Review: ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ starring Tom Cruise

May 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Miles Teller and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the action film “Top Gun: Maverick” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: U.S. Navy Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell returns to the TOPGUN aviator program, where he reluctantly becomes an instructor for new recruits, including a man who blames Maverick for damaging his career and causing his father’s death. 

Culture Audience: “Top Gun: Maverick” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tom Cruise, 1986’s “Top Gun” and any formulaic action sequel that is a virtual copy of its predecessor.

Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun: Maverick” is an uninspired, outdated retread of 1986’s “Top Gun,” but with more implausible scenarios and with no women in military leadership positions. Even the original songs in this sequel are forgettable. While “Top Gun: Maverick” has more racial diversity than the first “Top Gun” movie, the people of color in the movie are still relegated to “sidekick” and forgettable roles. “Top Gun: Maverick” makes the same mistake that a lot of sequels do: Copying the same plot as the first movie without improving it.

What makes this mistake less acceptable is that “Top Gun: Maverick” has arrived 36 years after the release of the first “Top Gun” movie. That’s plenty of time to think up ways to take the movie in innovative and clever directions. (By contrast, Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps things fresh with stories and action scenes that are unique to each movie.) Directed by Joseph Kosinski, “Top Gun: Maverick” was originally supposed to be released in 2019, but it was delayed multiple times because of post-production issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and other reasons. The movie was filmed before the pandemic.

A sequel should have familiar elements of its predecessor. It doesn’t mean that a sequel should rehash a predecessor’s plot. Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie wrote the formulaic and disappointing screenplay for “Top Gun: Maverick,” which essentially regurgitates the same story in “Top Gun.”

Both movies are about the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. This elite school is nicknamed TOPGUN. Both movies are about a hotshot young TOPGUN school airplane pilot clashing with an arrogant rival classmate while being haunted by the death of a loved one and facing a big challenge in the training program.

In “Top Gun,” Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell character (played by Tom Cruise) was the hotshot student. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” he’s the main TOPGUN instructor, who has to teach his group of TOPGUN graduates how to fight in a secretive government mission targeting an unsanctioned uranium nuclear plant. In a case of history repeating itself, “Top Gun: Maverick” also has a funeral scene when someone close to Maverick dies.

Eddie Murphy’s horrible 2021 comedy Coming 2 America (the long-awaited sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America”) made the same mistake of lazily copying the same basic plot of its predecessor and trying to make the story look new by introducing a younger generation of new characters. “Coming 2 America” had even worse results, because of the movie’s awful racism and sexism, including making a joke out of an African American woman getting pregnant after she drugged and raped a man. “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t as offensively bad as “Coming 2 America,” but the movie still has a “stuck in the 1980s” mindset that looks out of place in a movie that’s supposed to take place in the 21st century.

The first “Top Gun” movie (directed by Tony Scott, who died in 2012, at the age of 68) had only two or three people of color in the entire movie. They were African American men who were mostly put in the background. Only one of the African American men was allowed to speak in the movie, and he was literally given just two minor sentences to say. “Top Gun” was written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

To its credit, “Top Gun: Maverick” has a lot more racial diversity in its cast. There are some African American and Latino characters who say more than a few sentences, but their personalities are very hollow and generic. Needless to say, the people of color in “Top Gun” Maverick” do not get backstories or a significant storyline in the movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” also falters in its depiction of women, who are once again made into token characters. But in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the depiction of the women goes in a backwards direction, because there are no women shown in positions of power in the U.S. miliary or in the TOPGUN training program. Women have come a long way in the U.S. military since 1986, but you’d never know it from watching “Top Gun: Maverick,” which puts only men in military leadership positions.

At least in “Top Gun,” one of the main characters was an intelligent woman in a position of power, even though she was still a token: Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (played by Kelly McGillis), a civilian and an astrophysicist, who was an instructor in the TOPGUN program. Charlie and Maverick became romantically involved with each other. The movie realistically shows that Charlie was conflicted about this relationship because of how it might compromise her professional judgment and reputation. McGillis shared top billing with Cruise in “Top Gun.” In “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruise is one of the movie’s producers, and he’s the only star who gets top billing.

The only other woman in “Top Gun” who had a significant speaking role (but got a lot less screen time than Charlie) was bubbly and outgoing Carole Bradshaw (played by Meg Ryan), the wife of Lieutenant Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (played by Anthony Edwards), who was Maverick’s best friend and Radar Intercept Officer, also known as a “wingman.” Carole and Goose have a son, who’s about 5 or 6 years old in the movie. In “Top Gun,” Goose died in a tragic accident during a training session with Maverick as the pilot. Maverick was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he’s been guilt-ridden about Goose’s death ever since.

Charlie and Carole are not in “Top Gun: Maverick” because these female characters weren’t even considered for this sequel, according to interviews that director Kosinski has given about the movie. Charlie is not mentioned in “Top Gun: Maverick.” Carole is briefly mentioned because she’s dead, having passed away for an untold number of years before this story takes place. In other words, the “Top Gun: Maverick” filmmakers killed off the Carole Bradshaw character.

In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the son of Goose and Carole is all grown up now. And just like his father, he’s a U.S. Navy lieutenant who’s now a trainee in the TOPGUN program. His name is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (played by Miles Teller), and he’s got a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove because he’s living in the shadow of his dead father, who was considered a military hero. If those “daddy issues” sound familiar, it’s exactly what Maverick was going through when he went through the TOPGUN training program. Maverick’s high-ranking U.S. Navy father was on a top-secret government mission when he went missing and is presumed dead.

Rooster knows that Maverick was not responsible for Goose’s death, but Rooster still has hard feelings toward Maverick over his father’s untimely passing. Rooster also resents Maverick because Maverick blocked Rooster from getting into the U.S. Naval Academy. Unbeknownst to Rooster, Maverick did so at the request of Rooster’s mother Carole, who didn’t want Rooster to be in the military. It was only after Carole died that Rooster was able to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy.

In the beginning of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Maverick still has the ranking of captain. It’s explained that he has not been promoted for all these years because he has a tendency to be rebellious and reckless. However, the U.S. Navy has kept him on as a test pilot because of his extraordinary pilot skills. It’s mentioned in the movie that’s he’s the only pilot in the U.S. Navy to shoot down 30 enemy planes.

Maverick is considered a dinosaur relic from a bygone era by several high-ranking people in the U.S. Navy. Some of those people think he needs to be honorably discharged, but Maverick loves his military job too much to leave, and he is being protected by Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (played by Val Kilmer), who has a small supporting role in “Top Gun: Maverick.” As shown in the first “Top Gun” movie, Iceman (also played by Kilmer) was Maverick’s biggest rival in the TOPGUN program. However, they eventually became friends with deep respect for each other.

In California’s Mohave Desert, Maverick is part of a program that is being shut down because it hasn’t met Mach 10 standards. Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (played by Ed Harris) is coming to the naval base for the official cancellation of the program. To embarrass him, Maverick takes a plane in the air, and not only hits the Mach 10 target, but he also exceeds it. But by doing so, he ends up flaming out, but how Maverick lands the plane is never shown. All that’s shown is that he comes back looking dirty and disheveled, without any injuries.

This unauthorized use of a military plane for a showoff stunt would be grounds for serious disciplinary action in the real world. But in this make-believe world where Maverick is supposed to be a roguish hero, time and time again, he gets let off the hook for his flagrant insubordination. Hammer tells Maverick with begrudging respect, “You’ve got some balls, stick jockey. I’ll give you that.” Get used to hokey dialogue like this in “Top Gun: Maverick,” because the movie is full of it.

Now that Maverick’s program has been shuttered, he’s been assigned to do something he doesn’t want to do: Go back to the TOPGUN program in San Diego to be an instructor. Maverick is one of those people who believes in that old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” In other words, he thinks this teaching job is for someone who’s a has-been or a never-was, who doesn’t have what it takes to currently be a pilot.

Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (played by Jon Hamm) is one of the Navy officials who is gunning for Maverick to leave the Navy. He even says as much, when he tells Maverick: “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.” Cyclone has a sidekick named Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates (played by Charles Parnell), who doesn’t do much but be in the same room as Cyclone and go along with almost everything that Cyclone says. However, Warlock has a few moments where he shows that he’s really rooting for Maverick. The same goes for Warrant Officer-1 Bernie “Hondo” Coleman (played by Bashir Salahuddin), who makes some bland wisecracks during the movie.

Maverick has to choose six of his 12 students to go on the secret mission to disable the uranium plant, which is set to activate in about three weeks. Predictably, Rooster and Maverick clash with each other. At one point, Rooster yells at Maverick: “My dad believed in you. I’m not going to make the same mistake!”

More than once in the movie, Maverick tells his trainees to ignore what they were taught in the Navy’s rulebook, and he says some variation of “Don’t think, just do” He expects them to not overthink things and to trust their instincts. Of course, in Maverick’s lectures about not following what authority figures say, he thinks he’s the exception, because he wants to be the only authority figure who must be obeyed in this program.

In addition to Rooster, the other students in the program include Rooster’s smirking, cocky rival Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin (played by Glen Powell), whose personality is a virtual replica of how Iceman was in the first “Top Gun” movie. Hangman tries to find emotional weakness in Rooster to have a competitive advantage. When Hangman discovers Rooster’s “daddy issues” and why Rooster has tensions with Maverick, it leads to the inevitable fist fight between Hangman and Rooster.

The token woman in this group of chosen trainees is Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix”
Trace (played by Monica Barbaro), who doesn’t have much of a personality, except trying to fit in with the guys. Lieutenant Robert “Bob” Floyd (played by Lewis Pullman) has the role of the nerd who’s somewhat of social outcast in this competitive group. Bob gets teased because he hasn’t thought up a flashy nickname, also known as a call sign, like all the other TOPGUN aviators.

The other trainees do not have distinguishable personalities and are given very trite dialogue. They include Lieutenant Reuben “Payback” Fitch (played by Jay Ellis); Lieutenant Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia (played by Danny Ramirez); and Lt. Javy “Coyote” Machado (played by Greg Tarzan Davis). Most viewers of “Top Gun: Maverick” will have a hard time remembering these three characters’ names and what they said by the time the movie is over.

Unlike the first “Top Gun” movie, which showed the male trainees carousing at bars and trying to pick up women, the trainees in “Top Gun” are a much tamer crew. When they go to a bar, they gather around a piano and sing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” with Rooster playing the piano. Maverick sees this camaraderie, and it triggers him to have a flashback memory to when he, Goose and other TOPGUN trainees did the same thing, with Goose’s young son sitting nearby for the sing-along. (This scene from “Top Gun” is shown as a flashback.)

Speaking of bars where these TOPGUN people hang out, the main bar they go to is The Hard Deck aviators’ club. It just happens to be owned and bartended by Penny Benjamin (played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of a U.S. Navy admiral. Penny was briefly mentioned, but never seen, in the first “Top Gun” movie as one of the many conquests whom ladies’ man Maverick got sexually involved with and then dumped.

Penny is now a divorced mother to a daughter named Amelia Benjamin (played by Lyliana Wray), who’s about 13 or 14 years old. Penny’s ex-husband, who is never seen in “Top Gun: Maverick,” has remarried and is living in Hawaii. It’s implied that never-married bachelor Maverick and Penny have had an on-again/off-again relationship, where Maverick left her heartbroken because he ended things with her every time. When Penny sees Maverick again all these years later, she predictably gives him a hard time for breaking up with her.

But just as predictably, she eventually lets him back into her life, and they rekindle their romance. Maverick and Penny look good together as a couple, but they don’t generate as much romantic heat as Maverick had with Charlie. Although Penny is a business owner, her role is essentially to be a generic love interest who follows Maverick’s lead when he courts her and succeeds in winning a place back into her heart.

Penny initially wants to keep this rekindled romance a secret from her daughter Amelia, who inevitably finds out anyway. Even after it’s no longer a secret, Maverick doesn’t spend any quality time with Amelia, which he would care about doing if he’s serious about a relationship with Penny. That’s why Maverick’s level of commitment to Penny is questionable, no matter how many “romantic” scenes are shown of Penny riding with Maverick on the back of his motorcycle. This scenario of Maverick giving his love interest a motorcycle ride is also recycled from the first “Top Gun” movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” delivers when it comes to the airplane action scenes (with the F/A-18 being the airplane of choice), but too much of the movie is tediously predictable recycling of plot points and scenes from the first “Top Gun” movie. The scene of Maverick on a motorcycle while playfully racing a soaring fighter plane is recreated. It’s in the movie for pure nostalgia reasons for people who saw the first “Top Gun” movie.

Another recycled scene takes place at a beach where the TOPGUN aviators are playing a sports game together in their free time. In “Top Gun,” it was volleyball. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” it’s touch football. This beach frolicking scene only seems to be in the movie so that Cruise and the other men can be shirtless and show off their toned physiques. Even the closing credits scene is styled exactly like the first “Top Gun” movie.

One of the highlights of “Top Gun: Maverick” is a poignant scene between Maverick and Iceman, who is battling throat cancer, just Kilmer is in real life. However, “Top Gun: Maverick” ends up being marred by too many unrealistic scenarios. There’s even more disregard of real-life U.S. military protocol than what was in the first “Top Gun” movie. Maverick does things that would get him dishonorably discharged in the real world—but of course he doesn’t get discharged, because this is a Tom Cruise movie. And the ending of “Top Gun: Maverick” is even more cornball than the ending of the first “Top Gun” movie.

The “Top Gun” soundtrack was the biggest-selling soundtrack of 1986. And it’s easy to know why. People who’ve seen the first “Top Gun” movie know how the music was used to great effect. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” song fueled a high-energy scene early in the movie. Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” memorably played during a romantic scene between Charlie and Maverick on the night that they became lovers. Those two signature “Top Gun” songs were instant classics that stayed in viewers’ minds long after seeing the movie. Although “Top Gun” got some criticism for being filmed almost like a music video, there’s no denying that the movie’s music was one of its biggest assets.

Unfortunately, “Top Gun: Maverick” has an utterly mediocre soundtrack, with songs that have been used in many other movies, such as Foghat’s “Slow Ride” and T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” There’s nothing wrong with these tunes, but they’re overplayed in too many other places. And because “Top Gun: Maverick” is a movie of rehashes, “Danger Zone” also makes a reappearance. The original soundtrack songs on “Top Gun: Maverick,” such as Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” won’t be winning any Oscars, like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”

Viewers who will enjoy “Top Gun” the most are those who want to see a superficial recreation of the first “Top Gun” movie. But for other people who know that “Top Gun: Maverick” could have been a lot better, the movie falls short in coming up with any major story arc that would be truly original and daring for this sequel. The performances in “Top Gun Maverick” aren’t terrible, but they aren’t that special either. In the end, “Top Gun: Maverick,” just like its main character, is stuck in a rut of reliving past glories, and ends up having more swagger and posturing than any real substance.

Paramount Pictures will release “Top Gun: Maverick” in U.S. cinemas on May 27, 2022.

Review: ‘Death of a Telemarketer,’ starring Lamorne Morris and Jackie Earle Haley

March 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lamorne Morris in “Death of a Telemarketer” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death of a Telemarketer”

Directed by Khaled Ridgeway

Culture Representation: Taking place in California’s San Fernando Valley, the comedic film “Death of a Telemarketer” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An overly ambitious telemarketer is held hostage by a man who’s angry about the lies the telemarketer told to try and get a sale. 

Culture Audience: “Death of a Telemarketer” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching idiotic and boring comedies.

Gwen Gottlieb and Lamorne Morris in “Death of a Telemarketer” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

How bad is “Death of a Telemarketer,” a movie that’s trying to pass itself off as an edgy comedy? The only real “death” in this garbage movie is any hope that watching this film will be an enjoyable experience. It’s excruciatingly horrible, with comedy that’s not funny and filled with extremely annoying characters.

Written and directed by Khaled Ridgeway, “Death of a Telemarketer” does everything wrong in a movie that’s supposed to be a comedy. The jokes are terrible. The pacing is dull. The scenarios are mind-numbingly stupid. The acting is substandard. And there’s barely anyone to root for in this moronic film.

The movie’s central character is Kasey Miller (played by Lamorne Morris), a cocky and unscrupulous telemarketer who has ambitions to be the top sales employee at Telewin!, the company where he works in California’s San Fernando Valley. He works in a call center, and his job is selling phone/cable TV/Internet packages to people, even if they don’t really want or need them. Like a lot of shady telemarketers, Kasey will do whatever it takes, including lie to people, in order to get the sale.

One day, a Telewin! supervisor named Liz Carson (played by Gwen Gottlieb) announces to the call center’s telemarketers that there will be a contest where the top-selling telemarketer will get $3,000 as a prize bonus. There will be a penalty for any telemarketer who gets a caller asking to be put on the Do Not Call list. Predictably, Kasey thinks he can easily win this contest.

Kasey has some competition from a religious co-worker named Barry (played by Woody McClain), who thinks he can get sales through more ethical means than the tactics that Kasey uses. There’s a considerable amount of time wasted on the rivalry between Kasey and Barry, which leads to a lot of painfully unfunny jokes. Kasey uses some bizarre tactics for closing a sale, including promising free Rick James wigs (styled to look like the cornrows that the singer wore in the 1980s) to customers who agree to buy what Kasey is selling. The promise of free Rick James wigs is used as a stupid gag later in the movie.

Kasey can get so outlandish in his sales calls that one of his calls is recorded and put on YouTube as an example of how telemarketers can be scammers. The video goes viral. And when supervisor Liz finds out and calls Kasey into her office, Kasey thinks he might get reprimanded or worse. Instead, Liz praises him because this viral video showed how Kasey made a sale by being relentless. She’s so impressed with Kasey that she tells everyone that they should emulate his unethical way of selling, which she calls the Kasey Method.

In a movie that’s polluted with unimaginative clichés, the protagonist is successful at his job but unsuccessful in love. Kasey is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Christine (played by Alisha Wainwright), who works at a hair salon and is studying to get her master’s degree in psychology. One day, Kasey shows up at the hair salon with a bunch of roses, which he hands out to the customers to try to impress Christine. She reluctantly agrees to go to dinner with him.

During conversations between Kasey and Christine, it’s eventually revealed that Kasey dropped out of law school and is drifting, when it comes to his career. Because of Kasey’s aimless direction in life, he’s become estranged from his father. Christine is paying her own tuition for grad school, and reveals that Kasey has a privileged background when she says about her tuition, “Unlike you, I don’t have a father footing the bill.”

Christine isn’t too happy about the fact that she hasn’t met all of Kasey’s family. He doesn’t want her to meet his father. She also doesn’t like it when he treats her like a sales customer. Those are some of the hints that the movie drops to show why Christine broke up with Kasey. But even without those hints, it’s easy to see why the relationship didn’t work: Kasey is a selfish twit.

Something happens during the contest at work that propels Kasey to want to go to extremes to be considered the company’s top salesperson. One evening, when he’s supposed to meet Christine for dinner, he postpones the date so that he can stop by the office while everyone has left. Kasey has decided to call people who are on the Do Not Call list to try to sell them what they refused before.

One of the people he calls is Asa Ellenbogen (played by Jackie Earle Haley), an elderly man whom Kasey has targeted because he thinks old people are especially gullible to telemarketers. Before he made the call, Kasey looked up Asa on Facebook and pretends to be a friend of Asa’s named Phil French. Asa and Phil used to be in the same marching band when they were in high school.

Kasey impersonates Phil on the phone and asks Asa to buy this Telewin! phone/cable TV/Internet package as a favor. Asa mentions that his son Dean (played by Haley Joel Osment) needs a job, so Asa asks “Phil” if he can get Dean a job at the company. Of course, “Phil” lies and says yes. Kasey thinks the scam call is going well until Asa angrily announces that the real Phil French is dead. And through a series of circumstances, Asa shows up at the office and takes Kasey hostage as revenge.

This hostage storyline of “Death of a Telemarketer” doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. What should have been the funniest part of the film is a tedious slog that just has a lot of yelling. It just makes all the characters more irritating.

The acting in the movie ranges from over-the-top silly to dreadfully boring. All of the dialogue is simply horrendous. “Death of a Telemarketer” is so ill-conceived, it’s mind-boggling that this time-wasting junk got financing. There might or might not be any death in this movie, but watching it feels like an assault on viewers’ time and intelligence.

Vertical Entertainment and Sony Pictures Entertainment released “Death of a Telemarketer” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 3, 2021.

Review: ‘No Exit,’ starring Havana Rose Liu, Dennis Haysbert, Dale Dickey, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl and Mila Harris

February 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Havana Rose Liu in “No Exit” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“No Exit” (2022)

Directed by Damien Power

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the dramatic film “No Exit” features a racially diverse group of characters (white, Asian, African American and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During a blizzard that has caused road blockages and closures, a young woman finds herself trapped in a visitor center shelter with four strangers, when she finds out that a van owned by one of the strangers has a kidnapped girl inside.

Culture Audience: “No Exit” will appeal mainly to people who like any suspense thriller, no matter how idiotic the plot gets.

Havana Rose Liu in “No Exit” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“No Exit” is an apt description for how this mystery thriller gets trapped in its own stupidity. It starts off suspenseful and then it takes a steep nosedive into illogical nonsense. There’s a long stretch of the film, which takes place during a snow blizzard, where the criminal element in the movie frantically struggles to get access to a car to make an escape. Meanwhile, the filmmakers are expecting viewers to forget that the entire point of the movie is that all the movie’s characters who are trapped in the blizzard know that the blizzard has caused the roads to blocked, with police guarding the roadblocks, and an escape isn’t really possible.

It’s not spoiler information to reveal that “No Exit” is about a serious crime that’s been committed, and whoever has committed this crime is in a small group of people at a visitor center shelter during this blizzard. The movie’s protagonist decides she’s going to be a one-woman police force to solve the mystery and get justice for this crime. Directed by Damien Power, “No Exit” was written by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari. The movie’s screenplay is based on Taylor Adams’ 2017 novel of the same name. Even though some of the cast members give good performances, the entire movie has a flawed premise that’s poorly executed in the last half of the film.

“No Exit” begins with protagonist Darby (played by Havana Rose Liu) looking bored and emotionally disconnected in a drug rehab center somewhere in California. (“No Exit” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Darby is in her early 20s, and she’s in court-ordered rehab for a crime that is not mentioned in the movie. Through conversations in the movie, it’s revealed that Darby has been in rehab or tried to get clean and sober seven times already in her life.

During a rehab group meeting, Darby is told that she has an emergency phone call. When she takes the call, she finds out from her uncle Joe (voiced by David Chen) that her widowed mother has had a brain aneurysm and is in a hospital in Utah. Darby’s mother is scheduled to get a brain operation, but it’s a risky procedure. The medical diagnosis is that Darby’s mother might not have much longer to live.

Darby is estranged from the two family members who know her the best: her mother and Darby’s older sister Devon. And despite Darby’s pleas to make a phone call for this emergency, she’s denied this request by her rehab group leader Dr. Bill Fletcher (played by James Gaylyn) because it’s the rehab center’s rule that patients can’t make outgoing phone calls. Any incoming phone call for a patient has to be an emergency, and the call is monitored by the rehab center staff.

But this obstacle isn’t enough to stop Darby. She borrows a cell phone that was snuck in by another rehab patient, whose name is Jade (played by Nomi Cohen). Jade and Darby don’t like each other, but Jade reluctantly agrees to let Darby use her phone because Darby threatens to tell the rehab officials that Jade broke the rules by sneaking in a cell phone.

Darby uses the phone to call Devon (played by Lisa Zhang), who tells Darby in no uncertain terms that she’s doesn’t want Darby to contact her or visit their mother. Darby says she’s going to find a way to visit. Devon abruptly and angrily tells Darby, “I don’t have time for your bullshit. Don’t call me back!”

This rejection still doesn’t stop Darby. In broad daylight, she sneaks out of the rehab center to steal the car of an orderly named Mike (played by Nick Davies), nicknamed Mikey, who seemed to take pleasure in denying Darby any phone privileges. Darby has also stolen Jade’s phone. Darby’s plan is to take the stolen car and drive to Utah to see her mother. But this trip comes at a very bad time because she isn’t on the road for long when a blizzard hits while she’s in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

One of the first things that Darby found in Mike’s car was a small packet of cocaine hidden in the driver’s window shade. The movie plays guessing games with viewers over whether or not Darby will relapse by using this cocaine. Darby describes her drug addiction as being willing to do any drug that comes her way.

During this blizzard, Darby gets text messages from Devon that say, “Mom doesn’t want you here.” “You’ll only make it worse.” “Don’t come.” Darby is still undeterred. She pulls over on a road to get some sleep, and she has a nightmare that people outside the car are trying to get her. She wakes up to a state trooper named Ron Hill (played by Benedict Wall), who finds out why she’s traveling during a blizzard.

He tells Darby that the only road leading to Utah is closed, and she has one of two choices: She can either reverse and go back to where she came from, or she can stay at a visitor’s center a few hundred yards away. The center is being used as a temporary shelter during the storm. The trooper also mentions that some other travelers are already at the shelter.

Darby decides to go to the shelter. Inside, there are four other strangers. Ed (played by Dennis Haysbert) is a former U.S. Marine who served in Operation Desert Storm. Ed’s wife is Sandi (played by Dale Dickey), a former nurse who met Ed when she was working at a Veterans Administration hospital. This middle-aged couple is traveling to Reno, Nevada, to do some gambling. Rose and Ed are immediately friendly and welcoming to Darby.

The other two people in the shelter are men in their 20s: Lars (played by David Rysdahl) is introverted and eccentric. He’s the type of person who talks to himself out loud when other people are around. Ash (played by Danny Ramirez) is talkative and a little flirtatious with Darby. He can also be crude and insensitive. Darby and the other four people in the shelter make small talk as they get to know each other.

No one in the shelter can get any cell phone service or WiFi service because of the blizzard and because of where they are in this remote mountain area. Still, Darby occasionally goes outside the shelter near the parking lot to see if her phone can pick up a signal. It’s during one of her trips outdoors when Darby is alarmed to see a hand and noises coming from a van parked outside.

She goes inside the van and finds a kidnapped girl, who’s about 9 or 10 years old. The girl is bound and gagged and desperate to escape. However, Darby knows that she can’t use her phone to get help, so she tells the girl that she will help her, but she has to be patient. Darby later finds out that the girl’s name is Jay (played by Mila Harris), as well as more things about who Jay is and why she was kidnapped.

Feeling trapped and helpless, Darby goes back into the shelter and acts like nothing is wrong, in order to figure out who’s the driver of the van. Before she went back into the shelter, Darby noticed that the van has Nevada license plates. The rest of the movie is a ridiculous cat-and-mouse game where Darby tries to solve the mystery and get help for the kidnapped girl without getting caught by whoever is responsible for the abduction. It’s this second half of the movie that unveils some twists and turns, with each becoming more ludicrous as times goes on.

“No Exit” has so many bad decisions, not just with the characters, but also with how the filmmakers staged everything to look so phony in the latter half of the movie. As the flawed hero Darby, Liu does her best to try to make everything in this moronic film believable, but the movie completely buries any credibility with some of the stupid plot twists, just like the blizzard in this movie buries things in the snow. The rest of the cast members are fairly solid in their roles, except for Ramirez, whose performance becomes campier as the story devolves into an irredeemable mess. You know a movie is bad when it’s called “No Exit,” but everything that happens in the last half of the movie is as if the reason for this movie’s title doesn’t exist.

Hulu premiered “No Exit” on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Madres’ (2021), starring Tenoch Huerta, Ariana Guerra, Evelyn Gonzalez, Kerry Cahill and Elpidia Carrillo

December 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ariana Guerra in “Madres” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/ Amazon Content Services)

“Madres” (2021)

Directed by Ryan Zaragoza

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1977 in California’s fictional Golden Valley, the horror film “Madres” features a predominantly Latino cast (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Mexican immigrant and his pregnant American-born wife relocate from Los Angeles to rural Golden Valley and find themselves caught in a dangerous mystery over why women in the area have a history of pregnancy trauma and infertility. 

Culture Audience: “Madres” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies that are based on real-life horror stories.

Tenoch Huerta and Ariana Guerra in “Madres” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/ Amazon Content Services)

“Madres” is a “slow burn” horror movie that’s bound to make people uncomfortable. Even though there are supernatural elements in the story, it’s based on real-life traumatic incidents involving motherhood. The final 20 minutes of the movie make up for the aspects of the story that tend to get repetitive. The cast members of “Madres” also capably handle the material.

“Madres” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Directed by Ryan Zaragoza and written by Marcella Ochoa and Mario Miscione, “Madres” at first appears to be a standard ghost story about a couple who have seemingly moved into a haunted house. But by the end of the movie, viewers will know that even though “Madres” takes place in 1977, the film makes an impactful statement about a shameful problem in society that still happens today.

In “Madres,” happily married couple Beto Obregon (played by Tenoch Huerta) and Diana Obregon (played by Ariana Guerra) are shown arriving in the rural, fictional town of Golden Valley in the northern part of California. Beto (who is 30 years old) and Diana (who’s about the same age or slightly younger than Beto) have moved to Golden Valley because Beto is a farm worker who has been offered a job to manage a farm. It’s his first managerial job, so the couple is excited about this job opportunity and increased salary, especially because Diana is pregnant with their first child.

Beto is an immigrant from Mexico who has been living in the United States for the past five years. He comes from a poor family, but he has the ambition and work ethic to want to achieve the American Dream. Diana was born in the United States and comes from a middle-class family who was originally from Mexico. Because Diana doesn’t speak Spanish and because she has a light skin tone, she could be mistaken for being a white American. It’s mentioned in the movie that Diana’s parents discouraged her from learning Spanish, which implies that her parents want to distance themselves from their Mexican roots.

“Madres” doesn’t just look at nationality issues. The movie also touches on conflicts that arise because of social class and colorism. In a phone conversation between Diana and her sister Veronica, viewers find out that Diana’s parents do not approve of her marriage to Beto, because he’s uneducated, he’s dark-skinned, and because the parents think Beto will be nothing but a poor farmer. Because of this disapproval, Diana has kept her distance from her parents, who seem to prefer Veronica as the “favored child.”

Diana has a journalism degree. Before she got pregnant, Diana worked as a journalist, but she got fired from her job for being pregnant, but she plans to go back to work when she can. In the meantime, during her pregnancy, Diana has been working on a book. It isn’t long after Diana and Beto are settled into their fixer-upper home that problems start happening.

Diana starts having nightmares, including one shown during the movie’s opening scene where Diana dreams that she has a newborn baby who disappears when the baby’s crib suddenly fills with dirt. Diana also starts to see and hear frightful things at various times of the day and night, such as shadowy figures, a boy with a bloody eye who’s hiding in a tree, and some egg yolk that looks like it starting to bleed.

“Madres” is definitely a “things that go bump in the night” movie, since a lot of scenes are about Diana witnessing something and starting to question her sanity. Sometimes, Beto goes to investigate things that Diana says that she’s seen, but he doesn’t find anything. In the meantime, Diana and Beto become increasingly worried about all of this stress will affect their unborn child.

At his new job, Beto’s supervisor is Tomas (played by Joseph Garcia), who seems to have a lot of confidence in Beto as a new hire. Beto earns the respect of his co-workers (who are all Hispanics/Latinos), but Diana has a harder time fitting into this farm community. At a company picnic, Diana feels like an outsider because she seems to be the only one who doesn’t know how to speak Spanish. And as a newcomer to the area, she also finds it difficult to adjust to living in a rural way of life in this tight-knit community

Even though Diana doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, she does know some words in Spanish. Therefore, Diana can still understand that she’s getting catty and jealous remarks from some of the other wives at this gathering. They think that Diana is too uppity for this clique because she’s light-skinned, college-educated, and never bothered to learn how to speak Spanish. A woman named Rosa (played by Leydi Morales), who is married to a farm worker named Rafael Ernesto (played by René Mena), seems to be the most jealous one in this group of farm worker wives.

During this picnic, Diana finds out that pregnancy and motherhood are touchy subjects in this community. Many of the women in the area have had miscarriages or can’t get pregnant. There are stories going around that maybe the women of Golden Valley are cursed.

Not long after moving to Golden Valley, Beto and Diana go to a gift shop, where they are greeted by Anita (played by Elpidia Carrillo), the shop owner. She offers to give a blessing to the Beto, Diana and their unborn child. Anita sells a lot of trinkets in shop, which looks like she caters to a lot of people who believe in superstitions. It should come as no surprise that Anita is called “The Witch Lady” by many of the locals.

One day, Anita shows up unannounced at Beto and Diana’s house and tries to give Diana a necklace for “protection.” Diana, who is put off by this unexpected visit, says that she’s not superstitious and she firmly refuses this gift. Anita insists that she gives this gift to all pregnant women in the town, but Diana still refuses to take the necklace.

The rest of “Madres” follows Diana’s pregnancy journey that goes from hopeful to harrowing. At one point, Diana ends up in a hospital maternity ward where someone named Nurse Carol (played by Kerry Cahill) is exactly like the type of nurse that you think she is when she interacts with Diana. Along the way, she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of the house’s previous resident: A woman named Teresa Flores, who died in 1955, and left many of her possessions behind.

Why was the house unoccupied for 22 years before Beto and Diana moved there? Is Teresa possibly haunting the house? And if so, why? And does Anita know more than she’s telling Diana? All of those questions are answered in the movie.

“Madres” is not the type of horror movie that has a lot of action and gore. Anyone looking for that type of content throughout the film will probably be disappointed. The movie overall doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, in terms of jump scares or cinematography. Guerra’s performance is believable and carries the movie. Whether are not viewers like “Madres” largely depends on how much they can connect with Guerra’s portrayal of Diana.

And it takes a while for the movie to pick up its pace. The second half of “Madres” is better than the first half. By the end of “Madres,” it will become clear that the movie isn’t the usual ghost story. The biggest horror in the film doesn’t come from the supernatural but from human beings who commit heinous acts of evil.

Prime Video premiered “Madres” on October 8, 2021.

Review: ‘Licorice Pizza,’ starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper and Benny Safdie

November 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in “Licorice Pizza” (Photo by Paul Thomas Anderson/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Licorice Pizza”

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1973 in California’s San Fernando Valley, the comedy/drama “Licorice Pizza” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman become unlikely business partners and friends, while she has conflicting feelings about his desire to be more than friends with her. 

Culture Audience: “Licorice Pizza” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson and movies set in the 1970s with a quirky but emotion-driven storyline.

Sean Penn and Alana Haim in “Licorice Pizza” (Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

The rollicking and occasionally far-fetched dramedy “Licorice Pizza” tests the boundaries of if it’s appropriate to celebrate that a 15-year-old boy wants to seduce a 25-year-old woman. The movie doesn’t waste time with this story concept because it’s delivered in a very “only in a movie” way in the film’s opening scene, where characters who are supposed to be total strangers immediately and unrealistically exchange snappy banter that sounds exactly like what it is: well-rehearsed dialogue. This over-familiarity between strangers sets the tone for much of what happens in “Licorice Pizza,” which writer/director/producer Paul Thomas Anderson presents as a version of a heightened reality.

Any controversy about underage teen sexuality is avoided because there’s no sex in the movie, but there is a lot of adult language about sex and sexuality. “Licorice Pizza” (which is set in 1973, in California’s San Fernando Valley) is a movie were viewers will have to suspend some disbelief. That’s because a great deal of the story is about how this same “lovestruck” teenager is able to go from being a socially awkward student to being a confident and hustling business owner in the space of what seems to be a few short months.

“Licorice Pizza” is also a movie that is supposed to make some viewers uncomfortable, as well as make viewers laugh at the unpredictable comedy, feel tearkerking empathy during some of the drama depicting unpleasant realities, and get heartwarming joy from some of the romantic scenes. This is Anderson’s filmmaking style. People who watch his movies probably know it already. Anderson’s screenplays aren’t always perfect or consistently believable, but he casts his movies with talented actors who give memorable performances. Even the worst of Anderson’s movies have scenes and acting that people will remember.

“Licorice Pizza” mostly triumphs because of the cast members’ performances and when the movie is about the comedy that can be found in human flaws and quirks. “Licorice Pizza” tends to be less charming when it seems to both ridicule and embrace certain tropes in romantic movies. You can’t really have it both ways in the same film, and if you try to do that, it just makes filmmaking choices look wishy-washy or confused.

For example, there’s a recurring emphasis on the would-be “Licorice Pizza” couple—15-year-old Gary Valentine (played Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana Kane (played by Alana Haim)—having scenes where one is running toward the other. They run either to help the other in a moment of distress; they run together while holding hands; or they run to indicate, “I’m so happy to see you that I can’t wait to hug you!”

These running scenes (some of which happen very abruptly) seem to be a spoof on clichés that are over-used in sappy romantic movies, as if this would-be couple might suddenly begin singing too. But there are moments when “Licorice Pizza” earnestly wants these running scenes to be taken seriously, in order to tug at viewers’ heartstrings. It’s this somewhat off-kilter tone that might be a turnoff to some viewers, but other viewers might think it’s compelling.

“Licorice Pizza” has some subtle and not-so-subtle commentary on the rigid gender roles that affect people’s perceptions of who should be the pursuers when it comes romance and sex. After all, reactions to “Licorice Pizza” would probably be very different if the movie had been about a 15-year-old girl who wants to date a 25-year-old man. “Licorice Pizza” certainly isn’t the first movie to be about an underage teenager who “falls in love” with an adult. But it’s impossible not to notice that a lot of what Gary gets away with would not be allowed for a female character of the same age, even if the movie were set in the present day.

It’s more of a commentary on sexism in society than Anderson’s personal filmmaking choices. However, “Licorice Pizza” still clings to the old-fashioned teen movie tropes of a nerdy teenage guy pining over a love interest and all the things he does to try to impress this love interest. It automatically sets up the teenage boy as the underdog. Movies like this almost never have an unhappy ending. The main difference between “Licorice Pizza” and most of the other teen-oriented movies that follow this over-used formula is that Anderson comes up with much better dialogue and more interesting characters portrayed by skillfull cast members. These are all the saving graces of “Licorice Pizza.”

Gary is a mix of insecurity and bravado when it comes to how he’s going to win over Alana, as well as how he becomes an aspiring business mogul. In the movie’s opening scene, it’s yearbook portrait day at Gary’s high school. Alana is an assistant at the photography studio that’s doing the student portraits on the school’s campus. The photo studio is called Tiny Toes, which implies that its specialty is doing children’s photography.

Gary is standing in a line outside the school to get his photo taken. He first sees Alana, looking bored, as she walks past the queuing students to offer a comb and mirror to anyone who needs these items. People mostly ignore Alana, except for Gary, who seems to have a “love at first sight” moment and tells Alana that he wants to use a comb and mirror.

Gary doesn’t waste time in letting Alana know that he’s interested in her. He immediately asks Alana out on a dinner date. She essentially laughs in his face and tells him, “You’re 12 … How are you going to pay?” Gary proudly tells Alana that he’s actually 15 (as if that makes a difference in his underage status) and he earns money by being an actor.

He starts listing his acting credits, which are mostly in commercials or bit parts in TV shows. However, Gary has his biggest role so far as a supporting actor in a movie musical called “Under One Roof,” in which he plays one of several orphans in an orphanage. It’s this movie role that ends up being a catalyst for how Gary and Alana’s relationship develops.

Alana bluntly tells Gary that it would be illegal for her to date him, but Gary is undeterred. He replies, “You give me hope. This is fate that brought us together!” Who talks like that to someone they just met? Alana gives a more realistic reply: “I doubt it, but we’ll see.” During this first conversation, Gary and Alana find out that she lives in Encino, while he lives in Sherman Oaks, which are about six miles apart from each other.

Alana still refuses Gary’s invitation for a dinner date. She thinks it’s somewhat amusing that this teenager is ardently pursuing her after they just met. “Don’t call it a date,” Gary says in an effort to convince Alana to meet him at his favorite local restaurant, which is called Tail o’ the Cock. (Cue the double entendre jokes.) Gary tells Alana that all he wants is for her to “just come by and say hello.”

Gary has a brother named Greg (played by Milo Herschlag), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Gary often has the responsibility to look after himself and Greg because their single mother Anita (played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis), who’s an independent publicist, frequently has to travel away from home because of her job. (Gary’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.) At the time that Gary and Alana have met, Anita is temporarily in Las Vegas to do public-relations work for a hotel.

After school that day, Gary excitedly tells Greg, “I met the girl I’m going to marry one day!” Gary rushes to get ready for his “date” with Alana. There’s no guarantee that she’ll show up at the restaurant, but Gary is still hopeful. And sure enough, Alana shows up, with an expression on her face that seems to say, “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.”

Gary is so elated and smitten that he intensely stares at Alana when they talk. She can also hear his heavy breathing. All of it makes her uncomfortable and she tells him to stop. “Stop breathing?” Gary asks. “Yes,” Alana says. It’s the first indication that Alana wants to be the “boss” of this relationship.

Later in the movie, there’s a great scene where Gary impulsively calls Alana but doesn’t say anything when she answers the phone. She can hear his breathing though, and quickly figures out that Gary is on the other line. He hangs up, but she calls him back, and she does the same thing that he did to her. It’s a very funny scene that says a lot about the kind of relationship that they have, which inevitably goes though ups and downs when issues of jealousy and control enter the mix.

Shortly after Gary and Alana’s “first date,” Anita calls Gary to tell him that she has to stay in Las Vegas longer than expected, so she can’t be his required guardian/chaperone on an upcoming trip to New York City for the press tour of “Under One Roof.” Gary doesn’t seem too disappointed because he knows that all he needs is someone over the age of 18 to accompany him on this trip. As soon as Gary’s mother tells him that she can’t go, you immediately know whom Gary will get to be his chaperone for this trip.

The movie cuts to Gary and Alana sitting together on the plane to New York City. At this point, Alana has been firm in telling Gary that she only wants to be his platonic friend. Gary tests her feelings when he openly flirts with an attractive flight attendant in her 20s, who seems to be impressed with Gary only because he confirms her assumption that he’s one of the actors in the movie’s cast.

Gary really isn’t interested in the flight attendant because he only wants to see Alana’s reaction to him flirting with another woman. Alana puts on a poker face, and then it’s her turn to play games with Gary. Soon after the flight attendant walks away, one of the actors in “Under One Roof” approaches Alana and makes it known that he thinks Alana is attractive and that he wants to date her.

His name is Lance Brannigan (played by Skyler Gisondo), and he’s in his late teens or early 20s. Alana enthusiastically flirts back with Lance. The look on Gary’s face indicates that he’s not happy about it, but he tries to play it cool and act like it doesn’t bother him. Expect to see more of these mind games between Gary and Alana when they see each other on dates with other people during the course of the movie.

In New York, the stars of “Under One Roof” go on a TV talk show called “The Jerry Best Show” and do an interview and a brief performance from the movie. Seated in the studio audience is Alana, who proudly tells the people sitting next to her that she’s Gary’s chaperone. The movie’s headliner is an actress named Lucy Doolittle (played by Christine Ebersole), who’s supposed to have an image that’s a combination of Lucille Ball and Shirley Jones. On camera, she’s personable with a bubbly personality.

Behind the scenes, Lucy is not the fun-loving actress that she appears to be. She’s a control freak who loses her temper easily. In a comedic scene, Gary says a sexual double entendre on the live broadcast. After the interview, Lucy gets so angry backstage that she yells at Gary and repeatedly hits him. Her lashing out is so bad that she has to be pulled off of Gary and carried away by security personnel.

This trip is a turning point in Gary and Alana’s relationship because it’s the first time that Alana sees what showbiz is like behind the scenes, and she sees that Gary gets a lot more freedom than most other teenagers who are his age. She thinks being an actor is much more glamorous than her boring life. And so, Alana starts to warm up to Gary (and Lance), and it isn’t long before Gary is helping her become an actress. Gary gets Alana a meeting with a talent agent named Mary Grady (played by Harriet Sansom Harris), who is probably Gary’s agent too.

Before the meeting, Gary advises Alana to lie and say she can do anything that is asked of her. For example, if a role requires horseriding skills, Gary says Alana should lie and say that she knows how to ride horses. He tells her that actors tell these lies all the time in auditions, and they figure out a way to quickly learn the skill if they get the role.

Gary is in the meeting with Alana and Mary, so he knows everything that’s being discussed. But once again, issues of jealousy and control come up when Alana tells Mary that she’s open to doing nude scenes. Gary reacts exactly how you think he would react. It’s quite the display of entitlement from an underage teenager toward a woman who isn’t even his girlfriend.

Alana ultimately gives a cringeworthy response to get Gary to stop whining about her willingness to do a nude scene. It is not one of the movie’s finer moments. However, it seems to be in the movie as an example of how lonely and desperate Alana is to get a certain amount of approval from Gary so that she can be in Gary’s life. Slowly but surely, viewers see that Alana is not as confident as she first appears to be.

Alana lives with her parents and her two older sisters, who are played by Alana Haim’s real-life parents and sisters. (In real life, the Haim sisters are the pop/rock trio Haim.) Alana’s father Moti (played by Moti Haim) is conservative and religious, while her mother Donna (played by Donna Haim) doesn’t say much. “Licorice Pizza” mentions several times that Alana and her family are Jewish, almost to the point where you wonder if the filmmakers intended the Kane family’s Jewishness to be some type of punchline.

Alana has a contentious relationship with oldest sister Este (played by Este Haim), who thinks that Alana is kind of a loser and isn’t afraid to say it to Alana. It’s not unusual for Alana and Este to have curse-filled arguments with each other. Alana has a much better relationship with middle sister Danielle (played by Danielle Haim), who seems to be Alana’s closest confidante. At one point, Alana asks Danielle if she thinks it’s weird that Alana is hanging out with teenagers like Gary and his friends. Danielle tries not to be judgmental and says no, but you can tell that Danielle might have just said that in order to not hurt Alana’s feelings.

Because really: It is weird for a 25-year-old to be hanging out with underage teenagers. It soon becomes clear that Alana has no friends of her own age and she’s trying to find her identity. She hasn’t quite figured out how she wants to make a living. But what she does know is that she wants to move out of her parents’ home and out of San Fernando Valley.

Alana thinks her ticket to a more glamorous life might be Lance, whom she begins dating, but Gary is never out of the picture. (One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Alana brings Lance home for dinner to meet her family for the first time.) Eventually, Alana becomes involved in Gary’s plans to get rich by starting his own businesses. And this is where the movie takes a turn into some absurdity.

Gary is an aspiring entrepreneur. Without giving away too many details in this review, he ends up starting a business called Fat Bernie’s, where he sells water beds with the brand name Soggy Bottom. (Cue the scenes with more double entendres.) At another point in the movie, Gary opens a pinball arcade too.

Alana ends up working with Gary in his water-bed business, where they spend a lot of time doing phone sales. She also does in-person sales at the bed store. Another cringeworthy moment comes when Gary convinces Alana to wear a bikini and stand near the front door to attract customers. Alana seems ambivalent about how much she wants to use sex appeal for sales. Before the bikini scene happens, she gives Gary a verbal takedown when he tells her that she needs to sound sexier during her phone sales.

Yes, “Licorice Pizza” has a huge part of the story where a 15-year-old boy becomes a wheeler dealer business owner quicker than most kids complete a semester in school. There’s no logical explanation offered for it. Realistic details are never discussed in the movie, such as how he was able to rent all that retail/office space or how he got a delivery truck when he’s not even old enough to have a driver’s license. (It can be presumed he got the money to stock up on products from his actor income.) “Licorice Pizza” expects people to overlook that children under the age of 18 can’t sign contracts without a parent or guardian’s consent, unless the child is emancipated. Gary is not emancipated.

Because “Licorice Pizza” leans heavily into the subplot of Gary trying to become a business mogul, eventually his mother is never seen or mentioned in the movie again, and Gary is never seen in school again. He’s seen going to an industry trade show by himself, where he promotes his water-bed business at a booth. His only employees seem to be his brother, some local teenagers and Alana. These unrealistic aspects of the plot are undoubtedly the movie’s biggest flaws.

To make up for these gaps in reality, “Licorice Pizza” takes viewers on a topsy-turvy ride into Gary’s business antics and his continual pursuit to make Alana his girlfriend. There are some notable cameos from well-known actors who fulfill the expected eccentric roles in Anderson’s movies. Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s real-life partner) portrays a casting agent named Gale during one of Gary’s auditions for commercials. John C. Reilly has an uncredited cameo as a trade show attendee dressed in a Herman Munster costume. If Reilly isn’t the person in the actual costume, then it’s his voice that’s used for that character.

John Michael Higgins portrays Jerry Frick, the owner of a Japanese restaurant that hires Gary’s mother Anita to do publicity for the restaurant. The movie pokes fun at Jerry’s tone-deaf racism in the way that he speaks in a condescending, fake Japanese accent to his Japanese wife Mioko (played by Yumi Mizui), whom he later dumps for a younger Japanese wife named Kimiko (played by Megumi Anjo). Jerry treats Kimiko in the same way that he treated Mioko: as if he thinks he’s a culturally superior husband and she’s his inferior immigrant trophy wife.

Sean Penn portrays a famous actor named Jack Holden, who seems to be a character inspired by Steve McQueen or William Holden. Alana has auditioned for a role in one of Jack’s movies. Jack uses this pickup line on Alana, by name-dropping Grace Kelly, one of his past co-stars: “You remind me of Grace,” he tells Alana with a sleazy smirk. Jack invites Alana to have dinner with him at Tail o’ the Cock, where they are joined by the movie’s kooky director Rex Blau (played by Tom Waits), who seems to be wacked out on drugs.

And what do you know: Gary happens to be in the same restaurant too. What a coincidence. Gary is there with a few of his friends, including a teenager named Wendi Jo (played by Zoe Herschlag), whom Gary has been casually dating. Gary can see that Alana is dazzled by Jack, while Alana wonders who’s the cute teenage girl who’s with Gary. Alana and Gary exchange furtive, jealous glances at each other at their respective restaurant tables.

Later, Rex leads Jack, Alana and a small crowd of restaurant customers outside to a park near the restaurant for an impromptu stunt that he wants to film with a hand-held camera. Rex encourages Jack to ride a motorcycle with Alana as his passenger on the park grass. Gary is one of the crowd observers. And something happens that leads to one of the movie’s scenes where someone runs toward another as a romantic gesture.

Bradley Cooper has the best and most hilarious scenes in the movie, as hair-stylist-turned-movie-producer Jon Peters, who becomes a customer of Gary’s water-bed business. In real life, Peters was Barbra Streisand’s live-in lover at the time, so her name is mentioned multiple times in the movie, but no one portrays Streisand in “Licorice Pizza.”

Cooper gives an unhinged, hot-tempered performance as Peters. When Gary, Alana, Greg and a teenage friend show up at the Streisand/Peters home to do a water-bed installation, Peters makes this threat to Gary: “I’m going to kill you and your family if you fuck up my house,” he says in all seriousness. It’s around the time of this house visit that rationing began for car gas, due to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargo, so the gas shortage is used in the plot for some laugh-out-loud moments.

In real life, Peters is a self-admitted playboy, so that aspect of his personality is shown in the movie with his incessant boorishness when he makes unwanted sexual advances on women or when he talks about all the sex he’s had with women. (Trivia note: Peters was a producer of the 1976 version of “A Star is Born,” starring Streisand, and he was a producer of Cooper’s 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born.”) Alana becomes the target of his sexual harassment too, right in front of Gary, who looks on helplessly and does nothing to stop it.

Alana experiences other occasional forms of sexual harassment and sexism in the movie. For example, there’s a scene where she walks by a man (who’s a total stranger to her) who slaps her on her rear end as she passes him. This type of harassment is dealt with in a way that was typical for 1973: The person being harassed just shrugs it off and says nothing. These days, many people still react to harassment in the same way, but with the #MeToo movement, harassment is now less likely to be tolerated, and people are speaking up about it more.

Even though there are plenty of comedic moments in “Licorice Pizza,” the movie never lets viewers forget the serious issue of the big difference in age and maturity between Alana and Gary. There’s a very telling scene where Alana is sitting on a sidewalk after going through a harrowing experience. As she tries to collect her composure, Alana sees Gary and a few of his friends goofing off with some gas cans nearby. She says nothing out loud, but the expression on her face shows how she’s feeling inside: “What the hell am I doing here hanging out with these kids? Has my life really come to this?”

Gary is a horny teenager, so his immediate reasons for wanting to be with Alana are very transparent. He’s also very open in telling Alana that he’s sexually interested in her, but he’s not rude and aggressive about it. Gary is usually polite and respectful. Alana is the more complex character in this relationship. The movie never really explains why she has no friends of her own age. It expects viewers to just accept that Alana is a lost soul.

In “Licorice Pizza,” Hoffman and Alana Haim both make impressive feature-film debuts as actors. One of the refreshing things about the movie is that Anderson did not choose glossy-looking Hollywood actors for these two central roles. Gary looks like a real teenager (acne and all), while Alana looks like how most real women look, with teeth that aren’t perfectly straight or skin that has some blemishes. In other words, she doesn’t look like a Hollywood robot with too much plastic surgery. Too often, movies about teenage dating tend to cast actors who look too old to play teenagers, and the “dream girl” is someone who looks like a near-perfect model.

More importantly in the casting of Hoffman (who’s the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim is how they’re entirely believable as the characters of Gary and Alana, even if not all the scenarios written for them are believable. Do they have chemistry together? Yes, as two friends who are navigating the tightrope when one friend wants to date the other, even though they know taking the relationship beyond friendship would be illegal. There’s a fine line between making a relationship like this seem sweet or tacky, and it usually has to do with how much sexual contact the people in the relationship have with each other.

Although there are many things about Alana’s relationship with Gary that are downright inappropriate, she still puts up certain barriers so that the relationship doesn’t cross the line into statutory rape. Alana is no angel, but even she has enough ethics not to sexually take advantage of Gary. What Alana struggles with—and what Alana Haim portrays so well—is the moral ambuguity about how emotionally close she should get to an underage teenager who wants to date her. How long can she keep him in the “friend zone”?

“Licorice Pizza” takes another sudden turn when Alana decides to do something more meaningful with her life besides selling water beds. She volunteers to work on the political campaign of a city council member named Joel Wachs (played by Benny Safdie), who is running for mayor. In the last third of the movie, Alana finds out something about Joel where she gets a certain awakening and a certain reckoning that turn “Licorice Pizza” from a lightweight romp to a movie of more substance.

Don’t expect the movie to explain why it’s called “Licorice Pizza.” There is no explanation in the movie, but Anderson has said in real life that he named the movie after a former chain of California music stories called Licorice Pizza. Anderson is known for making excellent soundtrack choices for his films. Fans of retro rock and pop will love the “Licorice Pizza” soundtrack, although music aficionados will notice that one of the soundtrack songs was released after 1973: Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro’s 1978 duet “Stumblin’ In.” However, songs that existed in 1973, such as like Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let Me Roll It” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” are used perfectly in certain scenes to immerse viewers in the mood that each scene is trying to convey.

If viewers can tolerate the most unrealistic parts of “Licorice Pizza,” then they should prepare themselves for a ride that’s a rollercoaster of emotions with some admirable acting. The unique characters in Anderson’s movies and the anticipation of seeing what will happen to these characters during each story make an irresistible combination. You might not want to hang out with a lot of these characters in real life, but it’s hard not to be entertained by them when watching them in a movie.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Focus Features will release “Licorice Pizza” in select U.S. cinemas on November 26, 2021. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021.

Review: ‘King Richard,’ starring Will Smith

November 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in “King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“King Richard”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in the early-to-mid-1990s, mainly in California and Florida, the dramatic film “King Richard” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Coming from an underprivileged background, Richard “Richie” Williams becomes the first tennis coach of his daughters Venus and Serena, but his unorthodox methods often clash with the traditions of the elite world of tennis.

Culture Audience: “King Richard” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Will Smith and the real-life Venus Williams and Serena Williams, as well as people who are interested in well-acted sports movies about people who triumph against the odds.

Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Will Smith and Tony Goldwyn in King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The dramatic film “King Richard” is both a tribute and a feel-good Hollywood version of how Richard “Richie” Williams guided his daughters Venus and Serena to tennis superstardom. The movie is set in the early-to-mid-1990s, at the beginning of Venus’ and Serena’s tennis careers. The tennis matches in the story focus more on Venus’ rise to tennis glory, since her championships came before Serena’s.

In the role of Richard Williams, Will Smith gives a very charismatic performance as a flawed but loving and determined father. The movie shows in abundance how Richard Williams’ stubbornness was both an asset and a liability when he became the person who had the biggest impact on Venus’ and Serena’s respective tennis careers. As it stands, this movie is told from Richard’s male and very domineering perspective.

What saves this movie from being unchecked worship of patriarchy is that it gives credit to Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Venus and Serena’s mother, winningly played by Aunjanue Ellis) as being an underrated, positive force in the family. Oracene (who was a nurse when this story took place) was the one who held the family together in their toughest times. She was also the intelligence behind some of the crucial decisions that were made when Venus and Serena were underage children. If Richard was the “king” of the family, then Oracene was undoubtedly the “queen.”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, “King Richard” doesn’t shy away from some of the controversial aspects of Richard Williams’ life, nor does the movie portray him as saintly. But the title of the movie says it all: The intention of “King Richard” is to give Richard Williams the same level of respect as the tennis stars who are treated as sports royalty. It’s a bit of a stretch, considering that Richard wasn’t the only coach that Venus and Serena ever had.

The movie acknowledges that Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (played by Demi Singleton) had plenty of other people who helped them along the way. There are moments when “King Richard” puts Richard Williams a little too much on a pedestal for being a “prophet” who predicted, when Venus and Serena were in elementary school, that Venus and Serena would become phenomenal tennis champs. Much ado is made about his 78-page plan where he made these predictions. The movie also depicts how Richard filmed homemade videos as electronic press kits to promote Venus and Serena.

Lots of parents have grandiose plans for their children, but it helps if those kids have the talent for whatever the parents are motivating them to do. This movie could have had a little more insight into the talent that makes Venus and Serena so special, as well as more information on when they started showing an interest in tennis. “King Richard” starts off with Venus at approximately age 11 and Serena at approximately age 10, with Richard as their “tough love” coach, already practicing on run-down tennis courts in their working-class hometown of Compton, California. At the time, Richard worked the night shift as a security guard.

The movie makes it look like all Richard had to do in the earliest days of their tennis career was to get Venus and Serena to practice a lot, in order to put the two sisters on the path to becoming great tennis players. But did Venus and Serena start with that passion for tennis, or were they pushed into it? The movie never says, because Richard (as the protagonist) is the main focus of the story. (It should be noted that Smith is also one of the producers of “King Richard.”) There are countless tennis parents who do the same things that Richard did to prepare their kids to become professional tennis players, but we don’t hear about them because their tennis kids just aren’t talented.

In the movie, Oracene (who was a widow when she married Richard in 1980) is the one who tells Richard that practicing on inferior tennis courts with substandard tennis rackets would get Venus and Serena nowhere, no matter how much hard work they did. Oracene is the one who motivates Richard to make the right connections in the elite world of tennis, where you need the kind of money that’s required to pay for training and entry fees into top tennis tournaments. However, the Williams family couldn’t afford these fees at the time. It’s at this point in the movie that Richard starts to transform himself into a maverick wheeler dealer in the tennis world.

He’s an unlikely tennis maverick. From the opening scene, the movie makes it clear that Richard’s English grammar skills aren’t very good, and he comes from a rough-and-tumble background. In a voiceover, Richard describes the type of upbringing he had: “Tennis was not a game peoples played. We was too busy running from the [Ku Klux] Klan.” (Richard was born in 1942 in Shreveport, Louisiana.)

Later in the movie, Richard tells his daughters: “When I was your age, I had to fight someone every day,” which is why he says that doesn’t get as fazed by setbacks as other people might be. The issues of racial differences and social-class inequalities are ever-present in the movie because a huge part of Venus’ and Serena’s success story is about how they became champions in a sport that’s been accessible mainly to white people who can afford it.

The Williams family members who are also depicted in the movie are Oracene’s three daughters from her first marriage: Tunde Price (played by Mikayla Bartholomew), Isha Price (played by Daniele Lawson) and Lyndrea Price (played Layla Crawford). (In real life, Venus, Serena and Isha are among the executive producers of “King Richard.”) When this movie takes place, the Williams household consists of Richard, Oracene, Venus, Serena, Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea. The girls are seen being being playful and happy around each other, doing things such as karaoke-type talent shows in their home when they spend time together.

However, “King Richard” has fairly shallow portrayals of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea as nothing but characters whose main purpose in life is to agree with Richard and cheer on Venus and Serena when needed. In a household of five sisters, the sisters are never seen arguing with each other, or having jealousy issues because a parent seems to favor one child over another. This lack of sibling conflict is very unrealistic. The movie doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that Richard’s single-minded focus on making Venus and Serena tennis champs surely came at a cost to his relationship with his stepdaughters, who must have felt treated differently by him.

Even in the best of circumstances, “King Richard” makes it look like Richard didn’t think his stepdaughters were worthy of the same type of attention that he was giving to Venus and Serena. Richard briefly mentions that he thinks that his other daughters in the household are “future doctors and lawyers,” but if he spent any time supporting his stepdaughters’ career goals, the movie never shows it and never shows what those goals were. “King Richard” doesn’t make an effort to distinguish the personalities of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea, because the movie just makes them background characters in the Richard Williams show.

The only time Richard is showing individual “protective dad” attention to one of his stepdaughters is in an early scene in the movie where 16-year-old Tunde is watching Venus and Serena practice on a Compton tennis court. Richard and his other stepdaughters are there too. Some guys in their 20s are nearby. One of them, who’s named Bells (played by Craig Tate), tries to flirtatiously talk to Tunde, who seems uncomfortable with his attention. She quickly walks away from Bells when Richard sees what’s going on and tells her to get away from this leering stranger. Richard steps in and orders Bells to leave Tunde alone because she’s only 16 and not interested in dating him.

In response, Bells turns into a thug and punches Richard hard enough for Richard to fall to the ground. Richard gets up and walks away, but all five of the girls have witnessed this assault while waiting in Richard’s Volkswagen van. When he gets in the van and he’s asked if he’s okay, that’s when Richard says he had to fight someone every day when he was the same ages as his daughters. “And I didn’t have no daddy to stand in the way,” he adds. “They’re going to respect y’all.”

It won’t be the last time Richard takes a beating. He gets beat up physically, emotionally and mentally in various ways during his unstoppable efforts to make Venus and Serena among the greatest tennis players of all time. He gets plenty of rejections, of course. And he’s openly ridiculed for his decision to take Venus and Serena out of junior league tennis tournaments, so that Venus and Serena could focus on their education and go directly to the professional leagues. He often annoys people with his blunt approach, because he can be arrogant.

Richard is not a smooth talker, but the one characteristic that defines Richard in his key to his success is persistence. He’s well-aware that he doesn’t come from an educated, privileged and well-connected background. But that’s exactly why he’s so hungry for the success that he wants for Venus and Serena. He’s also fiercely proud and supportive of Venus and Serena, even if they lose a match. At least that’s how the movie portrays him.

Because of Richard’s persuasive finagling, Venus and Serena sign on with their first professional coach: Paul Cohen (played by Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus and Serena for free because he believes in their talent and wants a cut of any prize money they will eventually win. For a while, Oracene helped RIchard with coaching duties for Serena when Cohen initially said he would only coach one of the sisters for free, and Richard decided it would be Venus. Later, Venus and Serena sign on with coach Rick Macci (played by Jon Bernthal), who agrees to relocate the entire Williams household to Macci’s home base in Florida’s Palm Beach County, where he pays for all of their living expenses and buys them the house where they live.

Macci is also motivated by getting a percentage of the millions that he thinks Venus and Serena will eventually earn. At the time, the Rick Macci International Tennis Academy (in Delray Beach, Florida) was best known for training tennis star Jennifer Capriati (played by Jessica Wacnik), who was an idol of Venus and Serena. Macci is shocked and dismayed when the investment he thought he made in Venus and Serena as future junior league champs turns out to be funding for Venus and Serena to not go on the junior league circuit after all.

It’s because Richard didn’t want his future tennis champs to get burned out on the junior league circuit. Richard tells Macci of this plan after Richard got what he wanted in their contract. Richard made the then-controversial and unheard-of decision to take Venus and Serena out of the junior leagues (the traditional route for tennis players to turn pro), so they could go to school like “normal kids” while training to go straight into the professional leagues.

Richard is further convinced he made the right decision when he sees the scandalous downfall of Capriati, beginning with her 1994 arrest for marijuana possession. The arrest exposed many of Capriati’s personal problems, which she has since largely blamed on the pressures and burnout of her junior league tennis career. Many people doubted that Venus and Serena could turn pro in their mid-teens, but Venus and Serena proved the naysayers wrong.

In addition to Capriati, other real-life tennis players are depicted by actors in brief appearances in the movie. They include John McEnroe (played by Christopher Wallinger), Pete Sampras (played by Chase Del Rey) and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (played by Marcela Zacarias), who is Venus’ opponent in the movie’s big tennis showdown. McEnroe and Sampras are seen training with Cohen during one of Richard’s first meetings with the coach. Don’t expect any of these other tennis stars to have any meaningful lines of dialogue in the movie. Each person only says a few sentences.

In the movie, Richard is depicted as being a proverbial “helicopter dad” who hovers during practice and tries to tell coaches Cohen and Macci how to do their jobs. The movie demonstrates in these scenes that these coaches only tolerated Richard because of Venus’ and Serena’s talent, not because these coaches genuinely liked Richard as a friend or respected him as a business person. Macci, who’s more emotional than Cohen, isn’t afraid to express his anger at feeling deceived or frustrated by Richard. Both coaches are the friendliest to Richard when it’s about how they can make money off of Venus and Serena.

The movie tends to gloss over the fact that for all of Richard’s big talk, what really opened important doors for Venus and Serena were the money and connections of coaches such as Cohen and Macci. Richard was a package deal with Venus and Serena. We’ll never know how differently Richard might have been treated by some of these people if Venus and Serena weren’t his underage children at the start of their tennis careers.

In other words, if Venus and Serena weren’t underage children under Richard’s legal control, would he have been as successful in launching their careers? The movie implies the answer: Probably not, because less people in the tennis industry would’ve tolerated him and his admittedly alienating ways.

However, it’s precisely because Richard was the father of Venus and Serena that he protected them in ways that many coaches or managers probably would not have protected them. The issue of race cannot be underestimated because Venus and Serena got “real talk” from Richard about the racism they would experience in the sport of tennis, which has a reputation for being elitist and catering mainly to white people. As such, one of the movie’s obvious “Oscar bait” clips is a scene where a tearful Richard tells Venus in a pep talk about her groundbreaking role in professional tennis: “You’re not just going to be representing you. You’re going to be representing every little black girl on Earth!”

Venus and Serena are portrayed as polite, hardworking children who have no other interests besides tennis and hanging out with their sisters. In the movie, Richard is shown discouraging Venus and Serena from getting too close to kids outside of their family. When Richard wants a “yes” answer from his daughters, they answer, “Yes, Daddy,” like robotic kids on command. Richard expects Venus and Serena to tell him he’s their best friend when he asks. Venus complies with the answer Richard wants to hear, but Serena says Venus is her best friend first.

It’s all played for laughs and feel-good cheer. But some of this banter just seems a little too phony, giving the impression that a lot of the real story is left out about how Richard would lose his temper and say harmful things to Venus and Serena. It’s hard to believe this movie’s rosy portrayal that Richard never really yelled hurtful things to Venus and Serena, when every hard-driving, tough-talking coach does that one point or another to people whom the coach is training. The perspectives of Venus and Serena are not given much importance in this movie, except when it comes to how they’re going to win tennis matches.

For example, viewers never learn what Venus and Serena liked to study in school or what types of friends they made in school, even if the movie makes it look like Richard was the type of father who didn’t want his underage daughters to invite any friends to visit them in their home. The movie never shows how the family celebrated milestones such as Venus’ and Serena’s birthdays, or when they graduated from middle school to high school. It’s a strange omission, considering that in real life, Richard got a lot of criticism precisely because he wanted Venus and Serena to have “normal” school experiences at that age instead of going on tennis tours.

The movie’s erasure of Venus’ and Serena’s childhood experiences that aren’t related to tennis or family all goes back to the patriarchal purpose of the movie: Showing how Richard programmed Venus and Serena on how to be tennis champs, not how to prepare them for life after tennis. There have been several documentaries about Venus and Serena where the two sisters openly admit that they will have a difficult time dealing with life when they both retire from tennis.

And how hard was Richard on Venus and Serena? The movie hints that people had concerns. There’s a scene where a police officer and a government social worker go to the Williams home in Compton to investigate a complaint that Venus and Serena were being abused because of all the rigorous training that Richard made them do.

Richard and Oracene are naturally insulted and defensive. They deny any abuse, and nothing comes of the complaint. The movie makes it look like a jealous neighbor named Ms. Strickland (played by Erika Ringor) is behind the complaint, but you have to wonder if that neighbor character was created in the movie as a villainous stand-in for well-meaning people in real life who had concerns about Richard’s parenting skills.

Whether or not there was any abuse, the family did have serious problems, which is acknowledged in one of the movie’s best scenes. It’s when Oracene confronts Richard for letting his ego stifle Venus’ wishes to play in the professional leagues at the age of 14. Oracene and Richard have an argument, which leads to Oracene verbally ripping into Richard for abandoning the family he had with his first wife and not seeming to care about having a relationship with the children he left behind in the divorce. (Richard had five biological kids and one stepchild with his first wife Betty Johnson, to whom he was married from 1965 to 1973.)

During this argument, Oracene reminds Richard that he’s had a string of failed businesses because he gave up too quickly when things got a little too hard for him. It’s easy to read between the lines, even though the movie doesn’t come right out and say it: Venus and Serena were Richard’s last-ditch attempt to get rich after he failed at starting his own businesses. He needed their talent because his own skills as an entrepreneur were questionable at best.

In the movie’s zeal to put Richard on a “prophet pedestal” and to make Oracene and Richard look like a loving couple that will stay together “’til death do us part,” the movie’s epilogue leaves out this reality: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. In 2010, Richard married his third wife Lakeisha Juanita Graham (who’s young enough to be his daughter), they had a son, and then the marriage ended in divorce in 2017. Maybe the “King Richard” filmmakers think that the public shouldn’t care about these details of Richard being a failure as a husband because Venus and Serena turned out to be rich and famous.

Despite the flaws in the movie’s screenplay, “King Richard” has exemplary acting from Smith, who gives one of his best movie performances as the gruff but compelling Richard. Sidney’s portrayal of Venus gets more of an emotional journey than Singleton’s portrayal of Serena, who is mostly in Venus’ shadow at this point in the sisters’ lives. (In real life, Serena would later emerge has having a more assertive personality than Venus.)

In the movie, Richard explains to Serena that he planned for Venus to become a star first. Richard predicts Venus will be ranked No. 1 in the world before Serena achieves that same goal, but Serena will eventually be considered by many to be the “greatest of all time” in tennis. He tells Serena: “I knew you was rough, you was tough, and you was a fighter.”

Sidney and Singleton both adeptly handle the movie’s tennis-playing scenes. A big highlight of the movie is an emotionally gripping, climactic scene at the 1994 Bank of the West Classic tournament in Oakland, California. One of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t fall into the usual clichés of how sports dramas usually end. However, the tropes of a “tough love” father/coach are played to the hilt.

As a sports movie, “King Richard” might disappoint some viewers who are expecting more screen time devoted to tennis matches. But more tennis matches on screen should be expected if Venus and Serena were the central characters. “King Richard” never lets you forget that the central character is someone who was never a pro tennis player: Richard Williams. However, the movie has the grace to admit that Venus and Serena turned out to be extraordinary people because of their mother Oracene too.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “King Richard” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Ride the Eagle,’ starring Jake Johnson, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon

August 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jake Johnson in “Ride the Eagle” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“Ride the Eagle”

Directed by Trent O’Donnell

Culture Representation: Taking place in California’s Yosemite area and briefly in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama “Ride the Eagle” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Latino and one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bachelor in his 40s travels to his estranged late mother’s remote house in the Yosemite forest, which he will inherit on the condition that he complete a set of tasks that she has left for him at the house.

Culture Audience: “Ride the Eagle” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching low-budget movies that skillfully blend adult-oriented comedy with heartfelt sentiment.

Susan Sarandon in “Ride the Eagle” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“Ride the Eagle” presents a charming mix of sweet drama and salty comedy in this story that covers the gamut of reconnecting with the past, appreciating the present, and moving forward from regrets in the future. It’s the type of independent film that proves that you don’t need a big budget or a large cast to have an impactful and entertaining movie. Thanks to admirable acting and the movie’s unfussy tone, a variety of viewers will find it easy to connect with “Ride the Eagle.”

“Ride the Eagle” is the feature-film directorial debut of Trent O’Donnell, whose background has mainly been in directing episodes of comedy TV series, including the 2011-2018 sitcom “New Girl.” O’Donnell co-wrote the “Ride the Eagle” screenplay with “New Girl” co-star Jake Johnson, and they are two of the movie’s producers. Having worked together on “New Girl” seems to have greatly benefited how O’Donnell and Johnson wrote the screenplay, which has a naturalistic flow that doesn’t feel like it was “written by committee.”

In “Ride the Eagle,” Johnson portrays Leif Reinhold, a Los Angeles bachelor musician in his 40s who gets some unexpected news in the beginning of the story. His mother’s longtime friend Missy (played by Cleo King) has shown up at his place to tell him that Leif’s estranged mother Suzanne “Honey” Reinhold (played by Susan Sarandon) has died of cancer. Honey abandoned Leif when he was a child, in order to live a free-spirited hippie lifestyle, and he hasn’t been in contact with her for years.

It’s never revealed in the story who raised Leif (his father is not mentioned), but what’s abundantly clear is that Leif considers his mother to be essentially a stranger. When he gets the news of her death, he doesn’t feel happy or sad. He says several times in the movie that he doesn’t feel much of anything at all about his mother being dead. Leif doesn’t seem to have any other relatives, since no family member except his mother is mentioned in the movie.

Missy has also gone to Leif’s home to tell him that Honey left her cabin-styled house in the remote Yosemite forest for Leif to inherit. There’s only one condition: Leif has to complete a set of tasks that Honey left for him on a list at the house. If he doesn’t complete the tasks, then the house will be sold and the proceeds will go to the charity of Honey’s choice.

Leif doesn’t feel emotionally attached to the house, but he’s intrigued enough to go there to see what the tasks are. His current living situation is also less-than-ideal. He’s been living in a makeshift guest house in his band manager’s backyard. Leif is a loner, and his closest companion is his black Labrador Retriever named Nora.

Before he can go on this trip, Leif has to ask permission from his erratic manager Gorka (played by Luis Fernandez-Gil) to take a day or two off from band rehearsals. There’s a somewhat funny segment where Gorka gets irritated that Leif has woken him up to have this conversation. Leif tells Gorka why he’s taking the trip, Gorka gives Leif the go-ahead, and Gorka assures Leif that he will tell the rest of the band why Leif will be unavailable for the next few days.

Viewers might wonder why Leif (who is a percussionist) doesn’t tell the band himself. But there are hints throughout the movie that Leif is the type of person who doesn’t communicate well if it means he can avoid uncomfortable conversations. Leif’s band members are not seen or heard in the movie, but it’s revealed in he story that Leif is 20 years older than the rest of the people in the band.

With Nora as his travel companion, Leif heads north to Yosemite to check out the house that he might inherit. When he gets inside, he starts looking in the kitchen cabinets and finds them filled with jars of marijuana and other plant-based drugs. Leif doesn’t look too surprised. His mother Honey was a painter, and there are several of her paintings hanging on the house’s walls.

Not long after he arrives at the house, the phone rings. The caller on the other line is a man who angrily asks Leif who he is but the caller won’t identify himself. Leif can barely say anything before the caller starts cussing out Leif and ends the phone call with this threat: “I’m coming for you, fuck boy!”

Leif is taken aback but not too rattled, because he thinks that the caller is probably one of his mother’s weird friends. The caller is later revealed to be someone named Carl (played by J.K. Simmons), who ends up stalking Leif. In the house’s living room, Leif finds folders containing the “to do” lists detailing the tasks that he has to complete. Next to these folders is a VHS tape containing messages to Leif from his mother, who wanted him to see these messages after she died.

The rest of the movie shows Leif going through the list of tasks and having some unexpected experiences along the way. One of the tasks is to take a kayak boat ride by himself, row across the lake, “feel the energy of the water,” and talk about his feelings about Honey’s death. Leif follows the instructions and says aloud: “I feel nothing. Sorry, but we didn’t know each other well enough.”

Another task is to go over to a nearby house while no one is there and leave a note in the back bedroom, and then exit immediately. No one seems to be home in the unlocked house, and Leif still feels uncomfortable being an intruder. He can’t resist the urge to read the note, which says: “Hey, dipshit. I owe you nothing, you rat fuck!”

Just as Leif is about to leave, something fairly predictable happens: He sees a man in a yellow puffer jacket (presumably someone who lives in the house) pass by in a nearby room. Leif manages to escape without getting caught, but viewers see that this mystery man has observed Leif running away from the house. It’s later revealed who this house resident is.

Another instruction for Leif is to contact any ex-love whom he thinks was “the one who got away” and make an apology to that person. Leif doesn’t think he’s ever had a “love of his life,” but the closest person who fits that description is an ex-girlfriend named Audrey (played by D’Arcy Carden), whom he dated for three years back in the early 2000s. Their phone conversation is funny and awkward.

At first, Audrey pretends that she doesn’t remember Leif, but then she lets him know that she’s just joking. It just so happens that Audrey is single too, having recently broken up with someone. And you know what that means: Audrey and Leif aren’t going to have just one phone conversation. However, she’s an eight-hour drive away, so there’s a long-distance issue if they have any type of reunion in person.

Some other things happen in the story (Nora goes missing, the angry caller comes looking for Leif), but there’s not a lot of contrived clutter. Slowly but surely, viewers see that Honey’s pre-recorded video messages and her instructions start to have an effect on Leif. The emotions he closed off from himself about his mother’s abandonment and why he and his mother never reconnected are feelings that he can no longer push aside or ignore during this experience.

All of the principal cast members bring memorable qualities to their roles. Sarandon and Simmons do versions of characters they’ve done on screen many times before (aging hippie for her, hot-tempered grouch for him), but they play these types so well that it looks very natural on screen. Carden’s Audrey character is sarcastically funny and emotionally intelligent in a way that a lot of female love interests are in indie dramedies like is one.

However, Johnson is front and center for the entire story, which wouldn’t work as well without his ability to have relatable humanity in his acting. “Ride the Eagle” succeeds not just because of the screenwriting and directing, but also because of Johnson’s appealing performance as a middle-aged man who has to deal with his wounded inner child. Leif is not an annoying man-child character that’s often found in comedic films because he’s mature enough to understand that people can cut themselves off from family members but can’t really escape from how those family members might have affected them.

Decal released “Ride the Eagle” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘American Fighter,’ starring George Kosturos, Tommy Flanagan and Sean Patrick Flanery

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tommy Flanagan and George Kosturos in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter”

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1981, primarily in California and briefly in Iran, the dramatic film “American Fighter” features a predominanlty white cast of characters (with some Middle Eastern and African American people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college wrestler, who has immigrated to California from Iran, gets involved in underground fighting to raise enough money to bring his ailing mother to the United States. 

Culture Audience: “American Fighter” will appeal primarily to people who like watching predictable fight movies.

George Kosturos and Sean Patrick Flanery in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter” uses every possible movie cliché about an “underdog” fighter who has to beat the odds and surpass people’s low expectations to reach a certain goal. There’s nothing creative or imaginative about this film. The only angle that makes “American Fighter” different from similar movies is that the protagonist is an Iranian immigrant in the United States. However, the fight scenes and the protagonist’s quest for a big payoff achievement is as formulaic and stereotypical as can be, regardless of the protagonist’s ethnicity.

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino, “American Fighter” takes place in 1981, when Iran was in political upheaval and numerous Iranians fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere. One family of refugees is the Jahani family: patriarch Farhad Jahani (played by Tony Panterra), his wife Goli Jahani (played by Salome Azizi) and their son Ali (played by George Kosturos, also known as George Thomas), who is about 18 or 19 years old. Ali has already been sent to the United States ahead of his parents, who plan to join Ali later. In the meantime, Ali is a college student who lives on campus when he’s not living with his uncle Hafez Tabad (played by Ali Afshar), who is Goli’s brother.

“American Fighter” is the sequel to the 2017 sports drama “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” with both movies starring Kosturos and produced by Ali Afshar, who plays Ali Jahani’s uncle Hafez in both movies. “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” which also had Ali Jahani as the protagonist, is based on Ali Afshar’s real-life experiences as an Iranian immigrant who was on his California high school’s wrestling team. “American Fighter” continues Ali Jahani’s story as a college student.

In the beginning of “American Fighter,” Ali is shown as a first-year student at the fictional North East Cal University in California. He’s on the school’s male wrestling team (called the Bulldogs), and he’s one of the more talented people on the team. However, Ali isn’t living up to his wrestler potential. And he experiences xenophobia and racism from people who are part of the team.

The Bulldogs’ Coach Jenkins (played by Kevin Porter) tells Ali, “I don’t want another foreign scholarship on my roster. You want to stay? You’ve got to show me something.” Meanwhile, in every movie about a student athlete involved in team sports, there always seems to be a jealous rival on the same team. In Ali’s case, it’s a bully named Chet Mueller (played by Vince Hill-Bedford), who frequently hurls racist insults at Ali during the team’s practice sessions. You can almost do a countdown to the inevitable fist fight that Chet and Ali will have.

When the day comes for Ali’s parents to travel to America, tragedy strikes. Before the plane takes off, a group of Iranian terrorists invade the plane where Ali’s parents are and take some hostages, including Ali’s parents. Ali’s father Farhad is shot and killed, while Ali’s mother Goli has gone missing. And making matters more stressful, Goli is sick with an unnamed ailment. She needs life-saving surgery and treatment, which is one of the main reasons why Ali’s parents wanted to immigrate to the United States.

Ali and his uncle Hafez are devastated by the news that Farhad is dead and Goli is missing. Ali and Hafez go to the local chapter of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and are told that there’s nothing this government agency can do for them because it doesn’t get involved in terrorist kidnappings. However, Ali and Hafez find out about a mysterious Iranian operative named Mr. V (played by Parviz Sayyad), who lives nearby and who can give them “private” help.

Ali and Hafez meet with Mr. V, who tells them that Goli is probably being held hostage somewhere in Iran, but Mr. V’s team can find her and bring her to the United States, for a fee of $30,000. Hafez only has $5,000, while Ali sells many of his possessions (including his family jewelry and his car) and comes up with $9,000. Of course, that’s still not enough to pay the fee, and time is running out for Goli to get her life-saving surgery.

Ali’s best friend at school is Ryan Calder (played by Bryan Craig), who is on the same wrestling team. Ali confides in Ryan about his family and money problems. One night, Ryan takes Ali to an underground fight club, where Ali is shocked to see what’s going on. Ryan tells Ali that in the past, he sometimes participated in these underground fights to make extra money. Ryan stopped doing underground fights because he’s on the wrestling team and doesn’t want to risk getting expelled from the team.

Ryan introduces Ali to a Scottish man named McClellan (played by Tommy Flanagan), the tough and greedy chief of the fight club. McClellan’s right-hand man is Benjamin Duke (played by Sean Patrick Flanery), who goes by the name Duke and who mainly gives medical assistance to the fight club participants. Duke is a former boxing champ who’s now down on his luck and has a tragedy in his past because of his alcoholism. In other words, in a stereotypical movie like this one, Duke is going to end up training Ali to be an underground fighter.

During Ali’s first visit to the fight club, he has such culture shock that he ends up saying the wrong things. He asks McClellan about the possibility of participating in the fights: “So, you just pay us to beat each other up? Is that even legal?” Just as Ali is about to be thrown out for being an insulting dimwit, a thug assaults Ali, and they start brawling. Ali capably defends himself, and McClellan is so impressed with Ali’s fighting skills that he invites Ali to participate in the fight club.

Ryan warns Ali not to do it, but Ali is desperate for money, and he eagerly accepts McClellan’s invitation. Ali easily wins his first fight, of course. And the money he gets motivates him to continue participating in the fight club, with increasingly dangerous risks. Not everything goes smoothly for Ali, because a movie like this has to have a “major obstacle” that he has to overcome before the movie’s climactic scene.

Meanwhile, Ali ends up having a romance with a sorority member named Heidi (played by Allison Page), who made the first move on Ali by inviting him to a party thrown by her sorority. It should come as no surprise that Chet seems interested in Heidi, but she rejects Chet’s advances and makes it clear that she wants to be with Ali. And so, it’s another reason for racist Chet to hate Ali.

Ali doesn’t tell Heidi about his family problems or about being involved in an underground fight club. Ali and Heidi’s romance is presented in this movie as very chaste. They go to a skating rink on their first date. And although Heidi and Ali eventually kiss, there’s no sex in the movie. Ali is depicted as someone who’s very shy and inexperienced when it comes to dating, while Heidi is the confident, extroverted partner in the relationship.

“American Fighter” director Piccinino co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Brian Rudnick and Carl Morris. The entire movie borrows from many other movies about teenage athletes who are underestimated, who train for a “long shot” dream, and the training is supposed to teach them about life. The fight scenes have some level of suspense, but they look overly staged and aren’t that exciting, compared to other movies about underground fight clubs.

Ali’s refugee immigrant experiences are used as a gimmicky plot device rather than being organic to his character. The closest that the movie comes to showing Ali sharing his connection to Iranian culture with Heidi is when he brings Iranian food to a picnic date with Heidi. The movie tries to make it look like Ali and Heidi are falling in love, but their conversations are very superficial.

That’s because this movie is really about the fight scenes, which aren’t very special. Ali’s mother Goli is shown occasionally while she’s being held captive in a room, to remind people why Ali is going through with these risky fights. Ali finds a way to get a letter to her, which is supposed to be the movie’s first big tearjerking moment, but the way it’s written is very hokey and melodramatic.

“American Fighter” makes some effort to be an authentic period movie that takes place in 1981. At an on-campus party, someone is shown breakdancing. And the movie’s soundtrack includes Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” Ali and Hafez also anxiously follow the media’s news about what’s going on in Iran. However, these touches of realism aren’t enough to overcome the overall medicority of the film’s writing, directing and acting.

Kosturos does his best to show some emotional range, but it’s diluted by the hackneyed dialogue that he has to say in the movie. Flanagan and Flanery have played many characters involved in illegal activities, so they’re doing nothing new in this movie, while Craig’s Ryan character and Paige’s Heidi character are utterly generic. The appeal of underground fighting is how edgy and unpredictable it’s supposed to be, but there’s nothing edgy or unpredictable about “American Fighter.”

Lionsgate released “American Fighter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on May 25, 2021.

Review: ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ starring Ron Mael and Russell Mael

July 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Anna Webber / Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.

Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.

Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Jake Polonsky/Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.

“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.

For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.

It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.

Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.

Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.

Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.

Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.

Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,

“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.

Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.

Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.

Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.

There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.

There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.

A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.

With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.

And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”

Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.

If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.

“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.

Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.

Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘7 Days’ (2022), starring Karan Soni and Geraldine Viswanathan

June 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Geraldine Viswanathan and Karan Soni in “7 Days” (Photo by Eduardo Fierro/Cinedigm)

“7 Days” (2022)

Directed by Roshan Sethi

Culture Representation: Taking place in Thermal, California, the romantic comedy film “7 Days” features a predominantly Indian and Indian American cast of characters (with a few white people who speak off camera) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two Indian Americans, whose parents are eager for them to find a spouse, meet on a blind date at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and find out that instead of having many things in common, they are complete opposites.

Culture Audience: “7 Days” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky romantic comedies with an “opposites attract” or COVID-19 pandemic angle, but the movie is often sluggishly paced and relies too much on stereotypes seen in many other romantic comedies.

Geraldine Viswanathan in “7 Days” (Photo courtesy of Cinedigm)

It’s a little tiresome when American-made movies and TV programs stereotype men of Indian heritage as socially awkward, sometimes emasculated nerds. This over-used ethnic cliché is shoved in viewers’ faces to annoying levels in the romantic comedy “7 Days,” co-starring Karan Soni as a lovelorn Indian American who’s desperately looking for a wife. Geraldine Viswanathan plays his would-be love interest in the movie, but the story is told from the man’s perspective. “7 Days” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

Directed by Roshan Sethi (who co-wrote the “7 Days” screenplay with Soni), “7 Days” is essentially a dull mumblecore movie with a COVID-19 gimmick. The movie is also Sethi’s feature-film directorial debut. And it just so happens that all of the people who appear on camera in the movie are of Indian heritage. This type of representation is rare for an American-made feature film, but it’s not enough to automatically guarantee that the movie will be great.

Unfortunately, “7 Days” has too many scenes that drag with dialogue that falls flat because of the clumsy comedic timing. Viswanathan seems to be more talented at believable facial expressions than Soni is, but there is no convincing romantic chemistry between these two actors at all. Whatever is going on between the characters that Soni and Viswanathan portray in the movie, viewers will get the impression that this isn’t a romance to root for but it’s going to be strictly a “friend zone” platonic relationship. The filmmakers want to make it look like a romance, but it’s all so phony and passionless.

The beginning of “7 Days” starts off with four real-life, middle-aged, happily married Indian couples talking about how they met, which was usually through arrangements by their families. (Soni’s parents are among the couples.) It’s an adorable introduction, but then the movie gets right to the fictional part of the story and the clichés. The next sequence is straight out of a Bollywood rom-com. Viewers find out that two unmarried young people have mothers who are scheming to find each of them a suitable spouse.

The bachelor and bachelorette are American children of Indian immigrants. The would-be couple are 31-year-old Ravi (played by Soni) and 28-year-old Rita (played by Viswanathan), who both live in California, but not in cities that are near each other. In voiceover narration, Ravi’s mother (played by Gita Reddy) and Rita’s mother (played by Zenobia Shroff) extol the attractive qualities of their respective children, as if they’re creating profiles for them on Indian matchmatching sites. (The mothers in this story do not have names.)

According to Ravi’s mother, Ravi is the youngest and her favorite of her three sons because he’s the most emotionally mature. Ravi works as a researcher at a local university. His mother describes him as kind and responsible. And he loves to cook vegetarian food.

According to Rita’s mother, Rita is a “free-spirit girl with strict moral values” whose hobbies include “caring for her future in-laws.” As for Rita’s food preferences, her mother says that Rita is a pescatarian, but she’s willing to be a vegetarian for the right family. Rita seems to be an only child, since there’s no mention of her having siblings.

In addition to having family members who play matchmaker, Ravi and Rita belong to several Indian-oriented dating sites. Ravi and Rita’s first date (a blind date) takes place in March 2020, during the first week of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in the United States. Ravi has traveled to Thermal, California, where Rita lives. And their first uncomfortable date is a picnic in an empty reservoir. Rita and Ravi are both wearing face masks, while Ravi also has on latex gloves.

Ravi is the epitome of an insecure, neurotic dork who has lived a very sheltered life. He says things that he thinks people want to hear so that they will like and accept him. And he often over-apologizes to the point that it gets irritating. In other words, he’s a typical sensitive male protagonist in a mumblecore movie.

Rita is more self-assured than Ravi, but she also has her insecurity issues. One of them is that she lives a double life. She presents herself as a straight-laced person to her parents, who don’t live near her, but she’s very different in real life. Rita is an unemployed slob whose parents are paying for her living expenses.

The conversation during Ravi and Rita’s picnic date doesn’t go very well. Ravi is nervous and sweaty. He tells a dumb joke about how he’s sweating just like he would in India. Rita seems unimpressed by Ravi. He’s also very conscious of following social distancing guidelines of staying at least six feet apart. At one point, he says to Rita with a forced laugh: “You’re so funny. We have great banter. Can you move back a few inches?”

Ravi likes to eat healthy food, and he doesn’t drink alcohol. He’s under the impression that Rita is also a teetotaler. When he brings out some lemonade in aluminum cans, Ravi is mortified to see that it’s hard lemonade.

He thinks he might have offended Rita for bringing alcoholic beverages on this date. He makes a profuse apology by saying that when he got the lemonade from the store, he didn’t look closely at the cans to see what type of lemonade it was. Rita tells him not to worry about it, but Ravi is the type of person who will worry about it.

This picnic date at the reservoir isn’t fun at all, so Rita suggests that they go back to her place. She lives in a middle-class house that looks tidy on the outside, but it’s very cluttered and unkempt on the inside. Rita is the type of person who will leave food wrappers, empty beer bottles and other garbage on tables and on the floor. It’s the first clue that Ravi and viewers have that Rita’s life, just like her house, is messy.

When they arrive at the house, Rita and Ravi both call their respective mothers to give them a summary of how the date is going so far. Even though there are no romantic sparks between Ravi and Rita, they both tell their mothers that this date has potential. Ravi is more invested because he’s traveled a long distance to meet Rita. And he’s the one who wants to get married in the near future.

Ravi doesn’t waste time in telling Rita what his life goals are: He’s soon going to buy a house, he wants to get married that year, and he wants to start a family the following year. He also plans to have three kids. Because Rita and Ravi met as a result of their mothers’ matchmaking efforts, it’s not considered too forward for Ravi to already be talking marriage on the first date. In fact, by traditional Indian custom, it’s not unusual at all.

As can happen in a very unrealistically contrived movie like “7 Days,” Ravi finds out that his rental car won’t be available until the next morning, so he won’t be able to drive back home that night. Rita recommends a hotel nearby where he can stay for the night. Ravi calls the hotel and finds out it will be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ravi doesn’t do what most people would do: Make a reservation at another hotel.

In reality (not in this movie), during the pandemic lockdown period, most hotels were still open and desperate for business. Hotels had plenty of vacancies because they experienced an enormous number of reservation cancellations during the lockdown period. But that reality is not in “7 Days,” because the entire movie is based on the contrivance of Ravi staying at Rita’s place so that the story can go exactly where you know it’s going to go.

At first, Ravi says he’s only going to stay until his rental car is ready. But the title of the movie already telegraphs how many days he’s really going to stay at Rita’s place. And in a formulaic rom-com like this one, that means he’s supposed to go through several uncomfortable moments because he and Rita are opposites.

The unrealistic plot developments continue. Ravi finds out that his rental car won’t be ready for three days, which is really the movie’s way of extending the time that Ravi has to stay at Rita’s house. And because there’s a “shelter in place” quarantine mandate in California, Ravi and Rita don’t go outside for most of the movie.

The “uptight nerd having awkward moments with the uninhibited love interest” is an angle that’s been done in many other rom-coms, and it’s played up to repetitive and ultimately tedious levels in “7 Days.” After Rita agrees to let Ravi temporarily stay at her house, he goes in the bathroom and is horrified to see a dildo on the sink. “Oh, this can’t be happening,” Ravi says to himself, as if he’s just seen a real body part.

Soon after Ravi finds out that he’s going to be staying at Rita’s place, he starts to really regret it. It’s because he overhears Rita on the phone, having raunchy sex talk with someone she calls “Daddy.” At first, Ravi thinks that Rita is talking to her father in an incestuous way. Ravi is naturally shocked and disgusted, but he made a wrong assumption.

Rita is actually talking to her older married lover who’s separated from his wife, but this married lover is vague with Rita on when he’s going to divorce his wife. He seems to be leading Rita on with an excuse that things are complicated for him in his marriage. “Daddy” never appears on camera in the movie and his real name is never revealed. He’s voiced by Mark Duplass, one of the executive producers of “7 Days,” who’s an actor/filmmaker with a lot of mumblecore movies in his filmography.

Most of Ravi and Rita’s interactions consist of more painfully unfunny banter. It isn’t long before Ravi finds out that Rita is almost everything that he doesn’t want in a woman: Rita says she never wants to get married. She drinks a lot of alcohol. And she loves junk food. There’s a scene where Rita enthusiastically eats fried chicken, even though her online profile says that she’s a pescatarian.

Ravi’s and Rita’s lifestyle differences also extend to the type of movies that they like to watch. Ravi is a big fan of Bollywood movies, but Rita doesn’t care for this type of entertainment. She’s a lot more into American culture overall than Ravi is. And she seems to be faking to her parents that she’s interested in the Indian tradition of arranged marriages, because she doesn’t want to lose her parents’ financial support.

Issues of gender roles inevitably come up, as they tend to do in rom-coms. Ravi makes an offhand remark that Rita’s voice sounds like the instructional service app Siri. Rita immediately gets defensive and says, “You mean I sound subservient.” Ravi tells Rita that he identifies as a “male feminist.” Still, Ravi is slightly alarmed and surprised that Rita doesn’t like to cook. And he ends up cooking for both of them.

Rita has this to say to Ravi about why she doesn’t see marriage in her future: “It’s just someone else to fight and disappoint and hate. It’s exhausting.” And when fidgety Ravi gets restless in the house, Rita suggests that they just sit around and do nothing. “The less you do, the less you do,” she says.

This type of boring and witless dialogue goes on for much of the movie. Predictably, Rita spikes Ravi’s drink with alcohol to loosen him up. He gets angry that she spiked his drink, but then he gets drunk and does an atrocious standup comedy routine for Rita. While under the influence of alcohol, Ravi opens up about feeling vulnerable and self-conscious that his parents are divorced.

And then, someone in this mismatched duo starts having a persistent cough and develops a fever. And you know what that means in a rom-com with a COVID-19 gimmick. This plot development isn’t handled very well in the movie. “7 Days” essentially dismisses all the deaths and tragedies that people have experienced because of this pandemic and treats this harsh reality as something that would get in the way of a cutesy rom-com plot. If anyone dies of COVID-19 in this movie, it’s a tragedy that this movie brushes off as trivial.

Even in March 2020, during the early part of the pandemic when this movie takes place, people were aware of how quickly large numbers of people were dying from COVID-19. But in this movie, Ravi and Rita are depicted as being in a self-absorbed (and irresponsible) “bubble” where they don’t care to be informed about what’s happening in the news about the pandemic. They’re more concerned about doing things like a virtual exercise workout routine using Rita’s laptop computer.

Viswanathan and Soni are very talented and have had more appealing roles elsewhere. In “7 Days,” they both play characters that just aren’t credible as a romantic couple. Ravi’s neuroses are on full display, but Rita is an underwritten and underdeveloped character. She’s supposed to be the “wacky one” in the relationship, but her personality is ultimately hollow.

Viewers never find out why Rita wants to live an aimless, unemployed life. Her hopes and dreams are never mentioned. How she was raised by her parents, her work history and her social life (other than her affair with “Daddy”) remain a mystery. By the end of the movie, viewers still won’t know much about Rita.

And when you have a romantic comedy where one of the people in the would-be couple remains an enigma, the dialogue is wretchedly monotonous, and there’s no realistic chemistry between the two main actors who are supposed to be this couple, the end result is a disappointing and off-kilter rom-com that isn’t funny or romantic.

UPDATE: Cinedigm will release “7 Days” in select U.S. cinemas on March 25, 2022. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on April 26, 2022.

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