Review: ‘Fall’ (2022), starring Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner and Jeffrey Dean Morgan

September 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Grace Caroline Currey in “Fall” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Fall” (2022)

Directed by Scott Mann

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

Culture Clash: Two young women set an adventure challenge for themselves by climbing a 2,000-foot TV tower in a remote desert area in California, but then they get stranded on the tower without being able to get signals on their phones to call for help.

Culture Audience: “Fall” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching survival thriller movies that aren’t award-worthy but offer plenty of suspense and satisfactory entertainment.

Virginia Gardner in “Fall” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Fall” is a suspenseful “lives in peril” thriller with a key part of the story that requires some suspension of disbelief. The movie also runs longer than necessary. However, there’s enough realism and competent acting to overcome any of the movie’s flaws.

Directed by Scott Mann (who co-wrote the “Fall” screenplay with Jonathan Frank), “Fall” is starts off as a fairly straightforward survival story, but it has two major plot twists that should surprise most viewers. One of the plot twists has a soap opera element to it, and it’s not as surprising as the other plot twist. “Fall” could have used better film editing, which drags out the movie’s middle section and then rushes the movie’s ending.

“Fall,” which takes place in California, opens with a scene of three adventurous people in their late 20s on a mountain climbing trip where they are using ropes for safety but are climbing the rocks with bare hands. The three people on this trip are Becky Connor (played by Grace Caroline Currey); Becky’s husband, Dan Connor (played by Mason Gooding); and Becky’s best friend Shiloh Hunter (played by Virginia Gardner), who wants to be called Hunter. Suddenly, a bird flies out of a crevice and startles Dan, who slips and falls to his death.

The movie’s timeline then fast-forwards nearly one year later (51 weeks, to be exact) and shows a grieving and depressed Becky, who has become a recluse on her way to becoming an alcoholic, if she’s not an alcoholic already. Her father, James (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has become very worried about Becky’s physical and mental health, but she brushes off his concerns. She’s been ignoring his phone calls and avoiding him in other ways.

In one of his voice mail messages, James tells Becky: “A horrible thing happened to you, but you have to start living your life again. There’s a whole big, wide world that needs you. And believe it or not, I need you.” It’s mentioned early on in the movie that James did not approve of Dan, and it’s one of the reasons why Becky has been estranged from James.

One night, James sees a drunk Becky coming out of a bar. He offers to give her a ride home, but she refuses. James then tells Becky something that makes an emotional impact on her: James says that if Becky had died on that fateful trip, and Dan had lived, Dan would not be “drowning in his sorrows.” Later, when Becky is at home, she finds out that Dan’s cell phone number, which she had been calling just to hear his outgoing voice mail message, has now been disconnected.

Becky sees this phone disconnection as a sign that she should start trying to move on with her life. Around the same time, Becky hears from someone she hasn’t really been in touch with since Dan’s death: Hunter, the best friend who also witnessed everything in Dan’s fatal accident.

Becky and Hunter have had opposite reactions to Dan’s death. Becky has become emotionally withdrawn and is now terrified of heights. Hunter has become more of a daredevil and has created a social media persona for herself called Danger D, so that she can become famous for doing risky stunts.

Hunter has reached out to Becky to pitch an adventure challenge that Hunter wants to put on Hunter’s social media channels: Hunter and Becky will climb to the top of the B67 TV Tower, which is 2,000 feet high and in a remote desert area. The B67 TV Tower is a fictional name for the movie, but it’s based on the real-life 2,000-foot KXTV/KOVR radio tower, also known as the Sacramento Joint Venture Tower, in Walnut Grove, California. A much-smaller replica (about 60 feet high) of the Sacramento Joint Venture Tower was used for “Fall,” and the 2,000-feet-high appearance was created through visual effects.

Becky’s first reaction to Hunter’s invitation is to immediately say no. Hunter pleads with Becky: “It would be an adventure, like old times. And you can scatter Dan’s ashes on top [of the tower] … If you don’t confront your fears, you are always going to be afraid.”

After thinking about it for a short time, Becky agrees. She says to Hunter, “If you’re scared of dying, don’t be afraid to live. That’s what Dan used to say. Let’s do it. Let’s climb your stupid tower.”

The two pals go on the trip, which includes walking about one mile to get to the tower. The movie never really explains why Becky and Hunter couldn’t drive closer to the tower except to say that they just couldn’t. Another unexplained aspect of the story is why Becky and Hunter didn’t carry enough food and water with them for their tower climb. Hunter and Becky only brought a few granola bars and two bottles of water. It’s a foolish decision they will soon regret.

Becky and Hunter have their cell phones with them though. Hunter uses her phone to take photos and videos to post on social media. Hunter also announces to her several thousand followers on social media that she and Becky will be climbing the B67 TV Tower. When Becky and Hunter get to the tower, Becky hesitates and says she can’t go through with climbing it. But once again, Hunter convinces Becky to change her mind.

On the climb up, the movie foreshadows the danger to come by showing how, unbeknownst to Becky and Hunter, a few screws have come loose from the tower during their climb up. Becky and Hunter are too far away to see these screws fall out of their sockets. However, what Hunter and Becky do see is that this creaky tower is rusty and rickety, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to climb up this shaky-looking structure.

Most people who see “Fall” will probably know before watching the movie that the story is about two women who get trapped on a very high tower in the desert. (It’s also shown in the movie’s trailer.) Hunter and Becky get trapped when the tower’s ladder falls down, due to the missing screws, and both women find out that they can’t get signals on their phones from where they are trapped on the tower.

The rest of “Fall” is about Hunter and Becky’s desperate efforts to get help, since the now-useless ladder was their only means of getting down from the tower. Becky and Hunter have ropes, but the ropes aren’t long enough to slide back down to the ground. Perhaps the movie’s biggest plot hole is that it tries to make it look like no one will come looking for Becky and Hunter. But this wasn’t a secret trip: Hunter already announced in real time on social media that she and Becky were going to climb this tower.

In the meantime, the movie depicts the dangers of being stranded in a remote area without enough food and water. And, as expected in a movie titled “Fall,” there are plenty of scenes that are meant to give the feeling of vertigo to anyone watching. Hunter and Becky come up with some ideas to try to get help, but there are some setbacks when they try these ideas.

When “Fall” tends to get repetitive and the pacing gets a little sluggish, what makes the movie worth watching are the believable performances by Currey and Gardner as estranged friends who share a tragedy and whose attempt to reconnect goes terribly wrong in many ways. No one is going to get nominated for any major awards for “Fall,” but the cast members are convincing in the roles that they perform for this movie. “Fall” also shows in effective ways that the movie isn’t only about conquering a fear of heights but also about conquering a fear of heartbreak.

Lionsgate released “Fall” in U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘The Wheel’ (2022), starring Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray

August 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray in “The Wheel” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“The Wheel” (2022)

Directed by Steve Pink

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the dramatic film “The Wheel” has a racially diverse cast of characters (Native American, white, Asian and multiracial) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple, contemplating divorce after eight years of marriage, will decide if they will split up or stay together during a getaway retreat.

Culture Audience: “The Wheel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in authentic-looking relationship dramas with characters who are neurotic.

Nelson Lee and Bethany Anne Lind in “The Wheel” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“The Wheel” thinly stretches the “will they or won’t they break up” dilemma for the movie’s central married couple, until the movie’s very last scene, which is the best part of the film. This relationship drama is mostly well-acted but very repetitive. Despite its shortcomings, “The Wheel” at least realistically depicts people and relationships as sometimes messy and flawed.

Directed by Steve Pink and written by Trent Atkinson, “The Wheel” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie’s title could be inspired by the pivotal last scene, which takes place when the two spouses have an emotionally charged conversation on a Ferris wheel. However, the title of “The Wheel” could also refer to the seemingly endless cycle of dysfunction and anguish that can happen if people fail to communicate properly in relationships.

That’s why this question is presented throughout the film: “Will anyone in this couple want to stay in this marriage, which keeps going around in circles of arguments and misunderstandings?” The movie’s opening scene shows married couple Albee (played by Amber Midthunder) and Walker (played by Taylor Gray) having just such an argument.

Albee and Walker, who are both about 24 years old, live in California, where the movie was filmed on location in Angelus Oaks and Malibu. Albee is an aspiring actress, while Walker’s job is not stated in the movie. Walker and Albee later tell someone that they got married at age 16, and have been married for eight years.

Why did they get married so young? Walker and Albee, who are both originally from Texas, both grew up fast in the foster-care system. They no doubt married each other to feel like they could have some kind of stable family life that they didn’t have as foster kids.

And now, the marriage of Albee and Walker has reached a critical point. The movie’s opening scene shows Albee telling Walker that she’s irritated by him when they are somewhere outdoors. Walker says he doesn’t know why she’s angry with him, but that he’s sorry for whatever he did.

This apology just makes Albee even more upset, because she thinks Walker should know what made her angry in the first place. Albee doesn’t want to explain it all to Walker. She thinks part of the problem is that he’s completely unaware of what he did to offend her. The argument continues when Albee and Walker are seated at a table in a diner.

Eventually, Albee and Walker call a tentative truce in this argument. However, this argument is an indication of how Albee and Walker interact with each other for most of the movie. Albee expects Walker to read her mind and know instinctively how to make her happy. Walker wants to make Albee happy, but she doesn’t express to him that she loves him as much as he loves her.

Walker is an optimist about love and wants to save the marriage. Albee is a pessimist and is more reluctant to stay married to Walker, but she’s also afraid of being alone and getting hurt by divorce. Albee gives Walker the impression that she’s possibly fallen out of love with him, while he’s still in love with Albee and wants to bring back the romantic passion in their marriage.

Eventually, Albee and Walker decide to go to a getaway retreat, by renting a cabin in the woods. Before taking this trip, Walker and Albee agree that they will decide the fate of their marriage during this retreat. They also vow to be completely honest with each other, regardless if what they have to say is good or bad. Walker has recently bought a relationship self-help book, and he wants to use the book’s advice with Albee during this trip.

Albee and Walker have rented the cabin through Airbnb. The cabin’s Airbnb hosts are an engaged couple in their 30s named Carly (played by Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (played by Nelson Lee), who are staying at a nearby cabin and at first seem to have an idyllic relationship. Soon after Walker and Albee arrive at the cabin, they both meet Carly, who welcomes Albee and Walker in a friendly manner. However, Carly can’t help but notice the tension between Walker (who is polite to Carly) and Albee (who is standoffish to Carly) as soon as Carly meets them.

Carly mentions that she hopes that Albee and Carly will find the cabin ambience to be romantic during the couple’s stay, but Albee comes right out and tells Carly that Albee and Walker have taken this getaway trip to decide if their marriage is worth saving. It’s an awkward moment, but it sparks curiosity in Carly to try to help Albee and Walker. Carly takes it upon herself throughout most of the story to be an unofficial relationship counselor to these two strangers.

Albee is immediately annoyed when she finds out that the cabin has no WiFi service, and she can’t get a signal on her cell phone. She goes outside and is elated when she’s able to get a phone signal. Walker can’t help but notice that Albee has been excitedly communicating with someone by text when she begins using her phone. It’s eventually revealed who this mystery person is.

On the first night that Albee and Walker stay at the cabin, she smokes a marijuana joint in a sauna and seems skeptical when Walker says, “If we can get through these last few months, we can get through anything.” Albee asks, “We’ll be okay though, right?” Walker senses Albee’s lack of interest in talking about their relationship in a meaningful way, so Walker leaves the room without answering the question.

Later, Albee rebuffs Walker’s advances to be sexually intimate. She tells a dejected Walker, “I’m not there. Sorry.” Walker says, “That’s okay. Sleep tight.” The movie keeps showing over and over that Walker wants to offer love, respect and passion to Albee, but she keeps rejecting him at every turn.

Carly has noticed this imbalance in the relationship too. On the first night that Albee and Walker are in the cabin, Carly tells Ben what was her first impression of Albee and Walker. Carly says that Walker seems nice, but Carly thinks that Albee is the kind of woman who thinks she’s too good for her partner. And so, when Ben meets Albee and Walker later, Ben already has a negative impression of Albee.

Albee (who is often rude and sarcastic to people) and Ben (who is laid-back and equally sarcastic) end up clashing with each other and insulting each other. Carly tries to be a peacemaker in arguments between Albee and Walker. And there are several arguments and sullen silences between Albee and Walker in this movie. After a while, these marital spats and refusals to talk to each other get a little tiresome. About halfway through this 83-minute movie, you’ll probably wish that Albee and Walker would just make up their minds already if they’re going to stay together or go their separate ways.

And why is Carly so personally invested in these two strangers and so ready to meddle in their marriage? It turns out that Carly and Ben are having some relationship issues too. Carly is excited to make wedding plans. As for Ben? Not so much. Carly thinks it has to do with men typically not being as heavily involved in wedding planning as women are.

After a while, it becomes obvious that Carly wants to be like an unofficial relationship counselor to Albee and Walker because Carly feels that she’s losing control of her own relationship. Carly is a die-hard romantic who thinks she can “fix” things in relationships if she just shows enough compassion. She even goes as far as asking Ben to surprise Albee and Walker by offering them a portable table of breakfast food so that Albee and Walker can eat breakfast in bed. He reluctantly goes along with the idea.

Ben feels almost the exact opposite way as Carly does in dealing with Albee and Walker. Ben thinks that he and Carly should mind their own business when it comes to Albee and Walker’s marriage, and Albee and Walker are better off figuring things out on their own. Ben also believes some relationships are doomed, no matter how much counseling is done. And he thinks Albee is very annoying, because Ben says that Albee reminds him of the women he used to date for the past 20 years in previous bad relationships.

As the couple struggling with the decision to break up or stay together, Midthunder and Gray give riveting performances, although at times there’s a little bit of overacting between the two of them. Lind and Lee, as the less-volatile couple Carly and Ben, are adequate in their roles, with Lee’s acting skills being a little stitled and wooden in a few scenes. Pink’s direction of “The Wheel” builds up enough tension for viewers to be curious about what will happen to these couples, but the movie tends to drag in some areas. Expect to see multiple scenes of pouting Albee and melancholy Walker staring off into space during the moments when they’ve decided to stop talking to each other.

Carly and Ben serve as a counterpoint to Albee and Walker, because both couples are unraveling in their own ways. Carly and Ben are lot quieter about their problems than Albee and Walker are, because Albee and Walker put their marital discord on public display. Albee (who is fickle, abrasive and often very selfish) will undoubtedly be considered the character in the movie who’s the most difficult to like, but “The Wheel” isn’t about making all of the characters “likable.”

People who are like Albee are usually very emotionally damaged for any number of reasons. The movie skillfully shows that people who are like Albee have such low self-esteem, they don’t think they deserve love. And when someone offers true love to these deeply insecure people, they often want to push that person away, or hurt that person first, in order to avoid getting hurt. In many respects, “The Wheel” is a fascinating portrait of love, patience and forgiveness. It’s also about having the courage to navigate relationship minefields, as well as having the courage to walk away when a relationship isn’t worth saving.

Quiver Distribution released “The Wheel” on digital and VOD on July 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Easter Sunday’ (2022), starring Jo Koy

August 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front: Joey Guila, Elena Juatco, Jo Koy, Melody Butiu and Lydia Gaston in “Easter Sunday” (Photo by Ed Ariquel/Universal Pictures)

“Easter Sunday” (2022)

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar

Some language in Tagalog with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in California’s Los Angeles County and Daly City, the comedic film “Easter Sunday” features a cast of predominantly Asian characters (with a some white people and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A struggling, divorced actor in the Los Angeles area is pressured to go to his family’s annual Easter Sunday dinner about 385 miles away in Daly City, on the same day that he might have to be in Los Angeles for an important event that could change his career for the better. 

Culture Audience: “Easter Sunday” will appeal primarily to people are are fans of star Jo Koy and any family comedy that wallows in mediocre and predictable stereotypes.

Jo Koy, Brandon Wardell and Carly Pope in “Easter Sunday” (Photo by Ed Ariquel/Universal Pictures)

The uninspired comedy “Easter Sunday” is like being served rotten Easter eggs that went stale years ago. It piles on over-used and tired clichés about family reunions, while dumping in a silly subplot about paying a debt to a vengeful criminal. This predictable tripe might have been more appealing if it had just stuck to the family issues. But instead, “Easter Sunday” goes off the rails toward the last third of the movie when it forces a ridiculous and horribly written crime caper into this already weak storyline.

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, “Easter Sunday” (which was written by Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo) can certainly be praised for having diversity in the movie’s cast and behind-the-scenes filmmaking team. However, that diversity doesn’t automatically mean that the movie is going to be any good. Unfortunately, “Easter Sunday” missed an opportunity to be a standout comedy film for having a truly original and amusing story. “Easter Sunday” has so many ripoffs and recycled tropes from similar comedy films, it’s embarrassing.

There’s the male protagonist who has a love/hate relationship with certain family members. There’s the big family reunion that’s supposed to cause him a lot of stress. There’s the goofy sidekick who gets the protagonist in all sorts of trouble. And that trouble usually involves cartoonish violence and hard-to-believe scenarios. All of these stereotypes are in “Easter Sunday,” which mostly fails to be funny, charming, bold or interesting.

In “Easter Sunday,” the protagonist is a struggling actor named Joe Valencia (played by Jo Koy), who is on the verge of getting his first big break in years: starring in a TV comedy series. Joe, who lives in Vernon, California (a suburb of Los Angeles), is a divorced father to a son who is about 16 or 17 years old. Joe’s son is also named Joe but is nicknamed Junior (played by Brandon Wardell), who is often estranged from Joe because Joe has a long history of being a flaky parent who avoids spending family time with Junior.

What makes Joe’s unstable parenting even worse is that Junior doesn’t live very far from Joe. Therefore, Joe has no real excuse for why he doesn’t spend time with Junior as much as Joe should. Joe’s ex-wife Catherine (played by Carly Pope), who is remarried, has custody of Junior. Catherine’s current husband Nick (played by Michael Weaver) is a player for the professional ice hockey team the Los Angeles Kings. Nick is good-looking, athletic, and makes a lot more money than Joe does. Nick and Junior also get along with each other.

And you know what that means: Joe is predictably jealous. This jealousy comes out in a scene where Joe makes a rare visit to Catherine and Nick’s home to pick up Junior for a father/son visit. Before they leave, Nick and Joe have a petty argument because Nick insists on making Joe a nutritious smoothie drink. Joe reluctantly takes the smoothie drink but then dumps it out on a street near the house as Joe is driving away. Joe deliberately does it in full view of Catherine and Nick, so that the couple can see Joe make this mess. It’s the first of many signs that Joe can be obnoxious and immature.

Junior is close to being put on academic probation at the private school that he attends, but Joe doesn’t feel equipped to handle this problem. Still, Joe agrees to attend a parent-teacher meeting at the school with Catherine and Junior to discuss this issue. And it should come as no surprise that the meeting is on the same day that Joe has to audition for this sitcom, which is called “Great Scott.”

Joe is being considered for the TV show’s starring role, in which he would be portraying an attorney. Joe’s ambitious and smarmy agent Nick (played by “Easter Sunday” director Chandrasekhar) knows that this audition is the biggest thing that’s come along for Joe in years. This major opportunity leads to Nick putting enormous pressure on Joe to do whatever it takes to get the job.

Joe’s main claim to fame is starring in a beer commercial that aired years ago. In this commercial, he shouted the catch phrase, “Let’s get this party started, baby!,” (with “baby” pronounced “baybay”), which became his signature line as an actor. The problem is that Joe has become pigeonholed as that “beer commercial guy,” and people who know he’s an actor always expect him to say that line. (And expect to hear people in “Easter Sunday” say “Let’s get this party started, baby!,” repeatedly, to annoying levels.)

The school meeting is scheduled to take place after the audition. During the audition, Joe’s racial identity becomes a point of discussion that borders on offensive. Just like Koy’s real-life racial identity and family backround, Joe is biracial. His mother is an immigrant from the Philippines, and his father is a white American, who abandoned the family when he was a child. In the audition, Joe is asked to make his voice sound more “half-Filipino.” Joe is insulted because he thinks he should play the role with his natural American accent.

However, the audition runs much longer than Joe expected. And so, Joe misses the parent-teacher meeting. Junior and Catherine are disappointed, but not surprised. Meanwhile, Nick tells Joe in multiple phone calls that Joe will get the role in “Great Scott,” but only if Joe does what the TV network wants for the “half-Filipino accent.” Joe is told to stand by and be available in case there needs to be a follow-up meeting with executives from the TV network.

In the midst of this potential career-changing opportunity, Joe gets a call from his domineering mother Susan (played by Lydia Gaston), who lives in Daly City, a San Francisco suburb that’s about 385 miles north of Los Angeles. Susan insists that Joe and Junior attend their family’s annual Easter Sunday reunion. Joe reluctantly agrees, even though he knows he could be called to have a last-minute meeting with TV executives in Los Angeles. And so, Joe and Junior take a road trip to Daly City.

The other family members attending the reunion are:

  • Teresa (played by Tia Carrere), Susan’s sister/Joe’s aunt, who has been feuding with Susan for years for a reason they both can’t remember. Teresa (who is vain and shallow) and Susan (who is cranky and judgmental) are highly competitive with each other to prove who’s the “best” family member.
  • Eugene (played by Eugene Cordero), Teresa’s ne’er-do-well son, who is always on the hustle for his next “get rich quick” scheme. Eugene greatly admires his older cousin Joe, who has recently invested $20,000 for Eugene’s new business venture.
  • Regina (played by Elena Juatco), Joe’s sensible younger bachelorette sister, who works as a nurse. Regina is slightly envious but happy that Joe got to follow his dreams to become an actor, while she felt pressured by their mother Susan to have a more stable profession.
  • Yvonne (played by Melody Butiu) and Manny (played by Joey Guila), Joe’s married aunt and uncle, who can be boisterous and opinionated at family events, but these spouses generally get along with everyone in the family. Yvonne and Manny (who is the brother of Susan and Teresa) try to stay out of the feud between Susan and Teresa.
  • Arthur (played by Rodney To), Joe’s eccentric bachelor uncle, who works as a mailman and likes to keep a secret arsenal of weapons hidden in his clothes. (You can bet that this weapons stash will be used for slapstick comedy in the movie.)

Eugene told Joe that Eugune’s new business venture would be a taco truck. But after Eugene took Joe’s money, Eugene changed his mind and decided the truck (which Eugene has named Hypetruck) would sell the latest fad games and toys. Bizarrely, Eugene also wants to sell trendy designer clothes and high-priced athletic shoes from the truck, without thinking that the image-conscious target customers for this type of apparel wouldn’t want to tackily buy these items from a truck. Joe isn’t happy when he finds out about this “bait and switch” scam that Eugene pulled on him.

Joe gets even more irritated when he finds out that Eugene owes $40,000 to a gun-toting shady character named Dev Deluxe (played by Asif Ali), who owns and operates a jewelry store called Jewelry Jamz in a Daly City shopping mall. But the store is just a money-laundering front for Dev’s illegal businesses, which aren’t named in the movie, but viewers can use their imagination. It doesn’t take long for Dev to show up with some of his thugs to threaten Eugene with bodily harm if Eugene doesn’t pay back the money in the short period of time that just happens to be the same period of time that Joe will be in Daly City.

The rest of “Easter Sunday” is an awkward mix of Joe and Eugene trying to come up with the money while attempting to make it to Susan’s home on time for the Easter Sunday dinner. It leads to a not-very-funny subplot of stolen boxing gloves that were worn by Manny Pacquiao; an encounter with actor Lou Diamond Phillips (playing a version of himself); and lots of bickering and nagging from Susan and Teresa.

Junior has taken up photography as a hobby (he has a vintage camera that uses film), which is how he meets his love interest Tala (played by Eva Noblezada), when Junior is taking some photos in a park. After a brief flirtation, Junior (who doesn’t have a lot of experience in dating) and Tala (who is sassily confident and sarcastic) start hanging out together. Junior shyly invites Tala to the Easter Sunday family dinner. It’s just an excuse for Tala to be with this family when some of the dumb shenanigans start happening.

And gee, what a coincidence: Tala works at Jewelry Jamz, the store owned by Dev, Eugene’s angry and violent debtor. “Easter Sunday” also has a clumsily written “coincidence” when Joe, Eugene, Tala and Junior end up in a high-speed car chase. The cop who pulls them over just happens to be Joe’s ex-girlfriend Vanessa Morgan (played by Tiffany Haddish), who is still bitter that the relationship ended because Joe cheated on her. This encounter with Vanessa is in the “Easter Sunday” trailer, and it’s just more of Haddish playing a tacky “angry black woman” stereotype that she keeps doing for most of her on-screen roles.

In the race against time to get the money to pay back Dev, “Easter Sunday” has a subplot about Joe and Eugene enlisting the help of an acquaintance named Marvin (played by Jimmy O. Yang), who sells black-market designer merchandise (mostly athletic shoes) in the back room of a store. Marvin’s role in “Easter Sunday” isn’t nearly as terrible as Vanessa’s role, but it’s still not a very interesting character. Yang is a skilled stand-up comedian whose talent is under-used in this fairly bland role.

“Easter Sunday” wastes some time where Koy, who’s best known as a stand-up comedian, has to have a scene where he does a version of his stand-up act. This inept scene takes place during a church service, where it goes from the priest Father Hildo (played by Rodney Perry) publicly shaming Joe for not donating enough money to the church, to Joe getting in front of the congregation and doing low-rent, stand-up comedy to win over the crowd. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

The movie’s ways of depicting Filipino culture and Filipino American culture are superficial at best and mishandled at worst. There are the expected close-up shots of Filipino food on dining tables, which is something that is very easy to do in a movie. What’s much harder to do, specially in a comedy, is depiciting Filipino cultural pride in an authentic way that doesn’t pander to negative clichés. For example, in the “Easter Sunday” subplot about Manny Pacquiao’s boxing gloves, Joe insists that only someone of Filipino heritage can own the gloves, which is just a phony and cumbersome way to drag out the hijinks related these boxing gloves.

The performances by the “Easter Sunday” cast members range from adequate to over-the-top hammy. Koy’s Joe character is just a formulaic retread of what stand-up comedians usually do when they have a starring role in their first major feature film: They play a character who’s a clownish screw-up in need of redemption and “important life lessons.” Wardell and Noblezada (as would-be couple Junior and Tala) fare the best at having the most naturalistic performances and the best comedic timing. Everyone else is just playing stereotypes.

Expect to see a lot of pouting and preening from Gaston and Carrere as feuding sisters Susan and Teresa. The way this family feud is handled in “Easter Sunday” plays into outdated and sexist perceptions of women as “catty” and “difficult” if they’re obnoxious, but irresponsible men like Joe and Eugene are supposed to be thought of as “funny” and “freewheeling” if they’re obnoxious. Unfortunately, the very talented Phillips is not in “Easter Sunday” as much as people might think he’s in the movie. His “Easter Sunday” screen time is less than 15 minutes.

“Easter Sunday” does make an attempt to have some heartfelt family moments, but they are too often marred by making these family members look very dorky—and not in a good way. There’s an extremely cringeworthy karaoke scene involving the family singing Black Eyed Peas’ over-played 2009 hit “I Gotta Feeling,” as if they’re the coolest family in California. This scene will just make viewers wonder what year this moldy and out-of-touch “Easter Sunday” screenplay was completed.

Sometimes, a movie can have a scene-stealing villain who makes the film more entertaining to watch. “Easter Sunday” doesn’t have this type of villain. Dev is just a complete buffoon who has some of the worst lines in “Easter Sunday.” Dev’s last few scenes in the movie are just a sloppily edited and witless atrocity that looks like the “Easter Sunday” filmmakers ran out of ideas for this foolish character.

At the same time, “Easter Sunday” tries to cram in too many subplots with the Joe character and ends up over-relying on lackluster and predictable ways to try to resolve these subplots. Easter Sunday is a religious holiday about a miracle. This hackneyed “Easter Sunday” movie needed a miracle to make it a throroughly entertaining comedy.

Universal Pictures will release “Easter Sunday” in U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Nope,’ starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Steven Yeun

July 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Brandon Perea in “Nope” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Nope”

Directed by Jordan Peele 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Santa Clarita Valley, California, the sci-fi horror film “Nope” has a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, Asian and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A brother and a sister, who work together on a horse ranch, join forces with a Fry’s Electronics salesman to visually document an unidentified flying object (UFO) in their area.

Culture Audience: “Nope” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Jordan Peele and stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, but this frequently monotonous and unimaginative movie is an unfortunate case of hype over substance.

Steven Yeun in “Nope” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Does the sci-fi horror flick “Nope” live up to the hype? The title of this disappointing bore says it all. It’s a rambling, disjointed, self-indulgent mess that does nothing innovative for movies about UFOs. It’s obvious that writer/director/producer Jordan Peele got this movie made without anyone stepping in to question the very weak and lazy plot of “Nope,” and to ask for a screenplay rewrite to make drastic improvements that were desperately needed.

After the memorable originality of the previous two movies that Peele wrote and directed (2017’s “Get Out” and 2019’s “Us”), “Nope” looks like a movie that was made from a half-baked, unfinished screenplay draft that got greenlighted simply because Peele had enormous commercial and critical success with “Get Out” (which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and “Us.” “Nope” was filmed for IMAX screens, but having a bigger screen doesn’t always make a movie better. Considering all the outstanding and classic movies about UFOs, “Nope” has the substandard story quality of a UFO movie that was thrown together for a fourth-tier cable TV network or a direct-to-video release. Yes, “Nope” is that bad.

One of the reasons why “Nope” fails to live up to the hype is because before the movie’s release, the plot was shrouded in secrecy, as if “Nope” were some kind of masterpiece whose details dare not be leaked out, in order not to reveal a brilliant plot. There is no brilliant plot or even a clever plot twist in “Nope.” It’s just a tedious, badly structured movie about some people who see a UFO in the sky and decide to visually document it because they think it will make them rich and famous.

Too bad it takes so long (not until the last third of the movie) for any real action to take place in “Nope,” which should have been an exciting sci-fi horror film, but it just drags on and on with no real substance. Just because “Nope” has some Oscar winners and the big-budget backing of a major studio, that doesn’t automatically mean that the movie is going to be good. Peele is capable of doing much better movies (as evidenced by “Get Out” and “Us”), but “Nope” just looks like a cynical cash grab from filmmakers coasting on Peele’s previous successes.

Making matters worse, the talented cast members of “Nope” are stuck portraying hollow characters with vague backstories and a lot of cringeworthy or monotonous dialogue. Keke Palmer’s Emerald Haywood character is the only one in “Nope” who comes close to having a fully formed personality, but her character is quickly reduced to being a bunch of one-note soundbites and wisecracks. Everyone else in “Nope” is written as an incomplete sketch.

Characters in “Nope” end up working together in implausible ways. “Nope” also telegraphs way too early which character will have the big “heroic” scene during the inevitable showdown in the movie’s climax. The movie’s visual effects are adequate, but definitely not spectacular for a movie concept of this scope. Intriguing subplots are dangled in front of the audience, only to be left hanging. And many of the action scenes have some horrifically subpar editing.

And why is this movie called “Nope”? It’s because during certain scenes that are supposed to be scary, one of the characters says, “Nope,” as in, “No, I’m not having this right now.” It’s supposed to be an engaging catch phrase, but it’s really very tired and unoriginal. Most of the so-called “comedy” in “Nope” is fleeting and often falls flat.

An early scene in “Nope” (which takes place in California’s Santa Clarita Valley) shows Emerald Haywood and her older brother OJ Haywood (played by Daniel Kaluuya) on the set of a TV commercial, where they have been hired as animal wranglers. OJ and Emerald have inherited a horse ranch called Haywood Ranch (in the desert-like Agua Dulce, California) from their deceased father Otis Haywood Sr. (played by Keith David, who has a flashback cameo), a groundbreaking horse wrangler who worked on a lot of Hollywood productions. The Haywoods rent out their horses in a family business called Haywood Hollywood Horses.

The siblings’ mother is not mentioned. Don’t expect to find out how long Otis has been dead. Don’t expect to find out why OJ and Emerald have a ranch with about 10 horses, but they’re the only workers on the ranch. (It’s very unrealistic.) Don’t expect to find out if OJ and Emerald really love their ranch jobs or if they’re just doing it out of family obligation. These are some of the many reasons why “Nope” is so frustratingly shallow and poorly written.

On this particular TV commercial (what the commercial is for is never stated in “Nope”), OJ and Emerald have a black horse named Lucky that has been hired to be in the commercial. The horse is being filmed indoors, in front of a green screen. It’s OJ and Emerald’s job to handle the horse and tell people on the set how to interact with the horse.

OJ and Emerald have opposite personalities. OJ is quiet and introverted. Emerald is talkative and extroverted. Kaluuya, who gave a compelling Oscar-nominated performance in “Get Out,” plays a dreadfully dull character in “Nope.” It’s not Kaluuya’s fault. The character was written that way. And it’s a waste of Kaluuya’s talent.

Emerald is so talkative that she gives a mini-lecture to all the assembled cast and crew members about how the very earliest moving picture is considered to be Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 loop of cards titled “Animal Locomotion, Plate 626,” the very first scientific study to use photography. “Animal Locomotion,” an early example of chronophotography, featured an unidentified black man riding on a horse.

Emerald then asks the assembled group if they happen to know the name of the man who rode the horse. No one knows, of course. Emerald than proudly states that the man was actually an ancestor of Emerald and OJ, and his last name was also Haywood. There’s no way to verify if what Emerald is saying is true. And the people on this set don’t really seem to care. They just want to get the job done for this commercial.

There are some racial undertones to the cast and crew’s bored reaction to Emerald’s story, since OJ and Emerald are the only African American people on this set. It might be Peele’s way of showing that people who aren’t African American are less inclined to care about African American history. OJ seems slightly embarrassed and annoyed that Emerald is telling this story to people who obviously aren’t interested. Emerald also uses this moment to announce to everyone that she’s available for work as an actor, filmmaker, stunt person and singer.

The cinematographer for this commercial is a jaded elderly man named Antlers Horst (played by Michael Wincott), who will end up encountering OJ and Emerald again much later in the movie. Also on the set is actress Bonnie Clayton (played by Donna Mills), whose job is to interact with the horse. Although it’s nice that the “Nope” filmmakers hired former “Knot’s Landing” star Mills for this movie, because she doesn’t get enough work that she deserves, her role really is a cameo, with screen time of less than five minutes.

Emerald and OJ advise everyone on the set to remain calm around Lucky. And it’s at that moment you know things are going to go wrong. Lucky gets nervous about something and starts bucking and lunging in a way that’s dangerous. Because the horse is deemed unfit to be on this set, Emerald and OJ are fired. OJ says that they need this job, but the decision has been made to let them go.

OJ and Emerald then go to Jupiter’s Claim, a California Gold Rush theme park owned and operated by Ricky “Jupe” Park (played by Steven Yeun), a former child star who often acts as a show emcee at this theme park. Jupe is married and has three sons, ranging in ages from about 7 to 12 years old. Jupe’s wife Amber Park (played by Wrenn Schmidt) works with him at Jupiter’s Claim. Their sons Colton Park (played by Lincoln Lambert), Phoenix Park (played by Pierce Kang) and Max Park (played by Roman Gross) have brief appearances in the movie.

OJ decides that he’s going to sell Lucky to Jupe. Emerald is upset by this decision, but OJ reassures her that he plans to buy Lucky back when he has the money to do so. It’s a transaction that OJ and Jupe have done before, so Jupe is aware that his ownership of Lucky will probably be temporary.

Jupe knows about OJ’s financial problems and has been offering to buy OJ and Emerald’s ranch, but so far the offer has been declined. Later in the movie, OJ explains he’s not willing to give up Haywood Ranch because he wants to continue his father’s legacy: “He changed the industry. I can’t just let that go.”

It’s during this horse-selling transaction scene that viewers find out a little bit more about OJ and Emerald. OJ is the main caretaker and operator of the ranch. Emerald considers the ranch to be her “side job,” but she doesn’t really have a permanent career, because she jumps around from job to job as her main source of income. Emerald is also the “partier” of these two siblings: She likes to vape and is open about her fondness of smoking marijuana.

The siblings have some unspoken resentment about responsibilities for the ranch, as well as unresolved feelings about the death of their father. Later in the movie, Emerald confesses to OJ that when they were children, she was jealous when their father asked OJ to help train a Haywood family-owned horse named Jean Jacket, a horse that Emerald says she hoped would be the very first horse she would train and own. Get ready to roll your eyes: Later in the movie, the outer space entity in “Nope” is given the name Jean Jacket.

Emerald is openly queer or a lesbian, because she often dates women she works with or meets through her jobs. OJ mildly scolds Emerald about it because he thinks it’s unprofessional for her to mix her love life with her work life. Emerald brushes off his concerns. Meanwhile, as an example of how “Nope” doesn’t have a lot of character development, nothing is ever mentioned about OJ’s love life or anything about his life that isn’t about the ranch.

As for Jupe, he has an interesting background that is sloppily explored in “Nope.” Jupe’s main claim to fame as a child actor in the 1990s was playing a supporting character named Jupiter in a big hit movie called “Kid Sheriff” and then starring in a TV comedy series called “Gordy’s Home,” which was on the air from 1996 to 1998. In the meeting that Jupe has with OJ and Emerald, Jupe shows them a secret room where he keeps “Kid Sheriff” memorabilia. Jupe proudly mentions that a Dutch couple paid him $50,000 just so the couple could spend a night in this room.

Jupe’s experience with “Gordy’s Home” is what led him to quit being an actor. In “Gordy’s Home,” Jupe played an adopted child in a white family of two parents and an older sister. The family had a pet chimp named Gordy, and a lot of the show’s comedy revolved around this monkey’s antics.

Something shocking and traumatic happened one day while filming an episode of “Gordy’s Home.” And as an adult, Jupe still doesn’t want to talk about it, based on how he reacts when it’s quickly mentioned in a conversation between Jupe and OJ. What happened on that fateful day on the set of “Gordy’s Home” was big news. And this incident is shown as a flashback in “Nope.”

However, the way this flashback is dropped into “Nope” is so random and out-of-place, it’s very mishandled. This flashback is then never referred to or explained again in the movie. It’s a suspenseful scene, but it almost has no bearing on the overall story of “Nope” and seems to be in the movie only for some shock value.

It doesn’t take long for “Nope” to show the UFO (a generic-looking saucer-shaped object), which is first seen by OJ when he’s at the ranch. After he tells Emerald about it (his description is vague, because OJ is written as someone who’s barely articulate), Emerald immediately thinks they should try to film the UFO so they can get rich and famous from the footage.

And so, Emerald and OJ go to Fry’s Electronics to stock up on video surveillance equipment. Fry’s Electronics and the company logo get so much screen time in “Nope,” it’s brand placement overload. (All of this promotion of Fry’s Electronics in “Nope” is not going to do Fry’s Electronics much good anyway. In real life, Fry’s Electronics went out of business in 2021, the same year that “Nope” was filmed.)

At the store, OJ and Emerald meet sales clerk Angel Torres (played by Brandon Perea), who is overly talkative and curious about why OJ and Emerald are getting so much video surveillance equipment. Angel correctly guesses that it’s because OJ and Emerald want to film a UFO, but OJ and Emerald deny it. Angel also happens to be the Fry’s employee who delivers the equipment and helps install it. And you know what that means: Angel eventually finds out the truth, and he teams up with OJ and Emerald in their quest.

Angel is prominently featured in “Nope,” but he’s another example of an underwritten character in the movie. Viewers will learn nothing about Angel except that he was recently dumped by an actress ex-girlfriend named Rebecca Diaz, who was in a relationship with him for four years. Angel overshares this information the first time that he meets OJ and Emerald while lamenting that Rebecca broke up with him to star in a TV series on The CW network. OJ and Emerald don’t care, and neither will viewers of “Nope.”

Angel also goes on a mini-rant about how he doesn’t like how UFOs are now expected to be called UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena), because he likes the term UFO more. And once again: OJ and Emerald don’t care, and neither will viewers of “Nope.” Angel isn’t too annoying, but he will get on some viewers’ nerves because of his condescending, know-it-all attitude.

Without going into too many details, “Nope” makes some weird decisions on what technology is used to visually document the UFO. Even with a lot of modern digital technology at their disposal, the people in this UFO-sighting group use some very outdated and clunky cameras that require film. The explanation provided is very phony and overly contrived.

Apparently, the “Nope” filmmakers thought it would like cool to have the characters using retro cameras that require film, even though film could be ruined a lot easier than digital footage. It makes no sense, except to add unnecessary hassles for the people trying to visually document this UFO. And yes, there’s a scene where a camera’s film needs to be inconveniently changed at a pivotal moment.

It should come as no surprise that the alien life form that’s hovering in the sky abducts living beings. The way this alien life form looks is not very original at all. However, even these abduction scenes are handled in an idiotic way in “Nope.” And none of it is truly terrifying.

There’s a scene where 40 people are abducted at the same time, but the abduction is mostly suggested and shown in brief flashes. This mass abduction makes the news. However, “Nope” has no realistic depictions of the huge investigations and military reactions that would ensue, or how much of a circus the abduction scene would be for the media and curiosity seekers.

When Emerald goes back to the abduction scene later in the movie, the place is deserted, and she has free access to the place, with no law enforcement, military, security personnel or media in sight of this notorious crime scene. It’s all just so stupid. And it’s very easy to predict which characters will survive during this mess, based on how often and how close the alien life form “chases” certain characters out in open fields (making them easy targets), but the alien life form never abducts them.

But the worst plot hole of all is that viewers are supposed to believe that for a certain period of time, only OJ and Emerald have witnessed this giant UFO that appears numerous times in the sky and would actually be seen for miles. It’s as if the “Nope” filmmakers want viewers to think that the only people who can see the UFO in the sky during these times are either at the ranch or looking at the ranch’s closed-circuit live surveillance footage, which Angel does because he’s nosy. It’s pathetic storytelling.

“Nope” also has pretentiously titled chapters, such as “Ghost” (named after the ranch’s white horse that doesn’t do anything but run away and come back a few times), “Clover,” “Gordy” and “Jean Jacket.” There’s not a consistent through line for these chapters, which are as haphazard as a mismatched jigsaw puzzle. The chapter titled “Gordy” is the one that shows the tragic incident that happened on the set of “Gordy’s Home.”

“Nope” has a few moments that effectively build tension for viewers to wonder what’s going to happen next. (There’s also a fake jump scare scene that would have been more interesting if it were real jump scare in the story.) But as a horror movie, “Nope” fails miserably to be frightening. There are parts of this movie that are so boring, some viewers will fall asleep. Don’t expect “Nope” to give a reason or a purpose for any life forms that come from outer space. In fact, don’t expect “Nope” to have a reason to exist other than to make blockbuster money and fool people into thinking that it’s a high-quality, entertaining movie.

Universal Pictures will release “Nope” in U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Brut Force,’ starring Lelia Symington, Tyler Posey, Vico Escorcia, Sidney Symington, Chase Mullins and Patricia Velasquez

July 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tyler Posey and Lelia Symington in “Brut Force” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

“Brut Force”

Directed by Eve Symington

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional city of Santa Lucia, California, the dramatic film “Brut Force” features a cast of white and Latino characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A hot-tempered journalist, who has been recently fired from her job, goes back to her hometown of Santa Lucia, where she investigates the mysterious disappearance of an employee who works for her stepfather’s vineyard. 

Culture Audience: “Brut Force” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an entertaining, low-budget film about a crime-solving mystery.

Vico Escorcia and Lelia Symington in “Brut Force” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

The mystery thriller “Brut Force” overcomes some of its flaws (acting and dialogue that are occasionally cringeworthy) with effective suspense and memorable characters in this movie about a journalist investigating a woman’s disappearance. Written and directed by Eve Symington, “Brut Force” is a solid feature-film directorial debut from Symington, who shows potential for creative growth as a filmmaker. The movie is somewhat of a family project, because Lelia Symington (Eve’s sister) and Sidney Symington (Eve and Lelia’s father) are among the co-stars in the movie.

In “Brut Force” (which takes place in the fictional small city of Santa Lucia, California), journalist Sloane Sawyer (played by Lelia Symington), who’s in her late 20s, arrives in her hometown of Santa Lucia after she has recently been fired from her job. The movie doesn’t go into details over why she was fired. But viewers soon see that Sloane’s violent temper probably didn’t help. She’s quick to rough up, push, and punch other people when she gets into an argument or when she wants to intimidate someone.

Sloane’s mother is deceased, and her closest living relative is her stepfather Arthur Stendhal (played by Sidney Symington), who owns and operates a vineyard. Sloane has arrived back in Santa Lucia because a vineyard employee named Marcos De Los Santos (played by Julian Silva) called her and asked her to investigate a problem that the vineyard has been having. The vineyard has several employees who live on the property, but many of them have been quitting because they are being harassed by unknown people.

The harassment includes vandalism and thefts at night or when the employees are out working in the vineyard. There’s a context of anti-immigrant bigotry and racism in these crimes because the employees that are being harassed are Latin immigrants from countries where Spanish is the native language. Some of the white people in Santa Lucia have been openly hostile to these immigrants, but are any of these white locals committing the harassment crimes?

Marcos, who is in his 20s, tells Sloane: “Someone is messing with us. People are leaving left and right.” Marcos says Sloane’s journalistic skills are needed to investigate who’s responsible for this illegal harassment. He also mentions that Arthur “won’t fight back, and the cops won’t come downtown for us.”

It’s not mentioned right away, but it’s eventually revealed that Sloane was reluctant to come back to Santa Lucia because of bad memories. Her mother Nora was a drug addict, but was clean and sober for years until Nora suddenly and unexpectedly died from a drug overdose in the past spring. Sloane finds it difficult to talk about her mother to anyone. Arthur doesn’t really want to talk about Nora either.

Not long after Sloane arrives in Santa Lucia, she has a somewhat awkward reunion with Arthur. He introduces Sloane to Dulce Lopez Castillo (played by Vico Escorcia), a woman in her 20s whom Arthur describes as his most-trusted worker whom he relies on the most. Sloane tells Arthur that she doesn’t plan to stay for long in Santa Lucia and is only in town because she was asked to investigate the harassment of the vineyard employees.

Sloane soon has a strange encounter with a guy named Alan Black, who acts like he’s lurking suspiciously near the vineyard. Sloane chases after Alan, but he’s able to get away. Sloane asks a cop named Gerry McDonnell (played by Chase Mullins) if he’s seen Alan, but Gerry says no. Sloane and Gerry knew each other when they were childhood schoolmates. Until Sloane came back for this visit, she and Gerry hadn’t seen each other in years.

Sloane attends a town hall meeting and sees firsthand how deep the racial tensions are in Santa Lucia. The meeting is mostly about the immigrants who work for the vineyard and the fact that Arthur lets most of these employees live on the vineyard property. Some of the locals have a problem with a commercial property being used to house employees, but anyone can see that their real problem is that the people who live on this property are non-white immigrants who don’t have English as their first language.

These vineyard employees are law-abiding residents of Santa Lucia and are contributing to the business economy of the city. However, that doesn’t stop some of the racists in town from trying to make it look like these immigrants will cause trouble. An overly perky attendee named Patty Ernst (played by Tate Hanyok), a political candidate seeking re-election as county supervisor, talks about “neighborhood safety,” which are usually code words that racist white people use when they don’t want non-white people living in their neighborhood.

Two things happen that deepen the mystery of what’s going on in Santa Lucia. First, the vineyard’s employee housing building burns down. Luckily, people managed to escape, and no one was killed or injured in this arson. The police have no suspects or persons of interest for this crime.

Arthur says of the cops who are investigating: “I think they’re probably relieved that it burned down.” Sloane also meets a neighbor named Timothy Fitnall (played by Erik Odom), who has the same attitude. Timothy says of the burned-down building: “Good riddance. This is a residential neighborhood.” Timothy is aware that college-educated journalist Sloane is investigating, and he tells her: “Be gone, college girl.”

The second thing that happens that makes the mystery more complicated is that Dulce disappears. Arthur tells Sloane that the last time he heard from Dulce, she called in sick and said that she has pneumonia. However, several days have passed, and Dulce has not made contact with Arthur again, and she’s not returning any messages. Arthur starts to think that something terrible might have happened to Dulce, because it’s out of her character to be uncommunicative and unreliable.

Around the time that Dulce has gone missing, Sloane meets someone who immediately catches her interest. His name is Alejandro “Tico” Reyes Acuña (played by Tyler Posey), who says that he’s looking for Dulce. Tico says that he hasn’t seen Dulce for weeks. Tico describes Dulce as being a “sweet kid” but “a magnet for trouble.” It somewhat contradicts Arthur’s description of Dulce being reliable and trustworthy.

What’s the truth? And why is Tico trying to find Dulce? Sloane is determined to find out. Tico has been staying at the Bettie B.’s Motel, where Dulce was last seen in public. Dulce was also living at the motel. These clues might make Tico look suspicious, but (cliché alert) Tico and Sloane have a flirtatious attraction to each other, so this attraction could cloud her judgment.

During her investigation, Sloane meets two other people who could hold the answers to this mystery: Tico’s wealthy and domineering mother Mariela Vicuña (played by Patricia Velasquez) and a librarian named Lettie Newsome (played by Janice Peters), who gives Sloane some background on the history of Santa Lucia and the surrounding area. Some of the mystery unfolds in ways that are more predictable than others.

What will keep viewers interested in “Brut Force” is that the characters aren’t always that simple to figure out because they have their own personal agendas. Sloane’s bad temper doesn’t make her a stereotypical plucky heroine who’s the usual type of protagonist female investigator in mystery thrillers. Lelia Symington is in almost every scene in “Brut Force,” and she makes the most of every scene she’s in without doing a lot of over-acting.

Sloane has simmering rage that’s just below the surface. This rage comes out in different ways, but a lot of it seems to be fueled by grief. If you think about the circumstances under which Sloane has come back to her hometown, and add to the fact that she’s dealing with her mother’s sudden tragic death, it’s enough emotional baggage to make anyone feel on the edge of emotionally exploding. In that respect, Lelia Symington’s performance (which is by no means perfect) makes a difference in bringing a lot of emotional authenticity to the movie.

Posey and the other cast members are adequate in their roles, but viewers never really get a sense of these characters’ personal histories as much as Sloane’s personal history is depicted in Lelia Symington’s performance. “Brut Force” starts off a little slow but the movie gets better as it goes along, when Sloane unravels more of the mystery. Toward the end of the movie, it becomes obvious that this mystery isn’t the only problem that Sloane has to confront. She also has to decide what type of person she want to be and what she wants to do with her life.

XYZ Films released “Brut Force” on digital and VOD on April 21, 2022.

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.

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