Review: ‘I.S.S.,’ starring Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbæk

January 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ariana DeBose in “I.S.S.” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)


Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Some language in Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in outer space, the sci-fi drama film “I.S.S.” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one multiracial person) portraying astronauts from the United States and Russia.

Culture Clash: While on the International Space Station in outer space, three American astronauts and three Russian astronauts find out that an apocalyptic war is happening on Earth between the United States and Russia. 

Culture Audience: “I.S.S.” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ariana DeBose and sci-fi thrillers about astronauts dealing with a crisis in outer space.

Masha Mashkova, John Gallagher Jr. and Costa Ronin in “I.S.S.” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

With a low budget and a simple concept, “I.S.S.” has no aspirations to be a classic sci-fi thriller. After a slow start, “I.S.S.” gets more interesting when it’s about personal and national loyalty dilemmas among Russian and American astronauts stuck on a ship in outer space during an unexpected war between their respective nations. Because this is a science-fiction movie, some suspension of disbelief is required. There’s enough tension to keep viewers interested in seeing what will happen next, although the movie could have had a much stronger ending.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Nick Shafir, “I.S.S.” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. “I.S.S.” is the feature-film debut for screenwriter Shafir, whose approach to this subject matter is very easy to understand but might be too trite for some viewers. The movie’s entire story takes place in outer space but was actually filmed in North Carolina. The year that the story takes place is not mentioned.

The title “I.S.S.” is an acronym for International Space Station. As explained in captions during the movie’s introduction: “The International Space Station (ISS) served as a symbol of the United States and Russian collaboration after the Cold War. The ISS is primarily used as a research facility, where the crew makes advancements in medicine, technology and space exploration. Today, both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts are living on board the ISS.”

There are only six people in the movie’s entire cast of characters, who are evenly split among Americans and Russians. The Americans are commander Gordon Barrett (played by Chris Messina), emotionally reserved Kira Foster (played by Ariana DeBose) and talkative Christian Campbell (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who is a divorced father with two underage daughters. The Russians are efficient Alexey Pulov (played by Pilou Asbæk), his emotionally aloof brother Nicholai Pulov (played by Costa Ronin) and fun-loving Weronika Vetrov (played by Masha Mashkova), who sometimes goes by the nickname Nika.

Here’s where some suspension of disbelief is necessary for this movie: The first thing that some viewers might ask themselves is: “Why would Russia and the United States only have three astronauts each for such an important ISS mission?” The answer: “Because ‘I.S.S.’ is a low-budget movie.” The movie depicts all six of these space travelers as being confined to a certain part of the station, which is intended to make the movie’s interior settings look claustrophobic.

Kira is the story’s main protagonist. Kira and Alexey are both biological engineers working on a “top secret” project for their respective countries. They both share a workspace. Kira uses mice for her lab experiments. Observant viewers will notice how these mice are parallel symbols of what eventually happens to the humans in the story.

Near the beginning of the movie, Kira and Christian are by themselves, until the other four space travelers join them. Gordon introduces Alexey, Nicholai and Weronika to his colleagues. Everyone is friendly and in good spirits. The Russians begin playing the Scorpions’ 1990 hit song “Wind of Change” and begin singing along.

Alexey mentions how much an anthem the song is for Russians who were affected by the Cold War ending. However, all six of the space travelers agree that ISS is not the place where they want to talk about politics. All of this camaraderie and good cheer do not last when these ISS explorers find out something terrible: While looking down on Earth, they see large glowing spots, indicating that nuclear weapons have been detonated.

Soon after that, the ship loses all communication with Earth, except for some text messages that Gordon first sees on a computer screen in the station: “The ISS has been deemed a priority foothold. All U.S. citizens are to abort all order and experiments. You new objective is to take control of the ISS.” (This information was already revealed in the movie’s trailer.)

After some initial confusion, the Americans deduce that Russia must have attacked the United States, and an apocalyptic war is happening on Earth. Do the Russians on board the ship know this information? And will the Americans stay loyal to their Russian comrades on the ship, or will the Americans follow U.S. government orders and bring the apparent war inside the ship?

The answers to these questions are really what hold “I.S.S.” together, because most of the characters in the movie do not enough character development for viewers to feel like they really know these characters by the end of the movie. Very little is told the personal lives of these ISS travelers. The Russians in the movie have no backstories at all.

In a candid conversation with Gordon, Kira tells him the reason why she became a biological engineer. She says it’s because when she was a child, her terminally ill father died because he was on a waiting list for an organ transplant. Kira comments, “I made it my goal to find an easier way to manufacture what people needed.”

Kira also tells Gordon that she’s a lesbian or queer woman who wants to remain single and focused on work for now, because her ex-fiancée cheated on her and Kira is not ready to get in another love relationship. Later, it’s revealed that Gordon and Weronika have been having a flirtation or casual fling, which has no major bearing on the movie’s plot. As for Alexey and Nicholai, “I.S.S.” missed an opportunity to tell an interesting story about these two family members who are working together.

“I.S.S.” skimps on the details about what the personal stakes are for the people on the ISS to get back home safely to loved ones. However, the movie does reveal certain other information about why it’s very urgent for the ISS inhabitants to get back to Earth, against the odds and at great risk during the destruction that is happening on Earth. The question then becomes: “Who out of these six people will survive when they inevitably turn against each other?”

“I.S.S.” has competent acting for a story that occasionally stumbles with some of the science- fiction aspects that don’t always look convincing. The visual effects are solid, considering the movie’s low budget. There’s a predictability to some of the action scenes, but “I.S.S.” will keep viewers guessing (up until a certain point) about who on the ship is being honest and who is not. The movie’s ending won’t satisfy viewers who want clearly defined answers, but the ending is meant to show that there are no easy answers when it comes to human nature and being in outer space during an apocalyptic war on Earth.

Bleecker Street released “I.S.S.” in U.S. cinemas on January 19, 2024.

Review, ‘Our Father, the Devil,’ starring Babetida Sadjo, Souleymane Sy Savane, Jennifer Tchiakpe, Franck Saurel and Martine Amisse

November 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Souleymane Sy Savane and Babetida Sadjo in “Our Father, the Devil” (Photo courtesy of Cineverse/Fandor)

“Our Father, the Devil”

Directed by Ellie Foumbi

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Lucho, France, the dramatic film “Our Father, the Devil” features a cast of white and black characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A nursing home chef is disturbed when a Catholic priest is a visitor at her job, and she is convinced that he is the same person who caused trauma to her in her childhood. 

Culture Audience: “Our Father, the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful dramas about people with dark secrets.

Souleymane Sy Savane in “Our Father, the Devil” (Photo courtesy of Cineverse/Fandor)

“Our Father, the Devil” is a well-acted psychological drama that offers a fascinating portait of a woman’s complicated feelings about revenge, religion and redemption. The movie also explores issues regarding PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and long-term effects of childhood trauma. “Our Father, the Devil” is a slow-burn story that effectively shows how pent-up emotions can erupt in ways that lead to problematic consequences.

Writer/director Ellie Foumbi makes an assured feature-film directorial debut with “Our Father, the Devil,” which had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. The movie then made the rounds at several festivals in 2022 and 2023, including the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. In addition, “Our Father, the Devil” was nominated for Best Feature at the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

“Our Father, the Devil” takes place in Lucho, France, where protagonist Marie Cissé (played by Babetida Sadjo) is an African immigrant working as the head chef of a nursing home. Marie, who is a bachelorette with no children, is very good at her job. Marie keeps mostly to herself and lives alone in a small apartment. Marie’s closest friend is a co-worker named Nadia Benoit (played by Jennifer Tchiakpe), who works as an orderly at the nursing home.

Nadia confides in Marie about her fertility issues. Nadia and her husband want to start a family, but Nadia hasn’t gotten pregnant. Nadia worries about her chances of getting pregnant after her husband will move out of the home for a long-distance job. Marie is a compassionate friend who comforts Nadia when Nadia gets emotional about these worries.

Marie’s boss is nursing home manager Sabine Leplanche (played by Maëlle Genet), who is demanding and shows hints of being xenophobic. In an early scene in the movie, Sabine goes in the nursing home’s kitchen to taste some of the food before it gets served to the residents. Sabine scolds the sous chef for making soup that is too spicy for Sabine’s taste. Sabine tells the sous chef in a condescending tone: “We’re not in Algeria,” Sabine comments. “The sous chef replies defiantly, “Good thing I’m French.”

One of the nursing home residents named Jeanne Guyot (played by Martine Amisse) has taken a liking to Marie, who has a good rapport with Jeanne. When Jeanne’s adult son Thomas Guyot (played by Maxence David) makes a rare visit to Jeanne at the nursing home, it’s obvious that this mother and son have a tension-filled relationship. Later in the movie, Jeanne makes a confession explaining why she thinks she sees a lot of herself in Marie.

One day, Jeanne tells Marie that Jeanne recently changed her will to cut Thomas out of any inheritance. Jeanne then surprises Marie by giving her the keys to Jeanne’s guest home, which is in remote wooded area. To Marie’s shock, Jeanne tells Marie that Jeanne has signed over the deed to the house to Marie. Jeanne insists that Marie accept this unexpected gift.

Marie seems comfortable around women, but she shows obvious discomfort and sometimes hostility in the company of men whom she thinks are giving her unwanted attention. An early scene in the movie shows Marie at a cafe, where a server named Arnaud Charpentier (played Franck Saurel) tries to flirt with her, but she’s standoffish and rebuffs his attempts to engage in a friendly conversation with her. Based on this brief and uncomfortable talk, Marie is a regular customer, and Arnaud has been noticing her for a while, because he knows what she likes to order.

Another scene shows just how “on edge” Marie is. She’s walking down a street by herself at night, when she notices a man walking behind her. She thinks this stranger is following her. And when he walks close enough to her, she pulls a knife on him. When Marie sees that the stranger means no harm, she quickly makes an apology. What would cause Marie to be so paranoid and combative?

The answer comes a little later in the movie, when a Catholic priest named Father Patrick (played by Souleymane Sy Savane) visits the nursing home to give a sermon. Marie looks like she’s seen a ghost when she first sees Father Patrick, who says he’s from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Marie goes to a computer and finds an article with the headline “Young Warlord ‘The Oracle’ Found Dead in a Bush.”

The sight of Father Patrick has unnerved Marie so much, she asks Sabine for a few days off, but Sabine declines the request because the nursing home is currently understaffed. In the nursing home’s cafeteria-styled dining area, Marie has to serve Father Patrick. Marie is visibly uncomfortable in his presence. Later, after the nursing home’s kitchen is closed, he goes to the kitchen to ask Marie if he can have more of the stew that he was served earlier. This conversation changes the course of the story.

Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that Marie is certain that Father Patrick is actually someone she used to know from her past. She thinks Father Patrick is someone who caused a lot of pain and trauma in her life. Father Patrick vehemently denies Marie’s accusations and insists that she has him mistaken for someone else.

There’s more to the story than this identity mystery. The truth is eventually revealed in a gut-wrenching emotional scene. Although all of the principal cast members give skilled performances, the movie’s emotional heart is in Sadjo’s riveting performance. For her role in “My Father, the Devil,” Sadjo was nominated for a 2023 Gotham Award for Outstanding Lead Performance. Foumbi’s absorbing writing and directing make viewers feel that they are right in the middle of the emotional journey that Marie goes on in the movie.

“Our Father, the Devil” raises provocative questions about how much people should be defined by past actions, how much people might be able to change, and how much trust can be put into people who might not be showing their true selves to others. Although some extreme things happen in the movie, “Our Father, the Devil” maintains a realism about it all that looks credible. This memorable film shows in intriguing ways how people judge themselves when they are judging others.

Cineverse and Fandor released “Our Father, the Devil” in New York City on August 25, 2023, and in Los Angeles on September 1, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 10, 2023.

Review: ‘The Miracle Club,’ starring Laura Linney, Kathy Bates, Maggie Smith, Agnes O’Casey, Mark O’Halloran, Mark McKenna, Niall Buggy, Hazel Doupe and Stephen Rea

July 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Eric Smith, Agnes O’Casey, Kathy Bates and Maggie Smith in “The Miracle Club” (Photo by Jonathan Hession/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Miracle Club”

Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1967, in Ireland and in France, the dramatic film “The Miracle Club” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four women, who are from a working-class suburb of Dublin, travel to Lourdes, France, in search of personal miracles in their lives, but the trip becomes more about confronting their grief and resentments.

Culture Audience: “The Miracle Club” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the star headliners and are interested in watching somewhat sentimental European dramas about different generations of women.

Laura Linney and Mark O’ Halloran in “The Miracle Club” (Photo by Jonathan Hession/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Miracle Club” offers no real surprises in this retro drama about four women who travel together to Lourdes, France, and confront their pasts. The lead actresses’ performances, especially from Laura Linney and Kathy Bates, are worth watching. “The Miracle Club” is the type of drama that’s a dying breed, simply because it takes a very traditional/old-fashioned approach to telling this story cinematically. There’s an audience for this type of movie, but it’s the type of audience that prefers movies that were made in the 20th century.

Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, “The Miracle Club” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. Even though the movie’s story is centered on four women, “The Miracle Club” has an all-male team of writers: Joshua D. Maurer, Timothy Prager and Jimmy Smallhorne wrote “The Miracle Club” screenplay. When a movie about women is written and directed by men, the movie sometimes has a very patriarchal tone. There’s a whiff of that patriarchal tone in “The Miracle Club,” but the heart of the movie is how the women interact with each other without influence from husbands or clergymen.

“The Miracle Club,” which is set in 1967, opens in Ballygar, Ireland, a working-class suburb of Dublin. A senior citizen named Lily Fox (played by Maggie Smith) is looking mournfully at a cliffside memorial plaque dedicated to her son Declan Fox, who drowned at sea in 1927, when he was 19 years old. Declan was the only child of Lily and her husband Tommy Fox (played by Niall Buggy), who is now retired.

Declan’s death has left a void that Lily and Tommy don’t like to talk about. Lily has a cranky and very judgmental personality that is outmatched by Tommy’s cranky and judgmental personality. When Lily comes back from visiting the memorial dedicated to Declan, she gets this scolding from Tommy: “You’re not visiting our son. You’re visiting a pile of rocks and sand that don’t mean anything.”

Lily is in an amateur singing trio with two friends who live nearby and who all know each other from going to the same church: Eileen Dunne and Dolly Hennessy. (They are all devout Catholics.)

Eileen (played by Bates) is a middle-aged married mother of six children. Eileen’s oldest child is inquisitive Cathy Dunne (played by Hazel Doupe), who’s about 15 or 16 years old. Eileen’s husband is Frank Dunne (played by Stephen Rea), who likes to think he’s the head of the household, but outspoken Eileen is really the one who runs things in this crowded home.

Dolly (played by Agnes O’Casey, in her feature-film debut) is sweet-natured and in her 20s. She’s also a married mother. Her husband George Hennessy (played by Mark McKenna) is very bossy and impatient. Dolly and George have two children together: Their son Daniel Hennessy (played by Eric Smith) is about 5 or 6 years old, and he happens to be mute. Their daughter Rosie Hennessy (played by Alice Heneghan) is an infant.

George gets annoyed when Dolly asks him to donate some of their money to the church. The family is on a tight budget. Dolly and George’s marriage is also under some strain, because George has become disappointed and frustrated that Daniel is mute. Dolly is hopeful that Daniel will eventually begin talking, which she thinks can happen with the right amount of prayers and encouragement. George, who has grown cynical and bitter about Daniel’s muteness, doesn’t think religion will have anything to do with getting Daniel to talk.

Lily had a longtime best friend named Maureen. Their dream was to take a trip to Lourdes, France. It’s a city whose main claim to fame is the Grotto of Massabielle (also known as the Grotto of the Apparitions), which has a reputation for being a place where miracles happen, ever since the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to a local woman in 1858. Unfortunately, Lily and widow Maureen won’t be going to Lourdes together because Maureen has recently died.

In Ballygar in 1967, Maureen was on the church’s committee for an upcoming fundraiser: a local talent contest where the winner gets a trip to Lourdes. It’s been decided that the fundraiser will go on in Maureen’s honor. (Brenda Fricker has the voice of Maureen when one of Maureen’s letters is read on screen after Maureen’s death.) Lily, Eileen and Dolly choose to become a “legitimate” singing group and enter the contest. They name their group the Miracles.

Even though all of their husbands think that the Miracles have little to no chance of winning, viewers already know from what’s revealed in “The Miracle Club” trailers that Lily, Eileen and Dolly end up going to Lourdes anyway, with Daniel also along for the journey. (This review won’t reveal whether or not they won the contest.) It’s a bittersweet trip, since they all wanted Maureen to go on this trip too. It will be the first time that Lily, Eileen and Dolly will travel outside of Ireland.

There’s someone else who’s going on the trip with them to Lourdes: Maureen’s estranged daughter Chrissie Ahearn (played by Laura Linney), a middle-aged bachelorette who has been living in the United States and hasn’t been back in Ballygar since 1927, the year that Chrissie moved away as an outcast. Chrissie has reluctantly come back to Ballygar for Maureen’s funeral.

The only person in town who seems to welcome Chrissie is Father Dermot Byrne (played by Mark O’Halloran), who is the chief priest at the local church and the officiator at Maureen’s funeral. Lily and Eileen react to Chrissie’s hometown visit with a lot of hostility toward Chrissie, because of something that happened in 1927. Dolly, who wasn’t even born when this grudge happened, tries to stay neutral, but Lily and Eileen tell Dolly to stay away from Chrissie. Father Dermot takes on the role of peacemaker and suggests to Chrissie that she go on the trip to Lourdes, not just as a tribute to her mother but also to possibly heal old emotional wounds with Lily and Eileen.

Eileen, Chrissie and Declan used to be the best of friends. But something caused a rift in this friendship that led to Chrissie abruptly moving away and cutting off contact with almost everyone she knew in Ireland. Eileen felt abandoned by Chrissie and hasn’t forgiven her.

As already revealed in the trailers for “The Miracle Club,” Chrissie tells Eileen that Chrissie didn’t abandon anyone but Chrissie was “banished.” Chrissie’s “secret” is very easy to figure out before it’s revealed. It’s the most obvious reason why a teenage girl would be sent away from her home in 1920s Ireland.

That’s not the only secret being kept before there’s the inevitable confession to the rest of the group. Lily wants to go to Lourdes for miracle help with her grief over Declan. Dolly wants her miracle to be for her son Daniel to talk. Eileen wants a miracle that has to do with a secret that Eileen is keeping. Eileen’s big secret is also not very surprising.

“The Miracle Club” goes through the expected scenes of discomfort as unwelcome travel companion Chrissie has awkward and tension-filled interactions with Lily and Eileen. It should come as no surprise when Chrissie has to share a hotel room with Lily, who has the most unresolved issues with Chrissie. It’s explained that the hotel is booked up, so there’s no other room available. It’s a very contrived scenario for a movie, because Chrissie could have stayed at another hotel.

“The Miracle Club” doesn’t really waste time, but it doesn’t have any genuine suspense about Chrissie’s secret, which is the main source of the conflict between Chrissie and Lily. Eileen doesn’t find out this secret until much later. The banter between the women is often realistic, but the scenarios around them sometimes look too phony.

“The Miracle Club” pokes fun at male egos by showing how the husbands of Lily, Eileen and Dolly have trouble coping with household duties while their wives are away. Suddenly, these “macho” men find out that they’re kind of helpless and ignorant about a lot of things that they thought were easy to do, just they because they’re thought of as “women’s responsibilities.” It’s the movie’s obvious way of showing that spouses shouldn’t take each other for granted.

The issue of Daniel’s muteness is handled with sensitivity, but it often takes a back seat to the main story about the feuding between Chrissie, Lily and Eileen. Chrissie is the only one of the four women who isn’t religious. She’s grown disillusioned about religion because she thinks religious people are very hypocritical. (Her disillusionment is another big clue about her secret.)

Linney and Bates, as estranged friends Chrissie and Eileen, have the most realistic dynamics in the movie and give the best performances. Smith is doing yet another “grumpy old woman” role that she seems to be stuck doing in the later stages of her career, although the character of Lily has some emotionally impactful scenes toward the end of the film.

O’Casey makes an impressive feature-film debut as Dolly, who is somewhat of “third wheel” to Lily and Eileen. At times, it’s not quite convincing that Dolly could be close friends with Lily and Eileen, because Dolly seems more like a sidekick than someone whom Lily and Eileen treat as an equal. O’Casey brings some very good nuance to this role portraying a mother who tries to be cheerful to everyone on the outside but is worried sick about her mute son.

“The Miracle Club” is not the type of movie where people should expect outrageous things to happen. There’s also no supernatural element to the story, even though much of it takes place in “miracle destination” Lourdes. The Miracle Club” has solid performances and a story that’s the equivalent of familiar comfort food. It’s not going to change the world, but it can be entertaining to people who like this type movie.

Sony Pictures Classics will release “The Miracle Club” in U.S. cinemas on July 14, 2023.

Review: ‘The Lesson’ (2023), starring Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy and Daryl McCormack

July 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Julie Delpy and Daryl McCormack in “The Lesson” (Photo by Gordon Timpen/Bleecker Street)

“The Lesson” (2023)

Directed by Alice Troughton

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the dramatic film “The Lesson” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black/biracial person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A famous author, who is in an unhappy marriage, hires his teenage son’s literature tutor to secretly finish the novel that is overdue to the book publisher, but this deception leads to more complications. 

Culture Audience: “The Lesson” will appeal primarily to people who are people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and dramas about secrets, lies and double-crossing among a group of people.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Richard E. Grant, Daryl McCormack, Julie Delpy and Stephen McMillan in “The Lesson” (Photo by Anna Patarakina/Bleecker Street)

“The Lesson” foreshadows too much in the movie’s opening scene, which is revisited at the very end of this psychological drama. Daryl McCormack gives an effective performance though. He elevates the movie in the areas where the pacing is slow and dull. “The Lesson” (formerly titled “The Tutor”) had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Alice Troughton and written by Alex MacKeith, “The Lesson” has a relatively small number of people (only four) in its principal cast and only a few locations. The main location is a lavish estate in an unnamed part of England. “The Lesson” was actually filmed on location at Haddon House in Derbyshire, England. Because almost everything in the movie takes place on this estate property, it’s meant to convey that this estate is almost like a prison to the people who live there.

“The Lesson” begins with a scene of Irish author Liam Somers (played by McCormack), who is in his 20s, being interviewed for a one-on-one Q&A on stage for his first novel. He’s in an auditorium that can hold about 500 people. This speaking appearance is well-attended. It’s an indication that Liam’s novel is a success.

The interviewer (played by Tomas Spencer) gives Liam a glowing introduction: “Liam Somers’ story of a fading patriarch presiding over a grief-stricken family has been described as one of the most striking debuts of the year. Here with us to discuss his first novel is the author … What exactly drew you to tell this story?” Just as Liam is about to speak, the movie goes into flashback mode and stays there until the very last scene, which circles back to Liam’s Q&A on stage.

This very long flashback shows what inspired Liam to write his first novel. He was hired for a summer job to be a live-in literature tutor for Bertie Sinclair (played by Stephen McMillan), who’s about 17 years old, at the estate where Bertie lives with his parents. Bertie is mostly introverted and sullen. Bertie has a complicated and tension-filled relationship with his father J.M. Sinclair (played by Richard E. Grant), who is a very famous author. Bertie’s mother/J.M.’s wife Hélène Sinclair (played by Julie Delpy) is a French immigrant who is a homemaker and socialite.

Not long after beginning his job as Bertie’s tutor, Liam finds out that this family is grieving over the death of Bertie’s older brother Felix (played by Joseph Muerer, seen in photos), who died three years ago. Felix drowned in a large pond on the family’s property. J.M. was the one who found Felix in the pond, when Liam had already been dead for a while. Hélène wasn’t home at the time of this drowning because she was traveling in Venice, Italy. Bertie was away at boarding school.

Bertie still goes to boarding school, but his parents have decided Bertie will live with them for the summer, so he can be tutored in their home. It’s mentioned several times that Bertie needs to prepare for an entrance exam to an elite academic institution that is not named in the movie. Bertie is obviously feeling the pressure to be admitted into this institution, but observant viewers will notice that it’s what his parents want. No one seems to have asked Bertie if going to this institution is what he wants, but he’s feeling the pressure to please his parents.

Before Liam took this job, he was already familiar with who J.M. is, because Liam is seen looking at interviews of J.M. on the Internet. In these interview clips, J.M.’s pompous and smug personality is obvious. In one of the archival interviews, he says: “Something can be deferred or derived if you have to do it—which, by the way, is the prerequisite for writing.”

J.M. adds, “You don’t have a choice in the matter. You must write. Average writers attempt originality. They fail, universally. Good writers have the sense to borrow from the better ones. The great writers steal.” And then, J.M. chuckles, which is the exact moment that you know that this story is about J.M. taking other people’s work and putting his name on it.

This isn’t spoiler information, because it’s already show “The Tutor” trailer. Soon after Liam starts his tutoring job, he signs a non-disclosure agreement that Hélène gives him. Hélène tells Liam some “ground rules” about J.M. as a boss: “”We don’t talk about his wor. We don’t talk about Felix. Follow those rules, and we should be find.”

But, of course, J.M. does actually talk about his work to Liam. J.M. tells Liam that Liam has to write the ending of a novel that J.M. has been struggling to finish. The name of the novel is “Rose Tree,” which is overdue to the book publisher that has been pressuring J.M. to finish the book.

J.M. offers to pay Liam extra money and expects Liam to keep this ghost writing a secret. Liam reluctantly agrees. J.M. is also an “old school” writer who has basic knowledge about computers. Liam tells J.M. that Liam has experience in information technology, so Liam is expected to help J.M. in that area too.

There’s more to this story that won’t be revealed in the review. But it’s enough to say that Liam soon becomes ensnarled in the Sinclair family’s dysfunction. J.M. is demanding and has a cruel streak that he mostly directs at Bertie. J.M. can be verbally abusive and prone to temper tantrums, but then he’s apologetic afterward. It’s a common characteristic of abusers who convince people to excuse their awfulness without the abusers making any real effort to change their abusive ways.

J.M. is the type of arrogant host who will try to act superior to everyone in the household. During Liam’s first dinner with the Sinclair family, J.M. has a nearby stereo playing a piece from Russian classical music composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. To test Liam’s knowledge, J.M. asks Liam if he knows anything about Rachmaninoff. Liam then starts listing biographical information about Rachmaninoff, but J.M. isn’t satisfied with that answer.

With a condescending tone to his voice, J.M. repeats the question to Liam. J.M. expects Liam to say what Liam thinks about Rachmaninoff’s music. Liam admits that he’s not familiar with Rachmaninoff’s music. J.M. then smirks and looks at Liam, as if to silently say, “I know you’re not as smart as you think you are.”

Hélène acts as if she’s emotionally checked out of this marriage but only stays because of Bertie and because she doesn’t think she has anywhere else to go. One of the biggest problems with “The Lesson” is that there are hardly any backstories for the four main characters in this movie. Hélène and Liam are the characters that needed backstories the most.

Sure, Hélène is a “trophy wife,” but what led her into this marriage in the first place? Was J.M. always this obnoxious? Don’t expect answers to those questions. Hélène briefly mentions her interest in fine art and that she’s learning to play classical piano, but that’s about it. J.M. and Hélène seem very isolated from having family and friends in their lives. Outside of the family home, J.M. and Hélène are only seen communicating with people about J.M.’s career. Hélène has the role of being an intermediary when J.M. is trying to avoid the people who want updates on when his next book will be completed.

But sometimes, J.M. can’t avoid these questions. In an interview on stage that’s similar to the one that Liam does in the movie’s opening scene, J.M. is asked by the interviewer if J.M.’s grief over Felix’s death is affecting J,M.’s work on J.M.’s next novel. J.M. angrily replies, “I will not be writing about his death. I will be writing in spite of it. I will have your novel when it’s ready!” J.M. then abruptly gets up, rips off his microphone, and storms out of the room.

Liam remains a mystery throughout the entire movie, which never reveals what type of background he has. Viewers can assume that he took the job working for the Sinclair family because he needs the money, but there could have been other motivations that are hinted at but never fully explored later in the movie. During the entire time that Liam is living on the Sinclair family’s property, he is never seen contacting any family members or friends.

A few other things about “The Lesson” don’t ring true. There’s only one servant seen on this vast property: a butler named Ellis (played by Crispin Letts), who is seen interacting mostly with Hélène. He is also helpful when Liam needs anything, such as fresh coffee. It’s hard to believe that the Sinclairs just have this one butler taking care of everything for this lavish estate.

Where are the cooks? Where are the housekeepers? Where are the gardeners? Where are the maintenance workers? J.M. is the type of successful author who should have a personal assistant, but no such person is seen or mentioned in “The Lesson,” presumably because it’s a low-budget independent film. But surely, it’s not that hard or costly to hire a few extras to be in the background for these roles.

At any rate, the middle section of “The Lesson” really drags with a lot of repetitive tedium showing J.M. pressuring Liam to finish the book and being an argumentative jerk to everyone, while Hélène goes through the motions in being a dutiful wife. There’s a scene where Liam accidentally sees Hélène and J.M. start to get sexually intimate through a nearby window. Liam stares but then discreetly looks away. However, if you’ve seen enough movies like this, then you won’t be surprised by what happens when J.M. is away on a business trip, and Hélène and Liam find themselves alone in a room together.

There is very little shown of Liam actually giving tutoring lessons to Bertie. Instead, Liam (who is a calm and patient tutor) seems more like he was hired to be a companion for a lonely and unhappy teen. Bertie eventually opens up a little to Liam when Bertie sees that J.M. is also rude and volatile to Liam. During Liam’s first day on the job, he was warned by Bertie that the Sinclair family has gone through other tutors who quit. Liam is not intimidated when he hears that there’s been high turnover rate for other tutors hired by this family.

There’s some interesting psychological context of the marriage between J.M. and Hélène. Based on what Hélène tells Liam, J.M. calls her “the missing mother,” because she was away on a trip when Felix died. It’s Hélène’s way of telling Liam that J.M. unfairly blames Hélène for Liam’s death. In J.M.’s mind, if someone had been home at the time that Felix was drowning, maybe Felix could have been saved. And it just goes back to an unanswered question that the movie never bothers to answer: “Where were the servants?”

As for the secrecy over finishing “Rose Tree,” it has some twists and turns. All of these plot developments aren’t too surprising. The movie would’ve been better off not having the opening scene that it does, because this opening scene reveals too much of the outcome that’s shown toward the end of the film. This climactic scene isn’t very suspenseful but more like a confirmation of what was already hinted at early in the movie.

In the role of domineering J.M., Grant sometimes overacts, especially in a showdown scene toward the end, when the movie veers dangerously close to being campy. Delpy is quite good in her portrayal of someone who is emotionally numb, but she’s not unaware of everything going on in the household. McCormack gives as much depth as he can to a character that needed more development. In the end, “The Lesson” is a flawed but still fairly engaging drama that can be enjoyed by viewers who know that this movie is not intended to be a masterpiece.

Bleecker Street released “The Lesson” in select U.S. cinemas on July 7, 2023.

Review: ‘The League’ (2023), starring Bob Kendrick, Andrea Williams, Larry Lester, James Brunson III, Donald Spivey, Lawrence D. Hogan and Layton Revel

July 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

A 1936 archival photo of the Newark Eagles in “The League” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Yale University Art Gallery)

“The League” (2023)

Directed by Sam Pollard

Culture Representation: Covering the late 1880s to the 1950s in the United States, the documentary film “The League” features a predominantly African American group (with some white people) of baseball experts and cultural commentators discussing the Negro Leagues of American baseball, during an era when professional baseball was racially segregated in the United States.

Culture Clash: Despite the oppression of racism, the Negro Leagues helped African American communities economically and influenced how Major League Baseball was played, but racial integration caused the MLB to recruit the best Negro Leagues players, eventually leading to the Negro Leagues going out of business. 

Culture Audience: “The League” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of American baseball and are interested in watching documentaries about African Americans in professional baseball.

A 1916 archival photo of owner/manager Rube Foster (center) and the Chicago American Giants in “The League” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Hake’s Auction)

“The League” has an impressive array of interviews and archival footage that give a comprehensive look at the Negro Leagues of American baseball. This highly informative documentary is at times a little too dryly academic, like a university lecture. However, it’s still essential viewing for anyone who cares about baseball, American history and the important role that the Negro Leagues had in both. “The League” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Sam Pollard, “The League” follows a very traditional format of being a mixture of footage and interviews. Pollard made this statement in the movie’s press kit about how he assembled this documentary: “My vision was simple. Find voices of those who played the game, surround them with historians and fans of the Negro Leagues, use as much archival footage and stills I could find and, to add drama, shoot period recreations and create animation that would add another level of cinematic texture to the film.”

Pollard added in the statement, “Fortunately, I was able to find the voices of former Negro League players because Byron Motley (whose dad, Bob Motley, had been a Negro League Umpire) had interviewed and recorded many former players years ago. It was a treasure trove of wonderful voices and added immensely to the telling of the story. Also, fortunately many of the die-hard Negro League historians had access or knew where to find footage that I had never seen, which added enormously to visualizing the story.”

The Negro Leagues began out of necessity, because only white men were allowed to play in Major League Baseball (MLB), until Jackie Robinson famously broke through this racism barrier in 1947, by being the first African American to play for MLB. The Negro Leagues got off to a rocky start in 1887, when the National Colored Base Ball League (a minor league) lasted just two weeks. In 1920, the National Colored Base Ball League was formed, followed by several other leagues that had African Americans (and a small minority of Latinos) as the players.

Most of “The League” documentary covers the Negro Leagues era between the 1920s and 1950s. The Negro Leagues played their last season during Jim Crow racial segregation in 1951, and then faded away by the 1960s. The most successful of these leagues (and the fiercest rivals to each other) were the National Negro League, the Negro American League and the Eastern Colored League. Some other Negro Leagues that existed were the American Negro League, the East–West League and the Negro Southern League. The first Colored World Series took place in 1924, in a best-of-nine competition between the Negro National League champion Kansas City Monarchs and the Eastern Colored League champion Hilldale Club. The Monarchs won in a 5-4 final result.

The biggest strength of “The League” documentary is how it clearly shows the historical context of the ups and downs of the Negro Leagues were directly tied to racial segregation and racial integration laws. Adrian “Cap” Anson, a white first baseman whose MLB championship career peaked in the 1880s, is singled out in the documentary as being one of the driving forces in making MLB a “whites only” group. Anson would often refuse to play in a game if the other team had players who weren’t white.

Anson’s racist actions were validated by the Plessy vs. Ferguson case of 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to uphold federal protection of racial segregation laws, under the notion that racial segregation could be separate but equal. It led to the Jim Crow era in the United States, when it was legal to racially segregate people by having “whites only” places and services, and any other race would have to do whatever was dictated by what the white lawmakers decided. It was under this legal racial segregation that the Negro Leagues were born.

Another big part of American history that affected the Negro Leagues was the Great Migration, which refers to African Americans relocating from states in the U.S. South to go to other states in search of better economic opportunities and states that had little or no racial segregation laws. Chicago was one of the cities that saw an influx of many African Americans because of the Great Migration, which was encouraged by the African American-oriented newspaper the Chicago Defender. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Chicago American Giants were considered one of the best Negro League teams, as mentioned by several people who are interviewed in the documentary.

“The League” does an excellent job of giving vivid depictions of some of the larger-than-life personalities who were major influencers in the Negro Leagues. Chief among them was Andrew “Rube” Foster, founder of the Negro National League and owner of the Chicago American Giants. (Junius “Red” Gaten, who was Foster’s assistant, is one of the people heard in the documentary’s archival interviews.) Foster used to be a baseball player himself, and he is credited with inventing the screwball pitch, also known as the fadeaway. Foster’s spectacular baseball career was curtailed by his mental health issues, and he was put in a psychiatric facility. Foster died in 1930, at the age of 51.

Kent State University history professor Leslie A. Heaphy, author of “The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960,” says that the Negro Leagues had a slump in the 1930s, partially due to Foster’s death and partially due to the Great Depression. In the years when the Negro Leagues thrived, African American communities that had Negro League games reaped the financial benefits, because these games created jobs in the communities. The Negro League games became so important for many spectators, they began to travel outside their home areas to attend these games. Pittsburgh became an important hub for these travels, says journalist Mark Whitaker.

In the documentary, journalist Mal Goode talks about the extremely competitive rivalry between the Pittsburgh Crawfords owner William “Gus” Greenlee and Homestead Grays owner Cumberland Posey, including regular “poaching” of each other’s star players, such as Josh Gibson. Edward “Ed” Bolden, who founded the Eastern Colored League and owned Hilldale Club, is frequently mentioned in the documentary as an important vanguard in the Negro Leagues. There were white people who owned some Negro Leagues teams, but the Negro Leagues were also important opportunities for black people to own professional baseball teams at a time when only white people were allowed to own MLB teams.

Another famous business personality for the Negro Leagues was Effa Manley, who is often called the First Lady of the Negro Leagues. Manley was not the first woman to own a Negro League team (Olivia Taylor was the first), but Manley was the most well-known female Negro League team owner because of her charismatic personality. Manley’s vague racial identity (a lot of people weren’t sure if she was white or a light-skinned black person) added to the mystique about her personal background.

“The League” could have used more exploration of what it was like to be a female baseball player in the Negro Leagues. There were a few, such as Marcenia “Toni” Stone (second base), Mamie “Peanut” Johnson (pitcher) and Constance “Connie” Morgan (second base). The issue of sexism in the Negro Leagues is mentioned mainly in reference to what Manley experienced, but “The League” documentary should have had better inclusion of other women who broke through gender barriers in the Negro Leagues.

The documentary mentions that many of today’s baseball techniques that combine athletic skills with entertainment flair can be traced back to the Negro Leagues. Back when the Negro Leagues existed, many white players looked down on the African American players who would have a flamboyant performance style to baseball playing. The word “showboating” at the time was code for baseball players who didn’t play “white enough.” It’s similar to how the Harlem Globetrotters changed the way many people played basketball.

The voices of Negro Leagues players who can be heard in the documentary’s archival interviews include Harold Tinker, Monte Irvin, Wilmer Harris, Buck O’Neil Jr., “Prince” Joe Henry, Bob Feller, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Max Manning, Larry Doby, Wilmer Harris and Judy Johnson. Many of these players also became managers of their respective teams. Also featured in archival interviews are writers Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka; Paul Robeson Jr., whose famous actor father was a desegregation activist; Lloyd Brown, who was a community organizer and Paul Robeson Sr. biographer; and Odile Posey Stribling, sister-in-law of Homestead Grays player/manager/owner Cumberland Posey.

People who are interviewed on camera for “The League” include historian James Brunson III, journalist Andrea Williams, cultural critic Gerald Early, historian Lawrence D. Hogan, historian Donald Spivey, historian Rob Ruck, American National League scholar Larry Lester, journalist Shakeia Taylor, Negro League scholar Phil Dixon, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, and Negro Leagues scholar Jim Overmyer. Also interviewed is Center for Negro League Baseball Research founder/executive director Layton Revel, who is also a researcher for the Negro Southern League Museum.

Breakthrough baseball player Robinson is the most famous alum of the Negro Leagues, since he was the first to cross over and become a player for MLB. Lester says of Robinson: “He was an ink spot on a white canvas of injustice.” Robinson has the most name recognition for Negro Leagues players, but several people in the documentary say that Satchel Paige was the best player from the Negro Leagues. Other famous Negro Leagues alumni, who also got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, include Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, Willard Brown, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard.

It’s mentioned that Latino players, particularly from Cuba and other Caribbean nations, were integrated into the Negro Leagues because they weren’t allowed to become MLB players during the years when MLB was a “whites only” group. Some of the notable Latino players for the Negro Leagues included José Méndez, Martín Dihigo, Emilio “Millito” Navarro, Luis Márquez and Minnie Miñoso. Many of these Latino players identified as Afro-Latino.

“The League” is the type of documentary that benefits from having exclusive archival interviews and a well-chosen group of experts who give commentary. There is a scholarly and deliberately paced tone to the movie that might not appeal to people with very short attention spans. However, most people watching “The League” will learn something new about baseball, American history, and some of the extraordinary people involved in the Negro Leagues.

Magnolia Pictures released “The League” in select U.S. cinemas, exclusively in AMC Theatres, on July 7, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on July 14, 2023.

Review: ‘The Adults,’ starring Michael Cera, Hannah Gross and Sophia Lillis

July 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hannah Gross, Sophia Lillis and Michael Cera in “The Adults” (Photo by Tim Curtin/Variance Films)

“The Adults”

Directed by Dustin Guy Defa

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hudson Valley, New York, the comedy/drama film “The Adults” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An abrasive man, who is the eldest of three siblings, visits his estranged sisters, who each have different reactions to seeing him after spending three years apart from him. 

Culture Audience: “The Adults” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Michael Cera and movies where not much happens except family members moping, arguing, and acting out bizarre inside jokes.

Hannah Gross and Michael Cera in “The Adults” (Photo by Tim Curtin/Variance Films)

Repetitive, boring and very aimless, “The Adults” is the type of movie that’s overrated by people who think that characters being obnoxious and weird in a movie should automatically deserve praise. This is “indie cred pandering” cinema at its worst. There is barely anything unique or interesting about the movie’s three main characters to justify this movie’s existence. If you’ve seen enough independent films where people act neurotic and argumentative at family reunions, then you’re not going to see anything new in “The Adults.”

Written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa, “The Adults” had its world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. It’s a very slight film that doesn’t have much going for it except the name recognition of some of the stars of the movie, which was filmed on location in Hudson Valley, New York. The entire movie looks as washed-out as the lackluster tone of the film.

In the beginning of “The Adults,” Eric (played by Michael Cera), who is the eldest of three siblings, has arrived in the Hudson Valley area from Portland, Oregon, where he lives. Eric is in town to visit his two sisters, whom he hasn’t seen in three years: brittle and sarcastic Rachel (played by Hannah Gross) and bubbly and unpredictable Maggie (played by Sophia Lillis). Rachel works as a producer/editor at a radio station called WBSI. Maggie is a recent college dropout; she quit college after a year of attendance and hasn’t figured out yet what she wants to do with her life. All three siblings are unmarried and have no children.

Rachel lives in the house that she inherited after the siblings’ widowed mother died a number of years ago. Rachel is still angry with Eric that she was the sibling who had to handle all the funeral arrangements and the responsibility of paying the house’s property taxes. Meanwhile, Eric tells Rachel: “Why do you want me to feel guilty about how I’m organizing this trip when you haven’t bothered to visit me in Portland?” It’s a valid question that never really gets answered in the movie.

Maggie is just happy to see Eric and gives him a big hug when they see each other again. Eric has been so out of touch with Maggie, he didn’t even know that she dropped out of college until Rachel told him. At first, Eric had trouble contacting Maggie for this visit because, as Rachel tells him, Maggie is currently on “digital detox” where she is on a break from using any electronic devices.

During this visit, Eric spends a lot of time trying to reconnect with some of his former buddies from high school. He shows up unannounced at the house of a former school pal named Dennis (played by Wavyy Jonez), because Eric doesn’t have Dennis’ current phone number. Eric is surprised and disappointed that Dennis isn’t going to spontaneously go out to a bar with Eric, because Dennis is now a married father who doesn’t want to stay out late on this particular night. It’s the first sign in the movie that Eric is self-centered and emotionally tone-deaf.

Eric becomes fixated on getting some of his former high school buddies together to play poker, like they used to when they were schoolmates. After some dreadfully dull scenes of Eric trying to make this get-together happen, it finally does. And it just becomes an eye-rolling slog, as the conversation turns to philosophical questions that get asked and everyone in the group has to give their answers. One of the questions is, “When was the first time you realized death existed?”

Eric has a losing streak during this poker game get-together. He’s the first to admit that he’s extremely competitive. He not only wants to win back all the money that he lost, but he also wants to come out ahead by leaving with more poker game winnings than anyone else in the group. Eric even postpones his plane flight home so he can be the ultimate winner. Later, Eric gets unexpectedly humbled by his obsession to win at all costs.

Meanwhile, Rachel has been dealing with some mental-health issues such as panic attacks and depression. She’s also still reeling from a breakup from an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her, but she doesn’t want to admit to anyone how hurt she’s been by the breakup. When Eric suggests that Rachel has a bitter attitude because of this breakup, Rachel’s reaction is verbally hostile and defensive.

At the radio station where Rachel works, viewers see for the first time the family quirk that’s supposed to be a running joke in the movie. Rachel is having a discussion with a co-worker named Bobby (played by Lucas Papaelias) about what parts of a pre-recorded radio show needs to be edited out or kept in the show. All of sudden, Rachel starts talking in a cartoonish voice that sounds similar to Fozzie Bear of the Muppets. Bobby gives Rachel a puzzled look, as if he thinks she’s being too weird for him. Rachel sees that her attempt to be playful didn’t get the reaction she wanted, so she quickly stops.

Rachel, Eric and Maggie are shown using the same voice and playing guessing games as different characters, as a way to bond with each other in various parts of the movie. It’s a family inside joke that obviously goes back to their childhoods, but “The Adults” doesn’t really go into details on when these siblings started using these cartoonish voices or playing these childlike games. After a while, it just becomes very dull to watch this gimmick over and over. There’s a scene where the three siblings dance together to Men at Work’s 1983 hit “Overkill,” a song title that is an apt description for how overly repetitive “The Adults” can be with these “look at these oddball siblings” scenes.

When Eric first arrived for his visit, he gave the impression that he only wanted to stay for a few days. But then, he finds one reason after another to keep extending his visit. The problem with this poorly written part of the plot is that viewers never really know what the stakes are for Eric to keep postponing his return to Portland. Viewers know that he’s a bachelor with no kids, but what kind of life does he have in Portland that he’s putting on hold to stay in New York? The movie never answers that question.

And therein lies much of the flimsy foundation of “The Adults,” which relentlessly pushes Eric to be the center of the siblings’ conflicts but never really shows who he is except being an egotistical jerk with very little self-awareness. It’s an over-used and tiresome cliché (especially in these types of independent dramedies) to elevate this type of repugnant character as being worthy of admiration or interest, when Eric is neither smart, funny, nor charismatic enough to justify what is essentially a movie about what he decides to do with his visit.

If this is the type of dull egomaniac you want to waste your time watching in a movie, then “The Adults” is for you. Lillis and Gross give better performances than Cera, but their characters of Maggie and Rachel still come across as kind of hollow. If you’d rather watch a movie with more substance, then there are much better options in the large number of films about estranged family members having an awkward and tension-filled reunion.

Variance Flms will release “The Adults” in select U.S. cinemas on August 18, 2023.

Review: ‘Every Body’ (2023), starring River Gallo, Sean Saifa Wall and Alicia Roth Weigel

July 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sean Saifa Wall, Alicia Roth Weigel and River Gallo in “Every Body” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Every Body” (2023)

Directed by Julie Cohen

Some language in Spanish

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2021 and 2022 in various parts of the United States and in Berlin, the documentary film “Every Body” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans and Latinos) discussing what it’s like to be intersex, which is being born with male and female genital or reproductive physical characteristics.

Culture Clash: Intersex people often experience non-consensual surgeries as children, cruel discrimination and other traumas when other people assign genders to them that the intersex people might not feel are the correct genders for them.

Culture Audience: “Every Body” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in seeing an informative documentary about people in the LGBTQIA+ community who are often overlooked and misunderstood.

Maribel Gallo and River Gallo in “Every Body” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Every Body” is essential viewing to see how intersex people deserve the same human rights as anyone else. This notable documentary doesn’t overload on talking head interviews. Instead, it focuses on three intersex people who share their compelling stories. “Every Body” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed with intelligence and sensitivity by Julie Cohen, “Every Body” doesn’t just include personal stories. It’s also a well-researched documentary that unpeels the layers of medical abuse and shame that go in tandem with the non-consensual surgeries that intersex people often experience as children. The movie is also a call to action to advocate for intersex people’s rights and to help put a stop to abuse of intersex people by having better laws and more resource support for intersex people.

Unlike transgender people, who usually want to be one gender, intersex people usually have a different journey because intersex people have genital or reproductive physical characteristics associated with being male and female. Parents of intersex people are often told by medical professionals which gender should be assigned in childhood, often before intersex people are old enough to tell people what their gender identities are. This gender assignment at childhood often leads to non-consensual surgeries on underage intersex people.

The beginning of “Every Body” shows how people take for granted that an unborn child will be either male or female. The opening of the movie is a montage of “gender reveal” videos, where expectant parents reveal the genders of their unborn children. But what about the children who are born with both male and female sex organ characteristics?

“Every Body” presents this statistic: “An estimated 1.7% of the [U.S.] population has some intersex traits. About .07% have intersex traits so significant they may be referred for surgery. That’s 230,000 Americans. If those numbers are higher than you thought, that’s because intersex people are often told to keep quiet about their bodies. But Safia, Alicia and River are not the quiet types.”

Here are the three intersex people who are the main focus in “Every Body”:

River Gallo, whose pronouns are they/them, is an actor, screenwriter and director. At the time this documentary was made, Gallo was 31. Gallo grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, and currently lives in Los Angeles. Gallo, who was raised as male (the gender that Gallo was assigned at birth), was born with genital characteristics that were both male (a penis without testicles) and female. Gallo did not find out about being intersex until Gallo was 12 years old. Gallo used to lie to their male and female sex partners by saying Gallo’s lack of testicles was because of testicular cancer.

Sean Saifa Wall, whose pronouns are he/him, is a Ph.D. student. At the time this documentary was made, Wall was 43. Wall was raised in New York City’s Bronx borough and currently lives in Manchester, England. Wall was born with what is described in his medical records as “no uterus and a small phallus,” but he was assigned the female gender as a child by medical professionals at the hospital where he was born. Wall’s childhood name was Susanne. Wall says in the documentary that his sexual attraction is to women.

Alicia Roth Weigel, whose pronouns are she/her and they/them, is a political consultant and writer. At the time this documentary was made, Weigel was 31. Weigel was raised in Philadelphia and currently lives in Austin, Texas. Weigel was born with XY (male) chromosones, internal testes, no uterus and a vagina. Weigel was raised as female, the gender she was assigned at birth. In the documentary, she is shown looking for men on a dating app.

Gallo, Wall and Weigel are intersex activists and friends. All three pals describe themselves as being high academic achievers during their school years, as a way to have an identity outside of their gender situation. They also have university educations. Gallo’s alma mater is New York University. Wall graduated from Williams College. Weigel is a graduate of Cornell University.

All three describe the loneliness and isolation that intersex people often feel because of having both male and female sex organ characteristics. Wall says in the beginning of the documentary: “We live in a society that’s so binary. And so, for me, as an intersex person, where do I fit? Where do I belong?”

Weigel adds, “You have physical and anatomical traits that don’t fall neatly into that male/female box that birth certificates make you think how the world is. You feel so alone and isolated and like your body is a problem.” Gallo comments, “There’s this connotation that your body is ugly or is gross or is something that is monstrous.”

Gallo, Wall and Weigel all describe traumatic medical experiences that they experienced in their childhoods. For Gallo, it was being told at 12 years old about not having testicles and the medical recommendation to have surgery to add prosthetic testicles. Gallo’s parents are undocumented immigrants from El Salvador who did not speak English, which Gallo says had a lot to do with why these immigrant parents put so much trust in what the American doctors were recommending. Gallo says they felt betrayed by their parents for not telling them sooner, and it took a long time for Gallo to forgive their parents.

Weigel says that doctors told her to secretly make her vagina large enough to have penetrative sex and gave her dildos to use for this self-procedure. Weigel also claims that these doctors ordered her not to tell her parents. Weigel says, “I was 11 or 12, using the dildos, alone in the closet of my house.”

Wall, who says he always felt like a male, had gonadectomy (removal of his testes) when he was 13 years old. “I did not consent to the surgery,” Wall says. Wall’s parents are deceased, but he says that he understands why his mother decided to make him have the surgery. According to Wall, the doctor had told his mother that Wall’s testes were “cancerous” and needed to be removed. Wall did not have cancer, but the word “cancerous” was used as a stigma word to frighten his mother.

Wall is also shown going through his childhood medical records that prove he had male and female sex organ traits, and medical professionals were confused on what to do about it. His gender was initially checked in the “ambiguous” box on a medical document, but then crossed out and the “female” box was checked. His medical records also include extensive notes detailing the parts of his body that the medical professionals thought needed to be removed.

“A lot of parents [of intersex children] consent to these procedures, not really knowing the long-term effects,” says Wall. “A lot of parents do it because they’re really concerned about their kids. Wall adds, “There’s a culture of stigma and shame and silence that surrounds intersex people. It’s not just the surgeries themselves. It’s the voyeurism by doctors. It’s the medical photography. This person becomes a specimen.”

John Money, a Ph.D. sex researcher at Johns Hopkins University, is frequently mentioned and shown in archival footage in “Every Body” as being both a pioneer and a villain in intersex medical research. Although he is credited with bringing more awareness about intersex people to the general public, Dr. Money had studies advocating for intersex people to have non-consensual surgeries, assigning them to only one sex as early in their childhoods as possible. Dr. Money’s studies have since been debunked as being erroneous and harmful. Keith Sigmundson, Ph.D., a child psychiatrist who treated some of Dr. Money’s intersex patients confirms in the documentary that Dr. Money’s approach was the wrong one.

Katharine Dalke, M.D., of the Penn State College of Medicine’s National Institute Health’s Sexual and Gender Priority Research Group, identifies as intersex. Dr. Dalke says in the documentary, “The most inclusive definition of ‘intersex’ is any variation of a person’s sex traits with which they’re ether born or which they develop naturally during puberty.”

Dr. Dalke adds, “The existence of intersex traits show that not only does the middle space exist but that there’s a lot of variation within those categories of male and female. It is possible to be a biological female and have testes. It is possible to be a biological male and have a uterus”

Dr. Dalke also says, “In most cases, surgery isn’t necessary.” Dalke adds, “Unfortunately, the way that the medical community has responded to that complexity historically is to focus on managing someone’s genital appearance and their gender identity.”

As an example of the trauma that can happen when a child is assigned the wrong gender in infancy or another stage of childhood, “Every Body” brings up the case of David Reimer, a Canadian man who was raised as a girl after his penis was accidently burned off when he was an infant. Although Reimer (who had a twin brother) was not intersex, “Every Body” includes footage from Reimer’s 1999 interview with the NBC’s “Dateline” news program, with clips of the interview shown to Gallo, Wall and Weigel. Reimer describes being bullied as a child and experiencing mental-health issues over his gender identity, especially after he found out that he was lied to for years about his true gender.

Secrecy and shame are often part of the intersex experience. Many parents of intersex children don’t tell other family members that their children are intersex. Intersex children who know they are intersex are told not to reveal this information to other people. Although the intention of these parents might be to protect their intersex children, intersex activists say that the stigma needs to be removed from being intersex so that intersex people should not have to hide their identities in shame.

Gallo says that their relationship with their mother Maribel has now healed, but it took a lot of work. In the documentary, Gallo and their mother are shown looking at family photos with bittersweet memories. When asked about how she handled Gallo being intersex during childhood, Maribel says, “If I didn’t have the strength, who would?” But the trauma has lingering effects. Later in the documentary, Gallo says that the shame placed upon them for being intersex and what they went through as a child has a lot to do with why Gallo has had struggles with drug and alcohol abuse.

“Every Body” has significant screen time devoted to the support groups and activism for intersex people, their allies and loved ones. The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) is named as the most prominent and earliest advocacy group for and by intersex people. The documentary includes footage of the group’s first meeting in 1996, when 10 people attended.

Wall, Weigel and Gallo are also shown at various intersex advocate rallies and testifying in government hearings for better resources for intersex people and better education for the public about intersex people. Weigel’s mother Char Weigel, who is a nurse, is a supportive activist too. In another segment, Weigel is shown meeting with Austin city council member Natasha Harper-Madison and Austin communications director Caleb Pritchard to talk about intersex rights.

Dr. Dix Phillip Poppas, a urologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, is mentioned multiple times in the documentary as someone who advocates for harmful and unnecessary surgery on intersex people. Weigel and Gallo are shown at a pro-intersex gathering outside of Dr. Poppas’ workplace to protest the intersex surgeries that he and other medical doctors pressure intersex people to have. Two of the activists who are interviewed at this gathering are Scout Silverstein and Casey Orozco-Poore.

When it comes to dating, all three of the featured intersex people in “Every Body” say that it’s best to be open and up front with potential partners about being intersex. In most cases, intersex people cannot have biological children, so any potential partner with family planning issues should also be informed as early as possible. Gallo says that anyone who will reject someone for being intersex is not right for that intersex person anyway.

Weigel says, “Dating can be tough. It’s markedly different than it was before I was out about being intersex.” Weigel says she lists her intersex pronouns on all her profiles for dating apps. “If I don’t divulge it,” Weigel says of her intersex identity, “then they’ll find out on their own because they’ll Google me. And if someone can’t handle me, it sucks for them.”

Wall admits that he found dating very hard at first because he was deeply ashamed and afraid of any possible lover seeing him naked. Wall is now much more comfortable with dating and his body—so much so, he participated in an intersex art exhibition by posing fully naked for a series of photographs. Wall is shown traveling to Berlin to view this art exhibit, which was organized by Luan Pertl and Jomka Weib.

One of the subjects of the art exhibit is Mani Mitchell, one of the original ISNA members, who is shown in a nude photo portrait with the words, “I Am Not a Monster” written on Mitchell’s chest and torso. Wall gets emotionally moved by what he sees in the exhibit, which represents the gamut of experiences that intersex people have. During his tearful reaction, he says how important it is for intersex people to have understanding and support from their childhood onward to reduce the traumas that get inflicted on intersex people for biological things that are out of their control.

“Every Body” is the type of documentary that will stay with viewers long after watching it. It’s educational without being preachy. It’s inspirational without being corny. Most of all, it shows that although some bigots might want to discriminate against intersex people, it doesn’t erase the fact that equality human rights apply to intersex people too.

Focus Features released “Every Body” in select U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2023.

Review: ‘Anthem’ (2023), starring Kris Bowers and DJ Dahi

July 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front:  DJ Dahi and Kris Bowers in “Anthem” (Photo by Kevin Estrada/Hulu)

“Anthem” (2023)

Directed by Peter Nicks

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2020, in various parts of the United States, the documentary film “Anthem” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino, Native American and a few Asians) who are connected in some way to the documentary’s mission to find a variety of American residents to create a new U.S. national anthem.

Culture Clash: People disagree on what “patriotic” music and lyrics are supposed to be for Americans.

Culture Audience: “Anthem” will appeal primarily to viewers who are fans of the documentary’s stars Kris Bowers and DJ Dahi, as well as fans of documentaries about racially diverse people joining together for a common cause, but this movie bites off more than it can chew on this weighty subject matter.

Kris Bowers and DJ Dahi in “Anthem” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

Although “Anthem” might have had good intentions to do something groundbreaking in music and American culture, it really looks like a half-baked experiment and an excuse to take a road trip. This documentary is supposed to be about a diverse group of people creating a new U.S. national anthem, but people of Asian heritage are mostly excluded from this movie. It’s a travelogue and a long commercial for the song that’s performed at the end. And that song? After all the buildup and hype in this documentary, the song that the group comes up with—”We Are America”—is really just a bland and forgettable pop tune. There’s nothing iconic about this song at all.

Directed by Peter Nicks (who is seen briefly in the movie), “Anthem” (which had its premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival) looks like the type of movie that seems like a great idea on paper. But the complexities involved in doing this concept justice just seemed to be too much for this documentary’s filmmakers. There’s a lot of footage of film/TV composer Kris Bowers (“King Richard,” “Bridgerton”) and hip-hop artist DJ Dahi on a road trip to six metropolitan areas of the U.S., where they spend a lot of time sitting in on local band rehearsals and nodding along to whatever the people are saying in the interviews.

It’s explained in the movie, when Bowers and DJ Dahi meet in Los Angeles, that these two artists didn’t know each other before the road trip. Bowers and DJ Dahi (whose real name is Dacoury Dahi Natche) have amiable chemistry together, but this documentary would have been more interesting if the two taking the road trip were music artists who know each other very well. Bowers (who is one of the producers of “Anthem”) and DJ Dahi are also quite passive in their conversations with the local music artists. The questions they ask are often boring and needed more curiosity and charisma, if the intent was to recruit these singers and musicians to be in the group that’s writing and performing this “new national anthem.”

The documentary explains that this “new national anthem” is not intended to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It is intended to be a more updated national anthem that is a better reflection of how much more diverse the United States is in the 2020s, compared to when Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814. The inherent problem, of course, is that with so many more music genres that didn’t exist in 1814 but were invented in the 20th century (including rock, hip-hop and electronic dance music, to name a few), it’s impossibe to come up with a new song that everyone in America can agree is the best representation of America.

Various cultural experts such as Nikole Hannah-Jones, Shana L. Redmond and Mark Clague weigh on what it means to even think about creating a new national anthem. They all say the obvious: Some people will think it’s an inspired idea, while others will think it’s highly unpatriotic. For many people in America, “The Star-Spangled Banner” represents freedom. For other, people “The Star-Spangled Banner” represents oppression.

Redmond comments that any deviation or different version of the U.S. national anthem is “seen as an affront.” It’s also noted in the documentary that people of color who perform different musical arrangements of the national anthem tend to get the harshest criticism. Jimi Hendrix and José Feliciano are mentioned as examples of how their versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” got a lot of backlash when Hendrix and Feliciano first performed these versions in the late 1960s.

Considering how vast the United States is, in terms of land space, Bowers and DJ Dahi realistically could not go to every major city if the documentary had time constraints. However, going to only six regions—Detroit; Clarksdale, Mississippi; Nashville; New Orleans; Oklahoma; and the San Francisco Bay Area—still seems a bit skimpy, considering that only one of these regions (the San Francisco Bay Area) is not in the South or Midwest. In each region, Bowers and DJ Dahi visit with local musicians to get their thoughts on music and possibly recruit some of these musicians to be a part of the making of this “new national anthem.”

For this documentary, Detroit was chosen to represent R&B music in America; Clarksdale was chosen to represent blues music in America; Nashville was chosen to represent country music in America; Oklahoma was chosen to represent Native American music; and the San Francisco Bay Area was chosen to represent Latin music in America. For unknown reasons, “Anthem” ignores cities and spotlights for rock and hip-hop, two of the most important American-made music genres. And it’s a baffling omission, considering that DJ Dahi is a hip-hop producer who has worked with hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott and Drake.

The interviews range from generic to fairly insightful. In Detroit, keyboardist Joseph “Amp” Fiddler comments: “We love this country. We love the people in our country. But does our country love us?” In Clarksdale, harmonica player Terry “Harmonica” Bean says about the blues: “The music that you hear from here, America gets the credit for it, but it comes from Africa … The blues will never die. We’re just passing it on, passing the torch.”

Discussions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” also extend to perceptions of the American flag and its offshoots. In Clarksdale, singer/keyboardist Eden Brent reflects on how she, as a white woman living the U.S. South, changed her mind about the Confederate flag over time when she learned how many people see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism. She says that even though some people might defend the Confederate flag as being a symbol of “Southern pride,” people shouldn’t forget that the history of the Confederate flag was about fighting to keep slavery legal in the United States.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, self-described radical activist musician Cecilia Peña-Govea (whose stage name is La Doña) openly talks about how the U.S. flag has become a symbol of greed and destruction for her. In Nashville, singer Charity Bowden says the U.S. flag and “The Star-Spangled Banner” will always be a source of pride for her, especially since she comes from a military family. It’s at this point in the movie that you know the filmmakers are going to be like reality TV producers and have Peña-Govea and Bowden working in a room together, and the two women inevitably clash with each other. And sure enough, that happens. By contrast, one of the artist highlights of the documentary is seeing poet Joy Harjo show her entrancing talent in the recording studio.

With all this talk of diversity throughout “Anthem,” there is surprisingly very little representation of people with Asian heritage in the documentary’s selection of musicians and singers who get the spotlight. In New Orleans, trombonist Haruka Kakuchi is shown briefly with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen is seen playing “We Are America” during the movie’s end credits. People of South Asian heritage are excluded in this movie, in terms of the prominently featured musicians and singers.

Other people featured in the documentary include lighting director Briana Nicole Henry and the following music artists: Larae Starr, Dennis Coffey, Paul Randolph, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Lee Williams, Ruby Amanfu, Jack Schneider, Zachariah Akil Witcher, Ellen Angelico, Megan Brittany Coleman, Preston James, Glen Finister Andrews, Charlie Gabriel, Wendell Brunious, Richard Moten, George Coser, Dana Tiger, Watko Long, Miguel Govea, Naomi Garcia Pasmanick, Sergio Duran and Esai Moreno Salas. The credited songwriters for “We Are America” are Amanfu, Bowden, Bowers, Peña-Govea, Harjo and DJ Dahi, under his real name.

Although the technical aspects of “Anthem” are well-done, the documentary doesn’t look like a fascinating history lesson that blends music and American history. Instead, the documentary looks like a hastily assembled hodgepodge of people brought together to write and record a “music by committee” song that, frankly, does not sound all that majestic and is very underwhelming for a so-called “national anthem.” Regardless of what your definiton is of “patriotism,” or what you think about the United States, “Anthem” is a documentary that falls very short of its intention to be a trailblazing project.

Hulu premiered “Anthem” on June 28, 2023.

Review: ‘The Graduates’ (2023), starring Mina Sundwall, Alex Hibbert, Yasmeen Fletcher, Ewan Manley, John Cho, Maria Dizzia, Kelly O’Sullivan

June 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Mina Sundwall in “The Graduates”

“The Graduates” (2023)

Directed by Hannah Peterson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2019, in an unnamed city in Utah, the dramatic film “The Graduates” features a predominantly cast of characters (with some Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenager, who is on the verge of graduating from high school, struggles with grief after a school shooting left her boyfriend and other people dead.

Culture Audience: “The Graduates” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about the effects of mass shootings, but viewers should be prepared to go through an emotionally taxing experience when watching this movie.

Moody and atmospheric, “The Graduates” will bore some viewers looking for a more typical drama about people in a community dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting. The cast’s good acting is the main reason to watch when the plot starts to wear thin. “The Graduates” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, where the movie won the prize for Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature.

Written, directed and edited by Hannah Peterson, “The Graduates” is Peterson’s first feature film. The movie’s cinematography (by Caroline Costa) skillfully evokes the intended feeling of people getting by in life by powering through or struggling in a haze of grief. It’s the type of movie where the performers’ body language and facial expressions are of utmost importance, because their characters aren’t necessarily going to be the types of people who say what they’re thinking out loud.

“The Graduates” was filmed on location in an unnamed city in Utah. In the movie, the Class of 2019 is getting ready to graduate from Lewis High School. Their graduation is overshadowed by the lingering trauma of a mass shooting that took place at the school about a year ago. The story in “The Graduates” is told mostly through the perspective of a graduating student named Genevieve, nicknamed Gen (played by Mina Sundwall), who’s trying to pretend to the world that she’s coping well with the aftermath of the shooting.

The movie’s opening scene shows Gen looking at a memorial of flowers and photos in the school hallway. She’s later shown in a meeting with a school guidance counselor named Vicki (played by Kelly O’Sullivan), who encourages Gen to apply to colleges, even though Gen plans to take a gap year after graduating from high school. Although Gen doesn’t seem all that concerned about applying for colleges, she’s more concerned than she wants people to believe she is, because she later gets upset when she finds out that her SAT score was 1010 out of a possible 1600.

There are indications that Gen is slacking off in her school work—and it’s not just because she has “senioritis,” the term used for graduating seniors who stop caring about their schoolwork and grades because they already have post-graduation plans where their last grades before graduating won’t matter. Gen’s social studies teacher (played by Bradley Fehr) has given Gen an extension on assignments where she missed the deadlines. At home, Gen seems emotionally disconnected. And it’s starting to become very noticeable to Gen’s single mother Maggie (played by Maria Dizzia), who wants to go to therapy with Gen to help Gen cope with her grief.

Maggie tells Gen: “I just want you to have an easier life than I did.” Gen replies in a hostile tone: “Are you disappointed? Well join the fucking club!” Maggie gently tries to find out if Gen has been able to confide in her friends about how she’s coping with the school shooting. Gen brushes off Maggie’s concerns and tells her that Gen her friends don’t talk about the shooting.

Gen has one friend in particular who affects her more than her small group of female friends who are students at Lewis High School. Ben (played by Alex Hibbert) used to go to Lewis High School, but he transferred to nearby Jefferson High School after the mass shooting at Lewis High School. Because of this school transfer, Ben and his former classmates at Lewis High School didn’t really keep in touch with each other.

But one day, Ben shows up outside Lewis High School and catches up with some of the people he knew, including Gen. Ben eventually confesses that he dropped out of school and now works as a dishwasher. It doesn’t take long to see that Ben has reached out to his former classmates because he’s still trying to process his grief and is trying to connect with people who know what it was like to survive the shooting that took place at Lewis High School in 2018.

Another person who’s prominently featured in the story is Lewis High School basketball coach John Kim (played by John Cho), who leads the boys’ basketball team and who is dealing with his own type of grief: John’s son Tyler Kim (played by Daniel Christopher Kim, also known as Daniel Kim, seen in flashbacks and photos) was one of the students who was murdered during the school shooting. If Tyler had lived, he would have been in the graduating class of 2019. One of the basketball team players is named Becker (played by Ewan Manley), whom Tyler treats almost like a surrogate son.

Eventually (this isn’t spoiler information), it’s revealed about midway through the story what the connection is between Gen, Ben and John: Tyler was Gen’s boyfriend and Ben’s best friend. John and Gen have a semi-close but somewhat awkward relationship, where they find it difficult to talk with each other about Tyler. With Ben hanging around again, it seems to trigger something in Gen, who has been avoiding expressing a lot of feelings that she’s kept bottled up inside of her.

“The Graduates” doesn’t have a lot of action or constant melodrama. Instead, it’s a “slice of life” film that shows how grief seeps into everyday routines and mundane activities. When Ben is alone and using his phone, he still calls Tyler’s voice mail to leave messages. Ben also seems to be drifting in life, with the implication that it’s because of his unprocessed grief.

When Gen is hanging out with her friends, including her closest female pal Romie (played by Yasmeen Fletcher), they goof off and act like typical teenagers. But then, they also show signs of being unsettled by Ben hanging out with them again. At one point, Romie verbally lashes out at Ben for avoiding her for several months.

At home, John speaks to his wife Eliza (played by Bekah Jung) in a videoconference call. She seems to be temporarily staying somewhere else with their daughter, who’s about 3 or 4 years old. It’s revealed that Eliza is actually in Houston because the family had planned to move there after Tyler’s death. John just hasn’t been able to bring himself to move out of the Kim family’s Utah home.

“The Graduates” doesn’t have a lot of snappy dialogue. Many of the conversations are in measured tones, as if people are choosing their words carefully, so as not to reveal their true feelings. And some of the scenes are actually quite dull, as they occasionally drag, with not much happening. However, there are certain scenes that are very poignant and realistic in showing survivor’s guilt and the difficulty that some people have in admitting how deeply hurt they are by the trauma of experiencing a loved one die in a mass shooting.

Sundwall’s and Hibbert’s best scenes in the movie are the scenes that they have together. Gen and Ben have a connection to Tyler that brings them both comfort and pain. And that connection leads to some emotional bonding between them that Gen and Ben don’t expect. Some of their scenes together require Sundwall and Hibbert to express some very raw emotions that are handled with a lot of authenticity. Cho gives an admirable but low-key performance as Tyler’s grieving father John.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of “The Graduates” is that all of the characters except for Gen, Ben and John are very underdeveloped. There could have been more in the movie to show how other students were emotionally affected by the shooting, instead of having occasional glimpses. The scenes with John coaching the basketball team are probably the closest to revealing the lingering effects that this traumatic event had on the surviving students. The movie barely has any exploration of how the school’s teachers and other faculty members (except for John) were affected.

Mostly, what “The Graduates” succeeds in doing is showing that there is no one way for people to grieve. And not everyone’s will have a path to healing that moves forward in a straight line. There can be lots of zigzags and regressions along the way. If there’s any big takeaway that viewers should get from this morose but hopeful movie, it’s that no matter what path someone goes on because of grief, it’s more important for the grieving person to have some kind of emotional support to help in this often-difficult journey.

Review: ‘Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music,’ starring Taylor Mac

June 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taylor Mac in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music”

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2016 in New York City, the documentary film “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) who are connected in some way to drag performer Taylor Mac and his one-time-only, 24-hour performance of pop hits.

Culture Clash: During his performance, Mac discusses some of the racism and homophobia behind some of history’s most popular songs.

Culture Audience: “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will appeal primarily to viewers who are fans of drag performers and music documentaries that focus on unconventional artists and unusual performances.

Taylor Mac in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Vivacious and engaging, this concert documentary starring drag performer Taylor Mac offers a bittersweet presentation of iconic pop songs, without glossing over some of these songs’ problematic histories. It’s an extremely unique 24-hour performance. The 2016 show took place as a one-time-only event, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. During this 24-hour continuous performance, Mac performed popular songs from 24 decades (each decade got its own hour), from 1776 to 2016. Attendees had the option to sleep at the venue in a separate room.

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. The majority of the documentary’s footage is of highlights from this epic concert. The rest of the documentary consists of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with principal members of the events team.

Mac explains in the beginning of the film that he conceived this event as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the AIDS crisis. The show starts with 24 musicians on stage, but after each hour, one less musician goes on stage, until the last hour, when Mac is be the sole performer on stage. The decreasing numbers of band musicians on stage are supposed to be symbolic of how communities and families lost people to the AIDS crisis.

Mac also says in the documentary, “The show is about our history of Americans. That history is in our souls.” He also says that “a queer body can become a metaphor for America.” He later adds, “I learned my politics from radical lesbians.”

Mac gives a brief personal background about himself, by saying that he grew up in Stockton, California, which he describes as a very homophobic city that’s overrun with a lot of “ugly tract houses.” After he graduated from acting school, Mac says that he had difficulty getting auditions. However, he found work at New York City drag nightclubs. And the rest is history.

Some of the key people on the event team also give their perspectives of the show. Niegel Smith, the show’s co-director, calls it a “radical realness ritual” that “asks us to move closer to our queerness.” During one of the audience interaction parts of the show, Mac tells audience members to slow dance with people who are of the same gender. The song selection for this same-sex slow dance is “Snakeskin Cowboys,” a song made famous by Ted Nugent, who is a political conservative. It’s obviously Mac’s way of reclaiming the song and putting it in a progressive queer context.

Matt Ray, the show’s musical director, comes from a jazz background. He says the biggest problem in America is “lack of community.” This 24-hour performance, says Ray, is Mac’s way of trying to bring back community to live events. Machine Dazzle, the show’s costume designer, is seen in costume fittings with Mac, who says that he gave no creative restrictions on how Dazzle could make the costumes. Also seen in the documentary is makeup artist Anastasia Durasova.

It’s no coincidence that the performance starts with the year 1776, since it’s the year of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Freedom, liberation and fighting against oppression are constant themes throughout the show. During his performances of popular songs from each decade, Mac gives historical context of what was going on in the United States at the time when the song was popular and why some of the songs have a much more disturbing meaning than they seem to have.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” performed in the hour covering the years 1776 to 1786, sounds like an upbeat and patriotic song. But Mac also reminds people that during this time, the United States was also built on the enslavement of black people and the destruction of Native Americans. The 1820s song “”Coal Black Rose” has racist origins, since it was originally performed by white people wearing blackface makeup, and the song’s lyrics are about raping an enslaved black woman. For the 1830s song “Rove Riley Rove,” Mac says he’s performing the song to evoke a mother or nanny during the Trail of Tears era, when the Native Americans were forced to go on dangerous and deadly routes when they were forced off their ancestral lands.

Not all of the songs performed have depressing and bigoted histories. When Mac gets to the 1970s decades, he performs songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” For “Heroes,” which is performed in the context of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, two giant inflatable penises—one with a U.S. flag decoration, one with a Russian flag decoration—float around on stage. Mac straddles at least one of these inflatable sex organs.

Other songs performed in the show include Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” (which Mac interprets in the performance as a sexual liberation song); the Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter”; and “Soliloquy” from the 1945 musical “Carousel,” which Mac was his father’s favorite song. Mac also says that his father died when Mac was 4 years old.

Audience members are encouraged to sing along and participate. And sometimes, Mac invites audiences members on stage during the performance, such as when he selects the oldest person in the room (a man in his 80s) and youngest person in the room (a 20-year-old woman) to dance on stage together. In another part of the show, audience members throw ping pong balls at each other.

Mac doesn’t do all of the lead vocals during the show. There are also guest singers, including Heather Christian, Steffanie Christian, Thornetta Davis, and Anaïs Mitchell. However, there’s no doubt that Mac is the star. He has a charismatic command of the stage, even though he’s not a great singer. He has a wry sense of comedy and keeps the energy level fairly high, even though performing this 24-hour show would be exhausting by any standard.

“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” has a simple concept with an extravagant and very flamboyant presentation. If drag performances and some bawdiness meant for adults have no appeal to you, then watching this documentary might be overwhelming or a little hard to take. The performance in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will never be duplicated by Mac, but this memorable documentary is the next best thing to being there.

HBO and Max will premiere “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” on June 27, 2023.

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