Review: ‘PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie,’ starring the voices of Finn-Lee Epp, Mckenna Grace, Christian Convery, Taraji P. Henson, Ron Pardo, Marsai Martin and Lil Rel Howery

September 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Rocky (voiced by Callum Shoniker), Marshall (voiced by Christian Corrao), Rubble (voiced by Luxton Handspiker), Zuma (voiced by Nylan Parthipan), Chase (voiced by Christian Convery), Skye (voiced by McKenna Grace), Liberty (voiced by Marsai Martin), Nano (voiced by Alan Kim), Ryder (voiced by Finn Lee-Epp), Mini (voiced by North West) and Tot (voiced by Brice Gonzalez) in “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” (Image courtesy of Spin Master Entertainment/Nickelodeon Movies/Paramount Pictures)

“PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie”

Directed by Cal Brunker 

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional Adventure City in North America, the animated film “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” features talking dog characters and a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A boy and his team of rescue dogs must stop a ruthless scientist and a villainous former mayor, who plant to take over the world with meteoric crystals that give superpowers to people in possession of the crystals.

Culture Audience: “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Paw Patrol” TV series and people who want escapist, children’s-oriented entertainment that has a superhero plot.

Victoria Vance (voiced by Taraji P. Henson) in “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” (Image courtesy of Spin Master Entertainment/Nickelodeon Movies/Paramount Pictures)

In a world overloaded with superhero films, “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” is an adequate option for anyone who will watch entertainment geared to kids under the age of 10. Like many sequels, it tries to do more than the original, but it’s not cluttered. However, by introducing more characters and adding a new villain, some of the regular characters are sidelined in this movie. “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” is a sequel to 2021’s “PAW Patrol: The Movie.” Both films are directed by Carl Brunker and are based on Nickelodeon’s “PAW Patrol” series.

For the hero characters in “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” (which was co-written by Brunker and Bob Barlen), an almost entirely new cast of voice actors replaced the voice actors who were in “PAW Patrol: The Movie.” In “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie,” Ryder (voiced by Finn-Lee Epp) is a 10-year-old boy who’s in charge of a team of rescue dogs that have the voices of human kids who are around the same age and can do many things that humans can do, such as drive vehicles. Ryder and the dogs all live in Adventure City, which is somewhere in North America. Members of the PAW Patrol help the community in various ways, by acting as unofficial police officers and firefighters.

The dog who’s closest to Ryder is a male German Shepherd named Chase (voiced by Christian Convery), who has a reputation for being the bravest dog in the pack, with a keen sense of sight and smell. Chase is allergic to cats though, which is a hindrance since this movie’s villain has several cats. All of the other PAW Patrol dogs look up to Chase in some way as their “alpha dog.”

In addition to Chase, there’s Skye (voiced by Mckenna Grace), a bold 7-year-old female tan cockapoo, who has aircraft skills and a custom-made pink-and-grey helicopter. Marshall (voiced by Christian Corrao) is a goofy 6-year-old male Dalmatian with firefighter and paramedic skills and a custom fire engine truck. Rocky (voiced by Callum Shoniker) is a 6-year-old grey-and-white male Schnauzer/Scottish Terrier mixed-breed dog, who is skilled at recycling and handyman duties, and he has a green recycling truck.

Zuma (voiced by Nylan Parthipan) is a 5-year-old male brown Labrador Retriever whose specialty is water rescues. He has an orange hovercraft that can be used on water or on land. Rubble (voiced by Luxton Handspiker) is a 5-year-old male white-and-brown bulldog who is the team’s construction expert, and his custom vehicle is a yellow bulldozer. Smart and sassy Liberty (voiced by Marsai Martin) is a brown dachshund who was added as a new character in “PAW Patrol: The Movie.” All of the voice actors for these characters are different in “PAW Patrol: The Movie” and “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie,” except for the characters of Liberty and Rocky.

“PAW Patrol: The Movie” begins with J&H Scrap junkyard owner spouses Janet (played by Kristen Bell) and Hank (played by James Marsden) seeing a mysterious person stealing a crane and a 10-ton electromagnet. Janet and Hank report this theft to the police. It turns out that the thief is a ruthless scientist named Victoria Vance (voiced by Taraji P. Henson), who wants the electromagnet to attract a meteor to Adventure City.

Why this meteor? It has special crystals that can give superpowers to anyone who has these crystals. Why does she want these superpowers? To take over the world, of course. Victoria’s devious plan works, and the meteor crashes into Adventure City, but this crash destroys Pup Tower, the headquarters of the PAW Patrol.

This disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for the PAW Patrol. The team has added three new members as Junior Patrollers, who are Pomeranian puppies named Mini (voiced by North West), Nano (voiced by Alan Kim) and Tot (voiced by Brice Gonzalez), who are all eager to become full-fledged members of the PAW Patrol. North West and her brother Saint West (who voices the Meteor Man character in the movie) are the children of Kim Kardashian, who has small role in the movie as a pampered poodle named Delores.

Victoria is a knowledgeable scientist, but she makes the stupid mistake of going online to brag that she caused the meteor crash. She’s quickly arrested and put in jail, where her cell mates are the disgraced Mayor Humdinger (voiced by Ron Pardo) and his six companion cats. Victoria tells Mayor Humdinger (who was the chief villain in “PAW Patrol: The Movie”) about the crystals. He convinces her to form an alliance and make a deal with him: If he can break them both out of jail, she will give him one of the crystals. Humdinger still has his buffoonish arrogance and deceptive ways.

Through a series of circumstances, the PAW Patrol find the crystals, which become attachments to their dog tags. While wearing these crystals, the dogs develop superpowers based on their strongest characteristics, except for Liberty, who is dismayed that she did not receive any superpowers from wearing a crystal. Liberty is also annoyed that she’s been tasked with looking after Mini, Nano and Tot while her team mates on the PAW Patrol take off to battle the villains. Babysitting the Junior Patrollers is not what Liberty had in mind when she joined the PAW Patrol.

“PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” borrows a lot from the story in Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Infinity War,” because much of the movie is about a villain wanting to get a collection of precious stones, in order to rule the world. The voice cast members in “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” get the job done well enough, but Skye and Liberty are the only two PAW Patrol members who have significant storylines and screen time in “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie.” Liberty is uncomfortable about not having found her own superpower, while Skye is insecure about her past as the runt of her litter.

Victoria and Mayor Humdinger are frequently amusing to watch, but the story really only needed one chief villain, not two. As a dastardly duo, the chemistry between Victoria and Humdinger is hit and miss. Parts of “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” get jumbled when the movie tries to cram in distractions that serve no purpose except to increase the length of the film. The plot is easy to follow though, even if there’s nothing particularly innovative about it.

“PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” has some voice cameos that only seem to be in the movie so the filmmakers could say that they got some famous people to be voice actors in the film. Serena Williams makes a cameo (that’s about 10 seconds long), as the voice of a yoga instructor named Yoga Yvette. Chris Rock utters a few lines as one of Mayor Humdinger’s cats in a similarly “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo. Lil Rel Howery, who is the voice of TV reporter Sam Stringer, has one of the longer cameos, since his dialogue is about five minutes in the film.

“PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” looks exactly like what it is: A feature-length, bigger-budget version of a TV episode of “PAW Patrol.” Do not expect a masterpiece in animation, but don’t expect the fiilm to be low-quality either. “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” seems happy to occupy a space that is somewhere in the middle and made for people who just want to see a lightweight and enjoyable animated film.

Paramount Pictures will release “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” in U.S. cinemas on September 29, 2023.

Review: ‘Amsterdam’ (2022), starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Robert De Niro and Andrea Riseborough

October 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon in “Amsterdam” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/20th Century Studios)

“Amsterdam” (2022)

Directed by David O. Russell

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and Amsterdam, from 1918 to 1933, the dramatic film “Amsterdam” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A medical doctor, his attorney best friend, and the attorney’s girlfriend get caught up in a murdery mystery involving wealthy and powerful people. 

Culture Audience: “Amsterdam” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the stars of the movie, which doesn’t offer much that’s compelling except for its star power.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Christian Bale, Robert De Niro and Margot Robbie  in “Amsterdam” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/20th Century Studios)

The frequently boring and muddled “Amsterdam” has many big-name stars, but this misguided drama just adds up to a lot of posturing and hot air. The filmmakers cared more about wrangling celebrities into the cast than crafting a story worthy of this talent. “Amsterdam” is a huge misfire from writer/director David O. Russell, who seems so enamored with the star power in the movie, he let the acting and tone of “Amsterdam” become scattershot and uneven.

“Amsterdam” veers in and out between voiceover narration of three characters: medical doctor Burt Berendsen (played by Christian Bale), his attorney best friend Harold Woodman (played by John David Washington), and Harold’s girlfriend Valerie Voze (played by Margot Robbie). Burt gets the most voiceover narration and is presented in the movie as the lead protagonist. The story, which takes place primarily in New York City and Amsterdam, jumps around in the timeline from 1918 to 1933, with several flashbacks within this time period.

As shown in a flashback, Burt (who has questionable medical ethics) and Harold (who is more sincere and staightforward), who are both from New York City, met each other in Europe in 1918, when they were soldiers in World War I. When they were both wounded in the war in France, they ended up in the care of Valerie, who pretended to be a French nurse named Valerie Vandenberg while living in France. It turns out (which was already revealed in the “Amsterdam” trailer), Valerie is really an American heiress who was estranged from her family and trying to start over with a new life in Europe.

While Burt and Harold healed from their wounds, the three of them went to Amsterdam, became close, and made a loyalty pact with each other. Harold and Valerie fell in love, while Burt remained ambivalent about his crumbling and unhappy marriage to heiress Beatrice Vandenheuvel (played by Andrea Riseborough), who pressured a reluctant Burt to enlist in the military so that he could become a war hero who would get medals of honor. The tight-knit trio of Burt, Harold and Valerie unraveled when Valerie suddenly left of her own choice and didn’t tell Harold and Burt where she was going.

Burt and Harold eventually returned to New York City, where they have been helping each other out by referring clients and patients to each other. The movie opens in 1933, when Burt is asked by heiress Liz Meekins (played by Taylor Swift) to do an autopsy of her father, General Bill Meekins (played by Ed Begley Jr.), who passed away unexpectedly. Liz believes that her father did not die of natural causes. The autopsy reveals that her father could have been poisoned. (Squeamish viewers be warned: The autopsy scene is very graphic.)

But before toxicology test results can be processed, Liz tells Burt and Harold that she wants to call off the investigation. While Liz, Harold and Burt are speaking outside on a street, a shady character named Taron Milfax (played by Timothy Olyphant) pushes Liz in front of a car in motion. She is run over by the car and killed instantly. Police are nearby, and Taron immediately says that Burt and Harold killed Liz by pushing her in front of the car.

Burt and Harold vehemently deny it, and then run away when it looks like the police don’t believe them. Burt and Harold become the prime suspects in the murder and do their own investigation to clear their names. During the course of this investigation, Burt and Harold find out that Valerie is really an American heiress who has been living in nearby New Jersey for several years. Valerie lives with her oddball brother Tom Voze (played by Rami Malek) and Tom’s domineering wife Libby Voze (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who tries to control the lives of Valerie and Tom.

Harold, who was heartbroken over Valerie’s sudden departure from his life, eventually forgives her, and they resume their love affair. Burt’s love life isn’t going so well, since Burt’s wife Beatrice has asked him to move out of their apartment. Beatrice tells Burt that she’s unhappy in the marriage because he used to be “beautiful,” but his war scars (including his injured back) have made him “hideous,” and he’s an overall disappointment to her. Harold, Valerie and Burt eventually cross paths with General Gil Dillenbeck (played by Robert De Niro), “the most decorated military general in U.S. history,” who has power, influential connections and political aspirations.

“Amsterdam” is packed with a lot of undeveloped characters who don’t do much except show that the “Amsterdam” filmmakers could get well-known actors to play the roles of these characters. Chris Rock has the role of Milton King, a wisecracking former war buddy of Burt and Harold. Milton, who currently works for Harold, is supposed to be hilarious, but he’s not. Milton’s not-funny-at-all remarks include his obnoxiously racist comments about white people. Alessandro Nivola is Detective Hiltz, and Matthias Schoenaerts is Detective Lem Getweiler, the two generic police characters who are leading the Meekins murder investigation.

Zoe Saldaña has the role of Irma St. Clair, Burt’s strong-willed autopsy nurse, whose feelings for Burt might go beyond a work relationship. And, of course, any movie that involves war and international intrigue has to predictably have spies. In “Amsterdam,” they are Paul Canterbury (played by Michael Shannon) and Henry Norcross (played by Mike Myers), whose spy identities are shown as captions immediately when these characters are first seen on screen.

“Amsterdam” is made with the tone that audiences should automatically be impressed by all the celebrities who are in the cast. Unfortunately, “Amsterdam” has so much awful dialogue and messy plot developments, all that star power is wasted in a substandard movie. Bale, Washington and Robbie seem to be doing their best as the three central characters, but this three-way friendship looks awkward and fake on screen. Awkward and fake is how to describe “Amsterdam” overall—an example of how star power in front of the camera can’t save a bad movie.

20th Century Studios released “Amsterdam” in U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022.

Review: ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),’ starring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Jesse Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone

July 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some Latinos and white people) discussing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six non-consecutive days in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and was attended by an estimated 300,000 people.

Culture Clash: Even though the Harlem Cultural Festival had superstar music artists and was filmed (some people called it Black Woodstock), TV networks and movie distributors at the time refused to be associated with the event, which celebrated ethnic pride for black people and Latino people.

Culture Audience: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” will appeal primarily to people interested in music and culture from the late 1960s, particularly as related to civil rights and ethnic heritage for people of color in the United States.

Nina Simone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

In the summer of 1969, there was a free music festival that took place in New York state, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and featured performances by several hitmaking artists. There was no outbreak of violence, no unsafe overcrowding, and no one died during the event. There wasn’t a food shortage, there were no weather problems, and there was no difficulty getting to the concert site. In other words, this event wasn’t Woodstock. It was the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that was filmed but largely ignored for decades by mainstream media because it was a festival that had mostly African Americans performing at and attending the event.

The excellent documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” shines a well-deserved spotlight on this important part of American cultural and music history. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who’s best known as a DJ, the drummer for the Roots, and as the band leader for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Summer of Soul,” which has a plethora of previously unreleased Harlem Cultural Festival footage and insightful commentary from a variety of people. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, over six days: June 29, July 13, July 20, July 27, August 17 and August 24, 1969. The event featured a “who’s who” of mostly African American artists, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Professor Herman Stevens & the Voices of Faith, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, the Chambers Brothers, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and the Edwin Hawkins Singers featuring Dorothy Morrison.

Other celebrities who performed at the event included interracial funk band Sly and the Family Stone, South African singer Hugh Maskela, Puerto Rican band leader Ray Barretto, Jewish jazz musician Herbie Mann, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Non-musical celebrities who appeared on stage included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, comedian Moms Mabley and ventriloquist act Willie Tyler and Lester. “Summer of Soul” has electrifying performance footage of all of the above artists and celebrities. And there’s not a bad performance in the bunch.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was such a big deal that an estimated 300,000 people attended over the six days. And after the Woodstock Music Festival (attended by an estimated 400,000 people) happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969, on a farm in upstate Bethel, New York, some people gave the Harlem Cultural Festival the nickname Black Woodstock. (This documentary was originally titled “Black Woodstock.”) Both festivals had superstar acts on the bill, but Woodstock got most of the media attention and praise for being a groundbreaking festival in 1969.

The Woodstock Music Festival, which had a lineup of predominantly white hitmaking artists, went on to be celebrated as a major event for the “counterculture/hippie generation” of the 1960s. Woodstock got massive media coverage, including the Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary. The Woodstock Music Festival has also been hailed as the most influential music festival of all time, despite the event’s many problems, such as lack of food, shelter, medical facilities, sanitation and other safety issues. Woodstock was originally a paid ticketed event but quickly became free after too many people showed up. The overcrowding caused big problems with safety and traffic jams, to the point where the governor of New York state was monitoring the festival and was ready to call in the National Guard military force if the situation got really out of control.

Meanwhile, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which had no major safety problems, was filmed for a potential documentary, but the event was mostly ignored by national and international media. Most of the media coverage was limited to local news outlets in New York City. Movie companies and national TV networks turned down pitches for years to have a documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival. And so, according to a prologue in “Summer of Soul,” the Harlem Cultural Festival footage just “sat in a basement for 50 years.”

“Summer of Soul” doesn’t waste a lot of time complaining about the obvious reason why the media and entertainment industries treated the Woodstock Music Festival differently from the Harlem Cultural Festival. It isn’t until toward end of “Summer of Soul” that it’s mentioned how a proposed documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival was rejected for years by all companies that were pitched on this documentary. “Summer of Soul” shows why the Harlem Cultural Festival was so important by being the documentary this event deserves.

Longtime TV director/producer Hal Tulchin directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. “Summer of Soul” director Thompson was Fyvolent and Dinerstein’s first choice to direct the film because of his “encyclopedic knowledge of film” and because he’s someone “who understood music and its history,” according to what Fyvolent and Dinerstein say in the “Summer of Soul” production notes.

The people interviewed in the film—many who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival and some who did not—all have something substantial to say about the cultural context in which the festival took place, as well as the lasting impact on those who understand the importance of this event. This isn’t a documentary with a constant stream of talking heads over-glamorizing what the festival was, because the movie addresses the realities of civil unrest, poverty and other social issues going on for people of color in America at that time. It was a different kind of “peace and love” at this festival, which had the tone of ethnic pride and cautious optimism for the future.

“Summer of Soul” begins and ends with testimonial from Musa Jackson, a longtime Harlem resident who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival when he was 4 years old. Jackson, who has worked as a fashion model and a filmmaker, is now considered an unofficial ambassador of Harlem. He says what impacted him the most about the Harlem Cultural Festival—aside from his admitted big crush on Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo—was that he had never seen so many black people in one place at the same time and having fun. Musa Jackson remembers, “This was the first time I saw so many of us … It was like seeing royalty.” It was quite a different image from what was constantly shown in the media that black people only gathered in large numbers to protest racism.

Contrary to racist beliefs that large numbers of black people gathered in one place automatically means crime and violence, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a peaceful event where people had a good time. The festival had the support of then-New York City mayor John Lindsay, who attended and was introduced on stage to cheers from the audience. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who’s interviewed in the documentary, describes Lindsay as a “liberal Republican” who felt comfortable being around black people and who supported the civil rights movement.

Not all of New York’s public servants were supportive of the Harlem Cultural Festival though. Most of the New York City Police Department refused to work at the event, so the Black Panthers provided security for the festival. In the end, there was no violence and no one died because they were there. The same can’t be said of the Woodstock Music Festival.

Also in contrast to Woodstock, at the Harlem Cultural Festival, people weren’t stranded with a lack of food or lack of sanitation on the premises. It was so easy to enter and leave the festival site, that many of the Harlem Cultural Festival attendees could walk or take the subway there in just 30 minutes or less from their nearby neighborhoods. And although the attendees had to deal with sweltering summer heat, there were luckily no rain storms that caused dangerous lightning, wind gusts or widespread mud.

In 1969, the civil rights movement was hurting over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous year. Protests over racial injustice and the Vietnam War led to violence in many cities. Sharpton says of the political and social climate in 1969: “People were afraid of the anger and rage spilling over.” Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Darryl Lewis comments: “So, the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival was the brainchild of promoter Tony Lawrence, who was also a nightclub singer. Through sheer persistence and showbiz hustling, he was able to get a lineup that was one of the best to showcase contemporary R&B music and other music with roots in black or Latino culture. The festival was funded by sponsors, most notably Maxwell House Coffee. Lawrence was the festival’s charismatic (and often flamboyantly dressed) host who introduced people on stage.

Allen Zerkin (a former assistant to Lawrence) and Margot Edman (a festival production assistant) are interviewed in the documentary. Edman describes Lawrence as an “ebullient guy,” “always on the move” and “very positive.” Lawrence wasn’t the type to lose his temper easily, but he had the gift of persuasive sales skills. Zerkin says, “Tony talked a big game, and he delivered.”

In an archival interview, Tulchin remembers the challenges he had to direct film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival: “There was no budget, no money, no lights. So, the stage had to face west because I had to use the sun.”

Because the performances took place before nightfall, the artists on stage could have a better view of the audience. Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers says in an audio interview for the documentary: “I saw so many black people, and they were having a good time. And I started celebrating with them.”

While the Woodstock Music Festival had a very male-dominated lineup of artists, female artists had much more of a presence at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Because gospel music was a big part of the festival, many of the acts on stage were a solid mixture of men and women. Charylane Hunter-Gault, formerly of The New York Times, comments on the importance of gospel to African American culture: “Gospel is part of our DNA. It’s deep in the recesses of my consciousness.”

And anyone who sees “Summer of Soul” will probably say that the women lead singers are many of the performance highlights. Among the most noteworthy are Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson (especially her duet with Mavis Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) and Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who are shown performing the group’s 1967 hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Simone performs “Backlash Blues,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Are You Ready?” like an iconic artist in full command of the stage and her craft. Sharpton comments on Simone’s performance: “You can hear in her voice our pain and our defiance.”

After Mahalia Jackson performs “Lord, Search My Heart,” Jesse Jackson goes on stage to give a poignant speech about the last time he saw his civil rights mentor King. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was one of King’s favorite songs. Staples says of performing this gospel classic with Mahalia Jackson: “That is still my biggest honor: to sing on the same microphone as Sister Mahalia Jackson.”

Sly and the Family Stone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival and at the Woodstock Music Festival—and they were standouts at both events. In “Summer of Soul,” Sly and the Family Stone are seen performing their hits “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” At the time, they were considered a highly unusual band because the musicians consisted of black men, black women and white men. Sly and the Family Stone also defied musical genres by blending R&B, rock, pop and some jazz, thereby helping pioneer a hybrid musical genre called funk.

With today’s successful bands, not much has changed in terms of how bands are still mostly segregated by race and/or gender. Looking at today’s current hitmakers, it’s still very rare to see a chart-topping band with the type of racial and gender diversity that Sly and the Family Stone had. The exceptions might be vocal groups, but not a full-fledged band that plays instruments.

Greg Errico, former drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, comments in the documentary: “Sly [Stone] wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. Everybody wanted to do their own thing. And we did.” Writer/journalist Greg Tate observes: “Sly and the Family Stone was a game changer on so many levels.”

Breaking down racial stereotyping was one of the reasons why it was important for the Fifth Dimension to perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival, say former Fifth Dimension singers McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. in the documentary. At the time, many people thought that because the Fifth Dimension performed pop music, the group was “too white” for black audiences and “too black” for white audiences. “Back then, music was segregated,” says Davis. “We were caught in the middle.” The documentary includes the Fifth Dimension performing “Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the group’s biggest hit.

McCoo and Davis are shown reacting with joy and nostalgia when they watch the long-lost footage of the Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival. McCoo gets teary-eyed and emotional when she says, “How do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping they would receive us. We were so happy to be there.”

Knight, who is also interviewed in the documentary, also remembers the feeling she had being at this very unique event: “When I stepped on stage, I was totally taken aback because I didn’t expect a crowd like that.” As writer/journalist Tate says in the documentary: “At the Harlem Cultural Festival, you got an audience that was radicalized.”

The documentary includes news footage of the civil rights protests that were affecting life for people of color in the United States. “Summer of Soul” also doesn’t gloss over the problems facing disenfranchised people of color, besides racial injustice. Drug addiction (especially addiction to heroin) was an epidemic in Harlem. Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Roger Parris, who describes heroin as a “plague on the black community,” says in the documentary that he was a heroin addict for 16 years who lost everything—including his home, his marriage and his family—because of his drug addiction.

Poverty was also very much on people’s minds. There’s some news footage from 1969 showing black people in Harlem being asked what they think about NASA’s historic Apollo 11 voyage that had the first man to walk on the moon. The interviewees say that Apollo 11 didn’t matter much to them because they think the government should have used the money to help poor people instead. It’s a very different perspective than the usual praise of NASA and Apollo 11 that gets shown in documentaries about 1969.

“Summer of Soul” even discusses the changing fashion for African Americans in 1969, when the Black Power movement was starting to gain momentum. Jim McFarland, a former tailor at Orlies Custom Tailoring, comments on how more black people started to wear Afros and dashikis at that time. Hiphuggers were popular. And it was also in style for men to wear vests without shirts.

Wearing dashikis and Afros were part of a larger cultural movement of African Americans expressing pride in their African roots. Hugh Maskela’s son Selema “Sal” Masekela comments, “My father realized that there was this real hunger for black Americans to feel and see and taste what it would be like to be African.” It was around this time in the late 1960s when people began to re-examine what was being taught in American history classes and how the contributions of people of color were being wrongfully erased. There was a movement for school classrooms, the media and the government to give more recognition to African and African American culture and historical contributions made by people of African/African American heritage.

African Americans were the majority of artists and attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival, but the event was also embraced by people in the Latino community. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wasn’t even born when the festival happened, nevertheless weighs in with this comment in the documentary: “The power of music is to tell our own stories. We had a mirror to ourselves. We write the music that comes from inside us. And then other people say, ‘That’s me too!'” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father Luis Miranda adds: “The festival is a political statement to black and brown communities.”

Grammy-winning legend Wonder (whose performances of “It’s Your Thing” and “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da-Day” are in the documentary) remembers what it was like to be alive in 1969: “I had a feeling that the world was wanting a change.” Wonder was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Actor/comedian Chris Rock, who grew up in New York City and was 4 years old in 1969, says in the documentary that it would have been easy for Wonder to rest on his laurels and just be a pop star, but Wonder took the riskier path of speaking out and doing something about social issues.

Other people interviewed in “Summer of Soul” include music executive Alan Leeds, musician Sheila E., Black Panther Party member Chris “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., former Edwins Hawkins Singers member Adrienne Kryor, Young Lords co-founder Denise Oliver-Velez, Max Roach’s son Raoul Roach, Operation Breadbasket Orchestra band leader Ben Branch and Harlem Cultural Festival attendees Dorinda Drake, Ethel Beatty-Barnes and Barbara Bland-Acosta.

“Summer of Soul” is an apt title because its a very soul-stirring film. Rather than just show the concert footage and sticking to talking about the music, the documentary does an exemplary job of putting everything in a cultural context that can be taken to heart by people of any generation. The film editing sometimes veers a little off track when people who weren’t at the festival talk about their lives, but it’s not so off-topic that it becomes an annoying distraction.

The sound mixing for the concert footage is done so well, it feels like you’re almost transported back to the festival. The documentary feels more inclusive and relatable to more people by adding in the perspectives of people who weren’t at the festival but who understand its relevance to social issues. On another level, “Summer of Soul” is also a time capsule of a bygone era when it was more possible for a relatively unknown, independent promoter to create this type of all-star festival.

And the filmmakers cared about details, such as putting the artists’ names and song titles on screen during each performance. Many concert documentaries don’t list song titles until the end credits. Anyone who watches “Summer of Soul” should experience it on the biggest screen possible. It’s the type of documentary that will inspire meaningful discussions and repeat viewings.

Searchlight Pictures released “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie expanded to more U.S. cinemas and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Spiral’ (2021), starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson

May 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chris Rock and Max Minghella in “Spiral” (Photo by Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate)

“Spiral” (2021) 

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Spiral” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A police detective tries to find out who’s behind the serial killings of cops in his police department, as he reluctantly trains a rookie cop.

Culture Audience: “Spiral” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Saw” franchise and anyone who doesn’t mind watching gruesome horror flicks with flimsy plots.

Samuel L. Jackson in “Spiral” (Photo by Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate)

In this dreadful continuation of the “Saw” horror franchise, “Spiral” has a misguided mashup of Chris Rock doing stale stand-up comedy lines in a “torture porn” story that rips off elements of “Training Day” and “Shaft.” The results are messier than the movie’s bloody corpses. “Spiral” was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed 2005’s “Saw II,” 2006’s “Saw III” and 2007’s “Saw IV,” with each sequel panned as worse than its predecessor. Therefore, it’s mind-boggling that people thought it would be a good idea to hand over the revival of the “Saw” franchise to a director who has been largely blamed for ruining the franchise the first time around.

The first “Saw” movie—released in 2004, directed by James Wan, and written by Leigh Whannell—is still considered the best in the series. Wan and Whannell are two horror movie masters who have proved their talent with several other critically acclaimed horror flicks, such as the first “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” movies. Wan and Whannell are credited with being executive producers of “Spiral,” but “executive producer” is a movie title that can bestowed on anyone who might have had a consulting role on the film but wasn’t involved in the day-to-day production decisions for the movie.

The unimaginative and lazy screenplay for “Spiral” was written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, a duo with a history of writing cheesy horror flicks, including 2017’s “Jigsaw” (another “Saw” movie) and 2010’s “Piranha 3D.” And even though “Spiral” can boast the star power of Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in its cast (they are the most famous actors so far to star in a “Saw” franchise movie), that doesn’t mean the quality of “Spiral” is better than most of the bottom-of-the-barrel “Saw” flicks. And besides, Rock and Jackson have been in plenty of other horrible movies, so their names alone don’t guarantee that a movie is going to be any good.

In “Spiral,” there’s a new serial killer on the loose. And this murderer has been targeting cops in a police department that employs detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks, played by Rock. The movie takes place in an unnamed big city in the United States. Jackson portrays Zeke’s father Marcus Banks, who’s the department’s retired police chief and who is considered to be a respected hero by the people who still work there. The same can’t be said of Zeke, who is treated like a traitor by his peers.

That’s because 12 years ago, as shown in flashbacks, Zeke turned in his cop partner Pete Dunleavy (played by Patrick McManus) for shooting and killing a murder witness in cold blood. Therefore, Zeke has been labeled a snitch, and he’s not very well-liked by most of the other cops on the staff. (In one of the movie’s early scenes, Zeke finds a dead rat in a mousetrap placed on his desk.) Not long after his testimony sent a fellow cop to prison 12 years ago, Deke was shot (maybe not accidentally) by an older detective colleague named O’Brien (played by Thomas Mitchell), and there’s still a lot of bad blood between Zeke and O’Brien.

“Spiral” shows from the opening scene that the killer is targeting cops. During a Fourth of July parade at night, a police detective named Marvin “Boz” Bozwick, who’s off-duty, spots a thief steal a woman’s purse, and he gives chase to the crook. The purse snatcher is dressed like Uncle Sam on stilts, which is a ridiculous way to be dressed if you’re a thief who wants to get away on foot and blend into a crowd. It’s an example of how moronic this story is.

The thief disappears into a manhole. And the next thing you know, someone wearing a pig’s mask ambushes Boz and captures him. Boz is next seen hanging from a torture device on some subway train tracks. And you know what that means: A train will be coming any minute. The torture device has Boz’s tongue locked up. The only way that he can possibly escape is if he tears himself away from the torture device, but that would mean his tongue would be ripped out in the process.

Every “Saw” movie has the murderer kidnapping people, setting up elaborate tortures for the kidnapping victims, and then sending a video or audio message to the captured person. The message explains how the captured person has a chance to escape and live, but only if some part of their body is dismembered. And there’s a time limit on how long the person has to escape before the torture mechanism will kill the victim. Usually, the person who’s been kidnapped has done something horrible and the kidnapping/torture is revenge for it.

Boz and his tongue have been targeted because he has a history of lying in court testimony, and his lies have sent innocent people to prison. A video monitor on the train tracks shows a message from the killer to Boz, to make sure that Boz knows the reason why he’s been chosen for this torture trap. “Spiral” shows which decision Boz makes in his life-or-death dilemma, but it’s not enough to save him, because he’s the movie’s first murder victim by the mystery serial killer.

In the “Saw” movies, the serial killer Jigsaw and his followers made video messages featuring a creepy male clownish puppet doll with red spirals on its cheeks. The doll would sometimes appear on a miniature tricycle and speak in a deep distorted voice that was genuinely unsettling. This doll became the “face” of the “Saw” franchise—more than mastermind serial killer Jigsaw (played by Tobin Bell)—and the red spiral became the killer’s signature. “Spiral” was originally titled “Spiral: From the Book of Saw.”

In “Spiral,” the figure who appears in the serial killer’s deadly video messages is a person wearing a black hood and a pig’s mask, with a higher-pitched, less menacing voice than Jigsaw. And frankly, this “Spiral” serial killer in the video messages looks like a reject villain from a “Star Wars” movie, as if a pipsqueak relative of Emperor Palpatine decided to put on a pig’s mask. There aren’t as many killings in “Spiral” as in other “Saw” movies because so much of “Spiral” is about Zeke running around doing a wiseass cop procedural.

Zeke is first seen by viewers of “Spiral” in a scene where he’s leading a group of three other undercover cops in a robbery of drug dealers. Zeke and his corrupt crew don’t get far because they’re busted by a team of other cops during the getaway. But even though Zeke’s supervisor Capt. Angie Garza (played by Marisol Nichols) yells at him for stealing money from drug dealers, nothing really happens to Zeke. It’s the first clue that Capt. Garza is corrupt. And you know what that means.

Unfortunately, too much of “Spiral” is about office politics in this police department, Zeke’s ego, and all of his whining when he’s ordered to do things that he doesn’t want to do. Because of Zeke’s pariah status in the department, he’s been working alone for quite some time. But Capt. Garza tells him after the robbery bust that Zeke has now been assigned to train a rookie partner.

Zeke reacts with this outburst: “Do I look like a fucking Jamaican nanny? Do I smell like jerk sauce and baby wipes? No!” And then he says in a terrible attempt at a Jamaican patois accent: “Me no want no partner!” But Zeke has no choice but to work with this 24-year-old rookie. His name is William Schenk (played by Max Minghella), an “eager beaver” type who says that Zeke’s cop work inspired William to join this particular police department.

Zeke is immediately rude and dismissive to William, who takes Zeke’s negative attitude in stride. In their first day working together, William talks about being a husband and father. He shows Zeke a photo of his wife Emma and their baby son Charlie. Zeke, who is in the process of getting divorced, is deeply cynical about cop marriages because he thinks most cops will end up having failed marriages.

Zeke tells William: “Nothing happier than a wife of a new detective. Nothing angrier than that same bitch 10 years later.” William replies, “Maybe it’s because you call them bitches.” Zeke snaps back, “I don’t say it to their face. It’s not like I’m Too Short.” When was this very outdated joke written? 1999? Because that’s around the last time rapper Too Short was relevant.

The predictable dynamic between Zeke and William is that of a bitter and corrupt older cop paired with an idealistic and “by the book” younger cop. It’s all very “Training Day,” the 2001 movie starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke with this exact same dynamic. “Training Day” was an Oscar-winning film. “Spiral” isn’t even memorably bad enough to be nominated for a Razzie Award.

Somehow, everyone in this police department is too dumb to notice that Boz hasn’t shown up for work. They only find out that Boz is dead when Zeke, William and two other police detectives named Fitch (played by Richard Zeppieri) and Kraus (played by Edie Inksetter) are called to a murder scene, and they find Boz’s mangled and bloody body on the train tracks. William looks like he’s about to vomit from the gory sight. Zeke quips, “If you’re going to throw up, don’t do it on the evidence.”

The serial killer in “Spiral” delivers clues in small, string-tied boxes that are sent by courier to the police department. The first delivery is a flash drive with a video of the killer (wearing the pig mask, of course) announcing that the next murder victims will be other cops in the police department, as revenge for their “sins.” The killer won’t name who’s on the hit list, so the entire department is on edge. Because red spirals were found at Boz’s murder scene and the killer seems to be following Jigsaw’s modus operandi, the cops think that this murderer is a Jigsaw copycat killer.

Zeke is enraged by Boz’s death because Boz was Zeke’s closest friend on the job. Zeke gets even angrier when Capt. Garza assigns Zeke’s nemesis O’Brien to be the lead detective on the case. Zeke takes Capt. Garza aside in a private meeting and begs her to change her mind because Zeke thinks he’s the best person to avenge Boz’s death by finding Boz’s murderer. Capt. Garza immediately agrees and makes Zeke the lead detective.

Zeke gets very territorial over wanting to be the one who finds the most evidence that will solve the case. And so, there’s more drama with Zeke trying to outdo Fitch, Kraus and O’Brien, by not sharing information with them. Zeke doesn’t think William is smart enough to get in his way, so he treats William like a tag-along flunky. These are examples of how the movie wastes time with the department’s office politics. This is supposed to be a horror movie, not a cop TV series.

Through surveillance footage, the purse snatcher whom Boz was seen chasing before Boz died is quickly identified as a meth addict named Benny Rice (played by Chad Camilleri), who becomes a prime suspect in Boz’s murder. Benny is already known to the local cops because of his drug activities. But, of course, this obvious suspect means that Benny isn’t the real killer, because even a predictable movie like this wouldn’t make it that easy for the cops to solve this case so early on in the film.

As for Zeke’s revered father Marcus, he isn’t in “Spiral” as much as some people might think he is, considering that Jackson shares top billing with Rock for this movie. Jackson starred in two “Shaft” movies—one in 2000 and one in 2019—and he’s just playing a version of his Shaft character in “Spiral.” In other words, there’s nothing new to see here with Jackson’s performance.

And you’d think that cops who know they’re being targeted by a serial killer would know how to increase their own security and self-protection. But no, that doesn’t happen in an insipid movie like “Spiral.” Pity the citizens of this city who rely on these cops for protection, because these bungling cops can’t even protect themselves.

In “Spiral,” Rock dials up his foul-mouthed, misogynistic persona several notches for his Zeke character in “Spiral,” to the point where this cop is much more irritating than the serial killer. “Spiral” is so smug in thinking that it’s better than it really is, that it even includes Zeke giving a self-serving shout-out to one of Rock’s early movies: the 1991 crime drama “New Jack City.” And there are parts of “Spiral” where Zeke’s shrieking and hollering look more like he’s doing a buffoon-ish parody akin to 1993’s “CB4,” another Rock movie from the early 1990s.

The horror in “Spiral” isn’t as creative as in previous “Saw” movies. And there’s no real intrigue in trying to solve the mystery of who the serial killer is, because the movie is so sloppily handled. It’s pretty easy to figure out who the killer is if you look at the killer’s motives and who would know when and where to attack the next victim. And a lot of viewers are going to really hate the abrupt ending of “Spiral.” It’s made very clear at the movie’s disappointing conclusion that, just like a has-been zombie that keeps rising from the dead, the “Saw” franchise isn’t going away anytime soon.

Lionsgate released “Spiral” in U.S. cinemas on May 14, 2021.

Review: ‘Roald Dahl’s The Witches,’ starring Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci

October 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eugenia Caruso, Penny Lisle, Josette Simon, Anne Hathaway, Orla O’Rourke and Ana-Maria Maskell in “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” (Photo by Daniel Smith/HBO Max)

“Roald Dahl’s The Witches”

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Demopolis, Alabama, in 1978, the family-friendly horror/fantasy film “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A widowed grandmother and her orphaned grandson encounter evil witches who want to turn children into mice. 

Culture Audience: “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” will appeal primarily to people looking for lightweight, fantasy entertainment about good versus evil that has the same formula as many other family-oriented films about wicked witches who don’t like children.

Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci in “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” (Photo by Daniel Smith/HBO Max)

“Roald Dahl’s Witches” should’ve been named “Anne Hathaway Hamming It Up as a Witch,” because that’s really the main attraction for this duller-than-it-should-be movie. Hathaway’s Grand High Witch character—who is the leader of a coven that’s flocked to Demopolis, Alabama, in 1978—is the only one in the coven who has a distinct personality. The rest of the witches are essentially backdrops to Hathaway’s over-the-top performance in a very formulaic and unimaginative movie. Considering all of the Oscar winners who were involved in making this movie, “Roald Dahl’s Witches” isn’t horrible, but it’s a big disappointment from people who can do and have done much better work.

Directed and co-written by Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump” director Robert Zemeckis, “Roald Dahl’s Witches” (adapted from Dahl’s 1983 novel “The Witches”) is the second movie version of the book. The first movie version was 1990’s “The Witches,” directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Anjelica Huston. The 2020 movie version changed the story’s location from Europe to the United States, and made the witch-hunting grandmother and grandson African American.

It’s a change that is significant only in that the movie briefly makes some subtle references to racism, and the grandmother listens to a lot of 1960s and 1970s R&B music. Other than that, the premise of the movie remains the same: The grandmother (played by Octavia Spencer) and her orphaned grandson (played by Jahzir Bruno), who do not have names in the movie, go on a mission to hunt down and stop a coven of witches who plan to turn children into mice, in the hopes that the mice will be killed as rodent pests.

Hathaway and Spencer are both Oscar winners. Zemeckis co-wrote the screenplay to this movie with “The Shape of Water” Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. The movie’s cast also includes Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci. On paper, it sounds like a winning combination to make a spectacular, award-worthy classic movie. The reality is that “Roald Dahl’s Witches” is frustratingly average and at times a boringly repetitive film.

We’ve seen many movies already with an over-the-top evil witch, animated animals that interact with live-action humans (in this movie’s case, the animated animals are mice and one obligatory witch’s black cat), and one big race against time to stop the chief villain from doing what the villain plans to do. Nothing in this movie is award-worthy.

That’s not to say “Roald Dahl’s Witches” doesn’t have entertaining moments. But they are arrive in between long stretches where not much happens except the grandmother and her hero son talk about and plan what they need to do to stop the witches. The boy, whose parents died in a car accident, has been living with his grandmother since becoming an orphan. (Chris Rock does voiceover narration as the hero boy as an adult.) His grandmother is slowly able to lift him out his depression over his parents’ death, and she buys him a pet female mouse that he names Daisy.

And it’s around this time that the hero boy encounters a witch with a snake coming out of her sleeve while he and his grandmother are in a hardware store. The witch’s name is Zelda (played by Josette Simon), and it turns out that she used to be the grandmother’s best friend when they were children. Zelda was turned into a witch by the Grand High Witch and has been in the coven ever since. The grandmother figures out that her grandson encountered Zelda, based on her grandson’s frightened description of the witch he saw in the hardware store.

The witches in this story have several distinctive features, which the grandmother tells her grandson about when she teaches him how to spot a witch: The witches, who are demons disguised as humans, always wear long gloves because they have claws, not hands. The witches always wear wigs, because they are actually bald. The witches have unusually long corners of their mouths, which they cover with heavy makeup. The witches have feet without toes and have oversized nostrils that become more pronounced when they can catch the scent of children.

The witches hate kids and want to get rid of all the children in the world. The witches offer candy (such as taffy) to children entice them. And witches are repulsed by clean children because these children smell like defecation to the witches. The cleaner the children are, the more they stink to the witches.

After the grandson’s scary encounter with Zelda, the grandmother and grandson check into a swanky hotel called the Grand Imperial Island Hotel, which they are able to do because of a favor from a hotel employee whom the grandmother knows. The grandmother says that she figures that her grandson will be safe to hide there because “ain’t nothin’ but rich white folks” at the hotel and “witches prey on the poor, the overlooked, the kids they think nobody’s going to make a fuss about if they go missing.”

The movie’s other reference to racism and social-class disparities in America is when the grandmother and the grandson check into the hotel and the hotel manager R. J. Stringer III (played by Tucci) looks surprised to see them there. R.J. makes a comment to the grandson that the hotel normally doesn’t get a kid like him as a guest. It’s a racially tinged, condescending remark that the grandmother picks up on right away, and she lets this stuck-up manager know that she and her grandson will be treated with the same amount of respect that the other hotel guests get.

And speaking of the other hotel guests, there’s a snobbish British couple named Mr. Jenkins (played by Charles Edwards) and Mrs. Jenkins (played by Morgana Robinson) who are at the hotel with their insecure son Bruno Jenkins (played by Codie-Lei Eastick). Bruno tries to make friends with the grandson, but Bruno’s domineering mother won’t let him. And there’s a convention going on at the hotel for a group calling itself the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, whose members are all women who wear long gloves. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who these women really are.

“Roald Dahl’s The Witches” is a by-the-numbers story that hits all the familiar beats of similar movies, and it culminates in a showdown that goes exactly how you would expect it to go. There’s nothing wrong with the acting from the cast, but it’s just so predictable and generic. (Spencer plays yet another matronly woman who gets sassy when she has to be.) Children under the age of 14 will probably enjoy this film the most. But for people who’ve got more life experience and have seen enough movies like this already, “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” is just too cookie-cutter to really have much substance and make a lasting impact on viewers.

HBO Max premiered “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” on October 22, 2020.

Review: ‘This Is Stand-Up,’ starring Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Sebastian Maniscalco and D.L. Hughley

April 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

D.L. Hughley in “This Is Stand-Up” (Photo courtesy of Comedy Central)

“This Is Stand-Up”

Directed by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton

Culture Representation: This documentary is a compilation of interviews, performances and off-stage footage of a racially diverse group (white, African American, Latino and Asian) of well-known, mostly American stand-up comedians.

Culture Clash: The general consensus in the documentary is that being a professional stand-up comedian goes against what most people consider as having a “normal life.”

Culture Audience: “This Is Stand-Up” will appeal primarily to people who are stand-up comedy fans, even though the documentary ignores many problems (such as sexism, joke stealing and monetary rip-offs) in the business side of stand-up comedy.

Garry Shandling in “This Is Stand-Up” (Photo courtesy of Comedy Central)

“This Is Stand-Up” is kind of like the documentary equivalent of speed-dating. The movie packs in many famous stand-up comedians, who deliver a lot of personality soundbites, but ultimately there’s not a lot of depth or anything new that’s revealed for people who already know about the stand-up comedy world. Although a few of the comedians talk about their personal struggles, most just share anecdotes and advice, and the documentary doesn’t acknowledge the sexist and cutthroat side of the business.

Filmed over five years, “This Is Stand-Up” (directed by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton) has a “who’s who” of stand-up comedians (almost all American) who are interviewed in the documentary. They include Judd Apatow, David A. Arnold, Dave Attell, Maria Bamford, Bill Bellamy, Gina Brillon, Cocoa Brown, Cedric The Entertainer, Tommy Davidson, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Gilbert Gottfried, Eddie Griffin, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, D. L. Hughley, Mia Jackson, Jim Jefferies, Jessica Kirson, Bert Kreischer, Bobby Lee, Carol Leifer, George Lopez, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jay Mohr, Jim Norton, Rick Overton, Paul Provenza, Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman, Owen Smith, Kira Soltanovich, Beth Stelling, Taylor Tomlinson, Theo Von and Keenen Ivory Wayans. (Noticeably missing: Dave Chappelle.)

Toogood and Lloyd are Brits who previously directed the documentary “Dying Laughing,” which had a limited theatrical release in 2017. “Dying Laughing” was an interview-only film about stand-up comedians, and featured many of the same people as in “This Is Stand-Up,” such as Seinfeld, Hart, Silverman, Rock, Shandling, Schumer and Cedric The Entertainer. “Dying Laughing” also had more international representation, since it included comedians from Canada (such as Russell Peters), the United Kingdom (Billy Connolly) and Australia (Jim Jeffries).  In “This Is Stand-Up,” Jeffries is the only non-American comedian interviewed in the movie. British comedian Ricky Gervais is shown as a guest on Norton’s SiriusXM radio show, but he’s not interviewed specifically for this movie.

Although it’s important for the documentary to include on-stage footage of the comedians, the best parts of the movie are when the comedians are shown off-stage. Stand-up comedy routines on stage can easily be accessed on the Internet, so “This Is Stand-Up” shines when it has exclusive footage of what the comedians are like in their homes or backstage. Mohr, Tomlinson and Kresicher are among those interviewed in their homes, while some of the memorable tour footage includes Maniscalco and  the “Kings of Comedy” team of Hughley, Lopez, Cedric The Entertainer and Eddie Griffin.

“This Is Stand-Up” is also a good introduction to hear some origin stories from famous comedians if you’ve never heard before how they got interested in doing stand-up comedy. (Die-hard fans of these comedians probably know these stories already, but the documentary assumes not everyone will know about these comedians’ backgrounds.) Silverman says, “When I was 3 years old, my dad taught me to swear, and he thought that was hilarious. I got crazy with power over that. I got addicted to that feeling.”

Schumer says her first introduction to performing in front of an audience and getting laughs was when she was in school plays—but she was getting laughed at for the wrong reasons. It made her angry until a teacher pointed out to her that people laughing at her performance is a good thing because laughter makes people happy.

Foxx remembers being the type of kid who was always mouthing off in class. Instead of sending him to the principal’s office, one of his teachers set aside time in class for Foxx to tell stories. According to Foxx, it was such a hit that other teachers would visit the classroom to watch him perform.

Maniscalco says that he was the opposite of the class clown. He describes himself as a shy and quiet kid who preferred to observe people. And for Rock, his first inclination to perform on stage was inspired by his grandfather, who was a reverend for their family’s church. Rock says that he saw how his grandfather was the center of attention, and it was the kind of attention that Rock wanted too.

In fact, almost all of the comedians in the documentary say in one way or another that being the center of attention is their main motivation for doing stand-up comedy, despite it being a very emotionally demanding way to make a living. Lopez comments, “What I like about comedy is that it’s given me a great life. And now, I know I’m important.”

However, it’s not a revelation that comedians are very insecure in their real lives. Most have openly admitted to being insecure and/or emotionally damaged. And many have even used their insecurities as the basis of their on-stage personas. It’s also clear from watching this documentary that most of the comedians use comedy as a way to fill a deep emotional void to make themselves feel wanted in this world.

Von (who first came to national prominence in the 2000s as a star of the MTV reality show “Road Rules”) is one of the comedians in the documentary who is followed on tour, instead of just doing an in-studio interview. He talks about his financially deprived background and unhappy childhood, which are the foundation for much of the material in his stand-up act. But he also opens up by saying that part of his motivation for doing stand-up comedy is so his mother will approve, since he says he’s never seen her laugh.

The problem with how the filmmakers deal with these stories and anecdotes is that there’s no outside verification. The documentary does not interview anyone who knew these comedians “way back when” or even people who helped give these comedians their big breaks. Everything in the film exists in the vacuum of what the comedians want to say, without including hardly any other perspectives.

One of the exceptions is when the documentary goes to the home of Kreischer and shows some of his life with his wife and two young daughters, who are all interviewed on camera. He gets visibly uncomfortable when his daughters admit that they don’t like it when he’s away on tour. Family members of the other comedians are not interviewed in this documentary.

The nature of stand-up comedy is for comedians to often exaggerate about their lives in order to be funny. “This Is Stand-Up” takes everything that these comedians say at face value and doesn’t dig much deeper. For example, several of the comedians, such as Hart and Bellamy, talk about the importance for comedians to find their unique voices and identities, but the movie doesn’t give examples of how these comedians have evolved.

Hart says, “It takes a little time to develop who you are or who you want to be. I was definitely guilty of that in the beginning of my career. I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t know I could be myself.” That’s all well and good, but if we’re being honest, that’s pretty generic and vague advice.

The comedians talk a lot about how honing the craft of stand-up comedy involves a lot of practice at open-mic nights for little to no money. And getting to the level of headlining a show can sometimes take years. Comedians such as Seinfeld don’t believe there should be any shortcuts to stand-up comedy fame—people have to pay their dues on stage in front of live audiences, not in front of a mirror or on a YouTube channel.

There’s also an entire segment of the documentary devoted to how to deal with heckling and bombing on stage. Shandling talks about once being so paralyzed with humiliation after bombing from a show that he stayed in a car and couldn’t move for about 15 minutes. Rock’s advice for comedians is to resist the inclination to talk faster when being heckled and instead to slow down and take back control.

However, there’s no mention in the documentary about all the sleazy things that comedians encounter on the way to the top—the rip-offs, the unscrupulous managers/agents, or even the difficulty in getting managers or agents in the first place. And because there’s a limited number of comedy clubs in any given big city, it’s a very insular network where the venue owners and concert promoters have a lot of control.

The documentary includes a diverse mix of comedians, yet doesn’t mention a big problem in stand-up comedy: sexism against women. And the movie has an unrealistic portrayal of stand-up comedians as this “we all support each other” community. (The movie uses “The Kings of Comedy” tour as an example.)

Although there can sometimes be camaraderie among comedians, the reality is that stand-up comedy is and can be very cutthroat. This documentary doesn’t even mention the widespread problem of comedians stealing each other’s jokes. And this documentary completely ignores the bitter rivalries that happen in stand-up comedy.

Seinfeld, one of the highest-paid stand-up comedians of all time, echoes what many of the comedians say in the film: Preparing a stand-up comedy show is a lot harder than people think it is. He says, “I adore the rigorous difficulty of creating and preparing a joke.”

He also says that there are four levels of comedy: (1) Making your friends laugh; (2) Making strangers laugh; (3) Making strangers laugh and getting paid for it; and (4) Making strangers laugh, getting paid for it, and then having them talk like you after seeing your show.

The documentary also covers the issues of social commentary in stand-up comedy and “how far is too far.” When asked if any topic is off-limits in stand-up comedy, there’s a montage of comedians who say “no.” Hughley says, “I’ll never apologize for telling a joke.”

Griffin adds, “It’s always comedy’s job to speak knowledge to power about what people are upset about, because comedy has always been about the people.” He compares stand-up comedians to being the modern equivalents of court jesters.

Silverman (who’s no stranger to controversy) comments on how smartphones and social media have impacted stand-up comedy: “It’s especially daunting now, because people are recording with their stupid phones and posting stuff. There’s more at stake to failing than just in the safe walls of a comedy club. That said, you have to not care.”

Although “This Is Stand-Up” fails to address the predatory side of the business (maybe that’s why managers, agents, promoters and venue owners weren’t interviewed), at least the documentary does include the reality that stand-up comedy takes a toll on comedians’ personal lives. Depression, divorce and substance abuse are common with stand-up comedians, as these problems are in many professions that require frequent traveling. But they’re especially toxic for comedians, who are more inclined to be insecure than most other people.

Brillon comments on what stand-up comedians experience in their personal lives: “Relationships suffer—not just romantic relationships, but family relationships, because stand-up becomes the longest relationship in your life—and the most abusive. And you still love it and go back to it.”

Mohr, who’s been very open about his struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, says that for him, stand-up comedy is his greatest love and biggest addiction. Even if he wanted to stop, he says, he’s compelled to keep going: “To be a stand-up comic, you have to be completely unreasonable, unwell and unhinged.”

Haddish explains why stand-up comedians are driven to do what they do: “When you’re on stage, it’s like being next to God … Comedy is the most fantastic medicine you can imagine, not just for the audience, but for the comedian.”

“This Is Stand-Up” might not be very revealing about a lot of showbiz realities, since documentaries and biographies about several famous comedians have already uncovered the dark sides to stand-up comedy. This documentary is, as Toogood describes it in a Comedy Central press release, “a love letter” to stand-up comedians—at least the ones who are famous enough to be in this film. If you want some in-depth insight into on all the sleaze and heartaches these comedians had to go through to get to where they are now, then you’ll have to look elsewhere for those real stories.

Comedy Central premiered “This Is Stand-Up” on April 12, 2020.

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