Review: ‘Petit Mal’ (2022), 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” (2022)

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” on a date to be announced.

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.

Review: ‘Carol & Johnny,’ starring Carol Williams and Johnny Williams Jr.

July 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

An archival photo of Carol Williams and Johnny Williams Jr. in “Carol & Johnny”

“Carol & Johnny”

Directed by Colin Barnicle

Culture Representation: Filmed in 2021 in Washington state, Texas and Nevada, the documentary “Carol & Johnny” features an all-white group of working-class and middle-class people discussing estranged spouses Carolyn Marie “Carol” Wlliams and John Madison “Johnny” Williams Jr., who famously went on a bank robbery spree from 1986 to 1994 (in Texas, California and Washington state), were sent to prison, and were eventually released from prison.

Culture Clash: After being released from prison, Johnny has trouble adjusting to his new life in Seattle, and he wants to get back together with Carol, who is living in Texas and has to decide if she wants to reunite with Johnny.

Culture Audience: “Carol & Johnny” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about true crime and dysfunctional couples.

An archival photo of Carol Williams in “Carol & Johnny”

The absorbing true crime documentary “Carol & Johnny” keeps viewers guessing until the very end if two estranged spouses, who went on a bank robbery spree, will reunite after the husband gets out of prison. It’s a story that isn’t just about their crime spree, because the movie raises provocative questions about forgiveness and if ex-convicts can be redeemed after getting out of prison. Directed by Colin Barnicle, “Carol & Johnny” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The two people at the center of the movie are Carolyn Marie “Carol” Williams and John Madison “Johnny” Williams Jr., who robbed 56 banks in Texas, California and Washington state, from 1986 to 1994, the year that they were arrested. It’s believed that the stolen money from these robberies totaled $879,357. At the time of their arrest, Carol was 34, and Johnny was 43. They have been married since 1979, and they have no children together. Carol and Johnny were both convicted and sent to prison for 27 of the 56 robberies. The other robberies were past the statute of limitations to be prosecuted.

Carol (who was born in 1960) got a lighter prison sentence of 20 years, because she was just the getaway driver in these robberies. Carol was released from prison in 2011. Johnny (who was born in 1951) was the one in this bank-robbing duo who actually went into the banks for the armed robberies, so he was sentenced to 92 years in prison. However, he got an extremely lucky break and was released in 2021, because his health issues put him at a more likely risk of getting infected by COVID-19. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s probable that Johnny would have spent the rest of his life in prison.

The filmmakers of “Carol & Johnny” wisely chose to interview only a small number of people for the documentary: Carol, Johnny, Helen Williams (Johnny’s stepmother), Cindy Hawkins (Carol’s sister) and former FBI agent Don Glasser, who worked in the Seattle area during the period of time that Johnny and Carol went on their crime sprees. The reason why it was necessary for the documentary to avoid being overstuffed with too many talking heads is because too many other people being interviewed would have been distractions to the “he said/she said” way that the movie is structured. Glasser, Hawkins and Johnny’s stepmother Helen provide their own perspectives, but the two people who inspired the title of this documentary are the main focus and get most of the screen time.

The beginning of “Carol & Johnny” (which was filmed in 2021) shows Johnny living in Seattle, not long after he has been released from prison. His entire family has disowned him. His stepmother Helen doesn’t mince words when she talks about Johnny: “He’s spent his whole life with his hand out, wanting something.” She adds that “he’s not welcome” in her home.

The movie shows Johnny living in a halfway house for ex-convicts called Pioneer Fellowship House. Just like any halfway house for former prisoners, Pioneer Fellowship House has strict rules for the residents, such as curfews and not doing anything that would violate their paroles. During a documentary interview, Johnny gets a phone call from his parole officer (a woman named Jennifer) and he’s seen briefly talking with her on the phone.

In a documentary interview, Johnny comments on his life out of prison: “I’m trying to put my life together. I’ve been separated from society for so long.” Johnny is still learning how to use a cell phone. He also mentions that he wants to go to a vocational school for computer technology. Considering that he has a prison record for felonies, he has health problems, and he’s at an age when most people have retired, Johnny is going to have major obstacles if he plans to look for a job.

He knows it too, which is why his experience of life after prison is much more difficult than an ex-con who is still young enough to have a better chance of being employed. Someone like Johnny might be less motivated to find a job with all these odds stacked against him. But does that mean he’ll return to a life of crime? It’s a question that will linger in a lot of people’s minds when watching this movie. When “Carol & Johnny” director Barnicle (who’s not seen on camera) asks Johnny if he’ll ever rob a bank again, Johnny has this response: “Oh, fuck no!”

As for Carol, the beginning of the documentary shows her living in her Texas hometown of Dallas and being a live-in caretaker for her 93-year-old aunt, who has dementia. Carol is living rent-free in her aunt’s home, but Carol would rather have her own home. She also says that she doesn’t like living in Dallas. But just like Johnny, Carol is considered “unemployable” by a lot of people. It’s implied that Carol and her aunt are living off of government benefits, including disability income.

That’s because Carol, whose nickname was Mad Dog when she was in prison, got a brain injury as a prisoner. As she explains it, she was given too much water to drink in prison. Water intoxication (also known as hyponatremia) results in low sodium levels in the body. Carol says the prison treated this condition by giving her sodium, but the sodium levels were too high, which resulted in her brain injury.

Carol’s hesitant and stuttering speech patterns are indicative of someone with a brain injury, but she is still articulate enough to formulate her thoughts and communicate. She also has vivid memories of her time with Johnny, whom she hasn’t seen in person since 1995. What’s interesting is how Carol and Johnny clearly remember dates, places and times of milestones in their relationship.

When an estranged couple has spent decades living apart from each other, those memories usually tend to fade. But not for Johnny and Carol. Johnny remembers the last time he saw Carol in person was January 20, 1995, before they were sent to their respective prisons. “There wasn’t much to say,” Johnny remembers. “I just told her that I loved her and that I was sorry.”

For most of the documentary, Johnny and Carol act like a couple whose relationship was put on “pause” because of the time they spent in prison. They are still legally married. And the reason why they haven’t gotten divorced becomes obvious after seeing this movie: They say that they still love each other. Now that he’s out of prison, Johnny wants to get back together with Carol, but she isn’t sure if she wants the same thing.

In the beginning of the documentary, Carol says, “I love John. That will make some people angry, but I can’t help how they feel. I’m not responsible for anyone’s feelings but my own.” In other parts of the documentary, the filmmakers show Carol and Johnny photos of what Johnny and Carol currently look like. Carol’s reaction: “He looks much older, but so do I. Does he still cry a lot?” Johnny does cry a little in the documentary, but is he crying for himself or for Carol?

Carol says she wasn’t prepared for Johnny to ever be released from prison. She never visited him in the 10 years when she was out of prison and he was still incarcerated. She doesn’t want to visit him where he’s living in Washington state. She expects him to come visit her in Texas. Will Johnny do it? And why does Carol insist that Johnny go to her?

It’s not really said out loud, but viewers can see it has a lot to do with the dynamics of their relationship before they went to prison: Johnny was the pursuer, the one to take the lead, the one to come up with all the ideas and plans on how their lives would be. Carol wasn’t completely passive in their marriage. In the documentary, she says several times that she takes full responsibility for her own decisions and her own actions.

However, as Johnny and Carol tell their stories about their respective childhoods, and how they met, fell in love, and got married, it explains a lot about how they ended up in a relationship that turned out to be unhealthy and dangerous for both of them. It’s almost a cliché of a “good girl” who fell hard for a “bad boy.” But there’s more to it than that.

It has a lot to do with how childhood abuse can have long-lasting effects on someone’s self-esteem and the choices they can make in life. It also has to do with how people can meet each other, fall in love, and make completely different choices about the relationship, depending on what stage of life they’re in and what they want to get out of the relationship. All of these factors are part of Carol’s and Johnny’s life stories.

Johnny remembers the day that he met Carol was August 8, 1979. Carol says they met in Dallas, at the apartment that Carol’s sister shared with a boyfriend, who was a friend of Johnny’s. Johnny describes this fateful meeting with Carol: “I was 11 months out of prison, and she was 15 months out of high school. And it was like being turned loose in a candy story as a kid. It was fantastic.”

At 28 years old in 1979, Johnny was by, his own admission, a thief since childhood. When he met Carol, he was on parole for armed robbery of a convenience store. Carol knew all of that soon after meeting Johnny, and they quickly began dating each other. Her parents disapproved of the relationship.

Carol says of her relationship with Johnny at that time: “I was happy.” But there’s more to the story. Carol describes having a domineering mother who repeatedly told Carol that she “wouldn’t amount to anything.” Johnny says that when he and Carol eloped, it had a lot do with Carol wanting to get away from Dallas. The elopement was the first time that Carol really defied her mother.

Carol’s sister says of Carol’s decision to marry Johnny: “She could’ve done a hell of a lot better—trust me—but she had no self-confidence.” Carol says of her parents’ feelings about Johnny: “They learned to love him, until all that ‘other’ happened.” That “other” was the life of crime where Carol willingly followed Johnny.

Johnny’s childhood was much more chaotic than Carol’s childhood. Johnny was born in Waukegan, Illinois, and his mother gave him up to live in a Catholic group home when he was 5 months old. His maternal grandmother and her second husband then took custody of him in California and raised him in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Johnny barely knew his father, whom he describes as a deadbeat dad and a gambling addict.

“I was raised by old people,” says Johnny. “They believed in whippings and retribution.” His maternal grandmother’s second husband was named Claude Havens, who was an ex-deputy sheriff. “He was a salty cuss, and he wore me out with a razor strap,” Johnny remembers. “I always got whipped for stealing, but I kept on doing it.”

Johnny’s grandmother and her second husband got so fed up with raising Johnny, they sent him to live with the grandmother’s ex-husband. Things weren’t much better in this living situation. Carol has this to say about how Johnny’s abusive childhood had this effect on him: “He was numb to sensitivity to other people’s feelings.”

It sounds a lot like being a sociopath. And when you hear about the highly manipulative things that Johnny did to get Carol to do what he wanted, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to reach that conclusion. Carol says that during their marriage, before they got arrested, “I was completely under his spell.” She also says that Johnny frequently got his way with her because he threatened to hurt her family if she ever left him.

These threats made Carol feel a warped sense of loyalty to Johnny. She explains her mindset at the time: “Protect my husband. Protect my spouse. That was my man, so that was my mission.”

In 1981, Johnny and Carol were working as independent carpet cleaners. In 1983, Johnny fell asleep behind the wheel of his truck, crashed it, and fractured his skull. After this accident, the couple couldn’t pay the rent where they lived. And it wasn’t long before Johnny decided to go back to stealing to get money.

In October 1985, he went to a library to read books about bank robberies. On April 3, 1986, the bank robbery spree began in Plano, Texas, with a robbery haul of $10,000. But there was a dye pack in the cash. The duo’s next bank robbery also had a dye pack in the stolen haul. By the third bank robbery, Johnny shot a bank manager, who fortunately survived. Johnny says the shooting was an “accident.” In 1987, during a bank robbery in Solano, Beach, California, he shot near a bank manager intentionally when she wasn’t moving quickly enough for him.

Carol says of the partnership that she and Johnny had in their crimes: “He’s the star. I’m just the associate. I was a damn good getaway driver.” Johnny and Carol got away with these bank robberies so easily, it became addicting to them. Johnny and Carol could steal more cash in a few minutes than what most people could make in a few months of doing honest work. Carol and Johnny eventually left Texas and moved to California. They decided early on in their crime spree that they wouldn’t rob banks that were very close to where they lived.

In their documentary interviews, Johnny and Carol say that they believe that they got away with their bank robbery spree for so long because they didn’t leave fingerprints at the crime scenes, because they meticulously planned everything, and because of Johnny’s signature bank robbery move of shooting his gun in the air immediately when he was in the bank. By shooting the gun right away, frightened potential witnesses would be more likely to avoid looking at the bank robber during the robbery, out of fear of getting shot.

The detailed planning included choosing banks that weren’t in crowded areas, finding out what time of day was the least-busiest when the targeted bank was open, and calculating the exact time each possible scenario would take to rob the bank and get away. Carol says that they always preferred a bank where the getaway car could be parked in a place nearby that was as hidden as possible, to make it less likely that any witnesses could describe the car. In the documentary, Carol describes each bank robbery as a “job” that she and Johnny took as seriously as a real job.

Because of Johnny’s tactic of scaring potential witnesses and averting their eyes by shooting a gun in the air as soon as the robbery started, witness descriptions of him varied wildly in the first few years of the robbery sprees. There were some images of him captured on surveillance cameras during robberies, but these images were often blurry, and he always disguised himself. The media came up with different nicknames for him, including the Bang Bandit, the Shootist, the Bang Man and the Lincoln Bandit.

As outlaws, Carol and Johnny used the stolen money to travel a lot, gamble, and dine in upscale restaurants. Carol says that before becoming a bank robber, “I never traveled very much.” She comments on all the vacation trips that she took: “It was fun. It was a learning experience.” She later says of this life of leisure funded by stolen money: “I got spoiled.”

During one of their vacations, Carol and Johnny went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico. It’s against the law to steal any of the white sand in the park, but chronic thief Johnny wanted to steal some sand anyway. Carol says she remembers feeling very nervous about stealing the sand. “It was against the law!” she says with horror. Oh, the irony.

And during this period of time of being an outlaw, Johnny actually made money by entering bowling tournaments. He created a fake identity for his life as a competitive bowler: Robert James Hall. If people asked Carol and Johnny where they were getting the money for their lavish spending, they would say it was through the bowling tournaments. And sometimes, Johnny would say to certain people that he was a drug dealer. Johnny’s stepmother Helen says, “We knew he was up to something, but we never dreamed it was robbing banks.”

The good times for Carol and Johnny didn’t last forever. By 1994, Carol says she was ready to quit robbing banks, but Johnny didn’t want to stop. And he got careless with his double life as a bowler. Someone called in a tip to law enforcement about Johnny using a fake name for his bowling tournaments. And that’s what led to him getting on the radar of law enforcement and his eventual arrest.

It’s not mentioned in the “Carol & Johnny” documentary, but according to a New York Post interview, Johnny says that the informant was a former acquaintance named Bob. According to Johnny, Bob was in talks with Johnny to do a home invasion of a bank manager’s home. The idea was to force the bank manager to give up security information that Johnny could use while robbing the manager’s bank. The plan for the home invasion fell through. Johnny says that Bob then turned on Johnny by telling law enforcement about Johnny’s secret life as a bank robber.

As one of the FBI agents involved in the investigation, Glasser comments, “I felt like I was a lucky guy to have that case.” Johnny and Carol were put under surveillance. Glasser says that Johnny and Carol were arrested without incident at a motel in Bothell, Washington, where they were staying after a bank robbery in Kirkland, Washington. Carol and Johnny paid for the motel room with a credit card with Johnny’s real name, which is how law enforcement found them. Once in custody, “Johnny confessed immediately” to the bank robberies, says Glasser.

Johnny and Carol don’t talk too much in the documentary about what their lives were like in prison. Instead, the biggest question that the documentary asks and what viewers will want to know is: “Will Carol and Johnny get back together?” There are a few twists and revelations in the movie, but they’re not too surprising. What makes “Carol & Johnny” fascinating to watch is it will also make viewers ask another question: “Should Carol and Johnny get back together?”

Review: ‘Cherry’ (2022), starring Alex Trewhitt

June 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alex Trewhitt in “Cherry” (Photo by Damien Steck)

“Cherry” (2022)

Directed by Sophie Galibert

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angelesthe comedy/drama film “Cherry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 25-year-old woman, who is drifting in life and has problems keeping a job, finds out she’s 10 weeks pregnant, and she only has about one day to decide what to do about this unplanned pregnancy. 

Culture Audience: “Cherry” will appeal primarily to people interested in an intimate and well-acted portrait about a woman who has to come terms with her views on family planning and what she wants to do with her life.

Alex Trewhitt in “Cherry” (Photo by Damien Steck)

With a realistic mix of drama and some comedy, “Cherry” presents a memorable portrait of a 25-year-old woman who has just one day to decide what to do about an unplanned pregnancy. As the movie’s title character, Alex Trewhitt gives a captivating performance. “Cherry” tells Cherry’s story without judgment but with plenty of charm and emotional authenticity.

Sophie Galibert directed “Cherry” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Arthur Cohen. “Cherry” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Online Premieres, a category of movies that the festival only made available through the festival’s Tribeca at Home online programming. It’s more than a movie about an unplanned pregnancy. It’s also a movie about how this unplanned pregnancy has made Cherry rethink her personal relationships and what she wants to do with her life.

The beginning of the movie, which takes place in Los Angeles, shows Cherry roller skating around the city in a seemingly carefree way. At this point, Cherry doesn’t know yet how much her life will soon change within a few hours. Cherry isn’t roller skating just for fun. She’s financially broke and doesn’t have a car. Roller skating is the cheapest form of transportation that she currently has.

Early in the movie, Cherry is shown going to her job at a place called the Polka Dots Costume Shop, where she works part-time as a sales clerk. Some of her work at this costume shop also includes doing magic tricks for customers and occasionally handing out balloons. Her boss Roger (played by Joe Sachem), who owns and manages the store, is usually easygoing. But on this day when she arrives at work, he tells Cherry that’s he’s had enough of her chronic tardiness. “One more fuck-up, and you’re done,” Roger warns.

It’s the first sign in the movie that Cherry has a tendency to be flaky and irresponsible. Conversations that happen later in the story reveal that Cherry has a long history of drifting from job to job. She also does not have any life goals or plans. However, she has to think about what direction her life will take when she goes into the store’s restroom to take a pregnancy test. It’s how she finds out that she’s pregnant. Cherry doesn’t have much time to let this revelation sink in because she has to start her work shift.

Outside the store, Cherry is doing some store promotion for people passing by on the street. She does some magic tricks and balloon designs, in a way that that’s similar to what a hired clown would do at a children’s party. Two people who stop by are a preoccupied-looking woman (played by Samantha Barrios) and her son, who’s looks to be about 8 or 9 years old.

The woman asks Cherry to entertain her son while she quickly goes in the store. Cherry makes a balloon gift for the boy. Cherry says the balloon is supposed to be a make-believe sword, but it looks a lot like a penis. The boy notices it too and runs into the store with the balloon to tell his mother, who gets very upset. Roger fires Cherry immediately.

With no job and still reeling from the shock of finding out that she’s pregnant, Cherry (who does not have any health insurance) goes to a local health clinic to get another pregnancy test done. It’s a Saturday, which is a day when the clinic will see people by appointment only. Cherry shows up as the clinic is about to close, but through some persistence and begging, she’s able to see a doctor without an appointment.

The only doctor who’s on duty at the clinic is Dr. Amalia Garcia-Ortega (played by Sandy Duarte), who is, just by coincidence, about eight or nine months pregnant. After Cherry takes another pregnancy test, Dr. Garcia-Ortega (who is compassionate and patient) confirms that Cherry is pregnant. The doctor also tells Cherry that Cherry is 10 weeks into her pregnancy and will soon reach 11 weeks. How soon? In a few days.

In California, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. But because Cherry doesn’t have health insurance, her options on where to get an abortion are limited. She will most likely have to rely on a low-cost clinic, such as the one she’s at now. Dr. Garcia-Ortega does not tell Cherry what to do about the pregnancy.

Instead, the doctor gives Cherry all of the options and tells Cherry that it will be Cherry’s choice on what to do. If Cherry chooses to terminate the pregnancy, the clinic offers a lower price ($500) if the abortion is up to the 11th week of pregnancy. Any abortion between the 11th and 24th week of pregnancy will cost more money than Cherry can afford.

While Cherry is absorbing this information, she asks to have an ultrasound, so that she can see and hear what’s inside her uterus. This ultrasound seems to have an impact on Cherry, as if she’s shaken by the reality that she has a tremendous decision to make. The rest of “Cherry” is about her making this very important decision that could change her life. The clinic is closed on Sundays, and will re-open on Monday, which Dr. Garcia-Ortega says will be the last day before Cherry is technically 11 weeks pregnant.

The father of the child is Cherry’s live-in boyfriend Nick (played by Dan Schultz), who is a musician in a band and a part-time event DJ. Some of his DJ work is at a local roller skating rink where Cherry likes to hang out. It’s never stated exactly how long Cherry and Nick have been together, but some of the movie’s conversations hint that Cherry and Nick have been a couple for less than a year.

Cherry and Nick live in a three-bedroom apartment with “four guys who smoke a lot of pot,” according to a comment that Cherry makes. If Cherry chooses to have this child, she doesn’t want to raise a child in this environment. Nick’s father was an aspiring musician who gave up his music career to raise a family. It’s something that’s brought up in the conversation when Nick finds out that Cherry is pregnant.

The movie never shows Cherry in the place where she lives. Instead, she goes to several other places during the 24-hour period when she makes her decision. When she tells Nick that she’s pregnant, it’s while he’s at a roller skating rink during his shift as a DJ. His reaction might or might not influence Cherry’s decision.

Cherry also visits some other people who have had an impact on her life, including a group of about four or five women called the L.A. Roller Girls, who are hired for events and have big plans to tour. Cherry used to be a member of this group but stopped going to L.A. Roller Girls rehearsals. She hasn’t recently stayed in touch with the group’s members, so they assume that she lost interest in the L.A. Roller Girls.

Ironically, the Sunday that Cherry has to make her big decision is on Mother’s Day. An enlightening part of the movie is when Cherry has a Mother’s Day brunch with her older sister Anna (played by Hannah Alline) and their divorced mother Carla (played by Angela Nicholas), who is worried about Cherry having such an aimless life. This scene with the Mother’s Day brunch gives a lot of insight into the dynamics of Cherry’s family.

Anna, who is a trial attorney, is married and has been unsuccessfully trying with her husband Jeffrey (who’s not in the movie) to get pregnant. Carla and her ex-husband Bob (played by Charlie S. Jensen) have been divorced for years, but the pain of the divorce still lingers. It’s eventually revealed that although Bob was a good provider for the family, Cherry thinks that Bob wasn’t emotionally available as a family man, and it bothers Cherry that he doesn’t call her. It might or might not explain why Cherry seems unable to commit to anything, but it definitely shows she has some “daddy issues.”

To a lesser degree, Cherry is also insecure about Anna being considered the overachieving “golden child” of the family, while Cherry thinks she’s perceived as the unreliable screw-up of the family. Through bits and pieces of conversations during this Mother’s Day brunch, it’s revealed that Cherry has often gotten financial help from her mother Carla, who has gotten tired of Cherry being so indecisive about what Cherry wants to do with her life.

Later, in one of the movie’s best scenes, Cherry meets her father in the parking lot of an casual snack eatery. In the parking lot is a cherry red Volkswagen that’s owned by Cherry’s maternal grandmother, but Cherry sometimes borrows the car. The car has a dead battery, so Cherry has called Bob (who works as a security guard) to meet her in the parking lot while he’s on a lunch break, so that he can bring his car to give a battery jumpstart. Their conversation is realistically awkward, but it has an emotional resonance that is subtle yet impactful.

Throughout the movie, Trewhitt gives an immensely authentic portrayal of someone who suddenly has to make a momentous, life-changing decision. In movies where the protagonist has an unplanned pregnancy, there are usually a lot of melodramatic scenes or panicking, but Cherry is dealing with this decision in a way that doesn’t involve her breaking down in hysterics. She begins to understand she has the responsibility of making a decision that could affect her life in the long-term, when she has gotten accustomed to living her life “in the moment” and not thinking too much about her future.

“Cherry” also has incisive observations about how people often make parenting decisions based on how they were raised as children. A lot of Cherry’s fears and insecurities about being a “responsible” adult could be linked back to feeling like her life was shaken up because of her parents’ divorce. Children of divorce often have “abandonment” issues, especially if one of the divorced parents is more involved in raising a child than the other divorced parent.

What’s also effective about this movie is that it doesn’t present Cherry as a stereotypical plucky young heroine who’s supposed to be adored by everyone watching the movie. She has a friendly personality, but she’s the type of person who is unreliable and seems to want to avoid growing up. That doesn’t make her a bad person. It makes her a person who’s been indecisive and noncommittal about a lot things in her life. And she can’t be that way for this big decision about her pregnancy.

Through her conversations and interactions in the 24-hour period that she makes her big decision, Cherry starts to see how some of her own flaws and commitment-phobic ways have affected her relationships. Cherry has some resentment toward her father for not being the type of parent she wanted. However, she goes through some of her own self-analysis about how she might have let down people in her life too. Not everything is said out loud from the movie’s screenplay, which is why Trewhitt’s performance is stellar at conveying Cherry’s inner emotions and personal evaluation of her life.

A lot of movies about unplanned pregnancies want to make the subject matter sad and depressing, while other movies with the same subject matter want to turn the unplanned pregnancy into a comedic plot device. And other movies have an agenda to preach what decision should be made about an unplanned pregnancy. “Cherry” does none of that. Instead, this movie poignantly shows how in one 24-hour period, a woman’s decision about a pregnancy has made her re-evaluate her life and perhaps use that self-reflection to make changes for the better.

Review: ‘Music Pictures: New Orleans,’ starring Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr.

June 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Little Freddie King in “Music Pictures: New Orleans”

“Music Pictures: New Orleans”

Directed by Ben Chace

Culture Representation: The documentary “Music Pictures: New Orleans” (which was filmed in 2020 and 2021) features a racially diverse (African Americans and white people) group of music artists and people in the New Orleans music scene talking about Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr., who all participated in the documentary.

Culture Clash: Thomas, Jones, King and Marsalis were all in their 70s and 80s when this documentary was filmed, and they talk about the challenges they’ve faced in their personal and professional lives.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to fans of these artists, “Music Pictures: New Orleans” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of New Orleans music and documentaries that celebrate music artists who were influential to countless numbers of people.

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” is not a definitive or impactful documentary about the New Orleans music scene. However, it’s a pleasantly entertaining, early 2020s snapshot of four influential artists in blues and jazz. These four artists are Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr., who all participated in the documentary, which was filmed from January 2020 to April 2021. Marsalis died from COVID-19-related pneumonia on April 1, 2020. He was 85.

Directed by Ben Chace, “Music Picture: New Orleans” (which clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes for its total running time) has a straightforward format of giving each artist profile a separate chapter. “Part 1: The Soul Queen” spotlights blues singer Thomas. “Part 2: The Heartbeat of the Band” focuses on jazz musician Jones, the leader and snare drummer of the Treme Brass Band. “Part 3: Last King of the Blues” centers on blues singer/guitarist King. “Part 4: Modern Men” showcases jazz icon Marsalis. All of these artists have been vital to the New Orleans music scene and influential in their own ways to many people around the world.

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) has some archival photos and archival footage of these artists, but the vast majority of the screen time consists of just documenting these four artists’ lives as music performers during the time that the documentary was filmed. Expect to see footage of them in recording studios or on stage, but don’t expect a lot of insight into their personal lives that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere. The movie is an easy watch, but it’s not particularly revealing.

Thomas (born in 1941) is shown recording songs for an album that has not yet been released, as of this writing. This album will be her first album of new recordings since 2008’s “Simply Grand.” Her “Full Time Woman – The Lost Cotillion Album” (released in 2014) was an album that she originally recorded in the early 1970s.

One of the songs she sings in the recording studio is “Don’t Go to Strangers,” which was the title track to Etta James’ 1960 album. Conga player Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and pianist Kyle Roussel are two of the musicians in the recording studio with her. Thomas is confident and relaxed in the studio, but she does say out loud that she’s very aware that this will be the first album she’s making in several years.

Thomas talks a little but about how she got started in the music business. When she was a teenage waitress, she got fired for singing on the job. Her boss was also a racist because he told her that he didn’t like her singing music from black people, and he used the “n” word racial slur. Thomas went from being fired from that waitress job to becoming a professional singer. Her first single, “Don’t Mess With My Man,” released in 1959, was a hit on the R&B charts.

She opens up about a few low points in her career, including being ripped off by a manager, whom she parted ways with in the 1970s. Her next manager was Emile Jackson, who also became her third husband. The couple got married in 1976. She jokes about her partnership with Jackson: “I found it cheaper to keep him. And I don’t want to train another one.”

Jackson is briefly interviewed in the documentary. He remembers the first time he met Thomas: “I didn’t know who she was.” At the time, Thomas had split from her unscrupulous manager and wasn’t actively looking for another manager. However, she says in the documentary that she told Jackson: “You can be my manager. And what you don’t know, we can learn together. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.”

The documentary’s segment on Jones (who was born in 1943) is perhaps the least interesting of the four, mainly because he doesn’t give much insight into himself and his career. Jones’ part of the documentary mainly shows him performing with his band. While playing music in a small nightclub, Jones says generic things, such as: “When I see people dancing, and I see a smile on their face, that makes my work much easier.”

King (born in 1940) has the liveliest personality out of the four artists. He’s quite the raconteur, as he tells stories about his life. He talks about how he was shot by his wife Amy (before they were married) with a .357 Magnum that he kept hidden in his garden. Despite this shooting incident, he married her anyway.

King’s segment also shows him performing at a nightclub and in the recording studio. Songs he performs include “Bad News,” “Mean Little Woman” and “Pocketful of Money.” Some of King’s associates are also interviewed, such as drummer/manager “Wacko” Wade Wright and harmonica player Bobby Lewis. Not surprisingly, they praise King for his talented musicianship and his resilience during tough times.

Although he is originally from Mississippi, King considers New Orleans to be his true home. As far as King is concerned, he thinks the most authentic blues artists are those who’ve experienced real struggles. King comments in the documentary: “The young don’t know what the blues is, because they didn’t live the blues, and they didn’t go through hard tribulations and hard times.”

This comment is a little dismissive of the fact that people of any age can go through hardships. Maybe he meant that young people in America didn’t have to grow up in an era when racial segregation was legal and enforced. It’s why this documentary probably needed an interviewer asking more probing questions. Some of of King’s commentary tends to ramble, so the documentary needed better editing for this segment.

Knowing that he has passed away, viewers will probably be the most moved by the documentary’s segment on Ellis Marsalis Jr., who is shown recording music with his son Jason Marsalis. (Ellis is on piano, while Jason is on xylophone.) Some of these recording sessions ended up on Ellis’ final studio album, “Discipline Meets the Family,” which was released in 2021. Jason’s daughter Marley (who was 15 at the time), who played piano on the album, is also in the documentary during these studio sessions. She is not interviewed and doesn’t say much.

The documentary also has footage of Ellis as a guest performer during a show that Jason headlined at the Snug Harbor nightclub in New Orleans. In a voiceover, Jason says of the footage in the documentary, “What I didn’t know at the time was that was going to be his last session and one of the last times we would play together.” Jason adds that he’s grateful these moments were recorded and that he collaborated with his father for Ellis’ last album.

The Marsalis family is the most famous jazz family from New Orleans. Ellis’ musician children (who are all sons) are Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason, Ellis III and Mboya Kenyatta. In the documentary, Ellis Jr. makes this admission, which might surprise some people: “I never wanted a family band.” It’s one of the reasons why Ellis Jr. would perform with most of his sons on special occasions, such as Jazz Fest, but not do albums and tours with the entire family.

If Ellis Jr. did collaborate with any of his sons in the recording studio, it was with one or a few of the sons at a time. Ellis Jr. comments on Wynton, the most famous Marsalis family member: “For me, to be in Wynton’s band is to date it, because what I learned is much earlier, and Wynton is still in a state of evolution.” Ellis Jr. offers this observation of Jason: “From [his] very, very young years, there were very few things that he heard that he didn’t have an appreciation for.”

Watching three generations of the Marsalis family in the recording studio is an undoubtable highlight of “Music Pictures: New Orleans.” And the movie certainly does touch on some of the struggles that these musicians faced in their lives. What’s missing from this very male-dominated documentary is any acknowledgement or exploration of how sexism affected who got the most and the best opportunities in the music industry when these artists were in their heyday. The fact that Thomas is the only woman interviewed in the documentary is a clear example of how women are often overlooked and sidelined as important parts of the music industry.

As for how the New Orleans music scene has changed over the years, the documentary includes some commentary about it, but none of it is particuarly new or revealing. The artists who comment on changes in New Orleans mainly mention Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the New Orleans area in 2005. Thomas says Hurricane Katrina “changed everybody.”

Jones also comments on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans real estate market: “After Katrina, people with money were buying property” and charging rent that was “sky-high.” And so, many of the people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina who “want to come back can’t afford it, probably.”

According to Jones, the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans is still recovering from an exodus of artistic people who relocated because of Hurricane Katrina. He comments, “The music is back, but delivered in a different way, in a different neighborhood.”

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” keeps the focus solidly on these artists, but the documentary could have used some perspectives from other people besides a few of the artists’ family members or employee associates. “Music Pictures: New Orleans” will delight fans of these artists, but casual music fans might not think this movie is essential viewing. As far as documentaries about New Orleans music artists go, “Music Picture: New Orleans” is like a select buffet that’s satisfactory, but it’s not a full-course feast that people will be raving about for days.

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