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

January 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“Memory” (2023)

Directed by Michel Franco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘The Killer’ (2023), starring Michael Fassbender, Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley, Sophie Charlotte, Sala Baker and Tilda Swinton

October 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Michael Fassbender in “The Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Killer” (2023)

Directed by David Fincher

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Europe, and the Dominican Republic, the dramatic film “The Killer” (based on the French graphic novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An assassin goes on a revenge mission to find and kill the people who brutally attacked his live-in girlfriend during a home invasion. 

Culture Audience: “The Killer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker David Fincher, star Michael Fassbender, and taut thrillers about assassins.

Michael Fassbender in “The Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Killer” isn’t the best work from the stars and filmmakers of this somewhat predictable drama about an assassin who goes on a personal vendetta. However, the movie’s performances are above-average. The voiceover narration will get mixed reactions. Some viewers will find this constant narration to be a very annoying distraction, while other viewers won’t mind or will think the narration is one of the best aspects of the movie. “The Killer” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival.

Directed by David Fincher and written by Andrew Kevin Walker, “The Killer” is based on the 2018 French graphic novel of the same name, written by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and illustrated by Luc Jacamon. The movie plays out very much like a graphic novel, with listed chapters and simple dialogue. In the movie, the real name of the title character (played by Michael Fassbender) is never revealed. For the purposes of this review, this assassin will be referred to by the name is he has in the movie’s end credits: The Killer.

The Killer is an American who uses aliases that are the names of famous characters from American TV series. It’s an example of the movie’s wry comedy that the people he encounters don’t notice or don’t even know that the name he has is the same as a TV character. Among the fake names that he uses are Felix Unger and Oscar Madison (“The Odd Couple”), Archibald Bunker (“All in the Family”), Sam Malone (“Cheers”) and Lou Grant (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant”).

Nothing is revealed about The Killer’s personal background before he became a murderer for hire. All that is really known is that The Killer is an elite assassin who is hired by wealthy people. He is considered among the “best of the best” because he’s very meticulous, he has a reputation for never making mistakes, and he has never been caught. But his error-free track record is about to change.

From the movie’s opening scene, viewers get a load of The Killer’s innermost thoughts through voiceover narration. These inner thoughts do not let up for the entire movie. It’s in contrast to the fact that The Killer doesn’t have a lot of scenes where he’s actually talking out loud. He spends a lot of time by himself and talks to people only when necessary.

The movie’s first 10 minutes show The Killer doing what is part of his assassin job: stalking his target and waiting for the right moment to commit the murder. This preparation requires discipline and the ability to tolerate waiting in one place for a long period of time. As The Killer explains in the beginning of the movie: “It’s amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing.” He adds that if you can’t endure boredom, “this work is not for you.”

Well, there’s a lot more to being an assassin than the ability to endure boredom. It takes a certain lack of humanity to kill people for money. The Killer has this to say about his deadly job: “Popeye the Sailor said it best: ‘I am what I am.'” He then says, as if to justify that he’s just a cog in the wheel of sin and corruption: “I’m not exceptional. I’m just a part.” This particular statement carries weight, considering what he says at the very end of the movie.

The Killer says other things to indicate that he’s extremely jaded and emotionally disconnected from a lot of things. For example, he utters, “Luck isn’t real, nor is karma, nor is justice.” But then, he contradicts himself and says that people should consider themselves lucky if they never meet him.

In order to stalk his victims, The Killer has to stay at places close to where he can observe the target and the target’s routines. The Killer quips, “I used to book a lot through Airbnb. Not anymore. Those [Airbnb] Superhosts love their nanny cams.”

In the beginning of “The Killer,” he is shown in Paris at a high-rise hotel that is directly across from a stately home where he can clearly see inside the home. The home is where his target is and where The Killer is setting up his sniper gun to commit the murder. Inside the home, the target is a middle-aged man (played by Endre Hules) enjoying the company of a dominatrix (played by Monique Ganderton), who is just about to start their session.

The Killer takes aim and fires. And he shoots and kills the wrong person: the dominatrix. The middle-aged man reacts with shock. In a nearby room, a few servants hear the gunshot, go into the room, see the dead woman, and panic ensues. As soon as The Killer sees the mistake that he’s made, he quickly leaves the hotel and drives away, as police cars driving in the opposite direction toward the murder scene. Before he leaves the scene, The Killer says in a voiceover, “WWJWBD: What would John Wilkes Booth do?”

Shortly after this botched assassination, The Killer is in a phone conversation with a man named Claybourne (played by Arliss Howard), who hired The Killer for this murder. The client is furious with The Killer, who is shocked and embarrassed about this colossal mistake. It’s the first time The Killer has bungled an assassin job by murdering the wrong person. Claybourne hisses at The Killer that it’s too late to get another chance to kill the target: “The window of opportunity has closed.”

The Killer knows there will be severe consequences to him for this mistake. On a hunch, he rushes back to his home hideout in the Dominican Republic. The place has all the signs that a violent home invasion has recently taken place. Windows are shattered by gun bullets, indicating a forced entry. Items inside the home are smashed, shot up, or in other forms of disarray. There’s blood on the floor and walls. And his live-in girlfriend Magdala (played by Sophie Charlotte) is missing.

The Killer finds out that Magdala is in a local hospital. She’s been brutally attacked and is temporarily in a coma. Magdala’s brother Marcus (played by Emiliano Pernía) is also at the hospital. Marcus says to The Killer about the home invaders: “They came for you.” When Magdala regains consciousness, she tells The Killer that the two people who attacked her (a man and a woman) were not disguised and she can describe them.

Just like her brother Marcus, Magadala also seems to know what The Killer does for money and that the home invasion had something to do with The Killer’s deadly job. “I didn’t tell them anything,” she says to The Killer, as if she wants to assure him that she will stay loyal to him. The Killer knows this assault is revenge for his botched assassination. He feels guilty about it but he mostly feels very angry.

The rest of “The Killer” shows him on a vendetta to find the people who attacked Magdala and murder them. He has to use detective skills to find these attackers because he doesn’t have much information at the beginning of his investigation. His revenge mission takes him to different parts of North America and Europe. (“The Killer” was filmed in Paris, Illinois and the Dominican Republic.)

Some of the memorable people he encounters along the way are an international trade attorney named Edward Hodges (played by Charles Parnell); Edward’s administrative assistant Dolores (played by Kerry O’Malley); and nameless characters described in the movie’s end credits only as The Expert (played by Tilda Swinton) and The Brute (played by Sala Baker). During his revenge scheme, viewers will hear more of The Killer’s inner thoughts.

A life motto that The Killer keeps repeating are these sentences: “Forbid empathy. Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability.” One of the main concepts of The Killer is that he thought he could separate his personal feelings and his personal life from his job, but the attack on Magdala was a rude awakening on how his job could dangerously spill over into his personal life. And therefore, his perception of empathy as a “weakness” starts to change.

The Killer previously murdered people for money as a business transaction. Now, he’s on a murderous rampage for emotional reasons and pure revenge. The movie doesn’t try to have any moralistic preaching about which type of murder is more “noble” than the other. The movie hinges on Fassbender’s capable and somewhat fascinating performance, where he has to go from cold-blooded and aloof to someone who is so fired up with thoughts of revenge for a loved one, it becomes his obsession.

Even with all the good acting in “The Killer,” after a while, there are formulaic plot developments. It’s the type of movie that can be suspenseful yet have almost no surprises. Because the intentions of The Killer are very transparent, the only mystery is how he is going to find the elusive home invaders.

“The Killer” is very much a “focus on the present day” movie, since almost nothing is told about The Killer’s past or what might happen to him in the future. For example, the movie doesn’t put a lot of thought into what might happen if The Killer murders the home invaders, and people then try to get revenge him for those murders. Fincher’s directing of “The Killer” is efficient but not particularly imaginative. There’s plenty of physical violence in this movie, but the real story of “The Killer” is mostly about violence of the mind.

Netflix released “The Killer” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023. The movie will premiere on Netflix on November 10, 2023.

Review: ‘Ferrari’ (2023), starring Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz and Shailene Woodley

October 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Adam Driver (standing in center) in “Ferrari” (Photo by Eros Hoagland/Neon)

“Ferrari” (2023)

Directed by Michael Mann

Some language in Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy, in 1957, the dramatic film “Ferrari” (based on the non-fiction book “Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races”) features an all-white cast of characters portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Enzo Ferrari deals with various challenges in his career and personal life, including financial problems for his family-owned Ferrari car company and juggling his volatile marriage to his wife with his other family that he has with his mistress.

Culture Audience: “Ferrari” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and biographical dramas about powerful people.

Penélope Cruz in “Ferrari” (Photo by Lorenzo Sisti/Neon)

“Ferrari” goes down many familiar roads that biopics take when they’re about egotistical business moguls with messy personal lives. Adam Driver gives a capable performance as Enzo Ferrari. The movie fares better on a technical level than an emotional level. Some of the movie’s scenes look authentic, while other scenes look overly contrived for drama’s sake.

Directed by Michael Mann and written by Troy Kennedy Martin, “Ferrari” is based on Brock Yates’ 1991 non-fiction book “Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races.” In the “Ferrari” movie, the story is condensed to the year 1957, when Enzo Ferrari was going through various crises and challenges. “Ferrari” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival.

“Ferrari” begins by showing black and white footage of Enzo as a young man in a racing car. The movie then abruptly jumps to 1957. Enzo is now 59 years old and leading a double life that will put his marriage in jeopardy. Enzo wakes up in bed next to his mistress Lina Lardi (played by Shailene Woodley), who has a semi-secret son with him named Piero.

It’s morning, and Enzo rushes out of the house to drive quickly back to the home that he shares with his fiery-tempered wife Laura Ferrari (played by Penélope Cruz), who is very angry because she knows that Enzo has spent the night with another woman. Laura won’t find out how serious this extramarital affair is until much later. And this revelation will affect her decision on what to do about her marriage to Enzo.

After Enzo arrives at his marital home, Laura then proceeds to shoot a pistol at Enzo, with the bullet hitting a wall near his head. In her rage, Laura reminds Enzo that they had an agreement: He could spend the night wherever he wants, as long as he gets home in time before the couple’s maid brings the morning coffee. The maid has already arrived.

If the maid didn’t suspect that Enzo is having an extramarital affair, she now knows because she is in the room to witness Laura’s ranting. For the rest of the movie, it’s a tug of war between Enzo and Laura over not only their marriage but also control of the Ferrari car empire. Laura has an ownership stake in the company. And she gave a lot of company’s first investment money when it was a fledgling business.

Laura and Enzo have other problems in their marriage besides his infidelity. Their relationship has never been the same, ever since the death of their son Alfredo Ferrari, who died of kidney failure in 1956, at the age of 24. Enzo and Laura are grieving in different ways.

Enzo has poured a lot of his energy into his work to the point where he’s a workaholic who has neglected his marriage. His emotional state is often cold and distant, as if it’s too painful to feel his grief, so he shuts himself off from his emotions. Laura is the opposite: Her grief has consumed her to the point where her emotions are out of control. She lashes out mostly at Enzo, but other people are also the targets of her bad temper.

Enzo’s mother (played by Agnese Brighittini), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, is an opionionated and influential force in Enzo’s life. (In real life, the first name of Enzo’s mother was Adalgisa.) However, Laura fights to maintain her status as the most important woman in Enzo’s life, even if their marriage is breaking down.

“Ferrari” also shows that in 1957, the Ferrari company is spending more money than it is making. Enzo is advised to increase production from 98 different models of Ferraris to more than 400 different models. Ferrari wants to invest more heavily in a different strategy: Win as many high-profile automobile races as possible with racers who will drive Ferraris. The publicity generated from these victories would be expected to boost sales of Ferraris.

Although there are several talented racers who are part of the Ferrari team, one in particular is Enzo’s biggest hope to take the Ferrari brand to a new level on the racing circuit: Alfonso De Portago (played by Gabriel Leone), a Spanish aristocrat/playboy, is seen by Enzo as a rising star who could take the Ferrari brand to new heights. Alfonso is one of the competitors in the treacherous 1957 Mille Miglia race. Piero Taruffi (played by Patrick Dempsey) is an Italian racer who is also competing in the 1957 Mille Miglia race. Peter Collins (played by Jack O’Connell) is a British racer who joined the Ferrari team in 1956. These two characters have supporting roles that aren’t as developed as the character of Alfonso.

In this male-dominated movie, the women with significant speaking roles are usually relegated to the role of wife, girlfriend, mother or employee. Laura is the only female character in the movie who is presented as being involved in business deals. Two of the female characters who appear briefly in “Ferrari” are Cecilia Manzini (played by Valentina Bellè) and actress Linda Christian (played by Sarah Gadon), who are in the movie with “girlfriend” roles. Cecilia is the fiancée of race car driver Eugenio Castellotti (played by Marino Franchitti), and she is a character based on real-life ballerina/actress Delia Scala, who was engaged to the real Castellotti at the time. In real life, as depicted in the “Ferrari” movie, Christian was dating De Portago at the time.

“Ferrari” alternates between Enzo’s worries in his business life and his problems in his love life. Eventually both sets of problems collide when Laura raises the stakes on what she might or might not do about her share of the Ferrari business ownership. Enzo is also facing allegations of Ferrari having faulty cars when one of the Ferrari cars is involved in a fatal accident during a car race.

People who want to see adrenaline-pumping car racing scenes won’t be disappointed in “Ferrari,” because these scenes are among the best in the movie. The direction and cinematography for these scenes give viewers the feeling of being fully immersed in the action. When tragedy strikes during a racing scene, the graphic way in which it is depicted can affect viewers of “Ferrari” on a visceral level.

“Ferarri” stumbles in depicting the love triangle between Enzo, Laura and Lina. Cruz (who is Spanish in real life) does a very convincing portrayal as an Italian and is the movie’s scene stealer. Unfortunately, American actress Woodley is not very believable as an Italian. The Lina character is also underdeveloped. Driver, who is American, is somewhere in between: He’s neither great nor terrible in the role of Enzo. “Ferrari” is ultimately a movie that can appeal to different types of people, even if there’s a lot in the movie that feels like the same old story.

Neon will release “Ferrari” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2023. UPDATE: The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 23, 2024. “Ferrari” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on March 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Poor Things,’ starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, Ramy Youssef and Jerrod Carmichael

October 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

“Poor Things”

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Culture Representation: Taking place in Europe and in Egypt, sometime in the 1890s, the fantasy/comedy/drama “Poor Things” (based on the novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A pregnant woman who committed suicide is re-animated from the dead by a scientist, who transplants her unborn child’s brain into her head, and she goes on journey of self-identity and exploring her sexuality, while most of the men she knows try to control her. 

Culture Audience: “Poor Things” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Yorgos Lanthimos and star Emma Stone, as well as anyone interested in watching offbeat, sexually explicit and very artistic portrayals of human relationships.

Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe in “Poor Things” (Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures)

Bold and uncompromising in its vision, “Poor Things” is cinematic art at its finest. Emma Stone gives a tour-de-force performance in this enthralling and sometimes amusing story about power, control and independence in gender dynamics and female sexuality. Make no mistake: This movie is not for everyone. “Poor Things” isn’t appropriate viewing for people who are too young to watch or are easily offended by full-frontal nudity (male and female) in sex scenes. Many of the movie’s themes about personal freedoms versus society’s restrictions are meant to be thought-provoking, but some viewers won’t like the dark comedy or the way these themes are explored in sometimes unconventional ways.

“Poor Things” is the second movie collaboration between director/producer Yorgos Lanthimos, actress Stone and screenwriter Tony McNamara, after they previously collaborated on 2018’s “The Favourite.” Unlike “The Favourite,” which has an original screenplay, “Poor Things” is adapted from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name. “Poor Things” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, where the movie won the festival’s highest prize: the Golden Lion, which is the equivalent of Best Picture for the festival. “Poor Things” had its North American premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and has made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival and the Zurich Film Festival.

The “Poor Things” movie takes the book’s original setting of Scotland and relocates it to London. The movie’s story is told in chapters, according to whichever city the protagonist happens to be at the time. This protagonist is Bella Baxter (played by Stone, one of the producers of “Poor Things”), a woman with a mysterious past and living in a re-animated body whose age does not match the much-younger brain that she has in her head. Viewers of “Poor Things” are taken on a journey of Bella’s transformation as her brain and cognitive abilities begin developing and maturing.

The movie’s opening scene shows Bella jumping off of a bridge to commit suicide. It’s later revealed that Bella was pregnant when she jumped off of the bridge. A deeply troubled and controlling scientist named Godwin Baxter (played by Willem Dafoe) has rescued her and brought her back to his secretive lab in his isolated London mansion. He decides he will re-animate this mystery woman and transplant the brain of her unborn baby into her head. Godwin (who wants to be called God) gives this re-animated woman the name Bella. The movie shows whether or not Bella ever finds out about her re-animated origins.

Bella’s intelligence and knowledge develop at a rapid pace, but she still starts off with the maturity and brain power of an infant child. The infancy stage of her brain is not shown in the movie. When viewers first see Bella eating at a dinner table, she has the body of a woman but the mannerisms of a human who’s about 2 or 3 years old. She can eat, sit up, and stand on her own, but her body movements are often uncoordinated. She eats food with her hands when most people would use utensils to eat the same food. Her vocabulary is also very simple.

Godwin has no interest in teaching Bella a lot of society’s norms and etiquette, because he intends to never let Bella far from his sight. Godwin knows that what he is dong with Bella is a highly unethical and illegal scientific experiment, so he wants to keep Bella a secret at all costs. (Godwin does other transplants of body parts on animals, as evidenced by the pets on his property, such as a goat with a duck’s head and a chicken with a pug dog’s head.) As Bella’s brain matures, she becomes more curious about the outside world, but Godwin forbids her from going into the populated part of the city. At first, Bella views Godwin as a protective parental figure, but then she starts to feel resentment and rebel against his domineering control of her life.

Bella doesn’t have basic manners that people are taught when they become old enough to speak. Her “no filter” dialogue and actions are supposed to be among the movie’s funniest or the most uncomfortable moments. Bella has “grown up” watching Godwin do autopsies on people, so she develops a fascination with the human body. Later, Bella shows inclinations that she wants to become a medical examiner.

When she discovers masturbation by inserting objects into her vagina, it awakens Bella’s sexuality and becomes the catalyst for many things that occur during the rest of the movie. Because she has not been taught what is right or wrong when it comes to sexual acts, Bella grabs the crotch (out of curiosity) of Godwin’s loyal housekeeper Mrs. Prim (played by Vicki Pepperdine) in front of Godwin, who at least has the decency to tell Bella that she can’t grab people’s crotches without their consent.

Mrs. Prim is one of the few people who know Godwin’s secret about Bella. Godwin soon lets someone else in on his secret: a village doctor named Max McCandles (played by Ramy Youssef), who is hired by Godwin to be his research assistant/protégé and is sworn to secrecy about this job. Max is a polite gentleman who is immediately awestruck and infatuated with Bella. Max treats her with kindness and respect.

Before Max acts on his romantic feelings for Bella, he asks Godwin if Godwin has a sexual interest in Bella. Godwin assures him that he sees himself only as a father figure to Bella. Godwin also confesses to Max that Godwin is sexually impotent and has a traumatic past of being sexually abused by Godwin’s father. Godwin also has severe facial scars that look like his face had been slashed. Godwin says his father was the one who mutilated him.

In his own twisted way, Godwin wants to create a perfect family by keeping them confined to his mansion. And so, he encourages Max to court Bella and gives Max his blessing to propose marriage to Bella—on one big condition: Max can’t leave the mansion either after he marries Bella. Max agrees to this demand.

During this tender and sometimes awkward courtship, a brash and arrogant visitor comes into the household and throws these marriage plans into disarray. He is an attorney named Duncan Wedderburn (played by Mark Ruffalo), who has come to visit because he has the legal contract that Max must sign for Max’s marriage to Bella. At this point, Bella doesn’t fully understand what love is about, but she understands lustful sexual desire and how it can often be a way that some people manipulate others.

Duncan, who is a playboy bachelor, finds Bella to be very attractive and makes lecherous sexual advances on her. He also loves to brag about what a great lover he is. When he finds out that Bella is yearning to explore the outside world, Duncan promises to whisk her away on an adventure trip through Europe, beginning with Lisbon, Portugal. Despite the objections of Godwin and the heartbreak of Max, she eagerly accepts Duncan’s offer and goes away with Duncan.

During this trip, Duncan and Bella have a sexual relationship, but it’s not a relationship based on mutual respect. Duncan treats Bella like a sexual plaything, while she acts like a student who’s eager to learn. And even though Bella wanted to escape the possessive control of Godwin, she finds out too late that Duncan is even more possessive than Godwin. Duncan flies into jealous rages if he thinks that Bella might be sexually interested in other men.

Bella’s journey also takes her to a cruise ship going to Alexandria, Egypt, where she experiences more attempts by Duncan to control her life. During this cruise ship excursion, Bella meets a middle-aged wealthy woman named Martha Von Kurtzroc (played by Hanna Schygulla) and her platonic younger companion Harry Astley (played by Jerrod Carmichael), who give Bella a new, open-minded perspective that women and men can be friends with no sex involved. Martha tells Bella that she’s been celibate for 20 years and is content with having a life with no sex, which is a mind-blowing concept to Bella, who has been led to believe by Duncan that a woman’s primary purpose in life is to sexually pleasure men.

That doesn’t mean that Bella is willing to give up sex, because she likes sex a lot and wants to learn as much about sex as she can. But by coming into contact with a more diverse group of people with various lifestyles, Bella becomes more aware that she has many more options than she ever thought she had. One thing that hasn’t changed about Bella is her innate resistance to being confined and being told what to do with her life.

When Bella and Duncan are in Paris, she makes a life-changing decision that is an assertion of who Bella wants to be as a person capable of being in control of her own life. In Paris, she meets and befriends a heavily tattooed brothel madam named Swiney (played by Kathryn Hunter) and a brothel sex worker named Toinette (played by Suzy Bemba), who pass no judgments on any of Bella’s life decisions. Paris is where Bella truly blossoms. She is no longer trapped in a childlike or teenage mindset but expressing herself as a fully formed adult in her intelligence and emotional maturity.

Back in London, Godwin has moved on to finding another young dead woman to re-animate and control. He names her Felicity (played by Margaret Qualley), but this time, Godwin purposely wants to keep her passive, so he gives Felicity a brain where she probably won’t be able to think as independently as Bella can think. Max is still Godwin’s assistant, because Max is pining over Bella and hopes she will return to London and possibly get back together with him. Meanwhile, a military general named Alfred “Alfie” Blessington (played Christopher Abbott) shows up in the last third of the movie and causes yet another major change in Bella’s life.

“Poor Things” is truly a visual feast filled with a potpourri of great acting. Stone takes on the role of Bella with pure gusto that never gets overly hammy but looks organic and genuine to the Bella character. Aside from the physical demands of this role, the emotional arc that Stone shows in Bella’s evolution is absolutely exceptional. Ruffalo, Dafoe and Youssef also give high-quality performances, while Newton makes a memorable impact in the short amount of screen time that she has the movie.

“Poor Things” will get inevitable comparisons to “Frankenstein,” but the biggest difference in each story’s re-animated character is that Dr. Frankenstein’s creation never has a brain that develops beyond a child-like level. Frankenstein’s monster also never has to deal with the minefield of sexual demands and discrimination that Bella experiences, simply because she’s a female. Even though “Poor Things” is not a horror story like “Frankenstein” is, “Poor Things” holds up a gilded mirror to society to show a different type of horror story: The problem of people trying to control and dictate what women do with their own bodies and with their own lives is not oppression that is stuck in the 1890s but is still very much going on today, with no end in sight.

Aside from the gender issues about sexuality, “Poor Things” has astute observations about gender issues and financial freedom. There comes a point in time when Bella finds out that men aren’t the only people who can choose what to do to make money. Bella also makes a big decision in Alexandria when she is confronted with the harsh realities of poverty and income inequality.

In “Poor Things,” the stunning cinematography by Robbie Ryan (who uses a lot of “fish eye” lens camera work), exquisite production design by Shona Heath and James Price, and the gorgeous costume design by Holly Waddington all give the movie the look of a fantastical Gothic Revival alternate universe that takes place in the 1890s but with touches of modern flair. It’s a world that sometimes looks like a picture book come to life. The movie bursts with sumptuous hues and settings that evoke an “Alice in Wonderland” for adults.

However, Bella’s story is not presented as a typical female-oriented fairy tale where her ultimate goal in life is to find someone to be her soul mate/love partner. She begins to understand that she doesn’t have to be dishonest about herself in order to please others. And if she happens to find true love, it’s only worth it when mutual respect is part of the relationship. “Poor Things” is a work of fiction, but it shows the realities of how society can be both vulgar and civil, how life can be filled with pleasure and pain. It’s a cinematic experience like no other and has cemented itself as one of the best movies ever made by this talented principal cast, crew and other filmmakers.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Poor Things” in U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Maestro’ (2023), starring Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan

October 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Bradley Cooper in “Maestro” (Photo by Jason McDonald/Netflix)

“Maestro” (2023)

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York state, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, the dramatic film “Maestro” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy in this biopic of mega-famous composer/orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Culture Clash: Bernstein led a double life as a semi-closeted queer man who had male lovers during his entire relationship with actress Felicia Montealegre, who knew about his true sexuality and was his wife from 1951 until her death from cancer in 1978. 

Culture Audience: “Maestro” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Bernstein; stars Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan; and decades-spanning biopics, even if the movie looks like it’s trying too hard to win major awards.

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in “Maestro” (Photo by Jason McDonald/Netflix)

“Maestro” skillfully depicts the life of a fiery and mercurial music star, even if this very flawed protagonist will leave some viewers cold because of his unrelenting narcissism and selfishness depicted throughout the movie. In this Leonard Bernstein biopic, his musical talent is a very secondary part of the story, compared to his personal relationships. Some viewers won’t like the timeline jumping and small number of musical scenes, but the acting performances are stellar.

Directed by Bradley Cooper (who co-wrote the “Maestro” screenplay with Josh Singer), “Maestro” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival. Cooper stars in “Maestro” as Bernstein, the influential and very famous composer/orchestra conductor, whose best-known work includes writing the music for “West Side Story” and being the longtime music director for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bernstein died in 1990, at the age of 72. For the purposes of this review, the real Leonard Bernstein is referred to as Bernstein, while the character of Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” is referred to as Leonard.

“Maestro” is Cooper’s second movie as a director. He made his feature-film directorial debut with the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born,” which is a far superior movie when it comes to authentic-looking scenes that grab people’s emotions and never let go. “Maestro” has all the characteristics of an “awards bait” movie (including Oscar-winning filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese as producers), but many of the scenes look a little too staged. The movie’s jumpy timeline editing (the story is told in non-chronological order) gives “Maestro” a fidgety tone that might cause some viewers to lose interest by the time the movie is half-over.

“Maestro” (which takes place mostly in New York state) begins and ends with a scene taking place sometime in the 1980s, when Leonard is giving a recorded TV interview that is being filmed in what appears to be a library room in his home. The “Maestro” scenes that take place in the 1970s and 1980s are in color. Any scene taking place before the 1970s is in black and white. In the beginning of the movie, during this opening interview scene, a frail-looking Leonard plays a little bit of piano while he mumbles a few sentences. (This movie’s makeup and hairstyling are above-average, especially in the scenes with Leonard as an elderly man.)

The movie then suddenly flashes back to New York City to 1946, when Leonard wakes up in bed next to clarinetist David Oppenheim (played by Matt Bomer), his lover at the time. (There is no nudity in this movie.) Leonard (whose real name was Louis Bernstein) playfully slaps David on the rear end before jumping out of bed. At the time, Leonard was a young and famous composer/conductor on the rise in the music world, with lots of charm, confidence and enthusiasm. Leonard prefers to be called Lenny by people he knows or those whom he wants to know.

It isn’t long before social butterfly Leonard meets actress Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan) at a party hosted by Claudio Arrau (played by Oscar Pavlo), who was Felicia’s piano instructor at the time. Felicia (who born in Costa Rica, and raised in Chile) is intelligent, witty and very self-assured. Felicia and Leonard have an instant connection expressed through flirting and banter. They soon begin dating, and he is very up front in telling her his secret: He’s also sexually attracted to men. Felicia doesn’t seem to have a problem with it because Leonard makes her happy, and he seems to genuinely love her—just not in the way that he loves men.

Leonard juggles his relationships with David and Felicia, until he decides to spend more time in a committed relationship with Felicia. When Leonard introduces Felicia to David for the first time, the eventually jilted David seems a little envious but not too bothered that Felicia has captured Leonard’s interest. Apparently, David is used to Leonard’s polyamorous ways. Felicia will never really gets used to it.

Someone who approves of Felicia is Leonard’s younger sister Shirley (played by Sarah Silverman), who is sarcastically funny and who knows about Leonard’s true sexuality. The movie depicts Shirley being at the same party where Felicia and Leonard met. Felicia and Shirley become genuine friends. Shirley and Felicia are close enough that Felicia confides in Shirley when she’s having marital problems with Leonard.

As an experienced actress in theater and television, Felicia has her own established career when she meets Leonard. As depicted in “Maestro,” Felicia’s American father Roy Elwood Cohn owns a performing arts theater where she and Leonard meet for dates. Leonard and Felicia have a quick courtship where she’s the one who brings up marriage to him first. “Let’s give it a whirl,” she smiles when they decide to get married. Leonard and Felicia get married in 1951. He was 33, while she was 29.

The movie then flashes forward to 37-year-old Leonard and 33-year-old Felicia as new parents to their first child, a daughter named Jamie. They would eventually have two more children: middle child Alexander (nicknamed Alex) and youngest child Nina. “Maestro” depicts Jamie (played as a teenager and young adult by Maya Hawke) as the child who has the closest bond to Leonard. She is curious and intelligent—just like her father.

Alex and Nina are barely in the movie. Brooklyn Rockett portrays Jamie as a child. Sam Nivola has the role of Alex as a teenager/young adult. Alexa Swinton is Nina as a teenager. Maybe the real-life Alex and Nina did not want to be featured prominently in the movie for privacy reasons. Whatever the reason is, Alex and Nina are sidelined characters with vague personalities.

When Jamie goes away to college, she is the one who asks Leonard if the gossip that she’s hearing about him is true. Jamie doesn’t come right and say what she’s heard, but Leonard knows she’s heard that he has affairs with men. Felicia has made Leonard promise never to tell their children the truth about his sexuality, so he lies to Jamie and says the gossip isn’t true, although he hesitates for a moment as if he’s on the verge of telling her the truth.

Don’t expect “Maestro” to show the inner workings of how some of Bernstein’s classics were made. There are really only two big performance scenes that show Leonard conducting an orchestra. They are masterfully filmed and impactful scenes, but then the movie goes right back to what the majority of the story is about: Leonard pursuing younger men, while Felicia tries and often fails to not be jealous.

The movie hints at but doesn’t explicitly show Leonard’s promiscuity. For example, there’s a scene where married Leonard has a pleasant conversation in a park with David and David’s wife, who have their newborn baby with them. Leonard leans in to talk to the baby and says, “Can I tell you a secret? I slept with both of your parents, but I’m reigning it in.”

The scene is played for laughs (David and his wife think that Leonard’s comment is funny), and it’s an effectively comedic moment in the movie. However, there are underlying issues with Leonard that are shown in this scene—namely, Leonard’s flippant attitude over his comment about “reigning it in” indicates that he knows his sexual antics are probably out of control and hurtful to people, but he doesn’t care enough to really stop the emotional pain he causes. His attitude is: “This is who I am. Deal with it.”

The male lover who becomes a constant companion to Leonard is Tommy Cothran (played by Gideon Glick), who was a music director at a San Francisco radio station when he met Leonard at a party in 1971. When they first meet, Leonard and Tommy flirt openly with each other in front of Felicia. And within minutes, Felicia sees Leonard and Tommy kissing in a hallway at the party. She walks away, looking hurt but not too surprised.

Later, when the relationship between Tommy and Leonard becomes more serious, Leonard insists that Tommy be treated like a member of the family. Tommy is frequently included in family activities, such as meals, trips and parties. When Tommy, Leonard and Felicia go on dates together, Felicia is the one who feels like the awkward third wheel.

At first, Felicia tries to act like she’s okay with this arrangement. But it eventually starts to bother her a lot. Felicia and Leonard have more arguments, and they decide to separate but never get divorced. The movie has hints that Leonard abused cocaine or was addicted to cocaine in the 1970s and 1980s. (Observant viewers will notice how sweaty-looking he is in his older years.)

Felicia asserting herself in her marriage and how she deals with her cancer diagnosis are among the best scenes in “Maestro.” Mulligan excels in these scenes that show Mulligan’s exceptional talent in portraying a wide range of emotions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that although the movie is called “Maestro” and it’s a Leonard Bernstein biopic, the soul of the movie is about Felicia.

Felicia also has some of the best lines in the movie. While arguing with Leonard about his deceitful double life (which she admits she’s enabled), she tells him: “There’s a saying in Chile: ‘Never stand underneath a bird that’s full of shit.’ I’ve been living under that bird for too long.” Later in the argument, Felicia makes this cutting remark to Leonard: “If you’re not careful, you’re going to die a lonely old queen.”

Meanwhile, self-absorbed Leonard utters mopey lines such as, “I feel like the world is on the verge of collapse.” It’s quite an ironic statement, when Leonard is constantly shown to be the one causing chaos in his own personal life. The problem with his attitude is that he acts as if he entitled to do what he wants because it feels good to him, even if it hurts other people. When confronted with the consequences of his actions, he acts as if everyone is uptight and wrong for not understanding him.

“Maestro” certainly is elevated by all the great talent in front of and behind the camera. However, after a while, the movie becomes a little too fixated on Leonard’s marital problems and his obsession with seducing men who are younger and less powerful than he is. (In a lecherous scene that takes place after he and Felicia have separated, Leonard is shown getting sexually involved with one his male students who is in Leonard’s orchestra class.) Cooper gives a very ambitious performance, but it all looks very calculated—a bright, polished sheen on a very troubled and complicated man.

Although technically proficient, “Maestro” needed to be more balanced in the story to show more of Leonard’s musical side. It’s like doing a feature-length biopic about a famous singer and only showing the singer perform two or three songs. The movie looks great, thanks to top-notch cinematography from Matthew Libatique, but the story is told like a book with its chapters slightly jumbled.

“Maestro” wants to have its cake and eat it too: It tries very hard to make it look like Felicia was the love of Leonard’s life, and yet he seemed to care more about making his lover Tommy happy. True love also does not inflict the type of suffering that Felicia endured in the marriage. Although she knew about Leonard’s sexuality before they got married, Felicia probably did not anticipate how his double life would be so painful to her and their children.

Bernstein certainly led a very full and accomplished life that deserves a biopic. And there are definitely plenty of reasons why “Maestro” should be seen by people, especially those who are inclined to watch biographical films about celebrities. Just don’t expect this movie to be completely cohesive or thorough in detailing major aspects of Bernstein’s life that aren’t about how his sexuality affected his personal relationships.

Netflix will release “Maestro” in select U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Priscilla,’ starring Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi

October 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in “Priscilla” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Priscilla”

Directed by Sofia Coppola

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and in Germany, from 1959 to 1973, the dramatic film “Priscilla” (based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: At 14 years old, Priscilla Beaulieu is courted by 24-year-old superstar Elvis Presley, and they get married when she is 21, but their relationship is plagued by his drug addiction, infidelity, and controlling tendencies. 

Culture Audience: “Priscilla” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Elvis Presley family and people who like artfully cinematic versions of memoirs.

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in “Priscilla” (Photo courtesy of A24)

With quiet observations and volatile emotions, the biopic “Priscilla” compellingly shows the doomed relationship of Elvis and Priscilla Presley, who had a love affair that was tender and toxic. Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi give riveting performances as this ill-fated couple. “Priscilla” is based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me,” which at the time revealed many candid details about how suffocating this relationship was for her, even during the happy times, and why she finally had to break free and start a new life.

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, “Priscilla” has the blessing of Priscilla Presley, who was married to Elvis from 1967 to 1973. (Priscilla is one of the executive producers of the movie.) Elvis died of a heart attack in 1977, when he was 42. “Priscilla” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, where Spaeny won the prize for Best Actress. “Priscilla” had its North American premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival. The movie takes place from 1959 to 1973 (when Priscilla was 14 years old to 28 years old), with Spaeny skillfully portraying Priscilla in every scene.

Most people who are fans of Elvis already know the story of how Elvis and Priscilla met in 1959, at a party at Elvis’ rented home in Bad Nauheim, Germany. (“Priscilla” was actually filmed in Toronto.) The movie shows how Priscilla (born in New York City, raised in Texas) was living in Germany at the time with her mother Ann Beaulieu (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and stepfather Paul Beaulieu (played by Ari Cohen), because Paul was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, and the family was stationed at a military base in Germany. At the time, Elvis was the biggest music superstar in the world, and he had been drafted into the U.S. Army.

Priscilla’s birth name was Priscilla Wagner. Her biological father, James Frederick Wagner, who was a pilot in the U.S. Navy, died in a plane crash when Priscilla was 6 months old. She was adopted by Paul Beaulieu after he married Priscilla’s mother. Priscilla’s maiden surname was then changed to Beaulieu. In real life, Priscilla had five younger half-siblings, but these siblings are barely in the movie. Everything is completely told from Priscilla’s perspective, from the beginning of her relationship with Elvis to their separation that eventually led to their 1973 divorce.

At the time that Elvis (a boisterous extrovert) and Priscilla (a quiet introvert) met, he was 24, and she was 14. What many movies and TV shows about Elvis often gloss over or try to excuse is the predatory way he pursued this child to go out on dates with him. Although Priscilla claims that Elvis always asked her parents’ permission to go out on dates with her when she was underage, the fact remains that their relationship while she was an underage teen was very inappropriate. “Priscilla” shows in no uncertain terms that the relationship has all the signs of a girl and her parents being “groomed” so that she could eventually be controlled and manipulated by an older lover. In this case, the older lover just happened to be rich and famous.

In “Priscilla,” this imbalance of power is shown right from the start. Elvis’ friend Terry West (played by Luke Humphrey), a military man in charge of booking the base’s entertainment, is the one who actually invited Priscilla to Elvis’ house party. Terry meets Priscilla when he sees Priscilla by herself at a diner on the military base, and he compliments her on how pretty she is before he invites her to Elvis’ party. It makes you wonder if Terry was asked by Elvis to specifically target underage teenage girls to “hang out” with Elvis at these parties, Priscilla’s parents certainly weren’t invited to this party.

The first instinct of Priscilla’s parents is to not allow her to go to the party. Terry assures Ann and Paul that Terry and his wife Carol West (played by Deanna Jarvis) will be chaperoning Priscilla the entire time that Priscilla is at the party. Of course, these chaperones aren’t with Priscilla the entire time, because Priscilla and Elvis have moments when they are alone together. In the movie, when Elvis finds out that Priscilla is only in ninth grade, he says to her, “You’re just a baby.”

Priscilla is naturally flattered by the attention, because she was already a fan of Elvis before they met each other. In one of their early conversations, she tells him that her favorite song is Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.” Elvis likes what he sees and hears when he’s with Priscilla, who is starstruck and overwhelmed by being in Elvis’ presence. Priscilla will eventually see Elvis’ abusive and controlling side, including his nasty temper and his demands that her physical appearance be exactly how he dictates her to look. As Priscilla said in “Elvis and Me” about Elvis: “He was truly a master at manipulating people.”

By the time Priscilla is asked to go on a third date with Elvis, Paul requires that Elvis meet Paul and Ann in person first. Paul is the more skeptical and wary parent, who questions Elvis on why Elvis is pursuing underage Priscilla when Elvis could date women. Elvis tries to spin it as “companion” interest instead of a sexual interest, by telling Paul that he enjoys talking to Priscilla and that she’s “mature” for her age. Elvis also plays the sympathy card, by telling Ann and Paul that Priscilla has been helping him get over the death of his beloved mother, Gladys, who died of a heart attack in 1958. Elvis uses his fame and charm to eventually convince Ann and Paul that his only intentions are to take care of Priscilla like a young friend.

Of course, the relationship became more than friendly and not very innocent. The movie shows Elvis is the one who initiates the first kiss that he and Priscilla have together. And early on in the relationship, he introduces Priscilla to taking pills (uppers such as Dexedrine and downers such as Placidyl) that he was frequently ingesting as a way to cope with his hectic lifestyle. “Priscilla” does not try to excuse the fact that Elvis was knowingly drugging an underage person who didn’t have a prescription for those pills.

As depicted in the movie, Priscilla has no interest or curiosity in taking the pills the first time that Elvis orders her to take these pills. She only does it to please him. It eventually became a pattern in the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla. The movie implies that Priscilla eventually gets hooked on the pills, but her pill habit wasn’t severe enough for her to seek medical help. In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla said that while she was married to Elvis, she eventually quit taking these types of pills on her own, but Elvis never quit.

In 1960, after Elvis left active duty in the U.S. Army, he went back to the United States. He stopped contacting Priscilla for all of 1960 and a great deal of 1961, while Priscilla pined for him and showed no interest in dating boys her own age. She was also aware of Elvis’ very busy love life that was covered in the media. This type of heartbreaking infatuation is shown with accurate clarity in “Priscilla,” which does a very good job of depicting how the lines can be blurred between fan worship and an unhealthy obsession. Priscilla believes that her connection to Elvis was real in the short time that they spent together, so she’s deeply hurt and confused over why he chooses not to keep in touch with her.

And so, in 1961, when Elvis calls Priscilla out of the blue to pick up right where they left off in their relationship, it’s no wonder that lovelorn Priscilla jumps at the chance. Now older and more assertive (but still under 18), Priscilla threatens to run away to wherever Elvis is if her parents won’t give her permission. Elvis summons Priscilla to Memphis, Tennessee, to visit him on a regular basis at his famous Graceland mansion.

By 1963, when she is 18 years old, Elvis has persuaded Priscilla to live with him at Graceland. Her parents are convinced it will be safe because Graceland is also the home of some of Elvis’ relatives, including Elvis’ father/business manager Vernon Presley (played by Tim Post) and Vernon’s mother Dodger Presley (played by Lynne Griffin), whose real name was Minnie Mae Hood Presley. While she’s in high school, Priscilla’s true relationship with Elvis isn’t officially confirmed to the media because of the scandal it would’ve created.

While out on dates with Elvis, she was presented as Elvis’ close friend, but most people were skeptical that the relationship was strictly platonic. In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla also mentioned that Elvis used his money and clout to keep many of their dates secretive. For example, he would often rent out an entire movie theater after-hours for him, Priscilla and anyone else who was invited to watch his choice of movies.

The scenes where the adult Elvis is “seducing” underage Priscilla are supposed to be uncomfortable to watch, especially for people who don’t want the words “statutory rape” to be associated with Elvis. In Tennessee, 18 years old is the minimum age of consent to legally have sexual relations with an adult. This was also Tennessee law in the 1960s.

There’s a scene in “Priscilla” where adult Elvis tells underage Priscilla that he won’t have sexual intercourse with her, but “we can do other things.” In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla admitted that she and Elvis started having sexual relations (which she called “lovemaking”) when she was 16. She claims that they didn’t have full sexual intercourse until their wedding night, when she was 21. Priscilla and Elvis got married on May 1, 1967, less than two weeks before Priscilla’s 22nd birthday.

“Priscilla” will get inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-nominated 2022 biopic “Elvis” (directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann), but these two movies couldn’t be more different from each other. The bombastic spectacle “Elvis” was sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises and is chock full of Elvis songs and dazzling performance scenes, but the movie doesn’t show Priscilla as anything but a side character, and the movie blocks out any references to legal issues regarding Elvis being sexually involved with an underage girl. The “Elvis” movie does not show how (according to Priscilla) Elvis coldly announced to her that he wanted a trial separation, when she was pregnant with daughter Lisa Marie in late 1967. The separation ended before Lisa Marie was born in February 1968.

“Priscilla,” which has a much lower budget than “Elvis,” is a quieter and more understated character study that is a more accurate depiction of what happened in the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla. Viewers should not expect to see big scenes of Elvis performing his songs in “Priscilla.” There are no Elvis songs in the “Priscilla” movie and only a few brief scenes of him performing on stage. Also noticeably absent in “Priscilla” is Elvis’ domineering manager Colonel Tom Parker, who is the narrator and one of the main characters in 2022’s “Elvis.”

One of the most effective things about “Priscilla” is how it depicts abusive relationships as often starting off as “fairy tale” type of romances. But there are usually warning signs. Early on in their dating relationship, Elvis forbids Priscilla from taking a part-time job at a clothing boutique, by telling her that she has to make this choice of what she wants in her life: “It’s either me or a career.” Long before Elvis and Priscilla are married, he expects her to be at his beck and call, while he doesn’t have to answer to her about any of his activities or life decisions. Elvis gets very angry when Priscilla asks questions about what he does when he’s away from her.

And when there are obvious signs that Elvis is cheating on Priscilla (his “Viva Las Vegas” co-star Ann-Margret is mentioned as Priscilla’s biggest rival), he tries to make Priscilla sound paranoid or imagining things when she brings up her infidelity suspicions to him. When the couple’s arguments get physical (there’s a scene where Elvis throws a chair at Priscilla, but the chair narrowly misses her; another scene shows Elvis harshly shoving Priscilla), Elvis does the typical abuser “love bombing” of making profuse apologies and promising that the abuse will never happen again. Elvis is shown as someone who was unpredictable, with a temper that could go from one extreme to another in a matter of minutes. There are enough good times to convince Priscilla to stay in the relationship longer than she should have, but the abuse never really leaves the relationship.

“Priscilla” has many scenes in the movie that are taken directly from “Elvis and Me,” often using some of the same lines of dialogue that are quoted in the book. For example, the movie recreates the section in the book where teenage Priscilla is desperate to get a good grade on a math test, in order to graduate from high school. And so, she convinces the straight-A female student sitting next her during the test to let Priscilla copy the answers on her test, with the implied promise that the other student will be invited to one of Elvis’ parties as a reward.

One of the many other experiences described in the “Elvis and Me” book that’s recreated in the “Priscilla” movie is when underage Priscilla visits Elvis at Graceland, sometime in 1961, when they had rekindled their dating relationship. During this visit, she is once again not accompanied by her parents when spending time with Elvis. Elvis tells Priscilla to take some pills. She goes into a deep sleep that she thinks lasts for a few hours. When she finally wakes up from her groggy stupor, Elvis tells her she’s been barely conscious for two days, and he refused to take her to a hospital. This is the type of disturbing experience that isn’t in most movies or TV shows about Elvis.

During the marriage of Priscilla and Elvis, they maintain a home at Graceland; at a ranch in Horn Lake, Mississippi; and at a mansion in the Los Angeles area. Elvis and Priscilla also spend a lot of time in Las Vegas, where Elvis had a concert residency at Las Vegas International Hotel, from 1969 to 1976. (The hotel’s name is now Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.) Elvis and Priscilla share a fondness for certain animals as pets, particularly dogs and horses. A West Highland White Terrier (a gift from Elvis to Priscilla) becomes Priscilla’s constant companion in many scenes. In real life, this dog was a white poodle named Honey.

Elvis’ self-titled 1968 concert special on NBC (also known as the Elvis comeback special) is depicted as a triumphant and happy experience that Elvis and Priscilla watched on TV with members of their inner circle. Elvis would also host several parties and musical jam sessions. Unlike the 2022 “Elvis” movie, “Priscilla” does not have several depictions of other celebrities who knew Elvis. As shown in “Priscilla,” any good times that Elvis and Priscilla had also came with bad times that were the eventual undoing of this marriage.

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “Priscilla” shows that the glamorous sides of fame and fortune—such as shopping sprees, high-priced gifts and lavish trips—were just superficial things that did not impact the marriage of Elvis and Priscilla nearly as much as the abuse and disrespect that she suffered during the marriage. As seen in the movie, Priscilla can come home with shopping bags of expensive items, but when she’s at home, she goes back to being an oppressed wife whose husband makes restrictive demands on her or ignores her while he’s away enjoying the company of other women.

Priscilla is also constantly reminded that Elvis has more power than she ever will. When she is a teenage student, he visits the Catholic high school where Priscilla attends after she moved to Memphis. Some of the school’s nuns are star-struck and act like giddy schoolgirls when they ask to take photos with Elvis. When she is a married adult, Elvis refuses to let Priscilla to get a job or have any career interests. Long before they are married, he tells her as an underage child that her life has to revolve around him, in order for him to really love her and be in a relationship with her.

“Priscilla” also shows the painful loneliness that often comes with dating a busy celebrity. While in high school, Priscilla doesn’t have many friends. She’s considered “different” or “unapproachable” because she’s dating Elvis. She’s also predictably the subject of a lot of gossip and is told by Elvis not to mingle with people who could spread information about their relationship. Vernon also won’t allow Priscilla to bring any visitors to Graceland, where she was living during her last year in high school in 1963.

As an adult, Priscilla is frequently left alone while Elvis is touring or working on a movie. Elvis would often forbid her to visit him where he was working. And if she was allowed to visit him, she could only stay for a very short period of time. Priscilla often had to find out what Elvis was doing with other women in his free time by hearing about or seeing these antics in the media.

“Priscilla” shows that Priscilla has some female friends, but those friendships are briefly depicted in the movie as social friends, not close confidantes who know all the details about Priscilla’s misery in her marriage. It’s one of the few areas of the movie that is in direct contrast to Priscilla’s account in her “Elvis and Me” memoir. In the book, Priscilla details her close female friendships, particularly with Joan Esposito, the first wife of Elvis’ longtime tour manager Joe Esposito.

And sometimes, the loneliness that Priscilla experienced was when Elvis was physically there with her but emotionally far apart. The movie portrays Elvis’ mid-1960s obsession with various religions and philosophies in his quest to find the true meaning of life. Elvis’ hairstylist Larry (played R Austin Ball), based on the real Larry Geller, becomes a self-appointed spiritual guru for Elvis. Larry is the one encourages Elvis and Priscilla to take LSD for the first time. (In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla said she and Elvis only took LSD once when they were a couple.) This “acid trip” is depicted in the movie, but not quite in the way that it’s described in “Elvis and Me.”

The movie portrays Priscilla’s eventual discontent over Elvis’ spiritual philosophy activities, because she felt it was ruining their marriage. In bed, she would try to be sexually intimate with him, but he would demand that she listen to him while he read spiritual and philosophical books out loud to her. By the mid-1960s, he was inviting people to have Bible studies at their Bel Air home. He would lead these Bible studies, which would last for hours per session. All the Bible study guests were young, adoring females, who would mutually flirt with Elvis, while Priscilla was usually in the same room.

Elvis’ notorious all-male entourage, nicknamed the Memphis Mafia, is depicted as mostly carousing “yes men.” Elvis and the Memphis Mafia leer and gawk at Priscilla when she is forced to make herself look sexy for them, such as trying on and modeling dresses for Elvis and his Memphis Mafia, while they give their opinions on how she looks. This judgmental leering has a sleazy factor when you consider that Priscilla is an underage teen in these scenes.

After Elvis and Priscilla become parents to daughter Lisa Marie, he spends even less time with his family. (Raine Monroe Boland as the role of Lisa Marie at age 3. Emily Mitchell has the role of Lisa Marie at age 5.) The smiling Presley family portraits during this time often masked a marriage that was fracturing and would eventually permanently break.

“Priscilla” doesn’t make Priscilla look saintly, but the movie could have been more honest in showing that Elvis wasn’t the only one who was unfaithful in their marriage. In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla admitted she had an affair with her karate instructor Mike Stone in 1972, before she made the decision to leave Elvis. The “Priscilla” movie hints that Mike Stone (played by Evan Annisette) and Priscilla were sexually intimate, but the movie has no outright depiction or admission of this extramarital affair.

Overall, writer/director Coppola has a very impressive eye for detail and adds some artistic touches to this biopic. In the “Elvis and Me” book, Priscilla made a sarcastic joke about how her choice in dresses often had to be compatible with whichever gun she would be carrying. (Elvis liked giving her pistols as gifts.) In the movie, there’s a shot of three dresses displayed on a bed with different pistols lying on each dress, as if the pistols are clothing accessories. The cinematography, costume design and production design of “Priscilla” are all on point for this splendid-looking movie.

It’s truly fascinating to behold Spaeny’s ability to show the emotional range and evolution of Priscilla at all these different stages in Priscilla’s life, from childhood to adulthood. Elordi’s portrayal of Elvis as an outwardly confident but inwardly insecure superstar is also admirable in its nuances, even though Elvis doesn’t change as much as Priscilla does in this movie. Because “Priscilla” revolves so much around Priscilla and Elvis, everyone else is a side character with not much development.

Did Elvis and Priscilla have true love? Maybe. But it was also a very dysfunctional and unbalanced relationship where Elvis always wanted to control Priscilla. It was never the type of love where there was equal respect between the partners. Because “Elvis and Me” was published in 1985, and because “Priscilla” stays mostly faithful to the book, there isn’t any new information revealed in this movie. However, in the growing list of Elvis Presley-related movies, “Priscilla” is in a class by itself for celebrating someone in Elvis’ inner circle who had the courage to leave an unhealthy situation where many people would willingly stay because of the fame and money.

A24 will release “Priscilla” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Monica’ (2023), starring Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Joshua Close and Adriana Barraza

August 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Trace Lysette in “Monica” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Monica” (2023)

Directed by Andrea Pallaoro

Culture Representation: Taking place in California and Cincinnati, Ohio, the dramatic film “Monica” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A transgender woman takes a road trip for a reunion with her family, including her estranged mother, who has a hard time accepting her daughter’s transgender identity.

Culture Audience: “Monica” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in a relatively low-key drama about family issues that are often experienced by transgender people.

“Monica” cast members. Pictured in back row, from left to right: Joshua Close, Brennan or Leland Pittman, Emily Browning and Trace Lysette. Pictured in front row, from left to right: Ruby James Fraser, Graham Caldwell and Patricia Clarkson. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The “slice of life” film “Monica” offers a glimpse into what it’s like for a transgender woman to reveal her transgender self for the first time to members of her family. Trace Lysette gives a magnetic performance in a film that is sometimes limited by mundane scenes. A lot of credit should be given to this drama for not going down a stereotypical path of setting up a deadly tragedy for the transgender protagonist.

Directed by Andrea Pallaoro (who co-wrote the “Monica” screenplay with Orlando Tirado), “Monica” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. The film often moves along at a sluggish pace, but for viewers who have the patience for a deliberately introspective film that has several moments of emotional authenticity, then “Monica” is worth watching. A less talented cast would have lowered the quality of this movie.

Many scripted dramas about transgender people often make them tragic figures, but “Monica” does not pander to those clichés. It also doesn’t make a transgender person’s life look easy either. In “Monica,” Lysette (who is a transgender woman in real life) portrays the title character, who is seen taking a road trip from California to her family hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. (The movie was filmed on location in Cincinnati.)

Monica’s purpose for the road trip is to see her immediate family and reveal her transgender self for the first time to them. Monica has not seen these family in members in “a long time,” which isn’t specifically defined in the number of years, but viewers can assume it’s been several years. Very little is told about Monica’s past until near the end of film, although it’s fairly obvious that she’s apprehensive about taking this trip.

Before and during the trip, Monica is seen leaving voice mail messages to a man named Jimmy. However, Jimmy doesn’t seem to be interested in being in contact with her. In the movie’s opening scene, Monica is seen telling Jimmy in a voice mail: “Jimmy, I know you said you wanted some space, but I don’t mean to pressure you … I miss you a lot and just wanted to talk to you about a few things. Give me a call. I love you very much.”

Monica tells Jimmy in the messages that she’s taking a road trip and should arrive at her destination in “a couple of days.” Monica continues to leave messages for Jimmy and occasionally says she knows that he told her not to call, but that she needs to talk to someone. In other words, this movie makes it obvious that Monica is a very lonely person. Even though Monica is seen giving a massage to a naked man before she takes her trip, it’s never explicitly revealed if she’s a masseuse or a sex worker.

Not much happens while Monica is going to back to Cincinnati, so the first third of the movie tends to drag with scenes of her travels. At a gas station, Monica gets leered at by a man, who flirts with her. She politely rejects his advances. There are also some dull scenes of Monica by herself in motel rooms.

Things don’t get interesting in the movie until the family reunion. Monica’s widowed mother Eugenia (played by Patricia Clarkson) seems to have early on-set dementia. Eugenia is often bedridden and refuses to live in a hospice. Instead, Eugenia has a live-in caretaker named Leticia (played by Adriana Barraza), who is a loyal and responsible employee.

Monica’s two siblings live near Eugenia and often visit her. Monica’s brother Paul (played by Joshua Close) is a bachelor with no children. Monica’s sister Laura (played by Emily Browning) is a married mother of three children: 7-year-old son Brody (played by Graham Caldwell); daughter Britney (played by Ruby James Fraser), who’s about 5 years old; and an infant son named Benny (played by twins Brennan Pittman and Leland Pittman). Laura’s husband is not seen in the movie, because Laura says that she and her husband been going through “a rough patch” in their marriage.

Laura and Paul do the best that they can to accept Monica’s transgender identity and don’t cause any problems for her about it. Eugenia is the one in the family who has the most resistance and discomfort about accepting Monica for who she is. The mother/daughter relationship is the emotional core of the movie, which shows how Monica and Eugenia try to navigate Eugenia’s struggle with Monica’s identity. Clarkson gives a very layered performance, as someone who has an internal struggle with her memory and reality.

“Monica” realistically doesn’t try to wrap everything in an “only in a movie” package. There are moments—thanks to the admirable acting from the cast members—where things are left unsaid, but the characters say a lot with their body language and facial expressions. Monica’s family members don’t express emotions easily, but underneath any pain or confusion, there is still love. “Monica” probably won’t be considered a classic movie about transgender identity, but it has a credible approach to portraying sensitive issues that don’t always have easy answers or expected results.

IFC Films released “Monica” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on May 30, 2023.

Review: ‘Amanda’ (2023), starring Benedetta Porcaroli, Galatéa Bellugi, Michele Bravi, Monica Nappo, Margherita Maccapani Missoni and Giovanna Mezzogiorno

July 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Benedetta Porcaroli in “Amanda” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Amanda” (2023)

Directed by Carolina Cavalli

Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Italy, the comedy/drama film “Amanda” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An aimless and affluent 25-year-old woman, who has trouble making friends, has an uneasy reunion with a reclusive woman who used to be her childhood pal. 

Culture Audience: “Amanda” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in female-centric movies exploring topics of mental illness and loneliness, with some satirical touches of comedy.

Galatéa Bellugi and Benedetta Porcaroli in “Amanda” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Amanda” is a quirky dark comedy that isn’t going to appeal to the masses. However, it’s an interesting character study of how anti-social people try to make personal connections with each other when they are pressured into it. “Amanda” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Carolina Cavalli, “Amanda” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Italy) is Cavalli’s feature-film directorial debut. The movie sometimes gets bogged down in too much repetition. The title character of the film is Amanda (played by Benedetta Porcaroli), a 25-year-old spoiled and angry woman who doesn’t work and doesn’t go to school. Amanda comes from an affluent family who owns pharmacies. She was living in Paris for an unspecified period of time, but she has currently gone back to her hometown in Italy and is living with her parents.

The movie opens with a scene from Amanda’s childhood that is left purposely vague but then is explained much later in the story. The scene take place at the home of Amanda’s parents about 15 years earlier, when Amanda (played by Ariel Prinzis) was about 10 years old, and her sister Marina (played by Aurora Prinzis) was about 13 or 14 years old. Amanda and Marina are both sunning themselves out near the house’s swimming pool.

Amanda’s lounge chair is floating inside the pool, while Marina’s lounge chair is at the side. Suddenly, a splash is heard. The family’s maid/housekeeper Judy (played by Ana Cecilia Ponce) has just arrived in the pool area to serve some lemonade, when she drops the tray and shouts with a horrified expression on her face: “Amanda!” What happened that day has repercussions for years on how Amanda’s family treats her.

There are a few more flashbacks to Amanda’s childhood, but the rest of the movie takes place during Amanda’s current life. She is a restless, sulking, rude and arrogant person who goes through life insulting people and then complains to her family that she has a hard time making friends. Amanda finds out from middle-aged Judy that her mother Sofia (played by Monica Nappo) has told Judy to stop hanging out with Amanda in Judy’s spare time because Sofia wants Amanda to make friends of her own age.

Amanda blames her lack of social life on not having much to do in her hometown. Her main leisure activities (that she usually does alone) are going to a local arthouse cinema and going to raves. Even though Amanda sees other young people (usually men) going to the movies by themselves on Saturday nights, she looks down on them because, as she whines to Marina, “They are weird.”

How rude and volatile is Amanda? After Judy (who is kind and polite) tells Amanda that she can’t go with a rave with Amanda because Judy as to do some “bureaucratic errands,” this spiteful brat angrily confronts Judy in the kitchen. Amanda snarls, “Judy, staying with my family has turned you into a real asshole.” And then Amanda mutters underneath her breath about Judy, “Bourgeois bitch.” When Amanda loses her temper, she will sometimes throw things or push things off of a table.

In other words, Amanda is mostly a nightmare to be around, although she has moments where she’s capable of being a decent human being. It’s revealed in the movie that she’s had this difficult personality ever since she was a child. When viewers find out what happened in the swimming pool incident that’s hinted at in the opening scene, it starts to make a little more sense why her parents have given up on trying to give her disciplinary boundaries.

When Amanda is around her parents, they let her rant and act like an immature whiner, while Marina (played by Margherita Maccapani Missoni) is the only one in the family who will stand up to Amanda when Amanda is being obnoxious. The other members of Amanda’s family are her father Dario (played by Sergio Chiorino), Marina’s unnamed husband (played by David Bozzalla), Marina’s 8-year-old daughter Stella (played by Amelia Elisabetta Biuso) and Marina’s toddler son (played by Francesco Biuso), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. Viewers will notice that “Amanda” is a very female-centric movie, where the women do most of the talking, while the men are the supporting characters in every scene.

Amanda and Marina have a love/hate sisterly relationship. Marina thinks that Amanda is very selfish and unworthy of all the coddling that Amanda gets from her parents. Amanda thinks Marina is a nagging snob who acts superior because Marina seems to have the “perfect” life with her husband and children. After a while, it becomes very apparent that the clashes between Amanda and Marina have been going on for many years.

During a family dinner, the two sisters start sniping at each other. Marina says to Amanda after Amanda complains that it’s hard to make friends in the area: “Why don’t you go back to Paris? You said you’d come here to help with the pharmacies. You came in once to get a Chapstick. For free.”

An example of the movie’s offbeat comedy is in this dinner scene. Stella mentions that she recently broke up with a “boyfriend” (who is also 8) named Pavel, because they were going to two different summer camps. Amanda shrugs at this news and says it’s hard to be in long-distance relationships. Stella is a typical “precocious kid in an eccentric comedy” who says things that are overly mature for most kids her age.

Amanda has a weird obsession with getting a standing electrical fan, but she doesn’t want to pay for it in cash or with a debit or credit card. She wants to get this fan by using bonus points that she would accumulate by purchasing things at a local supermarket. The movie has some time-wasting scenes of Amanda pursuing this goal.

Sofia’s best friend is a single mother Viola (played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who knows how much of a loner Amanda is, so Viola suggests and then insists that Amanda meet Viola’s daughter Rebecca (played by Galatéa Bellugi), who is about the same age as Amanda. Rebecca, who is very reclusive and lives with Viola, has got some personality issues of her own. Rebecca says that she “hates people.” And there was a time when Rebecca didn’t come out of her room for a year.

Rebecca now leaves her room, but for years, Rebecca still hasn’t gone anywhere beyond her mother’s vast property. It’s mentioned at one point in the story that Rebecca doesn’t know who her father is, she doesn’t really want to know, and she likes to think that her father is dead. In other words, Rebecca and Amanda could be candidates for their community’s Angry Loner of the Year.

Amanda somewhat reluctantly goes to Viola’s house to meet Rebecca, because she admits to Viola: “It just so happens I’m looking for a best friend.” It should come as no surprise that the visit doesn’t go well at all. However, as already revealed in the “Amanda” trailer, Rebecca and Amanda eventually start hanging out with each other. It turns out that Amanda and Rebecca knew each other and were friends when they were underage children.

During this rekindled friendship, Amanda meets a guy (played by Michele Bravi) in his mid-to-late 20s, who’s loitering outside of a nightclub. It’s on the same night and around the same time and location that she makes the acquaintance of a woman in her late teens or early 20s named Matilde (played by Matilde Rabbotini), who asks Amanda to temporarily borrow Amanda’s phone after Matilde loses her own phone. Matilde is generically nice but hardly anything is revealed about her during the movie.

Amanda is attracted to this male stranger. The way she catches this guy’s attention is to stare at him. When he confronts her about her staring, she tells him that he looks like a drug dealer. There’s some back-and-forth-banter between them, as Matilde stands nearby and watches uncomfortably. Amanda asks him if he wants to get something to eat with her. He says yes, so they go to a nearby diner, with Matilda tagging along. The movie shows what happens to Amanda’s relationships with these two new acquaintances.

Meanwhile, Rebecca has a therapist named Ann (played by Giorgia Favoti), who makes frequent house visits. Amanda immediately dislikes Ann and isn’t afraid to express this animosity. Amanda tells Rebecca that Ann is “brainwashing” Rebecca. It’s obvious that Amanda is jealous about anyone getting close to Rebecca. Amanda shows some other indications that she’s got obsessive tendencies. However, don’t expect “Amanda” to turn into a crime thriller.

“Amanda” sort of wanders along by showing vignettes of Amanda’s life. Some of it is quite boring. But viewers might keep watching out of sheer curiosity to find out what is going to happen to Amanda. She’s not supposed to be a “likable” character, but Porcaroli’s capable performance as Amanda certainly makes this movie compelling enough to watch. Bellugi’s performance as Rebecca is adequate and has the most impact in the last third of he movie. “Amanda” also has some gorgeous cinematography from Lorenzo Levrini.

Is there a point to this movie? “Amanda” is writer/director Cavalli’s way of showing that people who seemingly should have very little problems can still be deeply unhappy if they aren’t happy with themselves. The movie has some obvious messages, without getting preachy, about how mental illness should not go untreated. Most of all, this unique independent film is a patchwork-styled story of what can happen when the people who say they don’t need others can turn out to be the people who need others the most.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Amanda” in select U.S. cinemas on July 7, 2023.

Review: ‘Master Gardener,’ starring Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Quintessa Swindell

May 30, 2023

by Carla Hay

Quintessa Swindell and Joel Edgerton in “Master Gardener” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Master Gardener”

Directed by Paul Schrader

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the dramatic film “Master Gardener” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latin people, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A horticulturist at an elite garden estate gets emotionally involved with the grand-niece of his wealthy employer, while he tries to move on from his criminal past as a murderous white supremacist. 

Culture Audience: “Master Gardener” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver; filmmaker Paul Schrader; and solidly acted movies about people seeking redemption through reinvention.

Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver in “Master Gardener” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Master Gardner” has a simmering intensity that show signs of boiling over into an intensely memorable film, but the movie puts restraints on itself. This restraint is not going to satisfy many people who see this movie, which is mostly about two people who are trying to forget their past while they have a growing attraction to each other. Some of the dialogue and scenarios are a little too trite for what this drama is trying to say about redemption, but the story and performances overall have enough to maintain the interest of most viewers. Some viewers might expect more melodrama and more suspense.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, “Master Gardener” (which was filmed on location in New Orleans) has a trailer that reveals about 80% of the movie’s plot. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, before making its way to other film festivals that year, including the New York Film Festival. It’s a movie that falls right in with Schrader’s pattern of directing films about somber male loners who are looking for some kind of redemption. (See 2018’s “First Reformed” and 2021’s “The Card Counter.”)

In “Master Gardener,” middle-aged bachelor Narvel Roth (played by Joel Edgerton) has a solitary and quiet life as the live-in horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, located on a lavish estate. Narvel supervises a small staff of about four people. His employer is the haughty and demanding Norma Haverhill (played by Sigourney Weaver), the sole owner of the estate.

Narvel is not a highly educated or intellectual person, but he is a very knowledgeable horiculturist. In the beginning of the movie, he’s seen looking at pictures of flowers and gardens in the bedroom of his modest guest house on Norma’s property. In voiceover narration, he recites the differences between French gardens (also known as formal gardens), English gardens (also known as informal gardens) and wild gardens.

In this voiceover narration, Narvel shares his philosophy on horticulture: “Gardening is a belief in the future—a belief that things will happen to plan, that change will come in due time.” Narvel is not someone who is talkative or who shows his emotions easily, except when he’s talking about gardening. It’s his passion, and he lights up whenever he gets a chance to talk about anything related to gardening.

Narvel channels his energy into being the best gardener that he could possibly be. However, as already revealed in the “Master Gardener” trailer, Narvel has a very ugly past: He used to belong to a white supremacist militia group. And he used to murder people just because they weren’t white. Narvel also murdered people in his own white supremacist group if any of them did something that angered him. Narvel’s chest and back are covered with tattoos, including multiple Nazi swastikas on his back.

Flashbacks and current scenes reveal that Narvel ended up becoming a star witness in the prosecution of many of his former cronies in the militia group. As a result, Narvel went into the FBI’s witness protection program, where he got an entirely new name and identity. Narvel’s birth name is briefly mentioned at one point in the movie. The FBI agent who has been assigned to keep in touch with Narvel is Oscar Neruda (played by Esai Morales), who has built a trustworthy relationship with Narvel.

Very few people in Narvel’s current life know about his disturbing past. Norma knows that Narvel is an ex-con, but she doesn’t really want to know the details. Every year, Gracewood Gardens has a big spring charity auction on the premises. One day, Norma tells Narvel that this year’s auction will probably be her last because she’s having some “health issues.” (Norma doesn’t elaborate, and Narvel doesn’t ask for more information.)

Norma does not have any children, so her thoughts have been preoccupied with who will take over Gracewood Gardens if she is dead or unable to oversee the estate for other reasons. She wants to keep the property in the family. Norma tells Narvel that she has invited her estranged grand-niece Maya Core (played by Quintessa Swindell) to live and work on the estate. Narvel has been tasked with teaching Maya how to be a horticulturist.

Norma explains to Narvel that Maya is the daughter of Norma’s deceased niece, who was also named Norma. Norma Jr., who died of a drug overdose, was the daughter of Norma Sr.’s sister Betty. Maya, who is in her 20s, grew up in a single-parent household, dropped out of school. and “fell in a with a bad crowd,” according to Norma. Maya’s father is described as a deadbeat dad, who abandoned Norma Jr. and Maya when Maya was very young.

During this apprenticeship, Maya lives in a small guest house on the property. Norma tells Narvel that Maya will be given a minimum-wage salary and car service. Maya will have to provide her own lunch when she’s on the job. Norma says that Maya will get incremental raises to her salary. Norma is subtly racist and doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the fact that Maya is biracial. (Maya’s father is apparently African American.)

When Maya arrives at the estate, Narvel is cordial and professional with her. Norma avoids interacting with Maya as much as possible. As far as Norma is concerned, Maya is someone who is “the help,” not a family member whom Norma fully accepts. Norma thinks that Maya needs to earn her trust and at least become a skilled gardener if Norma is ever going to consider leaving any care of Gracewood Gardens to Maya. Norma eventually invites Maya to have dinner with her and Narvel inside the estate’s main house, but control freak Norma has chosen the dress that she wants Maya to wear during this dinner.

Narvel soon finds out that Maya has a drug problem, just like Maya’s mother. Although it’s never shown in flashbacks, Narvel has a history of drug abuse too. He lives a very clean and sober life now, but he and Maya both easily figure out that they’re no strangers to drug use. Maya’s risky lifestyle ends up catching up to her, and Narvel gets involved in her problems.

What isn’t really shown in the trailer for “Master Gardener” is that Maya has been trying to avoid two sleazy drug dealers who hang out with each other. The leader of this duo is Robbie Gomez, nicknamed R.G. (played by Jared Bankens), who was also the drug dealer for Maya’s mother. R.G.’s sidekick is a guy named Sissy (played by Matt Mercurio), who is R.G.’s constant companion. R.G. is very possessive of Maya and is practically stalking her.

Maya was living in a run-down, crime-ridden area before she moved to Norma’s estate. Maya doesn’t tell Narvel the details of her relationship with R.G., but she insists that R.G. is not her boyfriend. Based on the way R.G. is acting, it’s implied that Maya has a history of having sex with R.G. for drugs, but he wants to control her like a possessive lover. And when Maya shows up to work one day with fight injuries on her face and confesses to Narvel that R.G. caused those injuries, it’s also very easy to predict how Narvel will react when he sees R.G. and Sissy.

As already shown in the “Master Gardener” trailer, Narvel gets romantically involved with Maya, but it doesn’t happen right away. At first, he resists Maya’s attempts to seduce him, partly because he doesn’t want to get in trouble for crossing certain boundaries, and partly because he doesn’t want Maya to see his neo-Nazi tattoos. But eventually, Maya and Narvel become sexually intimate, after he tells her that he used to be a racist. This sexual consummation scene is meant to show Narvel completely vulnerable and submissive to Maya, as a way to contrast with the life he used to have as a violent white supremacist.

It’s a complicated situation for Narvel, because he has been having sex with Norma, who considers their sexual trysts as part of his job requirement. It will make some viewers uncomfortable to see the messiness of these boss-subordinate sexual relationships, with big age gaps for these sex partners. However, “Master Gardener” isn’t intended to be a glossy romance story. If Norma finds out about Narvel and Maya’s growing affection for each other, things might not end well for Narvel and Maya. This part of the movie is very easy to predict.

What the movie conveys with considerable autheticity is how lonely and emotionally damaged people find ways to connect with each other. Narvel, Maya and Norma are each struggling with their personal issues. And each person, in his or her own way, is trying to put up a façade of “I can handle it” toughness. Maya and Narvel’s relationship doesn’t come across as “soul mates forever,” but more like, “I want to be with this person at this point in my life, and we’ll see what happens.”

Edgerton’s performance might strike some viewers as being very dull, but it’s actually a very accurate depiction of someone who has had to numb his emotions for a very long time. Considering that Narvel had to completely change his identity, there’s a somewhat silent identity crisis that Narvel goes through in the movie. Maya awakens some feelings in Narvel that Narvel hasn’t had for a very long time. And he’s decided he’s not going to run away from those feelings.

As for Maya, her personality is combination of being street-smart and being immature. Swindell’s performance looks authentic in how she portrays this complex character. The title of the movie is “Master Gardener,” so everything is told from Narvel’s perspective. However, the movie could have explored a little more about Maya and the life she had before she met Narvel. Weaver is solid in her role as prickly Norma, but Weaver has played this type of domineering snob many times before in other movies.

“Master Gardener” has some fantasy sequences involving flowers blooming in a heightened reality that’s almost psychedelic. These whimsical scenes don’t quite fit the gritty tone of the rest of the story. It’s also an uneven film, in terms of how much it wants to reveal about Narvel’s past. Viewers find out if Narvel ever got married or had children before his identity was changed.

The main reason why “Master Gardener” doesn’t sink into complete mediocrity is the principal cast members’ talent in handling their scenes. Ultimately, “Master Gardener” is worth watching as a character study of a violent ex-con who can’t entirely leave his thug ways behind. However, the movie doesn’t have much that’s insightful about the extreme changes in lifestyle and mindset that Narvel had to go through to become a former racist.

Magnolia Pictures released “Master Gardener” in select U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.

Review: ‘In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis,’ starring Pope Francis

April 18, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pope Francis (center) in “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” (Photo courtesy of Archivo Vatican Media/Magnolia Pictures)

“In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis”

Directed by Gianfranco Rosi

Some language in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2013 to 2022, in various countries around the world, the documentary film “In Viaggo: The Travels of Pope Francis” features a racially diverse group of people (white, Latino, Asian and black) who gather to see or meet Pope Francis.

Culture Clash: During his travels, Pope Francis gives speeches where he speaks out against crimes, wars and social injustice. 

Culture Audience: “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching “play it safe” documentaries about religious leaders.

Pope Francis in “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” (Photo courtesy of Archivo Vatican Media/Magnolia Pictures)

The documentary “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” consists almost entirely of archival news footage. Therefore, nothing new is revealed. It’s an up-close but not very personal compilation of Pope Francis’ international tour visits and some of his inspirational speeches.

Overall, the movie is good, but it’s not great. Non-religious people will probably get bored quickly by this documentary, but might want to keep watching the movie out of curiosity toe see the spectacle of how large crowds react to the Pope. “In Viaggo: The Travels of Pope Francis” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. (“In viaggo” means “traveling” in Italian.)

Directed by Gianfranco Rosi, “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” has footage of the Pope’s travels to various countries from 2013 to 2022. Not surprisingly, he attracts the types of huge and diverse crowds that only the upper echelon of superstars can attract. Many people treat him like a god who can somehow make their lives better, if he can just look or nod in their direction. Ironically, this over-adulation of a human being is exactly what Pope Francis preaches against, since he has a reputation for being one of the humblest Popes of the past 100 years.

In between the footage of the screaming and adoring crowds, the documentary takes the time to show other footage, to put things in a larger context. In footage from his 2013 trip to Brazil, the massive and loud audience gathered to see the Pope is contrasted with footage of armed security soldiers up on the hills, watching the crowd but far from the sight of the crowd. It’s a reminder that Pope, as one of the most famous people in the world, needs this type of protection when he’s out in public.

During a visit to the Philippines in 2015, when the country was ravaged by Typhoon Koppu, also known as Typhoon Lando, the documentary shows footage from the typhoon. Footage of refugees dying at sea precedes footage of the Pope speaking in Lampedusa in 2015. He talks about immigrants dying at sea as something that “unfortunately occurs all too frequently … So I was moved to come here and pray.”

In a trip to the United States in 2015, the Pope speaks to members of the U.S. Congress and namechecks Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton when talking about peace and ending war. He also makes this comment on why there is such a problem with gun violence: “It’s money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”

On the same trip, he speaks sternly to a group of Catholic bishops about child sex abuse caused by Catholic clergy: “I continue to be ashamed, because people charged with the tender care of those little ones abused them and caused them great harm. I commit myself to ensuring that the Church makes every effort to protect minors, and I promise that those responsible will be held to account.” Most of the bishops have no reactions or no expression on their faces, while others shift a little uncomfortably in their seats.

After a while, the documentary has a repetitious pattern of showing Pope Francis being treated like a religious rock star and then giving speeches tailor-made for soundbites. During a 2018 trip to Chile, Pope Francis says, “Losing freedom does not mean losing our dreams and hopes.” At a speech in Mexico in 2016, Pope Francis talks about the evils of human trafficking.

While in Canada in 2022, Pope Francis speaks out against the marginalization and colonization of indigenous people. During a 2015 trip to the Central African Republic, he talks about unity among religions and is seen visiting the United Nations office in Nairobi. In the United Arab Emirates in 2019, Pope Francis gives a speech talking about having hope amid suffering.

You get the idea. And there’s footage of him paying respects to countries’ historical wounds. During visits in 2014 to Israel and Palestine, he’s shown visiting the West Bank barrier. He’s also seen on a bus speaking with members of the Pan-Orthodox Council. “I pray to the Lord for your Pan-Orthodox synod,” he comments.

While in Armenia in 2016, and in Turkey in 2014, Pope Francis preaches against the horrors of genocide. During his 2019 visit to Japan, he pays tribute to those whose lives were devastated by atomic bombs in 1945. There’s also footage of him during his 2021 trip to Iraq, his 2022 visit to Malta, and his 2022 tour of Canada. He’s also shown talking by satellite to members of the International Space Station, which he calls a “mini-United Nations.”

Because “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” is not a truly intimate documentary of Pope Francis, everything looks very formal and emotionally sterile in moments that show the Pope away from the crowds. Pope Francis is friendly to everyone, but there are no moments that reveal the Pope to have any human flaws. Then again, based on the way that most people act when they’re around the Pope, that type of reality is something that they probably don’t want to see.

Magnolia Pictures released “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 31, 2023.

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