, grimaces, and whines about how she doesn’t know how she ended up in these situations. To make things even worse, “Mafia Mamma” tries to pretend that it’s a “feminist” movie, when it’s actually the opposite of a feminist movie, because it makes the female characters in film look very shallow.

And let’s not get started on the utter stupidity of the concept that a powerful Mafia family in Italy would want a naïve and estranged relative, who doesn’t speak Italian, to suddenly take over the family’s Mafia empire in Italy. Even if viewers suspend their disbelief at this flimsy premise for “Mafia Mamma,” the cast members do a terrible job of selling this concept as entertaining. There’s a desperate tone to “Mafia Mamma” that’s very off-putting. It’s like being stuck in a room with people telling bad jokes that they know are bad, but they just ramp up the barrage of foolishness, because they want to convince you that being louder and sillier automatically means “funnier.”

“Mafia Mamma” begins with a scene showing the aftermath of a gun massacre somewhere on a street in Italy. A Mafia general named Bianca (played by Monica Bellucci), who has an ice-cold personality, walks among the dead bodies of men and snarls, “This means war.” She then spits on the ground. Viewers soon find out that Bianca works for the Balbano crime family. And one of the people killed in this massacre was family boss Giuseppe Balbano (Alessandro Bressanello), whose dying wish was for his American-raised granddaughter to take over the family’s Mafia activities, even though this granddaughter has no idea that her family in Italy is in the Mafia.

This granddaughter is pharmaceutical marketing executive Kristin Dorner (played by Collette), who is living in the Los Angeles area with her musician husband Paul Dorner (played by Tim Daish), who is a wannabe rock star in an obscure band. It’s explained later in the movie that Kristin was born in Italy, but she and her widowed mother moved to the United States when Kristin was too young to remember her father, who was Giuseppe’s only child.

Kristin has no siblings. Her mother has been deceased for an untold number of years. Kristin is an overprotective mother to her only child: a son named Domenick, nicknamed Nicky (played by Tommy Rodger), who is seen saying goodbye to his parents as he drives off with two buddies for his first year in college in Portland, Oregon.

Kristin works at a company called ICO Pharma, which is always looking for new drugs to market to the public. She is the only woman in the small group meetings at her job, where the marketing executives have to pitch ideas for new campaigns. Kristin’s boss Hank (played by Jay Natelle) is misogynistic, even though he goes to great lengths to try to make it look he’s not.

Hank is dismissive of Kristin’s ideas and treats her as inferior to the male employees. He over-praises the unoriginal ideas of his male subordinates Randy (played by Yonv Joseph) and Wayne (played by Mitch Salm), which include re-using ad campaign ideas that portray women as sex objects. When Kristin pitches an idea for medication that will give hair growth to balding men, Hank suggests that Kristin work instead on a campaign for Restylane (anti-aging fillers) for women. Kristin’s job at ICO Pharma plays a big role in an awkward slapstick scene and in a nonsensical subplot shown later in the movie.

Kristin not only feels undervalued at work, but she’s also feeling lonely and unappreciated at home. In addition to having “empty nest syndrome,” Kristin has a non-existent sex life. She and Paul have not had sex with each other in three years.

Kristin is about to have a very bad day that will change her life. First, she gets a call from Bianca telling her that Kristin’s paternal grandfather Giuseppe has died in Italy. Even though Kristin never knew him, Kristin still feels a sense of loss that she never got to know this deceased family member.

And then, Kristin gets another bombshell: She walks in on Paul having sex in his music room with a younger woman named Tracy (played by Claire Palazzo), who was Domenick’s high school guidance counselor. Kristin is naturally shocked. It’s one of the few scenes where Kristin gets upset but doesn’t start screeching. An apologetic Paul uses the opportunity to tell Kristin that he wants them to have an open marriage.

Kristin is next seen taking out her anger and frustration in boxing exercises at a gym. Her gym partner is her loud and foul-mouthed best friend Jenny (played by Sophia Nomvete), who is an attorney for ICO Pharma. Jenny suggests that Kristin go to Italy for Giuseppe’s funeral and use the trip as a chance to reclaim her sexuality. Jenny crudely compares it to Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 self-discovery travel memoir “Eat Pray Love,” by saying Kristin’s trip to Italy can be like “Eat Pray Fuck” for Kristin.

“Mafia Mamma” is so poorly written, it isn’t mentioned what Kristin has decided to do about her marriage until after she arrives in Italy. It turns out that she and Paul are separated, but there’s no mention of her filing for divorce. At any rate, Kristin considers herself to be completely single and available. She wants to make one of her fantasies come true by having a romance (or at least passionate sex) with a handsome and attentive Italian man who treats her well.

As soon as Kristin arrives at the airport, and she’s outside in the arrivals/pickup area, she happens to meet an attractive 34-year-old stranger named Lorenzo (played by Giulio Corso), another traveler who’s standing nearby. Lorenzo’s aunt Esmerelda (played by Dora Romano) has arrived to give Lorenzo a car ride, and she’s in a hurry for him to get in the car. However, Lorenzo finds enough time to quickly introduce himself to Kristin, flirt with her, and exchange phone numbers with her. Of course, it won’t be the last time that Kristin sees Lorenzo.

Bianca is Kristin’s main guide in Italy, but two goons who work for the Balbano family are also at Kristin’s service: jittery Aldo (played by Francesco Mastroianni) and quiet Dante (played by Alfonso Perugini), who later become Kristin’s bodyguards. Dante’s body size becomes the butt of some unfunny “fat” jokes in the movie, which frequently makes Dante more concerned about gorging on fattening food than doing his job properly.

At first, Kristin thinks the Balbano side of her family has gotten wealthy from the Balbano winery. However, during Giuseppe’s funeral procession, there’s a shootout that leaves several people dead. Kristin and her entourage barely escape with their lives. A shocked Kristin demands to know what’s going on. And it’s how she finds out that the Balbano family is a Mafia family. The main Mafia enemy of the Balbano family is the Romano family.

Bianca also shows Kristin a video statement that Giuseppe made that he only wanted Kristin to see after he died. In the video, Giuseppe says that his dying wish is for Kristin to take over the family’s Mafia business. This announcement enrages Giuseppe’s great-nephew Fabrizio (played by Eduardo Scarpetta), a dimwitted, tattooed thug who was expecting to be named the leader of the family. It just leads to witless scenes of a rivalry that Fabrizio has with Kristin.

Throughout the movie, Kristin is a fast-talking, nervous chatterbox trying to make people like her, or she’s a screaming ninny trying to get out of a nasty situation. The movie has expected scenes of bloody murder, but there’s some gross-out comedy involving vomit and defecation that look really stupid and childish in a movie that needed a darker edge. The “fish out of water” scenarios for clueless Kristin get tiresome very quickly.

Even though Bellucci shares top billing with Collette, the Bianca character isn’t in the movie as much as she could have been, thereby squandering an opportunity to make the developing friendship between “opposite personalities” Kristin and Bianca into something hilarious. Instead, the movie lazily uses Bellucci’s image as a “sex symbol” to drop major hints that Bianca might be sexually attracted to Kristin, but Bianca doesn’t act on it. It comes across as being a tease just for the sake of being a tease and adds nothing to the story. Bianca is ultimately a hollow character who reveals nothing about herself in this junkpile film.

“Mafia Mamma” also mishandles what could have been the most suspenseful part of the movie: the rivalry between the Balbano family and the Romano family. The Romanos are too generic and uninteresting. Carlo Romano (played by Giuseppe Zeno) is the family boss at one point in the story, but he’s not in the movie for very long. A high-ranking family member named Mammone Romano (played by Vincenzo Pirrotta) is barely in the movie and doesn’t make much of an impact.

“Mafia Mamma” is also a bloated film that tries to cram in too many ideas, most of which have inexcusable plot holes and just make everyone involved look like morons. Nothing about the story and characters in “Mafia Mamma” looks believable. The movie becomes too long and drawn-out as more ludicrious plot twists emerge. There’s such an overload of bad acting and horrible comedy in “Mafia Mamma,” it truly is a crime against cinema.

Bleecker Street will release “Mafia Mamma” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on May 2, 2023.

Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ (2021), starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Toni Collette

December 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” (2021)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Culture Representation: Taking place the U.S. (including Buffalo, New York) from 1939 to the mid-1940s, the dramatic noir film “Nightmare Alley” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A con man finds work at a carnival, where he learns how to use phony psychic skills to swindle people; he then leaves the carnival and teams up with a psychiatrist to con people in high society. 

Culture Audience: “Nightmare Alley” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast, director Guillermo del Toro and noir dramas that are too bloated for their own good.

Rooney Mara and and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” is a beautiful-looking noir film about many people with very ugly personalities. The movie’s production design, cinematography and costume design are impeccable. Unfortunately, the movie’s sluggish pacing, hollow characters and corny dialogue drag down this film into being a self-indulgent bore. It’s disappointing because there’s so much talent involved in making this film, but a movie like this is supposed to intrigue viewers from beginning to end, not make them feel like they want to go to sleep.

The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” (which clocks in at an overly long 150 minutes, or two-and-a-half hours) is a remake of director Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film “Nightmare Alley,” starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. The movie is based on the 1946 “Nightmare Alley” novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” is also Guillermo del Toro’s directorial follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2017 fantasy drama “The Shape of Water.” Most of the “Nightmare Alley” remake’s stars, producers and department chiefs also have Academy Award recognition, as Oscar nominees or Oscar winners. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, all this talent cannot overcome this movie’s dreadfully dull pacing and painfully heavy-handed screenwriting that’s filled with hokey conversations. The “Nightmare Alley” remake screenplay (written by del Toro and Kim Morgan), which takes place from 1939 to the mid-1940s, lacks enough flair and nuance to bring these characters to life as well-rounded people. And fans of the original “Nightmare Alley” movie should be warned: This remake has an ending that’s much bleaker than the original movie.

In addition, better judgment should have been used in trimming parts of this movie that didn’t further the story very well. The first half of the movie takes place in a carnival, while most of the second half takes place in more upscale environments, when the central character (who’s a con artist) decides to go after wealthier targets than the type of people who go to carnivals. It seems like the filmmakers were so enamored with the elaborate production design for the carnival scenes, they overindulged in this part of the movie, which has a lot of drab dialogue and scenes with repetitive intentions.

At the world premiere of “Nightmare Alley” in New York City, producer J. Miles Dale said in an introduction on stage that the movie had been completed just two weeks before the premiere. That might explain why more thought wasn’t put into the film editing, which fails to sustain a high level of suspense and intrigue. This type of thrill is essential in a movie that pays homage to film noir of the 1940s.

And this is not a good sign: Many people at the premiere were laughing at lines that weren’t intended to be funny. (I attended the premiere, so I saw all of this firsthand.) As the movie plodded on, more and more people were checking the time on their phones, and the audience seemed to get more restless. But the bigger indication that this movie might not be as well-received as the filmmakers intended is that audience members at the premiere were openly giggling at lines of dialogue that were supposed to be dead-serious.

For example, there’s a scene where a character is physically assaulted in an attempted murder, which is thwarted when help arrives. When the character is asked how they’re feeling right after this attack, the character says in a melodramatic tone, “I’ll live.” It’s supposed to be a moment of high drama played to maximum effect, but several people were laughing because of how the scene is delivered in such a hammy way.

At the end of the movie, people in the audience politely applauded. (Keep in mind, that the audience also consisted of numerous people who worked on the film.) However, it wasn’t the kind of thunderous, standing-ovation applause that usually happens at a premiere for an award-worthy movie that’s going to be a massive, crowd-pleasing hit. Considering that there were many awards voters in the audience, this type of underwhelming response indicates that—at least for this particular premiere audience—many people weren’t that impressed with this remake of “Nightmare Alley.”

Even if the audience response had been more enthusiastic, it wouldn’t be able to cover up the movie’s problems. All of the cast members seem to be doing the best that they can, but they are often stymied by some of the trite dialogue that mostly renders them as caricatures. Very little is revealed about the characters’ backgrounds to give them a story behind their personal motivations.

Bradley Cooper (who is one of the film’s producers) portrays the lead character: Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a con-man drifter who ends up working at a seedy traveling carnival. He starts off doing lowly odd jobs, such as helping with construction and clean-ups. But eventually, he charms his way into becoming part of the fake psychic act at the carnival.

The carnival’s psychic act is led by a married couple named Zeena Krumbein (played by Toni Collette) and Pete Krumbein (played by David Strathairn), who coordinate their act through code words, body language and hidden written prompts underneath the stage. Zeena (whose carnival nickname is The Seer) is the flamboyant “psychic” who acts and dresses like a stereotypical fortune teller. While she’s on stage, Pete is underneath the stage, where he writes information on placards that Zeena can see from where she’s standing. The information supplies the hints and codes that prompt Zeena to correctly guess personal facts about someone who gets a “psychic reading” from her.

The Krumbeins have recorded the secrets of their con game in a small journal-sized book that is mostly kept in Pete’s possession. Stan is eager to read the book, but the Krumbeins won’t let him, although they eventually divulge some of their main secrets. Although the Krumbeins have had a partnership in work and in marriage for several years, the romantic passion has left their relationship.

Pete (a former magician) has become an alcoholic, and his alcoholism has caused him to be sloppy and unreliable in his work. He might pass out during one of Zeena’s performances, which is what happens in one scene where Stan has to quickly take over for a barely coherent Pete. It’s implied that Pete has become an alcoholic because he feels guilty about conning people. At one point, Pete warns Stan that the Krumbeins’ con-game secrets should not be abused, and anyone who does so could be cursed. “No man can outrun God!” Pete says ominously.

Zeena openly has affairs with other men. And you know what that means. It isn’t long before Stan and Zeena have an affair, but it’s all lust and no love. And considering that Stan is a con artist, he has ulterior motives for getting close to Zeena. This is an example of the cornball dialogue in the movie: Zeena says this pickup line to Stan before they begin their sexual relationship: “You’re a maybe. And maybes are real bad for me.”

While Stan is carrying on an affair with Zeena, he finds himself more attracted to a virtuous young carnival worker named Molly Cahill (played by Rooney Mara), who performs as an electricity-absorbing phenomenon named Elektra. Molly’s Elektra act consists of being tied to an electric chair and absorbing shocks of voltage that could kill or injure most people. Molly has a trusting nature that makes her blind to Stan’s manipulative ways. Not much information is given about Molly’s background to explain why she’s so naïve about the “smoke and mirrors” carnival business and the con artists that this type of business attracts.

Stan and Zeena’s affair eventually fizzles out, and he begins ardently courting Molly. However, the carnival has a strong man named Bruno (played by Ron Perlman), who is very protective of Molly and is suspicious of Stan’s intentions. Bruno has a co-star named Major Mosquito (played by Mark Povinelli), who also sees himself in a patriarchal role for the carnival. Bruno’s hostility toward Stan doesn’t stop Molly from falling for Stan’s charms. Eventually, Molly and Stan become lovers.

Not much is revealed about Stan’s background except that he’s originally from Mississippi, and he has “daddy issues.” On a rare occasion that he opens up to someone about his past, he talks about a treasured watch that he has that was previously owned by Stan’s dead father. In brief flashbacks, it’s slowly revealed what Stan’s relationship with his father was like.

Meanwhile, other characters at the carnival are in the story, but they are essentially superficial clichés. The carny boss (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a typical huckster. The carnival barker Clem Hoatley (played by Willem Dafoe) is a gruff taskmaster with a cruel and sadistic side. He likes to torment the carnival’s caged “freak” (played by Paul Anderson), a pathetic, gnarled, and dirty human being whose birth name is never revealed in the story and who is usually referred to as the Geek.

Clem tells people that the Geek can go days without food and water. The Geek doesn’t talk but instead snarls and growls like an animal. As part of the Geek’s “act,” Clem or other people feed live chickens to the Geek, who tears the chickens apart and eats them raw. Sensitive viewers should be warned that the movie shows these acts of animal cruelty in detail, through visual effects.

Cruelty and degradation (to animals and to human beings) permeate throughout “Nightmare Alley,” which is nearly devoid of any intended humor. The scenes are staged with immense attention to detail on how everything looks, but the filmmakers didn’t pay enough attention to how these characters are supposed to make viewers feel. Most of the main characters are obnoxious and/or smug, which makes it harder for viewers to root for anyone. Molly is the only character in the movie who seems immune to becoming corrupt, but she’s written as almost too good to be true.

When too many people in a movie are unlikable, that can be a problem if they’re unable to convey some shred of humanity that can make them more relatable to viewers. And the result is a movie where viewers won’t care much about the backstabbing, selfish and greedy characters that over-populate this movie. Because so many of the characters (except for Molly) are so blatant with their devious ways, there’s no suspense over who will end up double-crossing whom. And that makes almost everything so predictable.

Due to a series of circumstances, Stan ends up becoming Zeena’s partner in the fake clairvoyant act. Stan thinks that he’s got real talent for this type of con game, so he decides to run off with Molly and target wealthier “marks” so he can become rich too. Considering that Bruno is the type to get physically rough in his disapproval of Molly and Stan’s relationship, and Bruno isn’t leaving the carnival anytime soon, Stan and Molly believe the time is right to leave the carnival for a better life. Molly and Stan relocate to Buffalo, New York.

Stan then become a semi-successful solo psychic named the Great Stanton, who does his act at sleek nightclubs attended by upper-class people. Molly is his willing accomplice, as long as Stan confines his act to entertaining people as a performer who shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Stan often wears a blindfold for added effect when he makes his guesses about people, based on their body language, the way that they dress and any information he can get about the guests before the show. Stan is no longer financially struggling like he was as a carnival worker, but he wants to be as wealthy as or wealthier than the people who attend his shows. He’s about to meet his new partner his crime.

During one of his performances, Stan has a heckler in the audience who challenges his authenticity. Her name is Dr. Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who tries to humiliate Stan by demanding that he tell everyone what is hidden in her purse. Through a series of observant deductions, Stan correctly guesses that she has a gun in her purse. He then proceeds to turn the tables on Lilith and publicly embarrass her with scathing comments for trying to prove that he’s a fraud.

Under these circumstances, any fool can see that Lilith is not the type of person to forgive and forget this public shaming. However, when Lilith invites Stan to her office, Stan readily accepts. She tells him that she knows he’s a con artist and won’t believe otherwise. Stan then admits it and tells Lilith how he figured out that she was carrying a pistol in his purse. The stage has now been set for two people who think they’re more cunning than the other, as they both try to see what they can get out of any relationship they might have.

Lilith tells Stan that she secretly records all of the sessions that she has with her patients, who are among the richest and most powerful people in the area. Stan immediately has the idea of using that information to target some of these people with his phony psychic act, by using their private information from these recorded sessions to convince them that he knows their secrets. Stan asks Lilith which of her clients is the wealthiest.

And that’s how Stan hears about ruthless business mogul Ezra Grindle (played by Richard Jenkins), who is successful when it comes to his career, but his personal life is filled with bitterness and loneliness. Ezra has confessed to Lilith that he’s been plagued with guilt over causing the death of a young woman he once loved. It’s information that Lilith and Stan use to concoct a scheme to swindle Ezra out of a fortune that they want to get in cash.

Stan and Lilith have the type of relationship where they trade insults but are sexually attracted to each other. It doesn’t take long for Stan to cheat on Molly with Lilith. Blanchett fully commits to the role of a classic noir ice queen, but her portrayal of Lilith is so transparently calculating, it’s never convincing that Lilith can be trusted in this con game that she’s agreed to with Stan.

Ezra isn’t the only “mark” who’s a target of Stan and Lilith. A well-to-do married couple named Charles Kimball (played by Peter MacNeill) and Felicia Kimball (played by Mary Steenburgen) get caught up in the deceit and fraud that Stan and Lilith have in store for them. It has to do with the Kimballs’ emotional pain over the death of their 23-year-old son Julian, who died while he was enlisted in the military. And it’s an example of how low Stan and Lilith are willing to go to exploit the death of a loved one for money.

As lead character Stan, Cooper is in almost every scene of “Nightmare Alley.” His character remains mostly an enigma because, like many con artists, he changes his persona to fit whatever perception will work to get people to do what he wants. He’s the most complex character of the movie, but his personality never comes across as genuine. Over time, Stan shows that he’s not only heartless, but he also doesn’t have much of a conscience unless he’s the one who might get hurt. He’s not even an anti-hero, although the last 10 minutes of the film try to garner some viewer sympathy for Stan.

Ezra can sense that Stan can’t be trusted, so Ezra goes back and forth with how skeptical he is when Stan tries to charm his way into Ezra’s life. However, Stan knows so many private details about Ezra, it’s enough to convince Ezra that maybe Stan is the telling the truth about being psychic. Ezra is supposed to be a brilliant businessman, but at no point is he smart enough to figure out that maybe his psychiatrist has been leaking his personal information.

Stan is supposed to be a skillful con artist, but at no point is he wise enough to figure out that if Lilith has a recording device in her office to secretly record people, maybe she would use it to secretly record Stan too. After all, the recording can be cleverly edited to leave out any incriminating things that Lilith would say. This is all just common sense, which is why it’s a bit of a slog when the movie lumbers along to make it look like there’s some kind of mystery about Lilith’s intentions. The only thing in the movie that might be considered a little unpredictable is what happens with the Kimballs.

“Nightmare Alley” is not the first retro-noir-inspired movie directed by del Toro. He also directed 2015’s “Crimson Peak” (starring Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska), which also yielded mixed results because the pacing for the movie was so lethargic. At least “Crimson Peak” has a less tedious length of two hours. “Nightmare Alley” tries to convince people that it’s fascinating to watch monotonous scene after monotonous scene of Stan working his way up the carnival hierarchy, when the real story is what he does once he decides he’s going to become a phony psychic. The pace of the movie would’ve been better-served if about 20 to 30 minutes of the movie’s first half had been edited out.

The movie’s screenplay is still problematic though because of how it leaves no room to care about the story’s overabundance of distrustful and shallow characters, who spout a lot of words that don’t have much substance. “Nightmare Alley” takes so long to get to the inevitable end result of Stan and Lilith’s partnership, many viewers might have emotionally checked out by the time it happens. It’s enough to say that Molly is really the only character that viewers might care about by the time the movie is over. This remake’s revised ending has a well-acted, emotional final scene, but it’s not enough to make up for the character soullessness throughout most of the movie.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Nightmare Alley” in U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021.

UPDATE: Searchlight Pictures will release a black-and-white version of “Nightmare Alley” titled “Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light” for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Dream Horse,’ starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis

May 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Toni Collette and Owen Teale in “Dream Horse” (Photo by Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street and Topic Studios)

“Dream Horse” 

Directed by Euros Lyn

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2002 to 2009, in various parts of the United Kingdom (particularly in Wales), the dramatic film “Dream Horse” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one person of Indian/South Asian heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged woman, who works as a bartender and a supermarket cashier, convinces people in her working-class neighborhood to pool their money to breed a racehorse, despite knowing that they have a lot of odds stacked against them that the horse will become a champion.

Culture Audience: “Dream Horse” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “against all odds” stories and movies about horse racing.

Pictured in front row: Owen Teale, Toni Collette and Damian Lewis in “Dream Horse” (Photo by Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street and Topic Studios)

“Dream Horse” is an against-all-odds horse racing story that is utterly formulaic but completely charming, thanks to admirable performances from the cast, led by Toni Collette and Damian Lewis. The movie is based on a true story, which is why even some of the far-fetched moments have a tone of authenticity. You don’t have to be a fan of horse racing to enjoy the movie, because it’s ultimately a story about the triumph of underdogs and anyone who is often underestimated.

Directed by Euros Lyn and written by Neil McKay, “Dream Horse” begins in 2002, with a look at the humdrum life of Jan Vokes (played by Collette), a middle-aged Brit who is barely making ends meet with two jobs in the former mining village of Cefn Fforest in South Wales. By day, she works as a supermarket cashier. By night, she’s a bartender at a social club whose attendees are mostly middle-aged and elderly people. In addition, Jan has to care for her elderly, ailing parents Bert (played by Alan David) and Elsie (played by Lynda Baron), who has to use a wheelchair after experiencing a fall.

Jan’s home life and marriage are pretty stagnant at the beginning of the story. Her husband Brian (played by Owen Teale) barely pays attention to her, especially when he’s watching farming shows on TV. Brian used to be physically active, but his arthritis has left him unable to work, so Jan is the breadwinner for the household. Jan mentions to Brian that it would be easier to take care of her parents if her parents lived with her and Brian, but Brian doesn’t really respond to that suggestion.

Jan and Brian have two adult children named Dennis and Sasha, who are mentioned but not seen in the movie, since they no longer live with Jan and Brian. These “empty nest” spouses love animals, so they have ducks, a whippet and several pigeons that are part of their household too. Jan bears most of the responsibility for taking care of everyone in her household. And it’s starting to weigh heavily on her.

Brian and Jan are in no danger of breaking up, but Jan feels underappreciated, bored and stuck in a rut. One evening, while working at her bartender job, Jan ovehears a man talking happily and enthusiastically about the race horse that he used to own with a syndicate. The man is sitting at a table with a group of five other men, and he has the group enraptured with his stories.

Jan asks her boss Gerwyn Evans (played by Steffan Rhodri) about this charismatic man. She finds out that his name is Howard Davies (played by Lewis), and he’s a horse racing enthusiast who nearly lost everything (his life savings, house and marriage) after his horse racing syndicate went out of business. Howard now works as a corporate accountant for wealthy clients, and most of his job entails helping his clients legally avoid paying taxes.

Jan is so intrigued by Howard’s passion for horse racing that she begins to research what it takes to own a race horse. She starts by picking up a Horse & Hound magazine at her job. In the magazine, she sees an ad for the latest edition of “Directory of the Turf: The International Guide to Horse Racing.” She buys the book and finds out that it would be possible to breed a racehorse with people in her working-class neighborhood if they pooled their resources for a few years.

The first person Jan shares this idea with is Brian, who is immediately skeptical. His reaction is to laugh and say, “It’s absolute madness!” Undeterred, Jan convinces Brian to help her buy a mare named Rubell. The next step will be to take the mare to get impregnated by a stud stallion, which costs money that Jan and Brian don’t have.

It’s now 2003, and Jan puts her plan into motion to get people in the economically depressed neighborhood to pool their resources and form a horse racing syndicate. When Jan sees Howard at her bartender job, she tells him about her idea for the townspeople to form a syndicate, and she asks him for his expert advice. Howard tells Jan, “It’s mostly wealthy, professional men who go for this kind of thing.”

Jan replies with a huff, “I wasn’t asking for your help anyway.” Because she’s strong-willed and determined, Jan decides to see what she can do on her own to form the syndicate. She makes flyers that say, “Breed a Horse to Get on Course!” The flyers are for the first meeting for potential syndicate members. But when Jan hands out the flyers on the street outside of a facility that takes bets on horse races, she experiences unenthusiastic and apathetic responses.

Jan also puts up flyers around the neighborhood about this first meeting, which will be held at the social club where she works as a bartender. The evening of the meeting, the turnout starts out as dismal: The only attendees are Jan, Brian, Howard and Gerwyn. About 15 minutes after the meeting starts, just as they start to think that they should cancel the meeting, one person arrives, then another, and then another, and so on.

Eventually, 18 people decide to join the syndicate (some of them joined after the first meeting), with Jan as the unofficial leader, since the syndicate was her idea. Most of the group consists of middle-aged people, but there are a few people under the age of 40 and a few who are elderly. During their first meeting, they also agree that no major decisions will be made without putting the decisions up for a group vote. Howard also warns the group that there’s less than a 1% chance that the horse they’ll breed will win a race, but no one backs out of this risky business venture.

The next order of business is to get Rubell impregnated. The syndicate raises enough money for Jan and Brian to take Rubell to a stud farm, where Rubell is matched with a stallion with a race horse lineage. Rubell gives birth to a colt, but she dies shortly after giving birth. Jan and Brian feel even more dedicated to taking care of this colt, now that he is an orphan.

During a syndicate meeting, the group votes on what to name the colt. Jan comes up with the name Dream Alliance (which is a nod to their group), and this name suggestion gets the most votes. Dream Alliance is now on his way to becoming a race horse, but only after he gets the proper training, which requires more money. Because of his experience as an accountant, Howard takes on accounting duties for the syndicate.

By 2006, the syndicate has raised enough money for Dream Alliance (now 3 years old) to be sent to a race horse trainer. Howard suggests Philip Hobbs (played by Nicholas Farrell), who runs one of the best horse racing training facilities in Wales. Jan and Brian bring Dream Alliance to the training facility, with the assumption that Howard made an appointment for them.

But to Jan and Brian’s dismay, Philip tells him that he’s never heard of Howard, and he doesn’t have time for them if they don’t have an appointment. Jan angrily says she can take Dream Alliance to a competitor. Philip sees that Dream Horse might have potential, based on the horse’s physique, and that Jan and Brian have already traveled a long distance to get to the facility. And so, Philip changes his mind and agrees to give Dream Alliance a test run.

You know what happens next: The horse starts off kind of shaky, but then gets the hang of it and starts running like a potential champion. Philip agrees to take on Dream Alliance for training. Then there’s the predictable scene of Jan giving an emotional goodbye to Dream Alliance, since the horse now has to live at the training facility.

The rest of the movie is exactly what you would expect it to be. There are victories and disappointments. And there’s one major championship race at the very end (the 2009 Welsh National), where Dream Alliance faces his biggest challenge after a potentially career-ending setback. Getting him to that race is also fraught with tension because members of the syndicate have different opinions on whether or not Dream Alliance should be in that race.

In “Dream Horse,” Jan is depicted as the driving force and leader of the syndicate, but there are other members whose personalities get some screen time. Brian is Jan’s supportive husband who usually takes her side when the group members disagree. Their involvement in the syndicate also puts a spark back into their marriage.

However, they have a big argument where Jan tells Brian that she thinks he’s become too complacent in life. Jan shouts, “When I first met you, you were a fighter! Now, you just accept things, and you don’t fight anymore!” Brian replies in a resigned tone, “So what your dad said was right: You could’ve done a lot better for yourself.”

There’s another hint that Jan has “daddy issues” when she gets upset with her father Bert for not seeming to care about her horse racing activities whenever she brings up the subject to him. Bert’s seeming indifference is hurtful to Jan, because when she was a child, Bert and Jan spent a lot of father-daughter time getting involved in animal races. These memories are part of one of the most tearjerking scenes in the movie.

Howard is extremely passionate about horse racing, but it’s come at a cost of nearly losing the trust of his wife Angela Davies (played by Joanna Page), who has made Howard promise her that he won’t get involved in horse racing again after it nearly ruined them financially. At one point in the movie, Howard confides in Jan about something from his family’s past (which won’t be revealed in this review) that heavily influenced him to follow his dreams in horse racing. There comes a point in the story when Howard has to decide how much longer he can keep his return to horse racing a secret from Angela and if he wants to stay in the corporate accounting job that he despises.

Other members of the syndicate who get notable screen time include:

  • Gerwyn Evans, Jan’s bartender boss, who is the most likely to see Dream Alliance as a money-making entity.
  • Maldwyn Thomas (played by Anthony O’Donnell), a know-it-all who likes to do a lot of research.
  • Anthony Kerby (played by Karl Johnson), who’s a “no filter” drunk in his 70s and who provides most of the movie’s comic relief.
  • Maureen Jones (played by Siân Phillips), a lonely retiree who has a fondness for eating Tunnock’s milk chocolate tea cakes.
  • Peter Woodall (played by Asheq Akhtar), a co-worker of Howard’s and the only person of color in the group.
  • Gordon Hogg (played by Brian Doherty), a co-worker of Howard’s.
  • Kevin “Kev” French (played by Rhys ap William), a neighbor of Howard’s.
  • A goofy man in his early 20s nicknamed “Goose” (played by Darren Evans), the youngest member of the group.
  • Nerys Driscoll (played by Di Botcher), who likes wearing straw hats.
  • Lee Baldwin (played by Gerald Royston Horler), who is Alun Baldwin’s brother.
  • Alun Baldwin (played by Rhys Horler), who is Lee Baldwin’s brother.

There are times when the syndicate has to choose between greed and the well-being of Dream Alliance. Naturally, when Dream Alliance starts winning major races, he catches the attention of a wealthy horse owner named Lord Avery (played by Peter Davison), whose champion horse Fearless Pursuit is one of Dream Alliance’s competitors. Not surprisingly, there’s conflict in the group over money issues and control.

It’s easy to predict which members of the syndicate will clash the most with Jan, who is not motivated by making money from Dream Alliance but is motivated by the pride and joy that Dream Alliance is bringing to their community. And it also isn’t too surprising when some members of the group remind Jan that she’s not allowed to have too much power in the syndicate, since all of the members of the group have to vote on major decisions together.

“Dream Horse” has perfectly satisfactory direction in its thrilling horse race scenes, as well as the interactions that the humans have with each other. Collette’s Jan character is really the heart and soul of the story though. When she finally starts to smile and feel like her life matters, her happiness is infectious to the people around her and to people who watch this movie. Jan’s transformation is a reflection of this movie’s message that this race horse was never about the prize money but about what can happen when people take big risks on a dream, even with seemingly huge obstacles in their way.

Bleecker Street and Topic Studios released “Dream Horse” in U.S. cinemas on May 21, 2021. The movie’s VOD and digital release date is June 11, 2021.

Review: ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things,’ starring Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis

September 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of the U.S., the drama “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man and a woman, who have been dating each other for six weeks, go on a road trip to meet his parents, but the trip turns out to be more than meets the eye, as they experience arguments, family conflicts and secrets from the past.

Culture Audience: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s unconventional style of filmmaking.

Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

People who aren’t familiar with the work of writer/director Charlie Kaufman won’t be fully prepared for the eccentric head trip that is his dramatic film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” Kaufman won an Oscar for co-writing the original screenplay for 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (which is probably his most famous movie), and he wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplays for 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” and 2002’s “Adaptation.” He also wrote and directed the 2014 animated film “Anomalisa” and 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York.” What all of these movies have in common is that they defy convention and are often about characters that spend a lot of time inside their heads. People who hate Kaufman’s movies usually think the movies are too weird.

Therefore, anyone who watches “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (which Kaufman adapted from Iain Reid’s novel of the same name) should know in advance that it won’t be a story told in a straightforward way, and people are doing to say and do things in a bizarre manner. The movie starts out by giving the impression that it’s going to be told from the perspective of one character, but then it ends up being the story of another character. In other words, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” can only be recommended to people who are up for a ride that isn’t really supposed to be logical but it’s more about conveying atmosphere, capturing moods and presenting themes in an often-abstract way.

The foundation of the story is a road trip during heavy snowfall that could turn into a storm. Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (played by Jessie Buckley) are an American couple who are both in their late 20s. Jake is driving them to his parents’ farmhouse, where his girlfriend will be meeting his parents for the first time. Jake and his girlfriend have been dating each other for about six weeks. They plan to have dinner with Jake’s parents before leaving to go back on the road that night, since his girlfriend has to get up early the next morning for work.

The girlfriend doesn’t officially have a name in the story, but throughout the movie, she is called different names that start with the letter “L” (such as Louisa, Lucia and Lucy), which is bound to confuse people watching this film. And, at different times in the movie, she is described as having different professions, such as artist painter, gerontology student or waitress. The parents don’t have names either, but Jake’s mother (played by Toni Collette) is American, while Jake’s father (played by David Thewlis) is British. The movie also doesn’t mention where in the United States this story takes place.

Before, during and after this dinner, Jake’s girlfriend contemplates the pros and cons of staying in this relationship with Jake. Her inner thoughts are heard in voiceover narration. And throughout the movie, she keeps repeating “I’m thinking of ending things,” every time she mulls over whether it’s better to break up with Jake before the relationship turns bad or if it’s worth sticking with him to see if things will improve between them. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Jake is more infatuated with his girlfriend than she is with him.

She’s already starting to doubt that they’re compatible, and she figures that meeting his parents will give her a better idea what kind of family she’ll have to deal with if her relationship with Jake becomes more serious. She says in one of her inner thoughts, “Jake’s not going anywhere. People tend to stay in relationships past their expiration date.”

While driving to the farmhouse, the girlfriend thinks, “I should be more excited, but I’m not.” On the other hand, she admits to herself why she would want to stay in this relationship with Jake: “It feels like I’ve known Jake longer than I have … We have a very real connection.”

During the ride, Jake and his girlfriend talk mostly about music and poetry. She is surprised to find out that Jake is a big fan of musical theater, and “Oklahoma!” is his favorite musical. (There are several references to the “Oklahoma!” musical in this movie.) Jake also mentions poet William Wordsworth and his “Lucy” poems. When his girlfriend recites a poem that she wrote, Jake assumes he was the inspiration for that poem, and she’s annoyed by the assumption. Jake comments, “That’s why I like road trips. It’s good to remind you that the world is bigger than outside your head.”

Jake seems nervous about his girlfriend meeting his parents. When Jake and his girlfriend arrive at their destination, he insists on giving her a short tour of the property before heading into the main house. They go to a barn, where a few sheep have frozen to death. The girlfriend is slightly horrified, but Jake nonchalantly says that the sheep’s bodies are too frozen to move and the bodies will be moved when the bodies become naturally thawed out. Jake also mentioned that the pig sty in the barn was where a pig was found being eaten alive by maggots. Life can be cruel on a farm, Jake says.

Inside the house, Jake’s parents don’t appear right away. Jake’s girlfriend looks uncomfortable until she sees the family’s friendly Border Collie, because she likes dogs. She also notices that the basement door has dark scratch marks all the way up to the top of the door. When she asks Jake what caused those scratches, he says it was the dog, but that answer isn’t believable at all, because the dog wouldn’t be able to reach that high. Jake also says, “I hate the basement.” The secret of the basement is revealed in bits and pieces during the rest of the movie.

And viewers soon see why Jake was so nervous about his girlfriend meeting his parents. When Jake’s parents finally appear, they start out as very friendly and effusive to his girlfriend. But as they sit down for dinner, his parents say inappropriate things and at times act mentally unbalanced. His mother cackles and snorts loudly at the wrong moments and at her own jokes that only she thinks are funny. Jake’s father is overly critical and thinks he is always correct.

For example, Jake’s girlfriend mentions that she is an artist who likes to paint landscape portraits. She shows Jake’s parents some photos of her paintings that are on her phone. When she mentions that she hopes to convey certain emotions with these paintings, Jake’s father vehemently disagrees and tells her that the only way emotions can be expressed in a painting is by having a human being in the painting. Jake’s girlfriend shares her opposite point of view, but out of politeness she chooses not to get into an argument with Jake’s father about it.

Meanwhile, Jake’s parents are very argumentative with each other. Jake tries to hold back and not get involved in taking sides, but at one point he snaps and tells his parents to stop being so obnoxious. The more time that Jake’s girlfriend spends at the family home, the more she sees that Jake has had long-simmering tensions with his parents that seem to go all the way back to Jake’s childhood.

One of the recurring themes of the movie is that Jake’s girlfriend is anxious to go back home, but Jake keeps thinking of reasons to delay this return trip. Meanwhile, the snowfall outside is getting worse and Jake’s girlfriend doesn’t want to be stuck in a snowstorm. Jake and his girlfriend get into arguments that start to escalate.

While some of this relationship drama is going on, the movie cuts back and forth between scenes of an elderly janitor (played by Guy Boyd), who works at a high school. (The janitor’s relevance to the rest of the story is explained later, but not in a straightforward manner.) There are also various choreographed dance scenes from “Oklahoma!” and other musical numbers at the high school and elsewhere. Jake breaks out into song at one point in the movie. And there are scenes involving diners and waitresses that won’t make much sense until toward the end of the film.

In one of these scenes, the janitor watches a movie on a TV monitor at the high school where he works. The movie he’s watching is of a man surprising his waitress girlfriend at the diner with an elaborate show of adoration, but it’s disruptive to the customers, and she ends up getting fired. The movie that the janitor is watching then cuts to the end credits to show that it was directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s an example of the type of quirky comedic touches in the story that are best appreciated by movie aficionados who might get some inside jokes.

Even if people find this movie’s storyline hard to take, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is still compelling to watch for the performances by the main actors in the cast. Collette is wonderfully unhinged as Jake’s mother, while Buckley gives some impressive monologues during the movie. Plemons’ Jake character is the most complex because it’s hinted at throughout the story that he has some secrets hidden underneath his mild-mannered exterior. Thewlis plays a self-righteous and arrogant character as Jake’s father, but he’s never boring to watch.

At 134 minutes, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a little too long and could have used some fine-tuning in its editing. The movie is actually written and structured more like a play than a traditional narrative film. But it’s the kind of movie that, if people like it enough, it’s probably better experienced after a repeat watching, to pick up on things that might have been missed on the first viewing. However, “I’m a Thinking of Ending Things” is a perfect example of why Kaufman’s filmmaking is definitely an acquired taste and not everyone will want to go back for a second helping.

Netflix premiered “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” on September 4, 2020.

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