Review: ‘About Dry Grasses,’ starring Deniz Celiloğlu, Merve Dizdar and Musab Ekici

February 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Merve Dizdar, Deniz Celiloğlu and Musab Ekici in “About Dry Grasses” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

“About Dry Grasses”

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Turkish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Turkey, the dramatic film “About Dry Grasses” features a cast if Turkish characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bachelor, who is an art teacher at a middle school, gets into various entanglements related to his career and his personal life. 

Culture Audience: “About Dry Grasses” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan and well-acted movies about adults who are disatisfied with their lives.

Merve Dizdar and Deniz Celiloğlu in “About Dry Grasses” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

“About Dry Grasses” will test the patience of anyone who doesn’t want to watch a talkative movie that’s a little more than three hours. However, this artsy drama is an interesting character study of a troubled teacher and his complex relationships. The movie has entwined storylines of how the teacher presents himself in different ways in his job and in his personal life, depending on whom he wants to manipulate or control.

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “About Dry Grasses” was co-written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, his wife Ebru Ceylan and Akın Aksu. “About Dry Grasses” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where Merve Dizdar won the prize for Best Actress. The movie made the rounds at other film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “About Dry Grasses” was Turkey’s official selection to be considered for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards. The movie made the shortlist but ultimately did not get an Oscar nomination.

“About Dry Grasses” takes place mostly in the rural municipality of Incescu, Turkey. In 2022, the population of Incescu was a little more than 29,000 people. In the beginning of the movie, it’s winter in an unspecified year in the early 2020s. An art teacher named Samet (played by Deniz Celiloğlu), who has just returned from a trip, trudges through the snow to get back to his modest house that he shares with his roommate Kenan (played by Musab Ekici), who is currently unemployed.

Samet and Kenan are both never-married bachelors in mid-to-late 30s, with no children. When Samet returns home, Kenan tells him that Kenan’s father is in a hospital, and Kenan’s mother is upset because Kenan is still a bachelor with no known prospects of finding a wife. Kenan also says that’s he’s been trying to find a job, but when he interviewed for a job as a security staffer, Kenan was told that the employer would rather have a dog do the security work.

Samet, who is very self-absorbed, doesn’t really care about Kenan’s problems, but he pretends to listen to Kenan as if he cares. As Samet says many times throughout the story, Samet is miserable with small-town life in Incescu, and he wants to find a job in a much bigger city, preferably Istanbul, where he used to live. For the past four years, Samet has been teaching eighth graders at a middle school in Incescu.

When Samet returns to his school after his vacation, he gives a mirror as a gift to one of his students named Savim (played by Ece Bağcı), who is very happy to see Samet. Samet tells her that this mirror is something he bought for her when he was on his trip. From the beginning, something seems a little inappropriate about the way that Savim and Samet are interacting toward each other.

Savim is very giggly with Samet and has an obvious crush on him, but he is touchy-feely with her in an affectionate way that suggests he’s flirting with her too. As an adult teacher, Samet doesn’t seem to be setting professional boundaries between himself and Savim. The mirror gift to Savim is also a sign that he’s giving her special treatment.

When a student complains to Samet in his classroom that Samet is giving special treatment to Savim and Savim’s friends, Samet verbally lashes out at this observant student by insulting him. Throughout the movie, Samet shows that he can be very charming but also very vindictive. He has a nasty temper that flares up whenever someone gives him criticism that he doesn’t like. He can be emotionally cruel to his students or anyone who doesn’t do exactly what he expects them to do.

Kenan eventually gets a job at the school as a custodian. Kenan reports to the school’s live-in custodian named Tolga (played by Erdem Senocak), who is later revealed to be a bit of a gossip. Kenan is a good guy who thinks Samet is his best friend, but Kenan is slow to pick up on social cues and facial expressions to see how Samet might really feel. Kenan mistakenly believes that Samet is as honest as Kenan is.

Samet hangs out with Kenan because Samet wants to be the superior “alpha male” to Kenan’s “beta male.” This attitude is most evident when a certain woman comes into both of their lives. Her name is Nuray (played by Dizdar), and she is an English teacher at a bigger school where Samet would probably like to work.

Samet meets Nuray for the first time at her school’s cafeteria. It’s sort of like a blind date for both of them. Nuray, who happens to be disabled, is intelligent and witty. She lost her part of a leg to amputation during a suicide bomber attack. Nuray’s parents don’t know that she was involved in radical political activism that led to her being near this bomb.

Later, Kenan meets Nuray when Samet introduces the both of them to each other. Kenan and Nuray seem to like each other a lot and have instant chemistry together. However, jealous Samet can’t bear the thought of Kenan having a more successful love life. Things happen in this love triangle, where someone inevitably gets emotionally hurt.

It’s never said out loud in the movie, by Samet seems to have big secrets about why he ended up in Incescu. For example, “About Dry Grasses” doesn’t reveal why Samet moved from his preferred big city of Istanbul to live in the remote town of Incescu. Samet tells anyone who’ll listen that he doesn’t like small-town life.

It’s very easy to speculate that maybe Samet left Istanbul because he was running away from something. The movie leaves it up to interpretation, but it’s a logical guess that maybe Samet got involved in a scandal in Istanbul, considering how sneaky and dishonest Samet is revealed to be in this movie.

Meanwhile, the discovery of a love letter throws things into chaos for Samet. The movie shows whether or not he gets out of this predicament and the lengths that he will go to in those efforts to not get into trouble. “About Dry Grasses” has some scenes that are intriguing and suspenseful and other scenes that are just of long conversations (usually at a dinner table) of people talking about mostly mundane things.

Boredom might set in for some viewers during this lengthy movie, but what will probably keep people interested is to see what happens to Samet. How long will he continue to juggle the various sides of his personality? Dizdar gives a very skilled performance of someone who just might be a sociopath but is pretty good at hiding it from most people.

Samet also has a great deal of self-loathing. The movie gets its title from a line that he says near the end of the film whene he comments that dry grasses are “worthless, like my life.” Ironically, the person in the movie who is the first to see Samet for who he really is the one whose judgment is questioned the most. “About Dry Grasses” shows in effective ways how warning signs about a problematic person can be ignored because people don’t want to admit that they could be fooled by a manipulative liar.

Sideshow and Janus Films released “About Dry Grasses” in select U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘How to Have Sex,’ starring Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, Samuel Bottomley, Shaun Thomas, Enva Lewis and Laura Ambler

February 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas in “How to Have Sex” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“How to Have Sex”

Directed by Molly Manning Walker

Culture Representation: Taking place in Greece, the dramatic film “How to Have Sex” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three British female friends, who are in their late teens, go on vacation together in Greece, where they party a lot, and one of the women gets sexually assaulted by a young British man who became one of their party acquaintances. 

Culture Audience: “How to Have Sex” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about “date rape” and its psychological effects.

Lara Peake, Enva Lewis and Mia McKenna-Bruce in “How to Have Sex” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“How to Have Sex” is a realistic drama about sexual awakening and sexual assault during a vacation revolving around carefree intoxication. It’s not a preachy movie, but it’s a candid observation of confusion, regret and peer pressure in sexual experiences. “How to Have Sex” is told from the perspectives of people in their late teens and early 20s, but the themes in the film can apply to anyone.

Written and directed by Molly Manning Walker, “How to Have Sex” is her skillfully made feature-film debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize. “How to Have Sex” also screened at several other film festivals in 2023, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. “How to Have Sex” also won three prizes at the 2023 British Independent Film Awards: Best Lead Performance (for Mia McKenna-Bruce); Best Supporting Performance (for Shaun Thomas); and Best Casting (for Isabella Odoffin).

In “How to Have Sex” (which takes place in an unnamed part of Greece), three British female best friends, have recently graduated from high school and are on a summer vacation. The three pals are vacationing together at a resort that’s popular with other young people who want to do a lot of partying. The three besties are charismatic Tara (played by McKenna-Bruce), bossy Skye (played by Lara Peake), and friendly Em (played by Enva Lewis), who all consider themselves to be fun-loving free spirits. However, in the beginning of the story, Tara is a virgin and is somewhat embarrassed about it, because she doesn’t want anyone else outside of this trio of friends to know that she is a virgin.

Tara, Skye and Em all share the same room together at the resort hotel. The first third of the movie consists of scenes of the three women having a lot of drunken antics and hangovers. Their personalities, which become more apparent in their interactions with people, affect how they react to certain situations.

Skye thinks of herself as the leader of this trio. She constantly wants to know what other people are doing in their sex lives and gives unsolicited advice. Skye is very manipulative, since she says and does things to either bring people together in hookups that she wants to happen, or steer people away from hookups that she doesn’t want to happen. During a drinking game of “Never Have I Ever,” Skye seems to be the most sexually experienced of the three friends.

Tara, who is nicknamed Taz, is the talkative and somewhat goofy charmer of the group. Early on in the movie, there’s a scene where Em unsuccessfully asks the hotel’s front-desk receptionist (played by Eleni Sachini) if the three friends could switch to a room that overlooks the hotel’s swimming pool. The receptionist insists that there is no such room available. But then, Tara immediately comes along, introduces herself to the receptionist with a smile, and talks the receptionist into giving them this room by saying that Skye has been learning to swim, and having a room with the view of the swimming pool will give Skye more confidence.

Em is the quietest one of the trio, which doesn’t mean that she’s not talkative. Em just doesn’t call attention to herself as much as Tara and Skye do. There are hints that Em comes from an affluent family, because she says at one point, “I miss my BMW.” Em is also queer, since her main hookup during this vacation is a butch-looking young British woman named Paige (played by Laura Ambler), who is staying with some British friends at the hotel room next door.

Paige is sharing the room with two guys who are about the same age (late teens or early 20s) and who are also doing a lot of partying. Best friends Badger (played by Thomas) and Paddy (played by Samuel Bottomley) are enthusiastic participants in all the drunken debauchery taking place during this vacation. Not much is revealed about the backgrounds of Badger and Paddy, which is the movie’s way of showing how encounters in this type of environment are often superficial and aren’t about getting to know people better outside of partying and meaningless flings.

Badger, with his tattoos and messy bleach-blonde hair, looks and acts like a stereotypical stoner/drunkard who over-indulges in marijuana and alcohol. The only things he reveals about himself and his life outside of the bubble of this vacation is that his job is “driving vans” (he doesn’t give further details) and that his mother and Paddy’s mother are also best friends. Paddy is more clean-cut and less of a loudmouth than Badger. Paddy often acts like he’s Badger’s “wing man,” since Badger is more likely to take the lead in approaching women.

Badger first sees Tara the morning after a night of heavy partying. They both happen to be on their balconies of their respective rooms at the same time. Badger immediately flirts with Tara, but she doesn’t seem that interested in him, but she accepts his invitation for Tara and her friends to meet up with Badger and his friends at a party. It’s at this party where Tara meets Paddy, and she’s instantly attracted to him, but he doesn’t seem very interested in Tara.

Meanwhile, Skye notices that Badger has been heavily flirting with Tara, who is slowly warming up to Badger’s attention. When Tara and Badger get drunk together, she likes to make him laugh with silly jokes. However, observant viewers will notice that Skye is attracted to Badger, even though Skye doesn’t say so out loud. When Skye finds out that Tara prefers Paddy, Skye encourages Tara to flirt more with Paddy.

At first, “How to Have Sex” shows a lot of intoxicated reveling at places like nightclubs, hotel rooms or swimming pools. It looks repetitive, but it’s the movie way of showing how people in these situations can be lulled into thinking that life is one big party and the worst thing that can happen to them is maybe getting lost or having a hangover. It’s not the movie giving criticism of partying, but it shows how intoxicated partying can impair people’s judgments to the point where they will do things differently or get themselves in situations that they wouldn’t be in if they were clear-minded and sober.

Even in scenes showing a lot of young people partying as if they don’t have a care in the world, there is an underlying sense that sexual antics could go too far and cross the line into sexual assault. At nightclubs and gatherings at swimming pools, party hosts have games requiring participants to take off items of their clothing or do sexually suggestive things, such as place a beer bottle in a crotch area (while clothed) and serve the beer into the open mouth of another participant. No one is shown being forced to participate in these games, but the women who participate are more at risk than men of being perceived as “promiscuous” for playing these games.

During one of these games in a swimming pool, Badger volunteers to be licked and kissed by several women volunteers (who are strangers to him) at the same time in the pool. One of the women ends up giving him oral sex in front of everyone who can see it, although the graphic details are not shown in the movie. Tara sees all of this going on, and she looks uncomfortable. It’s not like she thinks Badger is her boyfriend, but it’s an eye-opening incident for her to find out that this is the kind of thing he’ll do when he’s drunk. The next day, Badger says he has no memory of what happened in the swimming pool.

The prevailing attitude about sexual hookups during all of this partying is: “If it feels good, and it’s consensual, why not?” But what if someone is too intoxicated to consent? That’s where problems can occur, especially if people can’t agree on what it means to be “too intoxicated” in the context of the situation. There’s also peer pressure, since this is the type of vacation where the partiers don’t want to be perceived as being uptight and prudish. Skye and Tara almost have a big argument when Skye drops hints to people that Tara is a virgin.

It’s enough to say that the possible love triangle between Badger, Tara and Paddy turns into something that is definitely not love. Tara loses her virginity to one of them in a consensual encounter. She then regrets it when he acts like the encounter didn’t mean much to him, so she becomes quiet and withdrawn. He then wants to have another sexual encounter with her, but she says no. However, when she’s half-asleep one morning, he crawls into bed with her and starts to have sex with Tara, without her consent, under the covers. He stops only because Skye walks in and unknowingly interrupts this assault.

The rape of Tara happens so quickly, she’s in shock. The tone of “How to Have Sex” then changes from being upbeat to sobering to borderline depressing. The movie does an excellent job of showing the psychological effects this rape has on Tara, as the shock wears off, and she begins to understand that what happened to her wasn’t a drunken mistake: She was deliberately raped.

Does Tara report this rape? It’s a dilemma that many rape victims often face: How do you report a rape when the rapist is someone who can claim it was consensual sex, because the victim had previously had consensual sex with the rapist on another occasion? It’s also a “he said/she said” situation, because no one except Tara and her rapist saw what happened.

Skye is too self-absorbed to notice the personality change in Tara, but Em notices and is a compassionate friend who takes the time to listen to a friend in need. Because Tara is the main character in “How to Have Sex,” the heart and soul of the movie is in the performance of McKenna-Bruce, who does an admirable job of conveying all the emotions of someone who goes from being a bubbly party girl to a vulnerable rape survivor. Whether or not the rapist is punished for the crime is not the point of this movie. The main intent of “How to Have Sex” is to show how easily a sexual-assault crime can happen and how the crime victim chose to cope with it.

MUBI released “How to Have Sex” in select U.S. cinemas on February 2, 2024. The movie was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in 2023.

Review: ‘Perfect Days’ (2023), starring Kôji Yakusho

February 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kôji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” (2023)

Directed by Wim Wenders

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tokyo, the dramatic film “Perfect Days” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly sanitation worker, who is a quiet loner, spends his days and nights trying to live a harmonious existence when he’s with other people, but he sometimes battles loneliness and being misunderstood. 

Culture Audience: “Perfect Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a “slice of life” movie that focuses on a specific individual.

Arisa Nakano and Kôji Yakusho in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” is a “slice of life” movie about an elderly sanitation worker who is a quiet loner. Viewer appreciation will rest entirely on whether or not this person is worth watching. For most people, the answer is “yes.” However, because “Perfect Days” is a slow-paced movie, it won’t have much appeal to viewers with short attention spans or those who have no interest in seeing this insularly focused movie about this type of person.

Directed by Wim Wenders (who co-wrote the “Perfect Days” screenplay with Takuma Takasaki), “Perfect Days” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where star Kôji Yakusho won the prize for Best Actor. The movie then made the rounds at numerous film festivals in 2023, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “Perfect Days” was nominated for Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards.

Yakusho, who stars as “Perfect Days” protagonist Hirayama, gives the type of performance where he has to do a lot of acting with his facial expressions and body language, since Hirayama doesn’t talk at all for a great deal of the film. When he does talk, he does so sparingly, without saying his inner feelings out loud. It’s the type of performance that will make viewers want to know more about Hirayama—not in a way where the movie feels incomplete, but in a way that indicates there’s a lot more to Hirayama than he shows to the people he sees on a regular basis.

“Perfect Days” shows what amounts to about two weeks of Hirayama’s life. He works for a company called The Tokyo Toilet, and his job is to clean outdoor public toilets in Tokyo, where he lives. He is very responsible, prompt and thorough in his work. It doesn’t take long for viewers to see that Hirayama likes to keep his life uncomplicated and is happy with finding comfort in life’s simple pleasures.

Very little is known about Hirayama before this story takes place. What were his hopes and dreams when he was younger? Has he been married? Does he have children? What types of jobs did he have before his current job? Don’t expect answers to these questions, although because Hirayama lives alone and doesn’t mention having any children, it can be assumed that he’s a bachelor with no children.

A few things become apparent about Hirayama from his interactions with people. He’s kind, he’s generous, and he likes his daily routines. He has a pattern that he sticks to of going to his job, a local park for lunch, his favorite cafe and bar when he’s not working, and then going home. He likes listening to classic rock, reading, and taking outdoor photos. He keeps his photos neatly filed in boxes labeled according to the months that the photos were taken.

Hirayama shows his generosity by lending a co-worker in his 20s named Takashi (played by Tokio Emoto) some money so that Takashi can court a girlfriend named Aya (played by Aoi Yamada), whom Takashi wants desperately to impress. Takashi gets the money by whining to Hirayama that the Tokyo Toilet job doesn’t pay Takashi enough money to take Aya out on the dates that he thinks Aya deserves. At first, Takashi tried to persuade Hirayama to sell off a large part of Hirayama’s music collection (he has mostly cassettes and vinyl albums) to get the money, but Hirayama decides to just give Takashi the wanted cash instead. Takashi shows up late for work sometimes. When Hirayama has to pick up the slack for Takashi’s flakiness, Hirayama does so without complaining.

Music is a big part of “Perfect Days,” since Hirayama listens to classic rock from the 1960s and 1970s for enjoyment, and it becomes a way that he bonds with certain people in the movie. Patti Smith’s breakthrough 1975 album “Horses” is prominently featured as part of the story. Other music heard in the movie’s soundtrack (which is the soundtrack to Hirayama’s life) are songs such as Lou Reed’s plaintive 1972 ballad “Perfect Day,” Van Morrison’s classic 1967 love song “Brown Eyed Girl” and the Kinks’ 1966 jaunty hit “Sunny Afternoon.”

A turning point in the story comes with the unexpected visit of Hirayama’s teenage niece Niko (played by Arisa Nakano), who shows up at Hirayama’s home because she’s having problems with her mother, who is Hirayama’s younger sister. This visit is a catalyst for Hirayama to look at his life from Niko’s perspective, and it opens up some old emotional wounds and certain feelings in Hirayama. “Perfect Days” is not a perfect movie, but it’s a wonderful example of a contemplative movie about someone who usually isn’t the main character of a movie and is the type of person who is often overlooked or forgotten in real life.

Neon released “Perfect Days” in New York City on November 10, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024. The movie was released in Japan and other countries in 2023.

Review: ‘Memory’ (2023), starring Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Brooke Timber, Elsie Fisher, Josh Charles and Jessica Harper

January 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment)

“Memory” (2023)

Directed by Michel Franco

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Memory” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A recovering alcoholic, who has traumatic memories from her past, forms an unexpected bond with a former high school classmate who has dementia.

Culture Audience: “Memory” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard; filmmaker Michel Franco; and movies that have realistic portrayals of emotionally damaged adults.

Jessica Chastain in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment)

“Memory” is a skillfully acted character study of how memories can be blocked out, preserved, or warped to shape personal self-identities or perceptions of others. This drama’s sluggish pacing drags down the movie, but it doesn’t ruin the film. And some of the film’s subject matter, such as taking care of someone with dementia or having dementia, might be triggering or upsetting for people who’ve been through those experiences. However, the movie has a powerful message about how human connections can thrive in unlikely circumstances.

Written and directed by Michel Franco, “Memory” (which was filmed on location in New York City) had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, where “Memory” co-star Peter Sarsgaard won the prize for Best Actor. The movie made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. Viewers who see the trailer for “Memory” before seeing the movie should know in advance that the trailer is somewhat misleading, because it makes “Memory” look more suspenseful than it really is.

“Memory” is told from the perspective of middle-aged Sylvia (played by Jessica Chastain), a social worker whose job is at an adult care facility for disabled and emotionally troubled people. Sylvia is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for the past 13 years. It’s revealed later in the movie that Sylvia was a very rebellious teen who began drinking when she was an adolescent.

The movie opens with a scene of Sylvia in an Alcoholics Anonymous support group meeting, where she is highly respected, and the feeling is mutual. Sylvia is a single mother to a 15-year-old daughter named Anna (played by Brooke Timber), who is an intuitive and obedient child. Sylvia and Anna live in a small apartment in New York City’s Queens borough. They aren’t poor, but they have some financial struggles. Anna notices that their refrigerator isn’t working again, and Sylvia seems bothered that it’s another expense that will put a strain on her finances.

Sylvia doesn’t have a social life and seems every emotionally closed off to many people. At her high school reunion, she sits by herself, looking bored, and she doesn’t really talk to anyone. A man named Saul Shapiro (played by Sarsgaard), one of her former classmates, sits down at the same table and tries to start a conversation with her.

Sylvia looks very annoyed. She gets up and walks out of the building. But then, she notices that Saul is following her. He follows Sylvia on the subway all the way back to her apartment building, but she is able to get to the building’s front door before he does, and she locks it behind her. And then, Saul does something even creepier: He stands outside her apartment building like a stalker, even when it begins to rain.

Sylvia has become alarmed but she doesn’t call the police. The next morning, she sees that Saul has spent the night outside the apartment. She can see that he’s not mentally well, so she asks him for his phone and calls a number of anyone who can identify him and pick him up. Sylvia gets Saul’s protective bother Isaac (played by Josh Charles) on the phone.

Isaac explains that Saul has dementia and that Saul has episodes where he wanders off and goes to places and has no memory of how he got there. Isaac picks up Saul, but that isn’t the last time that Sylvia sees him. She calls Isaac the next day to ask to see Saul and to find out if he’s doing any better. Isaac, who is a single father, lives with teenage daughter Sara (played by Elsie Fisher), who has an almost immediate rapport with Sylvia.

Through a series of circumstances, Sylvia reluctantly accepts Isaac’s offer to be Saul’s part-time caregiver during the day. The rest of “Memory” shows the up-and-down relationship that develops between Saul and Sylvia. She is haunted by traumatic memories of her past that have affected her self-esteem and her relationships with her soft-spoken, married older sister Olivia (played by Merritt Wever) and their widowed mother Samantha (played by Jessica Harper), who has been estranged from Sylvia for years.

“Memory” is not the type of movie where healing comes easily. There are moments of self-awareness and self-sabotage that happen throughout the story. Sylvia has a tendency to be a caretaker to others, but she also has to come to an understanding that she needs a lot of emotional self-care that she has neglected. “Memory” is a testament to how people can find solace in simple moments that can have a much larger impact than expected.

Ketchup Entertainment released “Memory” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on January 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,’ starring Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales, Veronica Falcón, Kevin Alejandro, Eva Longoria and Eugenio Derbez

December 18, 2023

by Carla Hay

Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales in “Artistotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”

Directed by Aitch Alberto

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1987, in El Paso, Texas, and in Chicago, the dramatic film “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” (based on the 2012 novel of the same name) features a predominantly Latin cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: When a 16-year-old brooding loner meets a teenage boy of the same age who has an opposite personality, they become unlikely friends that could turn into something more, but one of the teens is afraid to admit this romantic attraction. 

Culture Audience: “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted coming-of-age dramas told from a queer perspective.

Reese Gonzales and Max Pelayo in “Artistotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” isn’t just another “opposites attract” movie. The engaging and realistic performances by Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales keep things interesting in this self-identity teen drama when the story starts to wander and get unfocused. The ending is predictable, but the journey to get there is worth watching.

Written and directed by Aitch Alberto, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is based on Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 novel of the same name. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s an emotionally authentic story about friendship and young love that happens to also be about coming to terms with someone’s true sexuality.

The movie, which takes place in 1987, begins in El Paso, Texas. That’s where 16-year-old Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza (played by Pelayo) lives with his parents. Ari’s father Jaime Mendoza (played by Eugenio Derbez, one of the movie’s producers) is a mailman. Ari’s mother Liliana Mendoza (played by Veronica Falcón) appears to be a homemaker. Ari is a student at Austin Public High School, where he is a quiet and introverted loner.

Ari has a brother who’s about 10 years older named Bernardo, who is in prison. Bernardo went to prison when Ari was too young (about 5 years old) to know what happened. Ari’s parents have refused to tell Ari why Bernardo is in prison because it’s a shameful secret. The only thing that Ari knows is that Bernardo is in prison for a violent crime.

There’s a scene early on in the movie where Ari and Liliana are in the kitchen in their family home. She gets upset when Ari jokes that he’s going to join a gang. “I’m Mexican,” Ari says. “Isn’t that what we do?”

In the beginning of the movie, Ari says in a voiceover: “One summer night, I fell asleep, hoping the night would be different when I woke up. In the morning, I opened my eyes, and the world was the same.” However, that summer, Ari would meet someone special, and both of ther lives would never be the same.

That special someone is Dante Quintana (played by Gonzales), who meets Ari for the first time when they happen to be at the same public swimming pool. Dante offers to teach Ari to swim when he notices Ari struggling a little bit in the pool. Ari is too proud to ask for a lot of help, but he and Dante strike up a conversation. It’s not that hard to do because Dante is very friendly and talkative.

The conversation turns into a genuine friendship, despite Dante and Ari having opposite personalities and different family backgrounds. Dante’s father Sam Quintana (played by Kevin Alejandro) is a university professor. Dante’s mother Soledad Quintana (played by Eva Longoria) is sophisticated and very open-minded. Dante (who is an only child) mentions at one point in the movie that he has Mexican heritage because of his mother’s side of the family.

Ari’s and Dante’s bedrooms are also a study in contrasts. Ari’s room is small and uncluttered, with nothing hanging on the walls. Dante’s room is large, cluttered and messy. Each of their rooms is a reflection of how they live their lives. Ari is guarded and doesn’t easily reveal himself to a lot of people. Dante, who doesn’t really care if people think he’s a little weird, lives his life exuberantly.

Ari and Dante eventually meet each other’s parents. When Dante meets Ari’s parents for the first time, he gives them a book of Mexican art. Dante says that it was Dante’s father’s idea to give this gift. Dante is the type of person who likes artsy independent films, while Ari likes more mainstream entertainment. Ari looks like he could be a heartthrob athlete. Dante looks like he could be a sensitive intellectual.

Dante and Ari’s close friendship continues after their summer break is over and the new school year begins. Dante is new to the school, so Ari has to be the one to tell him to steer clear of the school’s chief gossip Gina Navarro (played by Isabella Gomez) and her equally nosy sidekick Susie Byrd (played by Hanani Taylor), who both immediately notice how close Dante and Ari are. As far as Ari is concerned, he wants everyone to think that he’s heterosexual and that his seemingly unlikely friendship with Dante is strictly platonic.

Ari becomes so close to Dante and Dante’s parents, they all go on a camping trip together. It’s during this trip that Ari and Dante look through a telescope. Dante tells Ari, “Someday, I’m going to discover all the secrets of the universe.”

The friendship of Dante and Ari is put to the test when Dante drops some surprising news: Dante’s father accepted a year-long visiting professor job at the University of Chicago. The middle section of the movie shows what happens when Dante is in Chicago and Ari is in El Paso. Dante writes letters to Ari, and they both go on dates with girls who are about the same age.

Ari’s would-be love interest is a schoolmate named Elena Tellez (played by Luna Blaise), who makes the first move in flirting with Ari. As for Dante, it’s obvious that Dante is not entirely comfortable being romantic with girls, and he’s been in love with Ari all along. And what about Ari? The rest of the movie is about whether or not Ari can express his true feelings, which are confusing to him and which he often denies.

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” has some parts of the story that are somewhat mundane and somewhat melodramatic. Because it takes less time for Dante to express his true feelings, the last third of the movie becomes an extended “guessing game” of what Ari will do when he finds out that Dante has romantic feelings for him. The direction of the movie is solid, but the pacing of the film could have been better.

However, because of the talented cast in “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” viewers will get a good sense of what the characters are feeling from different angles. Although the focus of the story is on Ari and Dante, their parents’ perspectives are also given importance and show why Ari and Dante both have different ways of coming to terms with their respective sexualities. There’s plenty of teen angst in the movie, but what viewers will most remember is that it’s a story about living your truth, even when being honest about who you are and who you love can be painful.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” in select U.S. cinemas on September 8, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on November 14, 2023.

Review: ‘To Kill a Tiger,’ a documentary about a family seeking justice for an underage rape

December 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kiran (alias) in “To Kill a Tiger” (Photo courtesy of Notice Pictures Inc. and National Film Board of Canada)

“To Kill a Tiger”

Directed by Nisha Pahuja

Hindi, Nagpuri and Khortha with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, from 2016 to 2018, the documentary film “To Kill a Tiger” features an all-Indian group of representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In a legal system where it’s difficult for people to get convicted of rape, a farmer leads the fight to get justice for his daughter, who was gang raped when she was 13 years old.

Culture Audience: “To Kill a Tiger” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a real-life story about family loyalty and about persistence in a legal case, against the odds of winning.

Ranjit, NGO activist Amit Singh and Jaganti in “To Kill a Tiger” (Photo courtesy of Notice Pictures Inc. and National Film Board of Canada)

Even though “To Kill a Tiger” shows the devastating aftermath of a heinous crime, the more important takeaway from the film is that it’s an inspiring story of perseverance and love from a family seeking justice. Because this documentary is about a case of an underage girl being gang raped, the subject matter in “To Kill a Tiger” will be difficult for some viewers to watch. However, it’s a meaningful chronicle of what it takes to go up against a justice system where rape victims are often shamed and blamed, while rapists are rarely convicted in a court of law.

Directed by Nisha Pahuja, “To Kill a Tiger” (which takes place mostly in Jharkhand, India) had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie was mostly filmed from 2016 to 2018. The rape survivor, who has the alias Kiran in the movie, was 18 at the time the documentary was filmed, but she was 13 when the rape happened. “To Kill a Tiger” shows the long process of her case making its way through the legal system in India. (The trial lasted 14 months.)

Although Kiran’s face is shown in “To Kill a Tiger,” and she gives interviews for the documentary, “To Kill a Tiger” includes this caption at the beginning of the film: “Out of respect for her and her family’s privacy, we ask that any identifying images of her not be shared outside the viewing of this film.” The last name of Kiran and her family members is also not revealed in the movie. Her personality is polite, quiet and reserved.

In “To Kill a Tiger,” the parent who does most of the talking is Kiran’s father Ranjit, a farmer who fought tirelessly to get justice. He says when his wife Jaganti was pregnant with Kiran, he was sure that the baby would be a girl, while Jaganti thought the baby would be a boy. Ranjit describes Kiran as a “daddy’s girl.”

Ranjit comments in the documentary, “She was our first child, so I’ve spoiled her … The amount of love have her, I wasn’t able to give to any other child. I think she received all my love, and there’s nothing left for anyone else.”

The rape of Kiran happened on the night of the wedding of Ranjit’s nephew. Kiran stayed out past midnight. Three young men were taken to custody as suspects for the rape: Kapil Munda, Langra Munda and Iswar Munda. They all pleaded not guilty.

In the documentary, Ranjit says that the rape was so violent, it caused internal injuries for Kiran. He also expresses guilt over the circumstances of the rape, even though it wasn’t his fault: “As her father, I deeply regret that I didn’t protect her. I feel I wasn’t vigilant enough, and so this [rape] happened.”

Ranjit continues, “All the other days when she’d go out, I’d tell her how long she could play for and what time to be home. But on that day, I didn’t tell her, and that’s my mistake. That’s what I regret the most.”

Jharkhand is in the Bero district. Ranjit says in “To Kill a Tiger” that after the rape was reported to authorities, the district chief suggested that Kiran marry one of the accused rapists. Other people in the village pressured Ranjit to compromise so the accused rapists wouldn’t have to spend any time in jail while waiting for this serious legal issue to be resolved.

Ranjit has supportive allies, who make a positive difference in getting legal help and counseling for Kiran and her family. These allies include women’s rights activist Mahendra Kumar, public prosecutor Ashok Kumar “A.J.” Rai, Srijan Foundation lawyer Jopha Laka and legal advisor Lakhan Lala Shah.

Kumar says that in his line of work, he all too often sees the backlash against women and girls who come forward to report being sexually assaulted. He says that more men need to be included in the conversations and actions that advocate for women’s rights. Kumar comments that people often mistakenly think men are automatically excluded from feminism or fighting for women’s rights.

Public prosecutor Rai says that his job as a prosecutor is to fight for underage victims under India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act, but laments that he is overwhelmed with all the rape cases he has to handle. At the time that Rai was interviewed for this documentary, he said he had 400 to 500 cases in his current workload.

The three men accused of raping Ranjit are not interviewed in “To Kill a Tiger,” but the documentary includes an interview with their defense attorney Juhi Chaudhry, who blames Kiran for being out past midnight when Kiran was 13 years old. She says of her clients who were arrested for raping Kiran: “If I thought they were guilty, I wouldn’t have taken the case.”

One of the more unsettling scenes in “To Kill a Tiger” is when the documentary shows a group of male villagers talking about the case. One of them, who is only identified by his first name Muthalik, says about sexual assault allegations: “A boy will only be naughty if a girl encourages it.” It’s a stark example of the inherent misogyny of people who are quick to blame female rape victims instead of blaming the rapists.

Of course, in India’s legal system and other legal systems, people are innocent until proven guilty. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom for the trial of Kiran’s accused rapists, but “To Kill a Tiger” adeptly chronicles the trial through the news media and through the perspectives of Ranjit and other family members who talked about it on camera.

As for how Kiran is recovering from her ordeal, the trial comes to an end (the outcome won’t be revealed in this review), but interviews with her indicate that emotional scars remain. She worries about how being a rape survivor will affect her chances of finding love. “I keep thinking, ‘Will I fall in love or not?’ I think about that a lot. And if I do, how do I tell him what happened to me?”

“To Kill a Tiger” is an impactful documentary about how ordinary people can survive trauma and the experience of an extraordinary legal battle. Although Ranjit is no doubt a hero, and he gets most of the documentary’s screen time, Kiran has a special type of bravery that is the fuel to her father’s fire. Kiran’s story is heartbreaking, but more importantly, it is inspiring.

Notice Pictures released “To Kill a Tiger” in New York City on October 26, 2023, in Los Angeles on October 26, 2023, and in San Francisco on November 4, 2023.

Review: ‘The Boy and the Heron,’ a fantastical adventure anime movie from filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki

November 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Mahito Maki and the Grey Heron in “The Boy and the Heron” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Boy and the Heron”

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, mostly in 1944, the animated film “The Boy and the Heron” features a cast of Japanese human and animal characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A lonely adolescent boy, who’s grieving over the accidental death of his mother, befriends a half-heron/half-man, who leads the boy to fantastical world inside a mysterious tower, where he encounters past versions of various people and a power-hungry group of parakeets. 

Culture Audience: “The Boy and the Heron” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and time-traveling anime movies that can be enjoyed by various generations.

Himi in “The Boy and the Heron” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Boy and the Heron” artfully blends heavy issues of grief with the escapism of a thrilling adventure. It’s a beautifully told and moving story that is as much about being a legacy to departed loved ones as it is about establishing one’s own identity. “The Boy and the Heron” had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “The Boy and the Heron” is inspired by but not connected to Genzaburō Yoshin’s 1937 novel “How Do You Live?,” which is the Japanese title of the movie. “The Boy and the Heron” has elements of Miyazaki’s childhood in the movie, which has an original screenplay. Miyazaki (who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for 2001’s “Spirited Away”) has been synonymous with among the best of what Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has to offer. “The Boy and the Heron” ends a 10-year gap between Miyazaki’s movies. His previous movie was 2013’s Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises.”

“The Boy and the Heron” begins with a tragedy. In 1943, in Tokyo during the Pacific War, 12-year-old Mahito Maki is woken up from his sleep to the sound of chaos. His businessman father Shoichi Maki tells him that the hospital where Mahito’s mother Himi works is on fire. The hospital and the fire can be seen from the Maki family home. Mahito (who is an only child at this point) wants to go with his father to the hospital to help save Maki, but Shoichi insists that Mahito stay at home. Unfortunately, Maki does not survive the fire. It’s implied that the fire was caused by a bomb during this war.

The following year, 13-year-old Mahito and Shoichi move to Grey Heron Mansion, in an unnamed city in the countryside. Shoichi, who owns an ammunition factory near the estate, is now married to Himi’s younger sister Natsuko, who is described as a look-alike to Himi. The first time that Mahito meets Natsuko, he finds out that she is pregnant with his younger sibling. It’s a lot to take in for introverted Mahito, who is deep in grief over his mother’s death.

The mansion has seven elderly maids, who dote on Mahito and often work together in a pack. The maids’ names are Kiriko, Aiko, Izumi, Eriko, Utako, Oyuki, and Kazuko. Kiriko is the unofficial leader of the maids. She is often stoic and less talkative than the other maids in the group. Natsuko and all of the maids treat Mahito with kindness. Shoichi is a caring father, but he is very preoccupied with his work.

One day, Mahito notices that a grey heron has flown up to him, as if to try to get his attention. Mahito is told that his grey heron has lived on the property for quite some time. The grey heron will visit Mahito more times over the next several days.

Shortly after moving to this new home, Mahito goes exploring in the estate’s wooded area. He finds a tower that is somewhat sealed off, but Mahito finds a way to peek inside. He’s later told by Natsuko that the tower was built by her granduncle, who had a mental breakdown and disappeared. However, this granduncle left behind a book of his writings. Natsuko also tells Mahito that when Himi was a child, Himi disappeared for a year, but reappeared a year later with no memory of having been gone.

Quiet and shy Mahito has a hard time making friends with other students at his school. The students mostly ignore him or give him hostile stares. Out of frustration and to get out of going to school, Mahito hits himself on the head with a rock. It causes him to bleed profusely. Mahito tells people that he fell down, but his father Shoichi doesn’t believe Mahito. Shoichi thinks that Mahito was assaulted by a bully and is determined to find out who it is.

While Mahito is recovering from his injuries, he gets an unusual visit from the grey heron, who flies to Mahito’s window and squawks, “Mahito, save me!” The heron tells Mahito that Mahito’s mother is still alive and living in the tower. Around the same time, Natsuko goes missing. Through a series of events, Mahito, the heron and Kiriko find themselves trapped in the tower, which is actually a magical place inside that has past versions of some of the people whom Mahito knows.

The grey heron also reveals himself to be half-pelican, half-man, who can wear the pelican part of his body like a costume. It’s best not to go into further details in this review, but it’s enough to say that the story in “The Boy and the Heron” also features pelicans, a parakeet kingdom, and beings called warawara that look like white-colored stars and have a purpose that’s connected to life forces. Some of the scenes in this movie are visually stunning and very immersive.

The voices of “The Boy and the Heron” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Soma Santoki as Mahito, Masaki Suda as the Grey Heron, Takuya Kimura as Soichi, Yoshino Kimura as Natsuko, Kô Shibasaki as Kiriko, Aimyon as Himi, Jun Kunimura as the Parakeet King and Kaoru Kobayashi as a wise old pelican. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Luca Padovan as Mahito, Robert Pattinson as the Grey Heron, Christian Bale as Soichi, Gemma Chan as Natsuko, Florence Pugh as Kiriko, Karen Fukuhara as Himi, Dave Bautista as the Parakeet King and Willem Dafoe as a wise old pelican.

“The Boy and the Heron” explores themes of life, death, and what it might mean to change one’s destiny by going back in time and possibly doing things differently. There are also some sociopolitical observations about how much control people should give leaders over who lives and who dies, as well as some obvious (but not preachy) commentary about the dangers of damaging the environment. There’s a point in the story where Mahito has to decide how much he is going to make his grief control a big decision that he has to make.

The movie has some well-animated and suspenseful action scenes and gives each of the main characters a distinct personality. The voice actors also give very good but not outstanding performances. With so many animated movies stuck in a formulaic rut, “The Boy and the Heron” can be a viable option for people looking for a well-made and entertaining animated film that also has meaningful messages about humanity’s connections to other creatures, the environment, and the life cycles that are unique to all.

GKIDS released “The Boy and the Heron” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on July 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Next Goal Wins’ (2023), starring Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett and Elisabeth Moss

November 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Michael Fassbender (center) in “Next Goal Wins” (Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Searchlight Pictures)

“Next Goal Wins” (2023)

Directed by Taika Waititi

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2011, mostly in American Samoa, the comedy/drama film “Next Goal Wins” (based on real events) features Asian/Pacific Islander and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A hard-drinking and volatile soccer coach is exiled to work with the American Samoa National Team, which hasn’t scored a goal in years. 

Culture Audience: “Next Goal Wins” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Taika Waititi, star Michael Fassbender, and “against-all-odds” sports movies that are very corny.

Cast members of “Next Goal Wins,” including Lehi Falepapalangi (third from left), Kaimana (fourth from left), Michael Fassbender (fifth from left) and Beulah Koale (sixth from left). (Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Searchlight Pictures)

“Next Goal Wins” should’ve been a creative and exciting sports movie, considering the uniqueness of this true story. Instead, it overuses tiresome clichés of a grumpy outsider training a ragtag team. The dull comedy and ethnic stereotypes are cringeworthy. “Next Goal Wins” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Taika Waititi (who co-wrote the subpar “Next Goal Wins” screenplay with Iain Morris), “Next Goal Wins” is based on a true story of how Dutch-born soccer coach Thomas Rongen transformed the American Samoa National Team from being on a losing streak of never scoring a goal in games for years to being a team capable of scoring goals and winning games. This story was also the subject of the 2014 documentary “Next Goal Wins.”

The scripted version of “Next Goal Wins” (which takes place in 2011) follows every single formula that has been done so many times already in similar movies, except the sports team in “Next Goal Wins” happens to have a transgender player. Waititi does occasional voiceover narration that’s supposed to sound folksy and whimsical, but it just comes across as annoying and unnecessary. Waititi also has a cameo role in the movie as an American Samoan priest.

In the beginning of “Next Goal Wins,” there’s a flashback to 2001, as the narrator explains that the American Samoa National Team experienced a humiliating 31-0 loss in a FIFA World Cup qualification match against Australia. Archival footage shows some of this match, as the narrator says the obvious: The American Samoan team is bad at playing soccer. The team hasn’t scored a goal in the 10 years since then.

“Next Goal Wins” then fast-forwards to 2011. The head of the American Samoa Football Federation is cheerful and friendly Tavita (played by Oscar Kightley), but he doesn’t have the respect of the team. How do we know they don’t respect him? While he was asleep, they used a marker pen to draw breasts on his face. Tavita has these markings on his face for a few days. It’s supposed to be a funny sight gag in the movie, but it just looks stupid.

Tavita’s wife Ruth (played by Rachel House) is fed up with the team never being able to win a game. At the spouses’ home, she tells Tavita what needs to happen to find a better coach for the team: “You have to go off-island.” Tavita and Ruth have a young adult son named Daru (played Beulah Koale), who is on the team and who dislikes this idea of finding a new coach from outside of American Samoa. “It’s treason!” Daru exclaims.

Ruth yells, “We’re getting a real coach!” And besides, Ruth tells Tavita and Daru, she’s already placed an ad to get a new coach for the team. The team has a coach named Ace (played by David Fane), who will be demoted to assistant coach when the American Samoa Football Federation finds a head coach who can “save” the American Samoa National Team.

Meanwhile, on the mainland United States, abrasive soccer coach Thomas Rongen (played by Michael Fassbender) is facing a four-person panel from the American Soccer Federation telling him that he’s been fired from his most recent team. Thomas still gets a chance to work for the American Soccer Federation, but he’s told that he’s being exiled to work with the losing-streak American Samoa National Team. Not surprisingly, Thomas is angry and insulted.

Making matters worse, two of the people who’ve made this decision are Thomas’ estranged wife Gail (played by Elisabeth Moss) and her current boyfriend Alex Magnussen (played by Will Arnett), the smug leader of the American Soccer Federation. (This love triangle scenario did not happen in real life.) Rhys Darby has a small and inconsequential role as another American Soccer Federation panelist named Rhys Marlin. Darby seems to be in this movie only because he’s a friend of Waititi, a fellow New Zealander comedian.

Also different from real life: The Thomas Rongen in this movie isn’t a native of the Netherlands. Instead of having a Dutch accent in this movie, Thomas Rongen has an Irish accent, because Fassbender has an Irish accent in real life. In this “Next Goal Wins” movie, Thomas is a stereotypical down-on-his luck coach with a drinking problem who hates having to work with a losing team.

The scenes of Thomas getting culture shock in American Samoa are unimaginative and boring. Thomas gets annoyed that every person who gives him a car ride in American Samoa is laid-back and won’t drive faster than 20 miles per hour. Thomas thinks it’s ridiculous that people in American Samoa want to work less hours than what he’s accustomed to on the mainland.

Thomas doesn’t understand the local tradition of “curfew time,” when people stop everything during certain times of the day to pray and meditate. Thomas becomes enraged when the team members tell him that they don’t want to practice on Sundays, for religious reasons. That’s why it looks so phony later in the movie when Thomas (who acts like he’s allergic to religion for most of “Next Goal Wins”) actually gets baptized in a body of water, with several members of the team in attendance.

As for the team members, only a few have memorable personalities. Daru is the team’s rebellious “bad boy” and is one of the team’s worst players. Jaiyah (played by Kaimana) is a transitioning transgender woman, whose name in her previous life was Johnny. Rambo (played by Semu Filipo) is a goofy and bumbling police officer, who somehow gets recruited to the team after he pulls Thomas over for erratic speeding on the road.

Other team members include Jonah (played by Chris Alosio), a promising young striker; Pisa (played by Lehi Falepapalangi), a large-sized goalie; and Samson (played by Hio Pelesasa), a long-haired midfielder. There’s a very hokey segment of the movie where Thomas and Jaiyah work together to track down former team members in attempts to convince them to play for the team again. The most notable of these former members is Smiley (played by Ioane Goodhue), a goalie who was on the team during the embarrassing 2001 FIFA loss and is the closest thing that the team had to a star player.

At first, Thomas clashes with Jaiyah the most because Thomas doesn’t understand what being transgender means. Jaiyah and Thomas get into a physical brawl after Thomas taunts Jaiyah by calling her by her dead name Johnny, even though Thomas knew how offensive that would be to Jaiyah. But in a sappy movie like “Next Goal Wins,” you just know there will come a time when the coach and player who started off as enemies will find a way to become friends.

The movie’s approach to soccer is incredibly simple-minded. Thomas announces to the team that his strategy is for them to work on “strength and discipline,” which he compares to being like “cheese and pepper.” The practice scenes are jumbled and filmed in a lazy way.

The team has a young fan named Armani (played by Armani Makaiwa), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. The movie treats him like a mindless mascot, because Armani doesn’t say anything in the movie, which never bothers to explain why this mute child has all this time to spend with the team. Shouldn’t he be in school? Where are his parents?

There’s also a very misleading subplot about Thomas constantly listening to voice mail messages from his teenage daughter Nicole (voiced by Kaitlyn Dever), who is always asking why Thomas won’t communicate with her. Why won’t he call her back? The answer, which is revealed near the end of the movie, is completely manipulative.

“Next Goal Wins” repeatedly shows that Thomas wants to get back together with his estranged wife Gail, but it never mentions why they broke up in the first place. The separation from Gail is supposed to make Thomas look lovelorn and sympathetic. But it doesn’t work, because he’s such a relentless jerk for most of the movie, until he goes through a sudden personality change after making a big speech.

“Next Goal Wins” has some heartfelt and well-acted scenes with Thomas and Jaiyah, but how they end up befriending each other looks too forced and contrived. The racial issues that were hinted at in the beginning of the movie, when Daru objected to hiring a non-Samoan coach, are warped to fit a “white savior” narrative, when “Next Goal Wins” becomes about Thomas and how he’s uncomfortable with Samoan culture. The movie treats the Samoans as all having to accommodate Thomas and eventually be willing to tolerate Thomas’ insults and tirades.

Outstanding sports movies about athletic teams make viewers feel like they know several members of the team, not just a few. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with “Next Goal Wins,” which makes most of the team members utterly generic side characters. The Samoan team members in “Next Goal Wins” are portrayed as helpless dolts who need a rejected and rude coach of European heritage to make them into a winning team. It’s ethnic condescension at its worst. “Next Goal Wins” might have worked as a satire of sports movie stereotypes, but the movie’s comedy and overall filmmaking are as limp as a deflated soccer ball.

Searchlight Pictures released “Next Goal Wins” in U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Dream Scenario,’ starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula and Dylan Baker

November 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage in “Dream Scenario” (Photo by Jan Thijs/A24)

“Dream Scenario”

Directed by Kristoffer Borgli

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the sci-fi comedy/drama film “Dream Scenario” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos, Asians and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An insecure college professor finds out that he’s appearing in the dreams of millions of people around the world, and he experiences the positives and negatives of fame. 

Culture Audience: “Dream Scenario” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and movies that take satirical looks at how public images and fame can be used and exploited.

Dylan Gelula, Michael Cera and Kate Berlant in “Dream Scenario” (Photo by Jan Thijs/A24)

“Dream Scenario” offers interesting ideas about fame and the power of perception versus reality. Although the ending of this satirical comedy/drama is a little too rushed, there’s enough in the movie to keep viewers guessing on what will happen next. It’s a big concept for “Dream Scenario,” which sometimes bites off more than it can chew on this concept.

Written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, “Dream Scenario” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. “Dream Scenario” has some plot elements that were science fiction at the time this movie was filmed and released in the early 2020s, but some of the fictional technology shown in the movie could very well become a reality. That futuristic possibility is what holds this movie together in its intention to be provocative as well as entertaining, because some parts of “Dream Scenario” start to wear thin and almost fall apart.

The protagonist of “Dream Scenario” (which takes place in unnamed U.S. cities) is Paul Matthews (played by Nicolas Cage) a nerdy and insecure professor who teaches biology at the fictional Osler University. “Dream Scenario” was actually filmed in Toronto. Paul (who has a background in ocean biology) and his wife Janet (played by Julianne Nicholson) have been married for 15 years and have two teenage daughters: Hannah Matthews (played by Jessica Clement) is about 15 or 16, and Sophie Matthews (played by Lily Bird) is about 13 or 14.

One day, Sophie tells Paul that he was in one of her recent dreams, where he stood by while objects crashed from the sky into their swimming pool and Sophie floated in the air. The opening scene of “Dream Scenario” shows this particular dream. Paul doesn’t think too much about it, but he thinks it’s curious that Sophie says that Paul has been dreaming about him frequently. He also wonders out loud why he was just a passive bystander in the dream.

Later that day, Paul has lunch with a former graduate school classmate named Sheila Harper (played by Paula Boudreau), who tells Paul that she’s about to publish a research about ant intelligence or “antelligence” that will be published in a magazine called Nature. (Sheila’s research paper is titled “Antelligence Theory.”) The problem for Paul is that this research sounds a lot like his ideas that he talked about with Sheila when they were grad students, but she had no interest in those ideas at the time.

Paul is miffed and a little jealous that Sheila is now getting a research paper published for ideas that he thinks she “stole” from him. Sheila believes that she doesn’t have to give Paul any credit, because she genuinely developed an interest in the research paper’s topic. Their conversation has some tension. Paul and Sheila don’t seem interested in seeing each other again after this somewhat uncomfortable encounter.

Not too long after that lunch meeting, Paul and Janet go to see a play. After the play is over, another audience member sees Paul in the hallway and gives him a warm hello. Her name is Claire (played by Marnie McPhail), who used to date Paul years ago. It’s the first time that Janet has met Claire. Paul tells Janet right away that Claire is an ex-girlfriend.

Claire has something unusual to tell Paul: She has been dreaming about him. In her dreams, she is in danger while he is just a bystander observer. Claire invites Paul to lunch to discuss it further. During their lunch meeting, Claire says she writes for a pyschology online publication called New Inquiry, and she wants to do an article about her dreams about Paul, who willingly gives her permission to write about him.

Soon after this article is published, Paul starts getting hundreds of social media messages from strangers , who all say that Paul is in their dreams too. This is how Paul finds out that Claire’s article included a link to his social media accounts. Paul then becomes a media sensation, as the numbers of people who dream about him grow into the millions, including many people he knows, such as his students and friends. Paul is overwhelmed but flattered by all the attention.

One person who hasn’t been dreaming about Paul is Janet. When he asks Janet what her dream/fantasy about him would be, Janet says she sometimes has a fantasy that she is in danger somewhere, and Paul comes to her rescue, wearing a Halloween costume that Paul had years ago: a replica of the oversized suit that singer David Byrne wore in the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert documentary “Stop Making Sense.”

Paul’s fame attracts a mentally ill man named Tristan (played by Jim Armstrong), who breaks into the Matthews home at night while carrying a knife and threatening to kill everyone in the house. The intruder is apprehended without resistance. Paul and Janet later find out from an investigator that the intruder was having a “manic” episode and meant no harm. Still, the investigator advises Paul and Janet to beef up their security, such as getting alarms and learning self-defense.

Janet is worried about what Paul’s fame will do to him and their family, but Paul wants to cash in his fame while he still has it. He has a meeting with a trendy start-up marketing agency called Thoughts, which is led by Trent (played by Michael Cera) and Mary (played by Kate Berlant), who are smarmy entrepreneurs willing to say and do anything to make money. The executives at Thoughts initiated the contact with Paul, who is ignorant about marketing and advertising.

Paul has to go out of town to meet these executives for the first time at Thoughts headquarters. The first person he meets in the office is Molly (played by Dylan Gelula), the assistant of Trent and Mary. Molly sits in on the meeting. Paul tells Trent and Mary that the first thing he wants Thoughts to do for him is help Paul get a book deal. However, Trent and Mary are more interested in signing up Paul to do advertising for Sprite. Trent and Mary are eventually able to convince a reluctant Paul to go along with their plans.

“Dream Scenario” takes a few unexpected turns which are hit and miss for this story. It’s enough to say that whatever Paul does in people’s dreams greatly affect their perception of who he is in real life. Something changes when Paul finds out that Sheila is getting praise and media attention for her research paper. And then, things get ugly when people start having violent nightmares about Paul.

“Dream Scenario” cleverly lampoons the fickle nature of fame and how people think they “know” a celebrity they’ve never met. The movie features several sequences of how Paul appears to people in their dreams. Many of these sequences are amusing, but some are very menacing and are meant to be unsettling. When things start to go very wrong for Paul, he gets some sympathy and advice from Osler University dean Brett (played by Tim Meadows) and Matthews family friend Richard (played by Dylan Baker), but their friendship limits are tested as Paul’s life starts to get out of control.

Cage (who is one of the producers of “Dream Scenario”) gives a wide-ranging and very watchable performance, because Paul goes through some extreme experiences. “Dream Scenario” is a dark comedy that takes an “ordinary” person and puts that person in extraordinary circumstances. The supporting cast members are also quite good in their roles, but this movie rises or falls mainly on Cage’s talent of being realistically comedic in absurd situations. Some viewers might not like how the movie ends, but the last scene in the movie is entirely consistent with the bittersweet message that “Dream Scenario” is trying to convey about how people use reality and fantasy in their lives, for better or worse.

A24 will release “Dream Scenario” in select U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023.

Review: ‘American Fiction,’ starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown

November 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in “American Fiction” (Photo by Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)

“American Fiction”

Directed by Cord Jefferson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and in Massachusetts, the comedy/drama film “American Fiction” (based on the novel “Erasure”) features an African American and white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An author/professor, who happens to be African American, creates a fake persona as a fugitive criminal to write a book that has racially demeaning stereotypes of African Americans, and when the book becomes a hit, he has to decide how far he will go in living this lie.

Culture Audience: “American Fiction” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and movies that take sharp aim at how people use racial stereotypes to damage others and to make profits.

Sterling K. Brown in “American Fiction” (Photo by Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)

“American Fiction” takes a smart and satirical look at how racial stereotypes are enabled and perpetuated. Jeffrey Wright gives a standout performance as an author who has to choose between keeping his integrity by being his authentic self, or being a demeaning racial stereotype for money. This sharp and incisive movie is also an emotionally touching portrayal of a family trying not to fall apart when dealing with serious illness and grief.

Writer/director Cord Jefferson makes an admirable feature-film directorial debut with “American Fiction.” Jefferson (a former journalist and an Emmy-winning writer of HBO’s 2019 limited series “Watchmen”) adapted the “American Fiction” screenplay from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.” “American Fiction” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie won the People’s Choice Award, the festival’s top prize. “American Fiction” has since made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival, where Jefferson received Urbanworld’s Visionary Award.

From the very beginning of “American Fiction,” viewers see that protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Everett (played by Wright) isn’t afraid to possibly offend some people, in order to express his point of view. Monk, who lives and works in Los Angeles, is a literature professor at an unnamed university. During a class session, he has written on the board the name of a book that has the “n” word (derogatory term for a black person) in the book’s title.

Monk, who is African American and in his 50s, has assigned the book as required reading for his class, but one of his students named Brittany (played by Skyler Wright) objects to the title of the book being on the board during the class session, because Brittany says that the “n” word is offensive to her. Most of the students in this class are white, including Brittany, but there are some people of color (including some black people) who are students in the class too.

Brittany says she doesn’t want to see that word during the class session, so she asks Monk to erase the word from the board. Monk refuses and tells Brittany sternly about how he feels about the “n” word being in the title of the book: “With all due respect, I got over it. I’m pretty sure you can too.” Brittany then storms out of the class in a tearful huff, as Monk can be heard shouting at the students to focus on his lecture.

The next scene shows Monk having a meeting in an office room with his supervisor Leo (played by John Ales) and two of his faculty peers named Mandel (played by Patrick Fischler) and Gilda (played by Carmen Cusack), who all tell Monk this latest complaint against him has crossed a line where he has to be held accountable. It’s mentioned that Monk previously offended a student of German heritage by asking the student if the student has Nazi family members. Monk is defiant and gets into a little bit an argument with Mandel, who insults Monk for not having any recently published work.

Monk retorts by saying that he’s working on a book for a publishing house named Echo. It’s not enough to impress Leo, who orders Monk to go on a leave of absence that includes an already planned trip to Boston to go to the Massachusetts Festival of Books. Boston is Monk’s hometown, but he tells his colleagues that he hates Boston. It’s probably one of the reasons why he was sent there.

At the Massachusetts Festival of Books, Monk is a speaker on a panel that is sparsely attended. (There are less than 10 people in the audience.) At the end of the panel, when he comments to a fellow panelist on the low attendance for their session, Monk finds out that a much more popular Q&A at the festival was scheduled at about the same time as his panel. This interview is still taking place when Monk goes to the room to see what’s so special about this Q&A.

In the packed room, the solo speaker who is being interviewed is Sintara Golden (played by Issa Rae), an African American author of a best-selling novel called “We’s Lives in the Ghetto,” which is a racially demeaning story about uneducated and poor African Americans in a crime-ridden area. Sintara reads from the book and gets enthusiastic applause from the racially mixed audience. Monk is offended and jealous that this type of book is a hit, while he is having trouble finding a publisher for his most recent intellectual book, which is a contemporary re-imagining of Aeschylus’ “The Persians.”

While in the Boston area, Monk makes reluctant contact with the family he has barely kept in touch with over the past several years. Monk is a never-married bachelor with no children. His widowed mother and two younger siblings are his closest relatives. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that there are many reasons why Monk has been avoiding his family. Monk’s family has a lot of secrets that are eventually revealed throughout the movie.

Several people in Monk’s dysfunctional family are doctors. His deceased father was a medical doctor. His younger sister Lisa Ellison (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) is a doctor at a clinic called Boston Family Planning. It’s a clinic that provides abortion services, which isn’t said out loud in the story, but it’s implied, based on conversations about how Lisa’s job can be dangerous and controversial. Lisa gives Monk a car ride back to the family home in Boston.

Lisa is divorced with no children. She is also a caretaker for their mother Agnes Ellison (played by Leslie Uggams), who is showing signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. For example, Agnes forgets that Lisa is divorced. Agnes has a loyal and friendly housekeeper named Lorraine (played by Myra Lucretia Taylor), who is in her 60s. Lorraine is treated like a member of the family.

Monk’s other younger sibling is Clifford, nicknamed Cliff (played by Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon who is a divorced father. Cliff got divorced because his wife found out that Cliff is gay. Cliff is now dating men in the gay singles scene and abusing cocaine. It’s also revealed in the movie that Cliff has an inferiority complex and feels competitive with Monk because Monk was always treated as the favorite child by their domineering father.

Agnes has a house in Boston and a beach house in an unnamed city in Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard region. Through a series of circumstances, the family members are staying at this beach house for much of the movie. During their stay, Monk meets an intelligent and opinionated neighbor named Coraline (played by Erika Alexander), a public defender attorney who respects Monk’s talent and becomes his love interest. However, Coraline has her own messy marital situation. She’s in the midst divorcing her husband Jelani (played by Michael Jibrin), who still lives with her for financial reasons.

“American Fiction” skillfully weaves all of Monk’s challenges that he faces in his personal life and in his career. At the same time that he’s going through some emotionally taxing family issues, he’s having problems finding a publisher for his latest academically inclined book. As a sarcastic joke, Monk decides to use an alias called Stagg R. Lee to write a racially demeaning novel called “My Pafology” (intentional misspelling of “Pathology”) about African Americans speaking bad English and being involved in crime. (The book’s title is later changed to a curse word.) A thug character named Van Go Jenkins is the narrator/protagonist of “My Pafology.”

In a story-within-a-story construct, “American Fiction” occasionally depicts characters from the “My Pafology” novel coming to life as Monk is writing the book. In one of the book’s chapters, Van Go Jenkins (played by Okieriete Onaodowan) commits an act of violence against an older man named Willy the Wonker (played by Keith David) in Willy’s home. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see why Monk chose to write this scenario, considering the complicated relationship that Monk’s father had with his wife and children.

Much to the surprise of Monk and his book agent Arthur (played by John Ortiz), “My Pafology” quickly gets an offer of $750,000 from a book publishing company named Thompson Watt that rejected the intellectual book that Monk wrote under Monk’s real name. It just so happens that Monk needs the money because Agnes has to be put in an assisted living home, and Monk is the only one in the family who is willing to pay for it.

As already revealed in the trailer for “American Fiction,” Monk creates the Stagg R. Lee persona to be an ex-con who was in prison for violent crimes. Monk also fabricates a story that Stagg is currently a fugitive from the law, which is the excuse he uses for why Stagg has to be so mysterious. Monk and Arthur also tell Thompson Watt publishing executive Paula Baderman (played by Miriam Shor) that Stagg R. Lee is not the author’s real name because of his “fugitive” status. Instead of being wary of doing a deal with a fugitive criminal, Paula thinks it’s intriguing because she thinks this angle will sell more books.

The lies get more complicated after “My Pafology” is published and becomes a hit. On the one hand, Monk feels elated that he has the commercial success that he always wanted, but on the other hand, he feels ashamed by what he had to do to get this success. It isn’t long before Stagg is taking meetings with a Hollywood filmmaker named Wiley Valdespino (played by Adam Brody), who wants to make “My Pafology” into a movie.

“American Fiction” pokes fun at people who think that they’re being hip and progressive for supporting a book like “My Pafology,” when they don’t know or don’t care that this type of book reinforces a negative stereotype that African Americans and other black people are inferior and have lives defined by violence, poverty, crime and/or trauma. Although these issues are undoubtedly struggles for many people, it’s racially problematic to stereotype one race as largely experiencing those struggles. Through characters such as Monk, Agnes and Coraline, “American Fiction” shows the reality that most African Americans are not poor, uneducated or criminals.

There is diversity among African Americans that is not always acknowledged in entertainment that wants to keep African American-oriented entertainment focused on violence, poverty, crime and/or trauma. And when people who don’t know many African Americans get their ideas about African Americans from these negative stereotypes, it perpetuates a lot of racism. At one point in “American Fiction,” book agent Arthur comments about how black people are often represented in the media and entertainment: “White people think they want the truth. They just want to be absolved.”

The very talented ensemble cast in “American Fiction” should be given a lot of credit for embodying their characters with the right mix of dramatic realism and (when appropriate) pitch-perfect comedic timing. Jefferson’s writing is clever and engaging, while his directing shows a knack for juggling multiple storylines at the same time. “American Fiction” is not a movie that singles out one race as “better” than another. Instead, it’s a blistering but honest examination of how people of all races can be complicit in perpetuating negative racial stereotypes, often for selfish reasons.

Through “American Fiction,” Jefferson has crafted a rare social commentary movie that not only invites people to laugh at these problems without feeling guilty about this laughter but also provokes people enough to show how these problems affect people in damaging ways. “American Fiction” doesn’t get preachy about what can be done about these problems. However, this very worthy adaptation of “Erasure” shows that no matter how much legislative progress can be made in civil rights, change also has to come from within people who are willing to make improvements in their own lives.

Orion Pictures will release “American Fiction” in select U.S. cinemas on December 15, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023.

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