Review: ‘Casa Susanna,’ starring Katherine Cummings, Diana Merry-Shapiro, Betsy Wollheim and Gregory Bagarozy

November 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Susanna Valenti (sitting in the front, on the floor) in an archival photo featured in “Casa Susanna” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“Casa Susanna”

Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Casa Susanna” features an all-white group of people discussing Jewett, New York-based Casa Susanna, a popular gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.

Culture Clash: The transgender women and cross-dressing men who frequented Casa Susanna had to hide their true selves during a time in America when trans women, drag queens and male transvestites could get arrested for dressing as women.

Culture Audience: “Casa Susanna” will appeal primarily to viewers who want to know more about a specific transgender community gathering place that most people are not widely aware of in LGBTQ history.

Diana Merry-Shapiro in “Casa Susanna” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, a bungalow camp/rural resort named Casa Susanna in the Catskills city of Jewett, New York, was a safe haven for members of the LGTBQ community who wanted to dress and live as women, regardless of the gender identities of the people who were at Casa Susanna. The documentary “Casa Susanna” tells the history of this resort from the perspectives of two transgender women, who frequented Casa Susanna, and two cisgender people, who had family members with strong connections to Casa Susanna. It brings a noteworthy spotlight to a meaningful community-gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men. There’s respect given in the documentary, but viewers will sense that more of Casa Susanna’s individual stories could have been told.

French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz, who has directed numerous LGBTQ-focused documentaries and narrative feature films, directed “Casa Susanna” with the tone of trying to make the movie as personal as possible, rather than being a comprehensive historical film. Lifshitz’s previous movies about transgender people include the narrative feature film “Wild Side” and the documentaries “Bambi, A French Woman,” “Little Girl” and “Bambi.” His previous movies have taken place in France or Algeria. “Casa Susanna” is his first movie that’s set entirely in the United States.

“Casa Susanna” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival and has since made the rounds at other film festivals in 2022, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Casa Susanna” won DOC NYC’s U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize in 2022. In awarding the prize, DOC NYC’s 2022 U.S. Competition jury issued a statement that says, in part: “‘Casa Susanna’ is a beautifully crafted film featuring hauntingly exquisite archival footage. Both cinematic and intimate, it offers a unique way into the trans experience by contrasting nostalgic and past stories through contemporary characters. This approach allowed us to understand how laws and perspectives have changed over the years.”

It’s a great way to describe the movie, but “Casa Susanna” isn’t without some flaws, such as how the documentary doesn’t offer any perspectives on what transgender people of color experienced as guests at Casa Susanna. The documentary also doesn’t address why only two former Casa Susanna patrons were interviewed for the movie. Viewers can only speculate why. Many of Casa Susanna’s customers and patrons have no doubt passed away, but enough were still alive at the time this documentary was filmed.

However, the good news is that the people who are interviewed in the documentary are thoroughly engaging and tell compelling stories that will give viewers an idea of what Casa Susanna was like from transgender and cisgender perspectives, even if the interviewees can’t tell the entire story of this special place. “Casa Susanna” also has some great scenes where the interviewees go back to the former site of Casa Susanna and have heart-to-heart conversations with each other that are exclusive to this documentary.

These are the four people who are interviewed in “Casa Susanna”:

Katherine Cummings, a transgender woman born in 1935, was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Cummings was born in Scotland, was raised in Australia, and lived in Canada (mostly in Toronto) when she would go to Casa Susanna. During her previous life living as a man named John, Cummings was married to a woman and had three daughters during this marriage. (Cummings passed away in 2022. The documentary includes an end credit stating, “In memory of Katherine Cummings.”)

Diana Merry-Shapiro, a transgender woman born in 1939, grew up in a conservative farming community in Iowa but has spent much of her life as a resident of California or New York. She was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna in the early-to-mid 1960s. Just like Cummings, Merry-Shapiro previously lived her life as a cross-dressing man (she used the name David), was married to a woman, and had gender affirmation surgery after the marriage ended in divorce. After her gender-affirmation surgery, Merry-Shapiro married a man and became a homemaker, but that marriage also ended in divorce. Merry-Shapiro then became a computer programmer who had a long career at Xerox when she was living in California. She and her third spouse, a woman named Carol, live in New York City, and have been married since the early 1990s.

Betsy Wollheim, born in 1952, is president, co-publisher and co-editor-in-chief of Daw Books, a New York City publishing company whose specialty is science fiction. She is the cisgender daughter and only child of sci-fi author Donald Wollheim (also know as Doris Wollheim), who presented himself as a cross-dressing, cisgender man. Betsy says that her mother not only knew before the marriage that Donald wanting to dress as a woman but her mother also usually went with Donald to Casa Susanna. However, it was a family secret until Betsy’s widowed mother was on her deathbed and told her.

Gregory Bagarozy, born in 1951, is the cisgender grandson of Marie Tonell, the cisgender woman who co-owned Casa Susanna with her spouse. Bagarozy tells the story about how Tonell used to own a wig shop in New York City, where one of the shop’s customers was an immigrant from Chile named Tito Arriagada. Tonell quickly figured out that Arriagada was a cross-dresser, she completely accepted it with no hesitation, they fell in love, and they got married in 1958. For years, Arriagada (who was a radio announcer) lived separate lives as a man and as a woman named Susanna Valenti (Casa Susanna’s namesake), but eventually lived life openly full-time as a transgender woman. (Valenti and Tonell are now deceased. They sadly died a week apart from each other in November 1996.)

All of this background information unfolds throughout the documentary in memories and anecdotes shared by the interviewees. Not surprisingly, Cummings and Merry-Shapiro have the most interesting stories to tell, since they were actually part of the Casa Susanna community. Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim were children when Casa Susanna existed, so they only have second-hand knowledge of what it was like to be in this adult environment. However, Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim both say that they found out later in life that many of the Casa Susanna regulars were people they already knew as friends of their respective families.

Cummings says that she remembers Casa Susanna as a place of “total freedom” to be who she was at the time, which was someone figuring out which gender to live as permanently. In the documentary, Cummings says from as early as she could remember, she never felt quite right living as a male. Cummings remembers being 5 years old and loving the feeling when her older sister would let Cummings wear her clothes. Cummings says that going to Casa Susanna was a “necessity” because “I needed to know what it was like to live as a woman for an extended period.”

Merry-Shapiro talks about childhood memories of being in the third or fourth grade and praying that she would wake up as a girl. “It was a secret that I had,” Merry-Shapiro says of this feeling. “I kept thinking that I would grow out of it. It never did go away.” She also talks about being fascinated with news about actress Christine Jorgensen, who became America’s first famous transgender woman when she had gender affirmation surgery in 1952. However, Merry-Shapiro remembers being afraid to talk to anyone about it, because she knew people in her community would shun or bully her for being interested in transgender issues.

When Merry-Shapiro was an adult and eventually came out as a transgender woman, her mother (whom Merry-Shapiro describes as “a serious Lutheran”) was much less accepting than her father. One of the most poignant scenes in the documentary is when Merry-Shapiro tearfully describes what happened when she visited her parents for the first time after having her gender-affirmation surgery. Still, her father’s acceptance only went so far. Merry-Shapiro says of her parents’ overall attitude: “I was an embarrassment to them. It was just as well that I disappeared.”

“Casa Susanna” gives detailed descriptions of the secrecy involved in Casa Susanna’s history. Because of homophobic laws and beliefs in society, Casa Susanna (which was originally located on a 288-acre property and later relocated to a 188-acre property) started off being marketed as an entertainment destination where heterosexual couples could go to watch shows featuring “female impersonators.” In those days, being a transgender woman or a drag queen was acceptable as entertainment, but not as a way of life.

According to the documentary, these “female impersonators” were really transgender women, drag queens and transvestites who already considered Casa Susanna a community gathering place but went along with the idea that they could also be part of the Casa Susanna’s entertainment for paying customers. The bungalows were where visitors and semi-residents stayed at Casa Susanna. Although Casa Susanna publicly presented these entertainers and other cross-dressing guests as heterosexual men, Bagarozy says that it’s highly unlikely that most of the people at Casa Susanna were heterosexual men.

Bagarozy comments on the transgender women and cross-dressing men at Casa Susanna: “These people were major film directors, attorneys, airplane pilots—all sorts of professions where people reached the pinnacle of their careers. They risked a lot for doing what they wanted to do.” Bagarozy adds, “It’s not like they wanted to be [pinup model] Bettie Page, or someone like that. They wanted to be an acceptable person of the female persuasion in society.”

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, identifying as any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexual was dangerous and (in many places) illegal in the United States. And that’s why Casa Susanna could not advertise in mainstream media that it was a place for transgender women and cross-dressers. Therefore, the community that grew from Casa Susanna mainly heard about it through word of mouth.

However, a lot of credit for creating awareness about Casa Susanna is given to Tranvestia magazine, which was founded in 1960, by a scientist named Virginia Prince, who was a transgender activist. Prince also created the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE) for transgender people. Cummings says in the documentary that Prince got the idea to launch FPE at Casa Susanna, where Prince was a regular visitor. After Casa Susanna relocated to a smaller 188-property, it stopped offering “female impersonator” shows and became only a business of resort lodging.

Bagarozy paints a rosy picture of Casa Susanna’s transgender and cross-dressing people, whom he remembers as being cheerful and friendly to him when he was a child. He also acknowledges how rare it was to have a grandmother who was immediately accepting of having a transgender spouse. By contrast, Bagarozy says his mother Yolanda, who was Tonell’s daughter, never approved of Tonell’s marriage and Casa Susanna.

Although Casa Susanna was a happy place where people could be themselves, the reality was much bleaker for people who had to hide their true selves in their everyday lives. Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that they struggled for years with shame, confusion and indecision over whether or not to have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says she came to the decision to have the surgery because too many of her transgender friends were committing suicide, she didn’t want to die that way, and she wanted to be happy as her authentic self.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro both admit that the women they were married to during their Casa Susanna years were okay with cross-dressing (and often accompanied them to Casa Susanna), as long as Cummings and Merry-Shapiro identified as cisgender men who just happened to dress as women in secret. Merry-Shapiro’s first wife Julie knew about Merry-Shapiro’s fashion preferences before they got married, when they were college sweethearts. Cummings’ then-wife didn’t find out until about a year after they were married, and the wife eventually didn’t want to go to Casa Susanna anymore.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that their respective marriages eventually fell apart when Cummings and Merry-Shapiro decided they wanted to live openly as women and eventually have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says that while one of her daughters completely accepts her as a woman, her other two daughters chose to remain estranged from her. The documentary doesn’t mention if the two estranged daughters made peace with Cummings before she died. Merry-Shapiro does not have children.

Merry-Shapiro and Cummings both say in the documentary that they have no regrets about having gender affirmation surgery. “I felt marvelous,” Cummings says of how she felt after getting the operation. “I felt for the first time in my life, I was the real person, that I had discarded bits of me that weren’t necessary, and I had gained bits of me that were [necessary].”

Merry-Shapiro says that she got her surgery with the help of a friend/benefactor named Gloria, who offered to pay for this medical procedure and went on a road trip with her to Mexico, where the procedure was done, because it wasn’t legal in the U.S. at the time. Merry-Shapiro admits, “That is a very isolating experience for any human being, I think, when who you are is against the law. There’s still a little bit of anger in me, even now, that I had to leave the country to have the surgery done.”

Donald Wollheim and his wife stayed together until he died, but daughter Betsy isn’t so sure if it was a marriage that ever had romantic passion. She says in the documentary that she was very surprised to read in her father’s memoir that he was in love with his wife. Betsy comments, “I knew he loved my mother deeply, but I didn’t see the ‘in love’ part.” She says that her parents would send her away to summer camp as a child when the parents would take their secret trips to Casa Susanna.

Betsy also remembers that her father had a favorite women’s nightgown when she was a child, but it wasn’t until she was about 12 years old when she really began to understand that her father was a cross-dresser. She describes how on Halloween Eve in 1964, her father wanted to dress as his sister for a Halloween party. He spent about five hours in the bathroom getting ready. She recalls thinking that he looked “very ghoulish” with all the makeup on, but she was suddenly struck by being fully aware for the first time that her father was “really into this [cross-dressing]—I just didn’t know to what extent.”

As for Donald Wollheim’s sexuality, Betsy says that all she knows is that her father was a “very isolated introvert” who “had no relationship with women until he met my mother.” She adds, “His childhood was very complicated and gothic,” because Donald Wollheim’s urologist father, whose specialty was in treating sexually transmitted diseases, taught his children to have a fear of the human body and spreading germs.

Betsy also shares painful memories of her father being verbally abusive to her, which she says got worse when she reached puberty. He would tell her she was ugly and wrongfully accuse her of being a liar and a fraud. She says it took her years to understand that her father was projecting a lot of his self-hatred onto her, considering how much he wanted to look like a woman. Betsy also says that even though her father could be cruel to a lot of people, she’s convinced that he was never cruel to his friends at Casa Susanna, which she believes is the only place where he was truly happy.

“Casa Susanna” has several photos of people at Casa Susanna in its heyday, but it’s also mentioned in the documentary that people at Casa Susanna were very cautious about who was taking photos and where these photos might end up. Cummings says, “We were all a little bit paranoid of: ‘Who’s going to find out? Am I going to lose my job? Am I going to lose my family?’ Which is what happened back then.” The documentary doesn’t mention Robert Swope and Michel Hurst’s 2005 photo book “Casa Susanna,” which inspired playwright Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 Broadway play “Casa Valentina.”

Even though “Casa Susanna” offers a very limited number of perspectives, it’s a documentary that still gives a vivid portrait of a community of people who found each other and thrived in a society that wanted this community to hide in shame or be punished. It’s an inspiring story about human connections and camaraderie that made a lasting and positive impact on people’s lives. But it’s also a sobering reminder that homophobia causes human rights violations that are still going on today and aren’t just history from a past century.

The PBS series “American Experience” will premiere “Casa Susanna” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,’ starring Nan Goldin

November 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1970s photo of Nan Goldin (pictured at left) in Boston, with her then-roommate Bea, in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”

Directed by Laura Poitras

Culture Representation: The documentary film “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American and one Asian) discussing the life and career of New York City-based artist/photographer Nan Goldin, who became an activist speaking out against the wealthy pharmaceutical Sackler family’s role in creating the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Culture Clash: Goldin (who is a recovering opioid addict) led protests and boycotts to remove the Sackler family name from prominent buildings, to have Sackler family donations rejected, and for the Sackler family to be held accountable for flooding the marketplace with prescription opioids, while also using her art and celebrity to express her greatest passions. 

Culture Audience: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in learning more about Nan Goldin and how artists become activists.

Nan Goldin in a 1978 self-portrait in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Photo by Nan Goldin/Neon)

The documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a fusion of a revealing biography of photographer Nan Goldin and an impressive chronicle of her activism against pharmaceutical moguls, especially Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family, whom she blames for the opioid crisis. Goldin is very candid about being a recovering opioid addict and about other struggles in her life, including her mental health issues, her turbulent love life (such as being a domestic violence survivor of an ex-boyfriend), and her still-unresolved turmoil about the suicide of her older sister Barbara. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which was filmed mostly from 2017 to 2021, shows what happens when an artist does more than just talk about making a difference in social justice issues but actually becomes an agent for change in these issues.

Directed by Laura Poitras, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it became a rare documentary to win the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” has since made the rounds at several other festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival and DOC NYC. It’s a documentary that covers a lot of issues, sometimes in a way that’s jumbled and messy, but no one would ever describe Goldin’s life as neat and tidy.

Goldin, who was born in 1953, is the narrator of the documentary, which jumps around in the timeline of her life story. Goldin has a gravelly voice that comes from years of smoking cigarettes, fast living and surviving traumatic experiences that would kill many other people. She comes across as jaded but hopeful, world-weary yet determined to fight for the causes that mean the most to her. The scenes of Goldin being an activist are interwoven with her telling stories about her personal life.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” opens with a visually striking scene of a Goldin-led protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on March 10, 2018. In this scene, dozens of protestors have gathered in a museum atrium to throw empty prescription bottles in a water fountain while chanting, “Temple of money, temple of greed!” and “Sacklers lie, people die!” The atrium is in a section of the museum named after the Sackler family, the wealthy American clan that owns Purdue Pharma and Mundipharma. Purdue Pharma is the manufacturer of OxyContin. The protesters have gathered to demand that the museum remove the Sackler family name from anywhere in the museum.

The protesters lie down on the floor to represent the people who died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription drugs. As far as the protestors are concerned, any the Sackler family’s donations and philanthropic actions are tainted by “blood money” generated from the millions of lives destroyed by addictions to OxyContin and other opioids manufactured and marketed by the Sackler family’s pharmaceutical businesses. The protesters are eventually escorted out by the museum’s security personnel, but the documentary shows what eventually resulted from these kinds of protests.

In 2017, Goldin and some of her colleagues founded Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), a group dedicated to preventing and reducing harm from prescription drug addiction, as well as shaming the greedy people who over-sell and over-prescribe these highly addictive drugs to vulnerable people. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” documents how P.A.I.N. staged protests at museums in various international locations, including the Louvre in Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Gallery in London; and the Guggenheim in New York City.

P.A.I.N. put pressure on these museums and other institutions to refuse donations from the Sackler family and to remove or prevent the Sackler name from anything associated with these institutions. This activism created worldwide awareness about the Sackler family putting the Sackler name on philanthropic causes, in the family’s attempts to deny or avoid responsibility for the opioid crisis. Goldin comments in the documentary about the Sackler family: “We will target their philanthropy. They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.”

The U.S. government’s legal prosecutions of certain members of the Sackler family have been well-documented, but “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” puts a spotlight on Goldin and P.A.I.N.’s grassroots work in getting this prosecution to even take place. This behind-the-scenes look has the added benefit of Goldin’s participation, because her narration gives a very personal and touch that would be missing if she had not been actively involved in making the documentary. Goldin and Poitras are among the producers of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”

Early on in the documentary, Goldin comments: “It’s easy to make your life into a story. It’s harder to sustain real memories. The difference between the story and the real memory: The real experience has the smell and is dirty and is not wrapped up in simple endings. The real memories are what affects me now. Things can appear that you don’t want to see. You’re not safe.”

In “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Goldin dredges up a lot of unsafe memories, beginning with her childhood, which she describes as living in a “claustrophobic suburb.” Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., but spent most of her childhood living in the Boston suburbs of Swampscott and Lexington in Massachusetts. Her father was Goldin’s father worked in broadcasting and was the chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. Her mother was a traditional homemaker.

Goldin’s older sister Barbara, who was seven years older than Nan, was a lesbian and was shamed by their parents about her sexuality. It was during a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, so Barbara was forced into a psychiatric institution for a certain period of time. Goldin believes this institutionalization caused further damage to an already mentally fragile Barbara, whom Goldin says had depression and anxiety. Goldin remembers that their mother used to say about Barbara’s sexuality: “Don’t let the neighbors know.”

Goldin shares fond memories of Barbara, whom she considered to be more of a mother figure to her than their own biological mother. “Barbara had a wildness to her,” Goldin says. “You couldn’t hold her back … She trusted me with all of her secrets.”

Goldin also remembers Barbara’s talent for playing classical music on the piano. “You could always tell how she felt by how she played,” Goldin says. “I felt very close to her, but she was in and out of institutions for most of her childhood.”

Tragically, Barbara committed suicide in 1964, at the age of 18. Goldin says with some bitterness, “I heard my mother say, ‘Tell the children it was an accident.’ She didn’t want us to know the truth. That’s when it clicked.” Goldin says in the documentary that Barbara probably wouldn’t have committed suicide if Barbara had a support group for LGBTQ teenagers and other young people. Those support groups didn’t exist in most places in 1964.

By the age of 13 or 14, Goldin left home. At 16 years old, she was enrolled at Satya Community School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when a school employee introduced Goldin to photography. Thus began Goldin’s lifelong passion for telling visual stories through photos. She began documenting her life in photos, long before it became a common way of life for people in the era of the Internet and social media.

By the time Goldin was in her late teens, she was living in Boston as part of an avant-garde artist scene that she chronicled in her photography. Long before drag queens became part of mainstream media, Goldin had a particular affinity of taking photos of drag queens and transgender women, many of whom were friends of hers. In the documentary, Goldin talks about being in awe of a transgender woman named Bea, who became Goldin’s friend and roommate. Goldin’s first solo exhibit in Boston was in 1973, when she was 20 years old.

Goldin eventually relocated to New York City, the center of the art world in the United States. Life wasn’t glamorous at all in those early years when she was a a struggling artist. Goldin talks about living in New York City’s seedy Bowery district and having a drug-fueled lifestyle that included abuse of cocaine and methamphetamine. To pay her bills, Goldin says she became a nightclub go-go dancer then later became a brothel prostitute.

Goldin says, “Sex work is one of the hardest jobs you could ever have.” She also mentions that she wanted to talk about her past as a sex worker in this documentary, in order to get ride of the stigma and shame that is often associated with sex work. Eventually, Goldin became a bartender at the women-controlled nightclub Tin Pan Alley, whose owner hired people who wanted to transition out of sex work. Author/playwright Darryl Pickney says that Tin Pan Alley was very racially integrated and cut across social class boundaries.

One of the people in the New York City art scene who had a bg influence on Goldin was Cookie Mueller, whom Goldin describes in the documentary as “the center of downtown life. “The mid-1980s was when I was closest to Cookie.” Their friendship changed somewhat after Mueller married Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati in 1987. Tragically, Mueller and Scarpati died of AIDS-related illneses, just two months apart in 1989.

The documentary includes footage of Goldin’s activism in AIDS causes, including working with fellow activist/artist David Wojnarowicz. They were both heavily involved in the AIDS activist group ACT Up. In the documentary, Goldin describes Wojnarowicz as “my spiritual guide, my political guide.” (The 2021 documentary “Wojnarowicz,” directed by Chris McKim, has more information.)

Goldin and Wojnarowicz worked on an AIDS-themed artist installation that was scheduled to be at the Artist Space Gallery in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood from November 1989 to January 1991. However, the National Endowment of the Arts controversially cancelled its grant funding for the project after getting pressure from conservative religious groups. Goldin says of the AIDS installation: “It was about the loss of community and trying to keep people’s legacy alive.”

She describes her history of drug abuse in matter-of-facts terms. Goldin says that she went to rehab for the first time in 1988. For a period of time that she does not fully disclose, she says she was addicted to OxyContin, a drug that went on the market in 1996. Goldin says that she is now clean and sober, but she firmly believes that she and an untold number of OxyContin addicts were deliberately not properly informed by medical professionals about how addictive OxyContin is, because too many people were and still are getting rich from OxyContin sales.

Goldin, who identifies as queer, also opens up about her love life. She talks about being in an abusive relationship with a man called Brian, whom she says she dated from 1981 to 1984. “I fell in love with him,” Goldin comments. “We had very good sex, and that can keep people together for a long time. And then, we started fighting.” Their troubled relationship included domestic violence.

Goldin describes a trip that she and David took to Provincetown, Massachusetts (a popular vacation spot for LGBTQ people), and jealousy issues arose because Goldin says she fell in love with a woman during this trip and photographed this woman constantly. Goldin, who does not name the woman, describes her as an “oddball” who would wear pearls at the beach. Goldin says about the early-to-mid-1980s: “It was a time of freedom and possibility. That’s when I did my first slide shows.”

Although Goldin’s career was on the rise in the early-to-mid-1980s, her relationship with David wasn’t getting any better. Goldin says that David broke up with her because he found out “I’d been with this girl.” (Goldin does not name this other lover.) She goes on to say about David, “He punched me in the face repeatedly.” To add insult to injury, David burned a lot of Goldin’s photos.

Most victims of domestic violence would hide this abuse, but Goldin made the very bold and unusual decision to do a photo exhibit showing her bruised and battered face from the injuries that David inflicted on her during this vicious attack. These photos were included in her ongoing photography collection “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which started out as a slide show exhibition and film in 1985, and then became a published book in 1986.

More than 700 photos are in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which Goldin describes in the documentary as “the struggle between autonomy and dependency.” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” includes many samples of Goldin’s work over the years, including photos from “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”; “The Other Side,” a photo collection of drag queens from 1992- 2021; and “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls,” a photo collection from 2004 to 2021. The photos showcase Goldin’s penchant for documenting herself and other eccentrics in ways that can be gritty, glamorous or both.

In the documentary, Goldin gives a reminder that back in the 1970s and 1980s, she got a lot of resistance to her art because of sexism. She says many people told her, “Nobody photographs their own life.” And it was even rarer for women to want to make a living from this type of photography. Goldin says for some people who were born after the 1970s and 1980s, “It’s hard to understand that could’ve ever been radical.” Long before Instagram was even invented, Goldin was ahead of her time.

Because “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” weaves in and out of telling Goldin’s stories about her personal life and her activism, the film editing sometimes gives the movie a rambling tone, but it never derails too far off course. One of the documentary’s highlights is a videoconference call in which Goldin and other people affected by OxyContin addiction confront David Sackler and his aunt Theresa Sackler (two of the Sackler family defendants named in many lawsuits) to give a victim/survivor statement. Even though the Sacklers were not allowed to respond to these statements during this conference call, it’s a powerful moment that contrasts the Sacklers’ emotional aloofness with these survivors’ emotional pain.

Goldin, who has never been married and doesn’t have children, has this to say about her personal life: “The relationships that have mattered the most to me for probably my whole life have been my friends.” The documentary gives the impression that most of Goldin’s closest friends are also her P.A.I.N. colleagues.

Some of the P.A.I.N. members interviewed in the documentary include P.A.I.N. deputy Megan Kapler, artist Maria Berrio, P.A.I.N. deputy Harrison “Harry” Cullen and psychiatrist Annatina Miescher. The documentary includes a segment about how some of the P.A.I.N. activists believe that they were stalked and spied on by people hired by the Sackler family. Kapler shares footage of an unidentified middle-aged man who followed her and photographed her without her consent. He also staked her out in his car outside of her home.

Other interviewees in the documentary include Ad Hoc Committee of Accountability attorney Mike Quinn, who does a lot of pro bono work for P.A.I.N.; Robert Suarez of the Urban Survivors Union, a non-profit support group for drug addicts; Artforum International magazine editor-in-chief David Velsaco; TruthPharm executive director Alexis Pleus; set designer/interior decorator Noemi Bonazzi; actress Sharon Niesp; writer Patrick Radden Keefe; and actress Maggie Smith.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” also shows the next big initiative for P.A.I.N. is removing the stigma of doctors treating opioid addicts who are in clean needle programs. And one of the final scenes in the film shows P.A.I.N. raising $35,000 for Urban Survivors Union to purchase a machine that gives drug users an analysis of the content in their drugs. This machine does not encourage drug use but is aimed at preventing deaths when people unknowingly ingest drugs with lethal content.

People who know about Goldin before seeing “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” might not be as surprised by her unique personality, her artistic talent and her unwavering commitment to the causes that she cares about the most. However, what will resonate with viewers the most is how someone who has experienced as many highs and lows as Goldin has can take those experiences and turn them into something positive that can help other people. No matter what type of backgrounds that people have, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is an inspirational story that shows the true meaning of persistence and hope.

Neon released “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in New York City on November 23, 2022. The movie’s U.S. release expands to Los Angeles and San Francisco on December 2, 2022, with more cities added on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘Bones and All,’ starring Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet and Mark Rylance

November 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in “Bones and All” (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Bones and All”

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1988 to 1989, in various parts of the United States, the horror film “Bones and All” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After being abandoned by her single father, an 18-year-old loner who has a terrible secret (she’s a cannibal) becomes a nomad and falls in love with a young man who’s also a nomadic cannibal, and they go on a road trip where they feed their deadly desires.

Culture Audience: “Bones and All” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet; filmmaker Luca Guadagnino; and gruesome horror movies that know how to make people squirm.

Taylor Russell and Mark Rylance in “Bones and All” (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Bones and All” is more than just a gory horror film about a cannibal couple. The movie also has clever social commentary about the pitfalls of judging people by outward appearances. Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet portray the attractive young couple at the center of the movie, but supporting actor Mark Rylance steals the show with a creepy performance as a middle-aged cannibal with a sinister obsession. Sensitive viewers, be warned: “Bones and All” is not a cute horror romance. This movie has very explicit scenes showing human cannibalism.

Directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, “Bones and All” is his first movie filmed in the United States. Chalamet and Guadagnino previously worked together in 2018’s “Call Me by Your Name,” starring Chalamet in his Oscar-nominated breakout role as a 17-year-old American in Italy who falls in love with a 24-year-old American man who works as a college teaching assistant. “Bones and All” is based on the 2015 novel by Camille DeAngelis. David Kajganich wrote the “Bones and All” adapted screenplay. “Bones and All” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy, where Guadagnino won the festival prize for Best Director, while Russell won the Marcello Mastroianni Award, a prize given to emerging actors and actresses.

Taking place in 1988 and 1989, “Bones and All” begins in 1988, in an unnamed U.S. state. Shy and introverted 18-year-old Maren Yearly (played by Russell), who is in her last year of high school, has been invited to a slumber party by a fellow student named Sherry (played by Kendle Coffey), who is a popular student in the school. Maren doesn’t have any close friends at this school, so she’s very surprised by this invitation. Maren tells Sherry that Maren’s overprotective father won’t allow her to go this party, but Sherry suggests that Maren sneak out f Maren’s home at night.

Maren takes this advice and goes to the slumber party, where the female teenagers in attendance are curious to know more about Maren, who is fairly new to the area. Maren and her father Frank Yearly (played by André Holland) have moved around a lot, and they currently live in a trailer in the working-class/poor part of town. Maren recently moved to the area from “the Eastern shore.” She tells the other girls at the party that she doesn’t have any memories of her mother, who abandoned Maren and Frank when Maren was a very young child.

Maren has a big secret about herself that will soon be exposed: She has an intense craving to eat human flesh. The party starts off as festive and friendly. However, Maren’s urges take over, and she suddenly lunges at Sherry and bites off one of Sherry’s fingers. While Sherry and the other partygoers scream in horror, Maren runs back to her home in a panic.

As soon as Frank sees that Maren has come home in a distressed state of mind, he immediately figures out that she snuck out against his wishes and has revealed her cannibal ways. It’s only a matter of time before the police show up at their door. Maren tells Frank that she’s sorry, but he is visibly annoyed and doesn’t want to hear any excuses.

Maren and Frank quickly pack up what they can and leave that night, with no intention of ever going back. Frank and Maren hide out and stay at a motel in Maryland for a few days. It’s not the first time they’ve had to suddenly leave an area because of Maren’s cannibalism.

One morning, Maren wakes up in the motel room and finds out that her father has abandoned her. Frank has left a note saying that he can no longer be around her because he doesn’t know how to deal with her anymore. Frank has also left behind these items for Maren to keep: Maren’s birth certificate, some cash and an audio tape of Frank’s diary-like messages.

In his farewell note, Frank asks Maren to destroy the tape after she’s finished listening to it. In his audio recordings, which Maren plays throughout the movie, Frank tells Maren that when she was 3 years old, she killed her babysitter. Frank covered up that crime and many other cannibal-related crimes committed by Maren. He says after the babysitter’s murder, he changed the family’s surname.

Now completely on her own and homeless, Maren spends the majority of the story as a nomad. Maren is deeply ashamed of being a cannibal, but she also won’t ignore her cannibalistic urges. And now that Maren has her birth certificate, she’s determined to find her mother, whose name is Janelle Kerns (played by Chloë Sevigny).

One night, Maren is out on the street when she meets a soft-spoken, eccentric man named Sully (played by Rylance), who tells her that he’s a cannibal too. Sully says that he knew that Maren is a cannibal because cannibals can smell each other. He also tells Maren that he can tell that Maren has not eaten human flesh in months.

Sully, who is middle-aged and speaks in a Southern drawl, has a very unusual appearance of wearing long, braided hair and a fisherman’s vest. Later, viewers find out that Sully has a gruesome fascination with braided hair: After he eats a human, he takes the dead person’s hair, braids it, and keeps it in a collection.

Knowing that Maren is hungry for human flesh, Sully invites her to go with him to a house where a dying, elderly woman lives alone. Upstairs in her bedroom, the woman is barely conscious. Sully tells Maren that he found the woman in this condition. Sully convinces Maren that if they kill the woman, it will be a mercy killing. And you can imagine what happens next.

Sully tells her a few things about cannibal life that Maren did not know: He says that the most important rule is that cannibals should not eat other cannibals. Sully also warns Maren that her cravings for human flesh will increase as she gets older.

Sully lives in a small, unassuming house. He invites Maren to stay with him for as long as she wants. At first, Sully gives the impression that he wants be a protective father figure to Maren. But it soon becomes apparent that Sully is sexually attracted to Maren and will eventually expect them to be more than friends. Maren knows it too, which is why she secretly gets on a bus to leave the area without saying goodbye to Sully.

The bus is going to Minnesota. Maren’s plan is to eventually travel to Ohio, the state where Maren has her mother’s last-known address. Along the way, she meets another wayward cannibal named Lee (played by Chalamet), who’s a runaway in his late teens. He’s originally from Kentucky and has been living on his own since he was 17. Lee has a truck that he stole from one of his victims: a bachelor named Barry Cook from Centerville, Indiana. Lee invites Maren to travel with him, and they take turns driving.

Lee is not as conflicted as Maren about giving in to his cannibalistic urges. He also tells Maren that he prefers to kill someone who lives alone so he can steal that person’s car and other belongings. As if to justify his crimes, Lee says he usually chooses victims who do something awful to show Lee that these victims “deserve” to be killed.

Lee knew that murder victim Barry lived alone, so he and Maren go to Barry’s home to look for things to steal. Because the vehicles that Lee steals will eventually be reported stolen, he says that’s the motivation he needs to find and kill other people who have cars that he can steal. It’s a vicious cycle that puts Lee and Maren at great risk of getting caught.

Maren isn’t entirely comfortable with what Lee does, but she goes along with everything because she’s lonely and very attracted to him. Lee and Maren become friends and eventually lovers during their extended road trip. During this trip (which takes them to states such as Missouri and Iowa), Lee and Maren experience a lot of highs and lows.

Over time, Lee and Maren share some of their previous cannibal experiences. Lee says that his first cannibal victim as his babysitter. He remembers feeling a like a “superhero’ the first time that he killed and ate her. Maren shares an experience she had when she was 8 years old and went on a camping trip, where a boy was one of her victims.

A memorable part of the movie is when Lee and Maren encounter two other middle-aged cannibals named Jake (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and Brad (played by David Gordon Green). Over a campfire, Jake and Brad tell Lee and Maren that eating a body, “bones and all,” can give a cannibal an ecstatically powerful feeling like no other. Stuhlbarg, who co-starred with Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name,” has a much smaller role in “Bones and All,” but his screen time in the movie is still meaningful.

One of the most pivotal parts of “Bones and All” takes place at a carnival, where Lee decides to target a booth worker (played by Jake Horowitz), for reasons that are shown in the movie. This experience is a turning point, because it’s the first time that Maren sees firsthand what Lee is capable of doing. She has to decide if it’s worth staying with him, or if she should continue her journey on her own.

“Bones and All” has stellar acting and a few surprises that make this movie better than the average horror flick. Russell and Chalamet are believable as an emotionally damaged couple who find comfort with each other but are always on edge because of the terrible secrets that they have to keep. Lee and Maren make an interesting pair who are opposites in some ways. Maren is quiet and doesn’t like to call attention to herself, while talkative Lee (with his magenta-streaked hair) has a way about him that practically screams, “Look at me!”

Unlike Maren, whose parents abandoned her, Lee has chosen to abandon his family. Lee has a backstory involving his turbulent relationship with his younger sister Kayla (played by Anna Cobb), who has a lot of resentment toward Lee for leaving the family. Lee confides in Maren that he feels guilty about leaving Kayla behind when he had promised her that he would give her driving lessons.

Chalamet (who is one of the producers of “Bones and All”) is perfectly fine in the role of a troubled young rebel, but it’s the type of character that’s been seen and done in many other movies and TV shows. Russell has the more difficult role, since Maren is very guarded and insecure about her feelings and not a typical wisecracking or sweet ingenue character that would usually be the female love interest in this type of story. Russell capably expresses many emotions through facial expressions and body language because Maren is often afraid of saying what she’s thinking out loud.

And although Sully is not in most of “Bones and All,” his scenes in the movie are what might disturb people the most. Rylance is riveting as this utterly sleazy character, who deliberately disarms people into thinking that he’s just a harmless oddball. On a different level, Lee is a con artist too, because he presents himself as a down-on-his-luck charmer to his victims, who are fooled into thinking that he won’t hurt them.

“Bones and All” has a total running time of 130 minutes, which is a little long for a movie that could have easily been a little under two hours. Although a few scenes in “Bones and All” weren’t entirely necessary, the overall film will still leave a big impression on people. One of the movie’s biggest strengths is that it could have ended in many predictable ways, but it has a twist that many viewers won’t see coming. “Bones and All” goes down a path that will no doubt upset some viewers, but it’s bold enough to not take the easy way out in how to end this grisly and often-heartbreaking story.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Bones and All” in select U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022.

Review: ‘The Banshees of Inisherin,’ starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson

October 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“The Banshees of Inisherin”

Directed by Martin McDonagh

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1923, on the fictional Irish island of Inisherin, the comedy/drama film “The Banshees of Inisherin” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: Two men who have been best friends—a farmer in his 40s and a musician in his 60s—have their emotional stability tested when the musician abruptly ends the friendship and goes to extreme lengths to get his former friend to stop communicating with him.

Culture Audience: “The Banshees of Inisherin” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson; filmmaker Martin McDonagh; and movies that make darkly comedic and emotionally incisive commentaries about the highs and lows of human nature.

Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan in “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“The Banshees of Inisherin” offers a bittersweet exploration of the heartbreak, loneliness, hope, and bizarre unpredictability of life with two estranged friends in a rural Irish town. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson give magnetic performances as two former friends who want very different things in existing together in this small, tight-knit and gossipy community. This comedy/drama movie reunites Farrell, Gleeson, and writer/director Martin McDonagh, who previously worked together on the 2008 assassin dramedy “In Bruges,” a very different movie from “The Banshees of Inisherin.”

McDonagh should be given a lot of credit for not wanting to copy “In Bruges” in this reteaming with the dynamic duo of Farrell and Gleeson, who played bickering hit men in the movie, which was set in Bruges, Belgium, in late 2000s. “In Bruges” had a madcap energy and some wacky plot developments that bordered on the absurd. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is often bleak, dreary and carries the emotional weight of characters wallowing in personal despair, but not having the words or resources to cope well with their personal problems. “The Banshees of Inisherin” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where Farrell won the award for Best Actor, and McDonagh won the prize for Best Screenplay.

Set in 1925 on the fictional island of Inisherin (off of the coast of Ireland), “The Banshees of Inisherin” shows how the unraveling of a friendship spirals out of control into madness and tragedy. The movie is about more than some of the outlandish things that happen during the course of the story. It’s also about the mundanity of being stuck and stifled by a life of drudgery and limited options. It’s also about the need for people to feel loved and accepted by those whom they love and accept.

Viewers never get to see how the friendship developed between longtime Inisherin residents Pádraic Súilleabháin (played by Farrell) and Colm Doherty (played by Gleeson), because “The Banshees of Inisherin” begins on the day that Pádraic finds out that Colm not only wants to end the friendship, but Colm also wants Pádraic to stop communicating with him. Pádraic is a farmer in his 40s. Colm is a musician in his 60s. Both are bachelors with no children. Up until their estrangement, they were constant companions.

It’s unknown if Colm ever got married, but it’s made clear that Pádraic has never been married and is generally inexperienced and uninterested about a lot of things outside of Inisherin and his farm life. The movie doesn’t go into details about their sexualities or their love lives, but it’s implied that Colm and Pádraic have an older brother/younger brother type of relationship.

Somehow, their friendship became the center of their social lives. Colm lives alone, while Pádraic lives with his sister Siobhan Súilleabháin (played by Kerry Condon), who is a never-married bachelorette in her 40s with no children. Siobhan and Colm are the most important people in Pádraic’s life. Pádraic and Siobhan, whose parents died seven years earlier, are the only Súilleabháin family members who live on the island of Inisherin.

Pádraic and Colm each has a beloved pet that plays a pivotal role in the story. Padraic’s favorite animal on the farm is a miniature donkey named Jenny, whom he treats like a child. (Jenny has some adorable animal scenes in the movie.) Pádraic and Siobhan sometimes argue because Pádraic wants to let Jenny stay in their house, while Siobhan refuses and insists that Jenny stay in the area where the rest of the farm animals are kept. Colm’s only pet is his devoted male Border Collie, who doesn’t have a name in the movie but is Colm’s only constant companion in the story.

Pádraic is an uncomplicated person who places a high value on honesty and being nice to other people. He is the type of person who will say exactly what he’s thinking, even if it comes out in a way that might be awkward or not very tactful. Colm is much more complicated and someone who doesn’t always say what he’s thinking. Viewers will soon see that Colm has a dark side and how disturbed that dark side can be.

The unnamed rural town where Colm and Pádraic live has a very small population, so everyone in the community seems to know each other. (“The Banshees of Inisherin” was actually filmed in Inishmore and Achill Island in Ireland.) It’s the type of working-class town where no one can afford to have a car, so the usual form of vehicle transportation is a wheel cart.

The opening scene shows Pádraic walking to Colm’s house to meet him for their usual 2 p.m. visit to the local pub, which is called J.J. Devine Public House. Pádraic peeks in the front window and sees that Colm is sitting on a chair, smoking a cigarette, and looking lost in his thoughts. Pádraic taps on the window and calls out Colm’s name loud enough for Colm to hear, but Colm acts like he doesn’t hear anything and stares straight ahead.

Pádraic assumes that his friend will join him in the pub later, so he goes to the pub by himself. When Pádraic arrives, the pub’s owner/bartender Jonjo Devine (played by Pat Shortt) immediately asks Pádraic where Colm is, because Jonjo is so accustomed to seeing Pádraic and Colm together. “Are you rowing [arguing]?” Jonjo asks Pádraic, who says no. Pádraic tells Jonjo about Colm’s strange non-reaction when Pádraic went to visit him.

Colm is a no-show for their usual pub meet-up. A confused Pádraic goes home and tells Siobhan, who asks the same question: “Are you rowing?” Pádraic says no, and he’s not aware of anything that could’ve happened that would cause Colm to avoid him. Pádraic later goes back to the pub, where he sees Colm acting friendly and in good spirits with Jonjo and some of the customers.

When Colm sees Pádraic, the smile leaves Colm’s face, and Colm looks like he’s just seen someone whom he dislikes immensely. Pádraic, who is completely baffled, approaches Colm and asks him what’s going on and why Colm is acting this way. Pádraic also says that he’s sorry if he did anything to offend Colm. And that’s when Colm bluntly tells Pádraic that he doesn’t want to be Pádraic’s friend anymore because Colm thinks Pádraic is too dull and he’s become completely bored with their friendship. Colm also says that he doesn’t want Pádraic to talk to him anymore.

Colm, who is a fiddler, goes on to say that he’s getting old and wants to write great musical pieces before he dies. He cruelly tells Pádraic that Pádraic just drains time and energy from Colm, who wants to put that time and energy into writing music. Colm tells Pádraic that he’s “trying not to listen to the dull things you have to say.” Colm adds that he “has time not for aimless chatting but normal chatting.”

As an example of something that Pádraic does that Colm says is annoying, Colm mentions a recent conversation where Pádraic talked to Colm for two hours about the things he found in the feces of Pádraic’s donkey. Pádraic corrects Colm and said that the conversation about feces was actually about a pony, not a donkey. It’s an example of some of the dark comedy in this movie.

Pádraic is in shock and denial over this abrupt end to this friendship. The next day, he wakes up and sees on his calender that the day that Colm told him that their friendship was over also happened to be April Fool’s Day. Pádraic goes back to the pub and talks to Colm again, because he thinks that the conversation they had the night before was all a big April Fool’s Day joke. But to Pádraic’s dismay, Colm tells him in no uncertain terms that it’s not a joke.

And then, Colm makes this ominous threat: If Pádraic communicates with Colm again, Colm will cut off one of Colm’s own fingers every time it happens. It’s a threat that several people in the pub hear. And since this is a small town, word quickly spreads in the community about the alarming way that Colm wants to keep Pádraic out of Colm’s life.

Pádraic is naturally very distressed by this turn of events. He turns to Siobhan for emotional support, and she has to constantly deny it when Pádraic asks her if he’s dimwitted and dull. “You’re nice!” she finally yells in frustration. “Move on!” But Pádraic can’t move on. He’s still mystified over why Colm no longer wants to be his friend, and he wants them to be friends again.

Pádraic and Siobhan eventually come to the conclusion that Colm might be depressed. However, Pádraic being Pádraic, his nature is to want to be the one to help lift Colm out of Colm’s apparent depression. And the only way Pádraic knows how to do that is to talk to Colm.

While Pádraic is still reeling from being rejected by his best friend, a local guy in his 20s named Dominic Kearney (played by Barry Keoghan) has been tagging along with Pádraic very chance that he can get. Dominic, who appears to have learning disabilities, is a social outcast in this community. Padraic is the person in the community who is the kindest to Dominic. Just like Pádraic looks up to Colm like an older brother, Dominic seems to have a similar admiration for Pádraic.

Dominic also wants to spend a lot of time with Pádraic because Dominic comes from a very abusive home. It’s revealed fairly early on in the movie that Dominic’s widowed, alcoholic father Peadar Kearney (played by Gary Lydon) physically and emotionally abuses Dominic. The abuse goes beyond beatings and includes sexual abuse.

Peader happens to be the only police officer that this very small town has, so he gets away with these crimes. Peader also dislikes Pádraic and Siobhan, for past reasons that aren’t fully explained. However, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that Pádraic knows all about the abuse, and Dominic seems to want to be a part of the Súilleabháin more than Dominic wants to be part of his own family. The animosity between Peader and Pádraic increases when Peader and Colm start to become friendlier with each other after Colm ends his friendship with Pádraic.

Meanwhile, Dominic has a crush on Siobhan, but because he’s socially awkward, he doesn’t quite know how to express his feelings. Pádraic is too absorbed with trying to mend his friendship with Colm, so Pádraic doesn’t notice the significance of why Dominic asks him about Siobhan’s dating history and what kind of men Siobhan tends to like. Pádraic isn’t very helpful and gives vague answers. Just like her brother, Siobhan doesn’t have an active love life.

One evening, Dominic is invited over for dinner at Pádraic and Siobhan’s home. When Dominic asks Siobhan why she’s never been married, she gets angry and offended and tells him that it’s none of his business. She’s so insulted by this question, Siobhan tells Dominic to leave. Siobhan also doesn’t pick up on Dominic’s infatuation with her, so she doesn’t understand that Dominic asked that question as a way to flirt with her.

Some other characters in the movie have supporting roles as people who know a lot of the personal business of the people in this community. Mrs. McCormick (played by Sheila Flitton), an elderly woman who is an occasional visitor to the Súilleabháin home, looks and acts like someone who knows a lot of community secrets. Mrs. Reardon (played by Bríd Ní Neachtain), a middle-aged woman who runs the local convenience store/post office, is a very nosy gossip and doesn’t hestitate to open other people’s mail, in order to snoop. And then there’s the obligatory Catholic priest (played by David Pearse), a man in his late 20s or early 30s, who doesn’t have a name in the movie, but he hears people’s confessions.

The personal turmoil between Pádraic and Colm escalates when Pádraic just can’t accept that Colm wants Pádraic to leave Colm alone. Pádraic’s desperation is also affected when Siobhan gets a job offer to work at a library on the mainland of Ireland. The movie shows whether or not she takes that offer. It’s also shown if Colm follows through on his threat to cut off any of his own fingers after Pádraic continues to contact Colm.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” is not a big, flashy movie with elaborate scenes of drama. It’s a movie that authentically shows the quiet desperation that people feel but they suppress, in order not to be labeled as unstable, troublemakers or whiners. Pádraic shows a lot of emotional vulnerability that makes some members of the community more uncomfortable than Colm’s declaration of violent self-harm. It’s the movie’s way of showing how unnecessary violence is often more accepted in society as a way to cope with problems, rather than expressing emotional vulnerability.

Of course, in a movie about former friends who end up feuding with each other, there are some showdown scenes that are among the best in the movie. However, there are scenes where Pádraic or Colm is alone in a room, and those scenes are just as powerful. Farrell and Gleason handle their respective characters with a level of authenticity that resonates, even when some unhinged things start to happen. Condon and Keoghan are also quite good in their roles, although the characters of Siobhan and Dominic are ultimately overshadowed by what goes on between Pádraic and Colm.

McDonagh’s movies and plays often show human nature at its worst and its best. His movies and plays also depict aspects of life that can be depressing or joyful. It’s a dichotomous balance that isn’t easy to achieve, but McDonagh’s sharp talent in writing and directing, as well as his ability to make great decisions with a top-notch cast, result in “The Banshees of Inisherin” being a sometimes uncomfortable but definitely a memorable and emotionally moving ride.

Searchlight Pictures released “The Banshees of Inisherin” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on December 13, 2022, and on Blu-ray and DVD on December 20, 2022.

Review: ‘TÁR,’ starring Cate Blanchett

October 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“TÁR”

Directed by Todd Field

Some language in German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Berlin and New York City, the dramatic film “TÁR” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An internationally famous classical music conductor finds her life spiraling out of control when her past actions come back to haunt her. 

Culture Audience: TÁR” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Cate Blanchett, writer/director Todd Field and well-acted movies about powerful people who experience a scandalous fall from grace..

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Cate Blanchett’s riveting performance in writer/director Todd Field’s “TÁR” makes it a psychological minefield of a drama. It’s an absorbing portrait of someone intoxicated by her own power and facing a reckoning that’s as unwelcome to her as a nasty hangover. Blanchett’s Lydia Tár character is a classical music conductor who has reached the top of her field, which makes her public downfall such a disastrous mess. Viewers can decide for themselves if this downfall could have been diminished based on how it was handled by the movie’s central character.

“TÁR” is Field’s first movie as a writer/director/producer since his Oscar-nominated 2006 drama “Little Children,” another movie about how a woman is affected by a sex-related scandal. Whereas “Little Children” told the story of a private citizen in a suburban U.S. neighborhood, “TÁR” is about a public figure who is an internationally famous entertainer. “TÁR” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy and subsequently had premieres at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, and the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

In “TÁR,” Lydia fits every definition of a type-A personality who’s an overachiever. The movie’s opening scene takes place at The New Yorker Festival, where writer Adam Gopnik (playing a version of himself) is interviewing Lydia in a one-on-one Q&A in front of the audience. It’s a laudatory interview, where her accomplishments are listed like badges of honor: She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. Lydia is also a piano performance graduate of the Curtis Institute, and she has a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Vienna, specializing in music from the Ucayali Valley in Eastern Peru.

At one time or another, she has been a conductor for all of the “Big Five” American orchestras: New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. Lydia is a rare entertainer who is an EGOT winner: someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She considers herself to be a New Yorker, and has a home in New York City, where she still visits on a regular basis. However, for the past seven years, Lydia has been living in Berlin, because she has been a conductor for an unnamed German orchestra.

Lydia, who describes herself as a “U-Haul lesbian,” lives with her German domestic partner Sharon Goodnow (played by Nina Hoss) and their adopted Syrian daughter Petra (played by Mila Bogojevic), who is about 6 or 7 years old. Sharon is a violinist in the German orchestra that Lydia conducts. It’s the first sign in the movie that Lydia has a tendency to blur the lines between her job and her personal life.

Lydia is a loner who doesn’t have a close circle of friends, so Sharon is Lydia’s closest confidante. Sharon knows a lot of Lydia’s secrets. However, Sharon eventually finds out that she doesn’t really know everything about Lydia. Two American men also have an influence on Lydia, and they give her advice, whether she wants to hear it or not.

Eliot Kaplan (played by Mark Strong) is an investment banker and amateur conductor, who has financed a non-profit program called the Accordion Conducting Fellowship, which is led by Lydia. The fellowship gives apprenticeships and job opportunities to aspiring female classical music conductors in this very male-dominated field. Near the beginning of the movie, Lydia tells Eliot during a lunch meeting that she’s thinking that the program recipients shouldn’t just be one gender.

The other man who plays an influential role in Lydia’s life is her mentor Andris Davis (played by Julian Glover), who was her predecessor at the German orchestra that Lydia currently conducts. Andris was the one who recommended her for the job, although it’s made clear throughout the movie that Lydia’s talent is so highly respected and sought-after, she probably didn’t need to a recommendation to get the job. What started out as a temporary job for Lydia to be the guest conductor position at this German orchestra turned out to be a long-term, permanent position.

If viewers believe the narrative that Lydia tells people, one of the reasons why she and Sharon decided to settle in Berlin was to be closer to Sharon’s family members who live in the area. But as the story unfolds, it becomes pretty obvious that Lydia might have had a reason to avoid living in New York full-time. It turns out that Lydia has a “stalker” who lives in New York City.

Lydia’s French assistant Francesca Lentini (played by Noémie Merlant) knows who this “stalker” is, because this person has been sending obsessive and threatening email messages to Lydia. Francesca has permission to access these messages, because Francesca screens Lydia’s mail. Francesca is an aspiring conductor who greatly admires Lydia and considers Lydia to be her mentor.

Over time, based on the way that Francesca acts and what she says, Francesca seems to assume that she will be Lydia’s first choice if any big job opportunity comes along that Lydia can help Francesca get. Lydia expects unwavering loyalty from Francesca, but Francesca expects the same loyalty in return. There’s some sexual tension between Lydia and Francesca that will make viewers speculate if or when the relationship between Lydia and Francesca ever became sexually intimate.

Just like a lot of hard-driving, ambitious and accomplished people, Lydia is a perfectionist who is just as hard on herself as she is on other people. A very telling scene is when she is a guest teacher in a classical music class at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. The students seem very intimidated by Lydia’s reputation for being merciless in her criticism, but she’s also full of praise for anyone who meets or exceeds her high standards.

During this class session, Lydia singles out a student named Max (played by Zethphan Smith-Gneist) and asks him, “What are you actually conducting?” Max is so nervous in her presence, one of Max’s legs is literally shaking as Max talks to her. However, Max isn’t so afraid of Lydia that Max won’t challenge some of the things that she lectures to the students.

For example, Lydia tells the students any great conductor or musician can find something to relate to in the music of classical icons Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven. Max disagrees and tells Lydia and the rest of the people in the room: “As a BIPOC [black, indigenous, or person of color], pan-gender person, it’s impossible to take Bach seriously.”

Lydia tells Max that she doesn’t know what BIPOC and pan-gender means, and her attitude is that she doesn’t care to know. She treats Max dismissively, like an ignorant young person whose opinions matter very little to her, because she’s the more experienced, older person. Finally, a fed-up Max gets tired of feeling belittled by Lydia, and Max walks out of the class. Before leaving the room, Max tells Lydia, “You’re a fucking bitch.”

In response, a stone-faced Lydia calls Max a “robot.” Throughout the movie, Lydia mentions that she dislikes it when people act like robots. During her lunch with Eliot, she says, “There’s no glory for a robot. Do your own thing.” Ironically, when Lydia’s world starts to come crashing down on her, she represses her emotions and turns to rigid routines (such as rigorous jogging and boxing) to cope, and thereby acts very much like a “robot,” in an attempt to tune out her troubles.

Lydia is under enormous career pressure when things start to fall apart for her. The German orchestra is preparing for a Deutsche Grammophon live recording date of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which will be a major accomplishment in her career. In addition, Lydia is working on writing an original classical piece. However, she seems to be having writer’s block, and she doesn’t really want to admit this problem to anyone.

While in Berlin, Lydia meets a Russian cellist Olga Metkina (played by Sophie Kauer), who is 18 or 19 years old. Olga acts like a star-struck fan with Lydia, who is flattered. Lydia also seems to be sexually attracted to Olga. Meanwhile, Olga seems to be aware of this attraction and makes it clear that she’s eager for any opportunity to work with Lydia.

“TÁR” is fascinating to watch for how it unpeels the layers of Lydia’s contradictory character that is capable of hiding a web of lies and secrets. Lydia can be charismatic and funny, but she can also be ruthless and cruel. She is a workaholic who doesn’t spend a lot of quality time with her daughter Petra, but Lydia quietly threatens the girl at Petra’s school who has been bullying Petra.

Lydia claims to be open to collaboration and hearing different ideas, but when anyone dares to question her ideas or decisions, she gets revenge in passive-aggressive ways. An elderly orchestra member named Sebastian Brix (played by Allan Corduner) finds out the hard way how vindictive Lydia can be. What happens to Sebastian sets off a certain chain events that will accelerate the scandal that could lead to Lydia’s downfall.

In telling the story of this complex person, Field also uses haunting flashback techniques that resemble a fever dream, where Lydia remembers things related to the scandal that threatens to end her career. Lydia also sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to random sounds, such as a metronome that seems to have started on its own. It further fuels the sense that Lydia is being haunted. How much of it is her own doing? As the tension builds and things get worse for Lydia, the movie’s cinematography (played by Florian Hoffmeister) and the music (by Hildur Guðnadóttir) become more foreboding, creating a sense that the proverbial walls are closing in on her.

The character of Lydia is so well-written and embodied with such realism by Blanchett, people who don’t know anything about the world of classical music might mistake “TÁR” for being a biopic based on a real person. All of the other cast members play their parts well, but the movie would not be as effective without Blanchett’s masterful performance. (Field has said in interviews that he wrote the “TÁR” role only for Blanchett.) It’s the type of virtuoso, top-notch performance that would make Lydia Tár very proud.

Focus Features released “TÁR” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘A Couple’ (2022), starring Nathalie Boutefeu

October 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nathalie Boutefeu in “A Couple” (Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films)

“A Couple” (2022)

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place sometime between 1910 and 1919, on Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, France, the dramatic film “A Couple” has only one person in the movie’s cast, in a portrayal of Russian writer Sophia Tolstaya, widow of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

Culture Clash: In the movie, Tolstaya reads out loud portions of letters and diary entries that she and Tolstoy wrote that detail their volatile and depressing marriage.

Culture Audience: “A Couple” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Frederick Wiseman and Tolstoy, as well people who are interested in the private life of a famous writer, but everyone else might be very bored by this movie.

Nathalie Boutefeu in “A Couple” (Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films)

“A Couple” is really about one-half of a couple. It’s a series of monologues where Nathalie Boutefeu portrays widow Sophia Tolstaya griping about how her marriage to Leo Tolstoy was unhappy. Boutefeu’s compelling performance saves this very repetitive film. Even though this writer couple was Russian, “A Couple” is a French-language film, probably because Boutefeu is French. The movie was also filmed on Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, France.

“A Couple” director Frederick Wiseman is mostly known for making documentary films, so “A Couple” is a departure for him, because it is a narrative feature, based on the personal writings of Tolstaya and Tolstoy. (Nominated several times for Nobel prizes, Tolstoy is best-known for his novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”) Wiseman and Boutefeu co-wrote the adapted screenplay of “A Couple.” The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy and its North American premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

Boutefeu (in the role of Sophia) is the only person who appears on screen for the entire movie. She gives monologues where she reads letters and diary entries written by Tolstaya and Tolstoy that detail the couple’s troubled marriage. (For the purposes of this review, the movie character is referred to as Sophia, while the real-life Tolstaya is referred to as Tolstaya.) Tolstaya’s writings are read more in the movie than Tolstoy’s writings.

What emerges is a portrait of a cold and domineering husband who frequently cheated on his wife and inflicted various forms of emotional abuse on her. He mistreated her and acted like he wasn’t in love with her, but he also didn’t want her to leave him. In other words, “A Couple” isn’t a feel-good movie.

What the movie doesn’t give is any background information on the two people in this miserable marriage. In real life, Countess Sophia Behrs married Leo Tolstoy in 1852, when she was 18, and he was 34. They were married for 48 years, until his death in 1910, at the age of 82. Tolstaya died in 1919, at the age of 75. The couple had 13 children together, but Tolstoy fathered at least one other child through his chronic extramarital infidelity, according to this movie.

“A Couple” begins and ends with the widowed Sophia in a dimly lit room holding the letters that she will end up reading out loud during the course of this 64-minute movie. The rest of the film takes place entirely outdoors with lovely scenic views of the terrain where the monologues were filmed in grassy areas and on rocks near a beach. There are also some close-ups of some of the small outdoor insects (such as butterflies) that live in the grassy areas.

In these monologues, Sophia talks about her husband’s cruelty and how he often seemed like he regretted marrying her. “It took me years to understand your moods, your demons,” she says. She also seems to struggle with her love/hate feelings about her husband.

“I am still in love,” she says. “You illuminate my life.” But she also says, “For you, I am nothing but a mangy dog.” She continues, “I feel abandoned. I don’t have a husband/friend.” She later says, “I envy the couples who enjoy a spiritual bond with a physical relationship.”

Sophia details this loneliness in the marriage when she talks about how her husband preferred to spend time playing piano for four to six hours a day, or taking long walks by himself, instead of spending that time with her and their children. He was also disinterested in putting up a happy front to people about this marriage. “Remember the modest party for our 10th anniversary?” she asks aloud in a superficial manner, as if the size of an anniversary party is supposed to reflect how much spouses love each other.

To add insult to injury, her husband’s mistress lived nearby with the son allegedly born from this extramarital affair. And so, Sophia has to endure the humiliation and having this reminder of his infidelity near her and the children. “Disenchantment has invaded our life,” she says mournfully. If the marriage had any happiness, it’s not depicted in this movie.

Sophia also expresses bitterness about how in 30 years of marriage, her husband never spent time showing concern when any of their children got sick. She talks about feeling like the only one in the marriage who took on the responsibility of being a nurturing parent to their children. And it goes without saying that Sophia’s writing career wasn’t allowed to flourish in the way that her husband’s writing career thrived.

The movie’s scenes also include descriptions of the husband’s vicious temper. According to the movie, he would throw breakable things when he got angry. And when Sophia tried to leave him, he dragged her while she was “half-naked” back their house. The abuse in the marriage got so bad for her, Sophia exclaims in a diary entry: “Take me to the police or to the madhouse!”

Boutefeu infuses these monologues with all the visceral emotions of a spouse desperately trapped in a bad marriage but conflicted enough that she holds out hope that things might improve and her husband will show that he might still love her. Sophia mentions that their children are her main sources of joy and the biggest reason why she’s staying in the marriage. It’s a story that unfortunately is not unique to any particular time period or culture, because these toxic relationships can happen to anyone at any time.

Boutefeu’s acting is the main thing that “A Couple” has to offer that gives some emotional context to the words that are being recited on the screen, because there’s nothing particularly special about the movie’s cinematography or editing. After a while, it gets redundant to hear the same marital complaints being said out loud. Don’t expect “A Couple” to give any major insight into how these literary couple worked on any of their writings that weren’t these diary entries or personal letters.

If the total running time of “A Couple” had stretched to 90 minutes or more, the movie definitely would have overstayed its welcome. Clocking at a little over one hour is just about the length time before “A Couple” would start to slide into irredeemable monotony. This movie would have been even better if it had been a short film. As it stands, “A Couple” can be recommended only for those curious to take an uncomfortable peek inside the grim marriage of Tolstoy and Tolstaya, giving some insight into why their writing was about so much angst, suffering and betrayal.

Zipporah Films will release “A Couple” in select U.S. cinemas on November 11, 2022.

Review: ‘White Noise’ (2022), starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Don Cheadle

September 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sam Nivola, Adam Driver, May Nivola, Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy and Dean Moore or Henry Moore (pictured in front) in “White Noise” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Netflix)

“White Noise” (2022)

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ohio, the comedy/drama film “White Noise” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college professor and his family begin to see life differently after a toxic pollution disaster forces residents in their area to evacuate and take shelter in public places.

Culture Audience: “White Noise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Noah Baumbach; stars Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle; and comedy/drama films with life-and-death themes.

Don Cheadle and Adam Driver in “White Noise” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Netflix)

With acerbic wit about life and death, “White Noise” memorably shows how a college professor and his family cope with an unexpected evacuation from a pollution disaster. In this well-acted but uneven comedy/drama, the real disaster is dishonesty in relationships. The movie covers both familiar and unfamiliar territory for writer/director/producer Noah Baumbach, whose speciality is making movies about neurotic, middle-class people who deal with problems that they usually bring on themselves.

“White Noise,” which is based on Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name, had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy and its North American premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City. The “White Noise” movie is also set in the early-to-mid-1980s. Baumbach’s “White Noise” cinematic adaptation is quintessential Baumbach, with a talented cast who adeptly handle the verbose dialogue. In Baumbach’s movies, the characters tend to do an over-analysis of people and life, to great comedic effect.

What isn’t typical of Baumbach is for him direct a movie from an adapted screenplay. The previous movies that Baumbach has directed were from his own original screenplays. Baumbach also never done a disaster movie that will get some comparisons to the way that Steven Spielberg does disaster movies.

“White Noise” isn’t a big-budget blockbuster. However, “White Noise” does have some tense action sequences of people trying to find shelter in a disaster, in scenes that are very reminiscent of Spielberg’s 2005 version of “War of the Worlds.” There’s no outer-space alien invasion in “White Noise. The real disruption comes to members of a family who are forced to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves after they evacuate from their home during the disaster.

In “White Noise,” which takes place in an unnamed cities in Ohio, a college professor named Jack Gladney (played by Adam Driver) thinks he’s living a very safe and comfortable life where he has a lot of patriarchal control. Jack teaches the unusual subject of “advanced Nazism” at a learning institution that is never named in the movie, but is referred to as the College on the Hill. Jack usually thinks he’s the smartest person in the room at any given time (a personality trait of least one main character in a typical Baumbach film), so Jack tends to be overbearing and arrogant, but not to the point of being completely obnoxious.

Jack lives with his wife Babette (played by Greta Gerwig), who works as an activities director at a senior living center. Babette and Jack have a blended family that includes four children. Eldest child Heinrich (played by Sam Nivola), a son from Jack’s previous marriage, is about 16 years old and has a keen interest in science. The middle children are Babette’s two daughters from her previous marriage: Denise (played by Raffey Cassidy), who’s about 15 years old, and Steffie (played by May Nivola), who’s about 12 years old. Jack and Babette have a biological child together named Wilder (played by identical twins Henry Moore and Dean Moore), who’s about 4 years old.

The first third of the movie mostly shows how Jack interacts with people in his home and at work. At home, Jack and his very opinionated family frequently talk over each other and have simultaneous conversations with each other. Babette tends to be cheerful and optimistic. Jack tends to be stern and cynical. Mornings in the kitchen and dining room can be described as ordered chaos, as Heinrich, Denise and Steffie sometimes bicker, while their parents try to get everyone out of the house in time to go where they need to be.

At work, Jack takes pleasure in commanding the room with his in-depth lectures about Nazis. The movie never explains why Jack is so fascinated with Nazis (he does not endorse this hate group), but in his lectures, Jack drops hints that people need to study what the Nazis did so that atrocities like the Holocaust won’t happen again. As a history expert, Jack is profoundly awestuck by how quickly Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime took over Europe and had far-reaching effects across the world.

Jack has a friendly rapport with his Murray Suskind (played by Don Cheadle), an entertainment industry professor at the same college. In the opening scene of “White Noise,” Murray is seen giving an enthusiastic lecture about the art of car crashes in American movies. He even goes as far to say that car crashes in American movies are superior than car crashes in European movies.

Murray tells his students that these cinematic car crashes are “a long tradition of American optimism” and “self-celebration.” Murray adds, “Look past the violence, I say, and there is a wonderful, brimming spirit of innocence and fun.” Murray’s lecture is the movie’s first indication that several of the movie’s characters are living in a safe bubble that’s about to be popped.

Murray greatly admires Jack’s lecture styling, so later in the movie, there’s an amusing scene where Jack (at Murray’s invitation) is a guest speaker in Murray’s classroom. The topic is about Elvis Presley, but Jack has been asked to give information showing how Presley and Hitler had many things in common. For example, Presley and Hitler both had fanatical followings and both were “mama’s boys” with domineering mothers.

This “Presley/Hitler” lecture starts off as a dual presentation, with Murray and Jack taking turns giving factoids about Presley and Hitler. But then, Jack shows his tendency of taking control of everything he does, and Jack ends up taking over the lecture and doing all the talking. Jack gets so worked-up and passionate in his speaking that he almost acts like a pastor preaching to a congregation.

Jack’s speech culminates with Jack getting a standing ovation from everyone else in the room, including a few other faculty members who stopped by to hear Jack speak in this class. One of these co-workers is a professor named Elliot Lasher (played by André Benjamin. also known as André 3000), who’s a mild-mannered eccentric who doesn’t do much in his scenes except smile and give words of encouragement to the people around him.

Jack’s ego certainly gets a boost from this standing ovation. But within the 24 hours, his world will come crashing down with an avalanche of insecurity, deceit and mistrust. It starts off when Denise tells Jack that, in the kitchen garbage can, she found an empty prescription pill bottle owned by Babette. The prescription label on the bottle says that it contained a drug called Dylar.

Denise is worried because she can’t find Dylar in any medical book. (Remember, this story takes place in the 1980s, before the Internet existed.) Jack acts like he isn’t too worried, but deep down, he’s concerned too because he didn’t know anything about this prescription. Jack doesn’t confront or ask Babette about this secret prescription right away.

But something about this deception must have triggered something in Jack, because he starts to have harrowing nightmares that seem real. For example, he has a vision of a Jack clone or alter ego climbing into bed with him and sleeping in the place on the bed where Denise usually sleeps. In one of these nightmares, this Jack “clone” almost get suffocated by a blanket by an unseen force.

Meanwhile, a truck carrying toxic chemicals crashes into a moving train when the truck driver is distracted by grabbing a bottle of liquor from a passenger seat. It results in a massive train wreck and an explosion that destroys the truck and sends toxic chemicals in the air. The smoke can be seen for miles away.

One of the people who sees this smoke is Heinrich, who looks at it from afar with his binoculars. Heinrich heard about the train wreck on the local TV news. And he’s afraid that the toxic chemicals could pollute the air and be disaster for the area residents. Henrich tells his parents that maybe they should temporarily evacuate if the smoke comes any closer.

At first, Jack and Babette (especially Jack) are dismissive of Heinrich’s concerns. Jack says that it’s unlikely that the family will be affected by the smoke, since it’s not windy outside at the moment. And when it does get windy, Jack says that wind tends to blow in the direction that’s the opposite of their house.

It turns out that Jack is very wrong about his assumptions. The TV news descriptions of this pollution goes from being described as “a black billowing cloud” to “the airborne toxic event.” Emergency officials are ordering local residents to evacuate. Still in denial, Jack and Babette don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

But their attitude quickly changes when they see their neighborhood become deserted, with fire trucks and other emergency vehicles racing everywhere. By the time the Gladney family members evacuate their home, they’re in a sheer panic. While driving in the family car to go to the nearest designated shelter, they encounter many obstacles, including a traffic jam.

The rest of “White Noise” shows how the family members bond together and fall apart in certain ways during this disaster. While in the car, Jack notices Babette put something in her mouth and quickly swallow it, so he asks her what she just swallowed. Babette says it was a piece of Life Savers candy, but Jack is doubtful. He begins to wonder if it was a pill of the mysterious drug Dylar.

“White Noise” shows in clever and sometimes oddly amusing ways how the problems that are exposed in the Gladney family are a microcosm of a larger society problem of people being lulled and sometimes programmed into a false sense of security. It comes out in subtle and not-so-subtle symbolism and conversations in the movie. The character of Jack embodies this dichtomy of someone who thinks he’s in total control of his life but finds out that his life can quickly get out of his control, thereby making him question how much control he really has.

For example, when Henrick warns his family that the mysterious smoke could be dangerous pollution, Jack’s condescending comments is that if it turns into a disaster, the “poor and uneducated” will be the ones who will be hurt the most. Jack’s attitude is a satire of a very real mentality that middle-class and upper-class intellectuals have that they are somehow “immune” from catastrophes because they think they’re too smart and will somehow know how to avoid them.

Jack’s ego gets a little confused and flustered when he finds out that Heinrich knows a lot more about this type of science than Jack does. Jack seems proud of Heinrich for this knowledge, but it still makes Jack a little uneasy that Heinrich correctly predicted this disaster when Jack had been so dismissive and wrong about it. And with Heinrich outsmarting Jack when it comes to the science of this disaster, Jack turns toward his marriage to assert some of the dominance that he expects.

All of the cast members are well-suited to their roles, but the movie is really about what happens between Jack and Babette. They don’t have the type of marriage that is headed for divorce, unlike the couple in Baumbach’s 2019 drama “Marriage Story,” for which Driver earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Instead, Jack and Babette go through experiences that will make them reconsider how they are going to handle their marriage after the evacuation is over.

The fear of death and how to prepare for death are overarching themes in “White Noise,” as the pollution disaster makes several people confront their mortality. Early on in the movie, before even knowing that this disaster would happen, Jack tells Babette that he wants to die before her and that her death will be more spectacular than his. Jack says that Babette would be able to cope with being a widowed spouse better than he would be able to cope with being a widowed spouse. It might sound like a backwards compliment to Babette, but it’s really Jack’s way of saying that he doesn’t want to be a lonely widower who dies alone.

“White Noise” is hit or miss when it comes to character development. Cassidy (as Denise), Sam Nivola (as Heinrich), May Nivola (as Steffie) have believable chemistry together as stepsiblings trying to adjust to their blended family situation. (Sam and May Nivola are siblings in real life. Their parents are actors Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer.) By the last third of the movie, the kids are essentially sidelined for some soap opera-ish drama between Jack and Babette.

Jack’s college professor colleagues are undeveloped supporting characters. Viewers won’t find out much about Murray, Elliot and the other co-workers who frequently have lunch with Jack: neurochemist Winnie Richards (played by Jodie-Turner Smith), Alfonse (played by Sam Gold) and Cotsakis (played by George Drakoulias). Barbara Sukowa makes the most out of her cameo as an atheist nun called Sister Hermann Marie. Other characters appear in and out of the story like comedic plot devices, rather than people with fully developed personalities.

The conversations in “White Noise” have a cadence that might remind viewers of a stage play. Baumbach and the cast members have given interviews, including a press conference held after the movie’s New York Film Festival’s “White Noise” press screening, where it’s mentioned that the cast members had one month of rehearsals before filming the movie. Most movie productions do not have that rare rehearsal privilege for cast members.

The ending of “White Noise” might seem a little too conveniently contrived for some people’s tastes. However, the end-credits sequence is a must-see for viewers, because this sequence artfully ties in together many of the movie’s themes, (The end-credits sequence involves dance choreography at an A&P grocery store while the LCD Soundsystem song “New Body Rhumba” plays on the movie soundtrack.) The “white noise” of life can either pacify, agitate or do both, depending on the people and the circumstances. The movie “White Noise” asks people and wants to know: “Are you paying attention to the white noise in the first place?”

Netflix will release “White Noise” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Don’t Worry Darling,’ starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll and Chris Pine

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in center: Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in “Don’t Worry Darling” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Don’t Worry Darling”

Directed by Olivia Wilde

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional California community named Victory, the sci-fi/drama film “Don’t Worry Darling” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A homemaker wife with a seemingly perfect life finds her life unraveling when she witnesses things that are too disturbing to ignore, but other people try to convince her that she’s paranoid and mentally ill.

Culture Audience: “Don’t Worry Darling” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of stars Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, but this disappointing dud of a movie serves up an over-used concept that becomes tedious and repetitive with a bungled ending.

Pictured in front, from left to right: Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll and Chris Pine in “Don’t Worry Darling” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Take a little bit of “The Stepford Wives,” add a lot of “The Twilight Zone,” and remove any real ingenuity. What’s left is a mishandled mush called “Don’t Worry Darling.” The central mystery of the story is too easy to solve, because a similar concept has been used in much better movies. Even without that problem and even with Florence Pugh’s talent, “Don’t Worry Darling” comes undone by a sloppily constructed conclusion.

Directed by Olivia Wilde and written by Katie Silberman, “Don’t Worry Darling” is one of those movies where the off-screen drama is more interesting than the movie itself. This review won’t rehash all the tabloid stories (including all the brouhaha at the movie’s world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival), but what most people will remember about “Don’t Worry Darling” is that it’s the movie that led to Wilde and co-star Harry Styles becoming romantically involved in real life. “Don’t Worry Darling” isn’t a complete train wreck, but it spins its wheels too many times to the point of monotony, and everything goes completely off the rails in the movie’s last 15 minutes.

We’ve seen this scenario many times before: A movie starts out with a picture-perfect couple who seems to have a picture-perfect life. They seem to be passionately in love. They live in a well-kept house with a perfectly manicured lawn, and the neighboring houses have an eerily similar aesthetic. And all the neighbors lead seemingly idyllic lives too. But, of course, it’s later revealed that the community is far from perfect and is actually quite hellish.

In “Don’t Worry Darling,” the central “perfect” couple are spouses Alice Chambers (played by Pugh) and Jack Chambers (played by Styles), who live in a planned California community named Victory, which is filled with palm trees and is near a desert. (“Don’t Worry Darling” was actually filmed in Palm Springs, California.) Based on the fashion, hairstyles and cars, Alice and Jack seem to be living in the 1950s. Alice is a homemaker, while Jack (and the other men in the community) all work for the Victory Project, a mysterious technological business venture led by a charismatically creepy CEO named Frank (played by Chris Pine). Jack’s job title is technical engineer.

Alice and Jack, who are both in their 20s, have no children. Jack and Alice tell people that they haven’t started a family yet because they want to enjoy life for a while in a child-free marriage. The movie’s opening scene shows Alice and Jack having a house party, where everyone is drunk or tipsy. Alice and some of the other people are playing a game to see who can balance a tray and drinking glass the longest on the top of their heads.

Two of the party guests are a married couple in their late 30s named Bunny (played by Wilde) and Dean (played by Nick Kroll), who like to think of themselves as the “alpha couple” of the Victory community because they’re older than everyone else. Dean is especially eager to be perceived as Frank’s favorite employee at Victory. Bunny (who is sassy and sarcastic) and Dean (who is high-strung and neurotic) have a son and a daughter who are about 5 to 7 years old. Bunny half-jokingly tells Alice that the kids like Alice more than they like Bunny.

Another couple in the Victory community are spouses Peg (played by Kate Berlant) and Peter (played by Asif Ali), who are little quirky but ultimately underwritten and underdeveloped. If Peg and Peter weren’t in the movie, it would have no real impact on the plot at all. Also underdeveloped is a scowling scientist character named Dr. Collins (played by Timothy Simons), who shows up later in the movie and is described as one of the founders of the Victory community.

Frank’s wife is an emotionally aloof diva named Shelley (played by Gemma Chan), who leads the Victory women in group ballet classes. All of the women seem to be a little bit afraid of Shelley. She gives the impression that she can be ruthless if anyone betrays her or the Victory Project.

One day, at one of the ballet classes, Shelley tells the assembled women that a new couple is moving into the neighborhood because the husband will be starting a new job at Victory. The spouses’ names are Bill Johnson (played by Douglas Smith) and Violet Johnson (played by Sydney Chandler), who are both anxious to fit in with this tight-knit Victory community. Bill is a little bit wimpy and socially awkward, while Violet is very demure and introverted.

To welcome Bill and Violet to the Victory community, Frank assembles the community members outdoors on the streets and gives a rousing speech. Bill and Violet look a little overwhelmed. Dean tries to assert himself by chastising Bill for not thinking of Frank with enough reverence. Later, Alice privately tells Bunny that Violet reminds Alice of a “beautiful, terrified baby deer.”

When talking to Bunny, Alice notices a neighbor named Margaret (played by KiKi Layne) standing outside on the front lawn of the house that Margaret shares with her husband Ted (played by Ari’el Stachel). Margaret, whose eyes are closed, seems to be in a daze as she clutches a red toy plane in her hand. It’s enough to say that Alice sees some other disturbing things pertaining to Margaret, including an apparent suicide attempt where Margaret is up on her house roof and looks like she’s ready to jump. (The trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” already revealed this plot development.)

At the outdoor gathering, Margaret asks people, “Why are we here?” Ted doesn’t like the way that Margaret is asking is question, so he tells Margaret to keep quiet and whisks her away into their house. Margaret is rarely seen out of the house after that, while Alice sees indications that Ted is keeping tight control over Margaret and trying to prevent Margaret from interacting with other people.

Margaret has also been speaking out against Frank and questioning his intentions. It isn’t long before gossip spreads in the neighborhood that Margaret is a mentally ill troublemaker who must be shunned. If this Victory community sounds like a cult, a party scene at Frank’s mansion removes all doubt.

This party scene (like most of the movie’s plot) is already partially revealed in the “Don’t Worry Darling” trailer. At this party, Frank asks Dean in front of the assembled Victory people: “Dean, what’s the enemy of progress?” Dean dutifully replies, “Chaos.” Frank then says, “I see greatness in every single one of you. What are we here for?” The crowd chants, “We’re changing the world!”

Victory has a trolley that is the main form of public transportation in the community. One day, Alice is the only passenger in the trolley when she sees in the distance that a red plane has crashed into a cliff area near the desert. When Alice asks the trolley driver (played by Steve Berg) if he saw the plane crash, he says he didn’t see anything.

Alice begs the trolley driver to go to the plane crash site to get help, but the driver is too afraid and says that it’s a restricted area. Alice decides to walk to the area by herself. What happens after that sets her on a path where she and other people start to question her sanity.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” already gives away the fact that this movie has men in red jumpsuits chasing after people, so it’s easy to figure out that these men are sent to oppress people who “disobey” the Victory rules. Guess who becomes one of those targets? It’s all so predictable.

Pugh does a skillful job of portraying Alice’s psychological torment, but ultimately, Alice (like all of the characters in this movie) are very hollow. Styles is adequate as Alice’s increasingly estranged husband Jack, who is torn between his loyalty to Alice and his loyalty to Victory. But after a while, the obvious and over-used plot development of “the woman who is not believed and labeled as mentally ill” gets run into the ground early and often in “Don’t Worry Darling,” At a certain point in the movie, you just know the men in the red jumpsuits will be part of a big chase scene, because it’s already revealed in the movie’s trailer.

“Don’t Worry Darling” tries to have some visual flair, with repetitive images of the people of Victory moving in sync with each other, as if they’re pre-programmed robots. This visual styling is shown in the scenes with the ballet classes, as well as the Victory community’s morning ritual of the wives going on their front lawns to wave goodbye to their husbands, who drive off to go to work in perfect sync in their flashy cars. The movie also repeats images (many of them psychedelic) of things in the shape of a circle, whether they are close-ups of eye pupils or women dancing like they’re in a Busby Berkeley musical.

All of this eye-catching cinematography comes off as shallow and a bit pretentious after a while, because the story falls so flat toward the end. “Don’t Worry Darling” hastily throws in some heavy-handed feminist messages but doesn’t have anything clever or new to say that 1975’s “The Stepford Wives” didn’t already cover decades ago. The half-baked ending of “Don’t Worry Darling” just brings up questions that are never answered.

Wilde and Silberman previously collaborated on the 2019 teen comedy “Booksmart,” which was Wilde’s feature-film directorial debut. And although the critically acclaimed “Booksmart” uses a lot of familiar teen comedy plot devices, “Booksmart” has dialogue, acting and character development that are appealing. The same can’t be said for “Don’t Worry Darling,” which has talented cast members, who look all dressed up but have nowhere artistically to go in this boring sci-fi tripe posing as an intriguing psychological thriller.

Warner Bros Pictures released “Don’t Worry Darling” in U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Blonde’ (2022), starring Ana de Armas

September 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ana de Armas in “Blonde” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Blonde” (2022)

Directed by Andrew Dominik

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the Los Angeles area, from 1933 to 1962, the dramatic film “Blonde” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a troubled childhood being abused by her mentally ill single mother, Norma Jeane Mortenson becomes a superstar actress named Marilyn Monroe, but her personal demons haunt her and lead to a life of failed romances, drug addiction and unfulfilled wishes to become a mother.

Culture Audience: “Blonde” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Marilyn Monroe and “Blonde” star Ana de Armas, as well as anyone who has a tolerance for seeing movies that show the very dark sides of fame and Hollywood.

Ana de Armas in “Blonde” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Marilyn Monroe Trauma Porn is a more accurate title for this very divisive drama, which blurs fact and fiction, with mixed results. Ana de Armas’ risk-taking, tour-de-force performance (which still has some flaws) is the main reason to watch when this bloated movie drowns in its own tacky pretension. How tacky and pretentious can “Blonde” be?

In real life, legendary actress Marilyn Monroe desperately wanted to become a mother but never achieved her dream of having children because of she had miscarriages and abortions. In “Blonde,” there’s a scene showing a doomed, talking fetus inside Monroe’s body—one of several fetus scenes in the movie. The movie also has multiple bloody and graphic scenes of some of these miscarriages and abortions. In de Armas’ striking performance as Monroe, “Blonde” wants viewers to viscerally react to the kind of pain Monroe went through in her life, no matter how uncomfortable it is to watch.

“Blonde” (written and directed by Andrew Dominik) has some stunning and poignant scenes that are meant to shock people or wrench viewers’ emotions out of their hearts. The movie, which had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy, randomly alternates between scenes in color and scenes in black and white. There isn’t a bad performance in “Blonde,” but de Armas is the cast member who undoubtedly elevates the movie the most.

“Blonde” isn’t all gloom and doom, since it also artfully and faithfully recreates many of Monroe’s most iconic movie movements. They include Monroe performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Monroe’s famous scene from 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch,” where she stands on a New York City subway grate, and the air gusts from below make the white dress that she’s wearing billow up around her and expose her underwear.

Still, the biggest shortcoming of “Blonde” is that it relentlessly presents Monroe as a trauma victim, when she was actually a much more well-rounded person in real life. (Monroe died in her Los Angeles home of a barbiturate overdose in 1962, at the age of 36.) “Blonde” is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel of the same name. The novel was also adapted into a two-episode miniseries, which was televised on CBS in 2001, with Poppy Montgomery in the role of Monroe.

The “Blonde” movie and the “Blonde” miniseries are very different from each other. The “Blonde” minseries was middling and unremarkable. The “Blonde” movie goes to extremes that some viewers think go too far. The Motion Picture Association of America gave “Blonde” movie a rare NC-17 rating (prohibiting people under the age of 17 from seeing the movie in U.S. theaters), because of the movie’s sexual content. However, “Blonde” never actually shows full-frontal male nudity (one of the main reasons why movies can get the NC-17 rating) but shows de Armas simulating sex acts that could be disturbing to some viewers.

The “Blonde” novel was also very controversial, even though the “Blonde” movie and book are clearly labeled as works of fiction. The story draws from many facts about Monroe’s life but fabricates many of the hallucinatory sequences, conversations and experiences that are based on speculation on what she could have said and done if she were really in those situations. It’s this speculation that seems to irk people the most, but that seems to be a problem for people who don’t know or who forgot that “Blonde” is labeled a work of fiction.

For example, in real life, when Monroe was a starlet in the late 1940s, there were rumors that she was dating Charlie Chaplin Jr., as reported in the media back then. In Dominik’s “Blonde” movie, this relationship is turned into a three-way romance between Marilyn, Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (played Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. “Eddy” Robinson Jr. (played by Evan Williams), where they engage in sexual threesomes. It’s one of the few times in the movie where Marilyn seems to be truly happy. (For the purposes of this review, the “Blonde” protagonist character is referred to as Marilyn or Norma Jeane, while the real-life Monroe is referred to as Monroe.)

There have been so many books, news reports, feature articles, impersonators and on-screen portrayals of Monroe, it’s almost impossible for anyone who knows about pop culture not to know something about her. People already have their opinions of Monroe and expectations of how she should be portrayed in anything that could be considered biographical. One of the frustrations of the “Blonde” movie is that this 166-minute film drags on for too long and keeps repeating certain scenarios while leaving out important aspects of Monroe’s life.

For example, the movie’s early scenes show the horrific abuse that Marilyn (then known by her birth name, Norma Jeane Mortenson) endured as a child, but does not show any other aspect of her childhood, such as her education or who her childhood friends were. “Blonde” shows Norma Jeane as a 7-year-old, portrayed by Lily Fisher. Norma Jeane’s mentally ill, single mother Gladys (played by Julianne Nicholson) would beat her, strangle her and once attempted to drown her in a bathtub. Gladys was eventually put in a mental health institution, and Norma Jeane spent the rest of her childhood in foster care.

In these childhood abuse scenes, three themes emerge that are repeated throughout the rest of the movie. The first theme is that Norma Jeane/Marilyn pines for her absent father, whom she never knew. Gladys would tell Norma Jeane and other people stories about Norma Jeane’s father being a “titan of the industry” (what industry, Gladys would never say), when in all probability, he was just an anonymous deadbeat dad. Throughout most of her life, Norma Jeane imagined that her father (who’s heard in a voiceover) would write loving letters to her and promise to reunite with her some day. This fantasy contradicts what Gladys would tell Norma Jeane when Gladys would fly into a rage: Norma Jeane’s father left Gladys because Gladys got pregnant with Norma Jeane.

The second theme uses fire as a visual manifestation of Marilyn’s inner torment. An early scene shows an intoxicated and apparently manic Gladys insisting on driving through a California wildfire, with Norma Jeane as a terrified passenger. Gladys gets agitated when she’s stopped by a police officer, who orders her to go back home. The house ends up catching on fire. There are also recurring images of Norma Jeane/Marilyn walking through a burning building.

The third theme has to do with turmoil over caring for an infant. Gladys tells 7-year-old Norma Jeane that when Norma Jeane was a baby, Gladys couldn’t afford a crib, so she would put Norma Jeane in a dresser drawer to sleep. For the rest of the movie, there are images of Marilyn being haunted by the sounds of a baby crying in a dresser drawer. She tends to experience these hallucinations shortly before or after one of her pregnancies ends in heartbreak for her.

With repetition of these themes during depictions of Marilyn’s failed romances, “Blonde” curiously omits any mention of her first marriage: In real life, Monroe married factory worker-turned-merchant-Marine James Dougherty in 1942, when she was 16. The marriage ended in divorce in 1946, when up-and-coming actress Monroe was on the cusp of major fame.

She would then get married and divorced two more times. Her second husband was to retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio (played by Bobby Cannavale), whose “Blonde” movie character is named The Ex-Athlete. Their marriage, which lasted from 1954 to 1955, was reportedly plagued by his physical abuse to her. Her third and last husband was writer Arthur Miller (played by Adrien Brody), whose “Blonde” movie character is named The Playwright. In real life, Monroe and Miller were married from 1956 to 1961, during the years when her drug addiction worsened.

“Blonde” also portrays Marilyn’s volatile experiences filming director Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy “Some Like it Hot” (co-starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis), with Marilyn and Billy Wilder (played by Ravil Isyanov) clashing with each other, on and off the movie set. The expected Marilyn meltdowns are depicted, with enablers always nearby and ready to give injections or pills to Marilyn, in order to prop her up and keep her working.

In the last few years of her life, Marilyn’s sexual relationship with then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy is depicted as superficial, at least on his part. “Blonde” only lists this character’s name as The President (played by Caspar Phillipson), but it’s obviously supposed to be Kennedy. Marilyn seems to have romantic feelings for him but is afraid to express them, out of fear of not wanting to look like a clingy mistress. When she is literally carried by two aides to President Kennedy’s hotel room for a tryst, an intoxicated Marilyn asks, “Am I room service?” It’s sarcasm with some truth.

Marilyn gives President Kennedy oral sex in a scene that actually has no nudity. But because he calls her a “dirty whore” during this sex act, it’s meant to be entirely degrading for her. At one point, he grabs her by the hair and pushes her, and the movie abruptly cuts to the next scene. Whether or not this aggressive pushing resulted in rape is open to debate, but “Blonde” doesn’t show President John F. Kennedy raping Marilyn Monroe, no matter what some uninformed reports about the movie would suggest.

“Blonde” makes it look like, except for her mother Gladys, the people who repeatedly abused and exploited Marilyn were predatory men, including the unnamed studio executive who gave Marilyn her first big break. The sex scene with him (his face is never shown) can be interpreted as rape or “casting couch” sexual harassment. However, critics of “Blonde” certainly can find unintentional irony in a movie that seems to condemn men who exploit women in the entertainment industry, when “Blonde” (written and directed by a man) can also be interpreted as continued exploitation of Monroe.

The difference in this Monroe quasi-biopic is that de Armas clearly took extra care and control in how she portrayed Norma Jeane/Marilyn, and de Armas added many emotional layers that are not often seen in other on-screen portrayals of Monroe. In her portrayal of Norma Jeane/Marilyn, de Armas shows every range of emotion and makes the audience feel these emotions in several scenes that are sure to nauseate or repulse some viewers. However, de Armas (who is originally from Cuba) is not flawless in her accent work for Marilyn, since her Cuban accent sometimes can be heard in some scenes. This accent inconsistency is a distraction, but it doesn’t ruin the movie.

“Blonde” is one of those movies where the star gives a very memorable and harrowing performance, but most viewers probably will not want to see this movie more than once. Before seeing “Blonde,” many viewers will already know that underneath the glitz and glamour, the real-life Monroe often had a sad, lonely and troubled life. All of that is important to point out, which “Blonde” does almost to a fault. In trying not to over-sanitize Monroe’s story, “Blonde” goes in the complete opposite direction and will make a lot of viewers feel like this story is too dirty and sullies Monroe’s legacy.

Netflix released “Blonde” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022. The movie is set to premiere on Netflix on September 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Athena’ (2022), starring Dali Benssalah and Sami Slimane

September 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sami Slimane (center) in “Athena” (Photo by Kourtrajmeuf Kourtrajme/Netflix)

“Athena” (2022)

Directed by Romain Gavras

French and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “Athena” features a cast of Middle Eastern and white characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Civil unrest erupts within hours after a video goes viral of 13-year-old Middle Eastern boy from Paris’ low-income Athena neighborhood appearing to be murdered by white police officers, and the boy’s three older brothers get caught up in the turmoil. 

Culture Audience: “Athena” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a suspenseful, well-acted and visually striking movie that address topics of racism, loyalty and police brutality.

Dali Benssalah in “Athena” (Photo by Kourtrajmeuf Kourtrajme/Netflix)

Visually stunning and emotionally harrowing, “Athena” keeps viewers on edge from beginning to end. This hard-hitting action film takes a brutal look at the effects of race-related violence and the damage it does to everyone. “Athena” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy) also shows in heartbreaking ways how family members can be pitted against each other and loyalties can be tested over important social issues. The movie raises provocative questions about people’s varying definitions of activism and anarchy.

Directed by Romain Gavras, the French film “Athena” might get some comparisons to the 2019 award-winning French film “Les Misérables,” directed and co-written by Ladj Ly. That’s because Ly (along with Gavras and Elias Belkeddar) co-wrote the screenplay for “Athena,” and both movies are about the tensions in Paris between police officers (who are mostly white) and the city’s low-income area residents, who are mostly people of color. These tensions ultimately erupt into violence.

“Les Misérables,” which is much more of a “slow” burn movie than “Athena,” is told from the perspective of a white cop who is new to the low-income district that he has to patrol. The story in “Athena” is told from the perspective of a French military soldier of Middle Eastern heritage. His loyalty is torn between law enforcement and his angry family members, after unidentified white cops are suspected of murdering his unarmed 13-year-old brother in Paris’ disenfranchised Athena neighborhood, where his family lives.

“Athena” begins with this solider—whose name is Abdel (played by Dali Benssalah)—being called away from his regular duties to go to Athena, where civil unrest is brewing over this murder. Abdel (who is in his late 20s or early 30s) is at an outdoor press conference that’s open to the public. At this press conference, a law enforcement offcial is making statements about the investigation into the death of Abdel’s 13-year-old brother Idir.

Just hours earlier, a viral video (filmed by an anonymous person) showed Idir being beaten to death by white men in police uniforms, with the time of death estimated at 12:30 a.m. The murderers have not been identified because their backs are to the camera, and they apparently did not speak during the part of the murder that was caught on video. At this time, the police say that they have no suspects or persons of interest, but numerous members of the public believe that the police aren’t doing enough to investigate officers in their own ranks.

The video of this murder causes outrage, especially since it’s the third case of police brutality in the area in two months. Protests and civil unrest have been growing among the Athena residents. Most of the protestors who take the streets are people of color in their 20s. This background information doesn’t need to be shown as flashbacks, because this civil unrest takes up the entire movie, as the violence escalates.

Abdel has been assigned to be security personnel at the press conference. On the surface, Abdel seems stoic. But inside, he is reeling with grief over Idir’s death. He’s also probably still in shock. Abdel has no idea that his life and the lives of his family members will be devastated some more after this press conference.

Someone who’s at this press conference is Abdel’s younger brother Karim (played by Sami Slimane), who is in his mid-20s. Karim happens to be the leader of the young protesters who commit extreme acts of violence to make statements and further their causes. At the press conference, Karim throws a Molotov cocktail at the police officer who’s talking. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

The rest of “Athena” is about what happens to Abdel and Karim during the subsequent street riots and other violence that happens. The civil unrest spreads to other cities in France, but the movie focuses specifically on Paris’ Athena housing projects/council flats estate as the flashpoint for the chaos. Abdel and Karim have an older brother named Moktar (played by Ouassini Embarek), who is involved in criminal activities, and who doesn’t appear until the last third of the movie.

During the melee, a white police officer in his 20s named Jérôme (played by Anthony Bajon), who is one of the riot-gear cops on the scene, is kidnapped and held hostage by Karim’s group. And during all of this mayhem, Abdel and Karim go to a memorial service for Idir. At this service, the two brothers have the first of multiple confrontations because they fundamentally disagree on how reactions to Idir’s murder should be handled.

“Athena” shows how Abdel and Karim have very different perceptions of themselves and each other. Abdel thinks of himself as the responsible brother who is doing the right thing by following the law. Karim thinks of Abdel as a sellout who is betraying the memory of Idir. Abdel thinks Karim is a ruthless thug who needs to be stopped. Karim thinks of himself as a justified fighter in a war against police brutality and government corruption.

As an example of Karim’s contradictory nature, at one point, he gives a speech to his followers by saying that if anyone tries to fight or kill them, they should do the same to the attackers. However, the movie clearly show that Karim and his group do not act mostly in self-defense. They are the ones who cause the violence, mostly with guns, fireworks and Molotov cocktails.

One of the best technical aspects of “Athena” is the outstanding cinematography by Matias Boucard. The movie gives the impression that many of the scenes are just one tracking shot, and viewers will feel like they’re right in the thick of everything. The pulse-pounding score from Surkin (also known as Gener8ion) ramps up the tension in powerful ways.

In “Athena,” Gavras has a skillful way of creating captivating images that are violent but very artistic. For example, there’s a scene where a group of police officers are in riot gear and form a protective circle for each other, with their shields up for protection, as they are being bombed with fireworks. The way these shields form in a circle look almost like how a group of armadillos would look if they stood in a protective cicle. “Athena” doesn’t exploit the subject matter for the sake of looking “artsy,” but shows in unflinching ways how quickly these matters can get out of control and how people resort to primal instincts to survive.

“Athena” is an ironically titled movie, because Athena is the Greek goddess of battle strategy, and wisdom, but the “Athena” movie is a very male-dominated film that doesn’t give much screen time to any women affected by this turmoil. The mother and sister of the feuding brothers are seen briefly at Idir’s memorial service. The sister is on Karim’s side and fully supports what Karim is doing. And there’s just one woman shown in Karim’s group of insurgents.

The heart of the movie is the volatile and complicated relationship between Abdel and Karim. Benssalah and Slimane give authentic-looking performances that rise to the challenge. Bessalah has the more difficult role, because his Abdel character faces ethical and moral dilemmas that tear him apart emotionally, in ways that single-minded and stubborn Karim does not experience. Karim is unawavering in his beliefs, whereas Abdel has to make hard decisions on where he will place most of his loyalties.

Amid the murders and pandemonium that happen, there’s also a mystery: Who really killed Idir? Stories are swirling in the Athena community and among law enforcement that the murderers of Idir were really white right-wing extremists who impersonated police officers and want to start a race war. Abdel keeps hearing from his law-enforcement colleagues that police officers were not responsible for Idir’s murder. Abdel is not sure what to believe.

Karim doesn’t have any doubts. Karim firmly thinks that cops killed Idir, and Karim blames the Paris police department and all French government officials for Idir’s death. Karim believes in “an eye for an eye” revenge, even if it means that Karim has to make the decision to kill Abdel if Abdel stays loyal to the French government. “Athena” has twists and turns that are more unpredictable than a few of the movie’s other plot developments. Although “Athena” has some minor flaws in these plot developments, the overall movie is very effective in showing how perceptions and attitudes can change, based on the information people have and what they choose to believe.

Netflix released “Athena” in select U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2022. The movie is set to premiere on Netflix on September 23, 2022.

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