Review: ‘ Family Camp,’ starring Tommy Woodard, Eddie James, Leigh-Allyn Baker and Gigi Orsillo

May 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Gigi Orsillo, Eddie James, Tommy Woodard and Leigh-Allyn Baker in “Family Camp” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“Family Camp”

Directed by Brian Cates

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of Oklahoma, the comedy film “Family Camp” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two families, who have to share a yurt during a Christian vacation camp, become fierce rivals in the camp’s physical competitions, and then the family patriarchs both get lost in the woods together.

Culture Audience: “Family Camp” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in faith-based comedies that have no creative imagination and a lot of predictability.

Tommy Woodard and Eddie James in “Family Camp” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“Family Camp” is a dreadfully unfunny ripoff of other comedies about families at a vacation campground. The kid characters are nice, but their annoying parents unfortunately get most of the screen time. “Family Camp” is a faith-based movie, but people looking for entertaining comedic talent in this repetitive and predictable tripe will have their faith and their patience thoroughly tested and then completely obliterated, if there’s any hope that the movie will get better as it goes along. “Family Camp” is formulaic junk that goes from bad to worse.

Directed by Brian Cates (who co-wrote the abysmal “Family Camp” screenplay with Rene Gutteridge), “Family Camp” is essentially a thinly veiled vanity project for the Skit Guys, the comedy duo consisting of longtime friends Tommy Woodard and Eddie James. If “Family Camp” is the first time that people will be introduced to the Skit Guys, then it will put a lot of viewers off from seeing anything else that the Skit Guys have to offer. The movie is supposed to be about a family, but the last third of the movie is pretty much about the feuding characters played by Woodard and James getting lost in the woods together.

“Family Camp” (which is set in Oklahoma) is so simple-minded, at least it’s very easy to follow the plot. Too bad the plot is so stupid, your brain will feel numb from the experience of watching all the corny, awful and boring scenarios that the “Family Camp” filmmakers are trying to pass off as comedy. Most of the movie’s adult characters are whiny, fake or aggressively obnoxious.

The beginning of “Family Camp” shows married couple Tommy Ackerman (played by Woodard) and Grace Ackerman (played by Leigh-Allyn Baker) in church with their two children: Hannah Ackerman (played by Cece Kelly) and Henry Ackerman (played by Jacob M. Wade). Hannah is 16 years old, while Henry is about 11 or 12 years old. Grace is annoyed with Tommy because he showed up late for this church service.

But that’s not the only thing she’s irritated about when it comes to Tommy. Grace thinks that Tommy, who works as a senior investment strategist, is too much of a workaholic who’s been neglecting his family. When the church’s Pastor Dave (played by Mark Christopher Lawrence) announces to the congregation some details about an annual Christian family retreat at a place called Camp Katokwah, Grace tells Tommy that if he wants to make up for all the time that he missed with his family, their family needs to go on this week-long camping trip. (Camp Katokwah is a fictional name. “Family Camp” was actually filmed at Central Oklahoma Camp in Guthrie, Oklahoma.)

Tommy is very resistant to taking this trip, because it’s coming at a time when he’s being considered for a job promotion. Tommy is in a bitter rivalry for the promotion with a cutthroat co-worker named Bramburger (played by Brandon Potter), who doesn’t hesitate to lie, cheat and steal to get what he wants. Tommy and Bramburger have been trying to get the same client, named Mr. Kapoor (played by Mathew Chacko), who is a wealthy businessman.

Tommy thinks that going on this camping trip will put him at a distinct disadvantage to get the promotion. The movie has some time-wasting scenes where Tommy uses his phone to keep track of Bramburger and his sneaky ways of trying to win over Mr. Kapoor. One of Bramburger’s backstabbing tactics includes impersonating Tommy in an in-person interview with Mr. Kapoor. It makes no sense for Bramburger to pretend to be Tommy in this interview, since Bramburger wants to be the one to get the credit for signing Mr. Kapoor as a client. It’s an example of how poorly written the “Family Camp” screenplay is.

Even though Tommy doesn’t want to spend time away from his job, there would be no “Family Camp” movie if Tommy didn’t agree to go on this trip. He does so reluctantly, and he immediately regrets it when the Ackerman family gets to Camp Katokwah and finds out that the camp never got the Ackerman’s last installment of the required payment. All of the cabins on the campground are sold out, so the Ackermans have to share a yurt with another family. It’s a yurt with no WiFi service and no air conditioning.

The other family sharing the yurt also consists of a married couple with two underage children. Eddie Sanders (played by James) and his wife Victoria Sanders (played by Gigi Orsillo) have fraternal twins: son Ed Sanders Jr. (played by Elias Kemuel) and daughter Barb (played by Keslee Grace Blalock), who are both about 11 or 12 years old. Eddie is a loudmouth chiropractor, who always wants people to think he’s the biggest “alpha male,” but he’s really an insecure buffoon with terrible social skills. Victoria is a stereotypical younger “trophy wife” who’s obsessed with the family’s image on social media.

One of the first things that Eddie tells Tommy is that the Eddie and his family are the reigning champs of Camp Katokwah’s physical challenge tournament, where the winning family gets a trophy. The tournament consists of families competing in challenges such as obstacle courses, archery, pie-eating contests with hands tied behind their backs, and body-slamming competitions where people are encased in giant plastic bubbles. As soon as Eddie brags about his champion status, you know that a lot of this movie is going to be about the Ackermans family versus the Sanders family in these challenges.

And sure enough, the movie has several scenes where these two families face off against each other in these challenges. Barb and Victoria become competitive with each other. But their rivalry is nothing compared to how Eddie and Tommy take the competition to a super-personal level, as if they have to prove their manhood, and as of their reputations as husband and fathers depend on winning this superficial trophy. To make matters worse, since the Sanders family and Ackerman family have to share living quarters at this camp, they can’t really get away from each other, so any hard feelings about winning or losing start to fester and boil over.

The movie has some not-very-funny jokes about the Sanders family being strict vegans, and the Ackerman parents ridiculing the Sanders family’s eating habits. And there’s a silly scene in the camp cafeteria where Tommy chokes on his food, but he’s saved when Eddie does the Heimlich maneuver on Tommy. Eddie gets a standing ovation from the cafeteria crowd because of it. The praise just fuels Eddie’s already overblown ego.

Eddie is by far the most repulsive of these four parents. He often grabs people to give them uncomfortable chiropractic crunches without their consent. When Eddie notices that Henry is not very athletic and has a tendency to become afraid, Eddie taunts Tommy over it and says that Henry will probably grow up to be a socially inept hoarder. It’s a cruel thing to say about a harmless kid. Eddie also plays the harmonica when no one really wants to hear him play. And that means he’s a blowhard in more ways than one.

Meanwhile, Victoria and Grace, who seem to be homemakers since they don’t talk about having their own careers, end up confessing to each other some of the problems they’re experiencing in their respective marriages. In other words, it all comes back to the narrative really being about Eddie and Tommy. “Family Camp” makes a half-hearted attempt hinting that Victoria might want some independence from her husband, but the movie never details what she wants to do with her life that would make her more independent.

The kids are sidelined so that the story can mainly be about the egotistical adults in the Ackerman and Sanders families. Hannah has a brief and inconsequential storyline of meeting a teenage guy named Corbin (Clayton Royal Johnson) at the camp and getting a mild crush on him. Corbin charms Hannah by playing acoustic guitar and telling her that she’s the prettiest girl at Camp Katokwa.

Later, when Corbin tries to kiss her, Hannah has to show him she’s “not that kind of girl.” And when he immediately loses interest in her, Hannah gets revenge by pushing Corbin over a bridge walkway and into a lake. It’s not spoiler information, because this push is in the movie’s trailer.

The movie’s Camp Katokwa employees are very forgettable. The leader of Camp Katokwah is named Joel (played by Robert Amaya), who isn’t shown doing much except emcee the camp’s competitions and entertainment. The camp’s chief cook is named—get ready to groan—Cookie (played by Heather Land), who doesn’t do much but stand around in the kitchen and share emcee duties with Joel.

The last third of “Family Camp” reaches putrid levels of stupidity when Eddie and Tommy get lost in the woods together, which means more bickering from these two bozos. There’s no mention of why they didn’t have their cell phones with them when they went into the woods. Henry gets lost in the woods too, but an underage child who goes missing is not as important in this movie as giving a lot of screen time to two men acting like insufferable brats. It gets tiresome very quickly.

And there are two more adult dolts in the woods: loathsome and cretinous reality TV stars who are named Slim (played by Myke Holmes) and Beef (played by Weston Vrooman), whose main claim to fame is being on a TV series showing Beef and Slim looking for the legendary creature Big Foot. Viewers can easily predict what will happen when Slim and Beef encounter Eddie and Tommy, especially when Eddie always seems to find a way to mouth off and get people angry.

In addition to the poorly written screenplay, “Family Camp” has terrible editing and substandard visual effects. One of the worst parts of the movie is a very fake-looking beaver in the woods. This beaver has human-like characteristics, which are supposed to make the beaver look cute and cuddly, but it just looks creepy and phony.

There’s also a scene where idiotic Eddie rips a slab of honeycomb from a tree and gets stung all over his face by a swarm of bees that were on the honeycomb. Tommy gives Eddie an emergency injection of epinephrine that Eddie just happens to have with him. Just a few minutes after this injection, Eddie’s bee stings have magically and unrealistically disappeared, and the bee stings are never mentioned again in the movie.

No one is expecting a movie like “Family Camp” to be Oscar-caliber, but a movie like this doesn’t have to constantly insult viewers’ intelligence. And even if a comedy has a mindless plot and mediocre acting, it should at least have some central characters that people will care about in a way to maintain viewer interest. “Family Camp” made the colossal mistake of having repugnant boor Eddie as the focus of the terrible jokes. He’s worse than the bees that stung him because viewers are stuck with him for the entire movie, which is polluted by the stink of lazy and low-quality filmmaking.

Roadside Attractions, K-LOVE Films and Provident Films released “Family Camp” on May 13, 2022. Lionsgate Home Entertainment will release “Family Camp” on digital and VOD on June 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Tankhouse,’ starring Tara Holt, Stephen Friedrich, Richard Kind and Christopher Lloyd

May 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured from left right: Sarah Yarkin (in back) Luke Spencer Roberts, Joe Adler, Nadia Alexander, Tara Holt, Stephen Friedrich, Devere Rogers and Austin Crute in “Tankhouse” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)


Directed by Noam Tomaschoff

Culture Representation: Taking place in Fargo, North Dakota, and briefly in New York City, the comedy film “Tankhouse” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After being blacklisted from the New York City theater scene, engaged actor couple Tucker Charlamagne and Sandrene St. Jean go to Fargo, North Dakota, to enter a performing arts contest where the winner will get a residency at the newly restored Fargo Theatre.

Culture Audience: “Tankhouse” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of satirical comedies about theater people, but the movie’s silly tone wears thin very quickly.

Stephen Friedrich and Tara Holt in “Tankhouse” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The performing arts parody “Tankhouse” isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The movie’s broadly written characters are hollow. The comedy too often misses the mark. Hint: Shouting witless dialogue doesn’t make it more amusing. And there’s a lot of shouting in this movie, as the cast members were apparently told that their characters have to yell for no good reason for about half of their screen time.

Directed by Noam Tomaschoff (who co-wrote “Tankhouse” with Chelsea Frei), “Tankhouse” is based on a short film of the same name written by Tomaschoff and Frei. Both “Tankhouse” movies take inspiration from the real-life New York City theater experiences of Tomaschoff and Frei, who both took an opportunity to go to a smaller city to stage a production. It’s essentially a similar story for the “Tankhouse” protagonist couple—Tucker Charlamagne (played by Stephen Friedrich) and Sandrene St. Jean (played by Tara Holt)—two down-on-their-luck actors who are engaged to be married and who stage a production in Fargo, North Dakota, after their careers falter in New York City.

In the “Tankhouse” feature film production notes, Frei says that Sandrene and Tucker are “absurd versions” of herself and Tomaschoff. In the case of Tucker, you can also add the description “extremely obnoxious.” That’s because Tucker (who talks the most in this movie) is a rude and pretentious twit who wants to be the “alpha male” of everything, but he ends up making a mess of things, more often than not. Because so much of the “Tankhouse” narrative is given to Tucker, the movie becomes as blustering and buffoonish as Tucker.

“Tankhouse” is also one of those movies that pulls a “bait and switch” on audiences, by giving well-known actors top billing, but those actors aren’t in the movie for very long. Fans of actor Christopher Lloyd (who’s best known for his roles in the “Back to the Future” movies and the sitcom “Taxi”) will be disappointed to find out that his total screen time in “Tankhouse” is less than 10 minutes, with all of his scenes happening in the first third of the movie. Notable character actor Richard Kind (best known for his roles in the TV comedy series “Mad About You” and “Spin City”) also shares top billing for “Tankhouse,” but his screen time is limited to less than 10 minutes too.

The “Tankhouse” movie poster also shows Kind, Holt, Friedrich and Lloyd all peeking out together from a stage curtain. It’s a misleading image, because it suggests that all four of them are equal co-stars in “Tankhouse.” The reality is that Lloyd and Kind barely have supporting roles in the movie, and their roles are basically just playing cranky know-it-alls, which is the type of character they’ve played many times already in movies and TV. Can you say “typecasting”?

“Tankhouse” has some whimsical-looking animation for some flashback scenes, including an early scene in the movie when narrator Tucker explains how he met and fell in love with Sandrene. (Her real last name is Rothstein. St. Jean is her stage surname.) Tucker says that shortly after getting his bachelor of fine arts degree at an unnamed university, he was directing an off-off-Broadway movement piece in New York City when Sandrene walked into the show.

Sandrene was doing research for a cop TV series called “Rookie Badge” that she was about to co-star in, but her role ended up being drastically reduced. Sandrene and Tucker began dating and have been a couple for an unspecified period of time. Tucker is the type of actor who looks down on TV work. He believes that an actor’s true merit and talent can be found doing work on stage. Tucker’s snobbery toward television is something to keep in mind during a plot development later in “Tankhouse.”

Now in their 30s, Sandrene and Tucker are engaged to be married. And they’re still struggling actors in New York City. However, a possible bright spot in their careers is that Tucker and Sandrene have been put in charge of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio, an avant-garde performing arts group founded by Buford Slezinger (played by Lloyd), who has been Tucker’s mentor. Buford stepped down as the leader of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio because his chronic battle with gout has resulted in him using a wheelchair.

It’s implied that Buford is an “old school” sexist, because one of the first things that he’s shown doing is barking out his “rules” for success to the small group of people in this theater troupe: “I have two notes: (1) A worthy actress must always carry a fan; (2) If you want to make it in this business, you’ve got to immediately lose 10 pounds.”

Buford likes to think that he’s a highly respected guru of the New York theater scene, but he doesn’t have a large following. The Artist Atelier Acting Studio has a very small number of actors: only seven, including Tucker and Sandrene. And this small theater group often gets an even smaller audience for performances. Even though Buford has stepped down from his leadership position for the Artist Atelier Acting Studio, Buford stays involved in the group by being a consultant/adviser.

Tucker likes to talk in flowery speech to make it sound like he’s a theater-trained actor who’s always the smartest actor in the room. However, his social skills are horrible, since Tucker frequently loses his temper and berates the people around him. Sandrene is usually spared Tucker’s wrath because she passively goes along with almost everything he wants to do.

Adding to Tucker’s pompous and ridiculous persona, he styles his hair and wears clothes like he’s a trying to be a combination of a Brooklyn hipster and “Pirates of the Caribbean” character Captain Jack Sparrow. For example, Tucker is the type of man who will wear flowing scarves with a black leather jacket. And his fashion choices for his theater troupe are questionable at best, since he makes the troupe members all wear unitards or onesies in their performances.

It’s at one of these performances that leads to the downfall of Tucker and Sandrene in the New York City theater scene. The Artist Atelier Acting Studio troupe is doing a rooftop performance in the Bronx, with only six people watching the show. The performance involves spontaneous interaction with the audience members.

One of the audience members is a wheelchair-using elderly woman (played by Bunny Levine), who ends up having a heart attack during the vigorous audience interaction part of the show. As a result of the heart attack, she dies during this performance. And there happens to be a theater critic in the audience named Jax Wynn (played by Rebecca Sohn), who (not surprisingly) gives the show a very negative review.

The woman who died during the show wasn’t just any audience member. Her name was Doris Feinstein. She was the “nana” (grandmother) of Artist Atelier Acting Studio member Asher (played by Carlos R. Chavez), and she was the Artist Atelier Acting Studio’s only financial backer. With their principal benefactor now deceased, the group has an emergency meeting with Buford observing.

Sandrene expresses her condolences to Asher about his grandmother’s death, but insensitive Tucker exclaims about Doris’ last moments: “Doris lived as she never lived before! Nana’s death: It’s the circle of life!” And this callous comment is not the only thing that causes alienation. The rest of the group members express their anger at Tucker and Sandrene for the couple making the group members do extreme performance tactics, such as having unsimulated sex and using real guns during a show.

Tucker and Sandrene are informed that the rest of the group has voted to oust Tucker and Sandrene as leaders of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio. Buford agrees that the majority of the group should decide this matter. And so, Tucker and Sandrene no longer have a theater group. When they try to get work elsewhere, they find out that they’ve been blacklisted because of the death that happened during that rooftop performance.

With their money running out and their rent due, Tucker and Sandrene are visited by Sandrene’s parents Deirdra (played by Joey Lauren Adams) and Bob (played by Andy Buckley, who still live in Sandrene’s hometown of Fargo. Tucker and Sandrene tell her parents that they have a great idea to start a theater troupe, but they need Deirdra and Bob to invest some money in it. Deirdra and Bob have been helping Sandrene financially, but this time, they’ve had enough of financially supporting her, so they say no to this pitch.

However, Deirdra tells Tucker and Sandrene that the Fargo Theatre has been recently refurbished and restored. And the city of Fargo is having a performing arts contest where the winner will get a residency at the Fargo Theatre. Theater snob Tucker is dead-set against the idea, because he thinks going to a place like Fargo is far beneath his talent. Sandrene is more open to the idea, especially since her parents offered their ranch house to Sandrene and Tucker to stay rent-free in Fargo, while Deirdra and Bob go on a safari in Tanzania.

Tucker asks Buford for his advice in this matter. To Tucker’s surprise and dismay, Buford suggests that Tucker and Sandrene go to Fargo for this opportunity. Buford tells Tucker that Tucker and Sandrene need to expand their actor experiences outside of New York City and that they can learn from these experiences. After some unsuccessful attempts to get enough cash to pay their rent, Tucker reluctantly changes his mind and goes to Fargo with Sandrene so that they can enter the contest.

Before going to Fargo, Sandrene was selling some of her clothes at a vintage store when she encountered a friend named Brian (played by “Tankhouse” director Tomaschoff), whom she hadn’t seen in a long time. In this scene, Sandrene and Brian catch up on what’s been going on in their lives, but Sandrene doesn’t tell him about her recent career problems. Brian tells Sandrene that he’s now a talent coordinator at a big agency called United Talent International.

Brian offers to help find actor work for Sandrene, who is thrilled. But the timing couldn’t be worse, because she will soon be going to Fargo, for who knows how long. Still, she’s open to opportunities where she can audition with video recordings. Sandrene doesn’t tell Tucker about it though, because she knows that this agency is most likely to find her a job in TV or in movies, and Tucker disapproves of any actor work that isn’t on stage.

Tucker also has a very jealous side to him. It comes out when Tucker and Sandrene go to Fargo, and they encounter Sandrene’s ex-boyfriend from high school. His name is Hank (played by Alex Esola), and he seems to still be in awe of Sandrene. At an Open Mic night at a local bar, Tucker becomes even more irritated when Hank invites Sandrene to sing with Hank during an acoustic guitar performance. She enthusiastically accepts the offer, and Tucker watches their duet while seething with annoyance.

Somehow, a bar fight ensues that lands Tucker and Sandrene in jail, where they meet an eccentric, wannabe actor named Uther (played by Devere Rogers), who always wears sunglasses because he claims to be legally blind. After getting out on bail, Tucker and Sandrene decide they’re going to form a theater group to enter the contest. Their biggest competition is a theater group named Red River Players, formed by Morten Mortensen (played by Kind), who used to be Sandrene’s drama teacher in high school.

Tucker and Sandrene then assemble a theater group that consists of Uther and five young bar patrons who saw Sandrene perform with Hank. These five other Fargo misfits are mild-mannered tech nerd Nina (played by Sarah Yarkin); Viking-obsessed Scandinavian immigrant Yorick (played by Joe Adler); militant feminist Leah (played by Nadia Alexander); and semi-closeted gay couple Jack (played by Austin Crute) and Brady (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), who have a “coming out” scene that is awkward at best. The group’s rehearsal space is a place called Tankhouse, a warehouse-styled building that Yorick has turned into a makeshift moonshine distillery. The expected hijinks ensue in a movie where the characters want to win a contest, but these shenanigans are a lot duller than they should be.

As the optimistic but often-flaky actress Sandrene, Holt gives the best performance out of all the “Tankhouse” cast members, because she comes closest to not letting the character become a caricature. Tucker is just a train wreck abomination for most of the movie, and Friedkin seems to be doing the best he can with portraying an insufferable jerk. Any transformations that Tucker might experience to improve his personality are very abrupt and crammed in as an afterthought to make him look redeemable. However, all of the characters in “Tankhouse” ultimately are very shallow and written as “types” instead of fully formed personalities.

“Tankhouse” isn’t a completely horrible movie. There are sporadic moments that should bring some laughs, such as a “musical theater” verbal battle (similar to a rap battle), with Sandrene and Tucker versus Morten in performing “The Pirates of Penzance” song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Tucker the lunkhead also has some moments that should make viewers laugh, such as his habit of unwittingly mispronouncing words. His bungled linguistics are supposed to be ironic, considering that Tucker wants to have an image of being a highbrow actor with a strong command of the English language.

But these occasionally comical moments in “Tankhouse” are overshadowed by all the moronic posturing, dimwitted character scheming and the aforementioned unnecessary shouting of mediocre lines that pollute “Tankhouse.” The movie’s musical score—written by Craig McConnell and clearly inspired by 1980s sitcom music—alternates between sometimes sounding appropriate for the scenes, and other times just being downright aggravating. The middle section of the movie drags monotonously, even when “Tankhouse” attempts to have a high-energy, slapstick tone throughout the movie.

Physical comedy works best if the dialogue and characters are interesting too. Unfortunately, “Tankhouse” falls short when it comes to having dialogue and characters that are truly engaging. Watching “Tankhouse” is like being stuck in a room with people manically telling mostly bad jokes for about 90 minutes, and the people telling the jokes mistakenly think that they’re hilarious. The “Tankhouse” filmmakers also do not present the story in a consistent way, because “Tankhouse” tries and fails be both a lighthearted comedy and a dark farce. And some of the “gags” just don’t work and add nothing to the movie, such as a joke about Sandrene’s father Bob pressuring vegan Tucker to eat some bison beef jerky.

Supporting characters such as Fargo theater actress Mackenzie Billingham (played by Rachel Matthews) and Jack’s police captain mother Pauline Mikkelsen (played by Carolyn Michelle Smith) are very underwritten and are only used as plot devices to drop some surprises on the Tankhouse group. Although the ending of “Tankhouse” does not take a completely predictable route, it’s still too little, too late. “Tankhouse” might be trying to get the type of cult-audience status of director Christopher Guest’s classic 1996 community theater mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman,” but “Tankhouse” lacks the wit and the charm to gain a notable cult following.

Vertical Entertainment released “Tankhouse” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 13, 2022.

Review: ‘Badhaai Do,’ starring Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar

April 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar in “Badhaai Do” (Photo courtesy of Zee Studios)

“Badhaai Do”

Directed by Harshavardhan Kulkarni

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in India, the comedy/drama film “Badhaai Do” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gay man and a lesbian, who are both in the closet about their sexualities, decide to get married to each other to throw off suspicion from their families, but complications ensue when they both meet real love partners. 

Culture Audience: “Badhaai Do” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories of how LGBTQ people live in India, where homophobia is encouraged and practiced by much of society.

Chum Darang, Bhumi Pednekar and Rajkummar Raoin in “Badhaai Do” (Photo courtesy of Zee Studios)

“Badhaai Do” is a rare LGBTQ Bollywood film that achieves a balancing act of comedy and drama. It’s about the damage caused by homophobia and the courage it takes to live authentically. The main cast members’ charismatic performances make this movie a winner. It’s a story that’s both sobering and heartwarming.

Directed by Harshavardhan Kulkarnia, “Badhaai Do” (which translates to “Felicitations Due” in English) is a witty, often-sarcastic and engaging film that has a brisk pace that doesn’t make it seem the movie is really two hours and 27 minutes long, even though it is. Kulkarnia co-wrote the “Badhaai Do” screenplay with Suman Adhikary and Akshat Ghildial. There are some parts of the movie that have a heightened tone of a screwball comedy, but the movie does not veer too far off from reality, except for the expected Bollywood musical interludes where the characters begin singing and dancing to their dialogue.

In “Badhaai Do” (which takes place in an unnamed city in India), a gay man and a lesbian get married to each other, because they’re hiding their true sexualities from almost everyone they know, including their families who have been pressuring them to have heterosexual marriages. The two people in this closeted couple are police officer Shardul Thakur (played by Rajkummar Rao) and physical education teacher Suman “Sumi” Singh (played by Bhumi Pednekar), who are both in their early 30s.

Shardul comes from a large family of women, including his unnamed widowed mother (played by Sheeba Chaddha), who are all pressuring him to get married to a woman. As expected, Shardul’s female relatives have also been playing matchmaker by trying to set him up with women whom they think could be a suitable wife for Shardul. He pretends that he’s interested, even though he knows that he’s not sexually attracted to women.

Sumi was once engaged to a man, who died six years ago in a tragic accident. She hasn’t had a serious boyfriend since then, but her conservative parents Prem Singh (played by Nitesh Pandey) and his wife Mrs. Singh (played by Loveleen Mishra) are expressing concerns to Sumi that she hasn’t moved on and found someone else to marry. Sumi and her brother Naman Singh (played by Vyom Yadav), who is 10 years younger than she is, still live with their parents. Naman has a bratty and sexist attitude about Sumi being an unmarried woman at her age, and he often makes snide comments to her about her marital status.

Even though Sumi can’t bring home any women she dates, Sumi still tries to find a love partner. She has been talking to someone on a lesbian dating app. But when she meets this possible love interest in person, she finds out that it’s really a young man, who tries to get Sumi to date him.

Sumi refuses to date him, so he starts harassing her and threatens to tell her family and friends that she’s a lesbian. Sumi is a feisty person who’s not afraid to stand up for herself, so she goes to the police to report this harassment. It’s how Sumi ends up meeting Shardul, who takes the report. It’s also how he finds out that Sumi is a lesbian. Shardul gets rid of the harasser by smacking him around—not bad enough where medical treatment is needed, but enough to scare someone away.

At work, Shardul is so fearful about revealing that he’s gay, he overcompensates by saying homophobic things. For example, early in the movie, Shardul and a police co-worker are in a local park when they catch two men who are about to be in a compromising sexual situation. Shardul and his colleague interrupt this tryst before things go further and tell the men to leave. Shardul makes a big show of expressing disgust with gay people, as if to say, “I’m not one of them!”

It just so happens that Sumi is nearby in the park at the same time. Shardul sees her sitting on a park bench by herself and strikes up a conversation with her. They end up talking about how their families are pressuring them to get married. And so, Shardul then confesses to Sumi that he’s gay and in the closet.

Shardul suggests to Sumi that they pretend to date each other and then get married, in order to “get our families off of our backs.” Shardul also says that he and Sumi can live like roommates. And because Shardul is a police officer, he tells Sumi that he can probably protect her better than most other people could.

Sumi is skeptical about this idea at first, but she eventually agrees. Shardul and Sumi’s short “courtship” soon turns to marriage. The movie’s wedding predictably has the most elaborate musical scenes in “Badhaai Do.”

But there are some big problems to living this lie of a phony marriage. Around the time that Sumi and Shardul concoct their fake romance, Sumi meets and begins dating Rimjhim Jongkey (played by Chum Darang), a confident woman who works as a hospital employee who processes lab samples. (The movie has some scatalogical comedy because Rimjhim deals with stool samples. Sumi meets Rimjihm because Sumi dropped of her own stool sample at the hospital.)

Sumi and Rimjhim have an instant mutual attraction, they begin dating, and they end up falling in love with each other. Rimjhim knows almost from the beginning that Sumi is pretending to be in a romance with Shardul. Rimjhim doesn’t really approve of this deception, but she goes along with it because she understands what’s at stake: Sumi’s family could disown Sumi if they found out that she’s a lesbian. (None of this spoiler information, because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

Rimjhim lives openly as a lesbian/queer woman because she says that she doesn’t have any family members living in India. If she did, Rimjhim says that she would probably have to hide her true sexuality too. After Shardul and Sumi get married and move in together, Rimjhim spends so much time in their apartment, she essentially starts living there too.

If anyone notices that Rimjhim has spent the night at the apartment, Shardul tells people he knows that Rimjhim is Sumi’s cousin, while Sumi tells people she knows that Rimjhim is Shardul’s cousin. It’s a flimsy lie that bound to unravel if people who know Shardul and Sumi start talking to each other about Rimjhim.

As for Shardul’s real love life, his is more complicated than Sumi’s. When Shardul and Sumi met, he was already in a long-distance romance with a man who’s about 10 years younger: a graduate business student named Kabir (played by Deepak Aurora), who might not have the same feelings for Shardul that Shardul has for him. Kabir meets up with Shardul (at Shardul’s invitation) at the resort where Shardul and Sumi are having their “honeymoon.”

Soap-opera-styled drama ensues, as well as some hilarity when Shardul and Sumi desperately try to fool their family through staged photos that Shardul and Sumi are on a romantic vacation together. More backstory about Shardul’s love life is revealed which somewhat explains the patterns of mistakes he makes in his relationships. And then, things get more complicated when Shardul meets and has a mutual attraction to an attorney named Guru Narayan (played by Gulshan Devaiah), who is an obvious better match for Shardul than Kartikey.

During this fake marriage, Shardul and Sumi sometimes clash with each other over certain issues. One of those issues is about parenting. Sumi says she has always wanted to be a mother, and she’s thinking about adopting a child. Shardul is adamant that he’s not ready to become a parent. Sumi accuses Shardul of being selfish and immature. Shardul accuses Sumi of being demanding and unreasonable.

They also bring some emotional baggage to the relationship. Although Sumi wasn’t romantically in love with her fiancé who died, she loved him as a friend. And so, Sumi is still dealing with grief over his death. Shardul has some unresolved issues with how his first big love affair ended and why it’s affected his fear to live openly as a gay man.

The movie’s plot has a few twists and turns, some of which are more expected than others. Rao and Pednekar give admirable performances that will make audiences root for Sumi and Shardul in the highs and lows of their unconventional relationship. (The realistic homophobia shown in the movie is heartbreaking, but it’s balanced out with moments of LGBTQ pride and self-confidence.) “Badhaai Do” shows in exemplary ways that no matter what people’s sexualities are, everyone deserves a chance to be happy, wherever they can find their personal joy that doesn’t hurt anyone else.

Zee Studios released “Badhaai Do” in select U.S. cinemas on February 11, 2022, the same date that the movie was released in several other countries, including India, Australia, Singapore, France and Ireland. “Badhaai Do” is also available on Netflix.

Review: ‘¿Y Cómo Es Él?,’ starring Omar Chaparro, Mauricio Ochmann and Zuria Vega

April 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Omar Chaparro and Mauricio Ochmann in “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” (Photo courtesy of Pantelion Films)

“¿Y Cómo Es Él?”

Directed by Ariel Winograd

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various Mexican cities, including Puerto Vallarta and Mexico City, the comedy film “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” features an all-Latino cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An angry cuckold decides to get revenge on the taxi driver who is his wife’s lover, and the two men take an unexpected road trip together.

Culture Audience: “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching silly and unimaginative comedies about men who complain about relationships with women.

Mauricio Ochmann and Omar Chaparro in “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” (Photo courtesy of Pantelion Films)

Dreadfully boring and sloppily made, the cinematic dud “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” is as about as fun as getting a flat tire, which is one of many predictable things that happen in this road trip movie pretending to be a wacky comedy. “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” is based on the very flimsy idea that a man intent on getting revenge on his wife’s lover (who’s a taxi driver) will decide to take a road trip with him instead, while the taxi driver gets both of them into all sorts of trouble. That’s essentially the entire plot of this vapid garbage. The wife at the center of the love triangle shows up on screen occasionally, almost as an afterthought.

That’s because “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” is just a pathetic excuse to promote sexist beliefs that men who commit adultery by sleeping with married women are just giving in to their male sex drives, while married women who commit adultery are doing it to punish their husbands. One of the movie’s two main characters—a selfish and misogynistic cretin named Jero (played by Omar Chaparro)—literally uses it as an awful excuse for why he’s promiscuous and doesn’t care if the women he sleeps with are married or not.

Jero says in the movie that husbands cheat on their wives because they can, while women cheat on their husbands for revenge. In other words, this sexist fool thinks that husbands should be more offended if their wives cheat on them than wives should be offended if their husbands cheat on them. Women literally don’t have much to say in this very outdated and male-dominated movie, whose lead actress has less than 15 minutes of dialogue.

Directed by Ariel Winograd and written by Paul Fruchbom, “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” (which takes place in Mexico) is based on the 2007 South Korean movie “Driving With My Wife’s Lover,” which was a dark comedy and a far superior movie. “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” (which translates to “And How Is He?” in English) takes all the edge out of the original movie and turns it into watered-down junk that just re-uses the same tired formula of dozens of other forgettable movies about two opposite people who find themselves on a long trip together. Every possible road trip cliché is used in this film, with results that are irritating and unamusing.

In the beginning of “¿Y Cómo Es Él?,” cuckolded husband Tomás Segura (played by Mauricio Ochmann) is on a plane to Puerto Vallarta. He’s on this trip because he knows that his wife Marcia (played by Zuria Vega) and her lover Jero (short for Jeronimo) are in Puerto Vallarta for an adulterous rendezvous. Tomás also knows what Jero looks like because he stares jealously at a photo of Jero that Tomás has on his phone.

At this point in the story, Tomás thinks that Jero is a rich and successful businessman, based on the photos that Jero has of himself on social media. Meanwhile, Tomás is unemployed. Tomás has lied to Marcia by telling her that he’s taking this trip to go to Monterrey for a job interview.

On the plane, a woman sitting next to Tomás asks him if the photo he’s looking at is Tomás’ boyfriend. He says no. The woman doesn’t believe him and says that she’s open-minded about gay people. Just to get her to stop pestering him, Tomás blurts out that the photo is of the man who’s having sex with his wife. This scene is supposed to be funny, but it just comes across as awkwardly performed.

Upon arriving in Puerto Vallarta, Tomás secretly stalks Marcia and Jero at the resort where the two lovers have been staying. Tomás sees for himself that they are indeed acting like lovers in public. Tomás then furthers his mission to get revenge. Marcia works at a data company, so when the rendezvous is over, she goes back to where she and Tomás live, while Tomás stays behind in Puerto Vallarta and follows Jero.

That’s when Tomás finds out that Jero isn’t rich but works as a taxi driver. Throughout this mindless movie, Tomás keeps in touch by phone with a friend named Lucas (played by Mauricio Barrientos) to give updates to Lucas on what’s happening and to get advice. Lucas encourages Tomás to rough up Jero, and Lucas wants to hear all the details if it happens.

Tomás has fantasies of harming Jero in various ways. He follows Jero to a dumpy outdoor fast-food restaurant. Tomás has a taser that he looks like he’s going to use on Jero when he sneaks up behind Jero. There are plenty of other people nearby who could witness the assault that Tomás plans to inflict on Jero. But at the last moment, Tomás changes his mind and runs away.

Instead of tasing Jero, Tomás decides to do some damage to Jero’s taxi that’s parked outside the restaurant. Tomás takes a knife and cuts a deep, long scratch on the driver’s side of the car. And then, Tomás repeatedly stabs the left front tire while he’s standing up, but he’s such klutz that he accidentally stabs himself in the leg.

Tomás passes out from the pain, and then he wakes up to find himself in the back seat of Jero’s taxi while Jero is driving. Jero mistakenly thinks that Tomás was attacked by the person who damaged Jero’s taxi and that Tomás scared off this vandal. Tomás goes along with this wrong assumption. Tomás asks Jero if he can drive him to Mexico City, and Jero says yes.

Tomás still wants to get revenge on Jero, but the movie’s excuse for why Tomás has decided to go on this long road trip with Jero is because Tomás wants to get to know Jero, in order to find out what Marcia sees in Jero. And what do you know: In one of the movie’s very phony-looking scenes, while Jero and Tomás have their first conversation together, Marcia ends up talking to both of them on the phone at the same time without knowing it.

Not surprisingly, Tomás spends a lot of time in the movie desperately trying to hide his true identity from Jero. However, Jero notices how distressed Tomás looks on this trip, so Jero gets Tomás to admit that Tomás is upset because he found out that his wife is cheating on him. Jero, who thinks of himself as a desirable playboy, then brags to Tomás that he can seduce and have sex with practically any willing woman, and Jero doesn’t care if they’re married or not.

Not once does dimwitted Jero think that maybe a jealous husband might come after him for revenge. And one of those jealous husbands could be the same person who just admitted to Jero that he’s angry about his wife cheating on him. Instead, clueless Jero advises Tomás to beat up the lover of Tomás’ wife. This is what’s supposed to pass as comedy in this witless drivel of a movie.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers of “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” try to make the audience feel sympathy for lecherous Jero when he eventually tells Tomás that he’s divorced. Jero blames the collapse of the marriage on his ex-wife. According to Jero, when they were married, she cheated on him with Jero’s then-business partner, who owned a mattress company with Jero. It’s a lousy excuse for why Jero has no guilt or qualms about committing adultery by having sexual flings with married women. Jero is the last person who should be giving marriage advice, but there he is stinking up much of the movie by giving unsolicited and irresponsible marital counseling to Tomás.

This is one of the odious comments about marriage that Jero says to Tomás: “Women forgive adultery. Men don’t.” Jero also says that by the time a married woman commits adultery, her marriage is already dead. But according to Jero, a married man who commits adultery just sees it as a physical act that’s meaningless and separate from love. With this women-hating mindset, it’s no wonder that Jero can’t find true love with a woman.

Tomás isn’t much better than Jero when it comes to being a backwards-thinking dolt. During the course of the movie, Tomás wants to prove how macho he is by trying to inflict serious physical harm on people. In one scene, Tomás tries to poison Jero with antifreeze. In another scene, Tomás punches a doctor in the face when he’s taken to a hospital to treat his self-inflicted stab wound. These slapstick scenes aren’t funny, and they look utterly stupid.

When Tomás and Jero go to a brothel, because Jero says Tomás deserves to cheat on Tomás’ wife, Tomás is reluctant to commit adultery. But Tomás weirdly wants to impress Jero, so when he’s in the bedroom with the hired sex worker (played by Consuelo Duval), Tomás asks her to assault him into unconsciousness and do whatever she wants with him, so it will look like they’ve had sex. Tomás also gives her the option to do nothing, so they can just talk.

In an idiotic movie like “¿Y Cómo Es Él?,” you already know which option she’s going to take, because this movie is filled with ill-conceived scenarios where Tomás and Jero get banged-up, bloodied and bruised. (The prostitute ends up hitting Tomás on the head with one of her high-heeled shoes.) And why should Tomás care so much about what Jero thinks Tomás might be doing in a room with a sex worker? So much of “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” expects viewers to be as dumb as the movie’s characters.

Jero is a big talker who tells Tomás that he’s invested in several business, including a fleet of taxis. Tomás is too simple-minded to ask Jero why Jero is doing regular taxi driver duties if Jero is such a successful business owner. What Tomás finds out the hard way is that Jero owes money to a ruthless investor named Francisco “Frank” Estevez (also known as El Cuate), who has sent some of his goons to track down Jero and get the money back by any means necessary. You know what happens next: generic chase scenes and shootouts. All of the action scenes in “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” are terribly edited.

And where is Marcia during all these shenanigans? She’s seen mostly on the phone with Tomás, who keeps lying to her about where he is and what he’s doing. It all just leads to a very formulaic and unoriginal conclusion that’s easy to predict within the first 10 minutes of the movie or by watching the movie’s trailer. The acting in the film isn’t as bad as the screenplay and direction, but there’s no cast member in this movie who gives an admirable performance. Watching “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” is like eating junk food that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Pantelion Films released “¿Y Cómo Es Él?” in select U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie was released in Mexico on April 7, 2022, and in Australia in 2020.

Review: ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,’ starring Nicolas Cage

April 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pedro Pascal and Nicolas Cage in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (Photo by Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate)

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”

Directed by Tom Gormican

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles and Mallorca, Spain, the action comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” features a cast of white and Latino characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Desperate for money, famous actor Nick Cage agrees to a $1 million fee to appear at a wealthy superfan’s birthday party in Mallorca, where he reluctantly gets in the middle of an international espionage case. 

Culture Audience: “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” will appeal primarily to fans of star Nicolas Cage and comedies that are satires of real people.

Nicolas Cage, Lily Sheen and Sharon Horgan in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (Photo by Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate)

It’s not the comedy masterpiece that some people have been hyping it up to be, but “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has plenty of hilarious moments in spoofing Nicolas Cage’s public persona and action films. The movie has some genuinely inspired scenes before the film’s last 20 minutes devolve into stereotypical formulas seen in many other comedic spy capers. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is also an above-average buddy comedy, with touches of family sentimentality to balance out some of the wackiness.

Tom Gormican directed “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Kevin Etten. It’s Gormican’s second feature film, after he made his feature-film directorial debut with the forgettable 2014 male-friendship comedy “That Awkward Moment.” Gormican’s background is mainly as a TV writer/producer, with credits that include “Scrubs,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Ed.” At times, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” veers into stale TV sitcom territory, but the movie has enough originality and charm to rise above its repetitive clichés. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

Cage has said in interviews that he initially rejected the idea of doing this movie. It’s a good thing that he changed his mind, because “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is easily one of the funniest comedy films that Cage has done in decades. In the movie, he plays two versions of himself: (1) main character Nick Cage, a present-day version of himself, and (2) Nicky Cage, a younger, brasher version of Cage, circa the late 1980s/early 1990s. (According to the movie’s production notes, Nicky’s physical appearance was inspired by how the real Cage looked in his 1990 movie “Wild at Heart.”)

Nicky has de-aging visual effects for his face, and he appears to Nick as a figment of Nick’s imagination, in moments when Nick is feeling insecure. Nicky’s blunt and sometimes crude conversations with Nick (which are either pep talks, insults or both) are among the more memorable parts of the movie. Nicky has a habit of yelling out “I’m Nick fucking Cage!,” in an elongated way, as if he’s a WWE announcer yelling, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” before a wrestling match. In the film’s end credits, the actor listed as portraying Nicky is Nicolas Kim Coppola, which is a cheeky nod to Cage’s birth surname Coppola. (Numerous movie fans already know that Cage is part of the famous Coppola movie family.)

In the beginning of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” Nick is a world-famous actor in Los Angeles, but he’s currently not getting the acting roles that he wants. Nick has been struggling with being labeled a “has-been” who’s been doing a lot of low-budget, low-quality movies in recent years. (Real-life filmmaker David Gordon Green has a cameo as himself in an early scene in the movie where Nick tries to impress him with an impromptu monologue reading.)

When Nicky shows up and talks to Nick, it’s usually to remind Nick that his younger self would never have stooped to the level of the type of work that Nick is doing now. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Nicky is lecturing Nick about it during a drive in Nick’s car, with Nick driving. A defensive Nick snaps back: “Hello! It’s my job! It’s how I pay my bills. I have to feed my family.” Nick ends the conversation by telling Nicky, “You’re annoying!” And then Nick kicks Nicky out of the car.

Nick’s fast-talking agent Richard Fink (played by Neil Patrick Harris, in a cameo role) tells Nick about a job offer from a Nick Cage superfan in Mallorca, Spain. This wealthy fan wants to pay Nick $1 million to make a personal appearance at the fan’s birthday party. Nick says no to the idea, because he thinks that these types of personal appearances are beneath him as a “serious actor.”

However, because Nick gets rejected for a movie role that he had been counting on getting, and because he has high-priced divorce payments and other bills, a financially desperate Nick agrees to the birthday party job offer. Nick makes it clear to Richard that this personal appearance better not include anything involving kinky sex. Nick has no idea that what he thinks will be an easy gig will turn out to be a life-threatening, mind-bending experience for him and other people.

Nick isn’t just having problems in his career. His personal life is also messy. Nick has a tension-filled relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (played by Sharon Horgan), a former makeup artist whom he met on the set of his 2001 movie “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” It’s revealed in “The Unbearable Wright of Massive Talent” that one of the main reasons why they divorced was because Olivia thought that Nick put his career above everything else in his life.

Nick and Olivia have a daughter named Addy (played by Lily Sheen), who’s about 15 or 16 years old. Addy is usually annoyed with Nick because she thinks he forces her to do things (such as watch movies) that are according to what he wants to do and his personal tastes, without taking into consideration Addy’s own personal wants and needs. For example, Nick has insisted that Addy watch the 1920 horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” even though Addy has no interest in seeing this movie.

Addy also thinks Nick has been a neglectful father for most of her life. That’s why Nick and Addy are in therapy together. But as an example of Nick’s self-centered ways, a therapy session that’s shown in the movie reveals that Nick spends most of the time talking about himself, while Addy sulks in a corner on a couch. Their therapist named Cheryl (played by Joanna Bobin) has to listen to Nick ramble on about his career problems, while she tries to steer the conversation back to how to improve his personal relationships.

Nick is so financially broke, he doesn’t have a permanent home, and he’s living at a hotel. When he gets locked out of his hotel room due to non-payment, he calls his agent Richard to tell him that he’s taking the birthday party job. A self-pitying Nick also tells Richard that he’s going to quit being an actor. On his way to Mallorca, Nick has no idea that he’s gotten on the radar of the CIA, which has been tracking the activities of the fan who has hired Nick to be at the fan’s birthday party. The CIA has this superfan under investigation for being the leader of a ruthless international arms cartel.

Two CIA operatives who have been assigned to the case are named Vivian (played by Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (played by Ike Barinholtz), who are surprised and confused when they see Nick disembarking from the private plane that the superfan has chartered for this trip. Vivian, who has a take-charge and quick-thinking personality, immediately pretends to be an adoring Nick Cage fan, and stops him at the airport to take a selfie photo with him. It’s really a ruse to plant a tracking device on Nick. Vivian and Martin are generic and underwritten roles, so Haddish and Barinholtz don’t do much that’s noteworthy in the movie.

In Mallorca, Nick is taken to a lavish cliffside mansion, where he is greeted by several employees of this rich superfan, who is described as a mogul in the olive grove business. The fan’s name is Javi Gutierrez (played by Pasco Pascal), and he is so unassuming on first impression, Nick initially mistakes Javi for one of the servants, because Javi was the one who drove Nick to this mansion by speedboat. The two people in Javi’s inner circle who are the closest to him are his cousin/right-hand man Lucas Gutierrez (played by Paco León) and a savvy business person named Gabriela (played by Alessandra Mastronardi), nicknamed Gabi, who is Javi’s director of operations.

Nick soon finds out that Javi didn’t just invite him to make an appearance at Javi’s birthday party. Javi has written a movie screenplay, and he wants Nick to star in this movie. Javi is crushed when Nick tells him that he’s going to quit acting, so Javi desperately tries to get Nick to change his mind One of the running gags in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is how Nick reacts to Javi’s attempts to befriend Nick and get Nick to read his script. It should come as no surprise that Javi makes revisions to the screenplay, based on a lot of the shenanigans that he experiences with Nick.

As shown in the movie’s trailer, Vivian and Martin recruit/pressure Nick to spy on Javi for the CIA. Meanwhile, things get more complicated with the kidnapping of Maria Delgado (played by Katrin Vankova), a teenage daughter of a politician who’s running for a high office in Spain. There are entanglements with a thug named Carlos (played by Jacob Scipio) and a group called the Carabello crime family. And it should come as no surprise that Addy and Olivia somehow get mixed up in this mess too.

Along the way, there’s some drug-fueled comedy that’s intended to make the most of Cage’s slapstick skills. First, Nick accidentally drugs himself with a potentially lethal dose of gaseous poison. Later, Nick and Javi take LSD together and have a bonding experience where they go through various levels of elation and paranoia.

Nick and Javi’s budding friendship is at the heart of the movie. However, there are also some standout moments involving Nicky, Olivia and Addy and how their relationships to Nick end up evolving. (Nicky spontaneously does something outrageous, when he kisses Nick, in a scene that will have viewers either shocked, roaring with laughter or both.)

Pascal is pitch-perfect in his role as Javi, who might or might not be the movie’s biggest villain. When secrets are revealed, they’re not too surprising, but one of the best things about “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is that it doesn’t make Javi into a meaningless caricature. Even though Cage is the larger-than-life central character in the movie, Pascal holds his own and can be considered a scene-stealer.

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has the expected stream of jokes about previous real-life movies of Cage. Among those that get name-checked or parodied include “Con Air,” “Face/Off,” “Moonstruck,” “Valley Girl,” “The Croods: A New Age,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “The Rock,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “National Treasure” and “Guarding Tess.” Also in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is a recurring joke about the animated film “Paddington 2” (which is not one of Cage’s movies) and how this family film sequel about a talking bear affects certain people who watch it.

Cage is a versatile actor who tackles his role in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” with gusto. (He’s also one of the movie’s producers.) Cage makes this movie work so well because he’s fully on board with laughing at himself. Not too many well-known actors would risk doing a movie where they have to poke fun at their triumphs and failures, but it’s precisely this risk-taking that has made Cage one of the most interesting and unpredictable actors of his generation. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” does indeed have massive talent, but this talent helps the movie soar instead of sink.

Lionsgate will release “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on June 7, 2022, and on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on June 21, 2022.

Review: ‘All My Friends Hate Me,’ starring Tom Stourton, Charly Clive, Georgina Campbell, Antonia Clarke, Joshua McGuire, Graham Dickson and Christopher Fairbank

April 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Georgina Campbell, Graham Dickson, Tom Stourton, Antonia Clarke and Joshua McGuire in “All My Friends Hate Me” (Photo by Ben Moulden/Super LTD)

“All My Friends Hate Me”

Directed by Andrew Gaynord

Culture Representation: Taking place in Devon, England, the comedy/drama “All My Friends Hate Me” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: For his 32nd birthday, a man reunites with some of his former college friends at a remote estate in the country, and he is plagued with a nagging suspicion that they are conspiring to make him miserable.

Culture Audience: “All My Friends Hate Me” will appeal primarily to people interested in dark comedies/drama that are intended to keep viewers on edge and feeling uncomfortable.

Tom Stourton in “All My Friends Hate Me” (Photo by Ben Moulden/Super LTD)

Deliberately unnerving, “All My Friends Hate Me” taps into people’s insecurities and paranoia that friends can become enemies. Just like the movie’s protagonist, this dark comedy/drama is both fascinating and annoying. The story goes off the rails into incoherence more than a few times, but viewers might remain interested out of curiosity to see how the movie ends.

Directed by Andrew Gaynord, “All My Friends Hate Me” was filmed on location in Devon, England. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. There’s a very British sensibility to this movie that benefits the story, since British comedy is often about cutting down people who think too highly of themselves.

“All My Friends Hate Me” is told from the perspective of a neurotic man named Pete (played by Tom Stourton), who has a very tension-filled reunion with some of his former college friends for his 32nd birthday. Stourton and Tom Palmer co-wrote the screenplay for “All My Friends Hate Me.” The reunion takes place over a few days, mostly at a place called Cleve Hill Manor, which is in a remote part of the country. The real-life mansion location is actually called Sidbury Manor.

Pete and his university friends come from very privileged backgrounds. For an unnamed period of time, Pete has been working in a refugee camp in an unnamed country. Throughout the movie Pete and his friends show varying levels of elitism, as well as attempts to identify with or interact with less privileged people.

Within these social constructs, Pete feels his own level of discomfort that his friends secretly look down on him because he doesn’t have a high income and spends a lot of time with underprivileged people. However, in the beginning of the movie, Pete is in good spirits, as he travels by himself in his car to the mansion, where his pals have gathered to celebrate his birthday. Pete hasn’t seen these friends in years, but he expects that they will pick up right where they left off, with a lot of good will and positive camaraderie. Pete is about to find out that this assumption is very wrong.

The people who are in this party and who stay overnight at the mansion are:

  • George (played by Joshua McGuire), whose father owns the mansion, but George is the one in the family who spends the most time there, and he oversees the manor’s upkeep. It was George’s idea to throw this birthday party for Pete at the mansion. It’s unclear if George has a profession, but it’s implied that he’s living off of his family’s wealth.
  • Fig (played by Georgina Campbell), George’s wife, who is as status-conscious and self-assured as George is. Fig and George began dating each other when they were in college, and they appear to be happily married.
  • Archie (played by Graham Dickson), a goofy 31-year-old bachelor who is an aspiring entrepreneur. Archie can be socially awkward and has a habit of sometimes saying and doing inappropriate things.
  • Claire (played by Antonia Clarke), an introverted painter artist, who had a fling with Pete when they were in college. Claire was reportedly heartbroken when their would-be romance ended, but she’s decided to stay on friendly terms with Pete.
  • Harry (played by Dustin Demri-Burns), a scruffy and crude 40-year-old country local whom George met at a pub shortly before Pete arrived. George impulsively invited Harry to be a guest at the party after seeing Harry challenging local farmers to rap battles in the pub.
  • Sonia (played by Charly Clive), Pete’s girlfriend, who arrives separately and much later than everyone else at the party. It’s briefly mentioned that Sonia didn’t travel with Pete because of her job commitments.

On his way to the manor, Pete gets lost and asks an elderly man on the road for directions. The man isn’t very friendly and doesn’t seem impressed when Pete says that he’s going to the mansion for his birthday party. Pete is starting to feel anxious because he’s running late.

When Pete arrives at the mansion, he is warmly greeted by friends. When he tells his friends about the strange and unfriendly old man he encountered on the road, Pete is embarrassed to see that the man is standing behind him. His name is Norman (played by Christopher Fairbank), and he’s one of the mansion’s servants. Norman isn’t in the movie much, but his employee role is mostly being a butler.

Not long after Pete arrives for this party, Archie tells Pete that George’s birthday party invitation was a joke. Pete believes Archie, until Archie laughs and confesses that the real joke is that Archie was telling a lie about the party invitation being a prank. It’s the start of Pete feeling unnerved by not knowing what might be sarcastic jokes from the people at this gathering, or what might be genuine attempts to humiliate him.

When Pete and Claire see each other, they catch up on what’s been going on in each other’s lives. In a self-deprecating manner, Claire says that she’s just a “stupid posh girl painting portraits of other posh people.” Pete seems very pleased with himself that he’s a do-gooder for charity in his refugee work, but no one else in this group really wants to hear the details of what Pete does in his job.

Claire isn’t Pete’s only past romantic entanglement from his university days. In a private conversation between Pete and Fig, he reminds Fig that they had had a kissing makeout session once when they were college students. Fig says that she doesn’t remember it. This scene is one of many instances in the movie where viewers are supposed to wonder if Pete’s perspective and memories are entirely reliable.

In a separate private conversation between Pete and George, Pete tells George that he plans to propose marriage to Sonia during an upcoming trip to Paris. George seems happy for Pete, but he warns Pete not to tell Claire, because Claire is “still a bit in love with you.” Pete and Sonia met and started dating each other long after his fling with Claire ended. However, during the course of the movie, Pete worries about if or when he should tell Sonia about his past fling with Claire.

Meanwhile, Pete becomes more and more annoyed that Harry has been invited to this party, as Pete begins to suspect that Harry is up to no good and is targeting Pete in particular. The tension between Pete and Harry begins when Pete finds out that he and Harry have adjoining rooms, and Harry has a tendency to invade Pete’s personal space. For example, when Pete is taking a bath, Harry has no qualms about walking into the bathroom, taking off all of his clothes, and walking around naked in front of Pete.

During a group dinner, Harry makes Pete even more uncomfortable with his weird and offbeat jokes. Archie babbles on about an app he’s developing to connect wealthy travelers who want to do things such as jet skiing while chasing whales. When Pete comments that that the app sounds super-elitist, Archie then states what he thinks is the purpose of the app being exclusive to wealthy people: “At least you’re not having your holiday ruined by some random peaz [short for peasant].”

Pete somewhat lectures Archie to be “more aware” of who’s in the room when Archie talks like a classist snob. Without saying Harry’s name out loud, Pete is implying that Harry is presumably working-class and might be offended by Archie’s derogatory attitude about people who aren’t rich and privileged. However, Pete’s assumption is somewhat classist in and of itself.

Even though Harry doesn’t dress in designer clothes, and he was hanging out at a local pub with working-class people, that doesn’t automatically mean anyone should assume what his status is, when it comes to his finances or social class. In fact, Harry reveals very little about himself during his time spent with these strangers. He sticks to being a jokester. And that makes Pete even more anxious, because he thinks Harry is making Pete the butt of Harry’s jokes.

Things start to get weirder for Pete when he notices that Harry has been staring at Pete and writing in a notebook, as if Harry is observing Pete and spying on him. And there’s an incident where Harry takes some of Pete’s aspirin without Pete’s permission. Pete confides in Archie that he thinks Harry is “fucking with me, or he doesn’t like me.” Archie thinks Pete is being too paranoid. Pete’s paranoia isn’t helped when he later snorts some cocaine in a party scene.

Not all of the movie’s scenes take place in the mansion. There’s an unevenly written scene where the men go out in the woods for a hunting excursion. There’s also a scene that takes place in a pub that was rented out for part of Pete’s birthday celebration.

During the course of the movie, Pete begins to see signs that his life might be in danger. He’s certain that he saw a bloody body in a car that’s parked outside the manor. And there comes a point in the story where Pete is genuinely convinced that Harry is going to kill him.

“All My Friends Hate Me” plays guessing games with viewers over what is real and what might be Pete’s hallucinations. After a while, the movie turns into an expected showdown/confrontation between Pete and Harry. And that comes as a disservice to the movie’s other characters, who seem hollow and underdeveloped in comparison. The cast members in those supporting roles are therefore forced to be limited in their acting range. Demri-Burns gives a compelling performance as the mysterious Harry, but even that character has its limitations.

Stourton carries the movie quite well in the central role of Pete, who is both sympathetic and irritating. Viewers will feel empathy for Pete when he starts to believe that he’s an outsider at his own birthday party/reunion with his friends. But at some point, Pete (who tells people he’s in therapy) is frustratingly immature in how he handles whatever problems he seems to be having. Pete starts to feel some disdain toward his friends because he thinks that they are shallow and haven’t emotionally matured since their university days.

However, Pete has a lot of flaws too, which become more apparent as the story goes on in frequently repetitive ways. There are only so many times that viewers need to see varying degrees of “Pete versus Harry” before it starts to drag down the story. “All My Friends Hate Me” does have a knockout scene in the last third of the film, where secrets are revealed. But one of the characters is let off the hook too easily in the movie’s final scene, which might turn off some viewers from this film entirely.

Although “All My Friends Hate Me” has been described as a “horror film,” it’s best to know going into this movie that it’s more of a psychological drama with a lot of comedic satire. “All My Friends Hate Me” will make viewers feel unsettled or tense, but it’s definitely not as terrifying as a horror movie is supposed to be. There’s nothing incompetent about this movie’s filmmaking or acting, but “All My Friends Hate” is clearly not meant to have mass appeal. The movie is at its best when it takes an incisive look at social anxieties and the pressure that people put on themselves to impress others.

Super LTD released “All My Friends Hate Me” in select U.S. cinemas on March 11, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on March 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Family Squares,’ starring Ann Dowd, Judy Greer, Billy Magnussen, Margo Martindale, June Squibb, Casey Wilson and Henry Winkler

April 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

“Family Squares” cast members. Pictured in top row, from left to right: Judy Greer, Margo Martindale and Henry Winkler. Pictured in bottom row, from left to right: Sam Richardson, Timothy Simons and Billy Magnussen (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Family Squares”

Directed by Stephanie Laing

Culture Representation: Taking place 2020, in North Carolina, New York City, Connecticut and other parts of the world, the comedy/drama film “Family Squares” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with one Asian and one African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Before and after an American family’s matriarch dies, various members of the family meet on videoconference calls to talk about the clan’s frequently difficult relationships and some family secrets that cause conflicts. 

Culture Audience: “Family Squares” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s cast members and stories about bickering family members who still love each other despite their differences.

June Squibb in “Family Squares” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Neither terrible nor great, “Family Squares” is a flawed comedy/drama that’s elevated by the talent of the movie’s cast members. It’s an uneven but well-acted movie about a family gathering on videoconference calls. Directed by Stephanie Laing, “Family Squares” has a title that refers to how the family members appear on screen in squares because of the videoconference format. It’s another movie about people being unable to interact in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Family Squares” (which Laing co-wrote with Brad Morris) won’t be considered a classic COVID-19 pandemic movie, but it might interest people who are curious to see a scripted story about how large families stayed in touch during the pre-vaccine lockdowns of the pandemic.

The movie, which takes place and was filmed in 2020, has the expected squabbles between these relatives, but there are enough tender moments and comedy to make the emotions well-rounded. Where the movie falters is in some of the dialogue, which can sometimes be too corny or too contrived. However, the cast members’ performances make the movie’s characters believable. You might see parts of yourself or people you know in some of these family members, even if what some these characters say occasionally sounds like an overly calculated movie script.

“Family Squares,” which centers on the fictional Worth family, could have done a better job of explaining in the beginning how each family member is related to each other. Unless you have an excellent memory or are taking notes, it might be very easy to get confused by the first 10 to 15 minutes of the movie, which is kind of a jumbled mess, where the characters show up on screen and then babble on about various things.

Here are the characters of the Worth family who participate in these videoconference calls:

  • Mabel (played by June Squibb) is the family’s feisty matriarch, who is in her 90s and dying in a hospice/nursing home somewhere in New York state. Mabel passes away during the first videoconference call that’s seen in the movie. Mabel divorced her husband (who is now deceased) many years ago and has been married to a much-younger woman for the past four years. Mabel’s two children from her marriage to her ex-husband are son Bobby and daughter Diane.
  • Judith Joyner (played by Ann Dowd), Mabel’s soft-spoken wife, lives in New York City, and has been unable to visit Mabel in person during Mabel’s final days because of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
  • Bobby (played by Henry Winkler), Mabel’s bachelor son, has a rebellious past and a tense relationship with his younger sister Diane, who were both raised on a farm in Spring Hope, North Carolina.
  • Diane (played by Margo Martindale), Mabel’s strong-willed younger child, doesn’t think highly of Bobby because she thinks he’s irresponsible and flaky. Diane, who lives in Connecticut, is a widow and a mother of five adult children: son Bret, daughter Dorsey, son Chad, son Robert and daughter Katie.
  • Bret (played by Timothy Simons) is a widower and a failed business entrepreneur who is raising his daughter Cassie (who’s about 15 or 16 years old) on his own.
  • Dorsey (played by Judy Greer) is a neurotic single mother who is currently on a road trip (in a recreational vehicle camper) with her reluctant 17-year-old son Max. Dorsey has a longtime love/hate relationship with her younger sister Katie. Max’s father, who is described as a deadbeat dad who abandoned Dorsey and Max, is not a part of Max’s life.
  • Chad (played by Scott MacArthur), a bachelor with no children, is a fairly successful self-help guru and author, who thinks that he’s the one who has a life that is the most enviable out of all of his siblings.
  • Robert (played by Billy Magnussen) is a ne’er-do-well bachelor with no children. Robert jumps from job to job and has a younger brother inferiority complex with Chad, who bullied Robert when they were children. Robert claims to be calling from Russia, where he says he is hiding out for top-secret reasons that have to do with Robert’s computer hacking.
  • Katie (played by Casey Wilson) is the youngest of Diane’s children and the only one of her siblings to still live in their North Carolina hometown of Spring Hope. Katie is very image-conscious and has a bad habit of being tardy. Katie and her husband Kevin have three underage kids together, but Katie is the only one in their household who participates in the videoconference calls.
  • Max (played by Maclaren Laing), Dorsey’s marijuana-smoking son, loves his mother, but he doesn’t want to spend a lot of time with her. Max was never close to his great-grandmother Mabel, so he is emotionally unaffected when Mabel dies.
  • Cassie (played by Elsie Fisher), Bret’s quiet and introverted teenage daughter, was emotionally attached to Mabel, so she is devastated when Mabel dies.

The movie’s unseen narrator is someone named Bill (voiced by Rob Reiner), whose identity is revealed toward the end of the movie. It might be easy to figure out who Bill is, based on his comments and observations. Some viewers might think the narration is unnecessary and annoying, while other viewers might think the narration is necessary and charming.

Someone who pops in occasionally during these videoconference calls is Kelly (played by Zoë Chao), the hospice nurse who was taking care of Mabel before Mabel passed away. Kelly is the one who sets up the videoconference call for Mabel, who is computer-illiterate and too sick to do it herself. After Mabel dies, Kelly plays video messages that Mabel left for her surviving family members.

Kelly has an awkward moment with Judith when, after Mabel dies, Judith wants to arrange to get Mabel’s personal items that were at the hospice, but Judith is not allowed to claim Mabel’s items. Kelly has to tell Judith that it’s because the hospice doesn’t have Judith listed as a family member, even though Judith and Mabel were legally married. This scene is a depiction of what LGBTQ people often have to go through when their spouses or partners die, and the spouses or partners who are left behind are impeded by homophobic policies and laws that deprive them of their rights. All of the members of the Worth family love and accept Judith, but the movie never bothers to explain why Mabel—who knew she was dying and was living openly as a queer married woman—never made the proper spousal arrangements for Judith at this hospice.

Another person who is part of these videoconference calls is a funeral director/attorney named Alex (played by Sam Richardson), who is put in an uncomfortable position when the Worth family members disagree over whether or not to have a virtual/online funeral for Mabel. Judith is a part of these funeral arrangements. And the decision about the funeral isn’t the only conflict in this family.

Mabel drops two bombshells in her farewell videos that are shown after her death: First, she announces that somewhere on the family farm property is something valuable. “We are really, filthy, stinking, fucking rich,” Mabel says in the video. Some of the family members immediately want to go to the property to hunt for what they think might be hidden treasure and possibly find it before the other family members. Bill can be heard in a voiceover saying, “Nothing like an inheritance to get the family greed boiling.”

Mabel’s other shocking revelation is that she says one of the family members who is a sibling is actually not a biological sibling. Mabel refuses to go into any further details and tells her family members that they have to figure out this secret on their own. This family secret actually makes “Family Squares” more interesting than it could have been, so it’s one of the main reasons why the movie can hold people’s attention.

There are other family secrets that are revealed during these calls, but they are somewhat mild in comparison to the one about who are the real biological parents of the person who’s “not a sibling.” There’s also the matter of who else in the family knew about this secret, which could threaten to destroy relationships in this family. Judith admits she knows the secret, but she tells everyone: “It’s not for me to say.”

In a movie with very talented cast members, it’s hard to go wrong with their performances. Greer and Martindale stand out the most because not only do their characters of Dorsey and Diane have outspoken personalities, but they also have the most emotional depth. All of the other cast members perform well in their character roles, which at times can get a little two-dimensional and can reduce them to stereotypes.

Laing gives mostly solid direction to “Family Squares,” which could have done without some of the slapstick shenanigans between Chad and Robert that cheapen the quality of the film. A few of the characters, such as Cassie and Bret, are a bit underdeveloped. Because there are so many family members and so many conflicts, at times “Family Squares” seems a little overstuffed. The first third of the movie tends to drag, the middle of the movie is a little scattered and unfocused, but the last third of the movie makes up for the story’s shortcomings.

Screen Media Films released “Family Squares” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 25, 2022. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Better Nate Than Ever,’ starring Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Lisa Kudrow, Joshua Bassett, Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer

April 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rueby Wood (center) in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo by David Lee/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Better Nate Than Ever”

Directed by Tim Federle

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pittsburgh and New York City, the comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy, who dreams of becoming a star of musicals, temporarily runs away with his best friend from their hometown of Pittsburgh to New York City, so that they can audition for prominent roles in the Broadway show “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical.”

Culture Audience: “Better Nate Than Ever” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in sentimental, family-friendly stories about finding one’s identity and self-acceptance.

Aria Brooks and Rueby Wood in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” is an unapologetically sentimental love letter to musical theater geeks and anyone struggling with self-esteem issues. Everything in the movie is entirely predictable, but the movie is so earnest in its heartwarming intentions, most viewers will be charmed by it. People who have a deep hatred of musical theater or schmaltzy stories about kids who love performing will think “Better Nate Than Ever” is very irritating, so it’s best to avoid this movie if sounds like it isn’t worth your time.

Written and directed by Tim Federle, “Better Nate Than Ever” is adapted from his 2013 novel of the same name. Federle is also the showrunner of the Disney+ series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Federle has said in many interviews that the title character of Nathan “Nate” Foster, who is 13 years old, is inspired by who Federle was when he was around the same age. In the book and in the movie, Nate is an unabashed fanatic of musicals. His biggest dream in life is to star in a Broadway musical.

Nate (played by Rueby Wood) lives in Pittsburgh with his parents Rex Foster (played by Norbert Leo Butz) and Sherrie Foster (played by Michelle Federer) and Nate’s brother Anthony Foster (played Joshua Bassett), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Anthony is a popular athlete at his high school, and he thinks that musicals are a “wimpy” interest for boys to have. Nate has no interest in sports, and he’s somewhat of a social outcast at his middle school. Anthony sometimes acts like he’s embarrassed that Nate is his brother, and this type of rejection hurts Nate, but Nate tries not to let his hurt emotions show.

Nate’s best friend (and his only friend) at school is outspoken, confident and sassy Libby (played by Aria Brooks), who is the about the same age as Nate. Libby is also Nate’s biggest supporter in pursuing his dream of becoming a Broadway musical star. She has an interest in performing too, but she’s not as passionate about it as Nate is. Libby is very good at giving advice and coming up with ideas, so Nate often relies on her when he’s got a problem that he needs to solve or if he needs pep talks.

At school, Nate (who likes to wear lip gloss) is predictably the target of bullying. When Nate tries to take a seat on a school bus, a male student (played by Alex Barber) blocks Nate and sneers, “No more girls in this row.” When the bully steals Nate’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Nate fights back by hitting him. Nate gets more bullying in a few other parts of the movie.

Nate is the type of musical aficionado who can recite musical trivia by heart. He frequently sings songs from musicals out loud, and he practices his dance moves in front of mirrors at home. Nate’s school is staging a production called “Lincoln: The Unauthorized Rock Musical.” Nate has auditioned for the lead role of Abraham Lincoln. This audition is not shown in the movie, which opens on the day that Nate will find out if he was chosen for the role.

Nate is crushed when the casting results are posted, and he didn’t get the starring role that he desperately wanted. The teacher who made the decision tactfully tells Nate that Nate isn’t experienced enough to handle the lead role in this musical. As a consolation, Nate is offered the role of a background singer/dancer.

Around the time that Nate gets this disappointing news, Libby tells Nate about upcoming open auditions in New York City for the Broadway production “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical,” which will have a cast of mostly underage kids. Nate and Libby think it’s a good idea for them to audition for this Broadway musical. (In the “Better Nate Than Ever” book, Nate runs away to New York City to audition for “E.T.: The Musical.”)

And it just so happens that Nate’s parents Rex and Sherrie will be in West Virginia that weekend for a romantic getaway to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Anthony will be out of town that weekend for a sports meet. Nate and Libby hatch a plan to pretend that Nate will be staying at her house. Instead, Nate and Libby sneak off and take a bus to New York City to go to the auditions.

It’s never really mentioned what Nate’s parents do for a living, but the Fosters are a middle-class family who are going through a financial rough spot because Rex is currently unemployed. Sherrie is estranged from her older sister Heidi (played by Lisa Kudrow), who lives in New York City’s Queens borough. The two sisters no longer speak to each other because Sherrie thinks that Heidi abandoned the family to pursue a career on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Nate has a lot of admiration for Heidi and wishes that he could be just like Heidi. After a series of mishaps, Nate and Libby make it to the auditions, only to find out that an underage kid who auditions needs an adult guardian, for legal reasons. It just so happens that Heidi is available, and she reluctantly agrees to be the adult guardian for Nate and Libby.

Libby decides that being a performer isn’t really for her, so she decides to go back home to Pittsburgh, while Nate continues his pursuit of his Broadway dreams, with some help from Heidi. Nate finds out the reality that Heidi’s life isn’t as glamorous as Nate thought it was. Heidi is a struggling actress who lives alone in a small, one-bedroom apartment. She works for a catering company to pay her bills.

Nate turns out to be a plucky and optimistic kid who forges ahead, despite obstacles that get in his way. Many of these challenges test his confidence, but his love of performing is too strong for any skeptics and roadblocks to deter him. When Libby is away from Nate, she keeps in touch with him by phone to get updates on his audition journey.

Heidi is the type of person who starts off thinking that she’s not very good at taking care of kids. But as Nate and Heidi get to know each other better, they develop a newfound respect for each other. Heidi and Nate also begin to understand that the estrangement between Heidi and her sister Sherrie had repercussions on the family that went beyond the two sisters’ relationship with each other.

“Better Nate Than Ever” has some slapstick comedy that can be very corny, but it’s what you might expect from a Disney film. What isn’t typical for a Disney film is how the movie addresses Nate’s sexual identity without anyone in the movie ever giving Nate any specific identity labels. At 13 years old, Nate is too young to date anyone, by most standards.

However, there are signs that Nate and his loved ones know that he’s not heterosexual. People in his life describe him as “different” and not interested in dating girls. At various points in the movie, Nate goes out of his way to get merchandise in the style of the rainbow flag, which is the universal symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, while he’s in New York City, Nate buys a rainbow-colored rabbit’s foot as a lucky charm.

“Better Nate Than Ever” shows these obvious signs without being preachy or heavy-handed about it. It’s all just presented as part of Nate’s natural identity. And although Nate gets some bullying for being “effeminate,” he embraces who he is and doesn’t try to change for anyone. That’s a positive message for people who go through life thinking that they have to pretend to be something they’re not, in order to be accepted.

As for the musical numbers, they are very contrived but play into fantasies that anyone might have of being the star of a musical. One of the standout musical scenes is when Nate attracts a crowd in Times Square as he does an impromptu performance of George Benson’s 1978 hit “On Broadway.” It’s a very corny scene but also very cute. Benson makes a cameo appearance as himself during this Times Square performance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Better Nate Than Never” has some obvious cross-marketing promotion of the real-life New Amsterdam Theatre, which is owned by Disney and is home to all of Disney’s Broadway musicals. In “Better Nate Than Ever,” the “Lilo & Stitch” musical’s final auditions take place at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The “Better Nate Than Ever” movie seems like it’s a marketing test to gauge public interest in Disney making the 2002 Disney animated film “Lilo & Stitch” into a Broadway musical in real life, since Disney has turned many of Disney’s hit animated movies into Broadway musicals.

“Better Nate Than Ever” is the feature-film debut of Wood, who makes a lasting impression as the effervescent and talented Nate. This is a movie where the casting choices make a huge difference in how likable the characters are, because it’s obvious that Wood lives and breathes musicals as much as Nate does. Most people can’t really fake that kind of passion. Wood is also a fantastic singer who really does look like he was born to star in a Broadway musical. In addition to “On Broadway,” he sings the show-stopping: “No One Gets Left Behind” (written by Lyndie Lane), and he performs a monologue from “Designing Women.”

Brooks brings her own unique pizzazz to her role as Nate’s best friend Libby, a character who is thankfully not written as just another two-dimensional sidekick. Libby goes through her own journey of self-identity and figuring out what her passion and talents are in life. Libby is also a good “reality check” to Nate when he gets too hyper or too sarcastic. A recurring comment she makes to Nate to watch his tone of voice is to tell him calmly, “Nate: Tone.”

Kudrow also does nicely in the movie as Nate’s aunt Heidi, who finds a kindred spirit in Nate because of his love of theater performing. Nate sees Heidi as a role model, but she feels like a misfit and a failure. Through Nate’s perspective, Heidi’s self-confidence is boosted when she begins to understand how her life has inspired someone in ways that she didn’t even think were possible. The tensions between Heidi and Sherrie are eventually dealt with exactly how you think they will be dealt with in this type of family-oriented movie, as are the tensions between brothers Nate and Anthony.

“Better Nate Than Ever” sticks to a familiar formula, but there are elements to the movie that are truly unique and heartfelt. Federle obviously wanted to make a movie that could speak to people who have ever felt misunderstood, rejected or doubted because of who they are. Despite a lot of cloying moments in “Better Nate Than Ever,” the movie succeeds in its intended message to celebrate people for being their authentic selves.

Disney+ premiered “Better Nate Than Ever” on April 1, 2022.

Review: ‘The Lost City’ (2022), starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum

March 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum in “The Lost City” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“The Lost City” (2022)

Directed by Aaron Nee and Adam Nee

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of the world, the comedy film “The Lost City” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A famous, jaded and reclusive romance novelist is kidnapped by a wealthy treasure hunter, and the male model for her book covers goes on a mission to rescue her. 

Culture Audience: “The Lost City” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s comedy skills, but they are the biggest assets to this formulaic movie.

Daniel Radcliffe and Héctor Aníbal in “The Lost City” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Completely predictable on every level, “The Lost City” is saved by the considerable comedic talents of its starring cast members. It’s breezy and lightweight entertainment that doesn’t try to be anything else. It’s the first slapstick comedy film in years for many of “The Lost City” stars. And while the movie is not a complete triumph, it’s not a total embarrassment either. “The Lost City” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

Directed by brothers Aaron Nee and Adam Nee, “The Lost City” checks all the boxes we’ve come to expect in predictable romantic comedies. The female protagonist and the male protagonist have personality clashes and try not to pretend there’s sexual tension between them. (Or they have a platonic friendship where they pretend that they’re not going to get romantically involved.) There’s usually at least one sidekick who’s a best friend or close colleague. And then, there’s some reason why the bickering, would-be couple have a reason to keep running into each other and/or they get thrown together for a common goal.

In “The Lost City” (written by the Nee brothers, Dana Fox and Orien Uziel), the basic concept is that prickly and reclusive author Loretta Sage (played by Sandra Bullock), a widow whose specialty is romantic adventure novels, reluctantly goes on a book tour to promote her latest book called “The Lost City.” Loretta is not pleased at all to find out that the guy who is the hunky model for her book covers will be on this book tour too. Loretta thinks that he’s shallow, vain and no match for her intellect.

The name he uses as a model is Dash (played by Channing Tatum), but his real name is Alan McMahon. And he wears a long-haired blonde wig for his modeling assignments as Dash. Dash/Alan is as freewheeling as Loretta (whose real name is Angela) is uptight. Loretta’s support team includes her loyal and outspoken book publisher Beth Hatten (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Loretta’s eager-to-please social media manager Allison (played by Patti Harrison), who has the Nervous Nellie role in the movie.

At a meet-and-greet appearance with Loretta’s mostly female fans, Dash gets a lot more attention than Loretta, just as she feared and predicted. (Bowen Yang has a cameo as a Q&A moderator named Ray.) Loretta doesn’t have long to gripe about Dash’s popularity though, because she’s kidnapped from the hotel by a wealthy superfan named Abigail Fairfax (played by Daniel Radcliffe), who takes himself, some of his goons and Loretta by private plane to a tropical island, where he expects her to find the treasure that she wrote about in “The Lost City.” Alan feels bad about his conflicts with Loretta, so he decides to come to her rescue.

Dash/Alan recruits a rescue expert named Jack Trainer (played by Brad Pitt), who is ridiculously over-the-top with his action hero stunts. Jack isn’t in the movie for long, for every reason that you think that an A-list star like Pitt wouldn’t add his usual eight-figure actor’s salary to this movie’s production budget, if he had more screen time. More shenanigans ensue in a jungle, and the movie ends exactly how most people will think it ends.

One of the main reasons why “The Lost City” is tolerable despite its utter triteness is because of the comedic timing and chemistry of Bullock and Tatum, who thankfully do not take themselves seriously at all. Their characters’ back-and-forth banter isn’t very witty, but they do land some memorable zingers here and there. During one of their many arguments, Loretta tells Alan in a prickly manner why she can’t give sexist condescension: “I’m a woman. I can’t mansplain anything.” Alan snaps back: “I’m a feminist, and I think a woman can do anything a man can do.”

Radcliffe also has some amusing moments, as does Randolph, although Randolph does have the type of “You go, girl!” dialogue that’s kind of a cringeworthy stereotype of an African American female sidekick. Oscar Nuñez as has an inconsequential role as a man named Oscar, who becomes infatuated with Beth. “The Lost City” is exactly what it needs to be for a movie that wisely kept its total running time to a little under two hours. (Stick around for a surprise during the mid-credits scene.) Unless someone is in an extremely bad mood when watching “The Lost City,” there are some laughs to be had with this entertaining but insubstantial comedy film.

Paramount Pictures will release “The Lost City” in U.S. cinemas on March 25, 2022, with sneak previews in select cinemas on March 23, 2022.

Review: ‘A Lot of Nothing,’ starring Y’lan Noel, Cleopatra Coleman, Justin Hartley, Lex Scott Davis and Shamier Anderson

March 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from top left: Y’lan Noel, Cleopatra Coleman, Lex Scott Davis, Shamier Anderson and Justin Hartley in “A Lot of Nothing” (Photo by John Keng)

“A Lot of Nothing”

Directed by Mo McRae

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama film “A Lot of Nothing” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and some Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An African American husband and wife, who both work for the same law firm, kidnap and hold their white neighbor captive in their home after the spouses find out that he’s the cop who’s in the news for killing an unarmed young man.

Culture Audience: “A Lot of Nothing” will appeal mainly to people who think they are supporting a Black Lives Matter advocacy movie, but this horrendous misfire is anything but supportive of civil rights and positive portrayals of black people.

A complete tonal mess, the comedy/drama “A Lot of Nothing” makes a disgusting mockery of the Black Lives Matter movement and insults African American women the most. Apparently, the filmmakers think the best way for black people to fight racism is to become criminals and perpetuate racist stereotypes. If this trashy movie wanted to be a satire, it demolishes any credibility because it can’t decide if it wants to be an absurd farce or a serious thriller. Worst of all, it takes real-life trauma that families and other loved ones experience because of unjustified killings committed by cops, and uses this trauma as a gimmicky plot device, just so the filmmakers could get a cash grab out of this heinous movie. “A Lot of Nothing” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The fact that “A Lot of Nothing” was directed by an African American (Mo McRae) does not excuse the utter depths of stupidity where this movie goes when it comes to exploiting these real-life tragedies. McRae wrote the abysmal screenplay for “A Lot of Nothing” with Sarah Kelly Kaplan. And they both seem to have particular contempt for black women, because of how black women are portrayed in this movie. That’s because out of all the dimwitted characters in “A Lot of Nothing,” the black women characters are the dumbest and the flakiest.

The moronic story of “A Lot of Nothing,” which takes place in Los Angeles, is that an African American married couple named James (played by Y’lan Noel) and Vanessa (played by Cleopatra Coleman)—who both work at the same law firm—kidnap and hold captive a white cop named Brian Stanley (played by Justin Hartley), who happens to be their next-door neighbor. Brian is divorced and lives alone, so there’s no one in his house who immediately notices that he’s missing when he’s kidnapped from his home. James is a lawyer, while Vanessa (who has an MBA degree) is some kind of business manager at the law firm.

What would cause this highly educated, upper-middle-class, respectable couple to commit such a drastic crime? Vanessa is angrily triggered because she saw on the news that Brian is under investigation for the shooting death of an unarmed, young adult man, who was killed during a traffic stop. Some of this incident was captured on video footage that went viral on the Internet and was shown on TV. Brian has been put on leave from his job, pending the investigation.

Before the kidnapping takes place, Vanessa rants to James in their home about how she’s tired of hearing about cops killing innocent black people. James tells Vanessa repeatedly that they need to hear all the facts of this case before they jump to conclusions. But that doesn’t stop Vanessa from obsessing over the idea that she needs to lecture and interrogate Brian about what happened, as if she’s a prosecutor questioning him during a trial. She marches over to Brian’s house and demands that he talk to her and explain what happened during the shooting. Brian doesn’t want to talk to her, but she insists.

As someone who’s married to a lawyer and as a business manager who works for a law firm, Vanessa should know that Brian is probably under an attorney’s orders not to talk about the investigation to anyone without an attorney present. As a black woman (and as a human being who should have common sense), Vanessa should also know how stupid it is to pick a fight with a cop who’s under investigation for shooting and killing an unarmed person. The filmmakers don’t care, because they want to make Vanessa the worst stereotype of an angry black woman.

Brian’s response to Vanessa’s hostile confrontation? He tells her: “As an officer of the law, I suggest you take your high yellow ass back to your nice little house and drop it.” That racist remark is enough for Vanessa to later go over to Brian’s house with a gun, while James is trying smooth things over with Brian. Vanessa wants to provoke a racist cop, and apparently doesn’t care about making things worse, and possibly doing something that could get them killed.

Vanessa pulls a gun on Brian, forces him into the couple’s garage, and orders James to tie up Brian. James is shocked and horrified. At first, James objects to Vanessa’s unhinged actions, but then he reluctantly goes along with this idiotic abduction and the rest of the crimes that Vanessa wants to commit in the name of Black Lives Matter. In other words, the movie is saying that educated black people with no criminal records are actually irrational, violent criminals who’ll use any racial excuse to commit crimes, thereby embodying the worst stereotypes that racists have of black people.

Vanessa is such an obnoxious lunatic, she commits this cop kidnapping less than an hour before James’ brother Jamal (payed by Shamier Anderson) and his pregnant fiancée Candy (played by Lex Scott Davis) are due to arrive for a family dinner. Candy and Jamal show up, find out about the kidnapping, and participate in the crime too. Jamal turns into a thug, while Candy is an airhead who spouts a lot of New Age gibberish.

There’s really no point in describing this awful movie anymore, except to say that the movie’s writing and direction are trash; the pacing is erratic; and all the cast members’ performances get worse as the story goes down a steep slide into a putrid abyss of racial hatred that’s hell-bent on making black people look as bad as possible. The movie ends with a “reveal” that just makes everyone involved look even more insanely stupid, with no real consequences. “A Lot of Nothing” is really just a lot of nonsense and a worthless train wreck that should be avoided at all costs.

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