Review: ‘How It Ends’ (2021), starring Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny

July 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

“How It Ends” (2021)

Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “How It Ends” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Hours before an impending apocalypse, a woman in her 30s sees a physical manifestation of her 15-year-old self, and together they visit people they know to say their goodbyes in case they don’t survive the apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “How It Ends” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “mumblecore” comedies that are self-consciously quirky in a way that will annoy some viewers.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

The smugly oddball “How It Ends” looks and sounds like it could have been a pilot episode for a mumblecore sitcom rather than a compelling cinematic experience. In this time-wasting apocalyptic comedy, the end of the world is depicted as Los Angeles hipsters and weirdos acting as annoying as possible and thinking that they’re hilarious. You can see that on Hollywood Boulevard for free. You don’t need to pay money to see that in a movie as dull as this one.

Husband-and-wife duo Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein wrote and directed “How It Ends,” and it looks exactly like what it is: A movie that was rushed into production during the pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic, just so the filmmakers could brag about how they braved the pandemic to make this movie. Unfortunately, not enough time seems to have been spent on developing an interesting story for this repetitive and mostly empty-headed film.

“How It Ends” takes place in Los Angeles, just hours before an apocalypse is supposed to destroy the world. It’s never explained how people know the exact hour that this apocalypse is going to hit. But the characters in this movie are just way too calm about it, and they go about their lives as if it’s just another sunny day in California.

At least half of this movie just shows the two main characters walking from house to house, as they say goodbye to friends and assorted loved ones before the end of the world happens. Expect to see repetitive shots of people sauntering down a street as if they’re just out for a pleasant stroll before the apocalypse. And everyone they talk to just happens to be “quirky.”

The two main characters in the story are supposed to be the same person at different stages in her life. The movie opens with protagonist Liza (played by Lister-Jones), who’s in her 30s and with an unknown occupation, in her home on the morning before the apocalypse. There’s a teenage girl (played by Cailee Spaeny) jumping up and down on Liza’s bed.

Liza checks her voice messages and finds out that her friend Mandy (played by Whitney Cummings) has invited Liza to an end-of-the-world party happening that night. Liza tells the teenage girl, “Tonight, I want to get really fucking high and eat ’til I puke.” The girl in Liza’s house replies, “I can list so many problems with that idea. The first is: You’re out of weed.”

Who is this girl? Liza finds out this other person in her home is her 15-year-old self. Liza might want to roll on Ecstasy to get high, but the only thing rolling during this movie will be viewers’ eyes at the self-consciously twee absurdity of it all. Guess who’s hanging out with Liza for the whole movie? Young Liza, who’s somehow wiser and more emotionally intuitive than the older Liza.

It’s explained in the movie that Young Liza can only be seen on the last day before the apocalypse happens. And based on the advice that Young Liza gives her older self, Young Liza is supposed to embody hindsight. Young Liza also doesn’t have the emotional baggage that older Liza has, so she’s able to see things more clearly when it comes to unresolved issues in older Liza’s life.

Before Liza and her younger self go to the party, they decide to visit a series of people to say their final goodbyes. A lot of these half-baked scenes (many of them look improvised) are just filler. There are long stretches of the movie where it’s nothing but Liza and her younger self walking from place to place and encountering goofy, strange and usually very irritating people.

Wait, doesn’t everyone drive in Los Angeles if they can afford it? The movie comes up with a reason for why Liza and her teenage mini-me end up walking everywhere for more than half the movie: Liza’s car has been stolen. It’s the end of the world, so there’s no point in reporting the theft to the police. Will Liza get her car back though? That question is answered in the movie.

Most of the people whom Liza and her young self visit are the type of characters you would expect in a low-budget indie flick where the filmmakers think that it’s automatically supposed to be funny to see adults acting like immature kooks. There are the wacky neighbors in different homes, such as Derek (played by Bobby Lee), who’s a babbling stoner; Manny (played by Fred Armisen), a forgetful eccentric; and anxious Dave (played by Paul Scheer), who gets yelled at by another neighbor for not washing his recycling container.

And then there are a few people randomly performing in the middle of the street or on a sidewalk in this residential area, including a nameless stand-up comedian (played by Ayo Edebiri), who’s actually one of the few highlights of the film. Real-life singer Sharon Van Etten shows up toward the end of the film as a folksy singer named Jet, who plays acoustic guitar in the street to an enthralled audience of two: Liza and her younger self.

“How It Ends” desperately wants to be a uniquely modern film, but it uses the oldest and most cliché trope in a comedy starring a woman: She’s pining over a man because she wants him to be her romantic partner. In Liza’s case, “the one who got away” is Nate (played by Logan Marshall-Green), a former hookup whom she has deeper feelings for than she was willing to admit when he was in her life and when she emotionally pushed him away. Liza regrets shutting Nate out of her life, and she wants to see Nate again so she can tell him that she loves him before the end of the world happens.

Liza also has some unfinished business with her divorced parents Kenny (played by Bradley Whitford) and Lucinda (played by Helen Hunt), as well as her ex-boyfriend Larry (played by Lamorne Morris), who cheated on her when they were together. Liza visits all of them during this movie to tell them how she really feels. Viewers find out that she has major abandonment issues and has had a problem communicating her true feelings to the people who are closest to her.

But the best and funniest encounter that Liza has is with an estranged friend named Alay (played by Olivia Wilde), who’s just as neurotic as Liza is. Liza and Alay have a rapid-fire conversation where they talk over each other about what went wrong in their friendship (they fell out because Alay didn’t approve of Larry), and they call a truce—because of, you know, the apocalypse.

Alay eats a very decadent-looking cake during this conversation and says she’s a psychic. What does she see in Liza’s afterlife future? Alay says, “Timothée Chalamet and lots of dairy with no consequences.” Sounds like heaven for a lot of people.

If only “How It Ends” had more of this type of laugh-out-loud comedic scene with Wilde and Lister-Jones, because they have such natural and appealing chemistry with each other. Maybe they can co-star in another movie someday. Hopefully, it would have a better screenplay and more exciting direction than what’s in “How It Ends.”

But for every scene like the rip-roaring one with Wilde, there are five or six more scenes in “How It Ends” that are just so tedious and downright cringeworthy. For example, when Liza goes to her ex-boyfriend Larry’s home, it’s a retro ripoff with derivative ideas: She holds up a boombox (just like John Cusack famously did in the 1989 movie “Say Anything”), and then she quotes the chorus of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit “You Oughta Know.”

And there’s some self-pitying drivel, such as when Liza and her younger self have an argument with each other. Liza wants to ditch her younger self and continue on her own, because she thinks Young Liza doesn’t count as her real self. Young Liza shouts, “I do count! All your life, you’ve been licking your fucking wounds, when I’m the biggest wound of all!” Oh, boo hoo. Did anyone bring any tissues?

Lister-Jones and Spaeny previously worked together in the disappointing 2020 horror film “The Craft: Legacy,” which was written and directed by Lister-Jones and starred Spaeny as a teenage witch who joins a coven of other teen witches. The chemistry between Lister-Jones and Spaeny in “How It Ends” is more like older sister/younger sister as two different people, rather than entirely convincing as two versions of the same person. One of the takeaways from the movie is that Liza looks physically older than her younger self, but she hasn’t emotionally matured very much since she was a teenager.

Spaeny makes some attempt to mimic certain mannerisms that older Liza would have had in her teen years. And there are times that Liza and her younger self do things in snyc when they’re walking down the street. However, the movie looks like it was filmed so quickly that Spaeny and Lister-Jones didn’t have enough time to do work on body language and speech patterns that are more subtle and nuanced.

“How It Ends” is not so off-putting that it won’t find its share of people who will love this movie. There’s a very specific type of viewer who automatically thinks any movie that reeks of being self-congratulatory “quirky” is something that’s worth admiring. But for people who prefer their comedies to actually be funny and have a significant plot, you’ll have to look elsewhere, because “How It Ends” comes up very short in these elements and is mostly just a series of poorly conceived vignettes.

MGM’s American International Pictures released “How It Ends” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 20, 2021.

Review: ‘Songbird,’ starring KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stromare, Alexandra Daddario and Demi Moore

December 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

KJ Apa in “Songbird” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Songbird”

Directed by Adam Mason

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles during a coronavirus pandemic in the year 2024, the sci-fi thriller “Songbird” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During the pandemic, a minority of people have immunity to the disease but are also supercarriers of the virus, and this dichotomy affects relationships and has caused a black market to sell illegal immunity passes.

Culture Audience: “Songbird” will appeal primarily to people who like watching tacky disaster movies with ridiculous plot developments.

Peter Stromare in “Songbird” (Photo courtesy of STX)

In the horrifically tasteless disaster film “Songbird,” which takes place during a coronavirus pandemic that has killed millions of people and devastated the entire world, unscrupulous and greedy people have exploited the situation so that they can benefit financially. Ironically, it’s the same mindset that is obviously why this moronic film was rushed into production during the real-life COVID-19 pandemic—to cash in on people’s fears about the pandemic and use the movie’s pandemic storyline as a gimmick to sell it during a real-life pandemic. The results are a useless movie where every single second looks like it was based on an early, substandard screenplay draft, with none of the filmmakers caring about taking the time to improve the film’s quality.

“Songbird” (directed by Adam Mason, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Simon Boyes) takes place in Los Angeles in the year 2024. The worldwide mortality rate has risen to 56% and 8.4 million people have died because of COVID-23, which is supposed to be a deadlier strain than COVID-19. And there’s no vaccine. The desolate and devastated landscape of Los Angeles looks like a city in the aftermath of a tornado, and there’s a general atmosphere that a corrupt, totalitarian government is in charge. Because of this high mortality rate, Los Angeles has been on lockdown, with people ordered to stay at home, except for essential workers.

One of those essential workers is a bike courier in his mid-20s named Nicholas “Nico” Price (played by KJ Apa), who works for an online retailer called Lester’s Gets, which sells a variety of items that people can use in their homes. It’s not a giant company, because Nico’s boss Lester (played by Craig Robinson) is the only person shown in the dark video control room that monitors the movements of the company’s couriers, via GPS. In other words, the film’s budget was so low that the filmmakers didn’t bother to cast anyone else to work in this monitor room.

Lester communicates frequently with Nico and has to watch Nico like a hawk, because Nico often takes detours, goofs off, and is late with deliveries. For example, in one of the movie’s scenes, Nico randomly shoots hoops at a basketball court while in the middle of a delivery. Lester lectures Nico about Nico’s constant tardiness, but Nico acts like someone who knows he probably won’t be fired.

And why hasn’t Nico been fired because of his tardiness? Because he’s one of the small minority of people on Earth who are immune to COVID-23, and therefore he can freely go outside without needing any face coverings. However, these Immunies, as they’re nicknamed in this movie, are also supercarriers of COVID-23. And so, they’re both envied and shunned by the general population.

Immunies are identified by immunity passes (which look like yellow wristbands) that can be scanned to reveal their personal information. These immunity passes are highly coveted by people who want to be able to go outside whenever they want without fear of being fined or arrested. People are required to take frequent COVID-23 tests at home, which are done on government-issued hand-held monitors that can diagnosis people just by scanning their faces.

People who are found to be infected with COVID-23 are forced to go to the Q-Zone, which is not a health recovery center but it’s described in the story as a death detention center. These detentions are handled by the sanitation department, which is headed by Emmett D. Harland (played by Peter Stromare), who’s an Immunie. Emmett is such an over-the-top, creepy villain that you just know he’s involved in more misdeeds than just being rough and unmerciful with the people he detains.

Because of these drastic changes in society, Los Angeles (and presumably, most of the rest of the modern world) has become a place where people have become paranoid about going outside, for fear of being sent to the Q-Zone. Masked military soldiers patrol the streets and are ready to send people to the Q-Zone if they don’t have immunity passes. Some of these patrollers are quick to draw their guns if they see anyone on the street without a mask. It’s what happens to Nico when he tries his make his way to a home for a delivery, and he’s blocked by overzealous soldiers until Nico shows them his immunity pass.

The high demand for immunity passes has caused these passes to be sold on the black market at prices that can only be afforded by wealthy people or people who can come up with the cash any way that they can. Two of the people who are considered among the top-tier sellers of illegal immunity passes are unhappily married couple William Griffin (played by Bradley Whitford) and Piper Griffin (played by Demi Moore), who are already living an upscale life but apparently are greedy and want more money. William’s day job is as a high-ranking executive in the music industry, even though the movie never shows him doing any work except his illegal side hustle of selling immunity passes.

And because “Songbird” is a movie like the 2005 drama “Crash,” which eventually shows how everyone in the story is connected to each other in some way, the Griffins’ home is one of the places where Nico makes a delivery. People are not allowed to open their doors to delivery people. Instead, deliveries are dropped into a capsule outside a home, and the item in the capsule is then disinfected through ultra-violet rays.

Nico has been to the Griffin home enough times that the house residents recognize him when he arrives. William and Piper have a daughter named Emma (played by Lia McHugh), who’s about 11 or 12 years old and who has respiratory problems, because she always has to wear an oxygen tube. The implication is that she’s especially vulnerable to getting COVID-23.

Emma is really just a “token” underdeveloped character that doesn’t serve any purpose in the movie except to try to make William and Piper look more sympathetic. It’s a futile effort, because these two spouses, who have simmering hatred for each other, are ruthless and sleazy, although one of them turns out to be a lot worse than the other. An innocent and sweet kid like Emma doesn’t deserve the parents she has.

Meanwhile, although Nico might seem to have a cavalier and cocky exterior when he’s on the job, the movie slowly shows that he’s actually in a lot of emotional turmoil. His entire family is dead, presumably because of COVID-23. And before the pandemic, he was a paralegal with plans to become a lawyer, but he had to abandon those dreams. There’s a scene where Nico goes back to the now-deserted law office where he used to work and bitterly goes through some of the remnants of his past.

But more heartbreaking for Nico than the loss of his career dreams is the fact that he’s fallen in love with a woman who’s around his age, but they haven’t been able to be in the same room together because of the pandemic. Her name is Sara Garcia (played by Sofia Carson), who lives in an apartment with her beloved grandmother Lita (played Elpidia Carrillo), whom Sara calls Grammy. Sara’s parents are also dead because of COVID-23.

Nico and Sara met when he made a delivery to her apartment. They had an instant connection and fell in love through constant contact over the phone. Nico also visits Sara by going to her apartment, but not going inside and instead talking to her outside the apartment door. It’s explained that the apartment building is under heavy government surveillance, because it’s a “hot spot” for COVID-23 infections. Therefore, Nico and Sara know they could be arrested if he’s allowed inside her apartment, and Sara and Lita could be sent to the dreaded Q-Zone.

Sara sees firsthand (through her front-door keyhole) how brutal one of these arrests can be, when one of her female neighbors is dragged from her apartment, yelling and pleading for mercy, because the neighbor tested positive for COVID-23. Before the hazmat-suit-wearing sanitation workers arrive to take her to the Q-Zone, the neighbor begs Sara to let her inside Sara’s apartment to hide, but Sara refuses to hide the neighbor, on Nico’s advice. Emmett is supervising this particular detainment with sadistic glee. And he vows that he will be back to this apartment building to get more people because he’s convinced that the entire building is infected.

There are several scenes in “Songbird” where Nico talks to Sara through her apartment door, like he’s her pandemic Romeo to her quarantined Juliet. It’s supposed to be romantic, but Nico and Sara just utter cheesy soap-opera-type dialogue to each other that will make viewers roll their eyes or laugh at the corniness of it all. And when Lita starts having a persistent cough, you know exactly where this movie is going to go in the “race against time” part of the film that’s supposed to make this movie a suspenseful thriller.

Meanwhile, one of Lester’s employees who works from home is a lonely paraplegic named Dozer (played by Paul Walter Hauser), a military veteran in his mid-30s who lost the use of his legs during the war in Afghanistan. Dozer, who’s been a self-described shut-in for the past six years, uses a drone to keep track of Lester’s courier employees. Dozer has a strong sense of right and wrong and likes feeling as if he’s a “rescuer,” which all affect his actions later in the story.

Dozer has been a subscriber to a pretty YouTuber named May (played by Alexandra Daddario), who is a self-described struggling singer/songwriter. She has a YouTube channel called May Sings the Blues, where she sings cover songs and her own original music during livestreams and in prerecorded videos. People who watch her YouTube channel have the option to donate money to her, because she often tells her viewers that the pandemic has made it impossible for her to make money by performing in person.

Dozer has been one of her biggest donors, so May decides to connect with him online and reaches out to him to personally thank him. They begin chatting and soon get very candid with each other about the problems in their lives. Dozer tells May about being a shut-in: “I was in lockdown before it was fashionable.”

May tells Dozer that she moved to Los Angeles because a guy in the music industry promised to make her a big star. She and the guy ended up having an affair, which she now regrets, but the guy still wants to keep seeing her. And then the pandemic happened, and she’s been stuck in an uncomfortable limbo where she still needs the guy to help her with her career, but she wants to break off their affair.

Because of the strict lockdown, it’s illegal for people to have in-person social visits with other people who don’t live in the same household, but May’s lover insists on visiting her for their sexual encounters. May confides in Dozer that she’s afraid of getting infected and/or arrested because of this guy. Dozer offers to help her any way that he can. May’s “mystery lover” is eventually revealed, and it will be shocking to no one who’s seen enough of these types of formulaic, unimaginative movies.

Except for the COVID-23 pandemic aspect of the movie, there’s absolutely nothing unique about “Songbird,” which is a lot like many other badly made post-apocalyptic movies that have a weak, nonsensical plot and dumb action scenes. There’s a chase scene where Nico gets trapped in a building with Emmett and some of Emmett’s armed goons. And out of nowhere, Nico gets help from a gun-toting vigilante named Boomer (played by Paul Sloan), who randomly shows up in the scene and then is never seen in the movie again.

Viewers will also have sit through lots of inane dialogue, such as during another scene when Emmett has cornered some people he wants to capture. He taunts them by saying, “Roses are red. Violets are blue. You think you can hide? I’ll find you!”

One of the producers of “Songbird” is Michael Bay, who’s best known as the chief filmmaker for the “Transformers” movie franchise and the first two “Bad Boys” movies. Even though those movies had mediocre-to-bad screenplays, at least those films had high-octane action to keep people interested and wanting more. “Songbird” doesn’t even have memorable action scenes, unless you think it’s an improvement that at one point in the story, Nico ditches his bicycle and replaces it with a stolen motorcycle.

It all leads up to an ending that’s so terrible that it will make people either laugh or get angry, depending on how much it might bother people that their time was wasted by watching this garbage. And why is this movie called “Songbird,” when the only singer in the movie is a supporting character, not a leading character? Just like this entire ludicrous movie, it doesn’t make sense and it’s too lazy to try to give any logical explanations.

STX released “Songbird” on VOD on December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Sergio’ (2020), starring Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas

April 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Senhorinha Gama Da Costa Lobo, Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in “Sergio” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Sergio” (2020)

Directed by Greg Barker

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world (Iraq, East Timor, Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia and New York City), the dramatic film “Sergio” has a racially diverse cast (Latinos, white people and Asians) that tells the story of United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who faced a life-or-death situation in 2003, when he was trapped in a bombed UN building in Baghdad.

Culture Clash: As a UN diplomat, de Mello dealt with many political and social conflicts, including the United States’ increasingly hostile relationship with Iraq after 9/11.

Culture Audience: “Sergio” will appeal mostly to people who like movies about international relations with a formulaic romantic storyline.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura in “Sergio” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In 2010, HBO premiered the documentary “Sergio,” which was about Sergio Vieira de Mello, a United Nations diplomat from Brazil who was the victim of a deadly 2003 bombing in Baghdad, Iraq. Greg Barker directed the “Sergio” documentary (which was nominated for an Emmy), as well as this Netflix dramatic version of de Mello’s life events that led up to the bombing.

Craig Borten wrote the “Sergio” screenplay, which is adapted from Samantha Power’s book “Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.” Several real-life facts were changed for the purpose of making the film more dramatic, so if viewers want a more accurate telling of the story,  then the documentary is the better choice. But if you want a fairly suspenseful drama with a romance at the center of the film, then this scripted “Sergio” film will be more to your liking, even if the movie isn’t likely to get any awards recognition.

The “Sergio” dramatic film begins with charismatic and intelligent Sergio (played by Wagner Moura) rehearsing a speech that he’s about to give as a welcome to new staffers at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq. He’s a UN high commissioner for human rights, and he’s in Iraq for a four-month mission as an independent mediator between the U.S. and Iraq.

According to the movie, it was a mission that Sergio didn’t have to take, but he couldn’t say no the people who asked him to go to Baghad, including his close colleague Kofi Annan, who was Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time. In his short time in Baghdad, Sergio has even accomplished the difficult task of meeting with shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who resisted having meetings with many other leaders. 

As he tries to prevent U.S. -Iraqi relations from deteriorating, Sergio’s goal is to work with the  U.S. while gaining the trust of Iraqis to give them back full control of their sovereignty. This isn’t the news that U.S. Presidential Envoy Paul Breme (played by Bradley Whitford) wants to hear. Paul tells Sergio in a dismissive tone, “We have our own plans.” And later, Paul tells Sergio what the U.S. position will be about the next Iraqi elections: “I’ve decided there won’t be any elections until we’re ready.”

Unbeknownst to Paul, Sergio has compiled a dossier that includes disturbing reports that the U.S. military has committed several human-right violations while in Iraq. Sergio is about to go public with this information, by holding a press conference on August 19, 2003, when tragedy strikes: A bomb goes off at UN headquarters (housed in the Canal Hotel) in Baghdad, and the explosion completely destroys the building. Sergio and his deputy administrator Gil Loescher (played by Brían F. O’Byrne) get trapped in the rubble, and are pinned from the hips down.

The rest of the movie consists of going back and forth between the frantic rescue efforts and Sergio’s memory flashbacks to various points in his life as a diplomat. There are so many flashbacks in the movie, people who prefer stories to be told in chronological order will probably dislike the very non-linear structure of the film. Many of the flashbacks aren’t identified by the year, but observant viewers can tell how far back the flashbacks are by looking at the color of Sergio’s hair—the less gray the hair, the further the flashback.

A major part of the these flashbacks is showing how Sergio met and fell in love with UN economist Carolina Larriera (played by Ana de Armas) three years before the tragic bombing. In real life, Carolina (who is of Argentinian-Italian heritage) was part of the UN team in Baghdad at the time, and she desperately searched for Sergio after the explosion. That search is depicted in the movie to maximum dramatic effect. There are multiple scenes of guards preventing Carolina from entering the danger zone, and she gets more and more hysterical.

The movie portrays Sergio and Carolina’s romance as if it’s, well, straight out of a movie. He first notices her when they’re both stationed in East Timor, and they happen to regularly jog on the same path. They have a “meet cute” moment when Sergio is out jogging, he outruns his bodyguard Gaby (played by Clemens Schick), and he happens to see Carolina again. She starts up a conversation with Sergio, and they flirt a little. Carolina tells Sergio that she knows who he is, but she refuses to tell him her name when he asks.

The next time Sergio sees Carolina, it’s at a UN meeting, and she tells him her name. He says he already knows about her because he “did his homework.” Later, Carolina tells Sergio that she did her “homework” on him too, and she knows he’s married. However, based on the sparks between them and the way they look at each other, it’s only a matter of time before they get together. Their first kiss is a very “movie moment,” since it’s outside in the rain, as they fall into each other’s arms and kiss passionately while getting soaked by the rain.

When Sergio and Carolina met and began their love affair, he was legally married but estranged from his wife, who raised their two sons (who are in their late teens/early 20s when this story takes place) in Geneva while he traveled around the world for his job. A flashback to when the kids were underage shows that Sergio was such a workaholic who didn’t spend much time raising his children, that he didn’t even know that his younger son is allergic to shrimp. It’s an embarrassing ignorance that upsets his shrimp-allergic son when Sergio and his sons have a rare dinner together at the home of Sergio’s mother.

Other flashbacks include Sergio’s diplomatic work in helping East Timor gain independence from Portugal. He and his UN colleagues were appointed by Portugal as interim government officials. Instead of imposing restrictions that would alienate the East Timor rebels, Sergio went out of his way to welcome the participation of the natives fighting for independence, including rebel leader Xanana Gusmão. As Sergio says in the movie, “We were sent here as overlords, but I really hope we can leave as respected colleagues.” It was a controversial decision that some of Sergio’s UN colleagues, including Gil, did not approve of at first.

While in East Timor (in a scene that looks very fabricated for the movie), Sergio and Carolina meet local women who work at a yarn mill. Carolina introduces Sergio to a woman who’s had the tragedy of her sons and husband being killed. When Sergio asks her what she wants that will make her happy, she gives a poetic answer about wanting to have the ability to fly and fall from the sky like rain and remain in the place where she belongs. It’s a line that Sergio repeats when he’s at the presidential palace in Indonesia and he’s asked a similar question.

Another flashback is of Sergio, Gil and a female colleague being taken at gunpoint to Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign in the 1970s. It turns out Sergio and Ieng know each other from their days at the Sorbonne, so they get along just fine, and danger for the UN trio is averted. When Sergio and Gil reminisce about that experience several years later, Gil jokes, “I have a title for your autobiography: ‘War Criminals: My Friends.'”

Although Sergio is a well-respected diplomat, his workaholic ways have taken a toll on his marriage. Carolina, a sassy Harvard graduate who doesn’t want to be a trophy wife, confronts Sergio about making a commitment to her when Sergio tells Carolina that he wants every UN assignment of his to have a clear and defined plan. “I don’t like indefinite assignments,” says Sergio.

Carolina, who doesn’t want to be kept hanging in their relationship, essentially tells Sergio that she doesn’t want to be in a relationship with him unless he can also look at the relationship with a clear and defined plan. It’s a turning point when they realize that they want to be fully committed to each other.

There’s a lot to like about “Sergio,” especially for people who might not be familiar with the real people who inspired the movie. However, some of the scenes seem just a little too corny and contrived, especially those involving the Sergio/Carolina romance. Sergio’s unresolved marital status no doubt caused a lot of messiness and turmoil in real life, which is very much glossed over or ignored in the film. (It’s not mentioned in the movie, but Carolina’s claim that she was Sergio’s common-law wife led to a very protracted legal battle.)

Despite a hokey tone to the romance, Mauro and de Armas have convincing chemistry together, and they do a good job with the dialogue that they were given. In the film, Carolina says she’s doesn’t want to be an “appendage” to a powerful man, but she’s written in the movie as exactly that. If Carolina is supposed to be a brilliant economist, it’s not shown in the film, which mostly has her following Sergio’s lead or going into full-anxiety mode when she’s trying to find him in the post-bombing rubble. It’s really the same type of “worried wife or girlfriend” role that’s a cliché in movies that are set in war zones.

The film also took liberties with some facts (as many “inspired by a true story” movies do), by having Gil in the East Timor scenes. In real life, Gil was never in East Timor, as noted in the film’s epilogue. The epilogue also mentions that the way Gil was written in the movie (he’s portrayed as a very sarcastic skeptic) was as a composite of the real person and several members of Sergio’s A-Team.

The film’s editing has some notable moments, such as when the blast impact of the bombing on Sergio is juxtaposed with the blast of beach waves enjoyed by Sergio in his beloved Arpoador, an idyllic region of Brazil. However, the jumbled timeline in “Sergio” makes the film a lot sloppier than it needed to be. “Sergio” ultimately leaves the impression that it’s a trite portrayal of a richly layered and complicated life that is presented much better in the “Sergio” documentary.

Netflix premiered “Sergio” on April 17, 2020.

Review: ‘The Call of the Wild’ (2020), starring Harrison Ford

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Harrison Ford in "The Call of the Wild"
Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Call of the Wild”

Directed by Chris Sanders

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Alaska during the 1890s Gold Rush era, the action-adventure film “The Call of the Wild” has a predominantly white cast that represent the working-class and middle-class whose lives are touched in some way by a very lovable and determined St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix dog.

Culture Clash: The characters have conflicts over greed for gold, as well as ownership of the dog.

Culture Audience: “The Call of the Wild” is a family-friendly film that will appeal to fans of Harrison Ford and people who love dogs.

Omar Sy in “The Call of the Wild” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Call of the Wild” takes Jack London ‘s classic 1903 novel on which it based and turns it into live-action/animated hybrid adventure story with moments that are heartwarming, heartbreaking and unapologetically sentimental. The story, which takes place during the 1890s, centers on a St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix dog named Buck, who teaches the humans quite a few things about bravery and emotional intelligence. Harrison Ford receives top billing in the movie, but viewers who don’t know the book’s original story should know that his John Thornton character is mainly in the latter half of the story, although his voiceover narration is throughout the film. The movie keeps most of the plot points the same as the original story, but there are also some changes from the novel.

When viewers first see Buck, he’s living a pampered life in Santa Clara, California, with Judge Miller (played by Bradley Whitford), his wife Katie (played by Jean Louisa Kelly) and their family. Buck is playful and mischievous—so much so, that he ruins the family’s Thanksgiving dinner by trashing the table and eating the entire Thanksgiving feast. Judge Miller gets angry but he’s a kind dog owner who doesn’t abuse his pet.

One night, Buck is stolen by a man who sells the dog to an abusive sailor, who hits Buck with a club and keeps him confined. There are scenes of animal cruelty that might be a little disturbing to very sensitive viewers. Buck is on a ship that is headed to Alaska. Through ingenuity, luck and a will to fight, Buck escapes his cruel owner and finds himself homeless in Dawson City, Alaska. He is taken by an old man, who doesn’t treat Buck much better than the sailor, so Buck runs away again.

While Buck is escaping, he runs into a gold prospector named John Thornton (played by Ford), a recluse who’s come into town for errands. Buck finds John’s harmonica on the street, and John is struck by how intelligent the dog seems to be. Unfortunately, Buck’s old man owner catches up to Buck and he’s back in captivity again.

Buck is eventually taken to a dog pound, where he’s bought by Perrault (played by Omar Sy), a French Canadian who runs a dog-sled service that delivers mail. Perrault immediately warms up to Buck, but his jaded assistant Francoise (played by Cara Gee) isn’t too fond of the dog at first. (In the novel, the dog-sled operators were two men named Perrault and Francois.) Perrault makes Buck part of the dog-sled team, which is lead by an arrogant alpha male Siberian husky named Spitz. The rest of the dogs are of various large-sized breeds.

The dog-sled work is grueling, especially when it’s in the snow, but Buck is a quick learner and he makes friends with the rest of the dogs, except for Spitz. For example, there’s a scene where Spitz makes the other dogs wait for him to finish drinking water from an icy lake, but Buck takes his paws to break open the ice to create a new place where the dogs can drink without waiting for Spitz.

It’s worth mentioning that the CGI visual effects for the animals start off looking very unrealistic, but they get better during the course of the movie. The animals have very humanistic facial expressions and movements, so don’t expect this movie to be completely realistic. You also have to suspend disbelief at some of the superhuman stunts that Buck is able to do. However, the movie doesn’t go too far with the human characteristics for the animals—the animals don’t cry, walk like humans, or talk in human languages—so overall the ways that the animals are presented are mostly realistic.

Whenever there’s an action movie that takes place near a frozen body of water, the inevitable happens: Someone falls through the ice into the water. This happens to Francoise, but of course Buck is there to rescue her and save her life. Her attitude toward Buck starts to change after that incident. She begrudgingly admits to Buck that she underestimated him and that he’s impressed her the most out of all of the dogs in the pack. And wouldn’t you know, Spitz is off in the distance seeing this bonding moment and gets jealous, so he later starts a fight with Buck, leading to a showdown over who’s going to be the alpha male of the pack.

Because the trailers for “The Call of the Wild” make the movie look like it’s only about Buck and John, viewers who don’t know the book might be surprised to see how much of the movie is about Buck’s time in the dog-sled pack. It’s a pivotal part of the story in the novel and the film, because it’s the first time that Buck experiences being part of a dog pack. It’s also the first time he becomes in touch with his wild instincts that originate from the wolves who are ancestors of domesticated dogs. (When Buck uses his primal instincts, he sees a vision of a black wolf with glowing eyes )

So how did Buck end up with John? Buck and the sled team get a new owner named Hal, a greedy, insufferable fop who’s the most abusive owner yet for Buck. Hal wants the dog pack to take him, his sister Mercedes (played by Karen Gillan) and Mercedes’ passive husband Charles (played by Colin Goodell) on gold mining expeditions. Hal beats and starves the dogs into submission. If you love animals, this part of the film is hard to watch, even if you know the animals aren’t real.

Luckily, when John encounters the gold-digging trio and the mistreated dog pack, he rescues a severely malnourished and injured Buck. Hal leaves with the rest of the pack. (What happens to Hal and the dog pack in this movie is different from what happens to them in the original novel.) John takes Buck back to his small and sparse cabin in the woods and nurses the dog back to health.

John lives simply, and his gruff exterior masks a lot of emotional pain. He’s the type of prospector who isn’t looking for gold to get rich. At one point, he tells Buck that all a man needs is enough money “to buy groceries for life.” And it’s easy to see why he feels a strong connection to Buck, because Buck has also experienced a lot of pain.

During Buck’s time with John, Buck meets a pretty female hinterland wolf with white fur, and she introduces him to her pack, which readily accepts Buck, and he spends more and more time with them. (This is where the movie takes a sharp turn from reality, because in real life, a domesticated dog would be attacked and probably killed by a pack of wild wolves.)

It’s during this time that John (who talks to Buck like a human) reveals what happened in his past that’s made him a such a recluse: He had a son who died (it’s not mentioned how he died), and the grief over his son’s death led to him being estranged from his wife. It’s implied in the movie that John left his wife, they’re now divorced, and he let her keep their marital house and everything in it.

John is also a heavy drinker—and this is where the humanistic qualities of Buck are really shown in the movie—the dog scolds John for drinking too much, whether it’s by Buck hiding John’s flask of alcohol or making disapproving noises when he sees John drinking too much. Yes, Buck is not only an incredibly resourceful dog, apparently he’s also an addiction counselor/interventionist too.

Whenever there’s a movie about the wild, wild West, there also seems to be an obligatory scene with a bar fight. That moment comes when John is drinking at a bar and he gets sucker-punched by Hal, who’s angry at John because the dog pack ran off, thereby putting a severe damper on Hal’s gold-digging excursions in the rough terrain. Of course, Buck comes to the rescue when John is attacked. John fights back too, and Hal is thrown out of the bar. Do you think that’s the last we’ll see of Hal in this movie? Of course not.

The rest of the movie is about the bonding time that Buck and John spend together when John decides to take the adventure trip that he and his son had planned before his son died. “The Call of the Wild” is the first movie with live action for director Chris Sanders, who previously directed the animated films “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Croods” and “Lilo & Stitch.” Fans of the “How to Train Your Dragon” series might see some similarities in the “man’s best friend” theme in both movies and how the animals take on human mannerisms.

There have been other “The Call of the Wild” movies, but this is the first to have this type of CGI animation for the animals. For the most part, it works well, even if the action sometimes look cartoonish because of what some of the things these animated animals do that real animals can’t do. However, this version of “The Call of the Wild” (whose screenplay was written by Michael Green) keeps the story’s message of resilience and friendship intact and treats it with respect. It’s a timeless message that will resonate even with changes in movie technology.

20th Century Studios released “The Call of the Wild” in U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, 20th Century Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “The Call of the Wild” to March 27, 2020.

Review: ‘The Last Full Measure,’ starring Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris and Samuel L. Jackson

January 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sebastian Stan and William Hurt in “The Last Full Measure” (Photo by Jackson Lee Davis)

“The Last Full Measure”

Directed by Todd Robinson

Culture Representation: Set in the United States and Vietnam, the male-centric military drama “The Last Full Measure” centers on predominantly white (and a few African American) characters who are connected in some way to the U.S. Air Force.

Culture Clash: The conflicting agendas of politicians, military officials and war veterans are depicted in the process of deciding if a deceased military man will get the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Culture Audience: “The Last Full Measure” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about military veterans and the Vietnam War.

Jeremy Irvine in “The Last Full Measure” (Photo by Wasan Puengprasert)

The military/political drama “The Last Full Measure” gets its title from the phrase used to describe the ultimate sacrifice that a military person can give in service. Inspired by a true story, this appropriately solemn movie chronicles the journey of Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (a fictional chracter played by Sebastian Stan), who investigates a decades-long request for the Congressional Medal of Honor to be given to Vietnam War hero William Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic who died in combat in 1966, at the age of 21.

Pitsenbarger (nicknamed Pits) lost his life during a battle at Xa Cam My that was part of a secretive mission called Operation Abilene. He was a para jumper (or PJ), who saved approximately 60 men in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division during his military service in the Vietnam War. The movie’s story unfolds in a way that is similar to a mystery, since Scott uncovers secrets that certain people in the government do not want to be revealed. According to “The Last Full Measure” writer/director Todd Robinson (who tried to get this movie made for 20 years), the fictional Scott Huffman character is a composite of himself, historian Parker Hayes and unnamed Pentagon staffers who fought for Pitsenbarger to get the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The beginning of the movie takes place in Washington, D.C., in 1999, when F. Whitten Peters (played by Linus Roache) abruptly retired from his position as U.S. Secretary of the Air Force. Knowing that he’ll soon be out of a job because he worked on Peters’ staff, Scott reluctantly takes an assignment from the smirky and arrogant Carlton Stanton (played by Bradley Whitford), a Pentagon public-relations employee who delights in giving to Scott what they both perceive as a trivial and distracting task—looking into a Congressional Medal of Honor request that has been rejected for decades. (Viewers can see from the get-go that Carlton will be the movie’s power-hungry villain who will do whatever it takes to climb the government ladder.)

At the time he is given the assignment, Scott is more concerned about where he’s going to find his next job.  He’s the father of a kindergarten-age son, and he’s expecting his second child with his pregnant wife Tara (played by Alison Sudol), who encourages him to approach the investigation with compassion and an open mind. The three people who are the biggest advocates for Pits to get his posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor are retired Air Force Sgt. Tom Tulley (William Hurt), who was Pits’ best friend and mission partner, and Pits’ parents Frank and Alice (played by Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd), who have never fully recovered from the untimely loss of their son.

Scott interviews them, as well as several U.S. military veterans who were eyewitnesses to Pits’ bravery, including Billy Takoda (played by Samuel L. Jackson), Ray Mott (played by Ed Harris), Jimmy Burr (played Peter Fonda, in his last movie role, which is essentially a camero) and Kepper (John Savage), who still lives in Vietnam. Scott travels all the way to Vietnam to interview Kepper, and during his conversation with Kepper, Scott has a powerful awakening. Through the interviews, Scott pieces together the puzzle of the ill-fated Operation Abilene that led the U.S. soldiers into a Viet Cong ambush. Showing uncommon bravery, Pitsenbarger refused a chance to escape and instead stayed on the battleground to help save lives and attend to the wounded, while also taking up arms to defend his comrades. The battle scenes are shown in flashbacks, with Jeremy Irvine portraying Pits.

But what really caused that deadly ambush at Xa Cam My? And how much did the U.S. government know but chose to hide from the public? As Scott gets closer to the truth, he knows that revealing the truth could destroy his career and possibly put his life in danger. It could also kill the chances of Pits getting a Congressional Medal of Honor if the full story comes out about Operation Abilene. It’s a tricky dilemma, because some of the same government people whose votes are needed to approve the Congressional Medal of Honor going to Pits are also the same people who could squash that request if Scott goes public with the full story.

During the course of the movie, viewers see Scott’s transformation as a somewhat rigid character who tends to see issues in black and white to someone who begins to understand that issues come in many shades of grey. For example, in one scene in the movie, Scott is assembling a crib and he refuses to look at the instructions, because “that would be cheating,” he says—an indication of not only his hardline approach on how to solve problems but also an assertion of how he perceives his strong masuculinity. But as the stories about Operation Abilene unfold, Scott begins to question his views on ethics in the context of war. He must also confront issues of patriotism and personal sacrifice—issues that can sometimes be at odds with each other and can be tested if it involves reporting government corruption.

Fortunately, Stan does an admirable job of portraying this metamorphosis in a realistic way. He and co-star Hurt have a few emotional scenes in the movie, which doesn’t veer too much into melodrama for the characters. In addition, “The Last Full Measure” respectfully handles the issues of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and how it not only affects war veterans but also their loved ones. The movie responsibly shows how people can react to PTSD in different ways and how military machismo sometimes hinders people from dealing with these issues in a beneficial and healing way.

Because “The Last Full Measure” is a male-oriented film and the military is a male-dominated field, the female characters don’t have much to do except play “the supportive wife” or “the supportive administration employee.” However, that doesn’t mean the women in this movie are doormats. In particular, Ladd’s Alice Pitsenbarger character shows inspiring determination to keep pushing for the family’s cause when her ailing husband’s health issues indicate that he won’t be around much longer.

“The Last Full Measure” is an engrossing and heartfelt story that might seem like a paint-by-numbers military movie because the ending is very easy to predict, but it stands out for its top-notch cast of stars (who all deliver convincing performances) and the fact that Vietnam War stories about the U.S. Air Force are rarely told in movies. At the end of the film, “The Last Full Measure” points out the extremely low percentage of Air Force people and even lower percentage of enlisted airpeople who have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The movie is ultimately a tribute to U.S. military people, especially those who made personal sacrifices during wars, whether or not they made it out alive.

Roadside Attractions will release “The Last Full Measure” in U.S. cinemas on January 24, 2020.