Review: ‘Vengeance’ (2022), starring B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae and Ashton Kutcher

January 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ashton Kutcher and B.J. Novak in “Vengeance” (Photo by Patti Perret/Focus Features)

“Vengeance” (2022)

Directed by B.J. Novak

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas and briefly in New York City, the comedy/drama film “Vengeance” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A New York City podcaster is persuaded to go to rural Texas to investigate the drug-overdose death of a woman whom he briefly dated. 

Culture Audience: “Vengeance” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star/filmmaker B.J. Novak and movies about crime investigations that take dark comedic jabs at society.

B.J. Novak asnd Boyd Holbrook in “Vengeance” (Photo by Patti Perret/Focus Features)

The comedy/drama “Vengeance” puts a satirical spin on a familiar movie concept of a stranger coming to an area to investigate a possible crime, with the stranger feeling like a “fish out of water.” The stranger then usually lets judgment get clouded by internal prejudices, as well as the prejudices of people around the stranger. “Vengeance” makes some of its cultural stereotypes too broad and heavy-handed, and the movie’s ending could have been better. Overall, the story can hold viewers’ interest, as long as there’s tolerance for what the movie is saying about personal biases.

B.J. Novak, a former co-star and writer of the U.S. comedy TV series “The Office,” makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Vengeance,” a movie that he also wrote. “Vengeance” starts out very strong with biting comedy. And then, it meanders back and forth between an intriguing investigation and clumsily handled culture shock, with jokes that are hit and miss. The ending of “Vengeance” is meant to be a surprise twist, but observant viewers can see some clues leading up this ending and can figure out why Novak chose to end the movie this way.

In “Vengeance” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival), Novak portrays Ben Manalowitz, a politically liberal podcaster who lives and works in New York City. Ben, who is also a writer for The New Yorker, is every cliché (for better or worse) of what many people think about a college-educated, New York City media person. Depending on someone’s perspective, Ben is either well-versed and knowledgeable about many topics, or he’s a a smug intellectual snob.

The movie opens with a hilarious scene of Ben and musician John Mayer (portraying himself) having a conversation at a rooftop party in New York City. The conversation topic for these two bachelors is dating. John says, “I don’t ever want to go past knowing what someone’s parents do for a living. If I know what someone has done for a living, I’ve hung too long.”

Ben replies in agreement: “Or siblings. Why does anyone care about your siblings, especially so early [of meeting a potential partner]? Has that ever changed whether you want to date somebody?” John says, “People say guys like us are afraid of commitment. No, we’re afraid of commitment to something we can’t get out of.”

Ben adds, “There’s no such thing as commitment. Fear of commitment is fear of regret.” John replies, “100%. Or fear of intimacy. Please. I’m intimate with everybody.” If only “Vengeance” had more of this type of banter in the movie, it would have been a lot funnier. Viewers won’t get to see much of Ben’s life in New York City, because he will soon be plunged into an unexpected investigation in rural Texas.

It just so happens that Ben wants to do a new investigative series for his podcast, so he pitches an idea to his podcast producer Eloise (played by Issa Rae), who is smart and sarcastic. Ben says that he wants to do a series about why the United States is so divided. However, as he tells Eloise his theory: “America isn’t divided by space. America is divided by time.”

Eloise replies, “Not every white guy in New York needs to have a podcast. You got the verified checkmark. You got The New Yorker position.” Ben says, “I want something more. I don’t just want to be writer. I want to be a voice. As dorky as it sounds, I care about America.”

At home one night, Ben is asleep when he is woken up by the sound of his phone ringing. The person on the other line is sobbing, and he identifies himself as Ty Shaw (played by Boyd Holbrook), who is a complete stranger to Ben. Ty lives in a rural part of western Texas, about five hours away from the city of Abilene. It’s a very politically conservative part of Texas that has almost the opposite of the environment and lifestyle that Ben has in New York City.

At first, Ben doesn’t know the reason for Ty’s call, until Ty tells Ben that Ty is the older brother of Abilene “Abby” Shaw (played by Lio Tipton in flashbacks), who recently died of an opioid overdose at a party in a Texas oil field. Ben and Abby had a fling some years ago that he almost forgot about until Ty’s phone call.

Ty is under the impression, based on the way Abby talked about Ben, that Ben and Abby were in a serious, long-distance relationship. The reality is that Ben and Abby haven’t seen or been in contact with each other for years. Ben tries to tell Ty this information, but Ty is so grief-stricken and insistent that Ben was the love of Abby’s life, Ben goes along with it.

It isn’t long before Ty has convinced Ben to go to Texas for Abby’s funeral, where Ben is asked to give a eulogy about Abby. At the funeral, Ben finds out that Abby was an aspiring singer, so he awkwardly says in his speech: “I know she loved music. She will always be a song in our hearts.”

Ty soon tells Ben that he believes that Abby’s overdose death was murder. Ty also insists that he and Ben are going to track down whoever allegedly murdered Abby. Ty says to be: “You and me, we’re the men in their lives. And they fucked with the wrong two guys.”

Ben tells Ty: “I don’t avenge deaths. I don’t live in a Liam Neeson movie.” Ty responds, “You kind of look like a guy in a Liam Neeson movie.” Ty names “Schindler’s List” as “my least-favorite Liam Neeson movie. Huge downer.” Ty adds, “Stay down here and avenge Abby’s death with me.”

Ben doesn’t take Ty’s murder theory seriously, but Ben sees this investigation as the perfect idea for his next podcast series. He tells Eloise about it and says, “This isn’t a story about vengeance. It’s a story about the need for vengeance, the meaning of vengeance.” Eloise asks, “Dead white girl?” Ben replies, “The holy grail of podcasts.”

And so, Ben ends up getting to know Ty and the rest of the loud and boisterous Shaw family. They include Ty’s three other siblings: 24-year-old sister Paris (played by Isabella Amara), who’s an aspiring filmmaker; 17-year-old sister, Kansas City (played by Dove Cameron), who’s an aspiring “celebrity”; and 9-year-old El Stupido (played by Eli Abrams Bickel), who isn’t called by any other name in the movie.

The siblings’ mother is feisty Sharon Shaw (played by J. Smith-Cameron) and grandmother Carole Shaw (played by Louanne Stephens), who is very racist against people of Mexican heritage. One of the movie’s jokes about Carole is that she doesn’t know that Texas lost the battle of Alamo. Unfortunately, all of the Shaw family characters except for Ty are very underdeveloped and are nothing but hollow stereotypes.

Ben and Ty are told that Mexican drug dealers probably killed Abby. During this investigation, Ben meets and interviews several local people who might have information on what happened to Abby on the night that she died. These locals include a smarmy music producer named Quentin Sellers (played by Ashton Kutcher), who was working with Abby on some music recordings; a drug dealer named Sancholo (played by Zach Villa); and County Sheriff Jimenez (played by Rio Alexander), who is every cliché of an unsophisticated cop.

“Vengeance” has some subtle and not-so-subtle comedy poking fun at stereotypes of “city slickers” and “country hicks.” Ben is doing a podcast series about vengeance, but it begins to dawn on him that he’s experiencing his other podcast series idea about America being a divided country. Not surprisingly, Ben gets some resistance to his investigation because many of the locals think that Ben is an “outsider” who can’t be trusted. The cast members give competent performances, although enjoyment of “Vengeance” will be affected by how much a viewer thinks Kutcher is convincing or not convincing in portraying a Texan.

All of the characters in “Vengeance” are portrayed as alternately amusing or annoying, which seems to be the movie’s point. “Vengeance” doesn’t point fingers at any particular lifestyle or political belief as better than the rest. The movie shows there’s something irritating and ultimately toxic about any mindset that wants to lump people of different cultures into one degrading stereotype. And sometimes, when people get consumed by an “us versus them” mentality, they can end up with the worst traits of the people they despise.

Focus Features released “Vengeance” in U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 16, 2022, and on Blu-ray and DVD on September 20, 2022. Peacock premiered “Vengeance” on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘Alone Together’ (2022), starring Katie Holmes, Jim Sturgess and Derek Luke

January 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jim Sturgess and Katie Holmes in “Alone Together” (Photo by Jesse Korman/Vertical Entertainment)

“Alone Together” (2022)

Directed by Katie Holmes

Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and New York City, from March to April 2020, the comedy/drama film “Alone Together” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, a food critic/journalist with an attorney boyfriend finds herself quarantining unexpectedly with a bachelor repairman when they are both double-booked at the same Airbnb rental house, and the awkwardness between these temporary housemates turns into a romantic attraction.

Culture Audience: “Alone Together” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star/writer/director Katie Holmes and don’t mind watching a clumsily made and extremely predictable romantic dramedy.

Katie Holmes and Derek Luke in “Alone Together” (Photo by Jesse Korman/Vertical Entertainment)

“Alone Together” is a trite and misguided dramedy about a would-be couple stuck quarantining in the same house during the COVID-19 pandemic. The only social distancing needed is for viewers to avoid this boring flop that fails to have any romantic sizzle. Katie Holmes is the writer, director and star of this formulaic dud, so she bears the responsibility for not being able to write and direct a great role for herself. The cast members’ performances aren’t terrible, but the movie’s storytelling is so unimaginative and substandard, it’s disappointing that the potential to make a witty and memorable film is completely wasted.

“Alone Together” takes place during only a one-month period (March to April 2020), during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Keep that in mind when the “Alone Together” characters make big decisions about their lives in such a short period of time. The problem is that some of these life decisions don’t look completely believable and look too rushed, considering the personalities of some of the characters involved.

“Alone Together” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Holmes’ feature-film directorial debut “All We Had” (written by Josh Boone and Jill Killington) had its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. In both movies, Holmes as a director shows a knack for choosing talented cast members, but she needs a lot of improvement in how a director shapes the narrative of a film.

“Alone Together” is not as muddled as “All We Had” (a drama about a single mother who becomes homeless), but “Alone Together” has almost the opposite problem: It presents complicated life decisions in such an overly simplistic way, the end result is that “Alone Together” looks like an unrelatable, half-baked fairy tale. “Alone Together” earnestly wants to be a meaningful love story set during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lack of believable chemistry between the two lead characters automatically makes this romantic dramedy a non-starter.

“Alone Together” begins on March 15, 2020, in New York City, at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns. A food critic/journalist named June (played by Holmes) is going on a getaway trip to an Airbnb rental house in Connecticut. Her boyfriend John (played by Derek Luke), who is a corporate attorney, booked this rental the week before, as a romantic vacation. But now, with the world under quarantine from a deadly disease, this trip has taken on a new meaning.

From the beginning, “Alone Together” has a series of contrivances to make June get in a bad mood at the start of the trip. When she goes to the subway station, a homeless panhandler (played by Mike Iveson) verbally abuses her when she ignores his begging for money: “The world is ending, bitch,” the panhandler snarls. “I shouldn’t have to ask you twice.”

The subways are delayed, so June decides to take an above-ground train. But when she gets to the train station, she finds out that the train she needs to take has cancelled all service for the day. June ends up using a Lyft car service to get to her destination, so traveling to the rental home costs a lot more than June expected.

While June uses hand sanitizer in the car (and she continues to use hand sanitizer throughout the movie, to show she’s conscientious about germs), the nosy Lyft driver (played by Neal Benari) inappropriately asks June if she’s married. June says no, but she says she eventually wants to get married and start a family someday. It’s later mentioned in the movie that June and John have been dating each other for a year.

When she’s in the car on the way to the Airbnb rental, June gets a text from John telling her that he won’t be able to join her at the Airbnb rental, because he’s staying in the city to look after his elderly parents during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The rental house has already been paid for, and June is almost there, so she doesn’t see the point of going all the way back to New York City.

The irritations for June continue: When she arrives at the house, she can’t find the key to the front door. And then, her phone battery dies. She also finds out the house is already occupied by someone who says he booked the same house the day before. You know where this is going, of course.

The house’s other rental occupant is Charlie (played by Jim Sturgess), a bachelor who has his own business repairing vintage items. His especially loves to fix up old motorcycles. And what a coincidence: Charlie lives in New York City too, and he’s rented the house to be by himself during the pandemic lockdowns during the same period time that June and John had the booked the place. June and Charlie predictably have a mild squabble over who has the right to be at the house, until they both agree to share the house for the duration that they have it booked.

“Alone Together” then goes through the tedious and snoozeworthy motions of June and Charlie bickering and being uncomfortable with each other, until they discover they actually like each other and have some romantic attraction to each other. Meanwhile, June is already annoyed with John for wanting to spend time with his parents instead of with her. And then, June gets jealous when she sees a social media photo of John looking cozy with one of John’s female co-workers named Carol.

June tells Charlie about John but almost makes John sound like an inattentive boyfriend instead of a loving and caring son. Charlie has some issues about falling in love because his most recent ex-girlfriend cheated on him and dumped him to be with another man. Even after Charlie tells June this information, she seems to have very little qualms about cheating on unsuspecting John with Charlie. Charlie also doesn’t seem to want to think too much about the consequences if Charlie and June hook up: Charlie is going to be involved with another woman who’s a cheater, and he’s going to be involved in emotionally hurting John.

In other words: “Alone Together” doesn’t give any good reasons for viewers to root for June and Charlie to be a couple. To make things worse, the dialogue in “Alone Together” is so bland and forgettable, it’s hard to believe that June and Charlie are connecting on a level other than physical attraction. It’s supposed to be an “opposites attract” situation where uptight, white-collar June and laid-back, blue-collar Charlie are supposed to find love with each other, despite their different lifestyles. It all looks so phony.

“Alone Together” also has some weird inconsistencies that are examples of the movie’s substandard writing and directing. When June first meets Charlie, she asks him, “Are you from Wisconsin?,” even though he has an obvious East Coast accent. Charlie later tells June that he grew up New York City’s Lower East Side, even though Sturgess (who is British in real life) has an American accent that sounds more like Charlie grew up in New Jersey.

The two-story house where June and Charlie are staying is big enough to have more than one bathroom, but there are multiple, fake-looking scenes where Charlie and June have discomfort from using the same bathroom. June is supposed to be such a germaphobe during the pandemic (before a COVID vaccine is available), she’s paranoid about using towels in someone else’s house. But then, there are multiple scenes of her not social distancing or using any face protections when she’s around a stranger like Charlie during the pandemic. Charlie eventually makes face masks for himself and June, because it’s supposed to be a cutesy romantic gesture.

Charlie and June eventually open up to each other about their family lives. June’s only living relative is her widowed, unnamed grandfather (played by Ed Dixon), who is the father of June’s mother. There’s a scene where June sings “Blue Moon” to her grandfather when they chat on the phone during the quarantine. (During the movie’s opening credits, Holmes’ real-life daughter Suri Cruise sings a pitch-perfect and delightful version of “Blue Moon,” in one of the few highlights of this dud of a movie.) Charlie is close to his widowed mother Deborah (played by Melissa Leo), and she calls him during the quarantine too.

June’s best friend is named Margaret (played by Zosia Mamet), who tries to assure a worried and insecure June that John wouldn’t cheat on June with his co-worker Carol because John is a good guy. Meanwhile, hypocritical June gets closer and closer to cheating on John with Charlie. June fails to see this double standard. The characters of June’s grandfather, Charlie’s mother Deborah and June’s friend Margaret are just sounding boards and are ultimately of no consequence to the story.

Even if the trailer for “Alone Together” didn’t already reveal that John (who is a very generic character) would show up unexpectedly at the house, it’s too easy to predict that this is how John will find out about Charlie. The movie then hems and haws with pseudo-suspense, as June has to decide if she will choose John or Charlie in this monotonous love triangle. And remember: June is making this decision after knowing Charlie for less than a month. “Alone Together” is trying desperately to be a smart independent film, but there’s no intelligence to be found from copying the same old tired clichés that can be found in a Hallmark Channel movie or a cheap romance novel.

Vertical Entertainment released “Alone Together” in select U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on July 29, 2022.

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

December 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“The Good House”

Directed by Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Petit Mal’ (2023), starring Ruth Caudeli, Silvia Varón and Ana María Otálora

July 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ana María Otálora, Ruth Caudeli and Silvia Varón in “Petit Mal” (Photo by Sara Larrota/Dark Star Pictures)

“Petit Mal” (2023)

Directed by Ruth Caudeli 

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, the dramatic film “Petit Mal” features a cast of Colombian female characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three queer women—who are in a three-way, live-in relationship—navigate the shifting dynamics of their relationship when one of the women goes away on a work trip.

Culture Audience: “Petit Mal” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about LGBTQ relationships or polyamory where the stories are more about being mood pieces than having a lot of dramatics.

Ana María Otálora, Ruth Caudeli and Silvia Varón in “Petit Mal” (Photo by Sara Larrota/Dark Star Pictures)

The occasionally tedious drama “Petit Mal” is an intimate and proficiently acted character study of what happens when three women in a polyamorous relationship together navigate the changing dynamics of the relationship when the “alpha female” goes away for a business trip. “Petit Mal” (which means “little evil” in French) is an interesting mix of not only being ambitiously artsy with its intent in showing a complicated relationship, but also being unpretentiously minimalist in how the movie was cast and filmed. Viewers expecting a movie with more drama and action might be disappointed, but the emotions in “Petit Mal” always look authentic. “Petit Mal” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Written and directed by Ruth Caudeli, “Petit Mal” features just three people on screen as the main characters. All three protagonists are queer women in their late 20s or early 30s who are in a three-way romance with each other. They live together (with five dogs as pets) in a middle-class house in Bogotá, Colombia. The house seems to be in a somewhat isolated wooded area, because neighboring houses are not seen in any of the scenes that take place outside.

Caudeli has the role of Laia, the “alpha female” of this trio. It’s obvious from the first 10 minutes of the movie that when the three women are together, Laia is the most dominant one, but not in an overtly bossy way. Her dominance is shown because Laia is the one in this ménage à trois who is at the center of all the affections, as if her two girlfriends care the most about making Laia happy, more than anyone else in this relationship. (“Petit Mal” is reportedly inspired by Caudeli’s own real-life polyamorous experiences.)

Laia is also the most confident and assertive of the three women when they’re together. It should come as no surprise when it’s revealed later in the movie that Laia is a movie director—a job that requires strong leadership skills. There are many signs that Laia thinks she has total control in this three-way romance. However, that self-assurance is tested when she temporarily goes away from home to direct a movie. Her work trip is to an unnamed city, where she has to take a plane flight to get there and back to Bogotá.

Anto (played by Ana María Otálora) is the woman in the relationship who is the most sensitive. Later in the movie, when a thunderstorm hits the area, Anto has a panic attack because of the sights and sounds caused by the storm. Anto is also most likely to be the “peacemaker” and “nurturer” to smooth over any arguments that happen. Anto’s job (if she has a job or a career) is not mentioned in the movie.

Also in this relationship is screenwriter/editor Martina (played by Silvia Varón), nicknamed Marti, who’s editing a documentary tentatively titled “Throuples, Dogs and Boxes.” And yes, the documentary is about this three-way relationship. Martina is the person in this threesome who seems to be the most diligent about planning and having things going according to a schedule. For example, she expresses some worries about not being able to meet the deadlines for this documentary.

During the movie’s opening scene, Laia, Anto and Martina prepare a barbecue meal together in their backyard. Observant viewers will immediately notice these women’s personality traits and how they affect this ménage à trois. Laia does some of the cooking, but she lets Anto and Martina do most of the work. Laia also shows them how she wants certain things done in this food preparation. All three women kiss each other, but Martina and Anto kiss Laia as if she’s the center of their attention.

Later, when they’re all inside eating the meal they’ve prepared, Martina asks (maybe because she wants this information for her documentary): “What’s the most difficult thing about having a throuple?” Anto replies, “Spending time together equitably.” Laia answers, “Jealousy.” Martina offers her own thoughts: “Three is not balanced. There are always two or one.”

Martina’s comments foreshadow what’s to come later when Laia goes away for the directing job. Anto and Martina, who act more like rivals when Laia is with them, find out they actually get along better with each other when Laia isn’t there. It leads to Anto and Martina become closer and more affectionate with each other, which Laia can sense, even though Laia not there in the house to see it firsthand.

There are other jealousy issues too. When Laia is away, Martina notices on social media that Laia and a man in Laia’s film crew have been flirting with each other. When Martina angrily asks Laia about this flirtation, Laia insists that she and the man are just friends. Martina is so upset that Laia has to calm her down. Viewers can only speculate why Martina has this mistrust.

Viewers are also left to speculate how and when Laia, Anto and Martina decided they would be in a three-way relationship together. However, conversations imply that it was probably Laia’s idea. The dynamics of the relationship suggest that Anto and Martina fell in love with Laia separately. And then, rather than Laia choosing one over the other, they decided to have a three-way relationship instead. That’s why it catches Laia off-guard when she notices that Anto and Martina have become closer when Laia is away.

Even though Laia, Anto and Martina are adults, the movie shows that they all have childlike, playful sides to their personalities. For example, they occasionally like to wear matching onesie pajamas (resembling wooly animal costumes for children) when they cuddle in bed together. And in an early scene in the movie, they play a game where they try to guess a word that one of them is thinking, based on one hint.

The direction, writing and editing of “Petit Mal” present the story as a cinéma vérité documentary or a video journal, rather than as a movie that has big melodramatic moments or important life lessons. For example, viewers won’t get any information on the backstories of Laia, Anto and Martina. Any previous romances they might have had with other people are not mentioned. In other words, “Petit Mal” is very much about the present lives of the protagonists.

Some of the movie’s scenes show everyday activities and mundane conversations inside the house. But underneath the surface is a question that’s not necessarily said out loud: “How will this relationship change when Laia is away and when Laia comes back?” “Petit Mal” doesn’t offer easy answers. The movie leaves it up to viewers to decide if this throuple is “three’s company” or more like “three’s a crowd.”

Dark Star Pictures will release “Petit Mal” in select U.S. cinemas on January 27, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 31, 2023.

Review: ‘Good Girl Jane,’ starring Rain Spencer, Andie MacDowell and Patrick Gibson

July 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rain Spencer in “Good Girl Jane” (Photo by Jake Saner)

“Good Girl Jane”

Directed by Sarah Elizabeth Mintz 

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, from 2005 to 2006, the dramatic film “Good Girl Jane” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A quiet teenage misfit falls in with a druggie crowd at her high school, begins dating her drug dealer, and descends deeper into drug addiction, while she tries to hide her addiction from her family.

Culture Audience: “Good Girl Jane” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted cautionary tales about how easily drug addiction can take over someone’s life.

Rain Spencer and Andie MacDowell in “Good Girl Jane” (Photo by Jake Saner)

The dramatic film “Good Girl Jane” could have been yet another “good girl gone bad” story about a teenage drug addict. Rain Spencer’s emotionally stirring performance is the main reason to watch when the plot becomes predictable. This is not a movie that is groundbreaking, but some of it is heartbreaking, even if it’s told from the privileged perspective of a protagonist who is more likely to go to rehab than go to prison for drug crimes. “Good Girl Jane” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where it won two grand jury prizes: Best U.S. Narrative Feature and Best Performance in a U.S. Narrative Feature, a prize awarded to Spencer.

Written and directed by Sarah Elizabeth Mintz, “Good Girl Jane” hits a lot of familiar beats and tones of movies that have covered the same subject matter of middle-class American teenagers who become drug addicts. If it’s a teenage girl, she usually has a “good girl” reputation with no previous history of drug use. And then, she meets someone or a group of people who are heavy drug users. And in order to be “accepted” into this social circle, she starts doing drugs and becomes addicted. It’s a cliché because it happens all too often in real life.

If you know this is the plot of “Good Girl Jane,” then you know what’s coming even before the movie starts. Fortunately, “Good Girl Jane” is not preachy, nor does it try to put most of the blame on the druggie clique that influences the protagonist to start doing drugs. The mistakes and self-destructiveness are the full responsibility of the person who made these lifestyle choices.

In “Good Girl Jane” (which takes place in the Los Angeles area, from 2005 to 2006), the title character is Jane Rosen (played by Spencer, in her feature-film debut), who goes from being a shy loner to a “wild child” drug addict in a matter of months. The movie begins in the autumn of 2005, when 17-year-old Jane has transferred from an elite private school to a public school, where she hasn’t yet made any friends. The reason for the transfer is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the story.

Jane lives with her sister Izzie Rosen (played by Eloisa Huggins), who’s about 15 or 16 years old, and their divorced mother Ruth Rosen (played by Andie MacDowell), who is a therapist. It’s never specified how long Ruth and her ex-husband Elliott Rosen (played by Gale Harold) have been divorced. However, Elliott doesn’t live too far away, and he has visitation rights.

Elliott is a busy executive who works at an unnamed music company. Part of his job is to go to concerts and nightclubs. Elliott is only in a few scenes in the movie, but it’s easy to see why he and Ruth got divorced: He’s a very inattentive and flaky parent.

For example, Jane and Izzie are scheduled to spend a weekend of visitation time with Elliott. It was already pre-arranged that Jane and Izzie would be staying at Elliott’s place for the weekend. Instead, he takes them to dinner at a restaurant, and then rushes them through the meal because he says that after this dinner, he has to go to a nightclub for work-related reasons. Jane and Izzie are too young to go to the nightclub with him.

At the restaurant, Elliott also tells Jane and Izzie that they can’t stay for the weekend at his place after all because he’s too busy with work. Elliott then drops off Jane and Izzie back at their mother’s house with half-hearted apologies for backing out of this father-daughter visitation. Ruth is furious, but she tries not to have a loud argument with Elliott in front of their children.

Ruth wants to emotionally connect with Jane, but Ruth’s attempts to uplift moody and withdrawn Jane just come across as criticism that Jane doesn’t want to hear. For example, when Jane is at home, she’s usually on her laptop computer (where she frequents Internet chat rooms) while listening to hardcore heavy metal music. Ruth doesn’t like Jane’s choice of music and tells Jane that the music can have a negative effect on Jane’s attitude. Ruth might have noticed that Jane is unhappy. But instead of Ruth asking Jane what’s wrong and asking how she can help as a parent, Ruth chooses to complain about Jane’s taste in music.

Jane secretly smokes cigarettes at school. When Ruth picks up some of Jane’s clothes to do laundry, Ruth smells cigarette smoke on the clothes and says in a condescending voice, “Please don’t smoke,” and starts to lecture Jane about how smoking is unattractive and bad for her health. Jane denies that she smokes cigarettes and says the cigarette odor is from being around people who smoke cigarettes at school.

Ruth is not a deliberately alienating parent. However, Ruth gives the impression that she knows more about what’s going on in her clients’ lives than she knows what’s going on in Jane’s life because Ruth spends more time asking the right questions of her clients. On the other hand, Jane doesn’t give Ruth much leeway to have a close emotional bond with her, because Jane is the type of sulky and secretive teen who would most likely say everything is fine if a parent asked her what’s bothering her.

Jane likes to wear baggy clothes and hooded sweatshirts. She often walks with a slight slouch, as if she wants to be invisible yet noticed as being “aloofly cool” at the same time. At school, when she tries to sit at a table with some other students, they tell her that the seat she wants is saved for someone else. It’s a predictable “social outcast” scene in movies about teenage misfits.

Even though Izzie and Jane go to the same school, they rarely speak to each other when they’re at school. Viewers find out later that Izzie, who has an upbeat and outgoing personality, is having an easier time adjusting to this transfer and is making more of an effort than Jane to befriend other students. There are also hints that Jane feels like their mother loves Izzie more than she loves Jane.

There’s a reason why Jane seems to be anti-social: She was cruelly bullied at her previous school, which is the main reason why Jane and Izzie have transferred to their current school. The details of the bullying are eventually revealed in the movie. But there are indications that some of the bullies are still harassing Jane online, based on the messages she gets when she’s on her computer.

One day, after classes have ended for the day, some of the school’s stoners are taking a SUV ride near Jane while she’s walking somewhere, and they invite her to party with them. A rebellious brat named Bailey Avett (played by Odessa A’zion) is the driver. The other pals in the SUV are tall and blue-haired Benji (played by Diego Chiat), easygoing Kaya (played by Jules Lorenzo) and androgynous Abel (played by Olan Prenatt). Jane already knows about this clique’s druggie reputation.

At first, Jane is hesitant to go with them, because she says she has to be at home by a certain time. But she changes her mind when they say that where they’re going won’t take long. Inside the car, the partiers are smoking weed, and Benji snorts some cocaine. They all go to the rooftop of a house, where more marijuana is smoked, cocaine is snorted, and apparent tabs of LSD are consumed, but Jane declines to partake in any of these drugs.

Instead, Jane takes a drink of alcohol offered by Kaya. During this rooftop party, these new acquaintances somewhat taunt Jane for being a “good girl” for not doing drugs with them. And you know what that means: In order to fit in with them and prove them wrong, Jane is going to start doing the same drugs.

That moment comes one night when Jane goes to a house party that she was invited to by this group of stoners. It’s where Jane does cocaine for the first time. And it’s also the first time that Jane feels like she has found a group of people at her school who could be her friends.

Also at the party is the group’s main drug dealer. He’s a 21-year-old Irish immigrant named James “Jamie” McKenna (played by Patrick Gibson), who projects an image of laid-back confidence. Although Jane and Benji had a mild flirtation with each other when they first met, Jane ends up being more interested in Jamie. After eyeing each other with some interest, Jamie and Jane sense their mutual attraction, they start talking, and then have a dip together in the house’s swimming pool.

It’s the beginning of a very co-dependent and toxic relationship. The more experienced Jamie pursues Jane, who plays hard to get, but eventually she gives in to Jamie’s persistent and amorous attention. He showers her with compliments and says many other things that Jane wants to hear. Not much is known about Jane’s dating history, but there are plenty of hints that Jamie is the first adult whom Jane has ever dated.

It isn’t long before Jane has lost her virginity to Jamie in the back seat of his car. It’s not as romantic as Jane expected because it’s on the same night that Jane finds out that Jamie is a meth addict who has occasional seizures because of his addiction. Jane quickly gets addicted to cocaine, which she usually snorts. But she also joins Jamie in his meth-smoking binges because she wants to know what it feels like. Jamie also injects meth if he wants a quicker and more intense high.

You know where all of this is going, of course. The only questions are how low will Jane go in her drug addiction and if anything will happen to set her on a path to possible recovery. Jane gets so caught up in her relationship with Jamie that she starts skipping school to hang out with him. And that includes accompanying Jamie to some of his drug deals. Jane witnesses some things that are shocking to her but won’t be that shocking to people who’ve seen enough of these kinds of “drug addict downward spiral” movies.

Spencer’s performance as Jane is particularly effective in showing how quickly someone’s boundaries and tolerance for being in demeaning and dangerous situations can change when drug addiction is involved. It would be easy to blame Jamie for being a “bad influence” on Jane. But the truth is that Jane already had low self-esteem going into this relationship, and she made the wrong choices in where to get emotional validation. Her drug use was a direct result of her own free will.

“Good Girl Jane” is also authentic in showing how denial is a huge part of the disease of drug addiction. People try to tell Jane some unsavory things about Jamie, but Jane brushes off those concerns as just unsubstantiated gossip. Some of the things she hears about Jamie are that he sleeps around with a lot of the teenage girls who are his drug-buying customers and that he’s legally married to someone whom Jane has never met.

A cliché that “Good Girl Jane” thankfully avoids is showing a scenario where divorced parents put aside their differences to come to the rescue of a drug-addicted child. That doesn’t happen in “Good Girl Jane,” which takes a more realistic approach that emotionally distant parents don’t automatically change their ways when a child is crying out for help. The movie also shows that even when someeone is a therapist, that person still might have a hard time accepting and dealing with painful truths about having a drug addict in the family.

One of the best things about “Good Girl Jane” is showing how Izzie reacts to finding out that Jane is a drug addict. Spencer and Huggins have some emotionally powerful scenes together that are among the movie’s standout moments. And there’s a particularly impactful scene that Spencer and MacDowell have toward the end of the movie. This mother-daughter scene is a like a tidal wave of the pent-up despair that Jane has been feeling before and after Jane’s drug addiction.

There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about this tale of a teenager who becomes a drug addict. Sadly, what happens to Jane happens to people from all walks of life. However, one of the movie’s faults is that it seems to willfully take for granted that Jane is a lot better off than many drug addicts because she has the privilege and resources to get professional rehabilitation for her drug addiction.

And it goes without saying that if Jane were a person of color or if she were poor, she would most liklely be treated very differently by law enforcement if her illegal drug activity resulted in her getting entangled in the criminal justice system. It’s a reality that’s implied, based on things that are shown in the movie. “Good Girl Jane” doesn’t really explore these social inequality issues in-depth, because even with Jane’s privilege, what she goes through is enough to show that drug addiction can be a nightmare for anyone.

Review: ‘The Forgiven’ (2022), starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain

July 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in “The Forgiven” (Photo by Nick Wall/Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

“The Forgiven” (2022)

Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Some language in Arabic and Tamazight with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains area and the city of Tangier, the dramatic film “The Forgiven” features a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: While on vacation in Morocco, two unhappily married, upper-middle-class spouses (he’s British, she’s American) are involved in a drunk-driving car accident that kills a teenage boy, and they use their privilege to avoid being arrested for the crime but must face judgment from the boy’s father. 

Culture Audience: “The Forgiven” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, as well as to viewers who are interested in tension-filled movies about people who have conflicts with laws and customs in foreign countries.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Ismael Kanater, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Caleb Landry Jones and Mourad Zaoui in “The Forgiven” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

The dramatic film “The Forgiven” doesn’t flow as well as it should for a piercing look at spoiled and entitled people who use their privilege as a weapon and as a shield. However, the performances are worth watching to see how terrible people can be their own worst enemies. In other words, “The Forgiven” is not a “feel good” movie. Be prepared to witness a lot of self-absorbed and insufferable conduct from snobs and bigots who think a lot of “real world” rules and manners don’t apply to them unless they can get something out of it.

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, “The Forgiven” is based on Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel of the same name. The movie has the tremendous benefit of a talented cast that can turn some of the soap opera-ish dialogue and make it into something resembling a satire of the pompous characters who cause the most damage. Although the story is fictional, there are plenty of real-life examples of people who act this way. “The Forgiven” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The movie’s opening scene sets the tone for the unpleasantness to come. British oncologist David Henninger (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his American wife Jo Henninger (played by Jessica Chastain), who live in London, have arrived in Tangier, Morocco, to attend an Atlas Mountains party thrown by a wealthy gay couple whom David and Jo have known for an unnamed period of time. David and Jo have no children and have been married for 12 years. But it only takes a few minutes into the movie before their bickering starts.

David thinks Jo is a shrewish nag. Jo calls David a “high-functioning alcoholic.” He responds by saying that “high-functioning” cancels out “alcoholic.” David knows that Jo is correct because he really is an alcoholic. If David is awake, chances are he’s drinking alcohol. And his alcoholism is a direct cause of the car accident that results in a tragedy.

Later, it’s revealed in the movie that Jo is a children’s book author whose books have never been bestsellers. She also hasn’t written any books for the past eight years. It’s unknown if frustrations over her career and marriage have made Jo such a bitter person, or if Jo already had this type of personality before she married David. However, what’s obvious is that Jo and David are both deeply unhappy people—together and apart.

Before David and Jo arrive at their party destination, the movie shows a scene of two Moroccan teenage boys (who are about 15 or 16 years old) in a cliff area of Atlas Mountains. One of the boys is sniffing glue from a plastic bag. Viewers later find out that his name is Driss Taheri (played by Omar Ghazaoui) and that he and his friend Ismael (played by Aissam Taamart) sell fossil rocks as a way to make some money.

As Ismael hammers at some rocks to find fossils, Driss scolds Ismael for never leaving their village or never having ambitions to leave for bigger and better things. Ismael replies by saying that he doesn’t have the money to leave. Driss says there’s always a way to get money. Poverty in this community becomes a big issue later on in the story.

“The Forgiven” then shows David and Jo in their rental car going from Tangier on the way to the party in the High Atlas Mountains. It’s nighttime on a deserted road, and David is driving, although he probably shouldn’t be driving, because he’s more than likely well past the alcohol legal limit to drive. Jo and David get lost and are arguing some more when tragedy strikes: The car hits a teenage boy who suddenly appears in front of the car on the road. He is killed instantly.

Meanwhile, viewers see several people who are gathered for this house party. The party hosts are wealthy British real estate developer Richard Galloway (played by Matt Smith) and his American boyfriend Dally Margolis (played by Caleb Landry Jones), a very pretentious couple who threw this party mainly to show off some of their wealth. The home where Richard and Dally are having this multi-day party is big enough that most of the guests (including Jo and David) will be staying overnight on the property.

With the guests gathered in an outdoor patio area, Richard gives a speech bragging about all the fine delicacies and luxuries that the guests can see and enjoy during this soiree. He adds, “We hope you’ll find this place a vision of paradise, a place in which to receive the people we love.” It’s a very shallow speech because it’s questionable if anyone in this group of partiers really loves each other.

Richard then says, “And don’t forget the figs—typically representative of a woman’s vagina.” Dally, who is standing near Richard, giggles in response: “Or so we’ve been told.” This is the type of dialogue that’s in a lot of “The Forgiven.” It’s indicative of how some people who are rich when it comes to money and property can still lack class.

Other guests at the party also conduct themselves with an air of jaded superiority at being in this luxurious environment. Financial analyst Tom Day (played by Christopher Abbott) is a smirking and lecherous American, who tells Richard: “I’ve got three girlfriends. They all hate me.”

Cody (played by Abbey Lee), who is also American, is the requisite modelesque-looking “party girl” who’s often too intoxicated to comprehend where she is and what she’s doing. When Cody dances drunkenly near Tom, he tells her that his wife left him because she ran off with a hedge fund manager. Later in the movie, there’s a random and very out-of-place scene of Cody wandering around lost in the desert on the day after the party started.

French photographer Isabelle Péret (played by Marie-Josée Croze) takes photos at the party and has a mild flirtation with Tom when they have a conversation. Leila Tarki (played by Imane El Mechrafi) is an independent filmmaker whom Isabelle greatly admires. At the party, Isabelle points out Leila to Tom and describes Leila as “the Moroccan auteur. She’s the coolest.” Isabelle also mentions that Leila is in Morocco to raise funds for Leila’s new movie, which will be about nomads.

Maisy Joyce (played by Fiona O’Shaughnessy), whose occupation or social purpose is never stated, is a gossipy guest who makes low-key snarky comments about everyone she observes. When she meets Tom, she bluntly asks him: “Are you gay?” Tom replies, “No, but I fucked a man who is.” Tom is the type of person who doesn’t make it clear if he’s telling the truth or if he’s joking when he makes this type of statement.

Later, two other party guests show up: middle-aged playboy William Joyce (played by David McSavage) and Maribel (played by Briana Belle), one of William’s much-younger trophy girlfriends. All of these party guests, except for David and Jo, end up being backdrops to the drama that unfolds because of the car accident. It should come as no surprise that the party continues as planned, even though the dead boy’s body is temporarily brought to the house.

Richard gets a call from David during the party and hears the horrible news about the car accident and death. David and Jo are in a panic because they’re afraid of being arrested for the death of this child, whom they say has no identification. Richard reluctantly allows Jo and David to come over to the house, so they can talk about what to do next. The body of the boy has been put in their car.

Richard sends his most trusted employee Hamid (played by Mourad Zaoui) and some other servants to escort David and Jo back to the house. Hamid can speak Arabic and English, so he acts as the main translator in this story. He also advises the Westerners about Moroccan and Muslim customs and traditions.

Dally is very nervous and thinks that he and Richard shouldn’t get involved in this car accident case, but Richard thinks that the local police can be bribed if necessary. Richard and David are also alumni of the same elite university (which is unnamed in the movie), so Richard feels obligated to help David. Richard mentions this alumni connection on more than one occasion, such as when Richard repeats stories he heard about David being a notorious troublemaker at the school.

Richard tells some people that one of the stories he heard was that David went on top of a building to drop mice wearing miniature Nazi flags on some school officials. The mice died, of course. Whoever committed this disturbing act was never caught, but David was widely believed to be the culprit. It was apparently someone’s warped way telling these school officials that they act like Nazis. And if David was the culprit, it’s an example of how he’s been an awful person for a very long time.

Before the police are called about the car accident and death that David caused, Richard advises David and Jo to act as remorseful as possible to increase the chances that they won’t be charged with any crime. Jo is willing to take that advice, but David balks at the suggestion because he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. David blames the boy for being out in the road at night.

And it isn’t long before David’s story begins to morph into saying that the boy was probably trying to commit a carjacking. David and Jo, on separate occasions, also express fear that this car accident victim could have been an ISIS terrorist. It’s blatant racism, but racists like David and Jo don’t care.

The police arrive and take statements from David and Jo. The chief investigator is Captain Benihadd (played by Ben Affan), who quickly determines (within 15 minutes) that the death was an accident and that David and Jo won’t be arrested. David doesn’t get asked to take a sobriety test or any test that would detect the level of alcohol or drugs in his system. Viewers with enough common sense can easily see why David doesn’t get much scrutiny by police who want to be deferential to people who appear to be rich.

After it’s declared that David and Jo won’t be arrested, Richard’s relief turns to dismay when he finds out that because the morgue won’t be open until the next day, the body has to stay on Richard’s property until it can be transported to the morgue. As far as Richard is concerned, it puts a damper on the party. Richard, Dally and David aren’t as concerned about how this child victim belongs to a family who will eventually hear the devastating news about his death. Jo shows a little more compassion and guilt, but not enough to erase her racism, since she automatically makes the racist assumption that the boy who was killed could be a member of ISIS.

Even though the police didn’t find any identification for the boy, and none of the people who saw his body say they know him, he does have a name: Driss Taheri. David, Jo and the other people at Richard’s house who know about this death will eventually find out Driss’ name. But even after they find out his name, they often won’t say it, as if it’s easier to think of him as nameless and unwanted. Privately, David makes this callous remark to Jo, “I hate to say it, but the kid is a nobody.”

The next day, David is riding horses with Isabelle and Macy, as if they don’t have a care in the world. A few Moroccan boys suddenly appear and throw rocks at David before the boys run away. One of the rocks hits David on the head hard enough that he gets a bloody injury on his head, and he falls off of the horse. The injury is not serious enough for him to go to a hospital though.

David nastily complains to Jo that people in the community must have found out that he was the one who caused the death of a local child. David shows more of his racism and xenophobia when he says, “They’re insatiable gossips. It’s a function of being illiterate.” Jo sarcastically replies, “What a nice little facist you’ve become since being hit by a stone.”

The way that these self-centered partiers find out Driss’ identity is when his grieving and distraught father Adbdellah Taheri (played by Ismael Kanater) shows up the next day at Richard’s house to claim the body and to talk to the people responsible for Driss’ death. Driss was his only child. (Driss’ mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie.)

With Hamid acting as a translator, David finds out that Adbdellah wants some kind of payment from David to compensate for Driss’ tragic death. Adbdellah initially didn’t want any payment, but he changes his mind when he sees that David seems very cold and uncaring about killing Driss. David flatly refuses this demand for payment.

Adbdellah also insists that David accompany Adbdellah back to Adbdellah’s home in the Moroccan region of Tafilalt, to atone for the killing, out of respect for Muslim tradition. David reluctantly agrees to this request, even though he and Jo are paranoid that it could be a trap set by “ISIS terrorists.” David goes on this trip because he also thinks it will get Adbdellah to stop expecting money from David.

The rest of “The Forgiven” shows what happens during David’s “atonement” visit, what Jo does when David is away, and the aftermath of decisions and actions that are made. The movie has flashbacks to the moments immediately before and after Driss was struck by the car and killed. These flashbacks give a clearer picture of who David and Jo really are and how they responded to this crisis.

Fiennes and Chastain give skillful but not outstanding performances as snooty pessimists who are trapped in misery of their own making. It’s never really made clear how long David has been an alcoholic, but he doesn’t have any intention of getting rehab treatment for his addiction, even after causing someone’s death because David was driving drunk. As for Jo, she’s got her own issues, because she feels like a failure who has no purpose in life.

“The Forgiven” is not going to appeal to viewers who are expecting a movie where most of the people are “likable.” The movie holds up a mirror to people who want to project an image of being “glamorous” but they actually have very ugly personalities. There’s a certain point where the movie’s ending is easy to predict. Considering all the clues pointing to this ending, it doesn’t feel like a shock but like something that was bound to happen.

Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions released “The Forgiven” in select U.S. cinemas on July 1, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Three Headed Beast,’ starring Dani Hurtado, Jacob Schatz and Cody Shook

July 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jacob Schatz, Cody Shook and Dani Hurtado in “Three Headed Beast” (Photo by Fernando Andrés)

“Three Headed Beast”

Directed by Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas (mostly in Austin and briefly in Fredericksburg), the dramatic film “Three Headed Beast” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bisexual/queer man and a bisexual/queer woman, who live together and are in an open relationship, have their relationship tested when the man seems to be falling in love with a younger man. 

Culture Audience: “Three Headed Beast” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a boring and pretentious movie that has almost no dialogue.

Dani Hurtado, Jacob Schatz and Cody Shook in “Three Headed Beast” (Photo by Fernando Andrés)

With almost no dialogue except for one pivotal scene, “Three Headed Beast” looks more like a dull, pretentious drama experiment than a meaningful movie. It’s supposed to show how messy polyamory can be, but the movie is a mess of jumbled scenarios. The filmmakers should get some credit for wanting to do something different from how movies are typically structured, but the storytelling is woefully mishandled. “Three Headed Beast” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

“Three Headed Beast” (written and directed by Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh) goes out of its way to have no dialogue in the majority of the movie. But ironically, the movie’s best scene is the one with the dialogue. Filmed on location in Texas, “Three Headed Beast” makes viewers try to figure out what’s the arrangement between the three people who are at the center of the story and who are in a polyamorous love triangle.

Peter (played by Jacob Schatz) is a landscaper in his early 30s. Peter lives in Austin, Texas, with 26-year-old Nina (played by Dani Hurtado), who works as a personal trainer in a gym. It’s later mentioned in the scene with dialogue that Peter and Nina have been a couple for the past eight years. They met at a party on the college campus where Nina went to school.

In the movie’s opening scene, Peter is helping 23-year-old Alex (played by Cody Shook) move into a rental home in Austin. The move doesn’t take long because Alex doesn’t have many possessions. As soon as the moving is done, Peter and Alex have sex on a mattress, which is the only thing in the bedroom.

Meanwhile, Nina is seen at the home of a female lover named Angie (played by Sarah J. Bartholomew), as the two women lounge in bed after having an apparent sexual tryst. Nina leaves and goes home, where she affectionately kisses Peter. Now that “Three Headed Beast” has shown that Nina and Peter are both bisexual or queer, the movie keeps viewers guessing about what Nina and Peter’s arrangement is, such as if they’ve agreed to tell each other about their other lovers. At a certain point in the movie, more details emerge about what Peter, Nina and Alex have agreed to in this love triangle.

Too bad the movie takes a tediously long time to get to that point. Instead, “Three Headed Beast” just shows a mishmash of more scenes of Peter and Alex hooking up for some more sexual trysts, usually at Alex’s place; Alex partying with some friends and sometimes bringing home random men for sexual encounters; and Peter and Nina seeming to be bored with each other in a relationship that appears to have hit a rut.

Later, it’s revealed in the movie that Peter and Nina are not married and are not in a rush to get married. Alex, who likes to take photos of Peter when they’re together, is apparently living an aimless existence, since he doesn’t have a job and he isn’t a student. It’s never really explained what Alex wants to do with his life or where he gets money to pay his bills. It’s an example of how a poorly written movie can give a character a lot of screen time and yet give the character so little character development.

Early on in “Three Headed Beast,” it’s shown that Nina is a big fan of a self-help guru named Maria Mendez (voiced by Daniela Vidaurre), who is an author and a podcaster. Maria’s voice can be heard when Nina listens to Maria’s podcast, where Maria gives life advice. Nothing is ever shown in the movie about Nina getting advice from anyone else, since Nina apparently doesn’t have any friends or family members whom she can turn to for advice.

Near the beginning of the movie, Nina is shown excitedly opening a package delivery of Maria’s latest book, which is titled “After Monogamy: Open Relationships in the Modern Age.” It’s supposed to be a novel, but it really looks like a non-fiction self-help book. Nina’s admiration of Maria is seen from a different angle in a revealing scene toward the end of the movie.

Because most of “Three Headed Beast” has no dialogue, communication is mostly done by text messages. But after a while, since no one talks in the movie, everything looks phony. It’s like the filmmakers were trying too hard to be artsy and forgot about making the movie’s characters interesting enough for viewers not to get bored.

“Three Headed Beast” attempts to show realism, but it isn’t long before “Three Headed Beast” starts to look like science fiction. It’s like watching a “Twilight Zone” ripoff where people live in a world where no one verbally talks to each other. And when they do start verbally talking to each other, it’s in a scene in the middle of the movie that’s fairly brief, and then the movie goes back to having no dialogue again.

One of the phoniest-looking sublots in “Three Headed Beast” is how Nina meets and eventually gets involved with a guy in is 20s named Dylan (played by Paul Grant), who seems to be a drug dealer, based on the little information that the movie shows about him. Nina first sees Dylan when she’s visiting an animal shelter, where she is looking at some dogs outside in a field. Dylan is nearby and puffing on a vaping pipe. He and Nina look at each other (without saying a word, of course), and he offers Nina a puff from his vaping pipe. She declines.

The next time Nina goes to the animal shelter, she sees Dylan again, but they don’t say anything to each other, of course. He eventually walks away, and she sees that two marijuana joints have been left on her car windshield. Nina runs to find Dylan (because she seems to automatically know that he put the joints there), and without saying a word, they exchange phone numbers. And you know what that means: Dylan and Nina hook up later for a sexual rendezvous, which turns out to be a one-time fling.

The Nina/Dylan hookup is just more time-wasting filler in “Three Headed Beast.” This filler includes scenes of Nina and Peter played mixed doubles tennis with an unidentified couple, who are never seen again in the movie. And if you think it’s fascinating to watch a monotonous scene of Peter and Alex on a date at Alex’s place, where they binge on home-delivered junk food, dance drunkenly together, and then take a bath together (all without saying a word to each other), then “Three Headed Beast” is your kind of movie.

Through text messages, resentful facial expressions and uncomfortable silences, it becomes clear that Nina has become increasingly unhappy with Peter spending a lot of time with another lover whom she suspects is Alex. She doesn’t want to appear too possessive though, so Nina says nothing in a movie where she’s literally supposed to say nothing for most of the story. Meanwhile, Alex seems to be falling in love with Peter, who appears to be feeling the same way. Alex knows about Peter’s relationship with Nina, but Alex wants to be in Peter’s life more than Alex is now.

It isn’t until the scene where Alex talks that viewers see that he’s not a shallow party boy but someone who’s led an emotionally complicated life. The cast members who talk in the movie do their best acting in this dialogue scene, with Shook as the one who gives the most natural-looking and believable performance. But after this scene, everyone is rendered silent again.

At one point in the movie, Nina and Peter adopt a dog named Rocco from the animal shelter. And so, when Nina and Peter go on a vacation trip to Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg, Texas, they want to find someone who will look after Rocco and their house during this vacation. You can easily predict who will be asked to be the housesitter/dogsitter.

More information is given toward the end of the movie about why Peter and Nina have ended up where they are at this point in their relationship. But by then, it’s too little, too late. That’s because “Three Headed Beast” treats the characters more like props in a wannabe avant-garde movie than as human beings with fully formed personalities.

Review: ‘Official Competition,’ starring Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez

July 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz and Oscar Martínez in “Official Competition” (Photo by Manolo Pavon/IFC Films)

“Official Competition”

Directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Madrid, Spain, the comedy/drama film “Official Competition” features a cast of Spanish characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An eccentric filmmaker, who has been hired by a rich businessman to direct a movie, takes pleasure in playing mind games with the two famous actors whom she cast as co-stars in the movie. 

Culture Audience: “Official Competition” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas and films that have a satirical “movie within a movie” plot.

Oscar Martínez, Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas in “Official Competition” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

With a total running time of 115 minutes, “Official Competition” drags on for a little longer than it should, but this slightly offbeat comedy/drama has some sharp observations about how celebrities can be coddled and exploited in the movie industry. The movie shows in many acerbic ways how people will enable those with a certain level of fame and fortune to humiliate or bully others, in the name of creating “art.” There are no real heroes or villains in “Official Competition”—just a lot of very flawed and damaged people who have questionable (or no) boundaries.

Directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (who both co-wrote the screenplay with Andrés Duprat, Gastón’s older brother), “Official Competition” takes place in Madrid, but the themes in the movie are universal to wherever movies financed by wealthy people can be made. “Official Competition” made the rounds at several film festivals including the 2021 Venice International Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. In many ways, “Official Competition” is an incisive parody of rich people who think they can buy their way into artistic creativity and any accolades that come with it.

It’s why wealthy pharmaceutical tycoon Humberto Suárez (played by José Luis Gómez) decides to go into the movie business, shortly after his 80th birthday. Humberto wants his legacy to be more than just his success in the pharmaceutical industry. He wants the glamour and cachet of making a movie with famous filmmakers and celebrity actors.

After his 80th birthday party that was held at his company headquarters, Humberto asks a subordinate executive named Matías (played by Manolo Solo) how people perceive Humberto. Matías replies, “As a man who started from nothing, and today is a leader in the pharmaceutical industry, and feeds almost 10,000 families.”

Humberto says, “I’ll tell you how they see me: as a millionaire with an obscene fortune but without prestige … I want to be remembered differently.” Humberto contemplates either donating to the state a bridge named after himself, or financing a movie. He chooses to finance a movie.

Humberto decides to be a financial backer/producer for the latest movie of the artsiest filmmaker he can find. He wants someone who’s edgy enough to be considered innovative, but mainstream enough that this person is capable of winning prestigious awards. And the person whose name comes up immediately and whom he chooses is avant-garde filmmaker Lola Cuevas (played by Penélope Cruz), who is known for her extreme ways of rehearsing and making a movie.

Lola, who has been making movies since 1996, has a 2015 movie called “Haze,” which is considered her “masterpiece.” One of her quirks is that Lola doesn’t give interviews. Therefore, she doesn’t give a lot of public insight into her filmmaking process. By keeping an aura of mystery about herself, Lola has made herself more in demand to certain people who want to work with her.

Humberto meets with Lola, and he agrees to Lola’s demands that she have complete creative control over the movie. Lola hires the two actors who will be equal co-stars in the film that she’s writing and directing and which Humberto will be financing. These co-stars are Félix Rivero (played by Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (played by Oscar Martínez), who are opposites in many ways.

Félix, who is a restless bachelor playboy, is more caught up in being a movie star than in being a serious actor. And he has a filmography of commercial blockbusters to prove it. Iván, who’s been in a stable, longtime marriage, takes the craft of acting very seriously. Iván is famous for being in highly respected stage productions that don’t necessarily make a lot of money but they are often award-worthy. Iván also teaches a college course in acting to eager students who admire him. The only college-age people Félix wants to teach are the young women he takes as his lovers.

In Lola’s meeting with Humberto, she explains the plot of this movie, which is a story about a love triangle between two brothers and a woman who’s a sex worker. In this story, older brother Pedro is “rich and self-confident,” while younger brother Manuel is “dull and introverted.” The movie takes place in 1970, in a country town.

Manuel is driving a car with his parents as passengers. The car gets into a horrific accident that kills the parents, but Manuel survives. An embittered Pedro makes sure that Manuel goes to prison for this accident. (It’s never stated what the crime was in this car accident.) While Manuel is in prison, Pedro lives his life freely, and he starts a romance with a sex worker named Lucy.

Pedro has a successful foundry business, but people in the community are suspicious of how he’s actually made his fortune. Meanwhile, Manuel is released from prison, and he starts having an affair with Lucy. However, Pedro has more money than Manuel. And so, when Pedro proposes marriage to Lucy, she chooses to marry Pedro.

But there’s more drama in this love triangle, because Lucy finds out she’s pregnant. Manuel or Pedro could be the father. The brothers eventually reconcile, but Lola says that there’s more to the story. Viewers of Lola’s movie will have to find out if the child’s paternity is confirmed and what ultimately happens in this love triangle.

In Lola’s movie, Iván has the role of older brother Pedro, while Félix is cast as younger brother Manuel. The movie’s very first “table read” (where the actors sit at a table to read a script together, usually with the director in attendance) takes place in a conference room at the headquarters of Humberto’s company. Lola is at this table read with Iván and Félix as the only cast members in attendance. This table read is the first time that Iván and Félix meet each other and rehearse together.

As an example of their different personalities and styles of working, Iván has already prepared a complex psychological portrait of his Pedro character. By contrast, Félix has no such preparation, because he thinks that his Manuel character doesn’t really have a backstory. During this table read/rehearsal, Lola makes it clear to both of these actors that she has a very specific idea of how they should act out their lines of dialogue. She makes Iván and Félix repeat the dialogue with her suggestions on how to change their delivery until Lola thinks they get it right.

What follows is a series of mind games that Lola ends up playing on these two actors, whom she often pits against each other. And sometimes, she sets up situations where the two actors are pitted against her. “Official Competition” tends to be a little repetitive in showing how all three of these people irritate each other, but the performances remain compelling throughout the movie.

Cruz is the obvious standout, even if her portrayal of Lola sometimes veers into being a caricature of manipulative directors. However, considering some of the wild and true stories of extreme manipulation tactics that some directors have used on cast members in real life, what Lola does in the movie isn’t too far off the mark. The unpredictability of “Official Competition” is almost entirely dependent on the Lola character.

Banderas is perfectly fine in his role as an actor who balances doing big-budget blockbuster movies with “prestige” low-budget independent films. (It’s something that Banderas does in real life too.) Martínez gives the most realistic performance of the three “Official Competition” stars, because many “serious actors” are just like Iván: They think that acting on stage is the real test of an actor’s talent, and doing on-screen work is just filler to pay the bills.

One of Lola’s mind games is to make Iván and Félix rehearse under a giant boulder that is being held over their heads by a crane. It puts Iván and Félix on a nervous edge, but Lola insists that they will have a better rehearsal this way. But surprise! After the rehearsal, Lola reveals to Iván and Félix that the boulder was really made out of cardboard.

Another of Lola’s manipulations includes asking Iván and Félix to bring all of their awards to the rehearsal headquarters. She brings the awards that she has won too, including the Palme d’Or, the top prize for the Cannes Film Festival. During this meeting in a small auditorium, Lola asks Iván and Félix to talk about their awards and what these trophies mean to them.

And then, Lola tells Iván and Félix to sit in the audience chairs in the auditorium. An employee then encases Iván and Félix together in Saran wrap until only their eyes and noses are left uncovered. Having been rendered unable to move, Iván and Félix watch as Lola does something that enrages them, but they’re physically helpless and can’t do anything to stop her.

“Official Competition” shows a constant tug-of-war over power and control, not just for Lola’s movie but also for how the principals involved want to be perceived in life. The name of Lola’s movie is never mentioned in “Official Competition” because the name doesn’t have to be mentioned. The ego battles are not about Lola’s movie but are about the people at the center of the battles and how they choose to handle difficult situations.

“Official Competition” also has sly depictions of nepotism and how sexuality is used as a way to exert power and control. Humberto’s daughter Diana Suárez (played by Irene Escolar), who’s her 20s, has been cast in Lola’s movie in the role of Lucy, the woman in the love triangle with brothers Pedro and Manuel. Diana has very little experience as an actress, and she isn’t particularly talented, so it’s not hard to figure out why she got a co-starring role in this movie.

Lola is a control freak and probably resents being pressured into casting Diana in this role. And so, there’s a scene where Lola tries to exert her power and control in a way that makes Humberto feel very uncomfortable. It happens when Humberto has stopped by to watch rehearsals of the movie.

Lola has placed dozens of microphones on the rehearsal stage to amplify whatever sounds are being made on the stage. She tells Iván and Félix to each take turns passionately kissing Diana, since they are both portraying brothers in love with the same woman. Humberto doesn’t seem to have a problem watching two famous actors passionately kissing his daughter in these rehearsals, as the sounds of their smooching fill the auditorium.

But then, Lola (who is openly queer) tells Iván and Félix that they’re not getting the kissing scenes done in the way that she thinks meets her standards. Lola then steps in and tells them she’ll show them how she wants the kissing scenes done. And then, Lola begins passionately kissing Diana. The two women get so caught up in their makeout session, they begin rolling around on the floor while kissing. This spectacle makes Humberto very uncomfortable, and he quickly leaves the room—just the way Lola probably planned it.

Lola and Diana then being a real-life affair with each other. It’s questionable if this relationship is love or just lust. But the movie makes a point in showing how easy it is for directors to get sexually involved with cast members in consensual relationships. It just so happens that the director in this case is a woman in a male-dominated field, and this woman acts exactly how people act when they use their power as sexual enticement to their subordinates who want some type of career advancement.

Even though Iván and Félix know that Lola prefers to have women as lovers, that doesn’t stop these two actors from sexually flirting with Lola. Félix is more forward about his intentions, by kissing Lola sensually on the neck in an encounter in a dressing room. Meanwhile, Iván tries the tactic of attempting to give Lola a massage. It’s not said out loud, but viewers will get the impression from the way that Iván and Félix are acting with these flirtations that they’re not accustomed to taking orders from a female director, so they try to get some of their own masculine control with Lola by testing her sexual boundaries.

Lola also shows her insecurities in her relationship with Diana, who likes to do aerobic exercises and dancing on social media, sometimes while Lola is watching. When Lola is alone in her bedroom, she’s seen trying to imitate these exercises and dance moves. It’s an indication that Lola might be trying to keep up with the much-younger Diana.

“Official Competition” doesn’t give much insight into Lola’s personal history for viewers to find out if she’s going through a mid-life crisis or if she’s ever found true love. Lola is a loner whose only real constant companion is her assistant Julia (played by Nagore Aranburu), who has to be ready to accommodate Lola’s unusual requests and whims. Observant viewers will notice that Lola has a mostly female crew, which is an indication that outspoken feminist Lola practices what she preaches about female empowerment in the movie industry.

There’s an amusing scene near the beginning of the film, where Félix tells Iván that a woman has been standing outside the building, as if she’s waiting for someone to come outside. Félix makes a bet with Iván that this mystery woman is probably someone who’s dating Lola. As Félix and Iván walk outside and see the woman, Iván casually introduces the woman to Félix. The woman is actually Iván’s wife, Violeta (played by Pilar Castro), a well-known author of children’s books. An embarrassed Félix now knows he made a wrong assumption.

Making wrong assumptions about other people is the catalyst for much of the comedy and drama in “Official Competition.” In a profession (the movie industry) that is all about making people believe what they see on screen, “Official Competition” doesn’t always succeed in making some of these antics and tricks look believable. Where “Official Competition” fares best is in showing the infuriating or funny ways that people in this make-believe profession get caught up in fooling others and themselves.

IFC Films released “Official Competition” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2022. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is August 2, 2022. “Official Competition” was released in Spain on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying,’ starring Parker Seaman and Devin Das

July 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Devin Das and Parker Seaman in “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” (Photo by Tom Banks)

“Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying”

Directed by Parker Seaman

Culture Representation: Taking place on the West Coast of the United States in 2020 (with some flashbacks to 2017), the comedy film “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two aspiring filmmakers, who are best friends and work partners, go on a road trip from Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho, to visit a quarantined friend who has been infected by COVID-19. 

Culture Audience: “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in comedies with a COVID-19 theme, no matter how silly and time-wasting those comedies are.

Devin Das and Parker Seaman in “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” (Photo by Tom Banks)

Dull and very manipulative, “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” is the worst type of filmmaking with a COVID-19 theme. Viewers will have a hard time caring about the self-absorbed cretins at the center of this insipid comedy. It’s yet another movie about the COVID-19 pandemic that fails to have much purpose other than to try to cash in on this horrific pandemic that has killed millions of people.

Directed by Parker Seaman, “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” also represents the type of self-referential filmmaking that has insecure filmmakers desperately trying to make themselves look cool by constantly telling everyone watching the movie how cool they are. In these types of movies, the filmmakers usually portray versions of themselves while they go on rants or excursions where they trade barbs that are supposed to be witty and hip but are actually very mindless and juvenile, with no self-awareness of how awful and boring the filmmaking is. “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Unfortunately, a large chunk of “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” is a road trip, so viewers are stuck with the two obnoxious main characters who make fools out of themselves on this trip. Parker (played by Seaman) and Devin (played by Devin Das), also known as Dev, are best friends, work partners and aspiring feature film directors who live in Los Angeles. Parker and Dev, who are both in their 20s, pay their bills by working as co-directors of commercials and music videos, until they can get their first big break in the movie industry. Seaman and Das co-wrote the terrible screenplay for “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying.”

The movie opens in 2017, on the set of a commercial that Parker and Dev are directing. They’re having a hard time because their stoner/slacker friend Wes Schlagenhauf (playing a version of himself) has a job to dress up as a dancing bear for this commercial, but Wes is being difficult. Parker and Dev want Wes to look like he’s dancing naturally. Wes whines in response: “You’re telling me to dance naturally in a fucking bear costume!”

Parker and Dev remind Wes that even though he’s their friend, and they are the co-directors of this commercial, it wasn’t easy to get him cast for this acting gig. More arguing ensues, until Wes snaps and walks off of this non-union job. Wes yells before he heads out the door while still in the costume: “You poked a bear, you guys! Huge mistake!” After he leaves, Parker and Dev wonder how they’re going to get another bear costume in time to finish this commercial.

The movie then fast forwards to 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Parker and Dev now work from home. Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, it’s obvious that Parker thinks he’s the bossy “alpha male” of this duo. Parker acts like he thinks he’s not only smarter than Dev but also smarter than almost everyone Parker meets. Parker’s arrogance isn’t backed up with any real intelligence, since he continues to make irrational and moronic decisions.

A conversation reveals that after Wes’ meltdown in the bear costume, Wes abruptly quit the entertainment business, and he decided to move back to his hometown of Boise, Idaho. Not much is known about Wes, except he’s described as someone who “loves baseball, cocaine and LSD.” Wes hasn’t really kept in regular touch with Parker and Dev, who both still have a little bit of resentment over how Wes wrecked the job opportunity they gave to him and how he suddenly decided to leave Los Angeles.

However, things aren’t so bad with Parker, Dev and Wes that they’ve stopped communicating with each other. During a video conference call, Wes tells Dev and Parker that he’s sick with COVID-19 and is quarantining at home, where Wes lives with his mother and stepfather. Contrary to what the movie’s title suggests, Wes never gives the impression in this phone call that he’s dying or that he needs to go to a hospital.

Parker immediately thinks that Dev and Parker should visit Wes by going on a road trip to Boise, and that they should make a documentary about it. Dev is reluctant at first, but Parker convinces Dev to go. During the road trip, Parker and Dev check in on Wes on a regular basis to see how he’s doing.

Actor/filmmaker Mark Duplass has a cameo as a version of himself in “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying.” Mark shows up on video because he’s on the roster for a service called Cameo, which has famous people sending personal video messages to people who pay a fee for these video messages. Parker and Dev have signed up to have Mark do a personal “get well soon” message for Wes.

The rest of the movie is an idiotic slog, as Parker and Dev have some not-very-funny misadventures during their road trip, where they predictably have agruments with each other. The first of many signs that “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” is a bad movie is when Parker and Dev, who work with digital technology in their jobs and are supposed to be tech-savvy, get lost on their road trip. Viewers are supposed to believe that these two bozos suddenly don’t know how to use a smartphone to get directions. It’s just a lazy way to stretch out the already very thin plot.

Parker and Dev share the same agent, whose name is Chelsea (played by D’Arcy Carden), and they have a deal where Parker and Dev are always supposed to work together on jobs that they get. But there’s a tedious subplot about how one of these director pals betrays his friend by going behind the other’s back to take a lucrative commercial job for himself. As part of the deceit, he tells Chelsea that the other friend knows and approves of this decision to work solo, which is a dumb lie because Parker and Dev having the same agent means that the lie will inevitably be exposed. The movie also keeps repeating a very unfunny joke of Parker trying to persuade Dev to tell Parker the password for Dev’s Disney+ account.

It gets worse. By the time Dev and Parker arrive at the place where Wes lives, the movie takes some very ludicrous twists and turns until the very end. The story’s big “reveal” is truly an insult to viewers. Everything about “Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying” looks like an amateurish skit that could have been a very short film but instead was elongated into a feature film that’s just a waste of everyone’s time.

Review: ‘The Year Between,’ starring Alex Heller

July 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alex Heller in “The Year Between” (Photo by Jason Chiu)

“The Year Between”

Directed by Alex Heller

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

Culture Clash: In her second year of college, an angry, bipolar woman drops out of school after she has a mental breakdown; she moves back in with her parents and two younger siblings; and she tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life while she instigates conflicts with other people. 

Culture Audience: “The Year Between” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching movies where mental illness is irresponsibly used as an excuse for someone to be rude, selfish and emotionally damaging to other people.

The misguided comedy/drama “The Year Between” is an irritating slog that offensively uses bipolar disorder as an excuse for the central character to be cruel and toxic to everyone around her. She would be an awful person even without a mental illness. Written and directed by Alex Heller (who is also the star of the movie and is in almost every scene), “The Year Between” is loosely inspired by Heller’s real-life experiences with mental health struggles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Unfortunately, the tone of “The Year Between” misses the mark in both comedy and drama. Watching this dreadful mess is like being stuck for 94 minutes with a whiny, spoiled brat who acts like she can’t stand to be around other people because she thinks everyone else is annoying, but then she does everything in her power to get negative attention from the people she claims she wants to leave her alone. None of this obnoxiousness is depicted in a way that’s entertaining. In fact, it gets downright repetitive and boring.

In “The Year Between” (which takes place in Illinois), Heller portrays Clemence Miller, the hellish narcissist who spends a lot of her time and energy trying to make everyone around her as miserable as she is. The movie only shows a one-year period of time in Clemence’s life, but viewers can easily figure out from conversations in the movie that Clemence has been a mean-spirited troublemaker for a lot longer than a year, probably her entire life. Heller delivers Clemence’s lines of dialogue in a deadpan manner, in this movie’s failed attempt to make “The Year Between” a witty dark comedy.

Clemence’s bipolar disorder is just the movie’s pathetic way of creating scenarios where Clemence expects people to accept or enable her cruelty because she’s mentally ill. The movie has no balance in showing that not all mentally ill people are atrocious to other human beings. That’s why “The Year Between” is very much a vanity project from Heller, who might have intended to make a meaningful comedy/drama about mental illness, but “The Year Between” is just a bungled mockery of mental illness with a dull and predictable story.

A good movie isn’t defined by how “likable” the main characters are. A good movie is defined by how interesting the characters are and how the story is told. And that’s why “The Year Between” is a disappointing clunker in most regards. The movie has some members of the cast who show talent in their performances, but their characters are limited and stuck saying words from Heller’s messy and rambling screenplay.

“The Year Between” is essentially about a woman in her early 20s behaving badly, with a tone that she’s supposed to be a misunderstood anti-hero just because she has bipolar disorder. In real life, bipolar disorder causes extreme highs and lows in emotions. Bipolar disorder can bring out the worst in people, but it does not make someone vile and nasty if that person already had a tendency to be vile and nasty.

From the movie’s opening scene, it’s clear that Clemence is an emotional terrorist who takes other people as emotional hostages, and then she goes on rants about how everyone else in the world is terrible and uncaring to her. In other words, Clemence loves to play the victim when she is in fact the abuser. If Clemence is Heller’s semi-autobiographical portrait of herself, then it’s a very off-putting way to introduce herself to people.

In the beginning of the movie, Clemence is a second-year student at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. She storms into her dorm room and accuses her roommate Eliza of wearing Clemence’s shortcake-flavored Chapstick. Clemence then yells at Eliza by saying that their dorm room is a “pig sty,” when the room is actually neat and orderly, compared to a lot of dorm rooms.

Viewers never see the rest of Clemence’s meltdown, but apparently it got worse, because Eliza made a formal complaint to the school that Eliza feared for her safety because of Clemence’s continual and angry outbursts. It was then decided that Clemence would voluntarily leave the school for an unspecified period of time. The movie never shows Eliza making the complaint or whatever meetings took place with university officials that led to this decision. The next thing viewers see is Clemence being driven away from the campus by Clemence’s concerned and loving mother Sherri (played by J. Smith-Cameron), who owns and manages a home goods store.

Playing the victim as usual, Clemence announces to her mother and anyone else who’ll listen that she has no intention of going back to Western Illinois University or enrolling in any other college/university, because she thinks college life is just too stifling for her. As far as Clemence is concerned, a college education is just a waste of time for her because she doesn’t want to live by any college rules. In other words, she doesn’t want anyone to stand up to her and tell her to act like a decent human being.

After dropping out of college, Clemence has to move back home to Oak Brook, Illinois, where her parents live with Clemence’s two younger teenage siblings. Clemence isn’t happy about being in this living situation, so expect to hear a lot of whining from her about being stuck back in her childhood home with family members who get on her nerves. It’s quite the display of entitlement from a college dropout who has the privilege of having a family who will take her back into the home after being such a screw-up and troublemaker.

As Sherri drives Clemence back to the neighborhood where the family home is, Clemence makes a typical snide Clemence remark as she looks around the neighborhood: “Someone should bomb the place.” Clemence gets even more agitated when she finds out that she has to live in the basement because her parents turned her former bedroom into a home office. And when Clemence doesn’t get her way, look out: People will be the target of her wrath.

Soon after Clemence moves back into the family home, Clemence and Sherri are seen in an appointment with a psychiatrist named Dr. Lismoen (played by Waltrudis Buck), who has diagnosed Clemence with having bipolar disorder. Clemence has exhibited bipolar symptoms of hoarding, stealing, paranoia and extreme insomnia. Dr. Lismoen is empathetic but firm in how Clemence should proceed with taking medication to treat the bipolar disorder.

The doctor says that it might take a lot of time to find the right medication “cocktail” that works best for Clemence. Dr. Lismoen also warns that some of the medication side effects will be uncomfortable. It’s news that Clemence doesn’t want to hear, so she thinks the doctor is incompetent. Dr. Lismoen also tells Clemence that Clemence should see a therapist, so Clemence isn’t happy about that either.

Here’s an example of what a horrible person Clemence is: In the waiting room of Dr. Lismoen’s office, Clemence and Sherri are sitting near an obviously upset woman (played by Sarah Schol), who is sobbing about something. Clemence and Sherri have no idea who this woman is or what this woman’s personal problems are. When Clemence and her mother are called into Dr. Lismoen’s office, Clemence passes by the distressed woman and snarls at her: “Basket case.” (It’s a derogatory slur for a mentally ill person.)

And later, when Clemence has her first session with her therapist Dr. Madzen (played by Jon Hudson Odom), she has this to say about Dr. Lismoen, who is a German immigrant: “I call her ‘the German woman,’ to take away her power.” Clemence adds, “I don’t take life advice from mentally ill burnouts.” None of this is funny, of course, but “The Year Between” filmmaker Heller desperately wants it to be.

At home, Clemence complains and gives constant criticism to her family members for not being more accommodating to her. Sherri and her mild-mannered husband Don (played by Steve Buscemi) are admittedly unsure of how to deal with Clemence’s bipolar disorder. Don’s reaction is just to let Clemence mouth off and not try to get into any arguments with her. Sherri’s way of coping is ordering Clemence to do yoga with her.

Clemence’s younger sister Carlin (played by Emily Robinson), who’s 17 or 18 years old, is an overachiever in her last year of high school. Carlin is preoccupied with finding out if she will get into her top-choice university. Meanwhile, a jealous Clemence tries to discourage Carlin from going to college. Carlin and Clemence are opposites in a lot of ways, so Carlin is the person in the family whom Clemence clashes with the most.

Clemence’s younger brother Neil (played by Wyatt Oleff), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, has an easygoing personality and tries to stay out of Clemence’s way. When Clemence unapologetically eats all of the bread in the house refrigerator, and someone in the family gripes about it, Clemence angrily reacts as if her rights are being violated. And so, when Neil later wants to make a meat sandwich, he just eats the meat by itself instead of trying to get into what would be an emotionally exhausting confrontation with Clemence.

Clemence also manipulates her family by making alarming suicidal comments. She mopes around the house and sleeps a lot, which are all valid signs of depression. But then she says to her father Don: “Dad, if the house burns down, I want to sleep through it.” How is a parent supposed to react when hearing this disturbing comment from a child? “The Year Between” reprehensibly treats it like a joke.

Believe it or not, Clemence is capable of being nice. There’s a brief scene early in the movie where she’s walking the family dog Chauncey outside on a street, and Clemence says a polite hello to a neighbor. But that display of friendliness is short-lived and rare for Clemence.

As an example of how she still has bipolar episodes, there’s a scene in the movie where Clemence walks the dog but doesn’t come back until several hours later when it’s night, without telling anyone in her family where she was and that she was taking the dog away for hours. When she comes back home, with no explanation for her long absence, Clemence is dismissive of her mother’s worried feelings. Clemence is legally an adult, so she shouldn’t have to be treated like a child, but she often acts like a petulant child.

What’s so horrific about “The Year Between” is that it constantly makes a point that people shouldn’t really confront Clemence about her cruelty and selfishness because she has bipolar disorder. Clemence wants people to respect her, but she’s not willing show basic respect for other people. And her disrespect is not something that can be blamed on Clemence’s bipolar disorder, but the movie wants to make it look like her bipolar disorder is largely to blame.

Not long after moving back in with her parents, Clemence commits what she thinks is an act of rebellion: She shaves off all of the hair on her head. And so, for the rest of the movie, Clemence has “chip on her shoulder” reactions if people look at her strangely because of her bald head. When some teenage boys pass her on a street, she doesn’t like the way they’re looking at her, so she blurts out to them, “I eat ass!” This is what’s supposed to be pass as “comedy” in “The Year Between.”

Clemence isn’t a complete freeloader at home because she attempts to find a job. She applies to be a sales clerk at a discount clothing/furniture store called Big Deals, even though her people skills are horrible, she has no retail sales experience, and she’s very abrasive in her job interview. But lo and behold, she easily gets the job. It’s just more of Clemence’s privilege on display.

The Big Deals employee who’s been assigned to train Clemence is a sassy and intelligent woman in her late teens named Beth (played by Kyanna Simone), who tells Clemence that she will be quitting this dead-end retail job in the near future because Beth has a lacrosse scholarship to attend Duke University. Clemence is already annoyed that she’s being trained by someone who’s younger than Clemence. And when Clemence hears that Beth has plans to go to college, Clemence gets envious of Beth.

Still, Clemence has no friends, so she tries to become Beth’s friend. It won’t make Clemence look any less loathsome, because Clemence’s idea of a “friend” is to have someone listen to her rant about how much other people ignore or misunderstand Clemence. However, the scenes with Clemence and Beth are among the movie’s few highlights.

What doesn’t work as well is the movie’s subplot about Clemence’s love life. In a convenience store parking lot, she sees a guy named Ashik (played by Rajeev Jacob), who was a classmate in high school. Ashik and Clemence haven’t seen each other since their high school days.

Clemence and Ashik make awkward small talk and catch up on what they’ve been doing with their lives. After they exchange phone numbers, they flirt online and take tentative steps toward dating. Ashik is also drifting in life and lives at home with his mother. Unfortunately, Ashik is a hollow character with not much to offer to this movie, so the would-be romance between Ashik and Clemence falls flat.

“The Year Between,” just like Clemence, is very irritable, monotonous and aimless. It seems like the movie was made to create sympathy for whatever real-life misdeeds that might have inspired the awfulness of Clemence. Viewers won’t be entirely sure how much of the real Heller is in Clemence, but what’s shown in the movie is someone with a very heinous personality.

As for her bipolar disorder, Clemence doesn’t seem concerned about getting better. She just wants to wallow in her misery. And when someone else in the family has a major health problem, Clemence reaches new lows of despicable narcissism. Any attempts to redeem Clemence look very fake. Viewers will be left wondering why “The Year Between” was even made, when there’s really no point to the movie, except to show someone being chronically self-centered and emotionally abusive to others, with no maturity or self-awareness.

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