Review: ‘Alice, Darling,’ starring Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Charlie Carrick and Wunmi Mosaku

January 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Anna Kendrick in “Alice, Darling” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Alice, Darling”

Directed by Mary Nighy

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, the dramatic film “Alice, Darling” features a predominantly white cast of people (with one black person and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who’s in an emotionally abusive relationship with a boyfriend comes to terms with the relationship when she goes on a secretive getaway vacation with her two closest female friends. 

Culture Audience: “Alice, Darling” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching psychological dramas about people in troubled relationships.

Wunmi Mosaku, Anna Kendrick and Kaniehtiio Horn in “Alice, Darling” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Alice, Darling” is a mostly compelling and realistic portrayal of the dysfunction and denial of being trapped in an emotional abusive relationship. Viewers should not expect much of a plot to this drama, which mostly presents a well-acted psychological portrait of how emotional abuse affects not only the target of the abuse but also the people closed to the abused person. The movie also offers incisive observations about how people can struggle with handling abuse that is not physical or not illegal. “Alice, Darling” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Mary Nighy and written by Alanna Francis, “Alice, Darling” begins by showing protagonist Alice (played by Anna Kendrick) seeming to be in an ideal, loving relationship with her live-in boyfriend Simon (played by Charlie Carrick), who is a painter artist. Alice is in her early-to-mid-30s, while Simon is 37. They both live in New York City. (“Alice, Darling” was actually filmed in Canada.)

It’s never stated what Alice does for a living. The only detail given in the movie is that she works for a company where she sometimes has to travel for business meetings. At one point in the movie, Simon tells Alice that he thinks that her job is beneath her and that she could do better than the job she currently has. But is Simon being helpful or hurtful with this criticism? The cracks eventually begin to show in their relationship.

Early on in the movie, Alice is shown meeting up with her two closest friends at a wine bar. Sophie (played by Wunmi Mosaku) is outgoing and sassy. Tess (played by Kaniehtiio Horn) is emotionally guarded and somewhat brooding. During their get-together, Sophie and Tess mildly tease Alice about their waiter (played by Ethan Mitchell) showing signs of being openly attracted to Alice.

Simon has asked Alice to invite Sophie and Tess to the opening of his most recent gallery exhibition. Even though Tess and Sophie said that they would both attend, only Sophie shows up. Alice is very upset by Tess not being there, but Sophie (who works at an unnamed non-profit group) tries to smooth things over, by saying that Tess sometimes “gets in her own head when she’s working.” It’s later revealed that Tess is an artist too, but she’s doing her work for free because it’s all the work she can get at the moment.

It’s eventually revealed that Tess does not like Simon at all, while Sophie is cordial with Simon and is trying to keep an open mind about him. Simon doesn’t care for Tess and Sophie, and he frequently tells Alice that she should end her friendships with them. Tess’ 30th birthday is coming up, so Sophie suggests that she, Tess and Alice celebrate by spending time at a cottage in upstate New York owned by Sophie’s parents, who will be out of town for a vacation.

Alice accepts the invitation, but she lies to Simon by saying that she’s going on a business trip. On the road trip to the cottage, the three pals stop at a convenience store, where Alice sees a missing person flyer for a young woman named Andrea Evans. This missing person case will affect Alice in ways she that she doesn’t expect.

While at the cottage, Alice is anxious and emotionally on edge, as Simon constantly calls her to check up on her. It reaches a point where Tess and Sophie take Alice’s phone away from Alice, who becomes increasingly agitated and paranoid that Simon will think she’s a horrible person for lying about where she was going on this trip. The rest of “Alice, Darling” shows what happens when Alice (as well as Tess and Sophie) can no longer ignore the problems in Alice’s relationship with Simon.

Several quick flashbacks of memories reveal what type of toxic relationship that Simon and Alice have. Simon seems to be a perfect gentleman in public, but he’s also deeply insecure and verbally abuses Alice in private. All of the cast members give realistic performances, but Kendrick has the most complicated role, and she handles it with admirable skill. The movie somewhat falters with a climactic scene that looks too staged. However, if anyone wants a better understanding of what emotional abuse looks like when it’s hiding in plain sight, “Alice, Darling” has a meaningful portrayal.

Lionsgate released “Alice, Darling” in Los Angeles on December 30, 2022. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas, exclusively at AMC Theatres, on January 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Saint Omer,’ starring Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanda

January 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Guslagie Malanda (far right) in “Saint Omer” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)

“Saint Omer”

Directed by Alice Diop

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016, in Paris and Saint-Omer, France, the dramatic film “Saint Omer” (based partially on a true story) features a cast of white and black people representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A writer/teacher becomes obsessed with attending the trial of a Senegalese immigrant woman accused of murdering her own toddler daughter. 

Culture Audience: “Saint Omer” will appeal primarily to fans of courtroom dramas that reflect larger issues in society.

Kayije Kagame (center) in “Saint Omer” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)

“Saint Omer” skillfully draws parallels between the gripping drama of a courtroom trial and how mothers are judged by society, when it comes to race, class and privilege. The movie is partially inspired by director Alice Diop’s real-life experiences of becoming obsessed with the case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant woman accused in 2013 of killing her own baby girl by abandoning the infant on a beach at the rising tide in Berck-sur-Mer, France. Diop traveled from Paris to attend Kabou’s trial, which was held in Saint-Omer, France. Saint-Omer is located about 131 miles (211 kilometers), or a four-hour train ride, from Paris. It’s the same plot presented in “Saint Omer,” which was co-written by Diop, Marie N’Diaye and Amrita David.

“Saint Omer” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize. The movie then made the rounds at several other high-profile film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest. “Saint Omer” has been selected as France’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film for the 2023 Academy Awards. “Saint Omer” is also Diop’s first narrative feature film. She previously directed the 2022 documentary “La Permanence” and the 2016 documentary “We.”

“Saint Omer” opens in 2016, with the introduction of a Paris-based writer/teacher named Rama (played by Kayije Kagame), who teaches a film class and is also working on a novel. Rama and her supportive husband Adrien (played by Thomas de Pourquery) are happily married. She is also close to her two sisters Khady (played by Mariam Diop) and Tening (plauyed by Dado Diop) and their mother Seynabou (played by Adama Diallo Tamba), who are all of Senegalese heritage. The only hint of sadness in the family is when the family members look at old home videos and talk about Seynabou’s late father, who unexpectedly passed away of an unnamed illness. It’s mentioned when they watch these videos that he doesn’t look sick in the videos.

Rama’s world is about to be rocked to the core when she becomes caught up in getting the latest news about a 36-year-old Senegalese woman named Laurence Coly (played by Guslagie Malanda), who is accused of murdering her own 15-month-old daughter Adélaïde in 2015, by abandoning the child on a beach during a high tide. Laurence was raising Adélaïde as a single mother. The prosecution says the motive for this murder was that Ph.D. student Laurence didn’t want the burden of raising a child while working on her thesis.

Rama is struck by how much she and Laurence have in common, in terms of being Senegalese French women of the same age and educated with graduate degrees. Rama is also pregnant, but doesn’t reveal that information right away. And just like Laurence’s child, Rama’s child will be biracial, by having have a black mother and a white father.

Rama is compelled to attend the trial every day, so she travels to Saint-Omer by train, and she stays at a hotel for however long the trial will take place. She tells Adrien and her family that maybe the trial could be an inspiration for her next novel. However, it soon becomes obvious that Rama is going to the trial for more than just informational purposes or research. She’s going to see what kind of person Laurence is and how she will be treated by the criminal justice system in this trial. So much of Laurence’s case is subtly and not-so-subtly focused on how Laurence’s race and immigrant status might have affected what she’s been accused of doing.

The majority of screen time in “Saint Omer” consists of the trial proceedings, especially the riveting testimony of Laurence, who essentially tells her life story under questioning. It’s a story of a woman whose life is a mess of contradictions: She sought to gain social-status privilege but was also repelled by social-status privilege. She hates her dysfunctional relationship with her unavailable father, but she also got involved in a dysfunctional relationship with an unavailable older married man, who was the father of Adélaïde. She’s educated about the psychology of people but also ignorant about how she should treat her own mental-health issue of depression.

Laurence’s father Robert is a United Nations translator, who was in a relationship with Laurence’s mother for seven years, but they never married, and he ended the relationship to be with another woman. Robert financially supported Laurence up until a certain point, but he was never emotionally available to her, according to what Laurence says in her trial testimony. Laurence says that her single mother put a lot of pressure on her to succeed. In 1998, at the age of 18, Laurence moved from Senegal to France, because she wanted to get away from her parents.

Laurence’s ex-lover/Adélaïde father Luc Dumontet (played by Xavier Maly) and his wife Cécile Jobard (played by Charlotte Clamens) also testify in the trial. But it is Laurence’s testimony that captivates the courtroom spectators (and the viewers of “Saint Omer”) the most. Rama feels such a strong connection to Laurence, when Rama happens to see Laurence’s mother Odile Diatta (played by Salimata Kamate) randomly outside the courtroom, Rama impulsively strikes up a conversation with Odile and tries to get to know her better.

Malanda’s transfixing performance as Laurence is really the centerpiece of “Saint Omer,” because Rama’s story takes a backseat when the movie focuses on Laurence’s testimony. However, viewers get to see how this trial is affecting Rama when she goes back to her hotel room and has conversations with Adrien about it. Keeping her pregnancy a secret starts to take its toll. Rama eventually reveals in a powerful scene why she kept her pregnancy a secret. Kagame’s performance as Rama is very good, but Rama is not as complex as Laurence.

The underlying tone of “Saint Omer” asks viewers to pay attention to the clues of how people in the movie react to Laurence as a defendant in this case. There’s a stereotype that women who are accused of murdering their children usually have a financial motive, either because they can’t afford childcare or want to get insurance money. Laurence doesn’t fit that stereotype, so it adds fuel to the public’s fascination with her.

Laurence also doesn’t fit the stereotype of an underprivileged, undereducated “angry” black woman who gets accused of a violent crime. There are racial implications in how people react to Laurence’s demure image, eloquence in speaking and calm demeanor when she’s on the witness stand. Does it unnerve people that Laurence comes across as mournful and defeated instead of angry and defiant? And what does that say about how people think black women “should” act in the situation that Laurence is in during this trial?

By extension, Rama feels some of this racial judgment in Saint-Omer, a city that has a large population of working-class white people. How do many of these people feel when they encounter or see well-educated immigrants who are of a different race? The voir dire process shown in “Saint Omer” gives an insightful look into people’s attitudes among the pool of potential jurors before they even hear a word of testimony from Laurence.

The trial in “Saint Omer” is a symbol for larger issues of how the criminal justice system treats people of different races who are accused of the same crimes. Who deserves mercy and redemption? There are no easy answers, but there are patterns to how a defendant’s fate in the criminal justice system is largely determined by the defendant’s race and socioeconomic status. “Saint Omer” is also a thoughtful warning of what can happen when mental health problems go untreated, which is an issue that transcends all cultural boundaries.

Super LTD released “Saint Omer” in select U.S. cinemas for a one-week limited engagement on December 9, 2022. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas on January 13, 2023. “Saint Omer” was released in France on November 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,’ starring Dionne Warwick

December 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dionne Warwick in “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over”

Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” a group of African American and white people (and a few Latinos), who are celebrities, historians or philanthropists, discuss the life and career of entertainer Dionne Warwick.

Culture Clash: In her long career, Dionne Warwick battled against racism, misogynistic rap music and prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Dionne Warwick fans, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographies of entertainers who first made their mark in the 1960s.

Dionne Warwick in “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” is both a retrospective and an uplifting story about one of America’s most treasured entertainers/activists who is both celebrated and sometimes underrated for her breakthroughs. This documentary doesn’t uncover new information, but it’s a thoroughly engaging and comprehensive look at the life and career of the talented, sassy and outspoken Dionne Warwick. It would be a mistake to think that this movie won’t have much appeal to young people, because “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has meaningful themes and life lessons that can relatable to people of any generation.

Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Warwick also participated in the making of the 2018 PBS documentary “Dionne Warwick: Then Came You,” which focuses mainly on Warwick’s music, whereas “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” includes not just her music career but it also takes a much deeper dive into her personal life and her activism. Warwick’s 2010 memoir “My Life, as I See It” also covers a lot of the same topics as these documentaries. In other words, there’s no shortage of Warwick’s first-hand accounts of her life story.

Fortunately, Warwick is a great raconteur with amusing wit and candid self-awareness. There could be dozens of documentaries about her, and she’s the type of person who will give something unique and different every time in her documentary interviews. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” which unfolds in chronological order, has the expected telling of her experiences with fame and the challenges she’s encountered when people pressured her to be something that she wasn’t but she stayed true to herself.

Born in 1940, in East Orange, New Jersey, she describes her childhood in East Orange and nearby Newark as being in a family that was “middle-class and working.” Her father had various jobs, including being a Pullman porter, a music promoter and an accountant. Her mother was an electrical factory worker who also managed a gospel singing group called the Drinkard Sisters, which consisted of relatives on her mother’s side of the family. Warwick’s maternal aunt Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney Houston) was a member of the Drinkard Sisters. Cissy Houston is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

With all this music talent in one family, it was inevitable that Warwick would pursue a music career too. She says her first performance was at the age of 6, when she sang “Jesus Loves Me” in church. Warwick also says that it was also the first time she got a standing ovation. “Gospel will never be far from what I do,” Warwick comments.

Warwick grew up during an era when much of the U.S. had legal racial segregation, but she says in the documentary that East Orange was a very integrated city. “It was like the United Nations,” she quips. It might be why she didn’t want to be confined to doing music that was labeled as being for any particular race. During the early years of her career, racial segregation also extended to the music industry, which marketed pop music as “music for white people” and R&B music as “music for black people.” Radio station playlists also followed these narrow-minded race divisions.

It didn’t take long for people to notice her talent. In 1957, she performed with the Imperials during Amateur Night at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. They won that contest. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” includes archival footage of that fateful performance.

She then became a backup singer, with credits that include the Drifters’ 1962 songs “When My Little Girl Is Singing” and “Mexican Divorce,” as well as Jerry Butler’s 1961 hit “Make It Easy on Yourself.” She stood out as a backup singer and was eventually signed to a record deal with Scepter Records as a solo singer. Warwick comments, “Thank God for my daddy, who negotiated my contract.” Warwick’s debut album, “Presenting Dionne Warwick,” was released in 1963.

The documentary repeats a fairly well-known story about how Warwick told the music producers of “Make It Easy on Yourself” that she didn’t like the results. That experience later became the inspiration for her 1962 song “Don’t Make Me Over,” which is a statement of Warwick’s refusal to be anybody but herself. It was an issue that would come up many times when people questioned her choices in songs, performing style or even her hairstyles and clothing.

For example, Warwick says in the documentary that when she was on tour with Sam Cooke, she ignored his advice to never turn her back to a white audience when she was singing. At shows where white people and black people would attend but would be racially segregated inside the venue, Warwick says she made a point of turning to sing to the black people, which meant that sometimes her back would be turned to the white people in the audience. It was Warwick’s way of telling the black people audience that even though they were being treated like second-class citizens by racist laws, the black people in the audience mattered to her.

Warwick also tells a story about the touring party going to a racially segregated restaurant, where a waitress took their menu order, but refused to let anyone in touring party sit in the restaurant. When Warwick cancelled the order because of this racist discrimination, the waitress then called the police on the touring party because Warwick didn’t talk to the waitress in a subservient way. Warwick says that Cooke got angry at Warwick because he thought Warwick defending herself from racism would get the entire touring party arrested.

Later in the documentary, Warwick says of the civil unrest and bigotry problems in the United States and elsewhere: “All of this craziness that happened in the ’60s, unfortunately, is happening again. What has changed? Nothing. But there is hope. Love is the answer.”

Warwick’s hit collaborations with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David are duly noted in the documentary. Bacharach is one of the people interviewed in the film. David passed away in 2012, at age 91. The collaborations between Warwick, Bacharach and David resulted in Warwick’s biggest hits in the 1960s, including “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

In the documentary, Warwick talks about how her first major international success happened in Europe, but even her introduction to European audiences was marred by racism. Scepter Records put a photo of a white model on the cover of Warwick’s 1963 single “This Empty Place” when it was released in Europe, because the record company didn’t think European music buyers would respond to the song as well if Warwick’s photo was on the cover.

Warwick remembers European audiences being surprised and accepting when they would see her perform live for the first time and find out what she really liked like. She comments in the documentary: “Yeah, I ain’t white. I’m a tempting, teasing brown.”

Warwick adds, “My career really blossomed in Europe. It was exciting. I was treated like a little princess. It was a lot of fun.” She also talks about how actress/singer Marlene Dietrich became a mentor when Warwick spent time in Paris. Warwick says that Dietrich introduced her to haute couture fashion and encouraged Warwick to wear these types of designer clothes on stage.

With success comes inevitable criticism. Warwick often had to contend with people who would accuse her of “trying to be white” or “not being black enough” because her songs didn’t fit the expected R&B mold. (It’s the same criticism that her cousin Whitney Houston experienced when she became an instant crossover hit artist in the 1980s.) Not for nothing, Warwick became the first black artist to win a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal performance, for 1968’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” It was also the first of her six Grammy Awards.

Any major entertainer whose career lasts for more than 10 years has ebbs and flows. Warwick says that in the 1970s, when her career was in a slump, Arista Records founder Clive Davis (one of the people interviewed in the documentary) convinced her not to quit the music business and signed her to a record deal. In 1979, she had a huge comeback hit with “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” which earned her another Grammy Award.

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” also includes a big segment on Warwick’s activism for AIDS causes. Several people in the documentary credit her with being one of the first celebrities to become an AIDS activist. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John—her song partners in the 1985 mega-smash hit “That’s What Friends Are For” (another Grammy winner and a fundraising song for the AIDS charity amfAR)—share their thoughts on the experience and the impact that the song had for AIDS causes.

John says of Warwick: “She’s a hero of mine. She was one of the first people in the music business to speak up about [AIDS].” The documentary also shows Warwick meeting with amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost and designer/philanthropist Kenneth Cole at amfAR headquarters in New York City. Frost says that Warwick’s AIDS fundraising (including donating all of her royalties from “That’s What Friends Are For”) made a crucial difference in improving healthcare, research and other assistance for people with AIDS.

In the 1990s, Warwick spoke out against rappers having misogynistic lyrics in their music, even though she got some backlash for it. Snoop Dogg talks about how a meeting that he and other rappers had with Warwick in her home made such an impact on him, he decided to no longer have degrading lyrics about women in his songs. Snoop Dogg says the turning point was when Warwick got him to really think about how he would feel if someone used those misogynistic words on her or any of his female family members.

“Not much scares us,” Snoop Dogg comments on that pivotal meeting, “but this had us shook! We were the most gangsta you could be. But that day at Dionne Warwick’s, we got out-gangsta’d.” Warwick says of that experience of having a group of gangsta rappers in her home: “My sons thought I was out of my mind.”

Warwick also talks about her personal life, including briefly dating Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1960s (whom she also calls her “mentor” when she first performed in Las Vegas), and having a volatile marriage to actor/jazz musician William Elliott. The first time they married in 1966, they got divorced less than a year later. They remarried in 1967 and then got divorced again in 1975.

The former couple’s sons David Elliott and Damon Elliot are interviewed in the documentary. David mentions that his mother would sometimes divert her tour, just so she could go to one of his Little League games. “Those were special times,” he comments. Damon adds, “She’s the everything of the family.”

Friends and relatives say Warwick was devastated by the deaths of Whitney Houston (in 2012) and Whitney and Bobby Brown’s daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown (in 2015), who both died of drowning-related causes in a bathtub. The documentary includes a clip of Warwick’s speech at Whitney’s funeral. In a documentary interview, Warwick says she misses Whitney and Bobbi Kristina tremendously and thinks about them every day. Warwick is philosophical when she says that whatever time people have on Earth is best used in service of others.

Warwick also opens up about filing for bankruptcy in 2013, which her son Damon says happened because of “having an accountant who screws you over.” Warwick comments, “If General Motors can file for bankruptcy, why not Dionne Warwick?” There’s also acknowledgement that Warwick 1990s stint as a spokesperson for the Psychic Friends Network was a low point in her career.” Her son David says of her association with the Psychic Friends Network, “Unfortunately, it overshadowed her as a singer.”

As expected in a celebrity documentary such as “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” other notable people in the film have nothing but praise for the celebrity. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton mentions that when he was courting his wife Hillary during a trip to Northern California, he wanted to visit San Jose, because of Warwick’s song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” He also says that when he was president of the U.S. in the 1990s, Warwick always pushed him to approve more federal funds for AIDS causes, and he appreciated how she always told him that whatever was given was “never enough.”

Barry Gibb talks about how he and Arista Records founder Davis had to work hard to convince Warwick to record the Gibb-written song “Heartbreaker,” which became a big hit for her in 1982. Gibb says, “If you want to make a great record, make a Dionne Warwick record.” Former U.S. congressman Charles Rangel gives the type of gushing comment that many of the other interviewee say in the documentary: “She is truly one of the greatest ambassadors of good will.”

Other interviewees in the documentary, whose screen time is really just reduced to sound bites, include Jesse Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, Melissa Manchester, Chuck Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Smokey Robinson, Valerie Simpson, Apollo Theater historian Billy Mitchell, radio DJ Jerry Blavat and National Museum of African American History director Lonnie Bunch. Because of this over-abundance of praise, the movie often veers into looking more like a tribute. However, because the documentary doesn’t gloss over some of Warwick’s low points in her life, and she talks about these low points, it’s saved from being a superficial, fluffy film.

Even when Warwick makes a self-congratulatory statement in the documentary, such as, “I am a messenger. I am carrying messages of love and hope,” it’s not too grandiose in the context of this film. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has plenty of evidence of Warwick’s lifelong actions for worthy humanitarian causes. Most of all, the documentary is testament to Warwick being an example of someone who can have staying power in showbiz without having to invent any personas and without compromising who she really is.

CNN will premiere “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” on January 1, 2023.

Review: ‘The Good House,’ starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline

December 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver in “The Good House” (Photo by Michael Tompkins/Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

“The Good House”

Directed by Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional town of Wendover, Massachusetts, the comedy/drama film “The Good House” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A real-estate agent, who is an alcoholic with big financial problems, tries to salvage her business around the same time that she rekindles a romance with a former high-school classmate who is almost her complete opposite. 

Culture Audience: “The Good House” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Sigourney Weaver and movies about middle-aged people trying to improve their lives but sometimes stumble in the process.

Morena Baccarin and Sigourney Weaver in “The Good House” (Photo by Michael Tompkins/Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

“The Good House” is neither terrible nor outstanding but might be appealing to viewers who are interested in seeing emotionally authentic movies about middle-aged people dealing with personal problems. Sigourney Weaver’s feisty performance as an alcoholic real-estate agent is the main reason to watch this uneven dramedy. The movie’s storyline about seeking a redemptive comeback is handled better than the movie’s storyline about finding love.

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky directed “The Good House” and co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Thomas Bezucha. “The Good House” is based on Ann Leary’s 2013 book of the same name. After having its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, “The Good House” screened at the 2022 Provincetown International Film Festival in Massachusetts and the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

“The Good House” is of those movies where the protagonist not only does voiceover narration but also looks at the camera to talk directly to viewers. If you have tolerance for this type of presentation in a movie that plays it safe overall with a talented group of cast members, then “The Good House” is worth watching. The dialogue is often sharp and witty, even though some of the plot developments are stale and predictable.

The protagonist of “The Good House” is outspoken and sassy Hildy Good (played by Weaver), who has lived in the fictional town of Wendover, Massachusetts, her entire life. As Hildy says proudly in a voiceover near the beginning of the movie: “My family has lived in Wendover for almost 300 years.” (“The Good House” was actually filmed in Nova Scotia, Canada.)

Hildy, who is divorced with two adult daughters, comes from a working-class background (her father was a butcher), but she became a successful real-estate agent. She is currently an independent realtor with her own small business called Good Realty, where she has one employee: a ditzy assistant named Kendall, who is taking a gap year before she goes to college. Hildy lives with two beloved female dogs: a Papillon and a Border Collie, which are her constant companions.

Most of Hildy’s clients are wealthy residents of Massachusetts’ North Shore. During a showing of a house to married potential buyers Lisa Sanderson (played by Holly Chou) and Rob Sanderson (played by Anthony Estrella), Hildy comments, “We will find you the right house. Buying a house that is out of reach is a recipe for misery.”

Hildy then turns to the camera and says, “I should know. I bought a house I could almost afford. And if everything had gone according to plan, I’d be fine.” Hildy also describes herself as a self-made woman who “worked her way through UMass [the University of Massachusetts], and I’m the top broker on the North Shore. Or at least I was until …”

Lately, Hildy has been dealing with some major setbacks that have negatively affected her business. For starters, she’s an alcoholic who is in deep denial about needing treatment for this disease. Secondly, she’s getting stiff competition from realtor Wendy Heatherton (played by Kathryn Erbe), who used to work for Hildy, “before raiding my Rolodex and stealing all of my clients,” according to Hildy. Third, Hildy has increasing debts, due to not being to make as much money as she used to make, in addition to helping out her adult daughters financially and paying alimony to her ex-husband.

Hildy’s elder daughter Tess (played by Rebecca Henderson) lives In Beverly, Massachusetts, with her husband Michael (played by Sebastien Labelle) and their toddler daughter Lottie. Hildy’s younger daughter Emily (played by Molly Brown) is a bachelorette and an artist who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has a roommate, but Emily gets help from Hildy to pay the rent and other bills. Hildy is hiding her money problems and thinks this is what can put her back on the right financial track: “I need a good year.”

Hildy believes that she’s found some of this financial windfall in a potential sale of a waterfront property owned by Frank Getchell (played by Kevin Kline), who has had the property in his family for years, but he doesn’t want to sell it. He owns a successful maintenance company called Frank Getchell Contracting. Frank, who is a never-married bachelor with no children, has more than enough money to lead a flashy lifestyle, but he lives modestly and is somewhat of a misfit loner in the community.

When Hildy tells Frank that a lawyer from Boston is interested in buying Frank’s waterfront property, Frank rejects the idea of selling it. Hildy tries to get Frank to change his mind by saying: “You’re a businessman, Frank. Don’t you want to make money?” Frank replies, “Not as much as you do. The butcher’s daughter has gone fancy pants.”

Frank and Hildy have a past together: Frank was Hildy’s first love, and they had a short-lived romance during the summer before she went away to college. The relationship didn’t last because their lives went in two different directions: Frank joined the U.S. Army, while Hildy went to the University of Massachusetts. Hildy ended up marrying an affluent college classmate named Scott Good (the father of Tess and Emily), “who introduced me to high thread-count linens and fine wine. I do miss sailing,” Hildy says.

After 20 years of marriage, Scott left Hildy for another man, which is why they got divorced. Hildy is still bitter about this rejection, but it’s later revealed that her divorce isn’t the real reason why she became an alcoholic. Scott (played by David Rasche) is on cordial terms with Hildy, and they sometimes socialize with each other at mutual friends’ events.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “The Good House” already reveals about 70% of the movie’s plot, including Frank and Hildy rekindling their romance. What the trailer doesn’t reveal is a soap opera-type subplot involving two married couples who know Hildy, who finds out a scandalous secret that could affect these couples’ marriages. (The secret is the most obvious one possible.)

The first couple at the center of a potential scandal are Rebecca McAllister (played by Morena Baccarin) and Brian McCallister (played by Kelly AuCoin), who is a workaholic businessman. The other spouses are psychiatrist Peter Newbold (played by Rob Delaney) and Elise Newbold (played by Laurie Hanley), who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hildy has known Peter since he was a child. Hildy and her close friend Mamie Lang (played by Beverly D’Angelo) used to babysit Peter when Peter was about 8 years old.

Rebecca is a homemaker who is friendly but has some emotional issues. In an early scene in the movie, when Hildy is showing the Sandersons a house near Rebecca’s home, Hildy is somewhat horrified to see Rebecca gardening in the front yard while wearing a white nightgown and construction shoes. Hildy discreetly says to Hildy, “It’s chilly outside, dear. Do me a favor. Put on a sweater and a hat and some leggings.” Rebecca laughs and replies, “Yes. Sometimes, I get carried away, and I don’t think things through.”

Rebecca’s husband Brian is away from home a lot because of work. And so, a lonely Rebecca befriends Hildy. They end up confiding in each other about a lot of things about their personal lives. Hildy also becomes acquainted with a married couple named Cassie Dwight (played by Georgia Lyman) and Patch Dwight (played by Jimmy LeBlanc), whose 5-year-old son Jake (played by Silas Pereira-Olson) is living with autism.

Even though Hildy lives alone, she has a fairly active social life, which usually includes going to dinner parties. At one of these parties, Hildy divulges that she’s the descendant of Sarah Good, one of the first accused witches of Salem, Massachusetts. And then, Hildy does a psychic reading at the party while the movie’s soundtrack plays Donavan’s “Season of the Witch.”

“The Good House” has scenes that sometimes awkwardly balance the comedy and the drama. This clumsiness is demonstrated the most in how the movie presents Hildy’s alcoholism, which is sometimes reduced to soundbites where she talks to the camera about it with glib jokes. The movie then uses cheap gimmicks such as hallucinations or Hildy stopping in the middle of a conversation to tell “The Good House” viewers what she’s really thinking by saying it out loud.

In one such scene, Hildy is drinking alcohol when she’s alone in her house. She quips, “I never drank alone—before rehab. Scott always said I should stop after my third drink.” Hildy then hallucinates her ex-husband Scott appearing before her to add, “That’s when you start to get out of control.” Hildy says in response, “What are you talking about? That’s when I start to feel in control.”

The trailer for “The Good House” already revealed that Hildy’s loved ones stage an intervention, in an attempt to get her to go to rehab. It’s just another scene where Hildy comes up with one-liners to continue being in denial about how serious her alcoholism is. It’s hinted at but never told in detail that Hildy’s alcoholism has alienated many of her former clients and has given Hildy a reputation for being erratic. Hildy eventually opens up to someone about some painful things from her childhood, but that’s as far as the movie goes in exploring Hildy’s psychology.

Mostly, Hildy is presented as someone who is trying to fool people into thinking that she has her whole life together when her life is actually falling apart. She doesn’t fool Frank though. It’s one of the reasons why their relationship is easy to root for, because he sees her for who she really is and loves her despite her flaws. It’s a case of “opposites attract” because Hildy likes to put on airs to impress people, while Frank is completely down-to-earth.

One of the shortcomings of “The Good House” is that instead of focusing more on the relationship between Hildy and Frank, the movie tends to get distracted by the messy and melodramatic subplot involving Rebecca, Brian, Peter and Elise. Throughout the movie, Hildy has some drunken antics, with a few of these shenanigans having consequences that might serve as a wake-up call for Hildy to get professional help for her problems.

Weaver doesn’t disappoint in giving a very watchable performance of this emotionally damaged character. The supporting cast members are also up to the task in playing their roles. However, Hildy’s often-prickly personality is written in the movie as overshadowing all the other characters. Sometimes this character dominance is a benefit to “The Good House,” and sometimes it’s a detriment. “The Good House” doesn’t always succeed in having a consistent tone, but the story has enough realistic portrayals of adult relationships to make it an appealing story to viewers who are inclined to watch these types of movies.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “The Good House” in select U.S. cinemas on September 30, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 18, 2022. “The Good House” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Catherine Called Birdy,’ starring Bella Ramsey, Lesley Sharp, Sophie Okonedo, Joe Alwyn, Isis Hainsworth, Billie Piper and Andrew Scott

December 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Andrew Scott and Bella Ramsey in “Catherine Called Birdy” (Photo courtesy of Alex Bailey/Amazon Content Services)

“Catherine Called Birdy”

Directed by Lena Dunham

Culture Representation: Taking place in Stonebridge, England, in 1290, the comedy/drama film “Catherine Called Birdy” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 14-year-old girl resists her father’s attempts to marry her off to any wealthy man who is the highest bidder and who can erase her father’s debts. 

Culture Audience: “Catherine Called Birdy” will appeal primarily to fans of the novel on which the movie is based; filmmaker Lena Dunham; and slightly unconventional movies about female empowerment in the medieval era.

Joe Alwyn and Bella Ramsey in “Catherine Called Birdy” (Photo courtesy of Alex Bailey/Amazon Content Services)

Just like the movie’s titular protagonist, “Catherine Called Birdy” can be petulant, repetitive and irritating, but it’s also got enough flashes of wit and comedy to be entertaining. Writer/director Lena Dunham creatively puts a modern spin on a medieval story. “Catherine Called Birdy” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival) is not going to appeal to everyone, but it does not try to be that type of movie.

Dunham adapted the “Catherine Called Birdy” screenplay from Karen Cushman’s 1994 novel “Catherine, Called Birdy.” It’s about a free-spirited teenage girl named Catherine, who prefers to be called Birdy (because she loves birds), and her attempts to assert her independence in the medieval era of England, when women and girls were treated as property regarding marriage and many other things. In the movie “Catherine Called Birdy” (which takes place in 1290, in Stonebridge, England), Catherine/Birdy (played with great enthusiasm by Bella Ramsey) is 14 years old and is expected to get married, much to her dismay. She’s also the constant narrator of the story, which takes place during at a time when the average human life expectancy was much shorter, and getting married at 14 years old was not only legal but it was very common.

Birdy does not want to get married not only because she doesn’t feel like she’s ready for marriage but also because her 41-year-old, greedy, alcoholic and conceited father Lord Rollo (played by Andrew Scott) is essentially auctioning her off for marriage to the highest bidder. All of Birdy’s “suitors” are men who are old enough to be her father or grandfather. Birdy’s 36-year-old mother Lady Aislinn (played by Billie Piper) is thought of in the community as “wise of spirit and fair of face,” according to Birdy. Lady Aislinn, who is pregnant for much of the movie, is incredibly patient with her loutish husband.

The other people in Birdy’s immediate family are her two older brothers: Edward the Monk (played by Archie Renaux), who is 21, is described by Birdy as “more fun than most monks.” Robert (played by Dean-Charles Chapman), who is 17 years old is “abominable,” according to Birdy. Robert and Birdy often get into nasty quarrels with each other, usually instigated by Robert, who likes to bully and insult Birdy.

Birdy’s three closest friends are also teenagers. Her best friend is 16-year-old Aelis Sidebottom (played Isis Hainsworth), an aristocrat who attracts a lot of male attention because of her good looks and family name. Then there’s 14-year-old eccentric Perkin (played by Michael Woolfitt), whom Birdy describes as someone who “likes to sleep in the hay, runs fast despite his limp, and farts a lot.” Her other close pal is 18-year-old dairy maid Meg (played by Rita Bernard-Shaw), who is modest and unassuming, compared to outspoken and gregarious Birdy.

Birdy says near the beginning of the film that her favorite activities include avoiding her chores, causing harmless mischief in the village, and eavesdropping. Her brother Edward advises her to write down her thoughts, which is why much of Birdy’s voiceover narration sounds like diary entries. When Edward gives her a book about saints, Birdy says in a voiceover, “Saints are just dinguses I’ll never meet.”

Even though Birdy comes from an aristocratic family, and she is a rare female in medieval times who knows how to read and write, she is still ignorant abut some basic facts of life. For example, when she gets her menstrual period for the first time, she thinks she’s dying. However, Birdy smart enough to figure out the meaning of menstruation, and she hides her bloody rags from her father, because she doesn’t want him to know that she’s physically mature enough to get pregnant. Birdy knows that her father would use that information in his attempts to find a rich husband for her.

However, Birdy is still not completely knowledgeable about sex and human conception. Early on in the movie, Birdy credits the family’s sassy Scottish maid Rowenna (played by Lesley Sharp) with teaching Birdy about how babies are made. Birdy says that babies are made by a man taking a heated iron poker, sticking it up a woman’s nose until there’s a hole big enough for his thumb. Then, he puts seeds in her brain, until they trickle down into her intestines, where they take root. When the baby is ready to be born, Birdy says the baby comes out of a woman’s rear end.

Birdy thinks of herself as fun and fearless. But she can also be tactless and insensitive. Her lack of manners and mischievous nature are often part of the film’s comedy. One day, Birdy tells Perkin: “You’re so lucky your father is dead.” Perkin replies, “Birdy, I’m still upset about that.”

There are many reasons why Birdy and her father do not really like each other. One of them is because he disrespects her. Lord Rollo calls Birdy a “leper.” And in a conversation with his wife Lady Aislinn, he tells her that the family is financially broke and “Birdy is our real currency, so we’re in real trouble.” He also seems to care so little about Birdy that he asks her what her age is because he can’t remember.

It’s easy to see why Lord Rollo has been irresponsible with the family’s money. He buys frivolous things, such as a tiger imported from Siberia. The tiger does not survive the trip. Because he has put the family in a dire financial situation, Lord Rollo is desperate to get Birdy married to a wealthy man as soon as possible. Her suitors include Finneas the Steward (played by Akemnji Ndifornyen); a middle-aged man from Kent who’s described as a “simple wool merchant” (played by Russell Brand); John of Normandy (played by Christophe Tek); Lord Rolf of Saxony (played by Douggie McMeekin); Godfrey of Glardenmere (played by Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings); and Balthasar of the Low Country (played by Bola Latunji).

Every time Birdy is introduced to a potential husband, she does something that she thinks will turn him off and make him lose interest in her. These tactics include pretending she has a virus, dressing as a “bogwitch,” and acting like she’s inseparable from her pet birds. The more that Birdy drives these suitors away, the angrier and more frustrated her father gets. In one scene in the movie, Lord Rollo physically abuses Birdy by beating her on her hands.

Birdy’s best friend Aelis also has family issues. Aelis’ 81-year-old father Lord Gideon Sidebottom (played by David Bradley) has a 25-year-old wife named Lady Berenice Sidebottom (played by Mimi Ndiweni), who despises him. Aelis’ stepmother Lady Berenice is just one of many examples of young women and girls in “Catherine Called Birdy” who are expected to marry older, wealthier men.

One of the reasons why Birdy finds so many of these suitors unattractive is that she’s smitten with her mother’s 28-year-old brother George (played by Joe Alywn), who is charming, good-looking, and everything that Birdy thinks she wants in a future husband. The movie doesn’t make it look like Birdy wants to commit incest with George, but instead portrays George as Birdy’s intense crush and an ideal for the type of man she would want to marry someday.

Things get complicated whn Aelis develops a crush on George too. Meanwhile, George shows a romantic interest in an older widow from Devon named Ethelfritha Rose Splinter (played by Sophie Okonedo), who has a 9-year-old son. And then, Birdy gets introduced to a lecherous, elderly and rich suitor named Sir John Henry Murgaw VIII (played by Paul Kaye), also known as Shaggy Beard, who won’t take no for an answer.

“Catherine Called Birdy” has a lot of fast-paced, snappy banter where people trade sarcastic barbs with each other. Birdy can be an annoying, self-centered brat, but she can also be perceptive and compassionate when she want to be. In other words, her flaws make her realistically human. Still, some viewers will find this character too hard to take and not be able to finish watching the movie.

The production designs and costumes are fairly accurate to this period of time. However, Dunham infuses a contemporary sensibility to the movie in some of the dialogue and with the choice of the movie’s soundtrack songs, which are all pop and rock tunes from the 20th century and 21st century. Misty Miller performs cover versions of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks,” Supergrass’ “Alright,” Piper’s “Honey to the Bee,” “Elastica’s “Connection,” the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” and Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.”

With its breezy tone that has a little bit of edge, “Catherine Called Birdy” is mature enough to appeal to adolescents and whimsical enough to appeal to adults. The movie also benefits from having a talented cast who can keep up with the dialogue and the pace of the movie in a way that looks natural, instead of overly rehearsed or awkward. “Catherine Called Birdy” has an ending that is radically different from the book. Considering what Birdy is all about, the ending is a delightful surprise, and what some people might say is an improvement on the original story.

Amazon Studios released “Catherine Called Birdy” in select U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022. Prime Video premiered the movie on October 7, 2022.

Review: ‘Return to Seoul,’ starring Park Ji-min, Oh Kwang-Rok, Guka Han, Kim Sun-young, Yoann Zimmer, Hur Ouk-Sook and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing

December 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Park Ji-min in “Return to Seoul” (Photo by Thomas Favel/Aurora Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Return to Seoul”

Directed by Davy Chou

Korean and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seoul, South Korea, from 2014 to 2022, the dramatic film “Return to Seoul” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 25-year-old woman, who was born in South Korea and was adopted by a white, middle-class French family when she was a baby, impulsively goes to Seoul to find her biological parents and goes on an unexpected life journey in Seoul for the next eight years. 

Culture Audience: “Return to Seoul” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional movies about adoptees looking for their biological parents.

Oh Kwang-rok in “Return to Seoul” (Photo by Thomas Favel/Aurora Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Return to Seoul” is as wandering and unpredictable as the protagonist’s emotional journey in her search for biological parents. The movie’s ending could have been better, but there is realistic ambivalence in how her search will affect her identity. “Return to Seoul” goes off on an unexpected tangent that might be a turnoff to some viewers, because this plot development doesn’t fit the usual narrative of scripted movies about adoptees looking for biological relatives. However, it’s an interesting and original choice that’s actually consistent with the the protagonist’s unpredictable and rebellious personality.

Written and directed by Cambodian French filmmaker Davy Chou, “Return to Seoul” draws on Chou’s own experiences of having a dual-nationality heritage. The movie’s lead character is named Frédérique Benoît (played by Park Ji-min), but she prefers to be called by her nickname Freddie. She was born in South Korea and adopted as a baby by a white, middle-class French family, who gave her a very good life. “Return to Seoul” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “Return to Seoul” is Cambodia’s official entry for consideration in the Best International Feature Film category for the 2023 Academy Awards.

“Return to Seoul” begins in 2014, when 25-year-old Freddie checks into the hotel where she will be staying in Seoul during her search for her biological parents. She makes fast friends with Tena (played by Guka Han), who is the hotel’s front desk clerk, and Tena’s close pal Dongwan (played by Son Seung-beom), who speaks French and can often act as a translator, since Freddie doesn’t really know how to communicate in Korean. Freddie tells Tena and Dongwan why she is in Seoul. Dongwan immediately recommends that Freddie go to the Hammond Adoption Center, where many South Korean babies and other children were adopted out to parents outside of Asia.

When Freddie checks into the hotel, she says she only plans to stay for three nights. “Return to Seoul” shows that she ends up staying in Seoul for the next eight years. As already shown in the movie’s trailer, Freddie meets her biological father (played by Oh Kwang-rok, in a very good performance), who does not have a first name in the movie. Freddie also finds out her birth name (Do Yeon-hee) and why she was given up for adoption.

Freddie’s biological mother remains elusive for much of the story though, despite efforts to contact her. It’s obvious that Freddie wants to meet her biological mother more than she wants to meet her father. Freddie’s biological father is remorseful and desperate to make up for lost time with Freddie. He lives with his wife (played by Cha Mi-kyung); their teenage daughters Aimee (Song Hae-in) and Cadette (played by ); and his mother (played by Hur Ouk-sook), who all welcome Freddie into their family with open arms.

What Freddie does not anticipate is for her biological father to become almost obsessed with her. He insists that she live with him and his family. And he expects Freddie to have a traditional South Korean life, where he says he can help her find a husband. It’s established early on that Freddie considers herself to be an independent French woman, so her reaction is what you will expect it to be.

And what does Freddie’s adoptive family in France think of her trip to Seoul? When she tells her adoptive mother by a video chat, Freddie mentions that the trip was not planned and that Freddie only went to Seoul because the two-week trip to Tokyo that Freddie had originally planned was cancelled because of a typhoon. Freddie’s mother is the only member of her adoptive family who is shown reacting to the news that Freddie is looking for her biological parents. Freddie’s adoptive mother (played by Régine Vial Goldberg) is accepting of the idea and doesn’t appear to be upset but is curious about how this search might affect Freddie.

There are other examples of how Freddie is the type of person who often acts spontaneously. Early on in the movie, while Freddie, Tena and Dongwan are drinking at a casual restaurant/bar, Freddie impulsively flirts with a table of bachelors. She then invites strangers who are men and women over to the same table to join in on the conversation, and almost everyone gets drunk. Freddie ends up spending the night with one of the bachelors, whose name is Jiwan (played by Kim Dong-seok), and he is almost immediately smitten with her.

“Return to Seoul” takes an unorthodox turn when the movie fast-forwards to 2016, on Freddie’s 27th birthday, where she is in Seoul on a dinner date with a middle-aged Frenchman named André (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who has four kids and is going through his third divorce. The last part of the movie takes place from 2021 to 2022, when Freddie gets involved in some shady dealings with a guy named Maxime (played by Yoann Zimmer), and Freddie’s biological father is still trying to develop a family relationship with her.

As the mercurial and sometimes flaky Freddie, Park makes an impressive feature-film debut in “Return to Seoul.” Freddie is complex in wanting to be strong and independent, but she has moments of vulnerability where she begins to question her identity and she fears if what she will find out about her biological family members will be qualities that she has inherited. And although Freddie never says it out loud, viewers can see that it shakes Freddie to her core to be reminded that she was once an unwanted child by biological parents she never know.

“Return to Seoul” is not a movie that will satisfy people who want a formulaic story with predictable outcomes. What makes the movie worth watching, even though the pacing of the movie sometimes drags, is showing how Freddie is subtly and not-so-subtly affected by the search for her biological parents. She gets more than she wanted and less than she expected in certain ways. What would make someone, who originally planned to stay in Seoul for three nights, end up staying for eight years? “Return to Seoul” is a compelling psychological portrait rather than a definitive statement about one woman’s quest for a deeper meaning to her identity.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Return to Seoul” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022.

Review: ‘Empire of Light,’ starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones and Colin Firth

December 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in “Empire of Light” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Empire of Light”

Directed by Sam Mendes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily on the southeast coast of England, from December 1980 to August or September 1981, the dramatic film “Empire of Light” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A white woman in her late 40s and a black man in his early 20s, who work together at a movie theater, become intimate friends as she deals with mental illness and he deals with racism. 

Culture Audience: “Empire of Light” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Sam Mendes, star Olivia Colman and movies about misunderstood misfits that overload on melodrama that doesn’t always look authentic.

Pictured from left to right: Micheal Ward, Roman Hayeck-Green, Olivia Colman and Toby Jones in “Empire of Light” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Considering that so many Oscar winners were involved in making the disappointing drama “Empire of Light,” it’s unfortunate that the movie’s story devolves into an overwrought mess and then rushes to clean everything up in the last 10 minutes of the movie. Too late. The cast members, led by Olivia Colman (who won a Best Actress Academy Award for 2018’s “The Favourite”), give impressive performances. However, “Empire of Light” becomes too bloated with heavy concepts and preachy messages that often look forced and clumsy in the screenplay and direction.

The “Empire of Light” team also includes writer/director/producer Sam Mendes (Oscar-winning director of 1999’s “American Beauty”); cinematographer Roger Deakins (who won Oscars for the 2017 sci-fi sequel “Blade Runner 2049” and Mendes’ 2019 World War I drama “1917”); and costume designer Alexandra Byrne (who won an Oscar for 2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”). Their talents and the admirable skills of the production design team (led by Mark Tildesley) make “Empire of Light” look visually striking. But visuals alone don’t make a great movie.

Unfortunately, “Empire of Light” tries to cram in too many storylines of complicated real-life issues—mental illness, racism, workplace sexual misconduct—that eventually get the “soap opera” treatment in “Empire of Light,” when these issues deserved so much better care in a movie with filmmakers and cast members of this high quality. “Empire of Light” had its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival, followed by screenings at several other major festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

“Empire of Light” is not unwatchable. However, there are quite a few moments that are unintentionally cringeworthy—particularly when “Empire of Light” tries to make appreciation of movies and ska/rock music as some sort of “one size fits all” panacea for some of the characters’ major problems. The movie’s central relationship takes an “opposites attract” approach that doesn’t ring completely true, mainly because it’s intended to look like true love between friends, but it actually looks more like dysfunctional co-dependency.

“Empire of Light” takes place mostly in an unnamed city on the southeast coast of England. (The movie was actually filmed in Margate, England.) The story’s timeline spans from December 1980 to August or September 1981. Therefore, expect several references to the United Kingdom’s sociopolitical issues under prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s rule, such as the rise of racist skinhead culture; economic instability (often blamed on immigrants) stemming from the U.K.’s recovery from the 1970s recession; and fears about nuclear war.

It’s in this environment that Hilary Small (played by Colman) lives a very emotionally disconnected and lonely life in the beginning of the movie. Hilary is a never-married bachelorette in her late 40s. She has no children, no family members she’s in contact with, and no friends.

Hilary lives alone in a small apartment and spends her free time not doing much but staying in her apartment and occasionally going to a senior center, where she’s one of the youngest people there. An early scene in the movie shows Hilary being sociable enough that she participates in the senior center’s dances. However, she doesn’t make any meaningful emotional connections with anyone at this senior center.

Viewers soon find out that Hilary has been prescribed lithium by a public health professional named Dr. Laird (played by William Chubb), who encourages her to get psychiatric therapy counseling. (Lithium is commonly prescribed for bipolar disorder.) Hilary takes the lithium, but she doesn’t take the doctor’s advice to talk to a therapist. About halfway through the movie, more details emerge about Hilary’s mental state.

Hilary works as a duty manager/concessions supervisor at a movie multiplex called the Empire Theatre, located in an Art Deco-styled, seaside building that also used to have a combination ballroom/restaurant. As of now, the Empire just has three movie screens, but they are in large rooms decked out in red and gold Art Deco finery that has seen better days.

The unused parts of the building have gone into a state of disrepair and are off-limits to the public. Because the Empire has a limited number of screens, and the dilapidated ballroom is inoperable, the Empire doesn’t get rented out for a lot of events. However, England’s South Coast premiere of “Chariots of Fire” will soon be held at the theater. This premiere gala is the focus one of the most dramatic scenes in “Empire of Light.”

The Empire has a small staff of people. In addition to Hilary, these staffers include:

  • Donald Ellis (played by Colin Firth), the Empire’s general manager, who is Hilary’s lecherous boss and who’s about 15 years older than Hilary.
  • Norman (played by Toby Jones), the theater projectionist, who is in his 50s and who takes his job very seriously.
  • Stephen Murray (played by Micheal Ward), a ticket taker/usher in his early 20s, who is the newest member of the staff, charming when he wants to be, and the only employee who isn’t white.
  • Neil (played by Tom Brooke), a box-office worker in his 40s, who is compassionate, witty and wryly observant of many things going on in this workplace.
  • Janine (played by Hannah Onslow), an 18-year-old ticket taker, who is a Mohawk-wearing party girl.
  • Frankie (played by Roman Hayeck-Green), Brian (played by Brian Fletcher) and Finn (played by Dougie Boyall), who are all ushers in their 20s, and who don’t say or do much in the story.

It’s shown early in the movie that Donald and Hilary are having a secret sexual relationship, with their trysts taking place in Donald’s office. Donald is married, and Hilary knows it, but Donald tells her that he and his wife Brenda (played by Sara Stewart) are in a passionless marriage where they no longer have sex. Donald expects Hilary to always say yes to him whenever he calls her into his office for their private “meetings.”

At first, Hilary seems to like the attention from Donald. But one evening, she’s alone at a restaurant and sees Donald and Brenda walk in and get seated at a table near hers. Seeing these two spouses together seems to trigger something in Hilary, and she quickly leaves the restaurant before ordering anything on the menu. Over time, Hilary starts to resent Donald for treating her like a meaningless fling. Her anger and resentment come out in different ways.

Meanwhile, Stephen has caught the attention of Janine, who tells Hilary and some other employees during Stephen’s first day on the job that she thinks Stephen is a hunk. Janine doesn’t notice that Hilary seems attracted to Stephen too. Hilary is very insecure about her physical appearance, so she thinks Stephen wouldn’t be attracted to Hilary. Whenever Hilary sees Stephen giving attention to or thinking about other women, Hilary pouts like spoiled schoolgirl.

Hilary gives Stephen a tour of the building on his first day as an Empire employee. He’s curious to see the top floor, which used to be a ballroom and restaurant. The top floor is roped-off with restricted access only meant for the theater’s management, but Hilary takes Stephen to the top floor anyway because he’s eager to see it. Even though this section of the building is run-down, Stephen is in awe of what used to be the grand architecture for this ballroom.

The top floor, whose windows have broken or missing glass, has become a home for several pigeons. Stephen notices that one of the pigeons has a broken wing. He rips his socks and uses them to construct a makeshift sling for the pigeon and asks Hilary to hold the pigeon while he wraps the sling around the bird. Hilary says she doesn’t really like pigeons, but she holds it, beause she wants to impress Stephen. Her spark of attraction to Stephen grows when she sees that he can be kind and gentle. She’s also surprised at how she likes holding this pigeon after all.

Later in the movie, another scene with this pigeon becomes another turning point in Stephen and Hilary’s relationship. These pigeon scenes are used as an obvious metaphor: Stephen helping the physically wounded pigeon is just like how Stephen helps an emotionally wounded Hilary. This metaphor is the movie’s obvious ploy at sentimentality, but it’s too “on the nose.” And to make things look even phonier, other things in “Empire of Light” present Stephen as almost saintly in the way he puts up with Hilary’s moodiness and nasty temper tantrums that she often inflicts on him.

New Year’s Eve is coming up, and Janine has invited Stephen to hang out with her and some of her friends at a nightclub to ring in the New Year. Stephen and Janine ask Hilary if she wants to join them, but Hilary politely declines by saying that going to nightclubs isn’t her thing. Hilary says her New Year’s Eve plans will be to watch annual New Year’s fireworks alone on the theater’s roof. Observant viewers will notice from Hilary’s facial expressions that she’s jealous that Stephen and Janine are going on a date for New Year’s Eve.

Later, Hilary takes her anger out on Stephen, when she notices Stephen and Janine mocking an elderly customer behind the customer’s back because the customer is hunched-over and walks slowly. Hilary shouts at Stephen in private for being unprofessional, and she tells him that being rude to customers is unacceptable. She also gives him a loud scolding for forgetting to give her the day’s ticket stubs at the end of his work shift.

On the night of New Year’s Eve, Hilary is on the roof, when she gets an unexpected visitor: Stephen. He tells Hilary that he left the nightclub where he and Janine had been partying because he doesn’t know Janine’s friends, and he felt uncomfortable that some people at the club were staring at him. (It’s Stephen’s way of saying that he felt that some people were being racist without coming out and saying it.)

Hilary is touched that Stephen would want to ring in the New Year with her. And this New Year’s Eve meet-up is the turning point in their relationship. Stephen says he’s sorry for being unprofessional on the job, while Hilary says she’s sorry that she yelled at him. And with that mutual apology, the ice is broken, and the beginning of a relationship starts to take shape.

During this conversation while they watch the New Year’s fireworks (it’s one of the movie’s highlights), Hilary and Stephen talk a little bit more about their lives. And they discover that they are two lonely and restless people who want more from their lives than what they are currently doing. Stephen is an aspiring architect who has been rejected by all the universities where he’s applied. Hilary tells him not to give up his dream and to keep trying to get into a university of his choice.

Hilary is feeling an emotional connection to Stephen, so after the New Year’s fireworks begin, she gives him a quick romantic kiss on the lips. He looks startled by this display of affection. An embarrassed Hilary makes a profuse, stammering apology, and quickly leaves, even though Stephen tells her that she doesn’t need to make an apology. The movie shows what Hilary and Stephen do about this mutual attraction that is both confusing and exciting for them.

Here’s where the movie has a big disconnect and failing: Viewers never find out anything meaningful about Hilary that’s not related to her job, her mental illness and her “daddy issues.” Hilary is unhappy with her life, but she never really articulates how she wants to change her life.

She hints that she didn’t expect to be working in a movie theater at her age. Hilary doesn’t even show an interest in the movies that are at the theater. What did she want to do her life then? Don’t expect “Empire of Light” to answer that question.

There are multiple scenes in the movie where Hilary goes on a rant about not wanting men to control her. As she blurts out in a manic confession to Stephen, it has a lot to do with her being a “daddy’s girl,” but her father cheated on Hilary’s abusive mother, and he asked Hilary to lie and cover up this infidelity. During another rant, she lists the names of random men whom she says have wronged her. But these are the only clues into what Hilary’s life was like when she was a girl or a young woman.

Hilary is irrationally jealous and insecure. She will have temper tantrums out of the blue, usually triggered when it looks like Stephen is thinking about other women. It happens in a scene where Hilary and Stephen take a trip to a deserted beach, go skinny dipping, and then make sand castles together. While making sand castles, Stephen mentions an ex-girlfriend who broke his heart, and he admits that he still thinks about this ex-love. When Stephen asks Hilary if she’s ever been in love, she avoids answering the question. And then almost immediately, Hilary verbally lashes out at Stephen with a man-hating tirade.

But the movie then abruptly cuts to Stephen and Hilary leaving on a bus, with both of them being pleasant with each other and acting like this awful argument didn’t even happen. It looks like bad film editing, but it’s really the movie’s awkward way of trying to show viewers that both Stephen and Hilary have serious issues with denial about Hilary being a loose cannon. Stephen will show time and time again that he’s a better friend to Hilary than she is to him.

Hilary’s jealousy of Janine, as well as Janine’s attraction to Stephen, are inexplicably dropped as a subplot when the movie later shows a montage of Hilary, Stephen and Janine hanging out with each other like they’re best friends forever. These three pals do things like go to a carnival and a roller skating rink together. Janine then gets sidelined in the movie for no reason at all. It’s an example of how “Empire of Light” has an erratic portrayal of these characters’ relationships.

That’s not the movie’s only problem. “Empire of Light” tries to make a big statement about the racism that Stephen experiences. But it’s with the tone that it matters more how Hilary is affected by having her eyes opened to racism, rather than placing more importance on how Stephen (who actually experiences racism in many painful ways) is affected by racism. The racism issues begin in the movie when Hilary, unbeknownst to Stephen, sees Stephen getting racially harassed by some white skinheads when Stephen is walking outside and minding his own business.

Later, Hilary witnesses Stephen encountering a racist customer named Mr. Cooper (played by Ron Cook), who lets it be known that he doesn’t want someone who looks like Stephen telling him the Empire’s rules of no outside food and drinks being allowed inside the theater. During a tension-filled exchange where Stephen maintains his composure and Mr. Cooper loses his temper and holds up the line of people behind him, Hilary tries to smooth things over and placate Mr. Cooper by telling him he can finish his outside food and drinks in the lobby.

Stephen nearly walks off the job in that incident, because he thinks that Hilary didn’t stand up for an employee being mistreated by a rude and racist customer, and instead Hilary was trying too hard to accommodate this toxic person. Hilary tries to make an excuse that what Mr. Cooper did wasn’t bad enough for Stephen to quit, but Hilary is missing the point: Stephen, who did nothing wrong and was following the rules, shouldn’t have to be the one to feel like he was guilty of doing something wrong, while the guilty person is being coddled by a manager who’s in charge of handling the situation. When Stephen points out this disparity to Hilary, she admits that he’s right, makes an apology, and begs Stephen not to quit.

Even though this scene accurately portrays how white people and black people can sometimes look at racist incidents differently, “Empire of Light” goes right back to treating Stephen as the character who’s supposed to make a very messed-up Hilary into a happy person. Hilary has some deep-seated issues that come to the surface and existed long before she met Stephen. It’s also no surprise when in the last third of the movie, “Empire of Light” uses racism as a way to contrive a melodramatic plot development that viewers can see coming as soon as this scene begins.

In addition, “Empire of Light” has a double standard in the problematic issue of a supervisor getting sexually involved with a subordinate. The movie makes Donald the “villain” because he abuses his power to have consensual sex with Hilary whenever he feels like it. Even though the sex between Donald and Hilary is consensual, it’s always at the demand of Donald.

However, when it looks like Hilary and Stephen are headed for a consensual sexual relationship, the movie doesn’t question the ethics of Hilary getting sexually involved with one of her subordinates. Stephen’s employment status at the Empire Theatre is also vulnerable because he’s a new employee. Hilary knows she’s got the upper hand and more power as Stephen’s boss, but the movie excuses Hilary for taking advantage of this imbalance of power when it comes to Stephen.

And frankly, based on the way Hilary sometimes treats Stephen like a doormat for her selfish purposes, it’s questionable how great this relationship is, even though “Empire of Light” desperately tries to put a “female empowerment” spin on it. Stephen does a lot for Hilary emotionally, but he doesn’t get much from her in return except companionship and some generic words of encouragement. None of this imbalance is given much scrutiny in the movie, because Stephen’s thoughts and feelings are treated as secondary to Hilary’s thoughts and feelings.

Stephen is never shown doing anything that proves he’s passionate about architecture, except mention that he wants to get a college degree in architecture. The last third of the movie makes a half-hearted attempt to show that Stephen has a life outside of his job. He gets re-acquainted with his ex-girlfriend Ruby (played by Crystal Clarke)—the ex who broke his heart—after she goes to the Empire to see a movie and unexpectedly finds out that Stephen works there. Stephen’s single mother Delia (played by Tanya Moodie), who’s an immigrant nurse from Trinidad, eventually meets Hilary under some stressful circumstances. But it’s forced into the movie as part of a subplot where it all comes back to putting an emphasis on how Hilary is affected.

“Empire of Light” shows Stephen being a dutiful and awestruck student of Norman, who teaches him how to operate the theater’s projector. The magic of the movies is a recurring theme in “Empire of Light,” which simplistically has Stephen encouraging Hilary to watch movies at the theater as a way to have some escape from her problems. Likewise, when Stephen (who’s a fan of interracial ska/rock bands like The Beat and The Specials) gets Hilary to listen to music from interracial ska/rock bands, the movie tritely shows Hilary telling Stephen that she now understands his culture after listening to some of these albums.

“Empire of Light” wants to be filled with important messages about life. And certainly, the cast members deliver adept performances when called to do their parts in scenes that look good on a technical level but fall short on an emotionally authentic level. No matter how much “Empire of Light” wants to portray it, you can’t truly understand a culture just by listening to a few albums. And you can’t force viewers with enough life experience to believe that Hilary and Stephen’s lopsided relationship is one where she ever really thought of him as an equal.

Searchlight Pictures released “Empire of Light” in select U.S. cinemas on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘The Son’ (2022), starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath and Anthony Hopkins

December 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zen McGrath, Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman in “The Son” (Photo by Rekha Garton/See-Saw Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Son” (2022)

Directed by Florian Zeller

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and briefly in Washington, D.C., the dramatic film “The Son” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A workaholic corporate lawyer, his ex-wife and his current wife struggle with understanding the depression of his 17-year-old son from his first marriage. 

Culture Audience: “The Son” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s stars and don’t mind watching movies about mental illness that awkwardly handle this serious subject matter.

Hugh Jackman and Vanessa Kirby in “The Son” (Photo by Rob Youngson/See-Saw Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

A talented cast can’t save “The Son,” a sloppily edited drama that mishandles issues about mental illness in a turgid and manipulative way. This is writer/director Florian Zeller’s sophomore slump as a feature filmmaker. Zeller triumphed with his feature-film directorial debut “The Father,” his stellar 2020 drama for which he and co-writer Christopher Hampton won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. “The Father,” which is based on Zeller’s play of the same name, is a story told from the perspective of an elderly British man who has dementia. Anthony Hopkins portrayed the person with dementia in the “The Father,” and Hopkins won an Oscar for Best Actor for this performance.

Zeller brought Hopkins in for a short scene (which lasts less than 10 minutes) in “The Son,” and this scene is one of the highlights of this very uneven and ultimately disappointing movie. “The Father” and “The Son” are not similar to each other all, except for the fact that both movies are based on Zeller’s stage plays of the same names, and both movies are about families coping with a loved one who has a mental illness. The title character in each movie is the one dealing with the mental health issues.

Zeller and Hampton teamed up again to co-write “The Son” screenplay. “The Son” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. It also made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest in Los Angeles. Being at these high-profile festivals might seem like the “The Son” is a “prestige picture,” but it’s more indicative of the movie’s star power than the quality of the film. “The Son’s” clumsy treatment of a complicated issues such as depression is a lot like what you would see on a TV-movie made for a basic cable network.

“The Son” covers a well-worn topic that’s been the subject of numerous movies and TV shows: A workaholic father’s absence from home ends up causing resentment from some of his family members, and he might spend the rest of the story trying to mend any broken relationships caused by his lack of attention to his family. Arguments, grudges and sometimes physical altercations then happen. And then, depending on how predictable the story wants to be, a truce is usually called and people go on a path toward healing.

“The Father” was told from the perspective of the title character, but “The Son” is not told from the perspective of the title character. Instead, “The Son” puts most of its efforts in showing the thoughts and feelings of the son’s father. Up until a certain point in the movie, “The Son” is a formulaic story of a family damaged by divorce and not knowing how to deal with mental illness. But perhaps in a misguided effort to not have a typical ending, “The Son” does something so off-putting in the film’s last 15 minutes, it essentially ruins the movie.

In “The Son,” Peter Miller (played by Hugh Jackman) is an ambitious attorney who works at a corporate firm in New York City. Viewers will soon see that Peter (who is in his 50s) is highly motivated to succeed, and he expects excellence from himself and everyone around him. Peter lives in an upscale New York City apartment with his second wife Beth (played by Vanessa Kirby), who’s about 20 years younger than Peter. Beth and Peter, who’ve been married for less than two years, are parents of an infant son named Theo (played by twins Felix Goddard and Max Goddard).

Conversations in the movie reveal that Beth and Peter had an affair while he was still married to his first wife Kate (played by Laura Dern), who was devastated when Peter left Kate to be with Beth. Peter and Beth met (ironically enough) at a wedding, and Beth knew from the beginning that Peter was married. Peter and Kate have a 17-year-old son named Nicholas (played by Zen McGrath), who is also emotionally wounded from his parents’ divorce. Kate has full custody of Nicholas, who lives with her in New York City.

Peter will soon find out how much Nicholas has resentment toward him and how depressed Nicholas is. It starts with a worried phone call from Kate, who tells Peter that she recently found out that Nicholas stopped going to school for almost a month. Nicholas pretended to her that he was going to school, but he was actually just spending time walking around the city, according to what he confesses later. When the school tried to contact Kate by phone and by email about Nicholas’ absence, Nicholas was able to intercept those messages until the truth came out.

Kate also tells Peter that she and Nicholas no longer get along with each other. “He’s not well,” Kate insists. Kate also ominously hints to Peter that Nicholas could be dangerous. She describes how Nicholas once looked at her with so much hatred, she thought he might physically hurt her. “He scares me, okay?” Kate says to Peter about Nicholas.

It’s reached a point where Kate (who feels helpless and confused) has reluctantly agreed to Nicholas’ request to live with Peter for the time being. Nicholas tells Peter why he wants to live with him when he describes how he fells about living with Kate: “When I’m here, I get too many dark ideas. I want to live with my little brother. Sometimes, I feel like I’m going crazy.”

Peter’s way of handling Nicholas’ problems is to try to find a logical solution. Peter tries to be understanding, but he often talks to Nicholas like a prosecutor interrogating a defense witness in court. At this point, Peter isn’t fully aware that Nicholas has a mental illness. Peter thinks Nicholas is just being a rebellious brat.

In one of the movie’s several emotionally charged conversations, Peter demands that Nicholas tell him what’s wrong. On the verge of tears, Nicholas tries to explain to Peter why he’s been skipping school: “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s life. It’s weighing me down.”

Peter tells Beth what’s going on with Nicholas and asks her if it will be okay if Nicholas lives with them for a while, even though it’s obvious that Peter has made up his mind that Nicholas will live with them. Kate and Peter also agree that Nicholas (a loner who has difficulty making friends) can transfer to another school. What they don’t do is try to get him into therapy. Peter is the type of person who thinks the family can solve this problem on their own.

At first, Beth is reluctant to have this troubled teen living with them when she’s already busy taking care of a newborn child. However, Beth agrees to let Nicholas live with them (they have an extra bedroom that Nicholas will have to himself) because she sees how much Peter wants to help Nicholas, and she doesn’t want to interfere in this father-son relationship. Beth has only known Nicholas for two years, so she feels she doesn’t have the right to make parental decisions about him.

The rest of “The Son” is a back-and-forth repetition of Nicholas seeming to improve while living with Peter and Beth, but then something happens to show that Nicholas is not doing very well at all. Eventually, Peter finds out that Nicholas self-harms by cutting himself. Peter and Kate go through various stages of denial, guilt, sadness and anger, while Beth has her guard up and doesn’t really want to deal with the family problems when they get too intense. Beth also has stepparent insecurities about how much a spouse cares about any children from a previous marriage, compared to how much the spouse cares about any children from the current marriage.

“The Son” has a not-very-interesting subplot about Peter getting a job offer to work for a U.S. senator from Delaware named Brian Hammer (played by Joseph Mydell), who wants to hire Peter for Senator Hammer’s re-election campaign. The job would require Peter to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C., so Peter has to decide whether or not to take the job in the midst of all of his family problems. “The Son” uses this subplot as a way try to create some suspense over whether not Peter will accept this job offer. This decision isn’t as suspenseful as the movie wants it to be.

The Washington, D.C., area is also where Peter’s unnamed widower father (played by Hopkins) lives, so there’s a gripping scene where Peter visits his father while Peter is in the area to meet with Senator Hammer. It’s in this scene where viewers find out more about Peter’s family background and why Peter has the parenting style that he does. Even though Peter doesn’t want to admit it, he’s a lot like his father, when it comes to letting work get in the way of spending quality time with his family.

But unlike Peter, his father is cold, cruel and unapologetic for making work a higher priority than his family. Peter tells his father that Nicholas is now living with Peter, and this new living arrangement seems to be helping Nicholas with Nicholas’ problems. Instead of being concerned or empathetic about Nicholas, Peter’s father accuses Peter of telling him this information to make Peter look like a better father.

Peter denies it, of course. This unfair and paranoid accusation stirs up some deep-seated resentments, and Peter reminds his father how selfish he was not to visit Peter’s mother when she was dying in the hospital. Peter’s father responds this way: “Just fucking get over it.” Even though Hopkins has a standout scene in “The Son,” too many other scenes in the film are mired in predictability.

“The Son” puts so much emphasis on Peter, he’s the only main character who gets a backstory. The movie reveals nothing about the backgrounds of Kate and Beth, even though Kate has been Nicholas’ primary caretaking parent after the divorce, up until Nicholas began living with Peter and Beth. Viewers will never find out how Kate’s own upbringing affected her parenting skills.

The movie also gives no information about Nicholas’ background to indicate how long he’s been having these feelings of depression. Several times in the movie, Nicholas tells Peter that he blames Peter’s abandonment and the divorce for feeling depressed, but it all seems too convenient and intended to put Peter on a guilt trip. If Peter had been too busy with work to notice Nicholas’ problems, then what indications did Kate see? Don’t expect the movie to answer that question.

Instead, the most that viewers will see about Nicholas before he moved in with Peter are several cutesy flashbacks of a 6-year-old Nicholas (played by George Cobell) in happier times during a vacation that he took with his parents in Corsica. “The Son” keeps showing flashbacks of this family of three taking a trip on a small boat, and Peter teaching an adorable Nicholas how to swim in the sea. These superficial flashbacks are examples of lazy storytelling that doesn’t give viewers a chance to get to know Nicholas as a well-rounded person.

“The Son” gives no information about what Nicholas’ personality was like a few years before the divorce. It’s possible that he had depression when his parents were still married, but that information is never revealed or discussed in the movie. “The Son” brings up a lot of questions about Nicholas that the movie never answers. It’s a huge misstep in how this movie portrays its title character.

Considering these limitations, McGrath gives a compelling but not outstanding performance as Nicholas. A few times in the movie, Nicholas is described as looking “evil,” but the expression on his face just looks like he’s pouting and glaring like a spoiled child who didn’t get his way. People with enough life experience can see that Nicholas has depression problems, but he’s also very manipulative, and he knows how to make his parents (especially Peter) feel guilty about the divorce.

As for the other principal cast members, Dern gives an authentic performance for her underdeveloped Kate character when expressing the anguish of a parent who goes through what Kate goes through in the movie. Kirby gives some depth to what is essentially a “trophy wife” role, but so little is known about Beth, there’s only so much that Kirby can do with this often-aloof character. Beth also complains to Peter about how he spends more time at work than at home, which kind of makes her look like a ditz that she didn’t know he was a workaholic when she married him.

Ultimately, “The Son” comes across as a showboat movie for Jackman, because it spends so much time showing Peter’s life outside the home, as well as Peter’s feelings about his own “daddy issues.” Peter is supposed to be American, but Jackman’s native Australian accent can sometimes be heard in his performance of Peter, especially in scenes where Peter is shouting or arguing with someone. Jackman certainly delivers a heartfelt performance, but a lot of it seems overly calculated too, much like how the movie handles the most sensitive scenes.

Unfortunately, “The Son” has much bigger problems than actors trying too hard to be noticed in obvious “awards bait” roles. The movie’s editing is haphazard and sometimes baffling. For example, there’s a scene that’s interrupted by a five-second flashback of Peter and 6-year-old Nicholas frolicking in the water on that vacation. This brief flashback is so random and out-of-place, it makes you wonder why Zeller made such amateurish editing decisions for “The Son” when “The Father” was so brilliantly edited.

The last 15 minutes of “The Son” are what will really turn off viewers the most. The way the story ends is gimmicky and could easily be interpreted as crass exploitation, for the sake of having a “surprise” plot twist. If “The Son” intended to be respectful of people who deal with the same issues as the ones portrayed in this substandard movie, then “The Son” torpedoed any good will by conjuring up a truly awful ending that cannot be redeemed.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Son” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 16, 2022, and on January 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Bruiser’ (2022), starring Jalyn Hall, Trevante Rhodes, Shamier Anderson and Shinelle Azoroh

December 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jalyn Hall and Trevante Rhodes in “Bruiser” (Photo courtesy of Onyx Collective)

“Bruiser” (2022)

Directed by Miles Warren

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Evans, Texas (and briefly in Dallas), the dramatic film “Bruiser” features a cast of African American, white and Latino characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 14-year-old boy from a middle-class family is charmed into rebelling against his parents by a drifter in his 30s who has a criminal record and a connection to the boy’s past. 

Culture Audience: “Bruiser” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching low-budget and capably made dramas that explore issues about father-son bonding, family trust and teen rebellion.

Jalyn Hall and Trevante Rhodes in “Bruiser” (Photo courtesy of Onyx Collective)

Troubled relationships between fathers and sons is not a new concept, but “Bruiser” presents it in a thoughtful and artistic way. Although this drama’s story has a big secret that’s easy to figure out, not everything in the movie is predictable. The movie excels in authentically portraying the vulnerabilities of teenagers looking for an identity and independence from family members, as well as how these family dynamics can quickly get messy from miscommunication.

“Bruiser” is the feature-film debut of Miles Warren, who based the movie on his short film of the same name. Warren and Ben Medina co-wrote the feature-length “Bruiser” screenplay. “Bruiser,” the first feature film from Disney-owned Onyx Collective, had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, followed by a U.S. premiere at AFI Fest in Los Angeles. It’s not a flashy movie, but it has a compelling, low-budget style that draws viewers into the world of the film’s characters that are realistically portrayed by a talented cast.

In “Bruiser,” the protagonist is 14-year-old Darious Garter (played by Jalyn Hall), who is in eighth grade at a private boarding school in Dallas called St. Andrew. It’s the type of school where the students are required to wear uniforms. Darious is quiet and somewhat introverted. He likes to draw and he has a relatively happy home life, until he meets someone who disrupts Darious’ perception of his family.

At the beginning of “Bruiser,” Darious is on a summer break from school. He has a sort-of girlfriend named Mia (played by Sarah Bock) who comes from a privileged family going to Greece for their summer vacation. Darious is on a financial scholarship to attend St. Andrew. His stepfather Malcolm Garter (played by Shamier Anderson) owns a car dealership called Garter Motors, where Malcolm is the chief salesperson. The dealership has been financially struggling, but Malcolm wants to keep it a secret from Darious and Darious’ mother Monica (played by Shinelle Azoroh), who’s a homemaker.

Monica is the one who picks up Darious from school to drive them back home to Evans, Texas, a rural suburb of Dallas. Darious is feeling restless because he prefers to live in a big city, and he’s already pining for Mia, whom he finds out later isn’t as into him as much as he’s into her. Monica cheerfully tells Darious on the ride back to their home, “Your father and I are so proud of you.”

Darious is mopey though, because he tells his mother that he’s going to be very bored n Evans on this summer vacation. During the ride home, Monica plays her favorite song: Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee.” Darious teases his mother about how she always like to play that song, but she laughs off this good-natured ribbing and tells Darious that the song makes her feel happy. It won’t be the last time that “Cigarettes and Coffee” is heard in the movie, which uses the song as a symbol for conjuring up positive feelings.

Back at home, Darious is disappointed when he asks Malcolm if he can have a new bicycle, because he thinks his current bicycle is now too small for him. Malcolm firmly tells Darious no. Darious thinks Malcolm is being unreasonable. What Malcolm doesn’t tell Darious is that he can’t afford to give Darious a new bicycle.

Malcolm soon gets some bad news that he also keeps a secret from Darious and Monica: A St. Andrew school official has called and told Malcolm that Darious’ financial-aid scholarship is being cancelled. Ever the salesman, Malcolm urges the school to seek out other options and says that he expects the school to “make it work” so that Darious (who is a good student) can continue to attend the school on a scholarship.

It’s never been a secret that Malcolm is not Darious’ biological father, but Malcolm is the only father whom Darious has ever known. Darious’ biological father, who abandoned Monica while she was pregnant with Darious, has not been in Darious life ever since. Malcolm and Monica got married not long after Darious was born. Malcolm’s parenting style is loving but strict and stubborn and sometimes quick-tempered, while Monica tends to be more of a calm peacemaker who’s willing to listen and negotiate during a dispute.

Darious tries to reconnect with his hometown friends, but he doesn’t feel as close to them as he used to be. He’s still on good terms with a platonic pal named June (played by Ava Ryback), but Darious starts to have problems with a slightly older teen named Jason (played by Gavin Munn), who’s in the same clique as June. The movie has some subtle and not-so-subtle indications about social-class prejudices, because Darious doesn’t think that that his hometown friends are interesting or sophisticated as his friends at the boarding school.

One day, while hanging out in a woodsy area, Jason starts playfully roughhousing with Darious. The roughhousing turns into a full-on assault, with Jason beating up Darious for no good reason. However, it’s fairly obvious that Jason is jealous that Darious goes to a boarding school, but Jason doesn’t want to admit that to anyone.

A humiliated Darious runs away to a stream to clean up his bloodied face. Near this stream, he encounters a guy living in the houseboat that belonged to a wealthy man in the area named Mr. John. The stranger, who is in his 30s, starts talking to Darious, introduces himself as Porter (played by Trevante Rhodes), and asks Darious who his father is. When Darious tells him, Porter has a look of recognition on his face and says that he knows Malcolm because they both used to work for Mr. John, who committed suicide.

Porter also notices the injuries on Darious’ face and asks what happened. When Darious tells him, Porter advises Darious to learn how to physically fight back against bullies. Porter wonders out loud to Darious what kind of father Malcolm is if Malcolm hasn’t taught Darious how to defend himself in a fight. It’s a foreshadowing of some of the conflicts to come between Porter and Malcolm.

It should come as no surprise that Porter is far from being a role model. He’s living on the houseboat illegally after leaving Las Vegas under suspicious circumstance. And he has a violent and shady past. However, Darious doesn’t know all of that when he first meets Porter, so Darious is intrigued by this tattooed stranger.

During their first meeting, Darious calls Porter “weird.” But over time, as Darious starts to become emotionally distant from Malcolm, Darious seeks out Porter’s company. And it isn’t long before Darious starts calling Porter “cool.”

Porter and Malcolm really do know each other but haven’t seen each other in years. It’s for the most obvious reason possible. Darious eventually finds out this “secret” and discovers that Malcolm wasn’t quite the upstanding citizen that he is now.

Much of “Bruiser” is about the tug-of-war between Porter and Malcolm, as they compete for Darious’ respect, time and attention. Some of this conflict gets very repetitive in the movie, but the pacing and plot developments do a very good job on effectively increasing the tension. It should come as no surprise that things between Porter and Malcolm get worse, with Darious caught in the middle.

One of the best things about “Bruiser” is how it realistically shows that these characters are not stereotypes. There are no absolute “heroes” or “villains” in the story of these feuding men. Porter does a lot of irresponsible things and has a violent past, but he has a noble motive for wanting to be in Malcolm’s life and to prove that he’s not the criminal that he used to be.

Malcolm is a very responsible parent, but his ultra-competitiveness with Porter makes Malcolm lose control and do some irrational things too. Monica tries to be a mediator in the increasingly hostile disputes between Malcolm and Porter. Ultimately, she’s completely loyal to Malcolm.

And where does that leave Darious? Feeling like underage teens often feel: Old enough to make his own decisions but too young to legally be out of his parents’ control. It leads to an emotionally volatile showdown that viewers will see coming, but how it all ends in the movie might not be what most viewers will expect.

Warren’s direction shows that he has a keen eye for casting the right people and allowing time for viewers to get to know the characters in an immersive way. The movie’s dialogue can be a tad simplistic, but it works as well as it does because the actors embody their characters in a way that’s utterly believable. Hall, Anderson and Rhodes give “Bruiser” the spirited energy of portraying two strong-willed men and an impressionable teenage boy who are all battling in some way with insecurities, macho bravado, and what their definitions are to be men.

Most of all, it’s a movie that succeeds in depicting gritty realism and rosy optimism in how people judge what it mean to be redeemable. “Bruiser” doesn’t offer any easy answers. The movie shows how destructive cycles can be difficult to break when they involve several people. But the movie also sends a clear message about the power of individual responsibility and how someone else’s past shouldn’t completely define it.

Onyx Collective released “Bruiser” in select U.S. cinemas for a limited one-week engagement on December 2, 2022. “Bruiser” will premiere on Hulu in the U.S., Star+ in Latin America, and Disney+ in all other territories on February 24, 2023.

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.

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